Links and Thoughts (December '21)
1. I started this substack in February of this year with no real goals or aspirations; I never dreamed that random strangers on the internet would actually be interested in the weird shit I think about. But apparently some people are, and it continues to be a source of great joy and inspiration to me. Your support—every like, comment, and retweet (@rogersbacon1)—means more than you know. In the span of 10 months, I’ve gone from being a high school biology teacher who always dreamed about writing but was too lazy and too insecure to actually give it a shot (if I’m being honest), to where I am now—definitely still lazy and still insecure, but feeling like I don’t completely suck at writing and that I’ll probably keep doing it for a very long time. So big thanks to all of you.
One thing I want to do in 2022 is interact with my readers in more substantial ways. In service of that goal, I would like to put out a standing offer for collaboration. My first thought is to write a dialogue that could be posted here and on my interlocutor’s blog/website (but no worries if you have neither). I’m open to virtually any topic as long as it is something I feel that I can intelligently discuss. One idea is to take a question from my Last Questions posts (part 1 and 2) and use that as a starting point for discussion. Email me at email@example.com if you are interested in collaborating on a dialogue or something entirely different. I would also add that I’m happy to chat on zoom about anything and everything, just shoot me a message and we can go from there.
2. After the death of her husband & with no breadwinner in the house, Mary Ann Bevan decided to enter a contest and won the offensive title of "ugliest woman in the world" & was hired by a circus. She endured the ridicule of of others in order to raise her children & give them a better life.
3. From the Recommendo newsletter:
“If a website allows Google to crawl its articles, it shouldn’t then hide its articles behind a paywall. The website 12ft.io bypasses paywalls by displaying the Google cache of articles. You can either go to the 12ft site and enter the URL of a paywalled article or prepend 12ft.io/ to the URL of any paywalled page.”
Works like a charm.
4. Absolutely love this short film (13 minutes)
“We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behavior observed in the human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as the simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and parasitic organisms.”
6. A paper that I co-authored was recently published in New Ideas in Psychology": “Amateur hour: Improving knowledge diversity in psychological and behavioral science by harnessing contributions from amateurs” (free PDF, courtesy of gwern).
We argue that psychology can benefit from increased amateur participation in knowledge work of science (hypothesizing, experimentation, observational research, data analysis, etc.). We highlight several “blind spots” in academic psychology (long-term projects, observational research, speculation, interdisciplinary research, taboo or uncommon subjects, and aimless projects) where amateurs might be able to make unique contributions and discuss how the academic community can facilitate more amateur psychology research. Here is one of my favorite passages:
Taken together, our discussion of blind spots highlights one overarching direction in “research-space” that may be especially promising: long, aimless, speculative, and interdisciplinary research on uncommon or taboo subjects. Out of all amateur contributions to sciences so far, Darwin’s achievements may be the primary exemplar of this type of endeavor. As aforementioned, at the time of his departure on the HMS Beagle in 1831 he was an independent scientist—a 22-year-old Cambridge graduate with no advanced publications who had to pay his own way on the voyage (Bowlby, 1990; Keynes & Darwin, 2001). Darwin’s work on evolution certainly took a long time to develop (the Beagle’s voyage took 5 years and he did not publish On the Origin of Species until 23 years after he returned). It was aimless in the sense that he did not set out from the beginning to develop a theory of evolution. His work was highly interdisciplinary (Darwin drew on numerous fields within the biological sciences in addition to geology and economics), was the culmination of a huge amount of basic observational work, and was not necessarily an experimental contribution (though he did make those as well), but primarily theoretical (and sometimes more speculative) in nature. Darwin’s theories were taboo in the sense that they went against the prevailing theological ideas of the time and caused significant controversy (and still do). We speculate that there may one day be a “Charles Darwin of the Mind” who follows a similar path. Indeed, it seems that the state of theorizing in psychology today is at an early stage comparable to evolutionary theorizing at the time of Darwin (Muthukrishna & Henrich, 2019), and the time may be ripe for an equally transformative amateur contribution in PBS. We hope that this paper provides the smallest nudge in this direction.
This paper is notable for two reasons: (1) we discuss the work of amateurs like Scott (Alexander) Siskind, Alexey Guzey, Michael Nielsen, and Andy Matuschak and (2) it might be the first paper where an author lists his institution as his substack lol.
“Reporting last week in Zoosystematics and Evolution, the researchers have named it Gephyromantis marokoroko for its distinctive skin (the species name means rugged in Malagasy). The amphibian also has a unique call of two to four pulses followed by a long note—so quiet it can barely be heard even a few meters away. The secretive nature of the nocturnal frog, which seems to only come out of hiding after heavy rains, meant it took several trips over the years to collect enough specimens and recordings for the taxonomic description.”
Discoveries like this give me a certain feeling that I struggle to describe. I recently learned a Japanese term that I think comes fairly close:
“Mono no aware (物の哀れ, もののあわれ), literally ‘the pathos of things,’ and also translated as ‘an empathy toward things,’ or ‘a sensitivity to ephemera,’ is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”
My feeling is more bittersweet than what is described above—a deep joy in knowing that nature has crafted such delicate miracles (“even the smallest creature carries a sun in its eyes”), but also a profound sadness in knowing that they might not be long for this world.
9. I continue to be fascinated by cults and weird religious sects…buckle up, this is a wild ride.
“The Skoptsy were a sect within the larger Spiritual Christianity movement in the Russian Empire, best known for practicing castration of men and the mastectomy of women in accordance with their teachings against sexual lust. The movement emerged in the late 18th century. It reached the peak of its popularity in the early 20th century, with as many as 100,000 members, in spite of persecution by the imperial government. Despite severe repression under the Soviet Union, small groups persevered into the 21st century.”
“Their aim was to perfect the individual by eradicating original sin, which they believed had come into the world by the first coitus between Adam and Eve. They believed that human genitals were the true mark of Cain, and that the true message of Jesus Christ included the practice of castration, that Jesus himself had been a castrate, and that his example had been followed by the apostles and the early Christian saints…There were two kinds of castration: the "lesser seal" and the "greater seal". For men, the "lesser seal" meant the removal of the testicles only, while the "greater seal" involved either removal of the penis or emasculation (removal of both penis and testicles). Men who underwent the "greater seal" used a cow-horn when urinating. The castrations and emasculations were originally performed with a red-hot iron, called the 'fiery baptism'.
“…its founder was a runaway peasant, later known by the name of Kondratiy Ivanovich Selivanov, a former adherent of a Khlysty sect of one Akulina Ivanovna in the Oryol Governorate. Selivanov had started his own sect in the village of Sosnovka near Morshansk, styling himself "Son of God" and "Redeemer": The community of Selivanov's followers, numbered at 246 people, were put on trial in 1772. Selivanov was convicted of having persuaded thirteen other peasants to castrate themselves. He initially escaped, but was apprehended in 1775 and exiled to Nerchinsk, Siberia.
His followers organized to locate and free him. He was found living in Irkutsk, and managed to escape and move to Moscow in 1795. In 1797, he moved to Saint Petersburg where, according to Skoptsy accounts, he was interviewed by Tsar Paul I. He claimed to be the Tsar's father, Peter III (who had been assassinated in 1762), following which Paul I had him confined to the madhouse at Obukhov hospital. He was released in 1802. For the next eighteen years, until 1820, he lived in Saint Petersburg, in the house of one of his disciples.”
So basically an insane peasant launched a religious movement which led to thousands of people castrating themselves (unclear how many of the 100,000 followers actually underwent the chop). Interestingly, the Heaven’s Gate cult, famous for the ritual suicide of 39 members in 1997, also performed castrations; the practice seems to be a kind of cultural attractor in cult-space. I’ve been thinking about religion a lot lately and have been kicking around the idea of writing something about the different dimensions of this cult/religion-space. One dimension is the way in which carnal desires are regarded—are they denied and denigrated (as seen in Skoptsy and Heaven’s Gate) or are they pursued and venerated? Frankism is a religious movement that falls in this latter category.
Frankism was a heretical Sabbatean Jewish religious movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, centered on the leadership of the Jewish Messiah claimant Jacob Frank, who lived from 1726 to 1791…Frank claimed that "all laws and teachings will fall" and—following antinomianism—asserted that the most important obligation of every person was the transgression of every boundary….In Frankism, orgies featured prominently in ritual.
It feels like there is an eponymous law to be coined here: given enough time, all religions will tend towards either castration or orgies.
10. TED Talk: Dreams from Endangered Cultures
Now, of all the peoples that I've ever been with, the most extraordinary are the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. Descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization which once carpeted the Caribbean coastal plain of Colombia, in the wake of the conquest, these people retreated into an isolated volcanic massif that soars above the Caribbean coastal plain. In a bloodstained continent, these people alone were never conquered by the Spanish. To this day, they remain ruled by a ritual priesthood but the training for the priesthood is rather extraordinary. The young acolytes are taken away from their families at the age of three and four, sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness in stone huts at the base of glaciers for 18 years: two nine-year periods deliberately chosen to mimic the nine months of gestation they spend in their natural mother's womb; now they are metaphorically in the womb of the great mother. And for this entire time, they are inculturated into the values of their society, values that maintain the proposition that their prayers and their prayers alone maintain the cosmic -- or we might say the ecological -- balance. And at the end of this amazing initiation, one day they're suddenly taken out and for the first time in their lives, at the age of 18, they see a sunrise. And in that crystal moment of awareness of first light as the Sun begins to bathe the slopes of the stunningly beautiful landscape, suddenly everything they have learned in the abstract is affirmed in stunning glory. And the priest steps back and says, "You see? It's really as I've told you. It is that beautiful. It is yours to protect." They call themselves the "elder brothers" and they say we, who are the younger brothers, are the ones responsible for destroying the world.
You can read more about the spiritual beliefs of the Kogi on Wikipedia.
Another story from the TED Talk:
This is a photograph I took at the northern tip of Baffin Island when I went narwhal hunting with some Inuit people, and this man, Olayuk, told me a marvelous story of his grandfather. The Canadian government has not always been kind to the Inuit people, and during the 1950s, to establish our sovereignty, we forced them into settlements. This old man's grandfather refused to go. The family, fearful for his life, took away all of his weapons, all of his tools. Now, you must understand that the Inuit did not fear the cold; they took advantage of it. The runners of their sleds were originally made of fish wrapped in caribou hide. So, this man's grandfather was not intimidated by the Arctic night or the blizzard that was blowing. He simply slipped outside, pulled down his sealskin trousers and defecated into his hand. And as the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of a blade. He put a spray of saliva on the edge of the shit knife and as it finally froze solid, he butchered a dog with it. He skinned the dog and improvised a harness, took the ribcage of the dog and improvised a sled, harnessed up an adjacent dog, and disappeared over the ice floes, shit knife in belt. Talk about getting by with nothing.
The biodiversity crisis gets all the headlines, but we are losing language diversity at an equally rapid pace. The speaker in the TED talk, anthropologist Wade Davis, does a great job of driving home what an absolute tragedy the loss of a language is:
“When each of you in this room were born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet. Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It's a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
And of those 6,000 languages, as we sit here today in Monterey, fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children. They're no longer being taught to babies, which means, effectively, unless something changes, they're already dead. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children? And yet, that dreadful fate is indeed the plight of somebody somewhere on Earth roughly every two weeks, because every two weeks, some elder dies and carries with him into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. "
“In cartography, most maps are bound by the straight lines at their borders. But occasionally, there are parts of the map that don’t quite fit. They bleed over the edge and yet still cry out for being included in a map. These are the overedges. The Overedge Catalog is devoted to collecting the intriguing new types of organizations and institutions that lie at the intersection of the worlds of research and academia, non-profits, and tech startups. This is a small but growing number of organizations, but hopefully by collecting and highlighting all of these here, it can spur further institutional innovation.”
Frustration with the incompetence of our current institutions is mounting and there is a growing recognition that we need new ways of funding, organizing, and publishing scientific research. I believe we are in the nascent stages of an institutional cambrian explosion — new organizational life forms such as Fast Grants, New Science, Altos Labs, Seeds of Science (a completely shameless plug), Longevity Impetus Grants, and Octopus may one day be regarded as the intrepid ancestors that gave rise to entire phylums of descendants, on this planet and throughout the galaxy.
13. I often take the train into New York City. There is this homeless guy at Penn Station who I’ve seen a few times begging for change, younger black dude maybe ~25. Sometimes, he heckles people as they walk by, “wow, that slice of pizza looks really tasty, I wish I had enough money for one of those”, “I like your jacket, how much did it cost?”, things like that. About a week ago, I saw him slumped against a pole with his cup out as a dad and his two young kids walked by.
“Stay in school kids or you’ll end up like me. It’s great that you have a dad, I never had one. Can I borrow yours? Can I?”
I gave him the two dollars I had in my wallet and he thanked me profusely.
Observing cellular physiological histories is key to understanding normal and disease-related processes, but longitudinal imaging is laborious and equipment-intensive. A tantalizing possibility is that cells could record such histories in the form of digital biological information within themselves, for later high-throughput readout. Here we show that this concept can be realized through information storage in the form of growing protein chains made out of multiple self-assembling subunits bearing different labels, each corresponding to a different cellular state or function, so that the physiological history of the cell can be visually read out along the chain of proteins. Conveniently, such protein chains are fully genetically encoded, and easily readable with simple, conventional optical microscopy techniques, compatible with visualization of cellular shape and molecular content. We use such expression recording islands (XRIs) to record gene expression timecourse downstream of pharmacological and physiological stimuli, in cultured neurons and in living mouse brain.
15. I’m reading William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and enjoying it immensely. I can see why Tyler Cowen calls it one of the best books period. I’m about halfway through, but so far it’s full of tremendous psychological insight and beautiful writing. The book is based on lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1901; the way he begins the first lecture provides an interesting window into the American-European dynamics at the time and is also kind of hilarious:
It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take place behind this desk, and face this learned audience. To us Americans, the experience of receiving in from the living voice, as well as from the books, of European scholars, is very familiar. At my own. University of Harvard, not a winter passes without its harvest, large or small, of lectures from Scottish, English, French, or German representatives of the science or literature of their respective countries whom we have either induced to cross the ocean to address us, or captured on the wing as they were visiting our land. It seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act.
Oh, how the times have changed—imagine a professor from Harvard speaking with such a deferential tone at the beginning of an academic seminar.
One passage that I found particularly arresting:
“For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculation, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little that the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously, will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.”
16. What do you want to think about in final moments of your life? I am plagued by the fear that my mind will drift to something utterly trivial and inane—a co-worker that I didn’t like from 50 years ago, a TV show that I binge watched but didn’t even like all that much, a random hook-up from my youth, a piece of gossip about an acquaintance.
“Here, we report the discovery of a remarkable annual tetrapod from the arid southwest of Madagascar: the chameleon Furcifer labordi, with a posthatching life span of just 4–5 months. At the start of the active season (November), an age cohort of hatchlings emerges; larger juveniles or adults are not present. These hatchlings grow rapidly, reach sexual maturity in less than 2 months, and reproduce in January–February. After reproduction, senescence appears, and the active season concludes with population-wide adult death. Consequently, during the dry season, the entire population is represented by developing eggs that incubate for 8–9 months before synchronously hatching at the onset of the following rainy season. Remarkably, this chameleon spends more of its short annual life cycle inside the egg than outside of it.”
“The post-truth era has taken many by surprise. Here, we use massive language analysis to demonstrate that the rise of fact-free argumentation may perhaps be understood as part of a deeper change. After the year 1850, the use of sentiment-laden words in Google Books declined systematically, while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation rose steadily. This pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged, a trend paralleled by a shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.”
“The size of scientific fields may impede the rise of new ideas. Examining 1.8 billion citations among 90 million papers across 241 subjects, we find a deluge of papers does not lead to turnover of central ideas in a field, but rather to ossification of canon. Scholars in fields where many papers are published annually face difficulty getting published, read, and cited unless their work references already widely cited articles. New papers containing potentially important contributions cannot garner field-wide attention through gradual processes of diffusion. These findings suggest fundamental progress may be stymied if quantitative growth of scientific endeavors—in number of scientists, institutes, and papers—is not balanced by structures fostering disruptive scholarship and focusing attention on novel ideas.”
This is a nice empirical result that supports my central argument in “Exegesis”: modern science is really good at “climbing” (the pursuit of known goals by teams of scientists working at large centralized institutions) but very bad at “wandering” (the individual path-breaking thinking that helps us find new “unknown unknowns”). This is a hard pill to swallow, but adding more fuel (people, money, resources) to the scientific fire will not make it burn brighter (more != better). What is needed is a deeper reorientation, a rebalancing of the entire scientific ecosystem. As with many things in life, we need to take one step back before we can take two steps forward.