18 May 2022

Salon: “Elon Musk, Twitter and the future: His long-term vision is even weirder than you think”

In brief, the longtermists claim that if humanity can survive the next few centuries and successfully colonize outer space, the number of people who could exist in the future is absolutely enormous. According to the “father of Longtermism”, Nick Bostrom, there could be something like 10^58 human beings in the future, although most of them would be living “happy lives” inside vast computer simulations powered by nanotechnological systems designed to capture all or most of the energy output of stars. (Why Bostrom feels confident that all these people would be “happy” in their simulated lives is not clear. Maybe they would take digital Prozac or something?) Other longtermists, such as Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill, calculate that there could be 10^45 happy people in computer simulations within our Milky Way galaxy alone. That’s a whole lot of people, and longtermists think you should be very impressed.

So the question is: If you want to do “the most good”, should you focus on helping people who are alive right now or these vast numbers of possible people living in computer simulations in the far future? The answer is, of course, that you should focus on these far-future digital beings.

Phil Torres

In my previous linked article, the author writes at some point that he believes Elon Mask wants to do some flavor of good. And here we have some clues as to what Musk considers ‘good’ for the future of humanity. I would take this with some grain of salt, as we can’t definitely know what his plans and expectations are, but seems plausible considering the kind of projects he’s involved in.

17 May 2022

Mike Industries: “Anchors Away”

So in short: More callousness at the company, bad. More callousness on the service, bad.

I’m not sure why we would expect a man who has shown zero ability to empathize with anyone to improve either of those situations. In fact, I think we should expect both to get much, much worse if this transaction ends up going through (which I’m not yet convinced it will).

One other distinction I think is important is that I don’t think Musk’s callousness crosses over into hate or nihilism. No nihilist would work as hard as he has over the course of his lifetime. I actually believe the guy wants to do some flavor of good. I just think his definition of “doing good” is measured only by the accomplishments and not the damage; especially the emotional damage, which again he has openly admitted to not being able to detect or understand. It’s similar to the way I have heard certain Facebook executives describe their service: it’s a “net positive” to society. As if that distinction only requires helping 100 people after you hurt 99.

If you agree with me about those three factors, there are a few things you can do about it. You can try and solve them, you can leave them alone and make your service more popular in other ways, or you can just be cool with the idea that Twitter doesn’t need to be as big as its contemporaries.

The company has actually tried versions of all of the above. They’ve made a TON of progress on curbing abuse (although it’s never enough unless you hit zero), they’ve made the service more visual (although there is a limit before the nature of the service changes), and they’ve made it a bit easier to connect with friends. If you ask me, it’s always been that last one that holds the most promise. Twitter — like many things in life — is just so much better when your friends are there.

Mike Davidson

A thoughtful and balanced article on Twitter’s past and future from a former employee. I agree with most of his remarks, especially regarding Elon Musk. There’s a long-held view that people who work at Twitter don’t really understand Twitter, and I think the author also misunderstands Twitter’s fundamental appeal when he argues that it is just so much better when your friends are there.

15 May 2022

MSNBC: “Joe Biden never ended the war in Afghanistan”

Following the American withdrawal, international funding for Afghanistan, equivalent to 40 percent of the country's GDP, was severed in compliance with sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council. That delivered an almost globally unprecedented level of economic shock to the war-torn nation, William Byrd, an economist specializing in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. The U.S. also blocked access to billions of dollars of the Afghan government’s foreign currency reserves held in the U.S., worth more than a year’s worth of imports to a country heavily dependent on them.

Afghanistan has long been an impoverished country, but the exceptional nature of its current crisis is born of a deliberate policy regime designed to cripple it. While the soldiers and planes have left, the brutality of the U.S. war is continuing in a different form. The U.S. has transitioned from a hot war to an economic war, Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute who focuses on security, trade and rule of law in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me.

Collectively punishing the Afghan people through their economy is morally heinous: it marks the evolution of a project of imperial sadism against a people who have already endured tens of thousands of casualties and terror after decades of a vicious U.S. occupation that never needed to happen. It’s also backward as a geopolitical strategy: If the country collapses into a failed state, it will become vulnerable to takeover by the exact kind of ambitious terrorist organizations, like the Islamic State Khorasan, that drove the U.S. to war in the first place.

Zeeshan Aleem

This is the sort of policy that drives distrust and outright hate of America abroad but is still pursued because of internal politics and fear of looking soft on the Taliban. Some 20 million people in Afghanistan are facing acute malnutrition, almost half of the country’s overall population, but the country can’t access its reserves, nor receive substantial international aid, because of the sanctions regime against the Taliban… In most cases, economic war ends up hurting the general population more than the governing elite, and rarely convinces the group holding power to change direction to obtain sanctions relief.

14 May 2022

The Guardian: “The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine?”

Cognitive psychologists sometimes talk in terms of two distinct types of consciousness: spotlight consciousness, which illuminates a single focal point of attention, making it very good for reasoning, and lantern consciousness, in which attention is less focused yet illuminates a broader field of attention. Young children tend to exhibit lantern consciousness; so do many people on psychedelics. This more diffuse form of attention lends itself to mind wandering, free association, and the making of novel connections – all of which can nourish creativity. By comparison, caffeine’s big contribution to human progress has been to intensify spotlight consciousness – the focused, linear, abstract and efficient cognitive processing more closely associated with mental work than play. This, more than anything else, is what made caffeine the perfect drug not only for the age of reason and the Enlightenment, but for the rise of capitalism, too.

Alas, there is no free lunch. It turns out that caffeine only appears to give us energy. Caffeine works by blocking the action of adenosine, a molecule that gradually accumulates in the brain over the course of the day, preparing the body to rest. Caffeine molecules interfere with this process, keeping adenosine from doing its job – and keeping us feeling alert. But adenosine levels continue to rise, so that when the caffeine is eventually metabolised, the adenosine floods the body’s receptors and tiredness returns. So the energy that caffeine gives us is borrowed, in effect, and eventually the debt must be paid back.

Caffeine is not the sole cause of our sleep crisis; screens, alcohol (which is as hard on REM sleep as caffeine is on deep sleep), pharmaceuticals, work schedules, noise and light pollution, and anxiety can all play a role in undermining both the duration and quality of our sleep. But here’s what’s uniquely insidious about caffeine: the drug is not only a leading cause of our sleep deprivation; it is also the principal tool we rely on to remedy the problem. Most of the caffeine consumed today is being used to compensate for the lousy sleep that caffeine causes – which means that caffeine is helping to hide from our awareness the very problem that caffeine creates.

Michael Pollan

Interesting piece on the merits and downsides of caffeine consumption on individual health and society overall. I am far from a big drinker of coffee, with no more than two cups a day, but I still occasionally felt its adverse effects on my sleeping patterns – I made a habit to drink coffee in the early afternoon, so sometimes I have trouble falling asleep late at night. Attributing the Enlightenment and capitalist society to the regular intake of caffeine strikes me as grossly exaggerated though. As most good things in life, coffee is best consumed and enjoyed in moderation.

12 May 2022

Noahpinion: “Interview: Ryan Petersen, founder and CEO of Flexport”

R.P.: The supply chain crunch was started by increasing demand for goods, as consumers stopped spending on services. Americans in particular had more money in their pockets because they weren’t going on trips, spending at restaurants and bars, or attending concerts. Instead as city after city started enforcing lockdowns and restrictions, people started spending a lot more goods and not services. You’ve got to get your dopamine somewhere. So what we saw was an unprecedented increase in imports from China—as much as 20% more containers entering the United States than were leaving our ports since the start of the pandemic.

Then there was the impact of cascading second orders that are inherently unpredictable. For example, as imports increased as much as 20%, exports actually decreased because the United States economy was slow to reopen. In fact exports are still down. If you look at the journey of a shipping container, it runs in a loop: The same container that brings in imports later helps transport exports out of the U.S. So if there are fewer exports going out, that means companies are consciously choosing to ship empty containers back to Asia or else they will run into shortages at the origin ports. At one point over the last year, as an industry, we were 500,000 shipping containers short in Asia. These shortages led to increases in prices. If you wanted to get a container you had to pay a real premium to get access. In some cases renting a container for one journey was more expensive than the price to buy one.

Noah Smith

Very informative discussion about the growing supply chain issues, their complex and world-spanning causes, and the lack of local investment and planning that has amplified the problems in the US more than in other regions. Since it was published at the beginning of the year, new factors have increased the strain on global supply chains and inflation, from the rise of coronavirus cases and subsequent lockdowns in major Chinese manufacturing hubs to the war in Ukraine.

10 May 2022

The Guardian: “Is escalation in Ukraine part of the US strategy?”

In the spring of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Washington DC seems haunted by the ghosts of history. The US Congress has passed the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 to expedite aid to Ukraine – just as Franklin D Roosevelt did, under the Lend-Lease Act, to the British empire, China and Greece in March 1941.

The sums of money being contemplated in Washington are enormous – a total of $47bn, the equivalent of one third of Ukraine’s prewar GDP. If it is approved by Congress, on top of other western aid, it will mean that we are financing nothing less than a total war.

However, history is complex – scratch the surface and the ambiguities multiply. What does invoking Lend-Lease really imply for the direction of US policy?

Presumably, the narrative is sustained by the promise that a good war fought against an evil regime will be won through the generous sponsorship of the United States. But to complete that narrative arc you have to keep winding the clock forward from Lend-Lease in March to the Atlantic charter in August 1941 and, by December, to Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war. Providing aid to both China and the British empire, Lend-Lease was a crucial step in turning what was originally a separate Japanese war on China and a German war in Europe into a world war.

If the US Congress is now launching a new Lend-Lease programme, the question of whether escalation is part of the plan must come into consideration.

Adam Tooze

A valid question that the US administration seems to be purposefully avoiding. There are numerous signs of this hidden intent, from Biden’s comments labeling Putin a war criminal and saying that he should not remain in power; to the breakdown of communication channels between the US and Russia; to unnamed senior American officials leaking to the press that the US has provided intelligence allowing Ukrainians to target and kill Russian generals on the battlefield and strike the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet; to US senators openly calling it a proxy war against Russia. A common pattern to these public postures is declaring new ambitious targets, then quickly walking them back in future statements, but overall moving the goalposts further towards increased belligerence – a slippery slope not unlike what got the US tangled up in Afghanistan and Iraq.

03 May 2022

XDA Developers: “Microsoft Edge is getting a built-in VPN powered by Cloudflare”

Microsoft is testing a VPN-like service for its Edge browser, adding a new layer of security and privacy to the browsing experience. A recently-discovered support page on Microsoft’s website details the “Microsoft Edge Secure Network” feature, which provides data encryption and prevents online tracking, courtesy of Cloudflare.

While it isn’t available yet, even if you have the latest Dev channel build, the Microsoft Edge Secure Network feature appears to be similar in nature to Cloudflare’s service. This is essentially a proxy or VPN service, which encrypts your browsing data so that it’s safe from prying eyes, including your ISP. It also keeps your location private, so you can use it to access geo-restricted websites, or content that’s blocked in your country.

João Carrasqueira

Good to see Microsoft continuing to invest in new features for their browser. The idea of integrating a VPN into the browser is not exactly novel, as Opera and Mozilla offer something similar, but it’s good to expand the reach of secure browsing services to more users. In its current, pre-release state, Microsoft Edge Secure Network looks fairly limited, as you need to sign in with a Microsoft account and the traffic is capped at 1 gigabyte a month. It would be a great idea to turn this on by default in InPrivate mode, as it would offer an extra layer of protection. Perhaps at launch Microsoft will offer a paid tier as well with unlimited traffic for a monthly fee.