This week: Comfort with contradictions, anime and Gen Z
Dialetheism and Eastern Philosophy
We recently finished watching The Good Place, which was very sweet. Overall I enjoyed it, but there was one plot hole that I was disappointed to see left unaddressed, I'll leave it in the footnotes to avoid spoilers1.
The other disappointment is the show's heavy (maybe exclusive) reliance on Western philosophy2 I don't really blame the show for this because it's just an enormous problem in how philosophy is taught in general. Something else that would have been nice to include is a reckoning with the extraordinary racism of Kant (see the previous link for some examples).
That's all to say that after the show I wanted to read more on non-Western ethical systems. This interview introduced me to the idea of "paraconsistency" and I got sidetracked into reading about dialetheism, which is the view that statements can be both true and false (in orthodox logics statements can only be one or the other; such inconsistencies "explode", i.e. entail everything to be true). The simplest example is the Liar's Paradox, which in one sentence is "this statement is false". My understanding is that under dialetheism this statement is not a paradox and to be rejected but accepted as-is.
As the SEP entry on dialetheism explains, dialetheism shows up a lot in Eastern philosophies (as well as in Western philosophy: dialectics, for example). The Daodejing and Zhuangzi are riddled with them. "The Way of the Dialetheist: Contradictions in Buddhism" (Yasuo, Garfield, Priest) gives an overview of how dialetheism shows up in Buddhism, describe some interpretative possibilities: are they presented as literal/true, or are they used as rhetorical/pedagogical tools for insight (as in Zen)?
My own understanding is usually that these apparent contradictions are not actually the case—for example, a common form is to say that thing X has property Y and Z such that those simultaneously having two properties is inconsistent/impossible, which I often take to mean "thing X" refers to our term for X and not X itself; and that in fact that term refers to two things that are different. For example, "race is real and not real" could refer to how race is not "real" as in it is an immutable part of the universe but is still "real" as social reality—as something that feels total and inescapable in our lives.
But this interpretation doesn't work in many cases. When Buddha says "the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth", that seems to be more of a straight-up contradiction.
I definitely feel old given how much more I've been reading about subcultures through publications like Wired rather than experiencing them. But I'm struck by how much anime has influenced Gen Z and how visible/trendy it is, whereas for my generation it was an almost clandestine activity. Ariel brought up a good question: is this a popularization of Japanophilic culture or is anime being separated out? Anime production is still more or less the exclusive domain of Japan as far as I'm aware.
To get Michael to understand human ethics they have him confront his own mortality, which I take to mean that human ethics is grounded human mortality. But once you're in the afterlife, you're no longer mortal. So why would you still be judged according to an ethical standard that no longer applies to you? ↩
I hoped that the afterlife-ending gateway would actually lead them to be reincarnated; it would have been a nice gesture at non-Western conceptions of the afterlife and set a stage for introducing different ethics systems. ↩
Very interesting to read these threads on secularized/western Buddhism—which tries to "sanitize" Buddhism of its more fantastical elements. The western presentation often boils down to something like: "life is suffering, suffering is driven by desire, end desire to escape suffering". Maybe the notion of karma remains because it's in line with other western folk wisdom (e.g. "what goes around comes around"), but other elements like rebirth or that the Buddha had supernatural insight/powers are dismissed as nonsense. Even what it means to be "enlightened", as one commenter notes, is different under this secularized view: "Do you imagine that enlightenment just means feeling calm?". Maybe this kind of secularization or tampering down is a typical course for religions—thinking about secular Jews and most Christians I've met don't believe angels are real—but with Buddhism in particular it has strong colonialist overtones (usually from white people and with some implication that people who do believe in the supernatural elements are backwards/ignorant for doing so—unenlightened in the sense of "the Enlightenment").
I don't necessarily mind secular Buddhism as a concept (the problem is more the industry around it and its extractive/appropriative nature) but it's this attempt to re-write the historical image of the Buddha to conform to those beliefs—such that there exists an "authentic Buddhism" that does away with the elements you don't like—that is upsetting.
I worked at IDEO almost a decade ago—it was my first "real" job out of college, and so I didn't have any prior office experience to compare things to, but it was clear that there was a lot of kool-aid to drink and a lot of people drank it. I joined as part of a new team that was separate from the company's typical design consulting work (we were brought into help out with specific technical needs here and there) and so I was fortunate enough to be insulated from a lot of the broader office politics, pettiness, and discrimination outlined in this piece. Given the general lack of self-awareness the place has—e.g. speaking really highly of its practice as world-transformative but basically doing little but intensify capitalism's entrenchment in all aspects of our lives1 (I remember quite a bit of the work was basically creating new luxury offerings for financial institutions)—what's outlined here is sadly not very surprising.
Related to this topic: I recommend "It's Not You, It's the System" by Janani Balasubramanian. This piece was helpful for me in deciding whether or not to quit IDEO.
As a kid I liked the idea of extraterrestrial life and thought things like Fermi's Paradox and the Drake Equation were really fascinating (although the Drake Equation seemed almost arbitrary/impractical). A number of games I played growing up also built stories around aliens, like Dinosaur Safari (aliens going back in time to document dinosaurs) and The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time (an "ancient aliens"-style game set in the mythical cities of Atlantis, El Dorado, and Shangri-La that, though the story was based around aliens, taught quite a bit about the actual ancient cultures these cities were inspired by). But aside from reading about these topics here and there I never got very deep into UFOs and the like. It felt like a cliff's edge into unsubstantiated and woo conspiracy theories. At the same time, it seemed reasonable that there would be some phenomena that is difficult to explain, and that in itself was interesting without needing to jump to the conclusion of aliens. This article explores that latter space, and also goes over a campaign meant to consign UFOs and an interest in them into the former conspiratorial category (read: "crazy"), effectively making the topic untouchable if you want to be considered legitimate. I'm skeptical that anything really earth-shattering will come out of June's UAP report but who knows, maybe something interesting will happen.
A really well-produced and comprehensive series on how to take care of your clothes, repair them, and modify them:
A bunch of my clothing recently got several rips, and repairing them has been a nice way to keep my hands busy on long meetings.
Here's the most recent repair I did—you can see the smaller yellow patches where I underestimated how large patches actually need to be relative to the size of the hole. The edges of those patches ended up tearing, leading to the substantially larger sashiko patch there now.
You could maybe point to IDEO.org as a counter-example but I'm not really familiar with their work and I'd guess they have their own issues. ↩
This week: This week was very busy so I didn't have much time to read. In addition to an uptick in work obligations we spent most of our spare time uprooting as much knotweed as we could. Throughout the process I very much appreciated how useful my trowel was, which I used mostly as a lever and not as a shovel. In that spirit I have a few selections of interesting agriculture tools/equipment (for harvest specifically).
This kind of violent mechanical vibration is common, and the idea that the most efficient way to harvest from a tree is to just shake the shit out of it is kind of funny:
For olive trees I've also seen these weed-whacker-like devices used:
There's a whole YouTube microgenre for mechanized harvesters:
Hand tools are way more interesting:
As a bonus, I was shared this CDC document on farmer ergonomics (h/t Eli). It includes not only advice on movements that reduce repetitive stress injuries but also equipment like the berry rake above and this harvest cart:
Another great essay by Jasper Bernes, partly continuing the line of thought in his essay on logistics with a turn towards questions around agriculture and, to pull on what feels like the main thread, food security (to use an NGO phrase...maybe more accurate to call it "food sovereignty", but I think that means something slightly different than what's discussed here). A lot of the essay reinforces what I learned and came to appreciate while researching fertilizer. Its core is the same general problem found everywhere: the means of individual and community survival/reproduction are disjoint spatially and in terms of control. Echoing the essay on logistics, Bernes notes that any revolution which is not totally simultaneous across the planet will—if can't meet its own needs—have to continue engaging with remaining capitalist countries to a degree of some dependency, and thus remain vulnerable to blockades, embargoes, and the like. If food shortages become an issue, then people become increasingly desperate, making an already risky and frightening project even more so, shifting the calculus for some that they would (probably understandably) rather abandon the revolution for material security. To prevent this happening, the leadership or whatever analogue there is may resort to increasingly violent coercion to prevent that or to pressure food producers to work harder. Thus food independence or food "security" is a necessary condition for any such movement.
A tour of the history of various foods and their relationship to colonialism, racism, and labor movements. It's always startling to me how much of food is taken for granted as-is; I still remember how weird it felt to realize that chilis, for example, which feel so foundational to so many culinary traditions, were introduced relatively recently on those traditions' histories. Or how much violence is part of the history of sweet things—which I can't help but think of whenever I see the exorbitant amounts of sugar used on baking shows.
I don't think I've ever seen a food show that really incorporates these histories. The closest I can think of is the podcast Gastropod (which is fantastic). But nothing like a food travel show or one of the many cooking/food shows on Netflix. I did want to pitch a show tentatively called "Planet Food" which would take this on, with episodes like:
Bananas: about "banana republics", the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) and its US-backed war in Guatemala; bananas as a vulnerable monoculture and how synthetic banana flavor is actually from a now-extinct variety.
Corn: a lot to cover here: its importance as a indigenous crop, now a massive crop for livestock and high fructose corn syrup, the latter which emerged out of constant gluts and need for new corn-based products, which then lets you go into the problem of agricultural overproduction more generally.
Preservation/fermentation: as alternatives to refrigeration: brines/pickles, fish sauce, curing, smoking, etc.
Fish: overfishing as a common problem studied in economics, fish farms and those conditions, "chilean sea bass" as a case of food "branding", the amount of human trafficking in fishing, and the net as a key technology in fishing (I'm forgetting where I originally read this, but I believe it was nylon nets that were a major change in fishing net technology).
Not sure what the title of this one would be, but about how dissociated fruits/vegetables/etc are from their plants, centering around an exercise where people have to draw the plant that a given fruit/vegetable/etc is from.
"Types of Paper"
I'm enjoying the "types of paper" meme—industry/field-specific memes are a quick way to get a feel for that industry/fields concerns/values/culture and these are kind of an enhanced version of that. If I wanted to review an unfamiliar field's research on a topic I would honestly probably want to start with the matching types-of-paper meme to quickly get situated.
New Gods: Nezha Reborn
I watched the new Nezha movie (I actually haven't seen the first one yet) and I don't know if I would call it a "good" movie but it did indulge a fantasy of this kind of movie existing when I was growing up. I really only knew about Nezha through Uproar in Heaven/大闹天宫 which I loved growing up. An aside: a few years back I wanted to watch it again and could only find this weird new edited version. The original one wasn't digitized or something, but after digging I managed to find a fan restoration and now I keep a copy on all my backup drives (it's also on YouTube). The intro music is still as great as I remember.
Not too long ago I also watched Jiang Ziya by the same studio with my parents. It wasn't very good—the animation style is great, but we all found the movie too long and very confusing. Interestingly both the first Nezha film and this one are supposed to be anchors in a "Fengshen Cinematic Universe" (i.e. films based on Investiture of the Gods/封神演义). On the animation style: the past Chinese 3d animated films I'd seen all looks like their technology and technique lagged like 5-10 years behind Pixar, but these set of films all have carved out a compelling style that also look (to my untrained eye) technically impressive.
I wonder when/if Chinese cinema will start breaking into either US mainstream or subcultures. Korean cinema has been really high quality for a long time but only as of the past couple years started breaching wider US audiences. Hong Kong cinema has also been a staple of the more art-house film crowd but not much breakthrough to wider US audiences (best I can think of is Infernal Affairs which was "translated" into The Departed). To my knowledge Japanese cinema has also struggled to achieve a larger US audience, even with anime's now mainstream appeal (if not mainstream, then much wider than when I was growing up). The difference I see with Chinese cinema is the amount of money Chinese studios can throw behind projects and the massive captive audience they have (only a few foreign movies are allowed to screen in China each year). To my knowledge this is why we've seen movies like that Jason Statham shark movie with Li Bingbing and I've definitely noticed the increase in Tencent and Alibaba logos at the front of many new movies. QQ was also the messenger of choice in one Marvel movie (see below, I can't remember which one). I wonder if amid rising sinophobia this will become a target of conservative/nationalist backlash or not (something something propaganda).
This week: prescribing math for gamblers, the hustle economy as a search function for capitalism, economic planning and control, beef and climate change, and the emerging phenomenon of acquisitions of Amazon sellers.
I always like reading about randomness and probability because it's so counterintuitive and uncertainty/risk management (more broadly, "security") seems to be a decent explanation for so many behaviors. Gambling is one behavior that's sometimes pathologized as a kind of innumeracy/ignorance about probability. If that's the diagnosis, then people with gambling problems are told to "trust" the math...when gambling, like any social problem, isn't just an issue of "irrationality" or ignorance but a complex interaction of personal history, biological/psychological factors, etc. The more interesting objection in the article is: what does it mean for someone to "trust" the math when applying mathematical knowledge is a skill in itself? You need to be able to evaluate what relationships are relevant to what situations, for example, and because probability is so counterintuitive, it's very easy to misapply or misunderstand what you learn about it.
A great overview of the "hustle economy", where "economic opportunity" as code for "opportunity to hustle" and is increasingly just "the economy" for many people. Existing hierarchies and oppressions are reproduced if not compounded within the hustle economy, e.g. through "subprime" services that provide financing at a higher cost to those who are ignored/excluded by existing entrepreneur infrastructure.
There is a weird romanticism around "the hustle" in a lot of media representations and I wonder how oppressive relationships come to be represented in that way (I'm kind of thinking of Nomadland right now).
In line with above, the hustle economy is risk shifting en masse; e.g. with Uber and other gig economy companies shifting as much risk as possible to their drivers/workers (I take it that the gig economy is a subset of the hustle economy).
One thing that's been in my head wrt to the hustle economy is its "search" function for capitalism: if profits are harder to find, you need more people searching for opportunities for profit. With the hustle economy you have millions of people trying to find a big opportunity for themselves; if they hit upon success they often hit a wall in terms of scaling rapidly. Larger firms or more resourced entrepreneurs are able to swoop in, scale quickly, and push the original people out.
Planning, or "economic calculation", is a common point of disagreement on the left. "Planning" usually implies "central planning" and evokes a shadowy bureaucracy of distant politicians sending down quotas and reprimands, hoarding and number fudging among local officials or factories, and catastrophes of scarcity and ill-met needs: that is, complete dysfunction. The recent "algorithmization" of life has brought a renewed interest in the idea that perhaps instead of people, computers can do the planning (this is a fun read on how difficult this is in practice). There are varying degrees of this belief: that planning exclusively be left to a single or consortium of AIs à la Iain M. Banks' Culture or that computers have some role to play in planning (seems reasonable). Though I've found the former more extreme position to be fairly common, at least as a desire if not a belief in something that will realistically happen soon, I've seen very little discussion on how that would come about or what that might look like (though there's this article, The Problem of Scale in Anarchism and the Case for Cybernetic Communism, that goes into more technical details). I say this as someone who still views Cybersyn, a cybernetic planning system (incompletely) developed under Allende, as a valuable if flawed utopian project. This article by Jasper Bernes is probably the best thing I've read on this topic lately.
But planning is not just about knowing what resources you have and where (the measurement part of planning) and deciding how much to make of what and where and how those affect whatever it is you're optimizing (the calculation part of planning)—it's also about whether or not those plans can be executed. Bernes puts it well:
Beneath problems of calculation lay much deeper organizational issues. At stake in planning is not simply the question of whether or not all resources and all needs can be recorded and measured in terms of labor time or some other numeric marker, not simply the transparency of that data or its legibility in terms of a single measure. The more important question is about control—whether and how that measure can effect changes in the distribution of those resources in order to satisfy those evolving needs. Inasmuch as humans are involved, this is not only a technical problem to be solved by mathematical formula and computation algorithm but a political one to be solved by class struggle.
This really becomes a question of how you get people to follow the plan, and when states want people to behave a certain way they generally resort to violence:
inasmuch as people are involved in producing things, and inasmuch as those things have as their final end the satisfactions of the needs and desires of people, one cannot so easily separate the administration of things and the administration of people. The USSR had a broken system for administering people, and did so irrationally, relying on violence, and often gratuitous violence, to move the levers of a machinery inherited from capitalism.
This may not look all that different than the typical violence of life under capitalism: the commodification of needs, the linkage of waged labor and survival as a way to "incentivize" your participation as a worker.
Bernes also goes through the more fundamental challenges of planning:
there is a deeper epistemological problem here: preferences are not stable, nor are the types of things available to people. Once one leaves behind the assumption of a fixed and unchanging set of commodities organized by stable preferences then mathematical calculation confronts strong limits: one can't really know what people may want in the future when one doesn't know what will be available. For short-run calculation, one might mobilize the technologies of contemporary logistics, developing algorithmic systems that monitor inventories and stocks and make predictions about needed supply and future demand from such observations. But this would do little to guide decisions about long-term investments in plant and infrastructure, nor the allocation of labor, which can't simply be whipped about from site to site, like a pallet of toilet paper. At some point, the planners themselves would have to choose between incompatible developmental paths based on only speculation about the future. Though they would be advised by referenda and juries, one might question whether a group of people should have such power in the first place.
Or that with central planning: "the planners would make themselves a target for capture by groups or factions wanting to gain privileged access to social wealth."
"Planning" is of course not the same as "central planning", and so these indictments are not against planning more generally. The possibility is left open of some kind of intensely local planning, for example, where it seems that at least some of these problems become more manageable. But it seems like some minimum scale is necessary to reliably fulfill all needs, and that local planning will eventually hit up against a more macro-level planning.
Beef consumption is a very hot topic wrt to climate change—massive pools of manure creating waste management and contamination problems, huge amounts of agricultural productivity diverted towards feed for livestock, flourishing conditions for disease and antibiotic resistance, methane emissions, not to mention horrendous conditions in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). As a solution you have people like Bill Gates advocating for synthetic and/or plant-based meat substitutes. These are problems of industrial beef production and not beef production in general. I'd read about cattle's value in field preparation, e.g. consuming cover crop and incorporating it into the soil, so clearly there are alternatives. But it seems clear that current levels of beef consumption can't be sustained in any other way (I'm not familiar enough with synthetic meat production to comment on that, only that in general we should be skeptical of these proposals). I left my understanding at that until I had more time to read about the topic.
I came across this piece and this Twitter thread by Paige Stanley on the topic via Max Ajl, which mostly confirmed my understanding. Grass-fed (grazing) beef can be beneficial in terms of climate change but can't meet existing levels of consumption, though potentially up to 60% of it, possibly more with improved grazing techniques and with reduced wastage. Maybe the biggest challenge is that grass-fed beef requires more land, but as pointed out in the piece, this land might not have many competing uses (in terms of food production, at least).
An emerging phenomenon in the Amazon ecosystem is the acquisition of sellers by investment firms. This isn't something that I'd ever thought about but makes sense in retrospect—surprising to see, via the chart below, that this is really something that only took off over the past year. I wonder what impact it'll have.