Assorted Links (Summer 2022)

Wow, it's been 5 months or so since my last post. I'm still here—in fact, I have 10 or more posts at some level of draft but time to write has been in short supply—and I hope to publish a bit more in this second half of 2022. But we'll see how it goes. In the meantime, enjoy this latest links round-up.

My essay that I linked last time titled "Deepfakes and digital resurrections" continues to be relevant, with news coming out recently about an Alexa feature to mimic the voices of dead relatives.

Pretty early on in this blog's history, I had a post about a book by Michael J. Totten about Ukraine. Given current events there, he's revisited that book in an interesting article earlier this year; it really emphasizes how Ukraine is stuck on the boundary line between Western and Russian spheres of influence.

On a related topic, this article discusses the outlook for Eurasian economic integration (the geopolitics of this were also discussed in Dawn of Eurasia, a book I read last year):

The dream of a Eurasian bloc is now an institutional reality. But it has not become a productive powerhouse. Russian geopolitics have complicated the trade alliance’s fundamentals, and the path to further integration is growing increasingly fraught.

One big issue the conflict in Ukraine has revealed is the vulnerability that comes from depending on hostile nations for energy needs. Check out this infographic and this report on that subject. Similarly, this article initiates badly-needed conversation on the strategic landscape for mineral resources that are vital for modern technology (it includes a graphic about the "rocks in an iPhone) and infrastructure:

Out of sight and out of mind, we declare environmental and labor victories while outsourcing the ugly side of modernity to the downtrodden around the world, subject to odious forces beyond their control. Perhaps ignorance helps us sleep at night. Or maybe in our industrial self-immolation we feel pure and holy.
But once we awake from this fantasy world that we are in, we collapse into the physical one. A place of hard rocks that must be mined, processed, and manufactured into useful components. And that, in troubling times, might be used to engineer war machines to protect our people, our allies, and our liberal values. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Another current event worth staying abreast of is the economic crisis in Sri Lanka (which is in a very strategically important location in the Indian Ocean, kind of on the boundary between Chinese and Indian spheres of influence). Here are a couple of explainers about the situation.

Closer to home, some recent bills in the Canadian parliament affecting online streaming and news (C-11 and C-18) have a lot of people concerned. I also worry that they will diminish Canadians' access to diverse media sources at a time when domestic media is increasingly beholden to the government: mainstream journalists get subsidized to the tune of $600 million over 5 years via the Canadian Periodical Fund—along with $1.4 billion in annual public funding of the CBC.

A couple of other links relevant to current events: rent control once again not working; a deep dive into Canadian labour shortages.

Here's a two-part (so far?) short story inspired by Till We Have Faces to enjoy.

Here are some useful reference links on machines/technology you can build yourself. On a similar note, here's some impressive machining of clock components and an investigation of the antikythera mechanism. And a history lesson about gears.

Continuing on the theme of technology, this article about implementing neural networks on analog hardware is fascinating. In one example, vibrations encoding an input get mixed with an interference pattern and their combination (on a metal plate) yields a vibration pattern encoding the output; "training" involves tweaking the interference pattern. (Note: one of the upcoming posts I'm working on is also about machine learning; watch for it hopefully sometime this fall). The same magazine also has a good article about the Collatz conjecture—an example of a math problem that is easy to describe ("Just pick a number, any number: If the number is even, cut it in half; if it’s odd, triple it and add 1. Take that new number and repeat the process, again and again." Will it always eventually reach 1?) but extremely challenging to definitively prove.  For another math link, here's a cool cellular automata (my links round-up post from last summer had a 1D cellular automata script that I made).

There is an on-going debate about whether technological progress has stalled. This author thinks that a return to rapid progress will require breakthroughs in new materials (e.g. nanotechnology) and/or new sources of energy, but his article is also valuable for giving an overview of various arguments on this topic.

A very important tech-related topic that more people are becoming aware of is what I've heard referred to as the "Age of Distraction". Stewarding your attention is increasingly difficult but increasingly valuable. Here's some suggested reading/listening on this subject:

Identity is a contentious topic, but I found this take on it very thought-provoking and useful: that it's more about counter-party utility than self-actualization.

I don't have a link about this, but something I've been thinking about in the aftermath of the pandemic is the psychology of masks. Covering the mouth inhibits communication, so people who already found it difficult (e.g. slightly hard of hearing, or especially dependent on body language; personally, I've always preferred video chats to phone calls because you really do lose a lot of bandwidth when you can't see the other person's face) can be pushed past the point where it is worth it. On the other hand, masquerade balls (where mainly the upper part of the face is covered) in the Renaissance or at Mardi Gras seem to lower social inhibitions. It would be interesting to see some proper experiments done comparing upper-face versus lower-face coverings.

I listened to an interesting podcast with the authors of a book about ownership. They say that there are 6 "stories" people tell to justify ownership. Here is their framework:

  • possession
  • having it first
  • labouring to produce/obtain it
  • self-ownership (your body and its derivatives)
  • it's attached to something else you own
  • inheritance/family connections

To these, I assume can be added transfer (via an arbitrarily-long chain, as long as it's documented all the way) from someone who had ownership on one or more of these bases originally and thus had the right to sell. Where it gets interesting according to them is when some of these stories conflict (e.g. for genetic data you can argue self-ownership but someone else can argue labour to collect and analyze a sample)

Approaching the end of this post, I have some miscellaneous links about interesting places etc. that I'll share just in point form:

  • A lot of canals around the world have bridges where they pass over rivers, but this one in India has a siphon that goes under a natural river it intersects.
  • A well-travelled photographer shares about her favourite UNESCO sites. (Compare to my list, which I should get around to updating).
  • A map/infographic of global shipping lanes (this post had a similar map)
  • Irrigation water management in Valencia, Spain. Sustainable for over a millennium.
  • Suggestions for a global Great Books canon.
  • In defense of work (related).
  • Regulatory barriers to seaweed as a food (I've eaten and enjoyed dulse, kombu, and nori this summer, and blogged about this before).
  • Are we excessively medicalizing fairly normal emotions and experiences?
  • An essay on epistemology.
  • It's time to build a home:
We are lacking in a kind of wealth our grandparents had, even when they were poor. We are more materially wealthy in the West than we have ever been, yet this wealth is unstable because it is impersonal and transactional. Take down a supply chain or a major employer, and a whole network of individuals are left without means to provide for themselves. The means by which we survive have largely been removed from us, they happen elsewhere, out of sight. In this, we have a clear loss of capacity. If we no longer have to tend to our daily needs, we stop knowing how. How many people in the last generation have lost the ability to fix their own houses or even cook for themselves? When the link between our day-to-day activities and our survival is clear - we grow our own food, build our own houses, care for our own children - our place and purpose is clear. It is more stable - we rely on fewer external factors to keep us floating. It is also more personal. Instead of being paid, we are loved. But when we spend all day working to make money to rent an apartment, get our food at the grocery store, and pay someone to take care of our children, our place becomes blurred, depersonalized. We do not see the rewards of our work - an endless stream of emails sent to people we will never meet to pay for someone else to teach our children about the world - what kind of life is this? Yet - this arrangement creates more jobs, GDP goes up, so it is good for the economy. But is what’s good for the economy good for us? The more we rely on this outsourcing, the more we relinquish our control over our own lives.

Here's a song with a similar vibe to listen to while you read this essay.

Finally, I wanted to share a picture and description of a recent DIY project that wasn't enough to comprise a full post on its own. This is a tripod lamp that I built. It consists of an antique tripod (found at Henry's Vintage in Sarnia, Ontario), an assembly constructed of black ABS plumbing fittings (a reducer, a bushing, and a cap if I recall correctly), some lamp hardware, an Edison bulb (tubular shape), a protective cage, and chains and eyebolts on the legs to keep them from spreading. The ABS assembly attaches to the threaded mount on top of the tripod and has a couple of holes drilled in it for the cord and the threaded nipple stem for the lamp hardware.

Tripod lamp