We Are All Bewildered Machines. The Next Weird. Utopian Fiction. — No.58

The first issue of Sentiers at Work was sent to members on Friday morning, be sure to check your filters if you haven’t seen it yet.

Lots of stuff this week, lets get to it!

We Are All Bewildered Machines

“Bewilderment is the antidote to scientific reductionism.”

The author, Nautilus’ features editor Kevin Berger, has been diving deeply in science topics and has been worrying / wondering if understanding too much takes away from the magic, if he really wants to understand so much of our workings as to consider us “biological machines.” Through conversation with Richard Powers and quotes by Lewis Thomas he instead shows us how humanities and science are tied by bewilderment, and how the more we know, the more we can be in awe of what we understand.

The “purpose of all science, like living, which amounts to the same thing, was not the accumulation of gnostic power, fixing of formulas for the names of God, stockpiling brutal efficiency, accomplishing the sadistic myth of progress,” Powers wrote. “The purpose of science was to revive and cultivate a perpetual state of wonder. For nothing deserved wonder so much as our capacity to feel it.” […]

“We would be better off if we had never invented the terms ‘science’ and ‘humanities’ and then set them up as if they represented two different kinds of intellectual enterprise.” Despite the fact we did, he wrote, there was a “common earth beneath the feet of all the humanists and all the scientists, a single underlying view,” and that view “is called bewilderment.” “Most things in the world are unsettling and bewildering, and it is a mistake to try to explain them away; they are there for marveling at and wondering at, and we should be doing more of this.” […]

Being exposed to the neurons that make our limbs move, or learning the modal scales that distinguish Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, are not ends in themselves. They are journeys into the depths of beauty and humanity.” […]

“That’s our superpower, that’s humankind’s superpower—to be an artist and a scientist and to find ways in which each one of those capacities enhances and gives depth to the other.”


Why Sleep Apnea Patients Rely on a CPAP Machine Hacker

Through the issues I’ve shared a number of articles about the evils of DRM, the DMCA, and a couple of rants by Cory Doctorow. This piece is in the same vein but a useful read too because it gives quite a bit of details on just how these locked machines (and/or their data) can be hacked for the greater good. I understand the thinking behind the worry by companies that some users will create problems for themselves because they don’t necessarily understand what they are doing, but the way these companies lock data and, in many cases, treat the patient almost as the enemy, is appalling.

The free, open-source , and definitely not FDA-approved piece of software is the product of thousands of hours of hacking and development by a lone Australian developer named Mark Watkins, who has helped thousands of sleep apnea patients take back control of their treatment from overburdened and underinvested doctors. The software gives patients access to the sleep data that is already being generated by their CPAP machines but generally remains inaccessible, hidden by proprietary data formats that can only be read by authorized users (doctors) on proprietary pieces of software that patients often can’t buy or download.

The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog”

Brand, as cited in the piece, is probably right that his influence is often overstated. However, he definitely has influenced a lot of people and it’s worth knowing the catalog’s history.

Certain elements of the “Whole Earth Catalog” haven’t aged particularly well: the pioneer rhetoric, the celebration of individualism, the disdain for government and social institutions, the elision of power structures, the hubris of youth. […]

While antagonism between millennials and boomers is a Freudian trope, Brand’s generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy. In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics––to picture it all panning out.

??Beijing to Judge Every Resident Based on Behavior by End of 2020

Update on the Chinese panopticon of social credit; two years away for Beijing.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

  • One of the Fathers of AI Is Worried About Its Future (Bengio). “[W]e need to have more democracy in AI research … AI research by itself will tend to lead to concentrations of power, money, and researchers. The best students want to go to the best companies. They have much more money, they have much more data. And this is not healthy. Even in a democracy, it’s dangerous to have too much power concentrated in a few hands.”
  • DeepIndex, “Keeping track of what AI can do and where it is being applied.” A 500+ list of examples of AI in action.
  • What is machine learning? We drew you another flowchart. Fun little graph but also a quick, well explained, intro to what machine learning and deep neural networks are, and the three types of learning they do.
  • ?? First ever plane with no moving parts takes flight. “The flight represents a breakthrough in “ionic wind” technology, which uses a powerful electric field to generate charged nitrogen ions, which are then expelled from the back of the aircraft, generating thrust.”


The Next Weird

How quickly we’ve gone from The New Normal to The Next Weird. Starting from the California fires, a good quick overview of our current situation by Alex Steffen. He doesn’t mention it in this piece but I often think of his framing of “being a good ancestor.”

The planetary crisis we’re in isn’t just about climate, it’s about the living fabric of the world and the myriad ways our human systems interconnect with and depend on that fabric. The planetary crisis is also about extinction, worldwide resource depletion, a silent emergency of topsoil loss, the rise of disease vectors and the threat of pandemics — all of which threaten to set afire social instability and violent conflict. Almost all national militaries are now climate action advocates. They understand the world we’re cooking up. […]

If we could with any confidence say, “We’re trading the old normal for a definable new normal,” we’d be in much better shape. Instead, we now live in a world where expectation shattering events hit us, in largely unforeseeable ways, on an unpredictable schedule. The world around us is not only getting weirder, it’s getting weirder in weirder ways.

Some Climate Perspective

Great thread by Dr Sarah Taber about grazing, nomadic tribes, and countering desertification. Starts here: “An example of things humans can DO to slow, mitigate, and maybe even halt/reverse changing climates:Good grazing.” Also, Taber was prompted by this thread, which is also excellent, on multiple waves of human-caused climate changes, and colononization: “As a perpetual student of history + geography, the growth of hyperbolic doomsday journalism on climate change/global warming is really, really irritating to me. I also find it deeply irresponsible. History teaches a lot of lessons that this journalism skips.”

A final thread, read only if you aren’t abyssed-out already: Julian Oliver citing multiple sources on our situation and the pipe-dream of massive carbon capture saving the day.

Policies of China, Russia and Canada threaten 5C climate change

Deep, deep, suckage from Canada.

These include Saudi Arabia (oil), Russia (gas) and Canada, which is drawing vast quantities of dirty oil from tar sands. Fossil fuel lobbies in these countries are so powerful that government climate pledges are very weak, setting the world on course for more than 5C of heating by the end of the century. […]

Almost every government, the authors say, selects an interpretation of equity that serves their own interests and allows them to achieve a relative gain on other nations.


Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever

We seem to be presented with dystopia after dystopia in tv and film in recent years. Eleanor Tremeer thinks we should consider more utopias, to help us dream and bring about a better future. Also cites some good arguments by Laurie Penny, and the term “ambitopia” by Redfern Jon Barrett for stories like The Expanse and Black Panther.

Although it could occasionally come off as preachy and naive, Star Trek remains inspirational for one simple reason: It allowed us to imagine a happy ending for humanity in a time when that seemed impossible. Now, as we face a future filled with corruption, yet more conflict, and the looming doom of global warming, imagining our happy ending may be the first step to achieving it. […]

At its core, utopia is just the idea that we can work together to create something wonderful. […]

After all, our lives certainly look rosier after we’ve spent an hour watching how much worse off we could be. And that’s the crux of the issue: We don’t want to watch perfect worlds when we aren’t living in one.

To wit, this example by Igor Schwarzmann on Instagram:

Blade Runner. Neuromancer. Snow Crash. Those are all cautionary tales, dystopia’s that are supposed to help us make decisions today. They’re not desirable futures. They’re the opposite. If you are designing products or, as it is here the case, conferences that aim to emulate those dystopia’s you’re making them real, accepting them not only as our current theme but prevents the space in which something actually better can become real.


The more I’ve been writing and speaking about newsletters, the more I end up giving some little pieces of advice left and right. Here’s one I mentioned tangentially a couple of times here and discovered when I switched to Mailchimp: there’s an annoying 102k limit in Gmail which messes up open stats. Paul Jarvis has some good template tips here. And Kai Brach, of Offscreen fame, gives us A look behind Dense Discovery: creating a fully customised weekly newsletter which is quite useful. By the way, I think I must have opened 85-90% of the links in his 11th issue, so Dense Discovery is highly recommended.