Log: 7/16/2021


This week: low-density ancient urbanism, an extraction-free Atacama Desert, AI and climate change, and Wakanda.

3d view of Tikal (PACUNAM/Marcello Canuto & Luke Auld-Thomas, via NPR)

The real urban jungle: how ancient societies reimagined what cities could be, Patrick Roberts

I'm by no means an expert in urbanism but as far as I can tell most cities around the world, while still considerably varied, have comparable density, layout, and land-use. The ancient tropical cities of the Khmer and Classic Maya empires were more sprawled and interspersed with agricultural plots and "forest gardens". In general they sound more integrated with the environment—perhaps easier because unlike the cities that would come later they were not yet inundated with toxic industry. Whether or not the impact of urban living shakes out to be an environmental net positive or negative is something I've meant to read more about but yet haven't gotten around to. But these examples of different forms of urban life are nice to think about, even if they occurred under tremendously different circumstances.

Lithium Landscapes: From Abstract Imaginaries to Deep Time and Multi-Scalar Topologies, Samir Bhowmik

A reflection on the vast timescales that give rise to lithium and the earthbound terraforming (human extraction of) lithium gives rise to. I especially like this painting:

Lithium Fields by Mafalda Paiva. (Image copyrights belong to Mafalda Paiva)

Portuguese artist Mafalda Paiva's painting Lithium Fields, which depicts the Atacama Desert reminds us of what could have been—a paradise instead of an extractive landscape. In the artist’s vision, “the salt flats hum with a preternatural vibrancy, an effect produced by the exaggerated density of species and radically foreshortened topography.”

These Are The Startups Applying AI To Tackle Climate Change, Rob Toews

I'm skeptical that AI can be applied to substantially help mitigate climate change. There are specific applications that seem to be useful, e.g. around power efficiency, the development of new materials, etc. It probably has a role to play but hard to say whether it will be much more than other technologies treated with far less fervor—this article breathlessly states: "Artificial intelligence is the most powerful tool that humanity has at its disposal in the twenty-first century."

I wonder if the wide proliferation of AI that many of its proponents either foretell or actively try to engineer through their own companies/investments will net out positive or negative in terms of carbon, given the intense energy requirements to train the largest, most sophisticated models. If AI is commodified and so as unnecessarily ubiquitous as microchips then perhaps it'll come out net positive emissions.

This list of companies claiming to use AI against climate change is interesting, especially because it reveals what it means to publications like Forbes to "tackle" climate change. Several of the companies are focused on identifying climate risks or managing climate insurance for businesses. A great deal of time is spent companies applying AI to carbon offsets, which looks more like companies bending over backwards to legitimize a completely ineffective/actively harmful way of "addressing" climate change rather than actually working to reduce their emissions. The "solution" to offsets sounds like more surveillance infrastructure.


I'm not a big fan of the MCU, but the creation of a cinematic universe opens up a lot of storytelling and character possibilities so I reluctantly follow along every so often to see what they're doing with that capacity. I wish it were some other more interesting, less indulgently militaristic fictional universe that had the resources to do something like that. Instead we get Marvel and soon the Mattel Cinematic Universe.

Ever since I found Wakanda listed as a US free trade partner I wondered how Wakanda might relate to other countries and how people outside perceive it. While reading Doomwar I came across this off-handed mention from Shuri:

I'm so curious about the terms of that loan. The first Black Panther movie wrestled a bit with Wakanda's responsibility towards its neighboring nations or developing nations (as it used to posture as) but if I recall it never really answered that question. I haven't watched Black Panther recently so forgive any misremembering, but I believe Killmonger was just defeated without any satisfying resolution to his analysis/proposals about spreading Wakanda's wealth. IIRC he proposed distributing vibranium for uprisings across the world—even if T'Challa disagreed with violent uprisings, maybe the spreading of that wealth is worth considering. Although given what Shuri says here, maybe that's exactly what they're doing. But again, I wonder on what terms?

I wonder if in some ways the now-opened Wakanda is perceived in similar ways to how China is perceived in our world. I don't know what it takes to qualify as a "superpower" but I imagine Wakanda checks off many of those boxes. Surely many people in the MCU pin their hopes on Wakanda to usurp the planetary hegemons...sadly, they'll probably be disappointed.

Log: 6/05/2021


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.

Welcome to Planet Egirl, Cecilia D'Anastasio

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.

  1. 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? 

  2. 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. 

Log: 5/28/2021


This week: The secularization/Westernization of Buddhism, IDEO, UFOs/UAPs, and #fixingfashion.

Questions on the origins of Buddhist concepts and Is secular Buddhism looked down upon in the Buddhist community?

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.

Surviving IDEO, George Aye

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.

How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously, Gideon Lewis-Kraus

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.

#fixingfashion videos

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.

Repaired sweater

  1. 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. 

Log: 5/14/2021


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).

Mussel harvester

Carrot harvester

Olive harvester

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:

Walnut harvester

For olive trees I've also seen these weed-whacker-like devices used:

Olive shaker

There's also this gnarly looking machine:

Olive lateral canopy shaker

There's a whole YouTube microgenre for mechanized harvesters:

Ag machine YouTube

Hand tools are way more interesting:

Blueberry rake

Some kind of super-scythe?

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:

Harvest cart

Log: 5/7/2021


This week: Food and revolution, food and injustice, types of academic papers, and Chinese animated cinema.

The Belly of the Revolution: Agriculture, Energy, and the Future of Communism, Jasper Bernes

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.

Food injustice has deep roots: let’s start with America’s apple pie, Raj Patel

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.

h/t Halah

"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).