2024iii6, Wednesday: Commonplace #5

2024iii6, Wednesday: Commonplace #5
Photo by Priyadharshan Saba / Unsplash

Work is piling up. And so are the quarter-written posts. So pending a moment when I have the brainspace to finish a couple of them, it's time to drop some hopefully interesting stuff into the pot.

The Science Fiction of the 1900s: by Karl Schroeder. Karl is a fabulous sci-fi writer. It's years since I read a series of his, Virga, about a fictional world which is a gravity-less bubble of air in which float rocks and nations. Clearly someone whose brain never stops turning things over to see how they're really shaped - as this piece demonstrates. (Blessings to John Naughton, whose feted blog pointed me to it.) Here, Karl reframes what our sci-fi is, and what it's too often seeking to do; and shines a spotlight on what happens when the very, very rich - those whose money and power vastly (and probably inevitably) outstrip their wisdom - forget that the Torment Nexus isn't meant to be real:

If the terror of my youth is different from the terrors of today, maybe I can also reframe the science fiction of the 1900s as carrying a different set of promises than we need in the 2020s. Maybe its main tropes are no longer relevant to the current moment.
This matters because in our modern technological society, science fiction tells us what to spend our time and money on. Do I really need to argue for this?—after all, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has made it his mission to implement the 1900s vision of what the 21st century was supposed to look like. Look at the things he’s working on: Space flight. Settling Mars. Cyberpunk-style brain-computer interfaces. Artificial Intelligence. Self-driving electric cars. Humanoid robots. These are the 1900s’ vision of the 2020s; he’s trying to catch up to where 1980s SF thought we’d ‘advance to’ by now. The cliche complaint of “where’s my flying car?” is literally his complaint about the world, and he aims to do something about it.
Looked at this way, Musk’s program is revealed as profoundly conservative. He’s about as far from being an original or innovative thinker as it’s possible to get. He’s fighting the intellectual battles of the last century, a 1900s hero dropped into the 2000s with an unlimited budget to reshape the future to fit the era he’s from. Don’t get me wrong—he’s done a lot of good by dragging the transportation sector kicking and screaming into electrification, and it’s not that his other projects aren’t beneficial as well (X aside). A lot of them are pretty awesome realizations of the future that we did need in the 1980s. It’s just that they are all about the 1900s vision. None give us a picture of a current future—a future for the 2000s.

Read on. Worth every word.

Why don't humans have tails or lay eggs? Adventures in evolutionary randomness: by Brian Klaas. This was on my "write something deep about it" list. But I doubt I'm going to have time any time soon. So here it is. Thoughts prompted: (1) Things like the coccyx and appendix feel to the lay person like me like the most wonderful evidence for evolution imaginable. (2) I always thought it'd be cool to have a tail. I envy my cat. But apparently I'm 25 million years too late. (3) Back to evolution - I imagine these kind of dead ends feel like evidence to some of the non-existence of a deity. I tend to see that as a category error, although one always has to be careful of falling into the trap outlined in the heart-wrenching memoir Father and Son. (4) As for "survival of the fittest", it's so disastrously, upsettingly human that people - again those with power - have often tended to interpret it as a justification for why they're on top and others don't deserve to be. Rather than understanding that sheer blind bloody luck (at least from our limited mortal perspective) has so much more to do with it than merit. Quelle surprise.

The evidence was mounting: tails were helpful, not harmful. The loss of a tail likely made it harder for the apes to survive, not easier. But how does that make sense in an evolutionary framework, in which mutations that are helpful tend to get passed down, on average, to the next generation?
One possible answer is basically that it was all a bit arbitrary and random, a case of genetic drift. There was no grand purpose, no illuminating explanation.
It was an accident.
This upends the conventional wisdom: it’s not that humans don’t have tails because it helped us walk upright. Instead, it was an evolutionary mistake, one that actually hurt apes and humans, but that was locked into place by geographical isolation and the arbitrary forces of nature. Some apes got isolated, and poof! Now, we don’t have tails.
As Dr. Xia told me in an exchange last week, this sort of thing keeps happening, and there’s mounting evidence that random, seemingly arbitrary forces play a bigger role in evolution than was previously imagined. Adaptation still matters enormously, but sometimes…stuff just happens. There’s no eureka explanation. It’s just chance.

(Which brings one directly to the idea of substitions: a wonderful Pratchettism referring to the opposite of superstitions. Those are things everyone believes that aren't true. Substitions are things that no-one believes but are true. Defined by example as, for instance, "it really will get better if you don't pick at it.")

Not one to tl;dr, I think. Brian writes beautifully, and clearly - and thoughtfully in the best sense, which is that you can't read it without thinking yourself.

To Fight Populism, Invest in Left-Behind Communities: by Diane Coyle. My family moved to Staffordshire, just outside Stoke-on-Trent, when I was 16. It was the late 80s. The mines had mostly closed. The pot banks - the pottery factories which had given the city its soubriquet - were in trouble. And no-one seemed to care. A pattern which persisted for years, and years, and years, and meant that I wasn't in the slightest surprised when Stoke voted Leave in 2016 and then for a clutch of Tory MPs in 2019. If you've been ignored for ever, and someone hands you something finally to make a big noise with, why the hell wouldn't you do so? Spread across the UK are towns and cities which governments have treated as disposable. Diane Coyle, a fabulous economist and writer (whose spouse is one of the best and kindest reporters I ever had the privilege of working with), explains why this is the seedbed for populism - and suggests what to do next. It all seems self-evident. But then I'm not the people in charge.

The provision of public services and infrastructure has a greater redistributive effect than taxation. Hence, by ensuring access to a basic level of infrastructure and services, we can provide everyone with opportunities to improve their own lives and those of their families.
While governments are responsible for delivering public services and infrastructure such as roads and ports, utility-type services like broadband are often provided by private companies. Public infrastructure, however, has been grossly underfunded for decades, and private infrastructure is increasingly exploited by asset managers and private equity owners who hike service charges and cut back on maintenance. This has contributed to a widespread sense that broad social and economic progress stopped in the late twentieth century.
Given the corrosive effect of this narrative, it is crucial to reinvest in the future. As Robert J. Shiller and others have argued, positive narratives have the power to improve economic outcomes. A shared sense of optimism can boost public morale and fuel GDP growth.

All good stuff. It ends:

Ultimately, the case for prioritizing a country’s collective interests over profits is primarily political, given that deeply polarized societies such as ours often face a bleak future. Still, there is an economic case to be made for investing in public services and the infrastructure that sustains them. By recognizing that a shared sense of optimism and a basic faith in the possibility of social mobility fuel economic growth, we can repair the economic damage of the past two decades. A country that overlooks “places that don’t matter” risks becoming irrelevant itself.


Airfoil: By Bartosz Ciechanowski. On a completely different note, I have absolutely no idea how Bartosz manages to pull off immense, detailed, gorgeously-animated pages like this one. But he does. Repeatedly (albeit at - understandably! - fairly lengthy intervals). Don't ask me whether the physics entirely hang together, but if gaining a slightly better clue about How Things Work that may seem obvious but whose workings (if you're honest) you really don't understand floats your boat, Bartosz's work is an unalloyed joy. A gift, in fact. Thanks, pal. You're an absolute star. I first found this site through his depiction of how a mechanical watch works. I was mesmerised. I suspect you will be too.

If you’ve ever been outside in a grassy area on a windy fall day, you may have witnessed something similar to the little scene seen below. The slider lets you control the speed of time to observe in detail how the falling leaves and the bending blades of grass are visibly affected by the wind sweeping through this area:

We intuitively understand that it’s the flowing air that pushes the vegetation around, but note that we only observe the effects that the wind has on other objects – we can’t see the motion of the air itself. I could show you a similarly windy scene without the grass and leaves, and I could try to convince you that there is something going on there, but that completely empty demonstration wouldn’t be very gratifying.

Since the air’s transparency prevents us from tracking its movement directly, we have to come up with some other ways that can help us see its motion. Thankfully, the little outdoor scene already provides us with some ideas.

...which Bartosz proceeds to elucidate. Wonderfully.

You'll need to set aside a bit of time for this one. But I promise it's worth it.