An Error of Scale

The Story So Far

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Almost exactly 13 months since the last of these newsletters. I bet you thought you were rid of me.

The last year has been a weird mix of being both swamped with work and making very little progress on the things that mattered. Most of the big projects at my day job stalled out as the day-to-day grind of just maintaining the systems I was trying to build set in. Trump’s election, while less shocking to me than to many, still managed to shatter my attention. Between the two, I found it hard to think about anything particularly interesting or helpful.

I might finally be getting things back on track now though. I’ve spent the last couple of months figuring out how to unplug from Twitter, which over the last year has remained a constant stream of outrage and distraction, while still maintaining a good stream of inputs using a combination of Nuzzel and Feedly. I have notes written up for an “arc” of about half a dozen essays that bring together some of the more important things I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of years.

So, time to restart the newsletter, right?

I came up with the the name Five Futures as an allusion to my desire to situate my thinking about the future within a broader historic context. “The future” isn’t just made up of the latest gee-whiz technology, social changes, or environmental catastrophes. Rather, every moment in time is an expression of a multitude of trends, long term and short term, some with roots in the present but many with roots in our deep past. To only lightly paraphrase Utah Phillips, “the past didn’t go anywhere”. What I was endeavoring to do with Five Futures was to pick out articles I’d recently read that spoke to these trends - from the deep past, to the more human past, present, and future, and finally to the deep future - in an attempt to begin building a narrative about the future that didn’t situate it as a destination, but rather as just another way-point on a journey far longer than any one life.

But it was difficult to find enough variety in my reading over just a week to cover all five temporal realms, and moreover I don’t feel that my bandwidth has recovered enough for me to spend quite as much time on Five Futures as I used to. So after much thought, I’ve decided to scale back my ambitions to something closer to the weekly link-dump that’s relatively common in the newsletter space. I’m also not going to skip a week just because I don’t have enough links to flesh out all “five futures”. Ideally Five Futures will continue to have five central sections, but many times it won’t. I’m going to make peace with that.

In the future, I’ll use this intro section as a place to randomly dump whatever I’ve been thinking about during the last week (even if it’s only half-baked), and will confine project news to the end.

And now, on to the links!

The Deep Past

Nautilus asks “Which Comes First, Big Cities or Big Gods?”, and comes down tentatively on the side of big cities. In fact, there’s hints here that “big gods” may only be one way in which the beliefs necessary for large scale social cohesion manifest - really what we need is a way to make the fact that our actions have consequences far beyond ourselves personal. The idea of divine punishment in monotheistic religions is one way to do this, but it’s not the only way. I’ve always found the placement of monotheism at the “top” of the “pyramid” of social complexity a bit self-serving; the work described here seems like the beginning of a necessary corrective.

The Near Past

The incredible rock churches of Ethiopia.

The Present

Everyone’s talking about Michael Wolff’s new book about the chaos of the Trump White House. James Fallows makes the connection between the “open secret” of the Trump administration’s dysfunction and Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation - both require that the people surrounding Trump/Weinstein be deeply complicit in their benefactor’s pathologies.

A persuasive case that the tail is wagging the dog when it comes to the media and President Trump.

The Near Future

NiemanLab wonders if people care enough about news to actively seek it out and concludes that most people just don’t care. A well-informed citizenry may have been a historic accident, a consequence of the momentary dominance of mass print media.

More evidence that when given access to a universal basic income (UBI), most people use it to stabilize their lives and invest in their future. Interestingly, disability payments have essentially become a UBI for a significant fraction of the population here in the US, albeit one whose structure creates some pretty perverse incentives.

Direct evidence that modern masculinity is a threat to the environment. This has been theoretically discussed for some time, but to my knowledge this is the first experimental evidence of the phenomenon.

The weird behavior of Tabby’s Star gets a decidedly prosaic explanation. But… Kickstarter-funded science!

The Deep Future

Mounting evidence of an insect apocalypse. If this doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you, I don’t know what will.

On a related note, The Guardian has a long read meditating on the place of taxonomy in helping us be in the world.

So much melt-water has been added to the oceans due to global warming that the sea floor is sinking under the extra weight.

John Quiggin points out that “extremely unlikely” climate risks actually have the same probabilities as things we buy insurance for in our personal lives.


Pre-colonization native territories in North America and Australia.