Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Remainders: From Fortnite to the Fermi Paradox

It’s totally crazy that May is almost done. On the book front I finished up God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which was excellent, and am on to How to Think by Alan Jacobs (which I’ve got a quote from in the roundup this week). As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Oh, and a very very happy birthday to my wife, Leila. Okay, onto the links.

There were a few really amazing pieces I read this week:

  • The New York Times Sunday had a long piece on the very shady conviction of Kevin Cooper for the murder of a family in California 35 years ago. He’s currently on death row and the state has refused to follow up the case with additional DNA testing despite a number of pleas.
  • Another very strong piece from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub about Trump. Here’s a snippet: “The Trump family aspires to mafia status, a thuggocracy, but they are manipulable and bumbling where Putin and company are disciplined and Machiavellian. They hire fools and egomaniacs and compromised figures—Scaramucci, Giuliani, Bannon, Flynn, Nunberg, the wifebeating Rob Porter—and then fire them, with a soap opera’s worth of drama; the competent ones quit, as have many lawyers hired to help Trump navigate his scandals. The Trumps don’t hide things well or keep their mouths shut or manage the plunder they grab successfully, and they keep committing crimes in public.”
  • Nick Paumgarten on the phenomena that is Fornite (I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it before the article).
  • Masha Gessen is as must read as they come these days. Here she is on embracing the idea of “ordinary” terrorists:
    “In another respect, the drive to identify reasons for committing extreme violence runs opposite to the very logic of terrorism. I am using the term ‘terrorism’ in its broadest possible meaning, to denote acts of violence intended primarily to terrify. This works only when the violence is unpredictable—when it’s senseless. This is as true of state terror and political terrorism as it is of a school shooting—especially one perpetrated by the shy kid who never seemed to say a word about girls. It is so frightening precisely because most of these shy, unpopular kids who are ignored and spurned by others will never hurt a fly. Nor will most other people, including most of those who claim to want to blow up the world, whether because they are not getting enough sex or because they want to live in a caliphate.”

This is from a few weeks ago, but I can’t resist a good piece about some gamblers who cracked horse racing in Hong Kong.

This episode of the podcast 80,000 Hours with computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg is really fun (if you’re into talking about stuff like the Fermi Paradox). I particularly liked Sandberg’s “Aestivation Hypothesis”. Aestivation is the opposite of hibernation (sleeping during the summer instead of the winter) and the gist of the hypothesis is that maybe the reason we haven’t heard from the aliens is because they’re waiting for the stars to die out so it gets cold enough that they can efficiently run massively complex calculations that would otherwise take tons of power to cool:

So if you imagine the real advanced civilization that has seen a lot of galaxy expanded long distances, once you’ve seen a hundred elliptical galaxies and a hundred spiral galaxies, how many surprises are we going to be there? Now most of the interesting stuff your civilization is doing is going to be culture, science, philosophy, and all the other internal stuff. The external universe is nice scenery, but you’ve seen much of it. So this leads to this possibility that maybe advanced civilization is actually an estimate. They slow down, they freeze themselves, and wait until a much later era because we get so much more. It turns out that you can calculate how much more they can get. So the background radiation of the universe is declining exponentially.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here, David Grann is my favorite writer around. If you haven’t read his stuff it’s all amazing. Anyway, someone recommended I read his story about a “postmodern murder” which I didn’t remember ever seeing before and it’s absolutely amazing. I won’t give anything away, but go give it a read. (Despite how amazing it is, I must have read it in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which I highly recommend. No idea how I forgot this one …)

I was reminded of this really interesting framework for thinking about organizational change:

Good piece from FiveThirtyEight about how a junk statistical measure called “magnitude-based inference” came to rule sports science. This is about as snarky as I would imagine a statistician gets: “It’s basically a math trick that bears no relationship to the real world.” BURN.

Like everyone else I enjoyed the Jordan Peterson takedown profile from the New York Times. Lobster Twitter was not happy with Mr. Peterson’s adoption of their favorite crustacean:


I ran into The Pudding’s NBA draft analysis visualization again. It’s very cool.

This is the coolest bubble video you’ll watch this week. (Unless you watch this one.)

Sad news: Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son and a serious media scholar in his own right, passed away this week.

This GDPR/WHOIS situation sounds like a big mess. (But is it a snafu, a shitshow, or a clusterfuck?)

As promised, here’s an interesting snippet from the book I’m reading, How to Think on how we don’t actually “think for ourselves”:

“Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”

This David Roth piece from the Baffler on the oppressiveness of the NFL is relevant again thanks to their latest anthem antics.

Are centrists the most hostile group to democracy? Maybe.

Reminds me a lot of this Current Affairs piece on the problem with bipartisanship. Here’s a snippet:

Bipartisan posturing of this kind would be absurd in a healthy democracy, even at the best of times—after all, one of the reasons we elect people is so that they can debate and disagree. If you’re not fighting with anyone, you’re not fighting for anything. But given the stated agenda of the current administration, not to mention countless other Republican-led administrations across the country, bipartisanship is perilous and counterproductive almost by definition.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend and memorial day.

May 25, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Fermi Paradox

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 2.

I’ve been enjoying Julia Galef‘s Rationally Speaking podcast a lot recently. The cybersecurity episode was great, just listening to the episode on whether ideas are becoming harder to find, and I can’t resist a good Fermi Paradox conversation.

If you’re not familiar with the Fermi Paradox I would start with the excellent Wait But Why explainer. The gist of it, though, isn’t really a paradox so much as a question: “Where is everybody?” Specifically, why haven’t we encountered aliens yet? One of the more popular explanations is called the Great Filter and basically posits that either it’s incredibly rare to reach mass intelligence like humans have, we’re just the first to do it, or that we’re all about to kill each other any day now and that explains why we haven’t heard from any other space civilization. As usual, Wait But Why has a handy graphic.

In the Fermi episode of Rationally Speaking Julia Galef makes a really interesting point I hadn’t read/considered before:

Doesn’t it seem like human-level intelligence probably isn’t mindbogglingly rare if we got several part-way successes just on Earth? Wouldn’t it be a weird world in which it was pretty easy to — pretty easy in the sense that evolution did it multiple times on Earth — to create “part-way to human level”intelligence, but there was only one actual human-level intelligence in the whole universe?

Stephen Webb, who she’s interviewing, responds with this:

Well, I’m not arguing necessarily that the barrier is there, but if you look at Earth, of the 50 billion species or however many there have been, there’s only one species that is remotely capable of delivering a starfaring civilization, and that would be us. I think that’s because we have a very, very specific set of attributes that happened to enable us to do this.

It actually kind of reminds me of one of my favorite books of the last few years, The Most Human Human. The book tackles the AI question in reverse. Rather than trying to understand how to make computers more like humans it wonders how to differentiate what we do as humans from what computers can already do. (The context for the whole book is that the author, Brian Christian, is getting ready to compete as a human in the Loebner Prize, the famous competition where computers compete to see who can pass the Turing Test and fool a human into thinking they’re another human.) By flipping the perspective on the question you get very different kinds of answers.

Finally, since we’re talking about the Fermi Paradox, The Atlantic had a good piece about “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous” which although it doesn’t mention Fermi, basically tackles the same questions. For instance, is it a good sign or a bad sign that we haven’t already destroyed ourselves?

So now you can imagine a world where the probability per year of nuclear war is actually 50 percent. So then the first year, the first half of worlds get nuked. Then the next year half of those survivor worlds get nuked. And so on. So in this very scary scenario—still after 70 years—if you have a big enough universe or many parallel universes, you’re still going to have some observers [left over] who say ‘Hey! It looks like we’re pretty safe!’ And again they will get a very nasty surprise when the nukes start flying.

Fun stuff!

April 3, 2018 // This post is about: , ,