Links and Thoughts (February '22)
Are there militaries around the world making the 2022 version of this? If so, send 5,000 over to the Ukraine right now, please and thank you.
2. Of all the plagues that could have descended upon us, we definitely got the least funky one. Seen on Milan Cvitkovic’s Historical Facts I Consistently Forget About:
The dancing plague of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace (modern-day France), in the Holy Roman Empire from July 1518 to September 1518. Somewhere between 50 and 400 people took to dancing for days. The outbreak began in July 1518 when a woman began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg. By early September, the outbreak began to subside.
Historical documents, including "physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council" are clear that the victims danced; it is not known why. Historical sources agree that there was an outbreak of dancing after a single woman started dancing, a group of mostly young women joined in, and the dancing did not seem to die down. It lasted for such a long time that it attracted the attention of the Strasbourg magistrate and bishop, and some number of doctors ultimately intervened, putting the afflicted in a hospital.
Events similar to this are said to have occurred throughout the medieval age including 11th century in Kölbigk Saxony, where it was believed to be the cause of demonic possession or divine judgment. In 15th century Apulia Italy, a woman was bitten by a tarantula, the venom making her dance convulsively. The only way to cure the bite was to "shimmy" and to have the right sort of music available, which was an accepted remedy by scholars like Athanasius Kircher.
Theories include ergot food poisoning (a fungus that grows on wheat which produces derivatives of LSD) and stress-induced mass hysteria (i.e. “civilization”). Also, Athanasius is a totally sweet name.
This could have been a florid example of psychogenic movement disorder happening in mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness, which involves many individuals suddenly exhibiting the same bizarre behavior. The behavior spreads rapidly and broadly in an epidemic pattern. This kind of comportment could have been caused by elevated levels of psychological stress, caused by the ruthless years (even by the rough standards of the early modern period) the people of Alsace were suffering.
Waller speculates that the dancing was "stress-induced psychosis" on a mass level, since the region where the people danced was riddled with starvation and disease, and the inhabitants tended to be superstitious. Seven other cases of dancing plague were reported in the same region during the medieval era.
This psychogenic illness could have created a chorea (from the Greek khoreia meaning "to dance"), a situation comprising random and intricate unintentional movements that flit from body part to body part. Diverse choreas (St. Vitus' dance, St. John's dance, and tarantism) were labeled in the Middle Ages referring to the independent epidemics of "dancing mania" that happened in central Europe, particularly at the time of the plague.
I’m surprised dancing plagues don’t happen more often considering all the stress and mass hysteria in the world today. Or maybe we just do a lot more dancing now so we don’t see these infectious paroxysms of shimmies and other assorted gyrations. I’m inclined to propose something like “Groove Equilibrium Theory”: there is an optimal amount of dancing for any given individual or community and extreme deviations from this optimum can cause health problems and contribute to outbreaks of stress-induced dance plagues (also see “Funk Contagion Theory”).
These mass hysterias didn’t always end up so groovy however.
The Great Fear (French: Grande Peur) was a general panic that took place between 22 July to 6 August 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring, and, fuelled by rumors of an aristocrats' "famine plot" to starve or burn out the population, both peasants and townspeople mobilized in many regions.
In response to these rumors, fearful peasants armed themselves in self-defense and, in some areas, attacked manor houses. The content of the rumors differed from region to region—in some areas it was believed that a foreign force was burning the crops in the fields, while in other areas it was believed that robbers were burning buildings.
Again, a historian has speculated that ergot poisoning might have played a role.
Historian Mary Kilbourne Matossian argued that one of the causes of the Great Fear was consumption of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. In years of good harvests, rye contaminated with ergot was discarded, but when the harvest was poor, the peasants could not afford to be so choosy
3. Turning to the future now, Erik Hoel discussed one of my predictions in his post for the 2050 project (a series of posts by random bloggers like me who made some predictions for 2050, see Erik’s original post and my post—Predictions for 2050: Black Swan Edition). If you don’t know about Erik, he’s a neuroscientist and writer and all-around crazy smart dude. If you like my writing at all, then you will love his substack.
"Finally, there’s Secretum Secretorum, which eschews the idea of extrapolating from current trends and instead takes some big contrarian positions. Of particular interest is the idea of a “World Historic Individual” emerging. Specifically that
“. . . by 2050 there will a living person who is widely recognized to be what early 1900s German historian Oswald Spengler called a “World Historical Figure” (The Decline of The West). Jesus, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Buddha, Genghis Khan, Muhammed, Newton, Darwin are all on the list.”
It’s always struck me that my generation, the millennials, have grown up with a particular lack of World Historic individuals (in terms of impact in the long march of history, not popularity or name recognition in the moment). We missed concurrency with most of the 20th-century luminaries. My parents’ early lives overlapped with Einstein, for instance. Indeed, it’s worth asking:
“Who is the most recent person that could reasonably be called a world historical figures? I say yes for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . After that. . . I’m not so sure. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of potential candidates: Mao Zedong, Osama Bin Laden, Obama, Trump, Elon Musk (sorry Bezos, you didn’t make the cut), and Xi Jinping. I think most of these people are debatable when you start to consider truly vast time horizons: what are the chances people will know about Obama, Xi, or Elon Musk 500 years from now?”
Of those listed by Secretum Secretorum, the only individual I can imagine mattering in five hundred years is Elon Musk, although not for anything he’s done yet. But if he did establish a city on Mars, as there’s indeed a chance he might, getting humanity off-planet would certainly be remembered. Yet, it’s also possible the responsibility for the actual settlement of Mars will be spread out over the entire space industry, not to mention over various governments, ensuring no lasting historical credit goes to Musk.
So where are the Einsteins? Or Joans of Arc? The Ghandis? Let alone the Leibnizs or Napoleons or Christs? Perhaps there is someone unknown to us, some little girl waiting in the wings who will change everything. A comforting thought. For it is only in the brief periods when a World Historic individual bestrides the globe that humanity is no longer alone in the universe.
Right now we are children in a dark room, waiting for the hallway light to turn on and an adult to come save us. Some of us may live our whole lives in this dark.”
4. In that same predictions post, I wrote:
Fueled by advancements in plastic surgery and other body modification techniques (e.g. powerful obesity drugs) and bored rich people who need a new progressive cause, lookism—discrimination against the ugly and bias towards the beautiful—will become a major societal issue. All of the developments discussed above (religious revival, social innovation, and sexual revolution) will interact to create contentious debate on lookism; groups of people (and entire societies) will differentiate themselves by their position (Is it okay to be ugly? Should we try to make everyone beautiful?).
The Very Bad Wizards podcast just did a great episode on lookism.
We think racism is wrong but what about “lookism” – a bias that favors attractive people over unattractive ones? If it’s wrong to judge people by the color of their skin, what about judging people for something that is only skin deep? We talk about two pieces today, a forthcoming philosophy article by William D’Allesandro “Is it Bad to Prefer Attractive Partners” and the Ted Chiang story “Liking What You See: A Documentary.”
VBW is hosted by Tamler Somers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, and Dave Pizarro, a psychologist at Cornell University. Been a big fan for a while now, and I think you will be too if you like in-depth conversations on a wide-range of psychological and philosophical topics with more than a few dick and poop jokes thrown in.
I’m also a massive Ted Chiang fan and if you aren’t this is something you should remedy ASAP. The story they discuss, “Liking What You See: a Documentary” (read here) is far from his best but it’s still fantastic and is as good a place to start as any. His short story collection Exhale is one of the best things I’ve ever read, full stop.
Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf.
The term originated in the Meiji era (1868–1912) as Japanese slang. It combines elements of tsunde-oku (積んでおく, to pile things up ready for later and leave) and dokusho (読書, reading books). As currently written, the word combines the characters for "pile up" (積) and the character for "read" (読).
6. People actually do this (persistence hunting).
I always show this video when I teach about cellular respiration in my (high school) freshman biology class. While it is certainly true that humans are “king of the jungle” because of our brains and not our brawn, we do have one huge advantage over most other animals: incredible stamina. This video also displays one of our other unique physical attributes: a shoulder and arm that allows for high-speed overhand throwing (chimpanzees can only manage weak underhand tosses).
7. Last links post I gave you the chameleon that spends more of its life as an egg than as a chameleon (or is it an egg that happens to spend some of its time as a chameleon?) Here I give you the recently discovered Brookesia micra, potentially the world’s smallest lizard (adult male seen here).
“The paper also notes that besides the miniscule total length of the male, he distinguished himself by possessing unusually large genitals for his size—almost 20 percent of his body length. Researchers hypothesize that males of the species may sport their oversized sex organs, a two-pronged affair called hemipenes in lizards and snakes, to more effectively copulate with the significantly larger B. nana females.”
Nice, very kinky.
[Name Redacted], $6,000, for work on Seeds of Science, a scientific journal which publishes articles that are nontraditional in content or style with peer review conducted through voting and commenting by a community of "gardeners" (free to join, visit this page for details). [Name redacted] has been exploring the role of amateurs in science, most recently in this journal article (non-conflict of interest note: the article mentions the SSC Surveys as an example of good amateur science, but this grant decision was made primarily by an outside reviewer). He also writes under the name Roger's Bacon at Secretum Secretorum.
I try not to talk about Seeds of Science (theseedsofscience.org) too much on here, but this is cause for celebration obviously. This is especially meaningful coming from Scott as his writing—certainly not typical science writing in terms of style/format, but highly valuable nonetheless—is a huge inspiration for the journal.
Please consider joining us as an author (looking for biology and psychology articles in particular right now) or gardener (we send you submitted manuscripts and you can vote/comment or ignore as you please) if you believe that scientific publishing needs new formats that encourage creativity and diversity of thought.
I can’t stop laughing at the image of Mao, Tyson, and Nietzsche meeting each other.
10. Guess the city.
This website lets you you make customizable images of any city road map in the world.
11. Robert Nozick from Philosophical Explanations:
The question ‘why is there something rather than nothing is posed against the background of an assumed inegalitarian theory. If there were nothing, then about this situation would there also be the question (though without anyone to ask it) of why there is nothing rather than something? To ask ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ assumes that nothing(ness) is the natural state that does not need to be explained, while deviations or divergences from nothingness have to be explained by the introduction of special causal factors. There is, so to speak, a presumption in favor of nothingness. The problem is so intractable because any special causal factor that could explain a deviation from nothingness is itself a divergence from nothingness, and so the question seeks its explanation also.
Is it possible to imagine nothingness being a natural state which itself contains the force whereby something is produced? One might hold that nothingness as a natural state is derivative from a very powerful force towards nothingness, one any other forces have to overcome. Imagine this force as a vacuum force, sucking things into non-existence or keeping them there. If this force acts upon itself, it sucks nothingness into nothingness, producing something, or perhaps, everything, every possibility. If we introduced the verb “to nothing” to denote what this nothingness force does to things as it makes or keeps them nonexistent, then (we would say) the nothingness nothings itself. (See how Heideggerian the seas of language run here!) Nothingness, hoisted upon its own powerful petard, produces something. In the Beatles’ cartoon The Yellow Submarine, a being like a vacuum cleaner goes around sucking up first other objects, next the surrounding background; finally, turning upon itself, it sucks itself into nothingness, thereby producing with a pop a brightly colored variegated scene.