More gruel
A couple of weekend longreads

A couple of weekend longreads

Many of you probably already follow the blog, Wait, But Why? If you don’t, you should. But brace yourself, because each of his infrequent and irregular posts will consume a hefty chunk of your time; first, in reading it, then when it churns through your brain for days afterward.

His latest post about a bizarre project from Elon Musk hits on a couple of things I’ve been thinking about lately: 1) the ways our brains work with data, and 2) the power of neural networks. The project is called Neurolink. They are trying to facilitate the development of sophisticated brain interfaces.

Here’s a quick excerpt, with one of Tim Urban’s signature graphics:

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

So wipe your brain clean of what it thinks it knows about itself and its future, put on soft clothes, and let’s jump into the vortex.

Clear your schedule. This is gonna take some time and once you get started it’s hard to peel yourself away.

The other piece is from Nautilus, called Why Poverty Is Like a Disease. It explores some new and admittedly early research suggesting that high levels of stress can have genetic implications. It is part memoir, in the Hillbilly Elegy vein, and part science journalism.

An excerpt:

Class was a single room of 20 people running from kindergarten through twelfth grade, part of an unaccredited school practicing what’s called Accelerated Christian Education. We were given booklets to read to ourselves, by ourselves. We scored our own homework. There were no lectures, and I did not have a teacher. Once in a while the preacher’s wife would hand out a test. We weren’t allowed to do anything. There were no movies, and no music. Years would pass with no distinguishing features, no events. There was barely any socializing.

On top of it all, I spent a lot of my time pondering basic questions. Where will my next meal come from? Will I have electricity tomorrow? I became intimately acquainted with the embarrassment of my mom trying to hide our food stamps at the grocery store checkout. I remember panic setting in as early as age 8, at the prospect of a perpetual uncertainty about everything in life, from food to clothes to education. I knew that the life I was living couldn’t be normal. Something was wrong with the tiny microcosm I was born into. I just wasn’t sure what it was.

Epigenetics is an interesting field, though it’s not easy to tell what it will mean for medicine or diagnosis. It has already started to attract quack doctors and opportunists. We’ll see where it goes, but I thought this combination of subjects made a great read. Have a nice weekend.


  1. As usual I posted weekly action items in Off Topic, but for greater visibility, here are some extremely important ones for this week specifically:

    + Action: Oppose 45’s budget and threats of government shutdown.
    Our combined voices can and do make a difference. He will yield to us.
    Action: Call the White House comment line: 202-456-1111.
    Action: Call your 3 MoCs (lookup).

    Script: Hi. I’m from ZIP, calling about Trump’s budget. I want my tax dollars to fund (fill in the programs you support), not a billion dollar wall and 30 billion in new military spending. What is NAME planning to do about his budget ideas?

    + Action: Oppose conservatives’ new revision of Trumpcare.
    Call: Your 3 MoCs (lookup).
    Script: Hi. I’m from ZIP and want to convey my complete support for universal health coverage for all Americans. Conservatives’ new MacArthur Amendment is the opposite of medical coverage. Will NAME oppose it–and all efforts to eliminate the ACA?

    + Action: Keep marching for science — make a statement to the EPA.
    Until May 15, the EPA is soliciting public comment on repealing EPA regulations.
    Visit: – click the dark blue “Comment Now!” button, upper right
    Script: Share why you support protections for clean air, soil, and water.

    + Action: Make a postcard of the scientific method to help science deniers.
    Visit: The scientific method wikipedia page
    Write or draw: The 7-step process on a postcard and send it to climate science deniers. Involve your kids if you have some. Add: “The climate crisis is real.”
    Send to:
    Scott Pruitt (address)
    Rex Tillerson (address)
    Ryan Zinke (address)
    Rick Perry (address)
    Tom Price (address)
    Wilbur Ross (address)

    And for those of you for whom gerrymandering is a concern, the battle begins now:

    + Action 1: Curtail gerrymandering.
    Call: Your House representative (lookup).
    Script: I’m from ZIP and support fair voting and efforts to stop racially discriminatory gerrymandering. Although this issue is going to the Supreme Court, I’m calling to ask you to support HB711 to address this issue legislatively.

    + Action 2: Fight expensive, discriminatory voter suppression.
    Donate: Spread the Vote is raising funds to help vulnerable voters afford to purchase required ID. You can help.

    + Action 3: Advocate for accessible voting locations, hours, and mail-in voting.
    Call: Your Secretary of State (lookup), click on your SoS’ website link.
    Script: I’m a resident of _STATE_ and want to know what my Secretary of State is doing to increase voter participation. (pause) I would like to see our state copy Oregon’s model of voting by mail and automatic voter registration when obtaining a driver’s license. At the very least, I want better options for mail-in voting, more polling stations, and increased hours. What will it take for this to be on his/her agenda?

    (Put this in your calendar to call monthly about this issue.)

    + Action 4: Resist new federal-level efforts to weaken election oversight.
    Visit: 2 Hours A Week
    Follow their excellent script on opposing federal-level voter suppression in the proposed Election Assistance Termination Act.

    + Bonus action for Florida residents: Restore voting rights to 1.6M Floridians.

  2. Reading through the Wait but Why article. It states rodents appeared 225 million years ago. This is completely wrong. Rodents are far, far, more recent than that. It’s a distraction that’s making the rest of the journey more difficult than it otherwise might have been. Now anything that’s presented that is surprising in the least has to be checked for accuracy. Arg!

  3. Back to short term politics, but also a long read, this NYTimes article entitled ‘In Trying to Avoid Politics, Comey Shaped an Election’ is a must read:

    I know many people here probably feel they have read their fill of “Did Comey alter the election, and if so why?” literature, but the important thing here is that this is an investigative article that pulls all the major events from 2015 to November 6th together, describing not only how they came about but also how they affected each other. For instance, and this is just one short paragraph in a several page long story, without Bill Clinton’s visit with Attorney General Lynch, Comey probably would not have decided that confirming any investigation into Clinton’s e-mails publicly was necessary; however, his decision not to ask Lynch to recuse herself from the investigation also put him in a bad place to arguing that he had no stance on the issue later, forcing him to feel like he had to become the public announcer and decision-maker on these matters.

    Anyway, reading this was a lot like when I read Bob Woodward’s Bush at War: the US government is like physics, we see the surface area actions and reactions but the underlying atomic collisions have to first be observed indirectly, and then looked into directly to understand. A lot more just plain uncertainty in politically charged and complex situations motivates strange actions that otherwise feel like Machiavellian puppetry to the observing voters. Comey, in my opinion, absolutely made mistakes, but after reading this it’s unclear he made any mistakes you wouldn’t expect from basically anyone else, including yourself, in that situation.

    And it’s all the more frustrating, too, considering that THAT’S NORMAL and is one reason why I feel ‘the establishment’ deserves a little forgiveness for sometimes dropping the ball on issues. But instead, if you reactively decide “fuck the system”, it’s never, EVER the complexity understanding thought leaders who seek soul-searching and reflect on their own procedures and ethics who win. The only people who can win the game of uncertainty and doubt in a system designed for reactionary politics are people who lack self-reflection and shame.

  4. The last 2 paragraphs from the article linked on the previous thread are the ones that continue to haunt me:

    The world didn’t happen to be designed, by God or by coincidence, to be knowable by human brains. The nature of the world is closer to the way our network of computers and sensors represent it than how the human mind perceives it. Now that machines are acting independently, we are losing the illusion that the world just happens to be simple enough for us wee creatures to comprehend.

    It has taken a network of machines that we ourselves created to let us see that we are the aliens.

    1. In other words, we created something more powerful than ourselves, something that perhaps in the beginning created us, so it’s cyclical.

      Or more correctly stated, if we created something that already existed, then perhaps “created” is not the right word. Perhaps our small but still amazing brains simply “discovered” what was already there, and realized that it’s just too much for our little brains to comprehend, much less achieve or attain or actually ever become.

      1. The last 2 paragraphs from the article linked on the previous thread are the ones that continue to haunt me:

        The world didn’t happen to be designed, by God or by coincidence, to be knowable by human brains. The nature of the world is closer to the way our network of computers and sensors represent it than how the human mind perceives it. Now that machines are acting independently, we are losing the illusion that the world just happens to be simple enough for us wee creatures to comprehend.

        It has taken a network of machines that we ourselves created to let us see that we are the aliens.

      2. And, since we’re talking about lack of comprehension . . . I’m having trouble understanding how this lofty philosophical topic relates to the election of 2016. Is this simply about bots creating false information on social media? False information and bad intentions in the world of politics have always existed, so I don’t understand why this election was any different. As for living in an information bubble, that also existed before the erosion of social capital, in the form of church congregations and civic organizations, where we were surrounded by people who thought like us or made sure we thought like them. Social media is just the modern version of that phenomenon.

        If our minds are suffering from lack of comprehension, poor communication with machines due to our puny brains, information overload, fake news, couldn’t this be solved by staying away from the media and smart machines and isolating ourselves? If a bot tweets and no one reads those tweets, fake news would fade away.

  5. I’m careful who I share Wait but Why posts with….his inaugural piece (Elan Musk interview) which I thought was fascinating elicited some different reactions from friends to whom I forwarded the post. You have to get into the “rhythm” of Tim Urban’s thought process – if you can (-; Quirky – different…refreshingly so, from my perspective, but requires that we adapt to Urban’s style and processing or risk missing the point entirely….which I sometimes admit I do.

  6. I haven’t had time to “dive in” this post from “Wait but Why” (been a subscriber since it’s beginning…) however, opened this related article that might be a nice primer for the BMI/Musk discussion.

    One of the statements in the article linked below by David Weinberger resonated with me: “We thought knowledge was about finding the order hidden in the chaos. We thought it was about simplifying the world. It looks like we were wrong. Knowing the world may require giving up on understanding it.”

    My appreciation of that statement is that science is outpacing man’s ability to keep up…that there is so much information out there and so many ways to access it, that we needn’t worry about “why” or “how” these sources function, only know their value to our lives and humbly, gratefully accept their contributions therein. Heck – backyard gardening has amazed me in how nature can change a seed into a plant that bears an edible fruit or a flower….When you begin with such simple appreciation for the world around us, it makes BMI more logical.

    Both articles look interesting…Back to you on them later.

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