Desiderata #5: links and commentary
A contest won, exoplanets discovered, publishing in perspective
1. This last month The Intrinsic Perspective published:
Why I am not an effective altruist: Morality is not a market
We owe the future, but why? Book review and follow-up to: "Why I am not an effective altruist"
The gossip trap: How civilization came to be and how social media is ending it
2. It was an honor to take 1st place and win $5,000 in the annual book review contest over at Scott Alexander’s Astral Codex Ten for “The gossip trap,” a review of David Graeber’s recent book The Dawn of Everything. The anonymity of the contest made the whole thing a delight to participate in, as I got a kick out of speculating privately about the identities of the other authors. Scott reflects:
I was happy with my decision to keep this contest anonymous, because the most “famous” person to enter won first place, and if it had been open-identity I would have wondered whether he was drawing on a pre-existing fan base. But no, Erik can rest assured he is actually very good at writing (which he probably already knew, being a novelist and all, but you never know). In fact, 2 of the 5 winners, plus an extra 1.5 of the remaining finalists, were authors of Substacks which I read and have linked to here (Hoel, Roger’s Bacon, Resident Contrarian, and the extra 0.5 is for Etienne who I didn’t know about before this week but just saw his post Common Tech Jobs Described As Cabals Of Mesoamerican Wizards on the subreddit). I’m always suspicious that everything is fake and good writers aren’t actually good and it’s just a social conspiracy to believe that they are, but these results are a vote in support of our existing writer-identification-institutions (are they all Substack? I guess it’s just Substack).
Now that the prize has been announced and my anonymity over, I published an official version of “The gossip trap” last week on The Intrinsic Perspective. A tour of the latest archeological and anthropological thinking about prehistory, it discusses why civilization took so long to get started (~10,000 BC) given how long humans have been around (~200,000 BC, a discrepancy called the “sapient paradox”), a question I think has a connection to the defining technology of my generation: social media. This will certainly be a topic I return to at some point, so if you haven’t checked it out, I’d encourage you to.
3. A pair of exoplanets has been discovered only 100 light years away, and within the habitable zone where liquid water can form. Interestingly, their habitable zone is incredibly close to their red dwarf star, for it is so much cooler and smaller than our sun. Therefore years on these planets are mere days.
SPECULOOS 2c has a radius 30 to 40 per cent larger than Earth’s and takes just 8.4 days to orbit its star. It is also tidally locked, which means it has a permanent day on one side and it is always night on the other. Despite these differences, the team estimates that it appears to be the second most habitable planet discovered so far. . .
The discovery of new habitable planets is always a good impetus for a day dream. For I imagine a civilization on that tidally-locked world, on the side where it is always day. And for them the world isn’t round, there really is an end to their planet where the seas ice up. No matter the direction on the map, their explorers would find an all-encompassing barrier past which is an abyss of cold and night, an infinite Ragnarok. And, on the opposite side, knowing nothing of the other, another civilization adapted to the cold of the stellar night, whose own world is ringed by a blazing inferno.
4. Speaking of aliens, an astrophysicist from Harvard University, Avi Loeb, wants to fund an expedition to dig up an interstellar (from outside our solar system) object that crashed into the ocean eight years ago. Which he claims has some chance of being an alien artifact (a chance that personally. . . seems pretty slim to me). As NPR reports:
Now, Loeb is launching a $1.5 million privately funded expedition to retrieve pieces of the meteor from the ocean floor. Based on data from the Defense Department, Loeb has focused his search to an area of nearly 40 square miles. . .
He says that testing the composition of the object could determine if it resembles those found in our solar system.
"There is also the possibility that it will be made of some alloy that nature doesn't put together, and that would imply the object is technological," Loeb said. "If you ask what my wish is, if it's indeed of artificial origin, and there was some component of the object that survived, and if it has any buttons on it, I would love to press them."
I, for one, am firmly against pushing random buttons on wrecked alien spacecraft, but I’m just crazy like that.
5. It is a rare article where the headline perfectly summarizes the content, but here’s “Guessing C For Every Answer Is Now Enough To Pass The New York State Algebra Exam”
For context, those are two of the top five biggest publishers in the world. Putting a book out with them means you “made it” it in the industry. Except for half the people in traditional publishing “making it” turns out to mean selling less than a dozen copies.
Are these numbers correct? They seem exaggerated to me, but still point to a deeper truth. A comment that I found more in line with my expectations over at Counter Craft says that big publishers probably sell more books than that, but still, it’s notable how few books actually sell more than 1,000 copies.
There are some caveats to this, like the data is not perfectly reflective of sales, and this only covers books sold in the past year. Regardless, the fact that 65% of frontlist books (those newly published) sell less than 1,000 copies is pretty astounding. To put some perspective on this, right now the median post on The Intrinsic Perspective gets more reads than 95% of books put out by major publishers. There are, again, plenty of significant caveats to this comparison, for it’s undoubtably questionable to compare online views vs. physical book sales, and besides, to what degree do either views or sales even count as “reads” anyways? And so on. But unless the numbers end up being off by literally an order of magnitude I have a hard time understanding why I wouldn’t plan to put most of my future writing efforts into here rather than traditional publishing. There’s still a huge amount of room at the top for newsletters to grow into—I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest Substackers end up having more reach than the biggest publishers or news websites, just like how other internet figures, like Joe Rogan, have ended up with an inordinate reach.
7. I’ve written before about how CGI ruined movies, and I came across a great little clip that shows off what I’m referring to—it’s gone so far beyond special effects that people don’t realize that entire movies are now just computer graphics, i.e., it’s just real people superimposed on a video game trailer. If you share my feeling that acting seems wooden lately, I think it’s because even the best actors cannot actually react to nothingness in a manner that apes their actual reactions to the complexity of the world. Even their saccades are wrong.
Kevin Esvelt, a biology professor at MIT, has argued that a new $125 million NIH-funded project should be drastically changed, because the knowledge it aims to produce is likely to be more dangerous that beneficial.
The project, DEEP VZN, is a five-year initiative to find and characterize viruses in nature that pose a risk of spillover into humans. . . . pathogens will then be analyzed to identify which of them pose the biggest risk to humans and then classified according to their level of risk. . .
Esvelt argues that running tests to determine if a pathogen has the potential to cause a pandemic essentially amounts to the testing of weapons of mass destruction. This might sound dramatic, but he notes that thousands of people have the ability to construct viruses from synthetic DNA and that viruses can be weaponized. . . Esvelt isn’t suggesting that the knowledge that would be gained in this project couldn’t be beneficial. Instead, he’s arguing that the same knowledge could be used to cause harm, and that the magnitude of this harm and the likelihood of it occurring outweigh the potential benefits.