Where Homo Sapiens is Headed


Another huge gap in newsletters, another change in format. The last iteration of Five Futures was an ambitious attempt to push me to write something more original. I still like the idea of doing serialized essays, and will probably attempt it again at some point. But right now I just need to write, to get something out there. And that something needs to be relatively easy to put together, because the day job isn’t helping in the time-management department right now.

So here’s a bit of an experiment… Shorter takes (occassionally paired with emoji, Azeem Azhar style), arranged into five broad narrative arcs. Each arc is less a story of the future, and more a sense, a feeling, of a current in the present. Less Pythia in the Temple of Apollo, and more Ozymandias and his wall of TVs.

Anyway, that’s the idea at least. Let’s see how well it works.

Chapter 1

🐳 Whales. Why are they so big?

More evidence that the Amazon basin was densely populated before European arrival, and that the “primeval” rain forest that exists today is actually nothing of the sort.

🌾 Modern industrial agriculture has drastically decreased the price of food. It’s also made it less nutritious.

🚜 Industrial agriculture has also been a significant factor in the hollowing out of small-town America.

💧 The Colorado River has been over-used for a long time, and the tensions between the states that depend on it are starting to boil over.

❄ Both the Eastern and Western Antarctic ice sheets are now shrinking, and the physics of melting ice means that it’s the East Coast of the United States that will be hardest hit.

The chances of the world keeping global warming below 1.5° C is, at this point, vanishingly small… But it’s not yet zero.

🏭 Burning fossil fuels does more than warm the planet, however - it also impacts human health in a variety of other ways. The new EPA “clean power” plan ignores these effects, and by their own estimates will cause thousands of premature deaths.

🏦 At least Bank of the West is divesting from fossil fuels. Wyoming is not happy about it.

The political case for restricting fossil fuel extraction.

California governor Jerry Brown is one of the US’s indisputable leaders in the fight to stop global warming. He’s also not doing nearly enough.

Ozone-destroying CFCs emissions have spiked in recent years, after decades of decline. The culprit appears to be China’s barely-regulated construction industry.

🐜 Across Europe, insect populations are crashing. It’s hard to imagine a more ominous omen.

A newly discovered section from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” gives the story a surprisingly ecological twist.

Chapter 2

💻 The definitive timeline of Russia’s hacking of the DNC, the Clinton presidential campaign, and local governments is a useful “birds-eye” view of the 2016 information operations. If you work in politics these are now the baseline threats you need to be guarding against.

So far Russian information operations related to the 2018 US mid-terms seem to be relatively quiet. But “relatively quiet” is not the same as absent.

One place where Russia is still active is in organizing protests. But that doesn’t mean that the protests are “fake”.

The story of misinformation on social media isn’t just about Russian trolls, however. It’s ordinary people who make “fake news” and conspiracy theories go viral.

📺 You know what’s also spreading conspiracy theories? YouTube Kids.

📰 Revitalizing local news has been seen by some as a way of innoculating US society against weaponized misinformation. After all, the reasoning goes, Americans trust local news more than national news… Which is something the Russians realize too.

Another proposed solution to the spread of misinformation on social media is the promotion of “media literacy”. But simply encouraging a critical approach to the media could actually make things worse.

Tribalism has played a major role in 20th Century conflicts around the world. The economic dynamics of the US in the 21st Century are making tribal conflicts more likely here as well.

Cultural identity is a more important factor in political alignment on the right than the left, at least within the US.

🎥 Deep fakes, the mythic film “Shazaam”, and the collapse of consensus reality.

Italian politics has always looked weird to outsiders. Is the country’s most recent government just another example of Italy being Italy, or a portent of things to come?

Chapter 3

Diversity increases conflict and makes people uncomfortable… And that’s a good thing.

It might be even better, except that white men all but sabotage their coworkers when women or non-whites are their boss.

🏡 Think that white flight is a thing of the past? Think again.

📞 In New York City, “quality of life” complaints are a weapon of gentrification.

🚗 Parking requirements in many US cities are making housing less affordable.

💲 #Occupy made the idea of class warfare fashionable again. But if you look at the numbers, it’s less about the top 1% vs. the bottom 99%, but rather the top 10% vs. the bottom 90%. And that extra 9.9% holds a lot of people who like to think of themselves as “middle class”.

📉 It turns out that US manufacturing really is imploding, but the way we aggregate economic data has hidden the decline.

You know it’s bad when Vox is calling out centrist Democrats as intellectually bankrupt.

⛪ The modern GOP is a party that melds corporate interests with conservative Christianity. It’s a political match that was largely masterminded by a single radical clergyman.

Hobby Lobby as both exemplar and driver of white evangelical cultural identity.

🔫 In the US, just 3% of the population owns half of the nation’s guns. An that 3% fits a very specific profile.

The old are more likely to be Republicans and the young Democrats, but that has less to do with how our opinions change with age and more to do with the fact that Democrats die young.

Intergenerational conflict is beginning to fracture the US environmental movement.

Chapter 4

🚅 A brief dive into the design of Japanese train stations.

We implement automation to establish regular systems, avoid mistakes, and reduce friction. This is not always a good thing.

🏥 What affects are computer algorithms having on state governance? So far, their record in health care isn’t so great.

🚦 How traffic lights subtly disadvantage pedestrians.

The age of pre-crime has arrived, courtesy of the LAPD and Palantir.

👮 “Predictive policing” software likes to sell itself as “broken windows policing” for the 21st Century. Which is probably a more accurate analogy than its supporters would care to admit.

Believe in that gun ownership is important? Angry at government over-reach? Written an inflammatory Facebook post in the heat of the moment? Then the FBI might be getting ready to bust you as a domestic terrorist… But only if you’re black.

Violence traumatizes not just those involved and their families, but also their entire community. Unsurprisingly, this remains true when that violence is inflicted by representatives of the state.

Many on the left were disturbed and enraged when the Trump Administration began separating children of undocumented immigrants from their parents. But the same thing has been happening for decades to US citizens as well.

🏫 Normally when we talk about the “school-to-prison pipeline”, we’re referring to the increasing entaglement of schools with their local police departments, and the way that this law enforcement presence is predominantly focused on non-white children. Sometimes this process can be shockingly explicit.

US prisons are cutting back on in-person visitations. Inmates and their families are paying the price.

Chapter 5

For most insects, an infection with cordyceps fungi means gradually slipping into a zombie-like state followed by a gruesome “Aliens”-like death. But for cicadas, cordyceps is what keeps them alive.

Should a spider’s web be considered part of its mind?

👽 The most famous back-of-the-envelope method of estimating how many other intelligent species exist is called the Drake Equation, and even plugging conservative numbers into it suggests that the universe should be filled with alien civilizations. This has lead to the “Fermi Paradox” - if alien civilizations are so common, then why have we seen no evidence for them? It turns out, however, that treating the Drake Equation probabilisticly dissolves the Fermi Paradox: We are likely to be alone in our galaxy, and there’s a good chance that we are in fact the only intelligent species in the entire observable universe.

The only good online fandom left is “Dune”.

Mediocrity is evolutionary slack.


Originally I was going to write something longer and more conteplative here, but it’s been almost exactly a week since I started writing this and I’m basically out of steam right now. Mind you, I haven’t added any new articles to this list during that time - it just took me that long to review, sort, and trim down the list of interesting links I accumulated over the last six months. I’m going to experiment on building up future newsletters slowly over the course of a week or two, a little bit each day, and see how that works.

Until next time…