America Doesn’t Know Tofu

George Stiffman in Asterisk:

Guiyang didn’t have many restaurants, per se. The metropolis was more of a city-wide night market. Even in the pre-COVID days, streets like Qingyun Road were only half-filled with cars, to leave room for tents and tables that stretched to the horizon, and for smoke and steam that rose into the clouds. Eateries didn’t burden you with 14-page menus, common at Shanghainese or Northeastern restaurants. No — a làoguō 烙锅 shop sold laoguo (think Korean BBQ with more vegetables, cooked over a clay pot dome). A sīwáwa 丝娃娃 shop sold siwawa (shreds of 20-plus varieties of fresh and pickled vegetables that you roll into a thin, rice cake-like taco). And tofu stands sold tofu. But probably not the tofu you’re thinking of.

Pale slabs of bean curd shivered over a sputtering steel grill box. As their tops bathed in the cool summer air, their bottoms tensed and colored. When Auntie flipped over a piece, the tofu’s underside was purplish like a black eye, its thick skin waxy and crackly like a fried egg bottom. And then it started expanding.

More here.

If AI scaling is to be shut down, let it be for a coherent reason

Scott Aaronson in Shtetl-Optimized:

There’s now an open letter arguing that the world should impose a six-month moratorium on the further scaling of AI models such as GPT, by government fiat if necessary, to give AI safety and interpretability research a bit more time to catch up. The letter is signed by many of my friends and colleagues, many who probably agree with each other about little else, over a thousand people including Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Andrew Yang, Jaan Tallinn, Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, Yuval Noah Harari, Ernie Davis, Gary Marcus, and Yoshua Bengio.

Meanwhile, Eliezer Yudkowsky published a piece in TIME arguing that the open letter doesn’t go nearly far enough, and that AI scaling needs to be shut down entirely until the AI alignment problem is solved—with the shutdown enforced by military strikes on GPU farms if needed, and treated as more important than preventing nuclear war.

Readers, as they do, asked me to respond. Alright, alright. While the open letter is presumably targeted at OpenAI more than any other entity, and while I’ve been spending the year at OpenAI to work on theoretical foundations of AI safety, I’m going to answer strictly for myself.

Given the jaw-droppingly spectacular abilities of GPT-4—e.g., acing the Advanced Placement biology and macroeconomics exams, correctly manipulating images (via their source code) without having been programmed for anything of the kind, etc. etc.—the idea that AI now needs to be treated with extreme caution strikes me as far from absurd. I don’t even dismiss the possibility that advanced AI could eventually require the same sorts of safeguards as nuclear weapons.

More here.

Life expectancy continues to decline in the U.S. as it rebounds in other countries

Selena Simmons-Duffin at NPR:

Just before Christmas, federal health officials confirmed life expectancy in America had dropped for a nearly unprecedented second year in a row – down to 76 years. While countries all over the world saw life expectancy rebound during the second year of the pandemic after the arrival of vaccines, the U.S. did not.

Then, last week, more bad news: Maternal mortality in the U.S. reached a high in 2021. Also, a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association found rising mortality rates among U.S. children and adolescents.

“This is the first time in my career that I’ve ever seen [an increase in pediatric mortality] – it’s always been declining in the United States for as long as I can remember,” says the JAMA paper’s lead author Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Now, it’s increasing at a magnitude that has not occurred at least for half a century.”

Across the lifespan, and across every demographic group, Americans die at younger ages than their counterparts in other wealthy nations.

More here.

Dark Matter: Pierre Soulages and Pierrette Bloch

Molly Warnock at Artforum:

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about that epigraph in the wake of two back-to-back events this past October. One was Soulages’s death at age 102, the other a visit to the monographic room recently devoted to Pierrette Bloch (1928–2017) at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (MAM). Comprising eight objects from between 1974 and 1999, all belonging to the museum’s permanent collection, the focused presentation offered a welcome opportunity to think broadly about a singularly poetic body of work exhibited regularly in Europe but rarely in the US. Particularly in the wake of Soulages’s death, however, it also invites fresh consideration of the two artists’ longtime dialogue. Introduced in 1949 by Bloch’s art professor Henri Goetz, the pair were friends for nearly seven decades, and their lives and oeuvres were closely intertwined. Early in her career, Bloch used a spare room in Soulages’s house as her studio, and each collected work by the other. Slightly older than the artists of Supports/Surfaces but avowedly attentive to their investigations, Bloch developed a similarly expanded practice of painting, moving beyond the stretched canvas support to engage a broad array of nontraditional and often notably humble materials. Her work brilliantly illuminates both the fecundity and the limits of the “materiological” Soulages brought to the fore through Segalen’s striking image of signs woven in stone.

more here.

How Christopher Wren built Britain

Michael Prodger at the New Statesman:

If there is one part of one building that is quintessential Christopher Wren it is not the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, or the ceremonial river frontage of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, nor even any of the infinitely various steeples of his city churches, but the base of the Monument.

The structure, a fluted column erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London, was built between 1671 and 1677 and stands both 202 feet high and 202 feet from Pudding Lane, the place where the conflagration started. The gaze of passers-by is inevitably drawn upwards to the flaming golden urn at the top that represents both the disaster and the city’s resurgence. But for Wren and his co-designer, Robert Hooke, mere memorialising was just one part of their intention. They constructed the Monument to be both a zenith telescope and a laboratory: looking up its tubular interior they could observe and measure the position of the stars (the topping urn was hinged so that it could be opened to the sky); looking down it they could experiment with pendulums and gravity. The two men would collate and analyse their findings in a research space beneath the column.

more here.

Friday Poem

At Sea

……………talking with Perschke on the fantail. I ask him
“What time do you go on lookout?”
—“When the sun sets. But I can’t tell tonight, it’s
—” In Japan in the Buddhist temples they ring the evening
bell when it gets so dark you can’t see the lines in
your hand when you’re sitting in your room.”
—“Full length of up close?”
—“Full length I guess.”
—“Suppose you got a long arm. Maybe you’re late. Are the
windows open?”
—”Sometimes they’re closed.”
—”Can’t always ring it at the right time, huh?  What do
they ring it for anyway?”
—“Wake people up.”
—“But that’s in the evening.”
—“They ring it in the morning too.”

by Gary Snyder
from Earth House Hold
McClelland and Stewart, Ltd., 1969

Paradigms Gone Wild

Steven Shapin in London Review of Books:

The​ tragedy of Thomas Kuhn’s life was to have written a great book. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962, when he was forty, and he spent the rest of his life distressed by its success. It has sold 1.7 million copies, and has been translated into 42 languages. Very few academic books sell in those numbers and scarcely any are still seen as state of the art sixty years after publication. Structure crosses disciplines. It is read by historians, sociologists and philosophers whose business is thinking about what science is and how it changes, and also by scientists with a reflective turn of mind. It is read by theologians pondering the differences and similarities between science and religion, and by anthropologists considering the characteristics of ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ thought. The book has insinuated itself into everyday language. Kuhn plucked the word ‘paradigm’ from linguistics – where it referred to the permutation of forms having a common root, like the conjugation of verbs or the declension of nouns – and repurposed it as the term for a key regulative resource in scientific inquiry, a concrete model of ‘the right way to go on’. Eventually, lots of things meant to be thought of as ‘innovative’ and ‘good’ were branded as ‘paradigm shifts’: new ways of producing factory-farmed chicken, the latest solution to the difficulties posed by Brexit for trade arrangements in Northern Ireland, the emergence of celebrity chef culture.

New Yorker cartoon shows tramps leaning against a wall: ‘Good news – I hear the paradigm is shifting.’ Another has two men, their clothes billowing out in the wind, speculating that there must have been a ‘paradigm shift’. You can buy a bumper-sticker: ‘Shift Happens: Buddy Can You Paradigm?’

More here.

Bathing Through the Ages: 1300–1848

Clare Watson in The Scientist:

In medieval times, long before there were bathrooms in private homes, bathing was a social affair. Visitors to Dutch and German bathhouses in the late Middle Ages emerged from such spaces cleansed of more than just their grime: They also received basic medical care from “baders,” bathhouse proprietors who were also licensed health practitioners, skilled at lancing abscesses and pulling teeth. Steam rooms, mineral baths, cupping, and herbal concoctions were also commonly used to alleviate ailments from scabies and leprosy to migraines and miscarriages.

Not until Victorian times would bathhouses become a little noticed but influential item in public health policies. But according to Janna Coomans, a historian at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who studies public health in medieval cities, bathhouses provided access to more affordable medical care as baders charged less than doctors for their services. Sweating, bloodletting, and lancing were attempts to correct an imbalance in the four “humors”—phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile—that were thought to cause ill health. While these practices may seem unhygienic by modern standards, bathhouses enabled “a large part of the population to maintain health and hygienic norms, according to their ideas of health,” Coomans says.

More here.

After the Fall of Silicon Valley Bank

Jonathan D. Teubner in The Hedgehog Review:

Around noon on March 9, I learned that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) had shut down the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), where my company has some of its accounts. My co-founder and I were in the middle of a call with some of our advisors, all experienced hands in the tech startup world actively advising and investing in tech startups like ours. The Zoom room was empty within seconds. We all immediately knew what that meant: The cash we pay our employees and vendors was now locked up—perhaps indefinitely.

Rumors, and rumors of rumors, that SVB was teetering on the edge of collapse had been circulating in private chat groups throughout the week. On Tuesday, I began receiving nervous calls asking what I thought. By Thursday, the dam had finally broken. CEOs, CFOs, and anyone with signature privileges spent large portions of the day attempting to transfer as much cash as possible to their other accounts—or to set up new ones, if they had accounts only at SVB, as many startups did. We were fortunate to have started out with good old-fashioned community bank accounts, but others weren’t so lucky. Their money was likely stuck in financial purgatory for some time.

We had a bank run on our hands, of course. Some of the wealthiest corporations and investors in the world attempted to withdraw $42 billion in a single day, nearly a quarter of the bank’s $200 billion of deposits.

More here.

Surprise Computer Science Proof Stuns Mathematicians

Leila Sloman in Quanta:

On Sunday, February 5, Olof Sisask and Thomas Bloom received an email containing a stunning breakthrough on the biggest unsolved problem in their field. Zander Kelley, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, had sent Sisask and Bloom a paper he’d written with Raghu Meka of the University of California, Los Angeles. Both Kelley and Meka were computer scientists, an intellectual world apart from the additive combinatorics that Sisask and Bloom study.

“My mind was just blown. Like, wait, have they really done this?” said Sisask, a lecturer at Stockholm University. Kelley and Meka, outsiders to the field of combinatorics, said they had found a new — and dramatically lower — limit on the size of a set of integers in which no three of them are evenly spaced (ruling out combinations like 3, 8 and 13 or 101, 201 and 301).

More here.

Travels In Paradise: Pico Iyer’s The Half Known Life

Leanne Ogasawara in The Rumpus:

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is probably the first book that comes to mind when one imagines a pilgrim’s travels in paradise. A virtual best-seller since it was penned in the early fourteenth century, the book is divided into three parts: hell, heaven, and the intermediary realm of purgatory. It’s interesting to consider how it has always been the part about hell that has garnered the most attention. Not just by scholars either—it seems most people are, as a general rule, more interested in hell than in heaven.

Why is it so seemingly difficult for us to imagine paradise?

Pico Iyer, in his new book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, embarks on a journey to find out. The first thing he realizes is that many of the Shangri-Las of the world are places fraught with issues. And some of these –like the Holy Land and Kashmir—are more like warzones. Iyer explains in the opening pages of the book that “after years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict—and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences.”

More here.

Charting Freedom’s Descent Into Forgetfulness

Curtis White at Lapham’s Quarterly:

AFernando Pessoa reminds us, our lives are lived inside social fictions: “I tried to see what was the first and most important of those social fictions…The most important, at least in our day and age, is money.” But money is just part of a much larger complex, what Wilde called “the slavery of custom,” in which we have no choice but to live. As the January 6 insurrection and its aftermath have shown, we tell ourselves stories about patriotism—patriotism with no content other than its own fury. Whether it comes from the rioter in chief, the rioters themselves, or the House members impaneled to investigate them, uncritical love of the nation-state generates unfreedom, violence, and, too often, death, as dear Mother Russia has shown once again, in Ukraine. As John Dos Passos dramatized in The 42nd Parallel, patriotism and the rioting that too often attends it are no new thing, as when a “cordon of cops” sweeps up ideological combatants of left and right: “Look out for the Cossacks.”

Of course, knowing that we live in social fictions and knowing how to escape them are different things.

more here.

Did Vermeer’s Daughter Do Some Of The Painting?

Lawrence Weschler at The Atlantic:

Fifteen years ago, a distinguished academic publisher brought out a densely argued, lavishly illustrated, wildly erudite monograph that seemed to completely reconceive the study of Johannes Vermeer. The author, an art historian named Benjamin Binstock, said that he had discerned the existence of an entirely new artist—Vermeer’s daughter Maria, the young woman Binstock had also identified as the likely model for Girl With a Pearl Earring—to whom he attributed seven of the 35 or so paintings then conventionally ascribed to Vermeer. To hear Binstock tell it, Maria’s paintings include one of the most popular: Girl With a Red Hat, at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. He believes that painting and another at the National Gallery are self-portraits by Maria, and that she is also the artist behind two out of the three Vermeers at the Frick, in New York; two out of the five at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in New York; and one in the private Leiden Collection.

more here.

Thursday Poem

When I Am 19 I was a Medic

…. —for Lee, who sculpts Light

All day I always want to know
the angle, the safest approach.
I want to know the right time
to go in. Who is in front
of me, who is behind.
When the last shots were fired,
what azimuth will get me out,
the nearest landing zone.

Each night I lay out all my stuff:
morphine, bandages at my shoulder,
just below, parallel, my rifle.
I sleep strapped to a .45,
bleached into my fear.
I do this under the biggest tree,
some nights I dig
in saying my wife’s name
over and over.

I can tell true stories
from the jungle. I never mention
the fun, our sense of humor
embarrasses me. Something
warped it out of place
and bent I drag it along—
keeping track of time spent,
measure what I think we have left.

Now they tell me something else—
I’ve heard it all before
sliding through thee grass
to get here.

by D.F. Brown
Unaccustomed Mercy, Soldier-Poets
……. of the Vietnam War
Texas Tech University Press, 1989

How Christian Is Christian Nationalism?

Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker:

Seven years ago, during the Republican Presidential primary, Donald Trump appeared onstage at Dordt University, a Christian institution in Iowa, and made a confession of faith. “I’m a true believer,” he said, and he conducted an impromptu poll. “Is everybody a true believer, in this room?” He was scarcely the first Presidential candidate to make a religious appeal, but he might have been the first one to address Christian voters so explicitly as a special interest. “You have the strongest lobby ever,” he said. “But I never hear about a ‘Christian lobby.’ ” He made his audience a promise. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power,” he said. “You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well.”

By the time Trump reluctantly left office, in 2021, his relationship with evangelical Christians was one of the most powerful alliances in American politics. (According to one survey, he won eighty-four per cent of the white evangelical vote in 2020.) On January 6th, when his supporters gathered in Washington to protest the election results, one person brought along a placard depicting Jesus wearing a maga hat; during the Capitol invasion, a shirtless protester delivered a prayer on the Senate floor. “Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you, and that love Christ,” he said.

More here.

‘Astonishing’ molecular syringe ferries proteins into human cells

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

Researchers have hijacked a molecular ‘syringe’ that some viruses and bacteria use to infect their hosts, and put it to work delivering potentially therapeutic proteins into human cells grown in the laboratory. “It’s astonishing,” says Feng Jiang, a microbiologist at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Institute of Pathogen Biology in Beijing. “It is a huge breakthrough.” The technique, published in Nature on 29 March1, could offer a new way to administer protein-based drugs, but will need more testing before it can be used in people. With further optimization, the approach might also be useful for delivering the components needed for CRISPR–Cas9 genome editing.

…While Zhang and his collaborators searched for ways of transporting proteins into human cells, microbiologists were learning more about an unusual group of bacteria that use molecular spikes to pierce a hole in the membranes of host cells. The bacteria then transport proteins through the perforation and into the cell, exploiting the host’s physiology in their favour.

More here.