Category Archives: 1

What is it good for? But actually?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

I didn’t learn about history very well prior to my thirties somehow, but lately I’ve been variously trying to rectify this. Lately I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, listening to Steven Pinker’s the Better Angels of Our Nature, watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about the Vietnam War and watching Oversimplified history videos on YouTube (which I find too lighthearted for the subject matter, but if you want to squeeze extra history learning in your leisure and dessert time, compromises can be worth it.)

There is a basic feature of all this that I’m perpetually confused about: how has there been so much energy for going to war?

It’s hard to explain my confusion, because in each particular case, there might be plenty of plausible motives given–someone wants ‘power’, or to ‘reunite their country’, or there is some customary enemy, or that enemy might attack them otherwise–but overall, it seems like the kind of thing people should be extremely averse to, such that even if there were plausibly good justifications, they wouldn’t just win out constantly, other justifications for not doing the thing would usually be found. Like, there are great reasons for writing epic treatises on abstract topics, but somehow, most people find that they don’t get around to it. I expect going to some huge effort to travel overseas and die in the mud to be more like that, intuitively.

To be clear, I’m not confused here about people fighting in defense of things they care a lot about—joining the army when their country is under attack, or joining the Allies in WWII. And I’m not confused by people who are forced to fight, by conscription or desperate need of money. It’s just that across these various sources on history, I haven’t seen much comprehensible-to-me explanation of what’s going on in the minds of the people who volunteer to go to war (or take part in smaller dangerous violence) when the stakes aren’t already at the life or death level for them.

I am also not criticizing the people whose motives I am confused by–I’m confident that I’m missing things.

It’s like if I woke up tomorrow to find that half the country was volunteering to cut off their little finger for charity, I’d be pretty surprised. And if upon inquiring, each person had something to say—about how it was a good charity, or how suffering is brave and valiant, or how their Dad did it already, or how they were being emotionally manipulated by someone else who wanted it to happen, or they how wanted to be part of something—each one might not be that unlikely, but I’d still feel overall super confused, at a high level, at there being enough total energy behind this, given that it’s a pretty costly thing to do.

At first glance, the historical people heading off to war don’t feel surprising. But I feel like this is because it is taken for granted as what historical people do. Just as in stories about Christmas, it is taken for granted that Santa Clause will make and distribute billions of toys, because that’s what he does, even though his motives are actually fairly opaque. But historical people presumably had internal lives that would be recognizable to me. What did it look like from the inside, to hear that WWI was starting, and hurry to sign up? Or to volunteer for the French military in time to fight to maintain French control in Vietnam, in the First Indochina War, that preceded the Vietnam War?

I’d feel less surprised in a world where deadly conflict was more like cannibalism is in our world. Where yes, technically humans are edible, so if you are hungry enough you can eat them, but it is extremely rare for it to get to that, because nobody wants to be on any side of it, and they have very strong and consistent feelings about that, and if anyone really wanted to eat thousands or millions of people, say to bolster their personal or group power, it would be prohibitively expensive in terms of money or social capital to overcome the universal distaste for this idea.

Unexplored modes of language

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

English can be communicated via 2D symbols that can be drawn on paper using a hand and seen with eyes, or via sounds that can be made with a mouth and heard by ears.

These two forms are the same language because the mouth sounds and drawn symbols correspond at the level of words (and usually as far as sounds and letters, at least substantially). That is, if I write ‘ambition’, there is a specific mouth sound that you would use if converting it to spoken English, whereas if you were converting it to spoken French, there might not be a natural equivalent.

As far as I know, most popular languages are like this: they have a mouth-sound version and a hand-drawn (or hand-typed) version. They often have a braille version, with symbols that can be felt by touch instead of vision. An exception is sign languages (which are generally not just alternate versions of spoken languages), which use 4-D symbols gestured by hands over time, and received by eyes.

I wonder whether there are more modes of languages that it would be good to have. Would we have them, if there were? It’s not clear from a brief perusal of Wikipedia that Europe had sophisticated sign languages prior to about five hundred years ago. Communication methods generally have strong network effects—it’s not worth communicating by some method that nobody can understand, just like it’s not worth joining an empty dating site—and new physical modes of English are much more expensive than for instance new messaging platforms, and have nobody to promote them.

Uncommon modes of language that seem potentially good (an uninformed brainstorm):

  • symbols drawn with hands on receiver’s skin, received by touch, I’ve heard of blind and deaf people such as Helen Keller using this, but it seems useful for instance when it is loud, or when you don’t want to be overheard or to annoy people nearby, or for covert communication under the table at a larger event, or for when you are wearing a giant face mask. –symbols gestured with whole body like interpretive dance, but with objective interpretation. Good from a distance, when loud, etc. Perhaps conducive to different sorts of expressiveness, like how verbal communication makes singing with lyrics possible, and there is complementarity between the words and the music.
  • symbols gestured with whole body, interpreted by computer, received as written text What if keyboards were like a Kinect dance game? Instead of using your treadmill desk while you type with your hands, you just type with your arms, legs and body in a virtual reality whole-body keyboard space. Mostly good for exercise, non-sedentariness, feeling alive, etc.
  • drumming/tapping, received by ears or touch possibly faster than spoken language, because precise sounds can be very fast. I don’t know. This doesn’t really sound good.
  • a sign version of English this exists, but is rare. Good for when it is loud, when you don’t want to be overheard, when you are wearing a giant face mask or are opposed to exhaling too much on the other person, when you are at a distance, etc.
  • symbols drawn with hands in one place e.g. the surface of a phone, or a small number of phone buttons, such that you could enter stuff on your phone by tapping your fingers in place in a comfortable position with the hand you were holding it with, preferably still in your pocket, rather than awkwardly moving them around on the surface while you hold it either with another hand or some non-moving parts of the same hand, and having to look at the screen while you do it. This could be combined with the first one on this list.
  • What else?

Maybe if there’s a really good one, we could overcome the network effect with an assurance contract. (Or try to, and learn more about why assurance contracts aren’t used more.)

Why are delicious biscuits obscure?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

I saw a picture of these biscuits (or cookies), and they looked very delicious. So much so that I took the uncharacteristic step of actually making them. They were indeed among the most delicious biscuits of which I am aware. And yet I don’t recall hearing of them before. This seems like a telling sign about something. (The capitalist machinery? Culture? Industrial food production constraints? The vagaries of individual enjoyment?)

Kolakakor

Why doesn’t the market offer these delicious biscuits all over the place? Isn’t this just the kind of rival, excludable, information-available, well-internalized good that markets are on top of?

Some explanations that occur to me:

  1. I am wrong or unusual in my assessment of deliciousness, and for instance most people would find a chocolate chip cookie or an Oreo more delicious.
  2. They are harder to cook commercially than the ubiquitous biscuits for some reason. e.g. they are most delicious warm.
  3. They are Swedish, and there are mysterious cultural or linguistic barriers to foods spreading from their original homes. This would also help explain some other observations, to the extent that it counts as an explanation at all.
  4. Deliciousness is not a central factor in food spread. (Then what is?)

If you want to help investigate, you can do so by carrying out the following recipe and reporting on the percentile of deliciousness of the resulting biscuits. (I do not claim that this is a high priority investigation to take part in, unless you are hungry for delicious biscuits or a firsthand encounter with a moderately interesting sociological puzzle.)

*

Kolakakor

(Or Kolasnittar. Adapted from House & Garden’s account of a recipe in Magnus Nilsson’s “The Nordic Baking Book”. It’s quite plausible that their versions are better than mine, which has undergone pressure for ease plus some random ingredient substitutions. However I offer mine, since it is the one I can really vouch for.)

Takes about fifteen minutes of making, and fifteen further minutes of waiting. Makes enough biscuits for about five people to eat too many biscuits, plus a handful left over. (Other recipe calls it about 40 ‘shortbreads’)

Ingredients

  • 200 g melted butter (e.g. microwave it)
  • 180 g sugar
  • 50 g golden syrup
  • 50g honey
  • 300 g flour, ideally King Arthur gluten free flour, but wheat flour will also do
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • 2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 good pinches of salt

Method

  1. Preheat oven: 175°C/345°F
  2. Put everything in a mixing bowl (if you have kitchen scales, put the mixing bowl on them, set scales to zero, add an ingredient, reset scales to zero, add the next ingredient, etc.)
  3. Mix.
  4. Taste [warning: public health officials say not to do this because eating raw flour is dangerous]. Adjust mixedness, saltiness, etc. It should be very roughly the consistency of peanut butter, i.e. probably less firm than you expect. (Taste more, as desired. Wonder why we cook biscuits at all. Consider rebellion. Consider Chesterton’s fence. Taste one more time.)
  5. Cover a big tray or a couple of small trays with baking paper.
  6. Make the dough into about four logs, around an inch in diameter, spaced several inches from one another and the edges of the paper. They can be misshapen; their shapes are temporary.
  7. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until golden and spread out into 1-4 giant flat seas of biscuit. When you take them out, they will be very soft and probably not appear to be cooked.
  8. As soon as they slightly cool and firm up enough to pick up, start chopping them into strips about 1.25 inches wide and eating them.

*

Bonus mystery: they are gluten free, egg free, and can probably easily be dairy free. The contest with common vegan and/or gluten free biscuit seems even more winnable, so why haven’t they even taken over that market?

Cultural accumulation

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

When I think of humans being so smart due to ‘cultural accumulation’, I think of lots of tiny innovations in thought and technology being made by different people, and added to the interpersonal currents of culture that wash into each person’s brain, leaving a twenty year old in 2020 much better intellectually equipped than a 90 year old who spent their whole life thinking in 1200 AD.

This morning I was chatting to my boyfriend about whether a person who went back in time (let’s say a thousand years) would be able to gather more social power than they can now in their own time. Some folk we know were discussing the claim that some humans would have a shot at literally take over the world if sent back in time, and we found this implausible.

The most obvious differences between a 2020 person and a 1200 AD person, in 1200 AD, is that they have experience with incredible technological advances that the 1200 AD native doesn’t even know are possible. But a notable thing about a modern person is that they famously don’t know what a bicycle looks like, so the level of technology they might be able to actually rebuild on short notice in 1200 AD is probably not at the level of a nutcracker, and they probably already had those in 1200 AD.

How does 2020 have complicated technology, if most people don’t know how it works? One big part is specialization: across the world, quite a few people do know what bicycles look like. And more to the point, presumably some of them know in great detail what bicycle chains look like, and what they are made of, and what happens if you make them out of slightly different materials or in slightly different shapes, and how such things interact with the functioning of the bicycle.

But suppose the 2020 person who is sent back is a bicycle expert, and regularly builds their own at home. Can they introduce bikes to the world 600 years early? My tentative guess is yes, but not very ridable ones, because they don’t have machines for making bike parts, or any idea what those machines are like or the principles behind them. They can probably demonstrate the idea of a bike with wood and cast iron and leather, supposing others are cooperative with various iron casting, wood shaping, leather-making know-how. But can they make a bike that is worth paying for and riding?

I’m not sure, and bikes were selected here for being so simple that an average person might know what their machinery looks like. Which makes them unusually close among technologies to simple chunks of metal. I don’t think a microwave oven engineer can introduce microwave ovens in 1200, or a silicon chip engineer can make much progress on introducing silicon chips. These require other technologies that require other technologies too many layers back.

But what if the whole of 2020 society was transported to 1200? The metal extruding experts and the electricity experts and the factory construction experts and Elon Musk? Could they just jump back to 2020 levels of technology, since they know everything relevant between them? (Assuming they are somehow as well coordinated in this project as they are in 2020, and are not just putting all of their personal efforts into avoiding being burned at the stake or randomly tortured in the streets.)

A big way this might fail is if 2020 society knows everything between them needed to use 2020 artifacts to get more 2020 artifacts, but don’t know how to use 1200 artifacts to get 2020 artifacts.

On that story, the 1200 people might start out knowing methods for making c. 1200 artifacts using c. 1200 artifacts, but they accumulate between them the ideas to get them to c. 1220 artifacts with the c. 1200 artifacts, which they use to actually create those new artifacts. They pass to their children this collection of c. 1220 artifacts and the ideas needed to use those artifacts to get more c. 1220 artifacts. But the new c. 1220 artifacts and methods replaced some of the old c. 1200 artifacts and methods. So the knowledge passed on doesn’t include how to use those obsoleted artifacts to create the new artifacts, or the knowledge about how to make the obsoleted artifacts. And the artifacts passed on don’t include the obsoleted ones. If this happens every generation for a thousand years, the cultural inheritance received by the 2020 generation includes some highly improved artifacts plus the knowledge about how to use them, but not necessarily any record of the path that got there from prehistory, or of the tools that made the tools that made the tools that made these artifacts.

This differs from my first impression of ‘cultural accumulation’ in that:

  1. physical artifacts are central to the process: a lot of the accumulation is happening inside them, rather than in memetic space.
  2. humanity is not accumulating all of the ideas it has come up with so far, even the important ones. It is accumulating something more like a best set of instructions for the current situation, and throwing a lot out as it goes.

Is this is how things are, or is my first impression more true?

Cultural accumulation

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

When I think of humans being so smart due to ‘cultural accumulation’, I think of lots of tiny innovations in thought and technology being made by different people, and added to the interpersonal currents of culture that wash into each person’s brain, leaving a twenty year old in 2020 much better intellectually equipped than a 90 year old who spent their whole life thinking in 1200 AD.

This morning I was chatting to my boyfriend about whether a person who went back in time (let’s say a thousand years) would be able to gather more social power than they can now in their own time. Some folk we know were discussing the claim that some humans would have a shot at literally take over the world if sent back in time, and we found this implausible.

The most obvious differences between a 2020 person and a 1200 AD person, in 1200 AD, is that they have experience with incredible technological advances that the 1200 AD native doesn’t even know are possible. But a notable thing about a modern person is that they famously don’t know what a bicycle looks like, so the level of technology they might be able to actually rebuild on short notice in 1200 AD is probably not at the level of a nutcracker, and they probably already had those in 1200 AD.

How does 2020 have complicated technology, if most people don’t know how it works? One big part is specialization: across the world, quite a few people do know what bicycles look like. And more to the point, presumably some of them know in great detail what bicycle chains look like, and what they are made of, and what happens if you make them out of slightly different materials or in slightly different shapes, and how such things interact with the functioning of the bicycle.

But suppose the 2020 person who is sent back is a bicycle expert, and regularly builds their own at home. Can they introduce bikes to the world 600 years early? My tentative guess is yes, but not very ridable ones, because they don’t have machines for making bike parts, or any idea what those machines are like or the principles behind them. They can probably demonstrate the idea of a bike with wood and cast iron and leather, supposing others are cooperative with various iron casting, wood shaping, leather-making know-how. But can they make a bike that is worth paying for and riding?

I’m not sure, and bikes were selected here for being so simple that an average person might know what their machinery looks like. Which makes them unusually close among technologies to simple chunks of metal. I don’t think a microwave oven engineer can introduce microwave ovens in 1200, or a silicon chip engineer can make much progress on introducing silicon chips. These require other technologies that require other technologies too many layers back.

But what if the whole of 2020 society was transported to 1200? The metal extruding experts and the electricity experts and the factory construction experts and Elon Musk? Could they just jump back to 2020 levels of technology, since they know everything relevant between them? (Assuming they are somehow as well coordinated in this project as they are in 2020, and are not just putting all of their personal efforts into avoiding being burned at the stake or randomly tortured in the streets.)

A big way this might fail is if 2020 society knows everything between them needed to use 2020 artifacts to get more 2020 artifacts, but don’t know how to use 1200 artifacts to get 2020 artifacts.

On that story, the 1200 people might start out knowing methods for making c. 1200 artifacts using c. 1200 artifacts, but they accumulate between them the ideas to get them to c. 1220 artifacts with the c. 1200 artifacts, which they use to actually create those new artifacts. They pass to their children this collection of c. 1220 artifacts and the ideas needed to use those artifacts to get more c. 1220 artifacts. But the new c. 1220 artifacts and methods replaced some of the old c. 1200 artifacts and methods. So the knowledge passed on doesn’t include how to use those obsoleted artifacts to create the new artifacts, or the knowledge about how to make the obsoleted artifacts. And the artifacts passed on don’t include the obsoleted ones. If this happens every generation for a thousand years, the cultural inheritance received by the 2020 generation includes some highly improved artifacts plus the knowledge about how to use them, but not necessarily any record of the path that got there from prehistory, or of the tools that made the tools that made the tools that made these artifacts.

This differs from my first impression of ‘cultural accumulation’ in that:

  1. physical artifacts are central to the process: a lot of the accumulation is happening inside them, rather than in memetic space.
  2. humanity is not accumulating all of the ideas it has come up with so far, even the important ones. It is accumulating something more like a best set of instructions for the current situation, and throwing a lot out as it goes.

Is this is how things are, or is my first impression more true?