Here is a statement with a lot of truthiness: if you eat fatty food, you will get fat. What could be simpler, right? Lard goes in the piehole and then the tummy gnomes paste it to your thighs. It seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe that it’s completely wrong. But biochemistry is not straightforward, and it’s insanely difficult to work out the relationship between what you eat and how much weight you gain. Things that have been asserted for years as dogma turn out to be not so well supported.
The scientific gold standard is Popperian falsifiability. You always want decisive experiments with clear outcomes. If I announce a new comet in Sagittarius, then within a day or two astronomers in Berlin, Bangkok, and Bratislava should be able to confirm or refute my claim. But what if there’s no good way to test my claim? Suppose the people in Bratislava think my telescope has comet-shaped spots on the lens, and I in turn refuse to endorse their obviously defective non-comet-spotting telescope. How can we resolve our dispute?
Debates like this happen all the time in science, and they can take years to unravel. The surprising thing about the obesity story is that the question being debated is so fundamental that it feels like two physicists arguing about which way is up. In the interview, Taubes and Attia muse about whether ANY feasible experiment could break the deadlock between competing nutritional camps. It’s almost as if the problem of obesity lives in a shadowed region beyond the reach of science.
If that sounds incredible, then I agree. That’s why the interview is worth your time. Science is hard. Truthiness, on the other hand, is like a Cool Ranch Dorito. It tastes so good, but it can be bad for your health.
By now you’ve likely seen images conjured up by DALL-E2 or Stable Diffusion. These are neural networks that can draw pretty much whatever you want. As far-fetched as this sounds, it seems to be true. You want teddy bears shopping for groceries in 19th century Japan? No problem.
The list of outrageous prompts and resulting images is endless. It is at once exhilarating and exhausting and terrifying to see how well it works. You may enjoy browsing through the various relatedsubreddits.
As remarkable as these tools are, the funny pictures are distracting us from the bigger story: we will soon be adding a natural language layer to EVERY user interface. Certainly everything that is generative. It’s going to be transformative because deep technical competence tethered to natural language will release you from the shackles of craft. Let me explain.
DALL-E2 is a graphical tool, but the key thing is how you talk to this graphical tool. It’s really more of a language tool. You’re carving pixels with words. It’s as if you’re talking directly to Photoshop. But that’s still not quite it. It’s as if you’re talking to a brilliant digital artist, and they do all the pixel pushing. Click once on the mountain top and say “Put a castle here.” And it will instantly happen. You might then say “No, I’d like it to look less like Neuschwanstein and more like Carcassonne.” And it will happen instantly.
Do you see? The new thing here is not a castle-making tool. It’s the ability to talk to a skilled digital artist about anything at all. You no longer need to spend years getting good at Photoshop. The new thing here is the ability to talk to an always-on expert in ANYTHING. What we’re building is a generation of mechanical savants. You talk to them with natural language. They don’t talk back to you in natural language. They have deep knowledge of a subject area, and their reply is a concept that they think matches your prompt.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s imagine you want to build a house. You have a vague idea what you want, but you need to talk to an architect. They’re the ones with the expertise needed to turn your hunch into something realizable. You give them a naive prompt and they reply with a realizable concept. It’s not quite what you wanted, so the two of you go back and forth. Over time you develop intuition about what you like, what can be built, and what you can afford.
The problem is that architects are expensive. Only rich people can afford to play this game. But the game is changing now, because you can replace the architect with a mechanical savant. In the diagram below, you’re the one with the desire and the initial prompt. But now your prompt goes to a machine, a mechanical savant, to generate the concept. The bot has deep knowledge that frees you from years of studying a craft. You don’t need to go to architecture school. You don’t even need to hire an architect. You just need to discern the bot’s latest concept and modulate your next prompt.
Your key competence here is your relationship to the savant-bot (since it’s the one doing all the generation). Your competence is in the articulation of desire and discernment. Your new craft is iterative prompt refinement. This is the skill that you must never trade away. Knowing what you want, and knowing that you know what you want… these will be the instruments of power. All else is leverage, getting cheaper every day.
I don’t know how YouTube got the idea to recommend it to me, but I was recently introduced to a video genre that I never knew existed: realtime sinking ship videos. Specifically, there are videos of the sinking of the Titanic in which one minute equals one minute. You see a steady annotated video of the events from iceberg strike to final plunge. Here’s one example.
I am reminded once again that everything about the Titanic conspires for storytelling perfection. The unsinkable ship! The plutocratic passenger list! The calm, cloudless night illuminated by desperate flares, and of course the band playing until the Atlantic lapped at their cellos. And incredibly, the whole thing took place in one cinematic sitting, something less than three hours. Usually movie drama is compressed, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass, as Shakespeare observes. But in this case it’s already there, pre-packaged in the hourglass.
What the realtime video does is strip away all the fictitious drama. What you’re left with is an inconveniently long and slow-moving story, something that couldn’t have existed before YouTube. All the drama is provided by the actual events at the rate they transpired. No editing out the slow bits. It would be boring if it wasn’t so spellbinding. Details are layered on top of the video. You hear the actual Morse code communications at the moment when they occurred. You hear the music that would have been heard. It must have been hard for the players to make Alexander’s Ragtime Band appropriately jaunty.
This video trend will continue, I’m sure. There are already realtime videos about the sinking of the Britannic and the Lusitania (which went down in a mere 18 minutes). It’s interesting to think about how modern media gives us new ways of thinking about time. There was a Twitter account, for example, that did realtime accounts of World War I one hundred years after the fact. What’s next? A three day video of Realtime Gettysburg? Or the final few decades of the Fall of Rome?
My question for you is this: Is the modern attention span growing or shrinking? Narrowing or broadening? In this era we have hyperfast editing that will give you ADHD whiplash. But now we also have slow-moving, focused video like the RMS Titanic Realtime Sinking (and the Apollo Saturn V Launch Camera E-8). I think it’s a welcome trend.
We’re all familiar with the concept of pandemic hobbies by now. You have yours and I have mine. But now, as we edge into a post-pandemic world (knock on wood!) we’re going to see how many of those hobbies actually stick. That is, will you still be making sourdough this time next year? I confess that my ukulele is pretty dusty these days, fun though it was when I was in full lock-down.
Birdwatching, as it happens, was one of the more popular pandemic hobbies, and I’d be willing to bet that it will persist for a lot of people. With that in mind, I am so happy to introduce today my very good friend Jay Czarnecki. Jay is a genuine birder from way back. I even went birding with him once when we were in college, so I can vouch for his old school credentials. Jay has agreed to write a guest post here where he talks about why you might want to take up birdwatching even if it isn’t already one of your pandemic hobbies. Take it away, Jay!
The Pleasures of Birding
by Jay Czarnecki
It’s been well-observed that during our time of forced isolation during the pandemic, many people sought out the comforts of new hobbies: knitting, language learning, baking. It seems one of the most popular ones is birdwatching, or birding. I’m writing today primarily for those who have joined this rewarding hobby, or those who have a passing interest in the birds around them, or those who are simply bird-curious. In other words: everyone! And after a little introduction, I’m going to leave you with some real news-you-can-use.
1. The beauty of the birds 2. The beauty of being in a natural setting 3. The joys of hunting, without the bloodshed 4. The joy of collecting (day lists, life lists) 5. The joy of puzzle-solving (in making those tough identifications) 6. The pleasure of scientific discovery (new observations about behavior, etc.) 7. The Unicorn Effect: Learning about a fascinating bird that captures your imagination…and then one day, seeing it in the wild. What a thrill!
I agree with all those and would add an overarching eighth: enjoying all seven with people you love. A couple of my best unicorns was a snowy owl, sighted on a wintry and isolated New Jersey beach with my Dad, and a pileated woodpecker, so evocative in miniature of its pterodactyl ancestors, in the Maryland woods with my wife Nancy.
I have a perhaps an idiosyncratic personal history with birding. It all started when I was very young in the 1970s. Ours was a generally outdoorsy family (car camping, campfire programs, a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine), but my entry into birding had a very distinct start, when one day my Dad spotted an unusual bird through the back window in the distant field behind our house. It was brownish and stout, standing quite still, its body low to the ground but with a long tail, black head and red about the face. As curiosity grew after multiple sightings, my Dad purchased binoculars and a birding field guide, and we made the ID: it was a ring-necked pheasant. Many people have a memorable sighting, like our pheasant, that sparks their life-long interest in birding; it’s called a “spark bird”.
I say idiosyncratic because while I’ve been actively birding my whole life, and am always “bird-aware” in my everyday doings, there have definitely been periods of long hiatus. I also kept to the easier identifications and didn’t invest time and energy in the challenging ones (I’m looking at you Empidonax flycatchers). When the pandemic hit, I joined the many people taking up the hobby – in my case it was getting active again and trying to level up a little. So I have a unique perspective to observe developments in the hobby while I’ve been away. As you might guess, these developments often involve the availability of internet-powered knowledge sources and other tools.
And now here’s the news-you-can-use: whether you’re already started up with birding or if you have a vague passing curiosity, after you finish reading this post, go download the smartphone app called “Merlin”.
The Merlin app was developed by the geniuses at one of the centers of excellence for ornithology (the scientific study of birds) in the US, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It works like this: when you hear some interesting birds, you open the app, hit the button, and it identifies the bird based on its song. If you read that sentence and thought “like Shazam”, the popular app that does the same thing for the unknown song you’re enjoying sitting in Starbucks …bingo! Merlin is Shazam for birds.
Identifying unseen birds by their song (“birding by ear”) is hard, an advanced skill painstakingly developed over many years. I am at the very beginning of my birding-by-ear journey. That’s why I’m very excited about Merlin. Not only do you get immediate identification help, you also get learning reinforcement right in the moment, the best kind – yes that song you hear that sounds like a drunk playing a broken flute really is a bald eagle (the militant screech you almost always hear from eagles in the movies is an overdubbed red-tailed hawk). But even better: it can improve the way you bird too. Out birding, I’ve lingered at a spot full of intriguing birdsong, fired up Merlin, and decided based on the results to stick around longer and try to put eyes on something interesting that Merlin says is nearby.
And for those who aren’t yet dedicated birders journeying into the field, just use it in your backyard or urban park! You’ll be surprised at what will turn up. You know you’re curious what that hyper little brown busybody nesting in your flowerpot is (spoiler alert: it’s probably a Carolina wren).
And here’s the deeper payoff: once you become familiar with the most common birds that are around you, you start to mentally check in with them as you go about your business outside. You soon come to learn the comings and goings of our migratory friends who are with you for short stretches of the year, an enriching addition to the anticipation that many of us enjoy as one season yields to the next. You’ve become “bird-aware”. That’s something that I think is rewarding enough in its own right, but also leads to becoming more “wildlife-aware” and “environmentally aware”, and I think only good can come from that. At least that’s what I learned from Ranger Rick.
My friend Nicki is a novelist. She once wrote a novel called I, Iago in which that Shakespearean bad boy gets to tell his side of the story (she wrote a bunch of other novels too!). You can imagine her delight upon learning that her novel was a clue in last Friday’s crossword puzzle for the New York Times. That’s some serious cultural credibility, right there. I like the idea of being that well known for a non-felonious accomplishment.
Anyway, it occurred to me that employing so many vowels in your novel’s title could really make your name in the crossword cluing business. I wrote Nicki a short note: “You should write more novels with 4 vowels in 5 letters. Could be a real money-spinner in after-market crosswords.”
I even included a few suggestions of my own. That’s the kind of helpful friend I am. Here they are.
“O, Ahoy!” – Sailor ashore finds love, or something close enough. “Eli II” – An account of inventor Eli Whitney’s forgotten heir. “Aiean” – A plucky native of Oahu builds Hawaii’s largest watercress farm. “Id Eau” – A Freudian thriller set on the banks of the Seine. “I, Ilie” – A faux-memoir of Romanian tennis star Ilie Năstase. “A Roué” – A debauched cleric’s inconclusive collision with redemption.
There! I’ve done the hard work. All you have to do is write the novel and crossword fame will be yours, assuming you can escape oblivion, find a few readers, and endear yourself to aspiring cruciverbalists.
But maybe you don’t want to write a novel. I understand. Not all of us are novelists. In that case, I challenge you to come up with a 5-letter 4-vowel title (and summary) of your own. Leave some winners in the comments!
After much debate, I decided to buy an electric bike. The source of the debate is that I’ve never been a bike person. So my Inner Cynic said “Who are you kidding? You’ve never been a bike person. You’re going to spend all this money on a bike and then never use it.” My Inner Cynic talks a LOT. Mostly like this. But my Inner Optimist said “You know better. You’ve been reading loads of upbeat articles about e-bikes. With the right bike, everyone is a bike person.” I almost referred to my Inner Optimist as my Inner Sucker. But that’s just my Inner Cynic talking. I wish that guy would just chill sometimes. He can really kill the mood in the old noggin party.
So anyway, I dropped some cash and took delivery of a VanMoof S3. And I’m happy to report that the early verdict is that it is indeed awesome. Here it is posing by the Charles River in Watertown. Today was a splendid afternoon for a ride.
What’s most on my mind as I get used to my new bike is the difference between me and proper bike people. You know: “real” cyclists. Am I faking something, or am I really riding? But beyond this, why is this even a question? Why do I spend any time thinking about this? It seems to be largely about cultural judgment and virtue signaling.
Once again, here’s the cynical view: “Real cyclists don’t need batteries to help them go up hills. They have actual muscles. You could too if you had any self respect. Fake cyclists are plump waddly creatures who don’t look good in spandex, but nevertheless want to pose on bikes for social credit. It’s sad. If you can’t pull your own weight, soft boy, just stay home!”
Does that sound about right? Where does this inner voice of ridicule come from? Why is score-keeping and virtue-signaling so important to us? We just love judgment.
A more generous view of things goes like this: “If you find a bike you like, it doesn’t matter if it has electric assist. Because you enjoy it, you will actually use it and thereby get all the benefits of bike riding: better fitness, better mood. It doesn’t matter if you’re not training for a criterium. You’re enjoying yourself, and that’s good enough. Full stop. If Mr. Inner Cynic can’t handle that, then he can lump it.”
When I get past all the head games, I find this bike is just a delightful way to get around. It removes almost all the hassle I formerly associated with cycling and gets me out on the road where I can enjoy myself.
Here’s a fun Bloomberg article about e-bikes in New York City. It’s one of the upbeat articles I was referring to above. And I believe the premise: e-bikes are winning over a whole new group of Americans (people like me!), and those people (us!) will increase the political capital and willpower to improve cycling infrastructure. Cynical translation: real cyclists will benefit from the soft-boy vote. Or as the article’s title puts it, “The E-Bike Effect Is Transforming New York City.” It won’t be rapid, but there is an inflection point, once you bring enough people into the tent, where improving things gets easier and easier.
Verdict: Inner Optimist wins this round.
Oh for God’s sake, stop sulking, Inner Cynic! You almost always win.
Eventually, Covid came. It came and tapped me on the shoulder. It chose me for its team, and so I obediently moved to the other side. What else could I do?
I didn’t want to. But I had known it was coming, one of these days. One of these days. Monday. So many tests over the months showed me only one line: negative. Now there were two. I rubbed my eyes. Two lines? Positive. My immediate emotions veered between self-flogging regret and shrugging acknowledgment of the inevitable. How had I been so foolish? And yet: how had I made it this far? Losing my badge of viral hygiene came with a terrible sense of loss. I was dirty. I was out of the race. I was tripped up and besmirched, unworthy to continue sprinting ahead of the billowing pestilential cloud. If you are still clean and spry, I wish you luck. Spare a thought for those of us left behind, those of us vanishing in your rear-view mirror. Godspeed!
There is a saying among soldiers that there are three stages of thinking about getting injured in battle. The first is optimistic, naive: it won’t happen to me. I feel bad for those other guys, but I’ll be fine. After a while, you reach the second, more pragmatic stage. Now you think, it won’t happen to me if I’m smart. Those other guys are idiots. They have it coming. But I’ll play it smart and be fine. But more time passes. By now you’ve see the smart and the dumb, the good and the bad, succumb all around you. You know how luck scoffs at intent. The third stage is fatalism. It’s going to happen to me. I don’t know when, and I won’t invite it. But nobody escapes.
This roughly corresponds to my thinking about Covid over the past few years. The two curves were moving in opposite directions: one curve says I must be smart and safe, and the other curve says I must live a life. After two and a half years, I must live some kind of life outside of this bunker. Where do these curves cross? At what point do you leave a gap just wide enough for the virus to get in? It doesn’t have to be big. The virus is stealthy and patient. It’s always at the door, waiting waiting. Knock knock. Anybody home?
Now I find myself on the other side of the mask. I used to wear it to keep something out. Now I wear it to keep something in. It’s the same fence, but now I’m the prisoner. Or are you the prisoner? Who has been liberated? For the next few days, I am the monster. I am the one you fear. I spew virus like dragon flame from my nostrils. Sorry! But it’s a fact. I take orders from a different boss.
How about this? I can write you a note. I did write some of these notes. It wasn’t fun. They went like this. Dear sir or madam: Sorry that I exhaled invisible putrefaction in your direction the last time we met. I was, at the time, unaware of my regrettable infestation. Perhaps, because of me, you will soon slide down to join me in this greasy pit. Just wanted to let you know. But I did say I’m sorry.
I am musing on this like I’m talking about mortality itself. I suppose that is where my thoughts wandered, but really, my case was very mild. A few days after showing symptoms, I’m already feeling almost normal. But I found it interesting to ponder the slippery psychic landscape conjured up by this endless, implacable plague. Winners and losers. Winners and losers. I was a winner, and then I lost. Now it’s time to play a different game.
What can I tell you about my wife Wendy that you don’t already know? Maybe you don’t know her, in which case I can tell you a lot. I would start with this: Wendy works very hard on behalf of other people. When she moved to Boston 30 years ago, one of the first things she did was start delivering meals to people suffering from AIDS. She has labored tirelessly for our son Jay, who because of his autism, needs a lot of support and is unable to advocate for his own needs. She has worked very hard to support our friends the Haganis who immigrated here from Iran several years ago. They have become a second family, and for Wendy helping them isn’t a cause or a charity or a web page. It’s just helping family. She has helped people at our church, and through our church, as leader of the Mission and Outreach committee, she has managed charitable outlays to dozens of groups.
Wendy has something inside her that makes her want to help people. But she also has something less welcome inside her. That thing is pancreatic cancer.
I am tempted at this point to say things about life not being fair, but I’ll spare you that digression. We all know life and fairness aren’t well acquainted, and you certainly have your own examples of unfairness closer to home. But this is the one that’s close to home for me. Here is this person who lives in my house, who works so hard to help others, and this strange growth in her gut is threatening to kill her. I want to stop it. I bet you want to stop it too. But it’s very expensive even to try to stop it. I’m sorry to bring up money, but there you are. Stopping diseases is an expensive business, and there’s no getting around it.
So this is the part you knew was coming: the appeal. To read this far, given that you knew an appeal was coming, can only mean that you, like me, care for Wendy. Maybe you didn’t know much about her when you started reading, but now you do. And you know that this disease affects not only my wife, but millions of others. People who have the disease. People who love and depend on people who have the disease. A contribution might help Wendy. But it will definitely limit the suffering for many others. And it might move us a little closer to ending the dire outcomes of this disease for millions out into the unseen future. Who knows? Your dollar might make all the difference. It’s worth a try. Wendy’s worth it. I promise.
I make this appeal in the name of PurpleStride, a PanCan fundraising walk that will happen on April 30th. You can make a donation on my page or on Wendy’s page. And if you’re in Boston on April 30th, come walk with us!
I recently watched the movie Return to Space. It’s a documentary about the first commercial mission to launch humans to the International Space Station. That flight was a big deal because it was the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired that we’d launched humans to orbit from American soil.
I started by watching the trailer, and I thought, “This looks pretty good.” So I read more and learned that it was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi. This is the same team that made Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan. They made another film that I recommend, The Rescue, about the divers who rescued the Thai soccer team that was trapped in an underwater cave. But the first film I saw by Chin was Meru, which was about mountain climbing in the Himalayas.
In fact, Jimmy Chin was one of the climbers in the movie. So he knows climbing and he understands how climbers think. He knows the kinds of questions that are sensible to ask a climber, and the kinds of questions that are stupid to ask a climber. Climbers, like divers and pilots, learn to suppress their emotions, because emotional outbursts can be deadly. Because of this, they can come across as flat or robotic. How on earth do these people manage the incredible stresses on them? Most mainstream portrayals of people in these roles feel a need to make this emotional stress legible to the lay public. Their fictionalizations show pilots monologuing with un-pilot-like drama because otherwise it comes across as unbelievable. But that drama, those emotions, weren’t there in the cockpit. To find the emotion heart of the story, you need to understand where to look. You need the right tools. Chin and Vasarhelyi have those tools. This is what Tom Wolfe did this so well in his book The Right Stuff: getting inside a pilot’s brain. Emotions are displaced in time and space from the dramatic event. Often the crucial decisions are made months or years in advance. The important actions are taken in training sessions. The revealing conversations are made with children and spouses. Chin finds ways to pick apart these complex stories. There’s very little music, none of it bombastic. Properly portrayed, the dramatic events at the center of the film can then speak for themselves.
Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once remarked that, by temperament and by training, astronauts are not emotional. He went on, “I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher… we might get a much better idea of what we saw.” It might be a while before we send a poet into space, but Chin and Vasarhelyi are already coaxing poetry out of those who have been there.
Do you watch much TV these days? As I ask the question, I realize how dated it sounds. There used to be one object in your house with a screen. It was called a television, and at any given time you were either watching it or not watching it.
I’m sure my story is not unusual for people of my age. When I got home from school I would watch old cartoons and sitcom re-runs (Bugs Bunny, Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes). After dinner, my father would switch on the national news (always NBC). After that, there would be a few hours of prime time entertainment courtesy of the three major networks.
“We don’t have a TV” used to be a faux-careless bragging point, much like mentioning your most recent marathon time. It was easy to throw it into a conversation, a virtue signal for the brown-rice and Birkenstocks set. “Hill Street Blues? That’s a TV show, right? We don’t have a TV at our house. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”
If it was too much of a stretch to say you didn’t own a TV, there was a fallback position: “We do have a TV, but we only watch documentaries.” The full version goes like this: “I have a disassembled black and white TV in a box under the bed. When there’s science documentary I want the kids to see, I rebuild the set for one night and then tear it down when the show is over. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”
Now people are watching less and less TV, but still spending loads of time looking at screens. Distributing bragging rights and shame is so much more complex! For instance, I can say in all honesty that I cancelled my cable subscription two years ago, and I might go for weeks without turning on my TV. But it’s a misleading statement. I subscribe to multiple non-cable sources of video content (Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV). I watch a lot of YouTube videos. And even though I have a nice TV on my living room wall, for some reason I prefer to watch shows and sporting events on the iPad in my lap.
Everything has to be qualified more carefully. Abstinence humble-bragging requires more specificity. “I don’t have a TV and I never use any of my screens to look at any content that could qualify as the kind of thing that used to be on TV. Although, come on, of course I look at the cat videos that friends send me.”
True abstinence from screen time seems almost like an impossibility now. You’re more likely to feel shame or envy these days because your friends are much better curators and reviewers of high-quality binge-watching than you. “I don’t often binge watch, but when I do, it’s an award-winning drama series. And after it’s over, I unplug the cable and groom my alpacas. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”