The Second Pile of Stuff

Moving through different dimensions, fun and games, and DIY vaccines

Eating a diet of highly-processed, low-nutrient, artificially-satisfying junk food is bad.

This statement is both obvious and often ignored.

The same concept—though less obvious and more ignored—holds true for our information diets. Our modern environment provides an endless supply of “junk” information: doom-scrolling Twitter, YouTube rabbit holes, reality TV, FOMO-inducing Instagram feeds, and so on. Most of us aren’t consciously watching our information diets as we might for our food diets, so we fall into bad consumption habits that dull the mind as surely as pizza and hot wings dull the body.

This newsletter has a dual purpose: first, to serve you a variety of interesting information that you might not find in the default stream of junk; second, force me to make sure I’m not living in a stream of junk—because that would make a crappy newsletter.

Adventures in Non-Euclidean Space

View of a world with spherical geometry.
Source: this video

Our everyday experience is of Euclidean space. Parallel lines are always the same distance apart, triangle’s angles always sum to 180°, etc. But these truths don’t work so well to describe space when it becomes curved. In spherical space, a triangle’s angles can sum to 270°. Parallel lines get closer to each other in spherical space, and farther apart in hyperbolic space. It’s weird!

It’s hard to intuit what non-Euclidean space is like. What would the experience of a curved reality be? Some intrepid1 individuals are building simulations of such places to allow us to experience what a bizarre world that would be.

Watch these to blow your mind:

Some Light Television

View of a world with spherical geometry.
Source: Taskmaster’s Best Ever Tasks

We’re living through a golden age of television.2 Streaming services are competing fiercely to produce a smörgåsbord of incredible shows. But there’s just one problem…

They. Are. All. So. Very. Heavy.

The heaviness of these shows—documentaries about serial killers, the zombie/alien/nuclear/demon apocalypse, and so on—compounds the weariness of a long day of work. It’s too much!

And that’s why you should watch Taskmaster. It’s a British variety show where comedians compete in stupid games for stupid prizes.3 Imagine a surreal version of those horrible corporate team-building exercises, but fun. It’s wonderfully buoyant and consequence-free. My wife and I have been watching through it for the past few months, and it’s always a fun way to wind down. If you’re burned out from keeping up with the top-rated dark dramas, have yourself a laugh with Taskmaster instead!4

Start at the beginning here.

Disclaimer: Often family friendly, but not 100%. Includes occasional swearing, partial nudity, and sexual themes.

Skip the Vaccine Queue by Making Your Own

Self-administration of self-made COVID-19 vaccine.
Source: Less Wrong

In the Red Dead Redemption 2, a major theme of the Western genre game was the closing of the frontier. That sense of a loss of opportunity and freedom as the institutions of the world ossified around you. As a programmer, I sometimes feel this. What once felt like an open world with boundless opportunity now looks like FAANG-shaped boot stomping on a human face forever.

But not all frontiers are closed. DIY biology, or biohacking, is still in its infancy. This is a field where I think we’re going to see a lot of interesting things in the years to come.

Here’s one example: making your very own COVID-19 vaccine. I am not remotely qualified to judge the soundness of technique, nor do I recommend anyone attempt this. But I am absolutely in awe that somebody out there DID attempt this.

This particular vaccine utilizes short peptide sequences taken from the virus. The idea is that the body can build an immunity to these non-functional sequences, thus triggering an immune response when the real virus shows up. Some scientists were trying this on themselves in the middle of 2020.

Biohacking is a risky business. If I write bad code that crashes my computer, no big deal—restart and move on. If I consume a substance that wreaks havoc on my body…not much recourse there.

I can barely make lacto-fermented pickles with > 50% success rate, so I won’t be home-brewing a COVID-19 vaccine soon. But the effort is extremely fascinating and inspiring. It brings to mind the citizen science of the 19th century, before it all became a terrible soul-crushing pursuit of tenure and grant dollars.

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

If you know someone else who might enjoy reading this newsletter, please point them to the sign-up page here. For smaller bits of stuff, you can also follow Tom on Twitter.

  1. Or maybe just mad. ↩︎

  2. Of all the golden ages we could be living through… To quote Peter Thiel: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” (At least Twitter doubled it to 280 since he first said that!) ↩︎

  3. I often hear Thought Leaders™ say “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” as an admonition against zero-sum games (status, power) and for positive-sum games (wealth creation and free trade). I’m tickled that the phrase also describes the premise of a TV show with equal precision. ↩︎

  4. British comedy is superior to American comedy, and watching the contestants of Taskmaster is a great reminder why. ↩︎