Newsletter No.278 — Sep 10, 2023

Emergencies, Frameshifts and What They Tell Us About Our Place in the World ⊗ What Was Barbara McClintock’s “Mysticism”? ⊗ Finding Hope in the Dark Power of Fungus

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Also this week → How AI is helping historians better understand our past ⊗ Why do we trust novelists with the future? ⊗ Generative AI closes off a better future

Emergencies, frameshifts and what they tell us about our place in the world

Spencer R. Scott proposes that becoming a person of place can be a way to sustain an “emergency mindset” and to integrate climate-positive behaviour. To try to understand why ‘we’ are not doing more to stop climate change, he provides an overview of the bystander effect and the social cost of early action in response to emergencies. Scott also highlights the need for a social tipping point and a shift in cultural norms to drive climate change action.

He then goes into the idea of “untethered” people, the state most of us are in, of being dislocated and disconnected from where we live, of being more “of a market” than “of a place.” He proposes that we need to reconnect to place, to community, to loving a physical location and all it implies, instead of just passing by—something that doesn’t have to do so much with time but with attachement.

Scott says that it’s the best answer he’s found to help him to deal with the climate crisis. I like the idea and tend to agree. But it’s not like people decide ‘oh, I’ll stop caring about where I live,’ it happens through the pressures of living in modern society. Climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality, mental health are all symptoms of the same problem; extreme capitalism, neoliberalism, whatever you want to call it. Sure, you can decide to re-tether yourself to where you live, it’s a great idea and easier than to find a way to fix climate change, but … I don’t know, even though it’s a great vision, it feels like he’s focusing on a different part of the problem because it causes him less anxiety.

Maybe I was just tired when I read it? Or maybe I also listened to Ezra Klein interviewing Kristen Ghodsee about her book on what communes and other radical experiments in living together reveal and how “intentional communities may offer solutions for loneliness and other problems of an atomized society.” Untethered, atomized, similar diagnostics, we’re being crushed.

One of the larger projects of our modern society and economy is a project of dislocation and disconnection. The more we can untether people into individual units, the easier it is to mobilize them for maximal utility to the market. Most of us are not people of place, we are people of a market. […]

The untethered are the losers of the next system, the system that will emerge from the logic of climate change. This new system that will require resilience, which like a spider’s web only claims it’s strength through an interwoven network of strong relationships. […]

Becoming a person of place makes long-term investments desirable, because the future becomes more valuable to you. Those who have committed to a place, an ecosystem, a community, feel those as an extension of themselves. They cheer for their place like a favorite sports team, they envision its success beyond and after themselves. […]

“The formation of intimate relationships depends on four elements: proximity, frequency, intensity, and duration.” “We won’t save places we don’t love. We can’t love places we don’t know. And we don’t know places we haven’t learned.”

What was Barbara McClintock’s “mysticism”?

This piece by Alexis Madrigal is roughly in two parts, the first is an overview of Barbara McClintock’s exceptional career as a Nobel prize winning cytogeneticist who studied maize chromosomes and discovered that big chunks could break off and fuse into a different part of a plant’s genome. She was often called a mystic, which she defined as “someone with a deep awareness of the mysteries posed by natural phenomena.”

For the purpose of this newsletter, I found the second part more intriguing and connecting to multiple articles shared in the past. Madrigal jumps from McClintock’s view that “cells make wise decisions and act upon them,” to biologist Michael Levin who “has developed a full-blown scientific framework and research agenda for investigating the cognitive capacities of living systems.” Which he calls a “Technological Approach to Mind Everywhere.” Levin believes that every level of biology has certain capacities to solve problems at its own scale and that cognition exists on an evolved continuum.

I find all of this fascinating on it’s own, but also as part of a current shift in thinking where human intelligence is de-centered, it is not the form of cognition but just one amidst other examples in fauna, flora, and fungi, and perhaps even artificial. Better understanding this continuum helps us to rethink what we have been ignoring and gives us parts of a toolset to properly frame and develop or control what we are creating. Mind everywhere indeed.

“McClintock thought of the genome as a complex unified system exquisitely integrated into the cell and the organism,” Shapiro wrote. He suggests that her view, and the evidence that has accumulated to support it, has pushed science away from thinking about the '“Constant Genome” and towards the “Fluid Genome,” a shift that hasn’t been metabolized fully by science or the public. […]

Levin’s framework routes around some of the more annoying ways of thinking about thinking. There is no bright line that says “this is real thinking” and “this is not real thinking.” Rather, cognition exists on an evolved continuum. “[A]dvanced minds are in important ways generated in a continuous manner from much more humble proto-cognitive systems.” […]

The brain’s special feature is not the ability to store or spread information, but its speed. Let’s recall the old saw: “Plants are just very slow animals.” And then consider that it might be actually true. […]

We are assemblages of cooperating cells and tissues, each unit of life competent within the spaces our body creates.

Finding hope in the dark power of fungus

There’s a bit of a disconnect between the title/subtitle of the piece and the actual content. It’s more like ‘people sought hope in fungus and haven’t found it yet.’ Or something like that. Joanna Steinhardt goes over the last few decades of fungi research in mycoremediation, the rise of DIY mycology, and the influence of Paul Stamets. In short, mycoremediation hasn’t really worked at scale so far but there’s a lot of cool stuff that was discovered in the process. Pairs well with the piece above if you enjoy the ‘we don’t know enough about nature and boy is there a lot we should know and could use’ beat.

More → Some disappointments but it’s an ongoing quest, here’s a nice profile of Mycocycle which serves as both a quick overview of the possibilities and some of the emerging solutions.

As the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman put it, two trucks leave the factory: One carries the products going to the marketplace, the other carries the trash going to landfill. But we only count the first truck, not the second — and certainly not the smokestack, the chemical flows. […]

Fungi — with their delicate, wisp-like threads of mycelium and their hobbit-home fruit bodies — offer another perspective. They embody an ecological paradigm of objects and phenomena in relationship with their surroundings, as part of feedback loops and lifecycles, in which diversity is critical to a system’s robustness. […]

Fortun and other scholars observe that this form of displacement is not only endemic to our system, it is essential to its functioning — a feature, not a bug. The toxicity of industrial modernity cannot be denied, only ignored. “The strategy,” writes Fortun, “is one of disavowal.”

How AI is helping historians better understand our past

Historians have started using machine learning, specifically deep neural networks, to analyze historical documents, enabling them to draw connections across a broader swath of the historical record than would be possible through analyzing history one document at a time. Same caveats as usual for SALAMI and the descriptions of the tech are not necessarily up to par, but the possibilities are very intriguing.

The Venetian state archives cover 1,000 years of history spread across 80 kilometers of shelves; the researchers’ aim was to digitize these records, many of which had never been examined by modern historians. They would use deep-learning networks to extract information and, by tracing names that appear in the same document across other documents, reconstruct the ties that once bound Venetians.

Futures, foresights, forecasts & fabulations
Why do we trust novelists with the future?
The question of why sci-fi novels have an odd sort of preeminence in the world of futures thinking also came up in the Approaches to Futures course I taught back in Luleå. Given that strategic foresight is its own decades-old discipline, and there are professional foresight experts who work with governments and private industry, why are sci-fi novelists often considered experts in the future?

The Ecological Intelligence Agency
“Are there entirely alternate intelligences that can be nurtured here? How can we unite labour, climate and data justice in a way that is not extractive but mutually supportive and led by the commons? Could AI be an advocate for ecological health? These are the questions we began with.”

Wonders and Visions: A Visual history of science fiction
Curated by Adam Roberts and Graham Sleight, sumptuous history of science fiction told through its iconic covers.

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation
Generative AI closes off a better future
“AI tools will not eliminate human artists, regardless of what corporate executives might hope. But it will allow companies to churn out passable slop to serve up to audiences at a lower cost.”

Generative AI and intellectual property
“If we really can make ‘music in the style of the last decade’s hits,’ how much of that will there be, and how will we wade through it? How will we find the good stuff, and how will we define that? Will we care?”

‘Privacy nightmare on wheels’: Every car brand reviewed by Mozilla flunks privacy test
“All 25 major car brands reviewed in Mozilla’s latest edition of Privacy Not Included (PNI) received failing marks for consumer privacy, a first in the buyer's guide’s seven-year history.”


  • 😍 😍 😍 📚 🎬 Good Movies as Old Books. “An ongoing personal project, I envision some of my favorite films as vintage books. Not a best of list, just movies I love.” (Via Meanwhile.)
  • 😍 😍 🧱 🇲🇽 Beautiful project! A Portrait of Tenochtitlan, a 3D reconstruction of the capital of the Aztec empire. “Not much is left of the old Aztec - or Mexica - capital Tenochtitlan. What did this city, raised from the lake bed by hand, look like? Using historical and archeological sources, and the expertise of many, I have tried to faithfully bring this iconic city to life.”
  • 😍 🎥 🇯🇵 The Trailer for The Boy and the Heron, Hayao Miyazaki’s Final Film. “It is with the appropriate feelings of melancholy and excitement that I share with you the teaser trailer for The Boy and the Heron, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki's final animated feature film for Studio Ghibli.”
  • 🪽 🎥 🤩 The Evolution of Hummingbirds. “The story of hummingbird evolution is how they have reaped the advantages of drinking a natural energy drink and then have had to evolve alien features to quell the disadvantages that have now gone on to define them.
  • 🚗 ⚡️ 🇨🇳 How BYD snatched Tesla’s crown. “BYD is trying to expand that success beyond China’s borders. Since 2021, the company has launched models in 52 markets, invested in factories and a lithium processing facility abroad, and acquired an entire fleet of cargo ships to deliver those cars around the world. The company’s global rollout, however, has been mixed so far.”
  • 🔥 🤯 🇺🇸 Even the bayous of Louisiana are now threatened by wildfires. “Lakes and ponds lay completely empty, their beds cracked. Swatches of earth that would be, on a normal year, lush and green had turned brown. Acres of evergreen trees — oaks and magnolias and azaleas, signatures of the state — had begun to wither.”
  • 😢 🕸️ Legend. Memories of Molly. “She was one of the first web gurus, a title she adamantly rejected — “We’re all just people, people!” — but it fit nevertheless. She was a groundbreaker, expanding and explaining the Web at its infancy. So many people, on hearing the mournful news, have described her as a force of nature, and that’s a title she would have accepted with pride.”