Review: ‘Love Death + Robots’ 2 (2021)

It’s not so much born in my head as it seems to be repeated in everything around us. Or maybe it’s playing in my head and I’m afraid to admit it.

I’ve been curious why the Marvel Cinematic Universe picked the Malthusian catastrophe for the ultimate disaster the superheroes rescue everyone else from. Narendra Modi has invoked the misguided idea of some (religious) communities breeding too fast for Hindu India – for Bharat – to bear. The third episode of Love Death + Robots 2, ‘Pop Squad’, visits the same idea from the class perspective. Its story seems to assume the language peculiar to the world it is set in doesn’t need explanation, and how right it is: a minute into the episode, you know ‘Pop’ in the title refers to ‘Population’. You know that lady’s “boost” is her longevity injection, that “rejoo” is short for rejuvenation (no spoilers). ‘Snow in the Desert’, the next episode, visits a dystopia in the neighbourhood. Both of them touch on the allegedly polar issues of poverty and immortality.

I know all these words in stories because they’re old tropes but the public imagination is not a synecdoche: perhaps we know them because they’re on the back of our minds? And if so, why are they there? Perhaps they haunt all pre-fascist societies – like premonitions of otherisations ad infinitum, inequalities ad absurdum. Perhaps they haunt everyone who’s come close to the deranged eschatologies of the far right, and they’re phantoms of the irreversible unforgetting of what these ideologues are prepared to do to make their fantasies come true.

Love Death + Robots 2 seems fixated on such auguries, in fact. It has nothing of the variety the first season did, a season that explored so many facets of the human condition (my favourites are ‘Sonnie’s Edge’ and ‘Zima Blue’); in contrast the second season only seems interested in passing commentary, and anything interested in commentary over substance can offer neither.

‘Pop Squad’ had the tightest script by far and the lack of intensity and cynicism in every other episode was consipicuous. (You can’t say cynicism’s absence in Forrest Gump was conspicuous but you can with Tau, so you know what I mean.) ‘The Tall Grass’ got a rise out of me with its simple premise – Gigerian, I’d say, because like the artist’s work, it drafts a new sentence, leaves blanks where some words used to be and asks us to fill them in. The result is often a horror that feels visceral because it’s of our own making.

On the other hand, ‘Ice’ was a near-criminal waste of a premise, I’d argue, a children’s tale of the sort that shouldn’t find place in an anthology as iconoclastic as LDR. ‘All Through the House’ was a poor simile of the first season’s ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’. ‘Automated Customer Service’ was tosh. ‘The Drowned Giant’ was a short story annotated by CGI; the protagonist’s narration stood by itself so I’m not sure what the visuals were doing there. I don’t know what the point of ‘Life Hutch’ was.

But all of them – except perhaps ‘Ice’ – were concerned one way or another with a madhouse apocalypse. Imagine a spectrum defined by the following narrative function: a human or two is thrown into the deep end of the perishablity pool and thrashes about for a bit; some learn to swim; everyone discovers the possibility of unusual endings or the endings of unusual things. Encode this into a blathering neural network and sooner than later, you’d have Love Death + Robots 2.

Perhaps its producers started off aspiring to animate fantastic worlds with the tensions binding the real one, but sadly for them reality was and remains far ahead. People have lived through and anticipated more than what even ‘Pop Squad’ offers us. It’s easy to see where each episode is going within the first twenty seconds – fostering an unacceptable level of predictability, give or take a couple twists. There are no ghosts, no phantoms, nothing that lingers inside a small box you didn’t know was there inside your head. They show us the end of the world but do little to help us confront it.

Featured image credit: Netflix.

On the International Day of Light, remembering darkness

Today is the International Day of Light. According to a UNESCO note:

The International Day of Light is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

While there are natural lasers, the advent of the laser in Maiman’s hands portended an age of manipulating light to make big advances in a variety of fields. Some applications that come immediately to mind are communications, laser-guided missiles, laser cooling and astronomy. I’m not sure why “the first successful operation of the laser” came to be commemorated as a ‘day of light’, but since it has, its association with astronomy is interesting.

Astronomers have found themselves collecting to protest the launch and operation of satellite constellations, notably SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s upcoming Project Kuiper, after the first few Starlink satellites interfered with astronomical observations. SpaceX has since acknowledged the problem and said it will reduce the reflectance of the satellites it launches, but I don’t think the problem has been resolved. Further, the constellation isn’t complete: thousands of additional satellites will be launched in the coming years, and will be joined by other constellations as well, and the full magnitude of the problem may only become apparent then.

Nonetheless, astronomers’ opposition to such projects brought the idea of the night sky as a shared commons into the public spotlight. Just like arid lands, butterfly colonies and dense jungles are part of our ecological commons, and plateaus, shelves and valleys make up our geological commons, and so on – all from which the human species draws many benefits, an obstructed view of the night sky and the cosmic objects embedded therein characterise the night sky as a commons. And as we draw tangible health and environmental benefits from terrestrial commons, the view of the night sky has, over millennia, offered humans many cultural benefits as well.

However, this conflict between SpaceX, etc. on one hand and the community of astronomers on the other operates at a higher level, so to speak: its resolution in favour of astronomers, for example, still only means – for example – operating fewer satellites or satellites at a higher altitude, avoiding major telescopes’ fields of view, painting the underside with a light-absorbing substance, etc. The dispute is unlikely to have implications for the night sky as a commons of significant cultural value. If it is indeed to be relevant, the issue needs to become deep enough to accommodate, and continue to draw the attention and support of academics and corporations for, the non-rivalrous enjoyment of the night sky with the naked eye, for nothing other than to write better poems, have moonlight dinners and marvel at the stars.

As our fight to preserve our ecological commons has hardened in the face of a state bent on destroying them to line the pockets of its capital cronies, I think we have also started to focus on the economic and other tangible benefits this commons offers us – at the cost of downplaying a transcendental right to their sensual enjoyment. Similarly, we shouldn’t have to justify the importance of the night sky as a commons beyond saying we need to be able to enjoy it.

Of course such an argument is bound to be accused of being disconnected from reality, that the internet coverage Starlink offers will be useful for people living in as-yet unconnected or poorly connected areas – and I agree. We can’t afford to fight all our battles at once if we also expect to reap meaningful rewards in a reasonably short span of time, so let me invoke a reminder that the night sky is an environmental resource as well: “Let us be reminded, as we light the world to suit our needs and whims,” a 2005 book wrote, “that doing so may come at the expense of other living beings, some of whom detect subtle gradations of light to which we are blind, and for whom the night is home.”

More relevant to our original point, of the International Day of Light, astronomy and the night sky as a commons, a study published in 2016 reported the following data:

According to the study paper (emphasis added):

The sky brightness levels are those used in the tables and indicate the following: up to 1% above the natural light (0 to 1.7 μcd/m2; black); from 1 to 8% above the natural light (1.7 to 14 μcd/m2; blue); from 8 to 50% above natural nighttime brightness (14 to 87 μcd/m2; green); from 50% above natural to the level of light under which the Milky Way is no longer visible (87 to 688 μcd/m2; yellow); from Milky Way loss to estimated cone stimulation (688 to 3000 μcd/m2; red); and very high nighttime light intensities, with no dark adaption for human eyes (>3000 μcd/m2; white).

That is, in India, ‘only’ a fifth of the population experiences a level of light pollution that obscures the faintest view of the Milky Way – but in Saudi Arabia, at the other end of the spectrum, nearly 92% of the population is correspondingly unfortunate (not that I presume they care).

DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377

While India has a few red dots, it is green almost nearly everywhere and blue nearly everywhere, lest we get carried away. Why, in March this year, Dorje Angchuk, an engineer at the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle who has come to be celebrated for his beautiful photographs of the night sky over Ladakh, tweeted the following images that demonstrate how even highly localised light pollution, which may not be well-represented on global maps, can affect the forms and hues in which the night sky is available to us.

The distribution of colours also reinforces our understanding of cities as economic engines – where more lights shine brighter and, although this map doesn’t show it, more pollutants hang in the air. The red dots over India coincide roughly with the country’s major urban centres: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Photographs of winter mornings in New Delhi show the sky as an orange-brown mass through which even the Sun is barely visible; other stars are out of the question, even after astronomical twilight.

But again, we’re not going to have much luck if our demands to reduce urban emissions are premised on our inability to have an unobstructed view of the night sky. At the same time we must achieve this victory: there’s no reason our street lamps and other public lighting facilities need to throw light upwards, that our billboards need to be visible from above, etc., and perhaps every reason for human settlements – even if they aren’t erected around or near optical telescopes – to turn off as many lights as they can between 10 pm and 6 am. The regulation of light needs to be part of our governance. And the International Day of Light should be a reminder that our light isn’t the only light we need, that darkness is a virtue as well.

The Government Project

Considering how much the Government of India has missed anticipating – the rise of a second wave of COVID-19 infections, the crippling medical oxygen shortage, the circulation of new variants of concern – I have been wondering about why we assemble giant institutions like governments: among other things, they are to weather uncertainty as best as our resources and constitutional moralities will allow. Does this mean bigger the institution, the farther into the future it will be able to see? (I’m assuming here a heuristic that we normally are able to see, say, a day into the future with 51% uncertainty – slightly better than chance – for each event in this period.)

Imagine behemoth structures like the revamped Central Vista in New Delhi and other stonier buildings in other cities and towns, the tentacles of state control dictating terms in every conceivable niche of daily life, and a prodigious bureaucracy manifested as tens of thousands of civil servants most of whom do nothing more than play musical chairs with The Paperwork.

Can such a super-institution see farther into the future? It should be able to, I’d expect, considering the future – in one telling – is mostly history filtered through our knowledge, imagination, priorities and memories in the present. A larger government should be able to achieve this feat by amassing the talents of more people in its employ, labouring in more and more fields of study and experiment, effectively shining millions of tiny torchlights into the great dark of what’s to come.

Imagine one day that the Super Government’s structures grow so big, so vast that all the ministers determine to float it off into space, to give it as much room as it needs to expand, so that it may perform its mysterious duties better – something like the City of a Thousand Planets.

The people of Earth watch as the extraterrestrial body grows bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier. It attracts the attention of aliens, who are bemused and write in their notebooks: “One could, in principle, imagine ‘creatures’ that are far larger. If we draw on Landauer’s principle describing the minimum energy for computation, and if we assume that the energy resources of an ultra-massive, ultra-slothful, multi-cellular organism are devoted only to slowly reproducing its cells, we find that problems of mechanical support outstrip heat transport as the ultimate limiting factor to growth. At these scales, though, it becomes unclear what such a creature would do, or how it might have evolved.”

One day, after many years of attaching thousands of additional rooms, corridors, cabinets and canteens to its corse, the government emits a gigantic creaking sound, and collapses into a black hole. On the outside, black holes are dull: they just pull things towards them. That the pulled things undergo mind-boggling distortions and eventual disintegration is a triviality. The fun part is what happens on the inside – where spacetime, instead of being an infinite fabric, is curved in on itself. Here, time moves sideways, perpendicular to the direction in which it flows on the outside, in a state of “perpetual freefall”. The torch-wielding scientists, managers, IAS officers, teachers, thinkers are all trapped on the inner surface of a relentless sphere, running round and round, shining their lights to look not into the actual future but to find their way within the government itself.

None of them can turn around to see who it is that’s chasing them, or whom they’re chasing. The future is lost to them. Their knowledge of history is only marginally better: they have books to tell them what happened, according to a few historians at one point of time; they can’t know what the future can teach us about history. And what they already know they constantly mix and remix until, someday, like the progeny of generations of incest, what emerges is a disgusting object of fascination.

The government project is complete: it is so big that it can no longer see past itself.

Lord of the Rings Day

Here’s wishing you a Happy Lord of the Rings Day! (Previous editions: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014.) On this day in the book, Frodo, Sam and Smeagol (with help from Gandalf, Aragon, Gimli, Legolas, Faramir, Eowyn, Theoden, Eomer, Treebeard and the Ents, Meriadoc, Peregrin, Galadriel, Arwen and many, many others) destroyed the One Ring in the fires of Orodruin, throwing down Barad-dûr, bringing about the end of Sauron the Deceiver and forestalling the Age of Orcs, and making way for peace on Middle Earth.

Even though my – rather our – awareness of the different ways in which Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s literature more broadly are flawed increases every year, in the last year in particular I’ve come back to the trilogy more than before, finding both that it’s entwined in messy ways with various events in my life, having been the sole piece of fantasy I read between 1998 and 2005, and more importantly, because Lord of the Rings was more expansive than most similar work of its time, I often can’t help but see that much of what came after is responding to it in some way. (I know I’ve made this point before but, as in journalism, what stories we have available to tell doesn’t change just because we’re repeating ourselves. :D)

This said, I don’t know what Lord of the Rings means today, in 2021, simply because the last 15 months or so have been a lousy time for replenishing my creative energy. I haven’t been very able to think about stories, leave alone write them – but on the flip side, I’ve been very grateful for the work and energy of story writers and tellers, irrespective of how much of it they’ve been able to summon, whether one sentence or one book, or the forms in which they’ve been able to summon it, whether as a Wikipedia page, a blog post, a D&D quest or a user’s manual. I’m thankful for all the stories that keep us going just as I’m mindful that everything, even the alt text of images, is fiction. More power to anyone thinking of something and putting it down in words – and also to your readers.

Slate Star Codex: No time for malice

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

To the uninitiated: Scott Alexander Siskind is a noted member of the international community of rationalists and wrote the once-celebrated blog Slate Star Codex. I use the past tense because Siskind used to write this blog from the relative obscurity afforded by using only his first and middle names – ‘Scott Alexander’ – and which was threatened after a New York Times reporter got in touch to profile him, and then decided to ‘out’ his identity thanks to some editorial rule the reporter said he was was bound by.

Siskind, fearing for his privacy as well as the wellbeing of his clients (he’s a psychiatrist by profession) threatened to delete his entire blog if the reporter didn’t back off – and then proceeded to do so. At the time of the incident, Siskind also called for support from his readers, who flooded the New York Times with telephone calls, emails and online comments, cancelled their subscriptions in droves, and also doxxed (revealed online without permission and with an intent to harass) the reporter’s personal information. Siskind subsequently restored his blog posts and also moved to Substack, where he currently writes under the title ‘Astral Codex Ten’ using his full name.

The New York Times profile in question was published on February 14 under the authorship of reporter Cade Metz. Many members of the rationalists’ community centred on Slate Star Codex have described the article as a “hit job” and it has since become something of a referendum, at least on one other intellectual’s blog (Shtetl Optimized by Scott Aaronson), on the appropriate way to sanction journalists and/or news publishers that fail to properly represent the views of their subjects to their audience.

(I’m an occasional reader of Slate Star Codex, now Astral Codex Ten, but have never been a full participant of the rationalist movement. I occasionally pop in and out and absorb interesting ideas. I also don’t defend the rationalists, being aware of the tendency of most members of this community to over-rationalise, to debate ideas without paying attention to their social consequences, which often lie outside the realm of reason, and to be cynical of politics.)

Here are a few contiguous paragraphs from the article that I think capture its spirit and purpose:

Part of the appeal of Slate Star Codex, faithful readers said, was Mr. Siskind’s willingness to step outside acceptable topics. But he wrote in a wordy, often roundabout way that left many wondering what he really believed.

Mr. Aaronson, the University of Texas professor, was turned off by the more rigid and contrarian beliefs of the Rationalists, but he is one of the blog’s biggest champions and deeply admired that it didn’t avoid live-wire topics.

“It must have taken incredible guts for Scott to express his thoughts, misgivings and questions about some major ideological pillars of the modern world so openly, even if protected by a quasi-pseudonym,” he said.

It was the protection of that “quasi-pseudonym” that rankled Mr. Siskind when I first got in touch with him. He declined to comment for this article.

As he explored science, philosophy and A.I., he also argued that the media ignored that men were often harassed by women. He described some feminists as something close to Voldemort, the embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter books. He said that affirmative action was difficult to distinguish from “discriminating against white men.”

In one post, he aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and I.Q. in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Mr. Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.”

He denounced the neoreactionaries, the anti-democratic, often racist movement popularized by Curtis Yarvin. But he also gave them a platform. His “blog roll” – the blogs he endorsed – included the work of Nick Land, a British philosopher whose writings on race, genetics and intelligence have been embraced by white nationalists.

In 2017, Mr. Siskind published an essay titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due to Offensive Attitudes.” The main reason computer scientists, mathematicians and other groups were predominantly male was not that the industries were sexist, he argued, but that women were simply less interested in joining.

That week, a Google employee named James Damore wrote a memo arguing that the low number of women in technical positions at the company was a result of biological differences, not anything else – a memo he was later fired over. One Slate Star Codex reader on Reddit noted the similarities to the writing on the blog.

Mr. Siskind, posting as Scott Alexander, urged this reader to tone it down. “Huge respect for what you’re trying, but it’s pretty doomed,” he wrote. “If you actually go riding in on a white horse waving a paper marked ‘ANTI-DIVERSITY MANIFESTO,’ you’re just providing justification for the next round of purges.”

There are some obvious problems with the article. The foremost is that Metz makes some questionable assumptions about the foundations of Siskind’s arguments to the effect that Siskind sounds like a conservative, dogmatic person who draws on questionable scholarship to frame his thoughts. This is quite off-target. The article also oversimplifies some of the rationalist community’s positions, although this may be unavoidable in anything less than a book-length treatment of such an involved subject.

On the other hand, a not inconsiderable amount of the Slate Star Codex community’s derision towards the New York Times seems to be rooted in the idea that the newspaper is pursuing a smear campaign – ostensibly in retaliation for Siskind asking his (sizeable) audience to call on New York Times editors to not have his name outed, but who also went on to doxx Metz. Siskind wrote on his Substack after the article was published:

The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people “in the know” that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.

The “in the know” bit sounds funny to me because, based on my experience at The Hindu at least, it’s extremely unlikely for a legacy newspaper to identify one person that’s giving one reporter a tough time as a threat to the extent that the institution, as such, considers intentionally doxxing him – not to mention an accusation like this also insults the intelligence of the people it. I agree with journalist and Gawker cofounder Elizabeth Spiers’s take on this view:

SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at The New York Times, are aware exists—and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject.

I also agree with Will Wilkinson, a politics writer and author, on the limited point of the Slate Star Codex community’s conviction that Metz’s actions were malicious, that Metz or the New York Times were “out to get them”. Instead, Wilkinson argues, the community need only examine the sequence of events from Metz’s point of view to find that common sense offers a simpler and more rational explanation.

Somebody tells Metz about SSC, he finds it really interesting, wants to write some kind of article about Siskind, his popular and influential blog, and the fascinating community around it. He starts to do some preliminary research. … Metz contacts Siskind and at some point he tells Scott that he already knows his real name and at some point Scott tells Metz it’s very important that he doesn’t use his real name. Metz says, sorry, house rules say I have to use your real name. To Metz, things are already getting pretty interesting. He’s a reporter. He’s not going to take what people tell him at face value. He’s probably wondering why Scott’s really sweating so hard about his real name. Then, at some point Siskind flips the fuck out and tells the Times that he’s going to burn SSC to the ground if they don’t promise not to use his real name. At this juncture basically any competent reporter is going to think, “Whoa! Yeah, there’s something deeper here for sure.”

Well, the Times won’t promise, so Siskind actually does it. This seems super-crazy and the natural journalistic response to it is “What the hell is this man hiding? What’s he so afraid I’ll find on his blog?”

Let’s pause to acknowledge that Siskind eventually acknowledged that he had been behaving in a way that seemed incredibly suspicious to outside observers and that it does make a great deal of completely non-malicious sense for a journalist to tune into this. It’s interesting, though, that this apparently hadn’t occurred to him. “Contacts in the news industry” had to tell him.

But as it happens, Siskind had assumed similarly well before the New York Times article was published: that Metz or the newspaper may not be thinking as much about Slate Star Codex’s true identity as much as Siskind and the community was:

I think they just didn’t expect me to care about anonymity as much as I did. In fact, most of my supporters, and most of the savvy people giving me advice, didn’t expect me to care as much as I did. … Realistically, my anonymity let me feel safe and comfortable. But it probably wasn’t literally necessary to keep me alive. I feel bad admitting this, like I conscripted you all into a crusade on false pretenses. Am I an entitled jerk for causing such a stir just so I can feel safe and comfortable? I’m sure the New York Times customer service representatives who had to deal with all your phone calls thought so. …

In the New York Times‘ worldview, they start with the right to dox me, and I had to earn the right to remain anonymous by proving I’m the perfect sympathetic victim who satisfies all their criteria of victimhood. But in my worldview, I start with the right to anonymity, and they need to make an affirmative case for doxxing me. I admit I am not the perfect victim. The death threats against me are all by losers who probably don’t know which side of a gun you shoot someone with. If anything happened at work, it would probably inconvenience me and my patients, but probably wouldn’t literally kill either of us. …

I don’t think anyone at the Times bore me ill will, at least not originally. But somehow that just made it even more infuriating. In Street Fighter, the hero confronts the Big Bad about the time he destroyed her village. The Big Bad has destroyed so much stuff he doesn’t even remember: “For you, the day [I burned] your village was the most important day of your life. For me, it was Tuesday.” That was the impression I got from the Times. They weren’t hostile. I wasn’t a target they were desperate to take out. The main emotion I was able to pick up from them was annoyance that I was making their lives harder by making a big deal out of this. For them, it was Tuesday.

I sort of also see Siskind’s point here: it’s unreasonable to destabilise a community because it failed to explain the terms of its existence to an interloper. Instead, his anonymity and the reasons for it could have been part of the story, irrespective of Metz’s and others’ assertion that Scott Alexander’s last name wasn’t hard to find.

Some others, but also Wilkinson, have read this ‘privacy v. public interest’ contention a bit differently, by invoking Siskind’s presumed absolute right to free speech. I’m personally uncomfortable with the Slate Star Codex community’s view that the interference of Siskind’s right to free speech with his profession as a psychiatrist (and the wellbeing of his patients) shouldn’t be seen as a confounding factor in his decision to react with arguably disproportionate alarm when Metz expressed his intent to use Siskind’s full name – and that the newspaper isn’t very much to blame here. But I can’t be sure if this matters to how Metz constructed the Slate Star Codex profile.

Very broadly, Wilkinson questions the cons of free-speech absolutism not just vis-à-vis the topics that benefit from such a license (like white supremacy or “women have smaller brains”) but vis-à-vis the concept itself. He argues that the absolute right to free speech and a right to anonymity can’t go together, and it’s possible from a journalistic standpoint that Metz may have been encouraged by this incompatibility and by the fact of Siskind’s name showing up after a few searches on Google to ‘reveal’ his last name.

But I think this argument is neither here nor there – plus the profile doesn’t contain any evidence that this is how Metz approached the decision (some anecdotal reports I came across suggested Metz was simply following some newsroom rule). This alternative also doesn’t sit well with Spiers’s and Siskind’s shared belief that the New York Times may never care about the consequences of its gaze on a particular subject more than the subject will.

But the profile being what it is, Scott Aaronson – and I’m sure many others – have decided to boycott Cade Metz, meaning they won’t speak to him on future stories, in an effort to register their disapproval.

Is this fair? I think it’s hard to be sure, although I also suspect this question may be moot. Right now, I’ve yet to find a self-consistent explanation for either party to stand its ground. The verbosity of all the arguments in this debate, save for the New York Times profile itself, is also quite suspicious. I’m implicitly wary of arguments that overuse words because it’s a sign, to me, that the author is either attempting to massage the reader’s intelligence into accepting an otherwise unintelligent, and often deleterious, proposition or that the author is trying to make a point that they themselves don’t fully understand yet. (I may be guilty of either given the length of this post.)

For now, I can see why, without agreeing with it, Aaronson et al have decided to boycott Metz. The relationship between a reporter and their source has only one degree of freedom – trust – and that’s what Aaronson et al have resolved to strike at. But based on what I have read, I don’t see water in the community’s argument that Metz’s efforts have resulted in a “hit job” that violated their trust, of being represented ‘fairly’, by focusing on the rationalist community’s negative attributes. This seems like the rationalists are conflating journalism and reputation management – even considering the New York Times has one of the world’s largest newspaper audiences and a single misinformed article can deal significant reputational damage.

In Aaronson’s and Siskind’s telling, Metz did the rationalists a disservice by focusing on the “wrong” parts of what made Slate Star Codex awesome. But as Wilkinson, Spiers and others have argued, their very ability and freedom to collect as rationalists and openly discuss potentially dangerous or even antisocial ideas is hard to separate from the fact that the rationalists are also “overwhelmingly white and male and clustered in a very narrow of range of heavily white, male analytical symbol manipulation occupations” – a fact that the rationalists tend to dismiss as a distraction.

On the other hand, Metz’s article – while definitely not a “hit job” – is flawed where it seems to imply Siskind’s guilt by association with writers he’s quoted, topped off by the decision to reveal Siskind’s identity. At the same time, Metz is also justified in framing the article the way he did, or worked with his editor to do so.

This isn’t just in terms of, as Spiers put it, going where the story took him but also of revealing a relatively small and cloistered community to the larger world that mostly didn’t know the community existed. And I sense that the two parties couldn’t agree on the terms of this act of revelation.

This speaks to the larger question of yearning for objectivity where there is none. To one group, Slate Star Codex appeared to be yet another portal to fascism-curious thinking that is sustained not-inexplicably by yet another group of white men, and had some notable connections to Silicon Valley. To the other, Slate Star Codex was a salon at which certain people could gather to discuss topics that other members of society had decided they couldn’t debate without also contravening the limitations imposed on free speech.

The values underlying these positions are largely incommensurable, and I suspect the rationalists came away smarting not because they didn’t see the incommensurability but because they expected Metz or anyone else to be objective to the extent that the topics of conversation in the Slate Star Codex community and the demographic characteristics of the people who tended to have them wouldn’t matter.

I realise that this is an older, more-well-hashed debate, and I’m questioning myself whether this whole ‘scandal’ – on which many smarter people have expended tens of thousands of words – can be distilled to such a simple premise. But I’m more certain that disillusionment with the ‘view from somewhere’ is part of the story, even if ironically so considering the New York Times was synonymous with the futile pursuit of objectivity during the Trump presidency.

Tech bloggers and the poverty of style

I created my writing habit by performing it over a decade (and still continuing). When I first started blogging in 2008, I told myself I would write at least 2,000 words a week. By some conspiracy of circumstances, but particularly my voracious reading habit at the time, I found this target to be quite easy. So it quickly became 5,000, and then 10,000. I kept this pace up well into 2011, when it slowed because I was studying to become a journalist and many of the words I had, to write, were published in places other than my blog. The pace has been more or less the same since then; these days, I manage about 1,000-2,000 words a week.

At first, I wrote because I wanted to write something. But once it became a habit, writing became one of my ways of knowing, and a core feature of my entire learning process irrespective of the sphere in which it happened. These days, if I don’t write something, I probably won’t remember it and much less learn it. How I think about writing – the process, beginnings and endings, ordering paragraphs, fixing the lengths of sentences, etc. – has also helped me become a better editor (I think; I know I still have a long way to go), especially in terms of quickly assessing what could be subpar about an article and what the author needs to do to fix it.

But this said, writing is really an art, mostly because there’s no one correct way to do it. An author can craft the same sentence differently to convey different meanings, couched in different spirits; the complement is true, too: an author can convey the same meaning through different sentences. In my view, the ergodicity of writing is constrained only by the language of choice, although a skilled author can still transcend these limitations by combining words and ideas to make better use of the way people think, make memories and perceive meaning.

This is why I resent a trend among some bloggers – especially people working with Big Tech – to adopt a style of writing that they believe is ‘designed’ to make communication effective. (I call this the ‘Gladwellian style’ because it only reminds me of how Malcolm Gladwell writes: to say what the author is going to say, then to say it, and then to remind the reader of what the author just said.)

I work in news and I can understand the importance of following a simple set of rules to communicate one’s point as losslessly as possible. But the news space is a well-defined subset of communication more broadly, and in this space, finding at least one way to make your point – and then in fact doing so – is more important than exploring ways to communicate differently, with different effects.

Many tech bloggers undermine this possibility when they seem to address writing as a science, with a small and finite number of ways to get it right, thus proscribing opportunities to do more than just get one’s point across, with various effects. Writing in their hands is on one hand celebrated as an understated skill that more engineers must master but on the other is almost always wielded as a means to a common end. (Medium is chock-full of such articles.)

There’s none of the wildness writing is capable of – no variety of voices or no quirky styles on display that an organic and anarchic evolution of the writing habit can so easily produce. Most of it is one contiguous monotonous tonescape, interspersed every now and then with quotes by famous white writers saying something snarky about writing being hard. (Examples here and here.) This uniformity is also reflected in the choice of fonts: except for Medium, almost every blog by a tech person who isn’t sticking to tech uses sans-serif fonts.

Granted, it’s possible that many of these ‘writers’ have nothing interesting to say, which in turn might make anything but a sombre style seem excessive. It’s also possible some of them are just doing what Silicon Valley tech-bros often do in general: rediscover existing concepts like coherence and clarity, and write about them as if people didn’t know them before. We’ve already seen this with everything from household technology to history. It’s also probably silly to expect the readers of a tech blog to go there looking for anything other than what a fellow techie has to say.

But I’m uncomfortable with the fact that writing as a habit and writing as an art often lead limited lives in the tech blogging space – so much so that I’m even tempted to diagnose Silicon Valley’s employees’ relationship with writing in terms of the issues we associate with the Silicon Valley culture itself, or even the products they produce.

The forgotten first lives of India’s fauna

Prof. Biju said the Rohanixalus is the 20th recognised genus of the family Rhacophoridae that comprises 422 known Old World tree frog species found in Asia and Africa. He said there are eight frog species in this genus Rohanixalus, which are known to inhabit forested as well as human-dominated landscapes right from the northeast, the Andaman islands, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, up to southern China.

“Our discovery of a treefrog member from Andaman Islands is unexpected and again highlights the importance of dedicated faunal surveys and explorations for proper documentation of biodiversity in a mega diverse country like India. This finding also uncovers an interesting new distribution pattern of tree frogs that provides evidence for faunal exchange between Andamans and the Indo-Burma region,” Prof. Biju said.

‘New genus of tree frog discovered, found in Andamans and Northeast India’, The Hindu, November 12, 2020

When researchers make ‘discoveries’ like this – and they make many every year because India encompasses some of the world’s major “biodiversity hotspots” – I always think about whether people living in the same general area as these creatures might already know of their existence, and have different names and identities for them separate from what the scientific literature will now call it. And if this knowledge does exist – if someone already knew about it – and if they have a knowledge-organising system of their own (that is not science) – which could be easily true if they are members of the many tribes of India (the Adivasi) – then the scientific rediscovery of these species somehow creates a moment in history where the latter knowledge, more traditional and almost certainly far older and therefore more knowing, becomes a bit more forgotten by virtue of being treated as if it didn’t exist. The creatures have now been ‘discovered’ by the methods of science and therefore they have been found for the first time (and not ‘rediscovered’). These frogs for example are now temporary subjects of our celebration of the wonder that is science, even as the human knowledge of their existence that ‘lived’ earlier, in the form of tribal words, sounds, smells, experiences and memories, is not part of the conversation whatsoever in this moment – like the frogs have been snatched out of the context in which they have lived all this time, into a different world, a new world that gives them new names and new purposes. The ‘old world’, the first world, continues its quiet subterranean existence, like an entire universe that’s been kept out of sight, or in our collective blindspot, offering up the resources we need for our second world – land, wood, medicines, frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, vacations, wonder – while battling ecological despair and the end of the first.

Featured image: Juvenile purple frogs somewhere in the Western Ghats, 2017. Credit: Nihaljabinedk/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The passive is political

If Saruman is the stupid shit people say, I have often found Grima Wormtongue is the use of the passive voice. To the uninitiated: Wormtongue was a slimy fellow on Saruman’s side in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. He was much, much less powerful compared to Saruman, but fed the wizard’s ego, lubricated the passage of his dubious ideas into action, and slipped poison into the ears and minds of those who would listen to him.

The passive is useful to attribute to others something you would rather not be the originator of yourself, but which you would like to be true. Or to invoke facts without also invoking the dubious credentials of the person or circumstance that birthed it. Or to dress up your ignorance in the ‘clinical-speak’ that the scientific literature prizes. Or to admit fewer avenues of disagreement. Or, in its most insidious form, to suggest that the message matters a lot more than the context.

Yes, sometimes the passive voice is warranted – often, in my experience, when the point is to maintain sharp focus on a particular idea, concept, etc. in a larger article. This condition is important: the writer or speaker needs to justify the use of the passive voice, in keeping with the deviation from normal that it is.

Of course, you could contend that the creator’s message is the creator’s own, and that they do get to craft it the way they wish. I would contend in return that this is absolutely true – but the question of passive v. active voice arises more pronouncedly in the matter of how the creator’s audience is directed to perceive that message. That is, the creator can use whatever voice they wish, but using one over the other (obviously) changes the meaning and, more importantly, the context they wish the reader to assume.

For example, writing “The ball was thrown” is both a statement that the ball was thrown and an indication to the reader that the identity of the thrower is not relevant.

And because of the specific ways in which the passive voice is bad, the creator effectively puts themselves in a position where the audience could accuse them of deliberately eliding important information. In fact, the creator would open themselves up to this line of inquiry, if not interrogation, even if the line is a dead-end or if the creator actually doesn’t deserve to be accused.

Even more specifically, the use of the passive voice is a loaded affair. I have encountered only a very small number of people writing in the mainstream press who actively shun the passive voice, in favour of the active, or at least have good reasons to adopt the passive. Most writers frequently adopt the passive – and passively so – without acknowledging that this voice can render the text in political shades even if the writer didn’t intend it.

I encountered an opinion of remarkable asininity a few minutes ago, which prompted this little note, and which also serves to illustrate my message.

“One aspect that needs to be considered,” “it is sometimes said,” “remain deprived of sex,” “it is believed that in June alone”. In a conversation with The Soufflé some two years ago, about why middle-aged and older men – those not of our generation, so to speak – harbour so many foolish ideas, he said one reason has to be that when these men sit in their living rooms and enter into lengthy monologues about what they believe, no one challenges them.

Of course, in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, older men will only brook fewer challenges to their authority (or none at all). I think the passive voice is a syntactic choice that together with the fondness for it removes yet another challenge – one unique to the beautiful act of writing – that a creator may encounter during the act of creation, or at least which facilitates a way to create something that otherwise may not have survived the very act of creation.

In Katju’s case, for example, the second third instances of the passive voice could have given him pause. “It is sometimes said” in the active becomes “X has said” or “X says”, subsequently leading to the question of who ‘X’ is and whether their claim is still right, relevant and/or good.

As I mentioned earlier, the passive voice serves among other reasons to preclude the points or counts on which a reader may raise objections. However, writing – one way or another – is an act of decentralising or at least sharing power, the power inherent in the creator’s knowledge that is now available to others as well, more so in the internet age. Fundamentally, to write is to open the gates through which flow the opportunities for your readers to make decisions based on different bits and kinds of information. And in this exercise, to bar some of these gates can only be self-defeating.

Scientists drafting technical manuscripts – the documents I encounter most often that are brimming with the passive voice – may see less value in writing “X designed the experiment to do Y” than “the experiment was designed to go Y”. But I can think of no reason writing in the active would diminish the manuscript’s credentials, even if it may not serve to improve them either – at least not 99% of the time. I do think that 1% of the time, using the active voice by way of habit could help improve the way we do science, for example by allowing other researchers conducting meta-analyses to understand the role of human actions in the performance of an experiment or, perhaps, to discern the gender, age or qualification of those researchers most often involved in designing experiments v. performing them.

Then again, science is a decidedly, and unfortunately, asocial affair, and the ‘amount’ of behavioural change required to have scientists regularly privilege the active over the passive is high.

This shouldn’t be the case vis-à-vis writers writing for the mainstream press – a domain in which the social matters just as much as the scientific, but often much more. Here, to recall the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, the actor is often the act (perhaps simply reflecting our times – in which to be a passive bystander to acts of violence is to condone the violence itself).

And when Markandey Katju, no less than a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, invokes claims while suppressing their provenance, it quickly becomes a political choice. It is as if (I think) he is thinking, “I don’t care if this is true or not; I must find a way to make this point so that I can then go on to link rapes to unemployment, especially the unemployment brought on by the BJP’s decisions.”

I concede that the act of writing presents a weak challenge – but it is a challenge nonetheless, and which you can strengthen through habituation.

Christopher Nolan’s explosion

In May, Total Film reported that the production team of Tenet, led by director Christopher Nolan, found that using a second-hand Boeing 747 was better than recreating a scene involving an exploding plane with miniatures and CGI. I’m not clear how exactly it was better; Total Film only wrote:

“I planned to do it using miniatures and set-piece builds and a combination of visual effects and all the rest,” Nolan tells TF. However, while scouting for locations in Victorville, California, the team discovered a massive array of old planes. “We started to run the numbers… It became apparent that it would actually be more efficient to buy a real plane of the real size, and perform this sequence for real in camera, rather than build miniatures or go the CG route.”

I’m assuming that by ‘numbers’ Nolan means the finances. That is, buying and crashing a life-size airplane was more financially efficient than recreating the scene with other means. This is quite the disappointing prospect, as must be obvious, because this calculation limits itself to a narrow set of concerns, or just one as in this case – more bang for the buck – and consigns everything else to being negative externalities. Foremost on my mind is carbon emissions from transporting the vehicle, the explosion and the debris. If these costs were factored in, for example in terms of however much the carbon credits would be worth in the region where Nolan et al filmed the explosion, would the numbers have still been just as efficient? (I’m assuming, reasonably I think, that Nolan et al aren’t using carbon-capture technologies.)

However, CGI itself may not be so calorifically virtuous. I’m too lazy in this moment to cast about on the internet for estimates of how much of the American film industry’s emissions CGI accounts for. But I did find this tidbit from 2018 on Columbia University’s Earth Institute blog:

For example, movies with a budget of $50 million dollars—including such flicks as Zoolander 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Ted—typically produce the equivalent of around 4,000 metric tons of CO2. That’s roughly the weight of a giant sequoia tree.

A ‘green production guide’ linked there leads to a page offering an emissions calculator that doesn’t seem to account for CGI specifically; only broadly “electricity, natural gas & fuel oil, vehicle & equipment fuel use, commercial flights, charter flights, hotels & housing”. In any case, I had a close call with bitcoin-mining many years ago that alerted me to how energy-intensive seemingly straightforward computational processes could get, followed by a reminder when I worked at The Hindu – where the two computers used to render videos were located in a small room fit with its own AC, fixed at 18º C, and when they were rendering videos without any special effects, the CPUs’ fans would scream.

Today, digital artists create most CGI and special effects using graphics processing units (GPUs) – a notable exception was the black hole in Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, created using CPUs – and Nvidia and AMD are two of the more ‘leading’ brands from what I know (I don’t know much). One set of tests whose results a site called ‘Tom’s Hardware’ reported in May this year found an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti FE GPU is among the bottom 10% of performers in terms of wattage for a given task – in this case 268.7 W to render fur – among the 42 options the author tested. An AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT GPU consumed nearly 80% as much for the same task, falling in the seventh decile. A bunch of users on this forum say a film like Transformers will need Nvidia Quadro and AMD Firepro GPUs; the former consumed 143 W in one fur-rendering test. (Comparability may be affected by differences in the hardware setup.) Then there’s the cooling cost.

Again, I don’t know if Nolan considered any of these issues – but I doubt that he did – when he ‘ran the numbers’ to determine what would be better: blowing up a real plane or a make-believe one. Intuition does suggest the former would be a lot more exergonic (although here, again, we’re forced to reckon with the environmental and social cost of obtaining specific metals, typically from middle-income nations, required to manufacture advanced electronics).

Cinema is a very important part of 21st century popular culture and popular culture is a very important part of how we as social, political people (as opposed to biological humans) locate ourselves in the world we’ve constructed – including being good citizens, conscientious protestors, sensitive neighbours. So constraining cinema’s remit or even imposing limits on filmmakers for the climate’s sake are ridiculous courses of action. This said, when there are options (and so many films have taught us there are always options), we have a responsibility to pick the more beneficial one while assuming the fewest externalities.

The last bit is important: the planet is a single unit and all of its objects occupants are wildly interconnected. So ‘negative externalities’ as such are more often than not trade practices crafted to simplify administrative and/or bureaucratic demands. In the broader ‘One Health’ sense, they vanish.