Other Miscellany



Atlas Obscura: Ghost Dunes on Mars

IT’S NOT A GREAT IDEA to sunbathe on Mars. But if you really wanted to, and you lived a few billion years ago, we now know where you might have gone. In a recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, planetary geomorphologist Mackenzie Day and astrobiologist David Catling announced their discovery of about 800 “ghost dunes”—the imprints of ancient sand piles—clustered in two different locations on Mars. Examining these former dunes can tell us more about the red planet’s historic climate, and might contain more surprises as well.

Matt Colquhoun: Acid Communism 

Like so many of his neologisms, Mark Fisher’s ‘Acid Communism’ encapsulates a crisis of disambiguation, hurling a provocation into our midst. The phrase — which was to be the title of his next book, now unfinished following his death in January 2017 – has garnered considerable attention as many wonder what kind of variation on Marx’s manifesto might be occasioned by this new corrosive qualifier.

In truth, Acid Communism resists definition. The word ‘acid’ in particular, by invoking industrial chemicals, psychedelics and various sub-genres of dance music, is promiscuous. With so many uses and instantiations in various contexts, it is as difficult to cleanly define as ‘communism’ is in the 21st century. This textual promiscuity is no doubt what attracted Fisher to the phrase, but this has not stopped recent attempts to concretely define it in his absence.

Jeremy Gilbert, a former collaborator of Fisher’s, has led the way, writing a number of articles that turn Acid Communism into a one-dimensional and purely affirmative project, seeking the rehabilitation of the countercultural utopianism of the 1960s and ‘70s. In the New Statesman, Gilbert writes on ‘acid’ in particular and the way that the word still connotes “the liberation of human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society [as] a desirable, achievable and pleasurable objective.” What is absent from Gilbert’s summaries is made clear here. Is such a liberation of human consciousness desirable? Certainly. Achievable? Possibly. But pleasurable? Not always; not essentially.

Scott Alexander: Melatonin — Much More Than You Wanted to Know

I take melatonin sometimes because I like experimenting with psychotropic substances. And I still get some really weird dreams. A Slate journalist says he’s been taking melatonin for nine years and still gets crazy dreams.

We know that REM sleep is most common towards the end of sleep in the early morning. And we know that some parts of sleep structure are responsive to melatonin directly. There’s a lot of debate over exactly what melatonin does to REM sleep, but given all the reports of altered dreaming, I think you could pull together a case that it has some role in sleep architecture that promotes or intensifies REM.

Scott Locklin: Machine Learning & Data Science: What to Worry About in the Near Future

… Face recognition software (and to a lesser extent Voice Recognition) is getting quite good. Viola Jones (a form of boosted machine) is great at picking out faces, and sticking them in classifiers which label them has become routine. Shitbirds like Facebook also have one of the greatest self-owned labeled data sets in the world, and are capable of much evil with it. Governments potentially have very good data sets also. It isn’t quite at the level where we can all be instantly recognized, like, say with those spooky automobile license plate readers, but it’s probably not far away either. Plate readers are a much simpler problem; one theoretically mostly solved in the 90s when Yann LeCun and Leon Bottou developed convolutional nets for ATM machines.

Steve Sailer: Surfer Privilege

How high of a standard of living did young baby boomers enjoy, especially those of us fortunate to grow up on the then lightly populated West Coast? That question kept coming to mind while reading the acclaimed 2015 memoir of a youth spent at the beach in California and Hawaii, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan, now a veteran war correspondent for The New Yorker.

Surfing may be even more addictive than its counterparts, such as skiing, mountain climbing, and golf. While the waves are free (which, I learned from Barbarian Days, causes surfers no end of grief), the real estate values of adjoining coastal property have only gone up and up over Finnegan’s lifetime. The roll call of places where Finnegan surfed as a boy and young man—Malibu, Newport Beach, Topanga Canyon, Santa Barbara, Honolulu, Santa Cruz, Maui, Australia’s Gold Coast, Cape Town, and San Francisco—reads like a real estate speculator’s fever dream.

Vincent Garton: Catholicism and the Gravity of Horror

…it’s unsurprising that the universe of the Old Testament in particular is so overwhelmingly and—it seems—embarrassingly a universe of horror, its pages teeming with the strange, the disturbing, and the dissonant. The very fact of God’s intervention in the world is, in Mark Fisher’s sense of the term, weird—“the presence of that which does not belong.” His presence, his activities, are the products of a radical freedom not of this world; pure act cannot be comprehended by this world, and certainly does not belong to it. The appearance of heaven to Ezekiel, its only direct unveiling until the book of the Apocalypse, is more than a match for any Lovecraft story, and how else can we understand the tesseractic unfolding of providence in this world as a whole? It is easy to see, from this perspective, that to be aware of an alien exterior to our perception is itself to sense God.


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