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  • Writer's pictureJosh

April 2021 (Links, NMR)

A few days early!


COVID updates:

The US is very much on-track to surpass Biden's promised "100 million (vaccinated) in 100 days (in office)".

Meanwhile, Europe is in serious trouble, partly because of bad vaccine rollout and partly because vaccine companies are being dishonest and getting caught. I see the latter as a consequence of our binary thinking about the virus: "If it works, why are people getting infected still?" and "If it's safe, what about these side effects?" are stupid and harmful ways of thinking about things. When you hold vaccines to a standard of "never harms anyone or else we won't take it", vaccine companies will lie to convince you they are safer than they are. Think in statistics, not anecdotes.

As a result of this mess, Germany is literally preparing to shut down grocery stores, a very very very bad sign. On the other hand, the UK wasn't caught in either the rollout or dishonesty trap, and is crushing the virus very handily. We can see the difference in implementation clearly.

“But isn’t it unethical to intentionally inject someone with a deadly virus?”

I don’t think there's anything wrong with this, as long as everyone is informed and consenting, and apparently 3/4 of survey respondents from 6 countries around the world agree. If you want to consider contributing to this (assuming you are healthy, young, and living in the UK), you can sign up here.

  • A promising offshoot of MRNA vaccine techniques: A possible MRNA vaccine for malaria, consistently one of the leading killers in the world. Scott Alexander says "this may be the most important thing to happen in the past few years, not excluding the coronavirus pandemic itself."

Other Real World stuff:

  • A cargo ship got stuck in the Suez canal, ending life as we know it (not really, but it's been blocked for nearly a week and is holding up tens of billions of dollars in international trade). Traffic has gotten so bad that many boats have reverted to the hundreds-of-years-old strategy of sailing all the way around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. Naturally, memes abound.

It's been nearly a week, so of course someone made a simple site to track the ship's progress in getting unstuck.

  • Two horrific mass shootings (that I'm aware of, who knows there might be more): One at a spa in Atlanta claimed the lives of eight victims, and one in Boulder claimed 10. In Atlanta, since six of the victims were asian women, much of the coverage has been about how this is a likely hate crime against asians. On the other hand, the shop was apparently a known harbor for sex workers, raising the question of whether this was more related to sex (work) than race (this is what the perpetrator, who has confessed, claims).

HandWaving FreakOutery points out that in cases like this, the news basically doesn't care what's true and thus ends up ignoring other big questions, here about sex and sex work. Given the coverage of the Boulder shooting, I'm sympathetic to HWFO's assessment: In short, the shooter was first falsely identified as white, and commentators took the event as evidence of white supremacy (etc.), until he was eventually found instead to be a muslim of Syrian descent and people decided his descent doesn't matter and HOW DARE YOU BRING IT UP. This doesn't mean there isn't a race problem of the kind people point to, but it very much lowers my confidence in the media to dispassionately report on things as they actually are. Also...

Anyway, let's move on...

  • What major global issues do you have misconceptions about? Take this test and find out. Really, take the test, I'll wait (just 18 questions at first). I like what they’re trying to do. I got 15/18 correct, which puts me in some very high percentile; this was not because I’m particularly smart or unbiased, but rather because I used a trick to get more questions right. (Highlight below to uncover.) .(Rather than answering the object-level question directly, I went to the MetaLevel: .This is a test of very common misconceptions, so instead I asked: "What is the .conception?" and just reversed that answer.) Here’s some aggregation of the results from a large number of participants.

  • Unschoolers, a sect of homeschoolers who have no set curriculum and learn whatever interests them, seem to turn out basically fine: most go on to college (83%) or some other totally productive outcome, and by self-report the number of unschoolers who felt behind traditional-schoolers in some academic subject later in life was low (11%). This is a small-ish survey and very sample-biased, but it's suggestive at least.

  • Major trigger warning (violence, sexual abuse, and war): The nightmarish history and practices of Japanese Manchu Detachment Unit 731 from 1935-1945. Some of the things that went on there are at least as horrific as the worst I’ve heard about Nazi concentration camps during WWII. It was ostensibly about testing of human capacities for future use in wartime, but some aspects have been described as "psychopathically sadistic, with no conceivable military application". Good as a reminder of how malevolence is a natural human trait, everywhere, and its suppression is not automatic; we have to fight hard to keep it from reappearing. I wondered why I had never heard about this in school (whereas I've heard plenty about Nazi Germany). Turns out, the US's official policy is not to talk about this, partly because it gained a lot of info about biological warfare from these practices; so after WWII, the US quietly shut down the program and officially kept it hush-hush.

  • Big news in my field is a hint of lepton flavor violation. If you don't know what that is, that's totally ok; "a hint" in my field means "we are carefully watching further developments, maybe writing some speculative papers, and crossing our fingers it persists to a discovery." Until that last part happens, it's not worth thinking about if you're not a physicist.*


Uncategorized / Random:

  • You've heard of Emojis and Emoticons, but in-between these is the Japanese art form of Kaomoji (顔文字, or literally "face letters"), which is clearly superior to both. (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

  • One of my favorite poems, The Hymn of Breaking Strain. Read it, then read it again.

  • "Let's set a record for most balloons ever released into the air at once! He hee, ho hoo, sounds so fun!!" Two fatalities, much property damage, and injured horses were reported at BalloonFest '86.

  • [Butterfly guy] Is this philosophy? (What even is this?)

New Month Resolution

Last month my resolutions were:

1. Body: I will abstain from instant coffee (only real coffee beans).

Basically did this; once in a while had instant coffee if I was in a rush. Overall, a full success. One point for body.

2. Mind: I will make a to-do list each morning of three important tasks I want to accomplish that day.

I was pretty consistent about it (until this final week), but I was surprised to find that I didn't find it very useful. I think my current life is too messy and chaotic to boil a day down to three-ish tasks, so I end up doing a bunch of other things besides and still feeling overwhelmed. I think I need to simplify, which will be a goal for this month. One point for mind.

3. Spirit: (a) I will keep my apartment clean (will be judged by my subjective impressions), and (b) I will meditate 10 times this month.

(a) The apartment was cleaner, but became messy because we found a new apartment and are moving, so half-point seems fair. (b) I missed the goal of 10 by a few, even though this is already a simplified version of the resolution of last month. Also half a point, and I'll keep trying.


This month the theme will be simplicity. In particular, I'm consuming too much content too rapidly from too many places at once, not giving anything a chance to sink in; I want to simplify my internet consumption. Also, I'm going to more often meditate and go to the gym (two things I've already committed myself to do), plus wear nicer clothes and see if I like it.

In April 2021:

  1. Body: I will go to the gym at least 10 times.

  2. Mind: I will consume one podcast per day, unless there is a very good specific reason to consume more; my other listening time will be spent on Audible.

  3. Spirit: (a) I will not wear t-shirts during the day or when going out of the house, and (b) I will meditate 10 times this month.

Current tally: Body/Mind/Spirit = 3.5/2.0/1.5 points.


* ...if you're still here, ok fine: lepton flavor violation is a discrepancy between how the electron behaves compared to its heavier cousins, the muon and the tau (these three fundamental particles are collectively called "leptons"). The Standard Model predicts they will behave equivalently in some precise aspects. But certain unstable particles, known as bottom quarks (sometimes beauty quarks if an article wants to sound fun and cool), seem to decay preferentially to one more than the other in a way that violates the SM prediction; if this signal is real, then it will be confirmed with additional data over the next few years, and would signify some sort of long sought-after Physics Beyond the Standard Model.

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