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Links and Thoughts (March '23)
1. Every aspect of modern culture—from our highest metaphysical beliefs down to the most prosaic attitudes and customs—is radically contingent, just one outcome in a vast landscape of human potentiality. William Buckner’s twitter and substack/former blog are filled with anthropological accounts that serve as powerful reminders of this essential but easily-forgotten insight. Here are two I recently came across that really stretched my sense of cultural possibility:
From “Why headhunting men’s cults develop in lowland riverine rainforest areas” on the Asmat hunter-gatherers of New Guinea:
The heads are a ‘currency’ which older males use to ‘pay’ for the initiation of their young male relatives into the men’s group. Second, multiple clans often cooperate on these headhunting expeditions, and thus fight over the spoils (though fights over the spoils can also reflect feasting dynamics, gifts owed, or existing social conflicts, so it’s more complex than just a direct fight over the head alone). Third, acquiring heads benefits the men who seize them, as well as their lineage through initiating their relatives.
“The informants emphasized repeatedly that the initiate is smeared with the ash of the burnt hair and with the blood of the victim. This is explained by the fact that the initiate assumes the name of the victim. This identity between victim and initiate will later prove very useful. When meeting the initiate, even after many years, relatives of the murdered person will always call him by his assumed name, the victim’s name, and treat him as their relative. They dance and sing for him and give him presents. It is strictly forbidden to kill people from other villages who, because of their ritual names, are related to one’s village. These people are often chosen to be negotiators.”
It’s worth repeating that the initiate given the name in these ceremonies did not kill the victim himself, but it was likely an older male relative of his that did so. The relatives of the victim embracing someone who is essentially their enemy is quite striking: though of course, they probably didn’t see it that way. The designation of the name meant that some aspect of the spirit of the headhunting victim was from then on associated with the initiate, making the relatives’ embrace of the individual from the enemy group perfectly sensible. While they may have sought revenge against the group and the individual who did the killing, the young man who received their dead relative’s name represented a piece of him living on, and thus warranted being treated as kin.
The remainder of the umbilical cord is left to dry on the newborn child, until it falls off by itself. The mother rolls it up into a little ring and carefully stores it in a small leather pouch. Only when the child can walk independently does the father catch a small wood owl. While he clasps the bird with both hands, the child takes from its mother's hand its own navel cord and places it around the neck of the animal. Then the father puts the wood owl into the child's hands. All who are standing around watch him until, after a short while, the child lets this little bird with the navel cord around its neck fly away.
2. These costumes from Sardinia and Sicily that William shared on twitter:
3. We can now engineer virus-resistant organisms (what could possibly go wrong?!?!?). From the abstract of “A swapped genetic code prevents viral infections and gene transfer”:
Engineering the genetic code of an organism has been proposed to provide a firewall from natural ecosystems by preventing viral infections and gene transfer. However, numerous viruses and mobile genetic elements encode parts of the translational apparatus, potentially rendering a genetic-code-based firewall ineffective. Here we show that such mobile transfer RNAs (tRNAs) enable gene transfer and allow viral replication in Escherichia coli despite the genome-wide removal of 3 of the 64 codons and the previously essential cognate tRNA and release factor genes. We then establish a genetic firewall by discovering viral tRNAs that provide exceptionally efficient codon reassignment allowing us to develop cells bearing an amino acid-swapped genetic code that reassigns two of the six serine codons to leucine during translation. This amino acid-swapped genetic code renders cells resistant to viral infections by mistranslating viral proteomes and prevents the escape of synthetic genetic information by engineered reliance on serine codons to produce leucine-requiring proteins. As these cells may have a selective advantage over wild organisms due to virus resistance, we also repurpose a third codon to biocontain this virus-resistant host through dependence on an amino acid not found in nature. Our results may provide the basis for a general strategy to make any organism safely resistant to all natural viruses and prevent genetic information flow into and out of genetically modified organisms.
4. The delightfully grotesque art of Nick Sheehy:
6. I shared this before, but it’s too good not to share again—I absolutely love this animated film (13 minutes) and can’t recommend it highly enough.
7. This month in weird psychological phenomenon:
Formerly called a fugue state or psychogenic fugue, dissociative fugue is a mental and behavioral disorder that is classified variously as a dissociative disorder, a conversion disorder, and a somatic symptom disorder. The disorder is a rare psychiatric phenomenon characterized by reversible amnesia for one's identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality. The state can last for days, months, or longer. Dissociative fugue usually involves unplanned travel or wandering and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity.
“Jody Roberts, a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, disappeared in 1985, only to be found 12 years later in Sitka, Alaska, living under the name of "Jane Dee Williams". While there were some initial suspicions that she had been faking amnesia, some experts have come to believe that she genuinely experienced a protracted fugue state.”
“Hannah Upp, a teacher originally from Salem, Oregon, was given a diagnosis of dissociative fugue after she had disappeared from her New York home in August 2008 and was rescued from the New York Harbor 20 days later. News coverage at the time focused on her refusal to speak to detectives right after she was found and the fact that she was seen checking her email at Apple Stores while she was missing. This coverage has since led to criticism of the often "condemning and discrediting" attitude toward dissociative conditions. On September 3, 2013, she went into another fugue, disappearing from her new job as a teacher's assistant at Crossway Community Montessori in Kensington, Maryland. She was found unharmed September 5, 2013, in Wheaton, Maryland. As of September 14, 2017, she was missing again; she was last seen near Sapphire Beach in her home in St. Thomas right before Hurricane Maria.”
The authors discuss the case of Anna Katharina Ehmer, a German woman who lived from 1895 to 1922. Profoundly disabled, Ehmer spent most of her life in the Hephata asylum, near Schwalmstadt in central Germany. According to Friedrich Happich (1883–1951), a Protestant theologian who was something like the asylum's chaplain, Ehmer was…
“among the patients with the most severe mental disabilities who have ever lived in our institution. From birth on, she was seriously retarded. She had never learned to speak a single word...She gorged her food, fouled herself day and night...we have never seen that she had taken notice of her environment even for a second.”
But all that apparently changed on the day that she died, from tuberculosis. Happich was called to Ehmer's bedside by Dr Wilhelm Wittneben, the asylum doctor. What happened next stunned both men. Here's how Happich described the scene:
“When we entered the room together, we did not believe our eyes and ears. [Ehmer], who had never spoken a single word, sang dying songs to herself. Specifically, she sang over and over again "Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace!" For half an hour she sang. Her face, up to then so stultified, was transfigured and spiritualized. Then, she quietly passed away. Like myself and the nurse who had cared for her, [Dr Wittneben] had tears in his eyes.”
“The laughter epidemic began on January 31, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha. It started with three girls and spread throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days. The teaching staff were unaffected and reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school closed on March 18.
The epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village where several of the girls lived. In April and May, 217 mostly young villagers had laughing attacks. The Kashasha school reopened on May 21 and reclosed at the end of June. Earlier that month, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls' middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls.
The Kashasha school was sued for allowing the children and their parents to transmit it to the surrounding area. Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village were affected to some degree. The phenomenon died off 18 months after it started. The laughter reports were widely accompanied by descriptions of pain, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes, and crying. In all, 14 schools were shut down and 1000 people were affected.”
8. Reminds me of the zombies from The Last of Us (never played the videogame but the HBO show is excellent, highly recommended)
9. The Harry Potter x Balenciaga crossover you didn’t know we needed.
and South Park:
New creature just dropped:
12. Seeds of Science update:
Along with other SoS co-founder Dr. Dario Krpan, I recently spoke (as Roger’s Bacon) at a panel discussion at the London School of Economics, “Different Perspectives on Diversity of Thought in Social Science”. A short commentary on the event was written in the The Lancet:
Seeds of Science is a different kind of journal: “Scientific ideas, especially the truly innovative ones, are like seeds—they need fertile ground and tender care in order to grow to their true potential. Seeds of Science is a journal dedicated to nurturing promising ideas and helping them blossom into scientific innovation. Peer review is conducted through voting and commenting by our diverse network of reviewers, or ‘gardeners’ as we call them.” The point of this journal, founded by Roger's Bacon (a pseudonym) and Dario Krpan, is to provide a place where people outside the system of science can publish their findings, ideas, and views. Roger's Bacon identified two neglected aspects of diversity. First, psychological diversity. We live in environments that shape our minds. The academic environment privileges particular characteristics: diligence, competitiveness, verbal abilities, organisational skills, quantitative expertise, self-promotion. What about those who do not possess these qualities? Are they to be excluded from science? Second, functional diversity. We think of ourselves as free agents, but the settings we work in impose incentives and constraints that limit our freedom. To promote psychological and functional diversity, we must create possibilities for non-traditional scientists, amateurs, to contribute.
Our two most recent peer-reviewed articles are, in my opinion, some of the best we’ve ever published.
How to Escape From the Simulation by Roman Yampolskiy
“Many researchers have conjectured that humankind is simulated along with the rest of the physical universe – a Simulation Hypothesis. In this paper, we do not evaluate evidence for or against such a claim, but instead ask a computer science question, namely: Can we hack the simulation? More formally the question could be phrased as: Could generally intelligent agents placed in virtual environments find a way to jailbreak out of them? Given that the state-of-the-art literature on AI containment answers in the affirmative (AI is uncontainable in the long-term), we conclude that it should be possible to escape from the simulation, at least with the help of superintelligent AI. By contraposition, if escape from the simulation is not possible, containment of AI should be. Finally, the paper surveys and proposes ideas for hacking the simulation and analyzes ethical and philosophical issues of such an undertaking.”
The Muscle-Readers, a Historical Sketch by Leverage Research
The notion that subtle nonverbal cues play an important role in social interaction is relatively uncontroversial. What the upper bounds of this capacity might be, however—how much and what kind of information can be conveyed through these channels—remains unclear and, at present, under-explored. In the present work, we consider possible answers to the question and ways in which it could be addressed by considering an historical line of investigation known as muscle reading. Spurred by public interest in mentalism and the specific popularity of thought-readers, researchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began investigating the possibility that information about our thoughts and inclinations could be “read” from muscle tension, unconscious vocalizations, and other subtle cues. While covering some of the same ground as contemporary research on nonverbal communication, the literature of this era contains many reports that go well beyond this. Feats such as locating a hidden object, guessing the suit of a card, and determining words or names held in another’s mind were said to be achieved in controlled conditions or by academic researchers themselves. In some cases, subtle but telling movements were also said to be captured by early biometric apparatuses. While we believe that such claims should be interpreted with caution, we contend that the reports of these early researchers should not be dismissed merely because of their age and that a better understanding of this literature offers important leads for investigators today.
From the “Best of Science Blogging” feed on our Substack:
On Not Reading Papers by Jan Kirchner
In Defense of Basic Science by Kian Faizi - loved this one, two great quotes shared in the essay:
I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about Michael Faraday who, when challenged by an audience member to justify the value of some discovery, retorted: “Madam, what is the use of a newborn child?”
“People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what’s going to develop from basic research,” says George Smoot, a 2006 Nobel Laureate in Physics. “If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.”
I am nobody, nobody is who I am
I am a traveler on this land
And nothing, nothing, nothing is in my hands
I am nobody, nobody is who I am
I am a wanderer on these sands
And I got down on my knees and folded my hands
And on the great wings of a great bird
I was carried to a temple
Where I heard the word...
This short but powerful acapella song on the Ghostface Killah album Big Doe Rehab (also recommended if you’re into that sorta thing)
Whichipedia: guess which wikipedia article is longer. That’s it.