Log: 4/30/2021


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.

Mathematics for gamblers, Catalin Barboianu

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.

The Hustle Economy, Tressie McMillan Cottom

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 and Anarchy, Jasper Bernes

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 Rules, Jonathan Foley

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).

The Great Amazon Flip-a-Thon, John Herrman

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.

From Companies Acquiring Amazon Businesses

h/t Moira

Log: 4/23/2021


This week: Had a busy week so a little light...but: junk, ice cream machines, colonialism in the core, emotional intelligence, smallholder yields, and custom Magic: The Gathering sets.

Unwanted Corkpull, Kelly Pendergrast.

A good run through of many of my own anxieties wrt to physical products.

My parents mentioned that they'll need help to start cleaning out the house; on the one hand I'm excited about the nostalgia of going through old books and whatnot I had as a kid but dreading the inevitable pile of unwanted things that needs expedient disposal and forgetting. There's no comforting illusion of recycling or donation, considering that nine times out of ten recycling is effectively landfilling and the fraction of junk that was at one point functional (i.e. not packaging, or memorabilia, and so on) will be in disrepair or obsolete.

The author mentions Robin Nagle, I recommend her book Picking Up. Sanitation is one of the most dangerous jobs, in large part due to the horrendous shit that makes up what we make. Bits that become projectiles in the hopper and toxic sludge spewing out of bags that can kill. And of course the sheer amount of waste that circulates. As pointed out in the article, disposability— along with debt and privatization—is an important strategy for maintaining demand, creating a unending vacuum that pulls products throughout the economy.

Like the author I sometimes fantasize about tools that are well-made, long-lasting, repairable, and excel in their function. There's a subreddit for those products, r/BuyItForLife, although I think there's often conflict over whether or not the sub has lost sight of its original purpose, with people posting things that, in fact, do not last for particularly long (the gold standard seems to be things that are passed down through generations and still in good condition), and there's also the side that the sub drives purchases/is probably a target for advertisers, though mitigating consumption isn't one of its stated goals. And funnily, there are often posts of people complaining that they can't buy anything that's posted on the subreddit, because a lot of these durable products aren't produced anymore.

I hold the corkpull, and I think of the prehistory of its materials extracted from the ground, the chemical manufacturing to form the plastic compounds, the digital piecework of design logistics, marketing, the molding and unfolding and packaging and shipping and handling and retail. It’s such a weight to hold in my hand. The hours aren’t love hours, necessarily — rather chemical hours and deep-time sedimentary hours, pain hours and R&D hours. More hours than I can ever repay.

I think of the other extreme here, of preppers and survivalists and homesteaders and so on who in some sense are desperately trying to escape this bond to global supply chains and waste. I get the draw, but I don't know if you can ever fully escape that pull.

'Colonialism had never really ended': my life in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes, Simukai Chigudu

This was fantastic. I don't have much to add except that I recommend and that it's another angle on the very complicated, challenging, and inescapable tension of needing to play by the rules of oppressive systems to "succeed" enough that you gain some footing to shift them, and the inevitability that playing by those rules leaves its mark on you—marks that you spend years reckoning with and undoing.

Reading throughout I was reminded of my own family history and the relatively little I know from when I've worked up the courage to ask my parents about it. I grew up in the US so there is a generational gulf between me and my family history in China, but not as much as I'd have originally thought. My grandparents consisted of two doctors, a scientist, and a social work, and all had some connection to the US: one had studied in the US, the others were among the first Chinese doctors to work at a western hospital funded by a Rockefeller. My father, who continue this short tradition of western medicine in my family, interestingly grew way more interested in traditional Chinese medicine over the last decade.

Chigudu's necessarily nuanced relationship Mugabe and Zimbabwe independence and the warped binary positions people distant from the country take also reminded me of the internet and media discourse around China. Now is obviously a sensitive time with anti-Asian sentiment rising and continued tensions between the US and China, but it's still extremely common to see positions that are (and I don't think this is really an exaggeration) "China bad" or "China good". People who live in America no doubt have complex feelings about the country because it encompasses so many different things. China is just as complex, but countries outside your own, that you have no connection to, are only ever invoked as a symbol and never as a place.

As someone active in online leftist spaces I come across pro-Mao/pro-China rhetoric very often and am never really sure how to deal with it. My family and their friends were persecuted under Mao as intellectuals; being associated with a western hospital didn't help. It's really hard for me to see how that could have been justified. This is winding away from the original piece so I'll stop here, but maybe I'll write more on this at another time.

They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War, Andy Greenberg

Interesting story about the McDonald's ice cream machines that are constantly out-of-service and how a couple, after building a device that made independent maintenance of the machines easier for franchises, came under the fire of McDonald's itself. I recently gave a talk titled "Autonomy vs Automation" themed around asking whether or not a technology enhances autonomy or encourages automation, by which I mean "makes decisions on our behalf", whether or not we realize it. Many new technologies impose some kind of asymmetric relation on its users, whether that is a draconian EULA or a excessive ToS or the cyclic dependency of GMO/fertilizer/pesticide the agrochemical industry entails. The piece described how Taylor, the company behind the notorious ice cream machines, makes independent maintenance of the machines difficult in part because they benefit from lucrative maintenance contracts. You can probably guess where the story goes: McDonald's/Taylor crackdown and Taylor, seeing the interest in the couple's device, make their own copy of it. I can't say I have any emotional investment in any of the parties involved but it was an entertaining read.

It reminds me of the "f'real" shake machines at Wawa—not quite the same as froyo but iirc the approach there is to have the ice cream in a separate container and refrigeration unit, and the machine just does the mixing. Seems way less complicated but I don't know if the same approach would work for froyo.

The Repressive Politics of Emotional Intelligence, Merve Emre

Another entertaining read, where about 3/4 of the way through I realized that "emotional intelligence" as a self-disciplining framework for life under capitalism sounds an awful lot like Confucianism, at least The Analects, which I have to admit is the only Confucian text I've read. The harshest reading of The Analects is that Confucius is basically doing what the author here is criticizing Goleman for—a kind of conservatism with regards to maintaining harmonious but rather regressive relationships and an implication of personal failure if strife occurs in them. Whereas Goleman developed another naturalizing sleight of hand for individualizing the burden of capitalism and disciplining its subjects, Confucius I guess was doing similarly for the state? I don't want to stretch this comparison too far, it was just a briefly striking similarity.

Higher yields and more biodiversity on smaller farms, Vincent Ricciardi, Zia Mehrabi, Hannah Wittman, Dana James & Navin Ramankutty

A promising meta-analysis that finds greater yields and (crop and non-crop) biodiversity with smaller farms. This is a very controversial topic (consider this recent big ag shill piece) and when I read more about it while researching fertilizer I couldn't find anything conclusive. There is just so much variety to contend with—different crops, environments/climactic conditions, unusual weather patterns, variability in crop treatment, soil quality, local socioeconomic conditions, and so on—that it's hard to generalize the outcome of any study (or even set of studies!). But at least this study is more evidence on the side of smallholders. Interestingly, they weren't able to find anything conclusive on GHG emissions and resource efficiency, which, along with crop yields, are the major points of contention in the big-vs-small ag debate. The article hints at labor being a main factor here, which I guess is not all that surprising.


From the "Goliaths of Nangjiao" set

This is an incredible site of custom Magic: The Gathering sets. The quality and creativity of the set and card designs are impressive—I hope to try one of them out at some point. I'm pretty sure some official cards and sets have lifted ideas from this site...which is something I've wondered about. There have been accusations of Wizards of the Coast stealing ideas from fan designs.

Log: 4/16/2021


This week: post-growth bicycle manufacturing, a Daoist "Cultivation Simulator" (!!), and the end of development (and growth?).

Material challenges of bicycle manufacturing in a post-growth world, Philippe Gauthier

An exercise in thinking through how exactly bikes—an industrial product that is probably essential in most visions of a sustainable/degrowth—would be produced in such a post-growth world. It's an interesting thought exercise in that bicycles are close to an ideal technology, but complicated in important ways. They are mechanically straightforward with relatively few parts, especially compared to many of the other devices, but are still composed of technically-complex materials. They are relatively easy to repair and long-lasting, so production doesn't need to be non-stop—achieving bicycle "saturation" among a population is possible (if you consider the existing stock of bicycles, we might have already achieved saturation)—but maintenance still requires products like chain grease, bike pumps, and tools. There's relatively little variance among bicycles: aside from differences for bodies like frame sizes and seat shapes and maybe some alterations for different environments like types of tires, bicycles are more similar than they are different.

A lot of questions come up when thinking through this. Nowadays bicycles vary tremendously in price range, with cheap ones made of bad steel and extraordinary expensive ones made of more exotic materials like carbon fiber. What materials provide the best trade-offs for price, energy intensity, resource requirements, production complexity, and so on? What scale of production makes the most sense (maybe regional factories)? Will there be regional variances in bicycle production because of resource availability (maybe wood instead of steel or aluminum)? How is waste like popped inner tubes handled? Do we have specialist bicycle manufacturers or are is their production more on-demand at generalist facilities?

I would love to read more deep dives like this!

The End of Development , Tim Barker

Are we coming to the end of growth? Degrowth feels less like the active pursuit of ending growth and more like stopping the desperate attempts to squeeze out one last drop and managing the damage that happens when it does end on its own. But if growth will end on its own, how do we know when it has? How can we tell if we aren't just in a "slump" on the road to yet further gains? A reasonable place to look for signs of the end of growth are in developing countries, who, as the label implies, should theoretically have the most room to grow.

Conventional wisdom says that development in the economic sense happens through manufacturing, but the power of manufacturing to grow economies has waned:

Rodrik’s observation is that deindustrialization has been happening across the Global South as well, where industrial employment has already peaked and begun to decline. This is “premature” in the sense that the peaks are coming at a lower level (measured in share of employment and output or the level of national income) than they did in the now-rich countries that industrialized earlier. At the height of the golden age of capitalism in 1973, Japan, Germany, and the UK had roughly 40 to 50 percent of their populations working in manufacturing. In Brazil, by contrast, the peak, reached in 1986, was 23 percent; for Nigeria, in 1991, it was just 13 percent.

Service-led growth was put forward as an alternative development path, but growth driven by services pales in comparison because productivity in services does not grow at the same rate that they do in manufacturing and they seem incapable of employing as many people:

Rwanda, which averaged over 8 percent annual economic growth from 1995 to 2015, has also been offered as an example of service-led growth. A major component of the country’s “service exports” is tourism, which is said to have grown over 20 percent per year between 2002 and 2012. As with India, even proponents of the service strategy give reason for skepticism. In this case, “The main driver of tourism, gorilla trekking, is reaching full capacity,” economists Ggombe Kasim Munyegera and Richard S. Newfarmer wrote in 2018, “and the country needs to develop additional attractions to keep the sector growing.” Even if these attractions materialize, which one hopes they will, it is important to remember we are talking about growth from a very low baseline. In terms of purchasing power–adjusted GDP per capita, Rwanda ranks 166th in the world. There is no evidence here of a way for poor countries to become middle-income countries.

Manufacturing demand is limited; eventually you reach a kind of saturation unless demand is stimulated/constructed in some way (I'm reminded of Aaron Benavav's Automation and the Future of Work):

Unlike in the United States, investment in China is not held back by the requirement that it produce private profits. But even unencumbered by this requirement, Chinese officials find they have run out of outlets for public investment: “We have plenty of bridges and roads already,” an official from Sichuan Development, a state-owned enterprise, told the Financial Times in 2019. Over the last decade, Chinese manufacturing has also declined as a share of employment and value added.

The end of the piece talks about "just-in-case" production (in contrast to "just-in-time") where overcapacity becomes a virtue, i.e. a buffer against catastrophes like a pandemic, and a turn towards domestic production for domestic needs rather than export-led growth. I've seen more talk of domestic manufacturing as a national security issue in the US amid the supply chain scares of COVID-19; but in the context of developing countries such an inward turn is more about serving the population's needs (which I guess is a national security issue from the perspective of some people). But my understanding is that the debts that many of these countries hold basically require them to pursue export-oriented development as part of those agreements and out of necessity to pay back those debts? And domestic production will be undercut by cheap imports, so such capacities will struggle to develop. This part reminds me of Ha-Joon Chang's great series, "Economics for People" and his book Kicking Away the Ladder where he discusses how critical protectionist policies were in the early development of the rich countries.

I wonder, when does growth != accumulation? That is, is growth always just the rearrangement of wealth or wealth-potential, and how much of the growth of the rich nations is just the capturing of the wealth of the rest of the world? Poorer countries can't really replicate that.

Amazing Cultivation Simulator

Amazing Cultivation Simulator

I find a lot of interesting stuff while searching for images, and this time I found Amazing Cultivation Simulator, a Rimworld/Dwarf Fortress-like game but set in a world of Chinese mythology.

It's really overwhelming. Way more like Dwarf Fortress in terms of complexity than Rimworld. It actually might be more complicated than Dwarf Fortress. I only played very briefly—I don't know when I'll have a chunk of time to dive more deeply into the game, but it looks like there are tons of different subsystems and subgames that could take weeks to fully digest. They all look interesting though, like the feng shui mechanic. But these games walk a fine line between a engaging story generator and a meticulous management nightmare.

Amazing Cultivation Simulator

Amazing Cultivation Simulator

It's listed as only Windows, but runs decently on Linux through Proton.

Log: 4/9/2021


This week: Alternative RPG systems, race and anime, heavy bike cargo, farmland consolidation and ESG.

Alternative RPG systems

A comment on a thread about an upcoming tabletop RPG called Coyote & Crow led to me to look at a couple alternative tabletop RPG systems to D&D. The only other system I'd read anything about was the one for Cyberpunk 2020 which iirc isn't all that much different from D&D.

Anyway, that's not really what the linked thread is about. The commenter points that D&D and similar games usually encourage violent or other morally-compromising "solutions" to problems that come up. Having played a bit now, yes, violence, whether intentional or not, is the outcome of most scenarios in D&D. The mechanics probably do encourage it but that may also just be part of the fun of role-playing. The commenter points to some other rule systems that are designed to encourage other approaches to problem-solving (this is the context of solarpunk; cheating and murdering people is decidedly not solarpunk).

I looked at two of the mentioned games: ORBITAL and Ryuutama.

ORBITAL has a lot of interesting elements. It uses a system called "No Dice, No Masters", originally from Dream Askew. Instead of dice, players earn tokens by doing things and they can spend those tokens to take certain actions, and everyone acts as game master collectively. The way the game structures scenarios is also very clear and helpful. Characters aren't built around particular combat proficiencies like in D&D. It doesn't even look like there's a combat system.

Ryuutama basic system is much closer to D&D (dice-based skill checks) but also has a less clear delineation between game master and player. While there is combat, players gain experience through travelling long distances (their site says it's sometimes called "Hayao Miyazaki's Oregon Trail"), and the magic system has a greater focus on weird utility spells (e.g. "turn any biological matter into a bottle of jam"), which are way more interesting than combat-focused spells. Classes are also more along the lines of "farmer" and "merchant" rather than around combat roles.

Mechanics that don't rely on indiscriminate violence are something I'm thinking a lot about while developing Fugue. A handy term is here "ludonarrative dissonance" which describes the inconsistency between the game's narrative (you're a hero doing good things, or whatever) and the mechanics (but you're going around murdering hundreds if not thousands of people). I'm still on the fence about including combat in the game. Even if combat is a part of the game, only one or two characters will have any combat proficiency.

For what it's worth the D&D campaign I'm in is successfully minimal on combat! It's all the better for it.

An aside on dice systems: I've always found dice-based games and general randomness in games interesting. True randomness doesn't vibe well and paradoxically feels unfair, so game designers often tweak true randomness to align more with our poorly-attuned perception of randomness. If you sit someone down and tell you to write out a random sequence of heads and tails, people will under-represent streaks of heads or tails. Our vulgar understanding of randomness is some like "having no pattern" but in an independent random sequence like coin flips a streak is just as likely as any other combination of flips (though, depending on length, may be rare among all sequences of flips).

Anime character design

Among anime enthusiasts I probably only rank as a "casual" consumer of anime, but I've always wondered why anime characters look so "Western". I only recently learned of the term "mukokuseki", which translates to "without nationality", and at the time the hand-wavy answer I got was more or less "well they look Japanese to Japanese people". Clearly there's a lot more going on, and anime is generally terrible when it comes to issues of race. I have no doubt that this has been thoroughly explored in academia. But I haven't ever really encountered discussion of the topic "in the wild", but again I'm not very plugged into internet anime spheres. The most only recent memory I have of the topic is reading comments around The Last Airbender live-action adaptation, with many people arguing that Aang is white. That just feels wrong, but I don't know if the show runners ever came out with an official statement on that. One of the many, many disappointments of The Legend of Korra is that Aang's descendants are more heavily coded white in their features, so maybe that more or less communicates the show runners' stance on it.

This topic came back to mind after coming across this post on the topic while looking for Satoshi Kon character design images. The post points a bit more to how big the iceberg really is, but still doesn't go into much depth.

The TV Tropes entry on mukokuseki has this to say:

Japanese propaganda art during Imperial Japan's military aggression towards China and Korea is notable for featuring Japanese people looking more "European" with their larger eyes and white skin in contrast to the Chinese and Koreans, who were depicted with smaller eyes and stereotypical yellow skin (which is not a real East Asian trait). This artistic racialization was done by the Japanese to distance themselves from the rest of the Asian continent, particularly other East Asians, whom they viewed as inferior to them, and to put themselves on the same level as the West (white people) even though Japanese people obviously bore more cultural and physical similarities to neighbouring East Asian nations than, say, the French.

Carry Shit Olympics


I love biking with cargo. I've never had a trailer or one of those bikes with the platform on it (I do have a small rear basket though) so I'm usually jury-rigging milkcrates and strapping tons of stuff to my backpack (and/or wearing a front backpack). I had to move out of two studios last summer this way (though for one of the moves I did borrow a truck for the bigger furniture pieces). Anyway this is an IG filled with images of people hauling cargo on bikes. It looks like these are mostly from North America or Europe because tbh this is kind of nothing compared to the cargo you see in China, such as cooking stalls and gravity-defying loads on 三轮车 (sānlúnchē; Kira and Crystal had a cupcake stand on one). But some are still pretty impressive. I'd love to get one of those cargo bicycles one day and haul stuff for people.

三轮车 (sānlúnchē)

Bill Gates is the biggest private owner of farmland in the United States. Why?, Nick Estes

There was a moment of a lot of attention on "land grabs"; basically foreign private companies buying up large swathes of land throughout the world for speculative purposes (land being one of the fundamental resources and in fixed supply), for export-oriented industrial agriculture (increasingly seen as a good investment beyond the land itself, driven primarily by pension funds—people will always need to eat), for food security (e.g. countries with wealth but little arable land). Many of the projects on the purchased land puttered out. A report by GRAIN in 2016, "The global farmland grab in 2016: how big, how bad?", reflects on that moment. We can throw climate change into that mix for probably two reasons:

  • Climate change will probably exacerbate productivity differences across land, making land that remains productive through those changes even more valuable.
  • On the "green capitalism" front, if services like carbon sequestration become profitable (e.g. through government subsidies or mandates requiring companies purchase offsets), many of the sequestration options have big land requirements (re/afforestation and carbon sequestering agriculture).

Rich people owning a lot of land isn't really new, but Bill Gates is trying to spin it off as something socially beneficial. That also isn't necessarily new (e.g. land dispossession because people weren't using the land well/correctly or whatever) but this is a strong indication of where greenwashing is headed.

From the piece:

Investment firms are making the argument farmlands will meet “carbon-neutral” targets for sustainable investment portfolios while anticipating an increase of agricultural productivity and revenue.

ESG has gained a lot of popularity over the past couple years, basically the idea that you invest keeping environmental and social impacts in mind. The "governance" aspect of ESG is, as far as I know, already a part of most investment analysis. It's not quite the same as ethical investing (which excludes entire categories of investments, e.g. weapons manufacturers) or impact investing (which invests with particular outcomes in mind). My understanding of ESG is that it's a risk-based framework: for example, on the environmental front a company may be exposed to a lot of risk if they are heavy polluters and it's likely that some strong pollution regulation is coming down the pipeline. They'd bear a high cost in fines or purchasing new equipment/changing their processes to meet the new pollution limits.

As far as I know most of the risk in ESG is regulatory, at least if you only consider it in the typical 5 year or less time horizons that analysts usually do. Some might be cultural, e.g. if a company does something racist that goes viral, but I have a feeling that doesn't affect their bottom line that much (the people who make purchasing decisions on that basis are probably a much smaller fraction of a major company's overall market than we'd like to believe). The more important externalities like climate change take a much longer time to play out. If it's true that ESG risk is mostly regulatory, then ESG is really only as risky as the political environment the company operates in. And companies already take great measures to minimize political/regulatory risk.

The other way ESG goes is with this kind of greenwashed investing that's pointed out in the piece. Regulatory risk is one side of ESG, the other is regulatory opportunity. As I mentioned above, things like subsidies for carbon sequestration or carbon offset mandates. Out of those two sides, this is of course the better one, but it still treats climate change as only a technical problem i.e. a matter of carbon accounting.

Log: 4/2/2021


This week: Rick Roderick, the reconfiguration thesis, p2p and the far right, poorly drawn bicycles, bardcore, We Will Always Love You, and World of Horror.

Self Under Siege, Rick Roderick

Rick Roderick on Baudrillard - Fatal Strategies

I re-visited this series of Rick Roderick's lectures that were very formative for me. He has two other lecture series, "Nietzsche and the Post-Modern Condition" and "Philosophy and Human Values", both of which were good (so far as I remember), but "Self Under Siege" is the one that stuck with me the most. It's a compact but very accessible introduction to critical theory mixed in with musings on 90's American politics and pop culture. The name series refers to the various ways the "self" is under attack: people losing their sense of self, the increasing control of bodies and minds through more and more insidious and powerful structures, the devaluing of human life (of oneself and of others), and so on. Older ideas of dystopia start to look quaint ("Orwell's vision of a horrible future...a boot stamping on a human face forever, is a utopian image because he assumed there would be resistance and human faces") as oppression and control grow ever more diffuse, invisible, and sophisticated. As depressing and discouraging as that is, Roderick usually tries to point towards something better throughout the lectures.

Roderick is unashamed in (and has a talent for) presenting concepts in a very clear, forgiving, and not morbidly serious way, though he never makes light of the topics. He speaks with a consciousness about the tropes and idiosyncrasies in how philosophy is developed and how philosophers behave; that philosophers themselves engage in all sorts of socially-contingent behaviors (writing a particular way, valuing certain kinds of arguments, ignoring certain people and traditions, etc) that muddle what they talk about and how they talk about it. And he always relates everything back to what he feels is the project of philosophy: human liberation. I wish more philosophy (or anything, really) was taught this way. Sadly he passed away relatively young in 2002. I would have loved to hear more of his lectures.

It'd be interesting to see an updated lecture series modeled off of "Self Under Siege" for today. I wonder how different it would be. There's the internet of course, and many other developments, but it feels as though we're still basically on the same trajectory that he and the philosophers he discusses laid out decades ago. The reason I revisited the lectures is because I'm reading Achille Mbembe's Out of the Dark Night, and in the first part he reviews a lot of these recent developments—e.g. biosciences/biotechnology, neuroscience, expansion of the internet and ICTs, ecological/climate crisis, etc—and their causes, dynamics, and implications. It's kind of like a compact version of what I imagine an updated "Self Under Siege" lecture series would be like, now that I think about it (at least in terms of topic coverage). Nothing sounded fundamentally different than what I remembered from those lectures, just dialed up 100 times. But maybe there's some nuance there that I'm missing.

While revisiting those lectures I came across this interview with Roderick that I hadn't seen before. He goes into more of his background growing up in West Texas, his understanding of critical theory, social change, and the labor movements of the time, and how he thinks about teaching ("Don't leave my class saying 'strike out against all authority', based upon the authority of Rick Roderick. This is paradoxical. Find your own form of struggle, questioning, of living more fully"), among other things.

The Reconfiguration Thesis

A question that comes up again and again is the extent to which capitalist technologies and infrastructure can be used against or separate from capitalism itself. This falls under the umbrella of a more general question explored through writing like Langdon Winner's "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" and expressed through quotes like Audrey Lorde's "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"1. Working with computer technologies and adjacent to the tech industry exposes me to this question all the time, especially through positions like Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), ecomodernism, xenofeminism, and so on, which are all positions that I at some point held myself. And while I don't hold those positions anymore, I'm still sympathetic to them in a way (especially xenofeminism); at the very least I don't totally reject the notion that technology has some liberatory potential (it seems impossible to defend or refute these positions in general), for me the question is more about coming up with a better rubric for discerning technologies with that potential (e.g. a better and more honest assessment of the ecological implications/environmental feasibility of something like FALC, or that technologies implicate us in certain relationships we might not want to be in, and whether or not such an intensely technologically-dependent society is even necessary to achieve social goals), and understanding if going whole-hog on that direction is the best use of my time.

Anyways...in light of the Suez Canal blockage and because this question makes up part of Fugue, I revisited Jasper Bernes' "Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Prospect" and Alberto Toscano's response, "Lineaments of the Logistical State", which explore this question ("the reconfiguration thesis") in the context of logistics and commodity circulation. These are long pieces, and admittedly the latter half of the Toscano piece still goes over my head even after all these years, so I hope I've understood their main points.

Bernes argues a few points:

  • Some main features of highly-developed logistics: it expands access to markets, the privileging of flexibility reduces the power of labor ("resiliency" not only in the face of natural disasters but strikes or unfriendly regulations as well), and just-in-time production reduces costs of storing goods/building up stocks.
    • One important effect: has facilitated decline in local productive capacity, which makes regional movements more exposed to capitalist crackback and enshrines a dependency that can undermine revolutionary movements: "the need to maintain an export economy in order to buy crucial goods on the international markets — arms in particular — meant that revolutionary cadres and militants had to use direct and indirect force in order to induce workers to meet production targets."
  • Blockades/sabotage are actions that are targeted at circulation, as opposed to production: "The blockade, it seems, might assume an importance equal to the strike in the coming years"
  • He proposes "counterlogistics": essentially mapping out the network of logistics so as to identify chokepoints and to clearly see how otherwise disparate actions integrate to form a cohesive whole.
  • As for the reconfiguration of logistics infrastructure, there are two main points I see:
    • Can it be made useful to revolutionary interests? Such infrastructure is optimized for circulation of specific forms; particular ideological commitments or capitalist needs are baked in: "individually packaged boxes of cereal...sold and consumed in sizes and types that reflect certain social arrangements, such as the nuclear family" or for particular relations of trade (consumer and producer nations).
    • Is it even needed? "For workers to seize the commanding heights offered by logistics — to seize, in other words, the control panel of the global factory — would mean for them to manage a system that is constitutively hostile to them and their needs, to oversee a system in which extreme wage differentials are built into the very infrastructure. Without those differentials, most supply-chains would become both wasteful and unnecessary."

Toscano's response, as far as I understood it, amounts to something along the lines of: well, most of it probably can't be reconfigured, but we should be open to the possibility:

I stressed that any “reconfiguration” concerns an evaluation, both practical test and theoretical anticipation, of, as I had said, “what aspects of contemporary capitalism could be refunctioned in the passage to a communist society.” This implies that some (many, even most – the ratio is not decidable a priori) of these aspects could not be refunctioned at all (though they would still need to be somehow dealt with or disposed of).

And regarding blockades and sabotage, he makes the point that "disruption is not sufficiently linked to control". To me this sounds less like a problem inherent in those tactics and more of a question of how they fit together into a broader movement, which is maybe what Bernes' "counterlogistics" is getting at.

The Decentralized Web of Hate, Rebellious Data and Emmi Bevensee

Matt sent me this report on the far right's use of p2p. We talked about it and it dawned on me that, although most of my exposure to p2p has been in a left libertarian/anarchist context, as a general ecosystem/approach to social platforms, it's probably going to be first widely adopted by the far right. This report indicates that things are already heading this way.

It makes sense that p2p adoption would play out this way. The far right are the most visibly deplatformed by major sites, and so they have an actual need to find alternative platforms that are harder to moderate if they want to preserve their entire media ecosystem. The more popular approach to the problems of social media on the left is policy, e.g. anti-trust regulation, or even nationalizing such platforms (extremely unlikely). Because control over these platforms via policy actually looks feasible, alternative platforms look less necessary. This is obviously an incomplete picture, but hadn't occurred to me before.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

The illusion of explanatory depth has been stuck in my head. From the paper that introduced the concept: "People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth." It's when you feel like, "yeah I think I understand X", and then when pressed to explain further, you realize you don't understand X at all.

This is so common and less discussed than its closest counterpart, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is usually used as a bludgeon to shame people (in internet discourse, at least). I like developing models and simulations precisely because it forces me to reckon with this illusion. I think this is exactly why people say that teaching is the best way to learn something.

One of the best/funniest demonstrations of the phenomena is asking people to draw bicycles from memory:

Lawson, R. (2006). The science of cycology: Failures to understand how everyday objects work. Memory & cognition, 34(8), 1667-1675.


I got sucked into the world of bardcore ("medieval" covers of pop songs). There are a lot of really impressive covers, like this one of The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights":

Blinding Lights (Medieval Style)

(this Arabic cover of "Blinding Lights" is also really good)

Some songs really lend themselves to the style, e.g. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road", Attack on Titan's final season theme, the Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M", and Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" (these last two feel like they could be on the Morrowind soundtrack).

This cover of BLACKPINK & Selena Gomez's "Ice Cream" in the "ancient Chinese" style is also extremely good:

BLACKPINK, Selena Gomez - Ice Cream (Ancient Chinese Style)

There's also a cover of BLACKPINK's "Lovesick Girls". I'm curious about what sample packs are being used here.

Some songs which don't seem at all conducive to the style end up working really well, e.g. Daft Punk's "One More Time".

The comments on all these videos are also very entertaining (tons of jokes about modern problems in medieval times).

I haven't yet found any "bardcore beats to study to" streams yet.

We Will Always Love You, The Avalanches

In other music news, I started listening to The Avalanches' latest album, We Will Always Love You (I'm late to it, it came out last December). Their debut album, Since I Left You, is probably my favorite album (so much that I made a program inspired by it), and they have a lot of great mixes floating around on the internet. I was a little disappointed by Wildflower—it wasn't bad, it just wasn't as good as Since I Left You. We Will Always Love You still doesn't hit that mark either; I take it they've departed from the fully plunderphonics approach and so their sound has lost some of its uniqueness, but it works a lot better for me than Wildflower did (maybe the sophomore album curse doing its work there).

If you want to hear how much their sound has changed since the band's inception:

I also learned about Cola Boyy through the album (on "We Go On", with Mick Jones and sampling Karen Carpenter), whose music is also hitting the spot:

World of Horror

I love Junji Ito's work. Uzumaki was thrilling to read (I kind of want to re-read it now; spirals have been interesting lately because they are a kind of broken loop), The Enigma of Amigara Fault is kind of an internet in-joke now (not sure if it's yet ascended to "meme" status); in general he's very good at, well, horror. But the kind that sticks with you. Not in the way of a latent threat or lurking shadow but in a more cosmic way. Also, I normally hate body horror (just too viscerally disturbing) but for some reason with his works it is less hard for me to stomach. Maybe it's the illustration; I haven't watched the Uzumaki film because I think that would be too much for me.

Anyway, that's all to say that there's this game I recently tried, World of Horror, that's inspired by Ito's work. It's a roguelike, so very hard, but over time you pick up the "right" way to respond to certain situations. But there's still plenty of RNG so it's damn hard even then. And the art style also available) mimics Ito's well with its old MacOS 1-bit (2-bit also available) dithered graphics.

World of Horror

There isn't a Linux version, but it works fine with Wine.

There's also a Uzumaki mini-series coming out soon, which I'm excited for.

  1. Although there are many different interpretations of this particular quote. In Ed Whitfield's wonderful essay "What must we do to be free? On the building of Liberated Zones" he notes: "I would make her point differently. I think that you can tear down the master's house using some of the master's tools. Tools are just tools. They amplify, or multiply human effort and they don't have to be used the way they were intended or for the purpose they were created. I think that the real problem is that it is difficult to tear down the master's house while you live in it. And that, for many of us, represents the challenge. Our presence in the big house leads many of us to feel the need to defend it, rather than pray for the strong wind when it begins to catch fire." 

<< >>