Rhys' Newsletter #51

Oscar documentaries, xenobots, and The Boat Was Stuck

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Hey team!

Oscar nominations were announced recently. Watching the documentaries is somewhat of a ritual of mine. I find it to be a good way to personalize world events of the past year. Here are a couple of my favorites.

1) First, the documentary shorts are excellent as per usual. You can watch them as all one package here. My top three:

A Love Song for Latasha: Beautiful memorial for Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot and killed in 1992 while buying orange juice. Along with the beating of Rodney King (and the weak sentences for perpetrators in both cases), Latasha’s killing triggered the LA Riots of 1992. The doc is full of beautiful images. Reminded me of Hale County This Morning, This Evening.

Do Not Split: Great on-the-ground stories from Hong Kong’s protests right before COVID. They were wearing masks before it was cool (surgical masks to stop facial recognition and N95s or P100s to stop tear gas).

Hunger Ward: A story about nurses saving children from malnutrition caused by the ongoing famine in Yemen. This one was difficult to watch and made me cry. One 5-year-old girl has intense malnutrition (tiny arms, big belly) and has a constant blank expression.

All of these documentaries show how democratized video technology helps record atrocities (by highlighting the bad “dust in the air”). In 1991 in LA, this was done with security camera footage (for Latasha) and a home video recorder (for Rodney King). The Hong Kong documentary has lots of smartphone footage from protesters on the streets. In one part of the Yemeni documentary, smartphone footage captures a funeral bombing to highlight the ravages of civil war.

2) Moving to the full documentaries, My Octopus Teacher was a truly excellent story about a man who sees the same octopus every day for a year. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. The cast page is a funny example of this:

3) Crip Camp is a story about a disabled summer camp in the 1960’s which gave rise to the disability rights movement. I cried for like 25% of it! It was inspiring to see disabled folks rise up.

I was also struck by my personal discomfort in watching disabled folks speak in interviews. It not like I’m trying to be bigoted, but I could feel my gut react with awkwardness. Like Hunger Ward, I felt challenged by the content.

Crip Camp is a good example of how powerful networked strong ties can be. The PayPal Mafia is a classic example of this. Get a good crew together for an intense experience (at Crip Camp or PayPal) and that crew will have outsized mobilization power after that point.

I recommend all these documentaries. Check ‘em out!


1) NYT: How Scientists Are Tracking The Virus. One part of this article covers how genetic sequencing is experiencing Moore’s Law-style exponential growth:

Sequencing is 10 million times cheaper and 100,000 times higher quality than it was just a few years ago.

I find it helpful to differentiate two kinds of laws that concern technological progress.

Wright’s Law predicts inevitable percentage cost decreases for factory-made goods like solar panels. It’s economies of scale + process learning. For example, every doubling of solar production has decreased the cost per watt by 20%.

On the other hand laws similar to Moore’s Law (transistors, gene sequencing, etc.) predict a ~yearly doubling of capacity (supercomputer FLOPs or genes sequenced).

The key difference is that Moore’s Law is based on information, while Wright’s Law is based on matter and energy.

It’s quite hard to constantly double the rate of things that need energy. Planes can’t double their speed every 18 months. A plane going 500,000 mph would simply need too much energy. We can only get percentage decreases as we reach economies of scale and learn about the manufacturing process.

In contrast, we can continuously double the number of transistors (or gene sequencing) because they don’t need much energy. Computers today are a trillion times faster than they were in the 1940s, but they don’t require a trillion times more energy. (And the energy per transistor is quite small.)

When thinking about technological progress, ask yourself whether energy is one of the core inputs!

The other part of the NYT article covers “machine olfaction” where computers can “smell” the air:

One day sensors might ‘sip the air’ so that a genomic app on our phones can tell us if there’s a pathogen lurking in a room.

No need to wear a mask if Alexa tells you there are no COVID particles in the air! More examples of machine-based extended cognition.

2) Second link on biotech: Announcing “The Institute for Computationally Designed Organisms.

This is a new institute that develops xenobots, which are a form of artificial life. They create the xenobots by electrically zapping heart and skin cells to trigger certain kinds of development. With these electrical zaps and mRNA instructions, they can code the xenobots to do tasks like “clean up ocean plastic.”

The image below shows an example xenobot design. They “discover” the design on the left through AI simulation and then deploy the actual organism on the right. It is built from frog skin (green) and heart muscle (red).

Connecting this back to our discussion of ATP from #49: Xenobots are an example of how all life works through either chemicals or electricity.

  • ATP is chemical. It converts electrons into a molecule (ATP), which can then be used for energy. But bodies can use the electrons themselves for energy too, like plants do when they get energy from the sun.

  • Neurons communicate either through neurotransmitters, which are a little chemical molecule, or through actual electrical signals in the brain.

  • With xenobots, we can see how information for the recipes of life can either be chemically stored with DNA molecules or electrically stored through the electrical signals used to trigger certain characteristics.

Xenobots are important because they are the frontier for the electrical instructions of life, not just the chemical instructions of DNA.

To learn more, I recommend watching the TED video in the announcement post.

3) Amazing poem on the Suez Canal boat: I Like That The Boat Is Stuck.

I like that, so far, we all seem to agree that the boat is stuck. There's no debate over whether or not the big boat is stuck: it is a big boat, and it is stuck, and we are all aware of those facts.

Furthermore, most of us share the opinion that it's disagreeable, logistically, for the boat to be stuck. Nobody can say it isn't a big disruption. None of my distant relatives will get into arguments on The Face Website about whether or not the stuck boat is making a nuisance for lots of people. I like that.

Another thing I like is that we know exactly what the problem is that is making the boat be stuck. It's a big boat, and it's stuck. It's not stuck for mysterious reasons related to a long history of humans cruelly exploiting other humans. It's stuck because it's big, bigger than the place where it is, and that's why it's stuck.

Unsticking the boat will require making the boat not be stuck. It won't take a year or more of isolation, or new heights of handwashing, or phone calls to legislators. Nobody can tell me that if I just work a little harder or stop spending money on avocados or get a side hustle, the boat will get unstuck. Because those things aren't the things that need to happen. What needs to happen is: someone unsticks the boat.

Yes, there's a vast and sprawling ecosystem of current and historical horrors that made this situation possible – but we can't say that it's a situation that could never occur in a just world, because even in just worlds, things get stuck. Ducklings get stuck. Winnie the Pooh gets stuck! And now, the big boat is stuck. And I like it. I like knowing that there can be a big problem that's caused by something as straightforward and comprehensible as a stuck boat.

Towards a world where our problems are just stuck boats!

4) We’ve talked a lot about how folks weaponize care-based victimization. Here’s a perfect example: there’s a debate on whether the SF government should re-open Golden Gate Park (GGP) to cars. (It became a car-free street during the pandemic.)

On one side you have the president of the SF Board of Supervisors, Shamann Walton, saying that keeping GGP car-free is segregationist because it keeps black folks (who live further away from GGP) from accessing it. Seems reasonable. Gotta protect poorer and minority folks. “Don’t you care?!?”

On the other side, you have folks at Kid-Safe GGP who argue that the park should stay car-free because it will protect kids from being hit by cars. Seems reasonable. Gotta protect the kids. “Don’t you care?!?”

There’s no right answer here. It requires a lot of analysis to understand how to be equitable (and to which groups) while also being efficient. Be wary of care- and victim-based language!

It reminds me of the victim triangle that one of my housemates taught me. In many circumstances, people try to control the narrative by finding a victim, blaming the persecutor, and saving the day as the rescuer.

5) Various studies showed that democracy continued to decrease in 2020:

Part of this is from COVID lockdowns (which trigger our authoritarian reflex).

But most of it is from increased control and censorship of digital media by authoritarian regimes.

At the same time, the number of countries with democratic protests increased from 27% in 2009 to 44% in 2019. See this recent report titled Autocratization Surges–Resistance Grows.

This is what we’d expect. Underlying self-expression values create a demand for democracy. When the supply of democracy decreases, there will be protests. This is especially true because social media helps bottom-up movements like BLM or QAnon organize.

6) The Onion: Considerate Driver Leaves Note On Dog He Hit With Car

7) Babylon Bee: Neighbors With 'Black Lives Matter', 'Asian Lives Matter', And 'Hispanic Lives Matter' Yard Signs Getting Awfully Close To 'All Lives Matter'

8) Rhys: New “In Rememberance” Twitter Extension Adds Blank Tweets Where Trump-Related Content Would Have Been



On the theme of Crip Camp above, I wanted to share some musicians with disabilities.

There are lots of different disabilities, of course. We’re most familiar with blind musicians like Ray Charles. Of the 350 disabled musicians on Wikipedia, 250 (70%) are blind.

Gaelynn Lea is one of my favorite disabled musicians. She has a brittle bone disease so is small and plays her violin like a cello. She is a loopist like the folks we highlighted in #49. The video below is her submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, which she won.

I also love Wheelchair Sports Camp. They’re a Denver-based band with an irreverent lead singer (Kalyn) who uses a wheelchair. (Both Kalyn and Gaelynn have the brittle bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta.)

Other disabled musicians that I especially like are folks that play stringed instruments without two hands. Rajery plays valiha (a Madacasdaran stringed instrument) with a fingerless hand. Mark Goffeney plays guitar with his toes because he doesn’t have arms.

Also in my research for this, I was reminded that Fetty Wap only has one eye!

Hope you have a good week! Warmth, Rhys

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