What am I up to now?

April 30, 2024

April, 2024



Happy spring! Oxford’s weather is nice. The Thames is still very high, and most meadows stay flooded. My tulips are out, and I love them. I understand tulip mania when I look at them.

I’ll be in Oxford or the surroundings until at least May. This makes three months with no travel, which I don’t mind.If anything, my sister will be disappointed that I’m not training for our Amazing Race debut. At the end of March, I submitted my second-to-last ever homework assignment, a coding portfolio for a machine learning course. By the end of April, I’ll have a thesis mostly done.

We’ve been hosting weekly Tuesday night dinners at my house for the past few months. There’s usually a turnout of 5-12 people, and we can always fit more! Please let me know if you’d like to stop by.


One of my book reviews, of Anne Jacobsen’s Nuclear War, got so long that I split it off. Shorter stuff is below.

Ethnography and faith

I recently finished Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes an ethnography of the Pirahã people of the Amazon, by a American missionary linguistic anthropologist who lived with them for decades. Their language is quite interesting, but their culture and epistemology moreso: they seem to have a very limited theory of mind, placing no credence in events or objects which they cannot testify to themselves. However weird you think this sounds, it’s weirder. The anthropologist/missionary lost his faith due to this. He translated the Gospels into Pirahã, and when his Pirahã friends learned he was relating stories he had not witnessed himself, they permanently lost interest.

I don’t remember if I wrote about a book I read earlier this year, The Book of Strange New Things. It’s not an ethnography, it’s a sci-fi novel about a missionary who travels to a corporate owned planet near to Earth, to teach the native sapients of Christ. To skip some plot points, this pastor also loses his faith, but not because of his proselytes scepticism. They are too credulous, and learning why destroys his faith. I think Faber, the French novelist, must have read the Pirahã’s history. All of it is sobering. Of all the actors in either book, only the Pirahã end happy. This has absolutely nothing to do with the truth or value of the New Testament, and everything to do with how sapient beings deal with trauma.


Gwern has one of the best personal websites; it’s a map of someone’s brain over decades. I’ve spent parts of my last decade on the internet looking for something important to disagree with him about. Here’s one: He has a limited number of five-star books on his books list, one of which is Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies. Gwern’s review is:

Very good: much better than Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and much more convincing than Spengler or Toynbee. It was also disturbing—the Ik amazed me in chapter 1, and the statistics in chapter 4 were extremely dismal and tie in far too well to Cowen’s The Great Stagnation and Murray’s Human Accomplishment. There are a great many datapoints suggesting that diminishing marginal returns to modern tech/science began sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s…

I am severely unimpressed by Tainter. He is far too credulous; take the ethnographic description of the Ik in chapter 1:

Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t fonn a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. … Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons . This is often given as the reason for having children.

This is prima facie nonsense (has Tainter ever met a three-year-old?), and was in fact entirely based off a book by Colin Turnbull which is not well-regarded.This is one thing I do appreciate about Tainter: he produced a generally excellent literature review. Most sections contain broad and numerous references. This isn’t much of a selling point tho: it’s current to 1988. Tainter falls into the trap he spends all of Chapter Three catching others of: false generalization from singular examples. Speculation is that Turnbull’s single field season with the Ik was during a drought period, and he had very limited communication abilities.

This type of error pervades the book. Tainter takes the weakest arguments of his opponents, and he has many opponents, and dismisses them with nonsensical rebuttals. His definition of what a “complex” society is fluctuates throughout the book. His argument that single events (earthquakes, epidemics) are not an explanation for collapses is that “the fundamental problem is that complex societies routinely withstand catastrophes without collapsing.” Which is… not an argument. Some earthquakes are bigger than others!

Tainter engages in cliodynamics at its most middling, while dismissing everyone who came before for doing the same. He can’t resist being cute, either. He gives theories names (“The Runaway Train model may be a variant of the Dinosaur model, but it has its own distinct characteristics.”) only to never mention them again. He is asking interesting questions — he is correct in noting the collapse of complex societies is far more interesting and neglected than their rise. But his answers are underreasoned and unproductive.

Finally, for Gwern, “diminishing marginal returns to modern tech/science began sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s”? I can’t think of any definition of those words which makes sense. Someone please explain.


That machine learning course had a great reading list, and I did a lot of reading from it. There have been times in my life when I’ve down a lot of technical math reading, but all long ago. After a couple of days struggling through Williams and Rasmussen’s book on gaussian processes for hours a day, I remembered: I hate this. Reading math textbooks and papers should not be called reading.

I love reading, and I’m a “fast” reader. This is not reading. Higher-level math books require you to understand each. word. and cache previous theorems and equations with a numerical description so you can refer back to them intuitively, then immediately proceed to the next step of the proof or whatever, which sometimes builds up to a great denoument and sometimes just leaves you back where you began. I have a good math brain, but none of the patience. Sheldon Axler:

You cannot expect to read mathematics the way you read a novel. If you zip through a page in less than an hour, you are probably going too fast. When you encounter the phrase “as you should verify”, you should indeed do the verification, which will usually require some writing on your part. When steps are left out, you need to supply the missing pieces. You should ponder and internalize each definition. For each theorem, you should seek examples to show why each hypothesis is necessary

Thanks, Sheldon. I might be done with higher math.

These are various interesting or fun things I’ve found on the internet this month.

I will have a dog someday, but this is a good reminder that dog owernship is optional.

From the wildlife photographer of the year awards:

a young Yakushima macaque jumped onto the deer’s back. Looking up momentarily, the deer, unconcerned, went back to eating the fungi at its feet.

The rodeo riding of deer by monkeys is rare, but not unheard of. Young male macaques have been seen clinging to female deer and trying to mate with them. In this case, however, the macaque was a young female, appearing just to be enjoying a free ride. After a while, the deer twitched its body, causing the macaque to jump off and wander on its way.

A weird thing about climate change: currently, “non-optimal temperature” is the cause of ~2 million deaths per year (almost 10% of all deaths). But more than 2/3rds of these are from extreme cold, not extreme heat! Therefore climate change will overall decrease deaths from non-optimal temperature. I’ve known this for a couple years and not cared because it’s not really action-relevant for anything. But then I saw this paper:

Using georeferenced data on emergency department visits, mortality, and daily temperatures across California from 2006-2017, we show that the effect of temperature on mortality differs substantially from its effect on ED visits: mortality increases under extreme heat and cold, whereas ED visits increase under extreme heat but decline under extreme cold. These differential responses fundamentally shape the burden of future climate change: we predict that mortality in California will decrease by 0.32% due to changes in temperatures by mid-century, with declining cold deaths outweighing increasing heat deaths, but that ED visits will increase by 0.46% over the same period in the state, representing a total of 1.9 million excess visits.

This project shows 360 degree views of 100 Indian homes, one for each percentile of the income distribution. The 5% richest Indian households see as much income as the 5% poorest Americans.That’s by household income. For total wealth, the disparity is larger.

A strong contender for the 2024 “Best Take on Omelas: “Why Don’t We Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole.”

The kid killers had broken the unspoken code: if you had a problem with the load-bearing suffering child, you were supposed to get the hell out of Omelas and keep it to yourself. You weren’t supposed to kill the kid. As a teenager, you were supposed to learn the blunt truth that your society was built on a single ongoing act of senseless, meaningless cruelty, and then you were supposed to cry about it or rage about it, but either way you were supposed to get over it and grow up and get on with your fully-paid-for-by-the-state education system and your festivals and your legal weed and your drooz.

How to teach someone how to use a computer, from 1996. Emotionally mature and patient.

What do we keep scientists around for, anyway? Well, they just captured the first ever picture of a baby great white shark. So they can hang around for now.


I heard a lot of unexpected music this month. Uncommonly good buskers, friends picking up the guitar in my living room, late night office karaoke, two excellent pianists coincidentally attending an academic retreat.

Music is everywhere, and lucky us. Not just the ambient music in a pharmacy or elevator – music we choose. Since undergrad, friends have swapped study playlists, party playlists, workout playlists, roadtrip playlists. I’m not much of an exception. Although I listen to music for fewer hours than most of my friends, I still listen a lot. Right before I started writing this section I listened to Marsalis Standard Time, Vol 1 and the new Beyonce album.

There’s a wonderful theory about the role of music in human evolution. I’ve mentioned it to many people over the years, without remember the source, and just now tracked downThrough the wonder of my Google Activity, an even longer and more searchable Google history. this 11-year-old blog review of Joseph Jordania’s Why Do People Sing? Jordania observes that humans are the only ground (non-bird or sea) animal that sings, and the only animal that sings with rhythm.What does this mean?

Until 5,000 years ago, the only music we heard was music we made. Until 150 years ago, the only music we heard was music we saw. Now, easily, more than 99% of music someone like me hears is recorded. Does this make live music more special, or less? Does this make recorded music the superstimulus, or live music? Now that this exists:

Will we care more or less? I’m so confused. Music is great. Send me the best stuff you got.


March, 2024

February, 2024

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December, 2023

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September, 2023

August, 2023

July, 2023

June, 2023

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April, 2023

March, 2023

February, 2023

December, 2022

November, 2022

October, 2022

September, 2022

August, 2022

November, 2021

October, 2021

September, 2021

July, 2021

June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - April 30, 2024 - Joseph Levine