Newsletter for 8 Oct 2022
In this newsletter, I share what I'm reading and watching during the week. I may also touch on current events. I'll try to show how the books, videos, and events tie in with ideas in the Bene Homini space.
In this week's newsletter, I cover one news topic, three books, and two videos:
- The Supreme Court Reviewing Section 230
- Invent & Wander by Jeff Bezos (pp. 92–101)
- The STAR Interview by Misha Yurchenko (Ch. 1 & 2)
- Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber (Ch. 1)
- Moravec's Paradox
- How to detect baloney the Carl Sagan way
In the News
Supreme Court Reviewing Section 230
Various takes: The Hill and MSN/ABC News
First, a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Nothing I write is legal advice. The following is only my opinion.
Section 230 shields social media companies in the US from liability for the content provided by other people. My reading of the news articles is that the lawsuits aren't fighting to make companies liable for the content that people post. Instead, the case claims that the companies can't hide behind Section 230 to avoid liability for the editorial choices they make through their algorithms. As a result, the companies are liable for the content you see because they highlight certain content, not others.
A successful lawsuit doesn't have to spell the end of social media, but it will make it more difficult for social media companies to drive engagement since they will be liable for their choices in what to show you.
The good news is that there are social media platforms that don't make any choices about what you see. Instead, services such as Mastodon show you the content as it's created without reordering, emphasis, or other algorithmic changes.
Instances might moderate people's posts based on community guidelines, which are allowed in Section 230. Because there are many servers, each with its policies, you can probably find a server that's right for you. The Fediverse has a place for everyone, even if it's not the same place as someone else.
Books I'm Reading
Note that I'm not giving links to the books. However, you should be able to find them at your favorite bookseller, given the title and the author I mentioned in the text.
Invent & Wander
This week, I read pages 92–102 of this book consisting of the letters Jeff Bezos wrote to Amazon shareholders in 2010 and 2011.
Jeff opens his 2010 letter describing various computer algorithms that Amazon uses. What's more interesting is that Amazon does not use computer algorithms only in its software. It uses them in its warehouses. Jeff doesn't talk about that part.
When we start applying computer algorithms to people, we start losing sight of their humanity. People can't operate flawlessly doing the same task repeatedly for long periods. We've learned that from assembly line work over the last hundred years. People need breaks and mental stimulation. Even animals in good zoos get mental stimulation. See the first YouTube video later in this newsletter.
Jeff has a lot of good ideas, but like anything taken to the extreme, he may have lost sight of the human condition at the local scale. This may relate to effective altruism, but I'll address that in a future post.
The STAR Interview
This week, I read the first two chapters: "Brain Dump" and "Situation." Last week was the introduction.
Misha delves into more details about the different parts of STAR and how to describe the setup. I won't spend too much time talking about that. Instead, I want to focus on a couple of things that may help us build empathy in our listeners or readers:
- Keep it short (2–5 minutes or 200–500 words)
- Avoid placing blame while focusing on responsibility
Budgets are about priorities, and with only 200–500 words, we have to focus our story on the critical parts. Unlike a news article, you can't cut a STAR-style story at an arbitrary point with the essential information surviving. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So we have to ensure we are using the right words.
By not placing blame on anyone, even if we note responsibilities, we avoid several pitfalls that can make us appear unempathetic. First, it'll be easier to avoid sounding defensive; we don't have to worry about someone blaming us because we aren't talking about blame. Blame is also a value judgment. We aren't telling the story to judge anyone but to share the experience.
Debt: The First 5000 Years
In this book, David Graeber recounts the history of debt and money, dispelling many myths and assumptions about how money arose and the role of debt in society. I read the first few chapters a while back, but I'm going back and taking notes this time. So this week, I'll cover the first chapter.
I'll start by saying that this book is making me change how I see debt, especially for those close to me, like family and friends. So be prepared for what Graeber shares to turn your world around and maybe even upside down.
World literature doesn't offer many redeeming representations of a moneylender. We tend to see them as among the wealthiest members of a community, but their image is similar to the bad image of an executioner.
But why are moneylenders seen as evil? Is it because they seem to center their life on money rather than on the things that money can enable? Would they have a better image if they focused on using their talents and trade to ensure their community could operate smoothly, with money available where it needs to be to help the community grow and prosper?
I don't think the two are in opposition. That is, a moneylender can make a lot of money lending money while still focusing on ensuring their community grows. One way might be setting interest rates so that the pool of funds available to the community doesn't shrink and the moneylender can make a reasonable wage in line with the rest of the community, even if the market might be able to support a higher interest rate. It's about doing what's suitable for the community without trying to treat the community as "other" that somebody can take advantage of.
There are two ways to avoid the "opprobrium" of lending: either offload the responsibility to someone else (e.g., Kings would often make money lending the only legal trade for Jews in the Middle Ages) or blame the borrower. These days, we usually blame the borrower for taking on debt.
As I hinted at with my comment about charging the interest that the market can bear, debt, focusing on numbers rather than people, takes the human out of the transaction.
Here we come to the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?
This quote reminds me of the wergeld in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic law. In Boewulf's "Father's Lament" (lines 2444–2462), the father is old and dependent on his son. But he looks out his window and sees his son hanging on the gibbet. He laments that there is no one to care for him in his old age. In those days, there was no retirement. The only way to make up for killing someone's support was to pay a sum of money that might replace the value of the dead person. Thus, the wergeld was the practical consequence for killing someone. It wasn't about punishing someone for killing but ensuring that whoever depended on the victim wasn't left destitute. It was the payment of a debt.
We have a similar thing today. We can care for our parents as they age or pay someone else to do it for us. Our obligation doesn't go away, but we can turn it into a transaction.
The way violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics will crop up again and again over the course of this book.
This makes me think that treating our relationships as numbers gives us an excuse to ignore their humanity. This doesn't mean we always want to share until we can give no more. That's how we get burnout.
This gets a bit at something Peter Singer talks about in The expanding circle: Ethics, evolution, and moral progress. As a species that has developed group altruism as a path to ethics, we unconsciously keep track of debts to ensure we aren't enabling cheaters: people who take but never give. So when we say that we owe someone a favor, or someone owes us a favor, we're tracking debts. We don't want to owe everyone and never have anyone owe us.
YouTube Videos I've Enjoyed
This video explains Moravec's Paradox: things that are easy for people are hard for computers, and things that are easy for computers are hard for people.
This paradox helps us understand why Amazon's warehouses can be hard on people. While it might make sense to create a warehouse that doesn't require a person to think and places items in optimal places to avoid "collisions" from order packers, that is hard for people. From the outside, it looks like Amazon is building warehouses for robots while still hiring people. But, once they transition to robots, it'll all work well because computers (and robots) can do what we find difficult.
This video is a must-view for anyone wading through misinformation and disinformation on the Internet. Focusing on the evidence for a claim helps avoid ad hominem attacks. If all we can do is attack the messenger or the delivery of the message, then we implicitly agree with the message.
That's it for this week. Check back next week to see what I dig up over the next few days!
If you have a favorite book or video that you'd like me to see, reply to this email and let me know about it.