Here’s what I most enjoyed reading this week.
1. End of Windows. An excellent play-by-play analysis by Ben Thompson on how Satya Nadella has shifted Microsoft away from it’s (massively successful) past, and towards it’s only realistic future. One where Windows is treated as a legacy business. link
2. Understanding Sam Harris and Ezra Klein arguing IQ. My new post this week attempting to understand how Sam Harris and Ezra Klein got into a disagreement over IQ and Charles Murray. I believe Harris argued in details (nerd-mode) and Klein argued with social proof (manager-mode). Their disagreement is unsurprising, since this has been endlessly rehashed for decades since Murray wrote his famous (notorious?) book The Bell Curve. But genomics is now cracking open this stalemate, so I end my post on that note. To me this is one of the biggest rising topics for tech and society. In particular polygenic scoring and embryo selection for IQ. It’s not here yet but clearly on its way. To see why this could have such a big social impact, just imagine if a family member of one of our recent Presidents (from either party) went to China to get IVF to select for higher IQ kids. Only very wealthy 1%ers will be able to afford it at first, like any new tech. I imagine many hard to foresee social repercussions for race, class, culture, politics. If you want to understand where the future is headed, keep an eye on this technology. link
3. Wasps and Whales. Ed Yong published two pieces this week I greatly enjoyed. The first is An Inordinate Fondness for Wasps. The title being a play on the J. B. S. Haldane saying God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” That’s because beetles have ~380k species. But it turns out wasps are crushing it, with roughly 3x as many species, by far the most in the animal kingdom. Why so many kinds of wasp? Because for nearly every species of insect there is a matching species of parasitic wasp, some as tiny as an amoeba. As Yong says “Their lives are grisly and sinister, but their abilities are incredible.” Yong’s second piece I really liked is Why Whales Got So Big. It turns out nearly all aquatic mammals are narrowly balanced at a size of roughly 1100 lbs. Smaller and they get too cold. Bigger and they struggle to get enough food. This narrow weight range for thousands of aquatic mammal species is cool all by itself. But Whales are way bigger. How did they do it? By travelling large distances to feast on widely spaced but concentrated food sources such as krill.
4. Aryan invaders overran India and Europe. The map below is from a new preprint on what ancient DNA is telling us about the population history of South and Central Asia. There’s a lot of arrows, but the big picture is clear enough. Hunter gathers were the first humans in Europe and India. Then farmers spread east from Anatolia, west from Iran (#1 arrows on map). Then cattle herders (pastoralists) overran them in turn (#2 arrows and green color on map). Politically this is not a very big deal for Europe. But it’s a big deal for India, where pro and anti Aryan invader historical beliefs are tied to caste and politics. The Economist has the best summary write up. Or for no paywall, try this. If you want details on the paper read Razib Khan’s post.
5. Not every article needs a picture. Best just to quote a bit from the piece.
Now when a user shares an article on their sites, a thumbnail image provides a preview of the article. If an article doesn’t have an image, social media will still pull in whatever it can—usually this is just a blown-up version of the website’s logo, though sometimes it’s another unrelated image from the same page, e.g. a thumbnail from another article. If the social media site can’t find any image at all, only the headline will be displayed. Websites fear that this makes them look unprofessional—or worse, boring—and drives away potential clicks. Even the fucking Economist now has a photo on every article on its website.
I believe this is wholly unnecessary.
After thinking about it, I’ve stopped putting images at the top of these weekly Saturday posts (such as the one you’re reading now). And it’s good. No image needed. And yet. If you read Hanson O’Haver’s entire post, he argues against using boring bland images such as the Facebook logo. And that’s overdone. Why? Because many people have 20 tabs open on their browser, or if on their phone get interrupted and need to be reminded what they are reading. So an image to orient you, even a boring one showing a logo, is perfectly fine. But to O’Haver’s point, this is a design decision. Automatically putting an putting the same bland image on every post without thought is dumb. So I’ve changed my ways for these Saturday link posts. But for longer regular posts I do on a single topic, like the one I did this week on Sam Harris and Ezra Klein, using an image is fine. So I did.
6. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is 50 years old. This tribute in The Guardian has some good reminiscences. I view 2001 as arguably the best science fiction movie ever made. I talk about it at the end of my post Science Fiction movie priorities should be movie first, science second. Because movies are hard. And since I like 2001, and how I ended that post, let me just quote the final paragraph to finish this one.
Personally the greatest science fiction movie for me is 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s because among many other things it does well, it gets the science right on the Fermi Paradox, the mystery of why we haven’t found any aliens despite searching for them. A mind stretching topic, and the subject of the most viewed post on this site Avoiding “Sagan Syndrome.” Why Astronomers and Journalists should pay heed to Biologists about ET. As mentioned in my post, it takes billions of years for complex life to evolve, but only millions of years for life to expand to fill the galaxy. This means whoever expands first has the galaxy to themselves. Though I should caveat there are other solutions to the Fermi Paradox. What’s so poignant about the movie 2001 is the first, elder aliens decide to seed complex life throughout the galaxy. This gets the science right, and makes a great story and great movie. And I think Arthur C. Clarke’s more profound message is an inversion on this theme. If humans are the first to expand, it would be an act of great beauty if we, out of loneliness or hope, seeded this galaxy with life affirming monoliths.