Interesting things from Astral Codex Ten

I think I’ve linked to Scott Alexander’s blog Astral Codex Ten before (the name of the blog is an anagram of his name). He publishes lists of links that he comes across from time to time, and some of them are quite fantastic. Here are some from a recent collection that I liked, or that I wanted to save for later:

Impossible colours: Researchers did a test in which they restricted participants’ vision and forced them to view a field made up of two colours, and they would up seeing not a combination of those two colours but “new colors entirely, which are not in the CIE 1931 color space, either in its real part or in its imaginary parts. Some of the volunteers reported that afterward, they could still imagine the new colors for a period of time.”

Luck-based medicine: Elizabeth Van Nostrand is a software engineer who writes about her lifelong problems with food and digestion, and how modern medicine was almost completely useless until a doctor accidentally helped her. “This finalized some already fermenting changes in how I view medical interventions and research,” she writes. “Namely: sometimes knowledge doesn’t work and then you have to optimize for luck. I assure you I’m at least as unhappy about this as you are.”

The effect of open-label placebos in clinical trials: In other words, if you give patients a placebo, saying “This is a placebo, try taking it and maybe the placebo effect will make you feel better”, do they? This gets investigated a lot, but the latest study says yes, with a medium-to-large effect size.

Do anti-depressants work? Despite decades of research, there’s still quite a bit of debate about whether SSRI drugs — which are prescribed for millions of people every year — actually help those with depression. A large meta-analysis of the research seems to show that if they do work at all, they don’t make much of a difference for those who suffer.

Love is a haunted house

What follows is from Griefbacon, the great email newsletter from writer Helena Fitzgerald. It’s ostensibly about why the movie “The Lion In Winter” is a great Christmas movie, but it is really about love and family and relationships.

“The Lion in Winter doesn’t really take place in the 12th century, any more than a stripper dressed up as a fireman can really save you from a fire. It takes place in 1968, and it takes place right now. It takes place in this week of this year, and this week of last year and next year, too, as crowds gather at train stations and airports, as cars clog up the highways between the cities and the suburbs to drive the interstate backward from adulthood to childhood. It takes place in every home where someone is setting the table, in every grocery store where someone is standing in line, in every apartment where a new couple is anxiously getting ready to host one or both of their parents, and in every group chat where siblings are resentfully double-tapping heart and “haha” reactions.

In a castle in France in 1183, where indoor heating hasn’t yet been invented, a bunch of family members, all of whom are to one degree or another estranged, gather for Christmas dinner, to bring up old grudges, and whine behind one another’s backs. We hate people and we love them at the same time, we have the same arguments and we don’t resolve anything, we’re vicious and petty to the people in our families and nothing comes out of it except agreeing to do it all again next year.

If the only thing that keeps us alive sometimes is spite, well, maybe there’s a romance to that too. Love is the haunted house that costs forty dollars but guarantees that you’ll die. We show up to the arcade again in the sunlight of whatever next day comes, scrubbed clean of the blood from the night before, ready to get our hearts smashed up by the people we have loved the longest, even if that’s just ourselves, feeling so lucky to get one more chance at it. We love people and we die of it, but it’s also what keeps us alive.”

The best of my “When The Going Gets Weird” newsletter

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

As I’ve probably mentioned a number of times, I write and publish a daily email newsletter called “When The Going Gets Weird,” (based on a quote by Hunter S. Thompson). I used to publish it through a service called Nuzzel, which was founded by Jonathan Abrams (who also coincidentally founded Friendster, one of the first social networks). I switched to Revue when it bought Nuzzel, and then Twitter bought Revue (and is now shutting it down) so I decided to try Ghost, an open-source solution for newsletter publishing. I’ve also been experimenting with Substack, although I’m less enamored of a centralized entity like that for mostly philosophical reasons.

Lots of people use their newsletters to write thoughtful essays about the issues of the day, and I admire that, but I chose to take a different path. I decided to focus on interesting and/or offbeat stories, inspired by early bloggers like Jason Kottke. I used to collect these stories and just tweet them out or write a blog post about them here on my personal blog, but eventually there were so many that I thought I could do a newsletter. Maybe I will run out at some point, or the supply will dry up and I will have to decrease the frequency, but for now at least I am doing it daily.

Anyway, I thought I would collect some of my favourite stories from the past year, for those who haven’t been able to read them all and those who read them but want to be reminded:.

Librarian keeps the love notes and doodles she finds written in books:

“In her 20 years as a librarian, Sharon McKellar has unearthed all kinds of left-behind personal items — from doodles to recipes to old photographs — nestled between the pages of returned library books. She carefully removes them and reads them, then she scans and uploads them to the library’s website after scrubbing any personal identifying information.”

Photo of nearest star turns out to be slice of chorizo:

“A photo tweeted by a famous French physicist supposedly of Proxima Centauri by the James Webb Space Telescope was actually a slice of chorizo. Étienne Klein, research director at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission posted the photo last week, claiming it showed the closest star to the sun. Klein told French news outlet Le Point that his intention had been to educate people about fake news online.”

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The Luddites were right

The term “Luddite” has come to mean someone who is opposed to technology, because the conventional wisdom about the movement of the same name is that it was started by artisanal weavers who hated the new automated looms that were stealing their jobs. But this isn’t really an accurate description of what happened. According to historians who specialize in the period, the Luddites were artisanal weavers who resisted the arrival of factory-style manufacturing. But it wasn’t the technology that bothered most of them per se — it was that the factories using the new looms paid workers less and treated them poorly. In other words, it was more of a labour issue than a technological one.

“Luddism,” the sociologist Donald MacKenzie writes, “was neither mindless, nor completely irrational, nor completely unsuccessful.” The Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, allegedly a stocking maker in the 1700s who destroyed two machines by throwing his clogs into them. But there’s no evidence that a person by that name actually existed, which raises the possibility that the story was created by an earlier group of activists opposed to the mechanization of labour.

“[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring,” Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology. But “their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a ‘nuisance value’. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers.”

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