The First Pile of Stuff

The collapse of civilization, crypto art, and MSG

Hello and welcome!

I’m grateful you’ve decided to join me as I share interesting things. You can expect an eclectic mix of items—whatever piques my curiosity.

Don’t expect any over-arching theme to these emails. I’m not trying to make myself into a niche personal brand. I just hope that you’ll find the content as fascinating as I have.

Preventing the Collapse of Civilization

This talk by Jonathan Blow, given May 17th 2019, is one that I keep coming back to. It’s something I feel in my bones.

Slide from Jonathan Blow's talk. Text reads: 'Only the elite could read or write. These skills weren't widespread, so they were fragile. Almost nobody knows what is happening on a CPU. That skill isn't widespread, so it is fragile.'

His thesis: computer software is in the middle of a technological decline.

This might seem like a strange point of view. Doesn’t software get better every year? Isn’t it able to do more and more all the time?

Yes and no. Software capability improvements, Blow argues, come a lot from free riding on hardware improvements. But even with ever-more-powerful hardware, software seems to be getting so buggy that you don’t even expect it to work.

We’re not surprised to see the apps we use fail us everyday. As we’ve continued to add levels of abstraction in programming, we’ve introduced increasing levels of complexity. The more people who spend their time at the higher levels of abstraction, the fewer people developing a deep understanding of the lower level fundamentals.

What’s that got to do with the collapse of civilization? “The more complexity we put in our system, the less likely we are to survive a disaster. Because we have to maintain all that complexity.” Complexity introduces fragility.

This seems true not just of software development, but all our modern institutions. American health care systems are an undisputed Byzantine mess. My wife, who works in banking, deals with a litany of nonsense regulations that routinely prevent meaningful work. Everything we encounter daily is so complex that virtually nobody knows how it works, how to navigate it, or how to fix it when it breaks.1

Whether or not you’re a programmer, I highly recommend this talk for a look at the problems of complexity that plague our modern world. And if you enjoy this talk, here’s another on increasing computer complexity by Casey Muratori.

Crypto Art

Sold works of crypto art by Beeple.
Source: Beeple 2020 Collection

I know a bit about blockchains. I know less about art. Combined, I know very little about art on blockchains. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.2

Crypto art is based on non-fungible tokens (NFT). These NFTs live on a blockchain, typically Ethereum. This token then points to the official copy of the artwork. (Or it includes a copy? I’ve read conflicting things.) Like any digital file, anyone can still make unlimited perfect copies—but the NFT will still only point to one.

I may be missing something, but I don’t get the point. If I owned a Picasso, copies may exist but I’ve got the actual physical piece that he painted with his hands. With NFTs, what you “own” is 100% identical to any copies. Anybody can have their own bit-for-bit perfect copy of my crypto art.3 I may be the owner; but I have no exclusive rights, nor even some unique physical connection to the work. I’ve supported the artist, yes, but I could’ve just signed up for a Patreon too.

There are some interesting aspects of crypto art. One is that the chain of ownership is clear and unbroken. Unlike physical artwork, there should never be any doubt about legitimate ownership. (Though again, this is a weird kind of ownership!) The artist also may benefit from royalties on future sales, depending on the auction platform used. But this isn’t yet a native feature of NFTs, so it would break as the crypto art is sold outside the original platform.

On the downside for artists, there’s nothing to stop a copycat from creating an NFT that points to a perfect copy of your work and selling that. This is already a common problem on merchandising platforms, where people steal designs to be printed on t-shirts and mugs. I imagine it would be at least equally hard, if not harder, to deal with crypto art IP thieves.

My own failure to understand why I should make or buy crypto art doesn’t mean others don’t value it. The market for crypto art is worth over $75 million. But don’t expect to go make a fortune off your own weird CG gifs—it’s a winner-take-all market. Just one artist, Beeple, accounts for 17% of that.

MSG Concerns are a Joke. Literally.

Bags of MSG on a store shelf.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

You’ve likely heard that monosodium glutamate (MSG), an ingredient associated with Chinese food, can cause headaches and other distressing symptoms. You may have also heard that this is all bunk, and is just the result of anti-Chinese racism. But here is a more detailed look at the history of MSG concerns.

In 1968, a Letter to the Editor warning readers about “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS) appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). You may know about CRS. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself—the syndrome refers to the complex of symptoms, often attributed to MSG, like burning sensations in the mouth, facial pressure, headache, maybe some chest pain.

The most practical way to determine the reaction to [the] letter decades later was to dig through old print journals, and several researchers who searched found numerous reply letters in subsequent issues. They found that some letters were clearly tongue-in-cheek, and most seemed to be part of a lighthearted NEJM tradition in which letters to the editor jokingly described quotidian symptoms using excessively technical medical terminology. Though most of the response letters in NEJM were no doubt meant to be humorous, the joke was completely lost on the media, which dutifully reported on this new “health concern.” Six weeks after its publication, the New York Times ran an article on this so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” including interviews with defensive Chinese restaurant owners. Several major newspapers quoted from one of the satirical response letters to the NEJM as if it were a scientific document. The article did not mention that MSG is also widely used in many foods associated with the west rather than China, such as flavored potato chips, parmesan cheese, frozen dinners, and fast food. The inconsistency—symptoms occur after eating “Chinese” restaurant food with added MSG, but not in others—further suggests the entire argument is devoid of merit.

I only bring up MSG because my wife—who is Chinese!—keeps complaining about how thirsty she gets after eating food seasoned with it.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed all this stuff and that you look forward to more.

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  1. Thinking about our broken institutions also reminds me of chapters 1 through 4 of Inadequate Equilibria by Eliezer Yudkowsky. He tries to examine how we can have such awful yet persistent failures in institutions by looking at the incentives of all parties in a game-theoretical way. The goal of his book: learn how to look at a system to understand whether or not you—as a lone outsider—have any chance of doing better than just following expert concensus. Pro tip: in stock picking, the answer is no. ↩︎

  2. Seriously, I’ve rewritten this section at least 5 times! ↩︎

  3. I think like the Ship of Theseus question, but instead of “replace one bit at a time with an identical bit until all is replaced”, you create an exact copy all at once. Is it the same thing?

    Personally, I think it comes down to whether you care about the pattern or the narrative. If you could emulate my brain on a supercomputer, perfectly replicating my memories and thoughts, then I consider that me—the pattern is the same and that’s the part of my consciousness I care about, not specifically which atoms in the universe comprise me.

    But part of what makes art valuable is connection to the work’s story. That’s why a perfect replica by a forger is worthless—it was never touched by the artist’s own hand. People seek that emotional connection to the unbroken narrative of the work. I doubt whether crypto art will be appealing to the masses: there is no such thing as an original copy! Even whatever “official” work the NFT points to is, ultimately, just a copy of the artist’s own file placed on a server somewhere. ↩︎