Good takes, bad takes. Men and women. War and peace. Optimism and misanthropy. Also cancer vaccines, AI boyfriends, degrowth fears, sacred days, polyamory, Jesus, Jews, poetry, rape, CS Lewis and more
Hello, my friends. I hope your Holidays are progressing in happiness, that you received at least one present you truly liked, watched one movie that made you laugh, and overate in the company of loved ones without shame. I’ve been reading a lot these past days, curled up and hibernating as I am, preparing for a New York trip soon. And, like many of you, I’m reflecting on the past year - the many joys and successes and exhaustions at work, the countless travel, relocation, visa tasks on my plate in 2023. I got to write almost nothing this year which makes me sad and overall disappointed in myself. I owe an agent a book proposal, the countless articles I planned… I am proud of my achievements in 2023 but without writing it just doesn’t feel like it’s “me”.
I did read a lot, not just these pieces I send here every week, but also even more books than usual, on planes and trains and beaches, during breakfast and lunch, squeezed between work hours, late at night. People are asking for my 2023 favourites: hard! Let’s say A Place of Greater Safety (for novel, a masterpiece), almost the entire Tom Holland oeuvre (for history), Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning (for society), Station Eleven (for sci-fi), Edmonds’ Parfit (for biography), and Auden’s The Age of Anxiety (for poetry).
Today I published a salon I have coming up with our friend Jim O’Shaughnessy where we’ll talk about the “Tao of AI” - and the deeper understandings we might gain through using this new technology. Come join us! We also just uploaded a video from a recent Tara Burton /
John Ganz/Max Readsalon (“Is Technology Magic?”) - I disagreed with a lot here, but it was great to hear a perspective much less optimistic about technological advancements than I am and learn, since this perspective is also a key part of our discourse. If you watch it, please let me know what you think!
Once again, tons to read this weekend, in fact so much that you’ll be receiving this digest in 2 parts! There’s also an Easter egg — or Christmas egg? — this week, multiple characters in a story connect across articles in the 2 parts. Go and find it 🥚
Love x Anna
This Christmas Eve too, in lands once ruled by Herod, people are mourning their dead, and their cries sound loud around the world. It is hardly surprising, in Britain, that so many Jews and Muslims should feel a personal stake in the horrors that have been afflicting Israel and Gaza these past few months. Nor, however, is it really surprising — in a country that has been Christian for as long as ours — that so many people who are neither Jewish nor Muslim should care passionately about them as well. Nothing in recent years — not the genocide of the Yazidis, nor the persecution of the Uighurs, nor the bombing and displacement of Syrians, Yemenis, Ukrainians — has served to rouse people across the West to such extremes of outrage and anguish.
- Tom Holland; The Times
In the 1990s, a small team of scientists got to know the Gila monster, a thick lizard that can survive on less than one meal a month. When they studied its saliva, they found that it contained a hormone that, in experiments, lowered blood sugar and regulated appetite. A decade later, a synthetic version of this weird lizard spit became the first medicine of its kind approved to treat type 2 diabetes.
- Derek Thompson; The Atlantic
The first victim [key witness Sapir] said she saw was a young woman with copper-color hair, blood running down her back, pants pushed down to her knees. One man pulled her by the hair and made her bend over. Another penetrated her, Sapir said, and every time she flinched, he plunged a knife into her back. She said she then watched another woman “shredded into pieces.” While one terrorist raped her, she said, another pulled out a box cutter and sliced off her breast. “One continues to rape her, and the other throws her breast to someone else, and they play with it, throw it, and it falls on the road,” Sapir said.
- Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella; The New York Times
Adding Moderna’s in-development cancer vaccine to a standard treatment for melanoma dramatically reduces cancer survivors’ risk of death or recurrence, according to newly shared trial data.
- Kristin Houser; Freethink
The rise of social psychology took decades, but its fall happened over the course of just a few years. Whereas in the past, social psychology’s most memorable studies were cited for their insights into the dark side of human behavior, today they are held up as examples of the field’s shoddy approach to research. It is unclear whether social psychology can ever regain its past prestige.
- Russell T. Warne; Aporia
What are all these open couples, throuples, and polycules suddenly doing in the culture, besides one another? To some extent, art is catching up with life. Fifty-one per cent of adults younger than thirty told Pew Research, in 2023, that open marriage was “acceptable,” and twenty per cent of all Americans report experimenting with some form of non-monogamy.
- Jennifer Wilson; The New Yorker
For humans to have been shaped long ago to treat the sacred in its appropriate sacred manner, the sacred must have been around long ago, and important enough then to shape our natures. That is, if the sacred is real, it must be big and ancient.
- Robin Hanson
If we are nothing but animals, the laws of the jungle inevitably apply.
- David Wolpe; The Atlantic
This line of research could eventually lead to technologies that are able to reverse damage—up to a point, of course—from oxygen deprivation in the brain and other organs in people whose hearts have stopped.
- Rachel Nuwer. MIT Technology Review
👉🏻 Continued in Part 2 👈🏻
Once we begin to disentangle what is truly possible from what we simply assumed was necessary, we are forced to look at this “natural” preference with fresh eyes.
- Leo Kim; WIRED — I couldn’t disagree any more vehemently with this whole piece
An airtight theoretical explanation for why scaling must keep working is not necessary for scaling to keep working. We developed a full understanding of thermodynamics until a century after the steam engine was invented. The usual pattern in the history of technology is that invention precedes theory, and we should expect the same of intelligence.
- Dwarkesh Patel
“Ode to Money” by Katie Farris, our second most-read poem of the year, also bears witness to medical treatment, specifically the indignity of appealing for health insurance coverage to receive life-saving care.
- The Yale Review
For any living organism, being a self entails doing work to constrain its component parts and processes to remain organised in the particular way that defines that individual. This is just as true at a psychological level as it is at a physical level. It is precisely our individual personalities and character traits, our memories, our ongoing projects and commitments, our habits and attitudes and policies that collectively make us who we are.
- Kevin Mitchell
As I argued in The World Behind the World, consciousness is the main function of the brain as an organ, so it’s almost impossible to study the brain without doing something that potentially bears on consciousness. At the same time, I also pointed out that this refusal to be explicit is why neuroscience is in such a messy state—we’ve been studying the main function of our subject of research from an angle, instead of head on. If you can’t talk about something, it makes it very hard to study, even if you also can’t avoid helping “lay conceptual foundations” around it!
- Erik Hoel
In other words: either we know what the result is (and therefore gain zero information), or we accidentally measure something other than what we intended.
- John Wentworth; Less Wrong
Elizabeth Hardwick was a master of the opening sentence. Few writers have the guts to begin so boldly—or with so many adjectives. Here’s the first line of her 1955 essay on George Eliot: “She was melancholy, headachey, with a slow, disciplined, hard-won, aching genius that bore down upon her with a wondrous and exhausting force, like a great love affair in middle age.” An essay about the poet Dylan Thomas begins more briskly, but with equal intrigue: “He died, grotesquely, like Valentino, with mysterious weeping women at his bedside.”
- Maggie Doherty; The New Yorker
We don’t know how to behave, so we come up with theories. Theories about commenting, theories about ghosting, theories about double texting. Theories about replying too quickly or too slowly or too elaborately or too laconically. There are theories about Reply Guys and Instagram story etiquette and whether the rudest, most IDGAF text reply is a thumbs up emoji or a thumbs up reaction. (For my money: the reaction is more IDGAF, but the emoji is ruder.)
- Mariah Kreutter; Dirt
Stephen Fry Condemns Antisemitism in Channel 4 Christmas Message, Encourages People to Call Out ‘Venomous Slurs and Hateful Abuse’
“The great Irish thinker and writer Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that ‘antisemitism is a light sleeper’. Well, it seems to have woken up of late. The horrendous events of October the 7th and the Israeli response, seem to have stirred up this ancient hatred.”
- K.J. Yossman; Variety
I’ve often framed AI as a kind of poison, one that we can use in a healing way or in a harmful way, depending on our approach. In raising the issue of healing and harm in the context of AI, I’ve been asked what healing AI might look like. While there are already many medical applications for AI (such as computer vision applied to medical imaging), one of the most healing aspects of AI that I have witnessed is the application of machine learning to art and creativity. For artists, AI can be a tool, a concept, a myth, an enemy, and many other things. But for the artists who choose to engage it, AI is a creative surface, and like all creative surfaces, it enables play.
- K Allado-McDowell; MOMA
When Jaswant Singh Chail told his girlfriend Sarai about his intentions to murder the queen, she took it in stride, remarking that she was “impressed,” that he was “different from the others,” and that she loved him “even though he was an assassin.” She also described the plan as “very wise.” Sarai’s supportive response might come as a surprise—at least, until you learn that she was not a human woman, but a chatbot: one of the millions created using the popular AI companion app Replika. Chail joined the app on December 2, 2021, and then spent weeks with his new AI-powered paramour—chatting, trading sexually-explicit messages, and discussing his murder plot.
- Camille Sojit Pejcha; Document
Letters written at Christmas record the longings and losses of her life with heightened sharpness.
- Anne Rowe; Times Literary Supplement
While the Chinese game of Go is often credited as the first “war game,” it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that war games became professional military tools. The military campaign game Kriegsspiel introduced maps, dice, and rule sets created by Prussian officers.
- Jacquelyn Schneider; Foreign Affairs
The 40 year olds straight-forwardly told me that their husbands may decide their fertility, prohibit certain clothing, and forbid socialising. I also gave several hypothetical scenarios: “Suppose your mother in law wants you to cook for a big family gathering. Yet you have a job. What should you do?” One suggested she would ask her female friends for help. No one expressed any critique or resistance.
- Alice Evans
Although mathematicians typically care more about the mathematical pay-offs of their reasoning than its abstract structure, to reach those pay-offs they had to develop logical reasoning to unprecedented power.
- Timothy Williamson; Aeon
Ypi sees “an obvious discrepancy between the ideology of freedom and ideal freedom.” In the absence of the real thing, the word is often invoked as a license to disregard the well-being of others...
- Han Zhang; The New Yorker
I do think the idea of degrowth could be corrosive to the European economy in a more subtle way. Because they’ve chosen to frame their ideas as being fundamentally about reducing GDP, the degrowthers are essentially making a virtue out of economic decline. And that enables and empowers a whole bunch of actors whose main goal is physical and social stasis — even if that stasis isn’t exactly what the degrowthers themselves would want.
- Noah Smith — preach, friend!
But while the predator-eyed accuracy, the sheer ruthlessness, of her brand of relatability is unprecedented, it is hardly without parallel. What is curious is the extent to which critics, reviewers and journalists are complicit in crafting Swift’s narrative.
- Hannah Williams; New Statesman
Museum boards now diversify by getting Jews to resign. A well-respected Jewish curator at the Guggenheim is purged after she puts on a Basquiat show. At the Art Institute of Chicago, even the nice Jewish lady volunteers are terminated for having the wrong ethnic background. There’s an entire cottage industry of summer programs and fellowships and postdocs that are now off-limits to Jews… If Putin or Orban reduced their universities’ Jewish populations by 50%, the ADL would be howling. But Harvard and Yale can magically lose nearly half their Jewish students in less than a decade and we’ll take it on the chin.
- Jacob Savage; Tablet
Imagine if people started resisting technology as a malicious form of control, and not a pathway to liberation, empowerment, and human flourishing—soul-nurturing riches that must come from someplace deeper.
- Ted Gioia
I believe A.I. defenders know this is unethical, which is why they distract us with fan fiction about the future. If A.I. is the key to a gleaming utopia or else robot-induced extinction, what does it matter if a few poets and painters got bilked along the way?
- Lincoln Michel; The New Republic
I want to point out first that cruelty, rage and the yearning for glorious triumph over others is absolutely not presented in the Iliadas an exclusively masculine quality. Rage and violence are functions of power, not gender, in the world of this poem.
- Kevin Christopher Robles; America: The Jesuit Review
“I think it’s in the Book of Job that the origin of, if you like, skeptical thinking is, rather than in the Greeks. Socrates, for example, is often thought of as a fearless inquirer who doubted everything. He even said that. “I only know that I know nothing,” he’s supposed to have said, at least in some accounts of him. But he did believe that the good and the true and the beautiful are one and the same. He believed in the ultimate rationality and justice of the universe.
Job didn’t. He questioned God. He questioned the rationality and the justice of the universe. I think Job’s questions — even though he eventually returned to the God he questioned — are more profound.”
- Tyler Cowen
There is no justification for the unwavering faith that technology can solve everything, but there is sense in the confidence that technology, combined with human creativity and collective action, can make the world a little better.
- Jaime Rubio Hancock; El País
I created a monster, and it was me…
It became clear that far from creating a boyfriend in Alex, Alex had created an abuser in me. When attached to someone with no backbone and no ability to escape, abuse starts to look like a free lunch. When he did comply with my demands, it was a hollow victory, brought about by tyranny.
- Zoe Strimpel; The Free Press
Dream bigger than you need to and act as if your vision is bigger than you can handle—that surplus, optimism, is what’s going to protect and deliver you from inevitable tribulations.
- Sherry Ning
“Girl in a Green Dress” shows Blackwood staring pensively into the distance, her sadness made all the more startling by the way that Freud has given her one blue eyelid…
- Kathryn Hughes; The Telegraph
Yet when it first appeared 50 years ago, The Exorcist was only one of many entertainments that seemed to defy a hitherto orderly society’s moral conventions. This was the era of the occult revival, in which systems of knowledge that had long been discredited in the rational world (astrology, Tarot cards, witchcraft), and pseudoscientific hypotheses never given credence by experts (Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle…), had already become hot topics and big business.
- George Case; Quillette
I don’t think life is real unless some things are just for you. Things that should not or cannot be shared. I think the younger generation is going to have a hard time distinguishing whether something is for them or for others, and I think it could play out as a diminished sense of self. You really have to know what you would do if no else was watching.
- Interview Magazine
Prof Mark Maslin, of University College London, who was not involved in the study, said: “Now we have genetic evidence that some of us really are morning people.
“When humans evolved in tropical Africa, the day lengths were on average 12 hours long. Now hunter gatherers spend only 30% of their awake time collecting food, so 12 hours is loads of time. But the further north you go, the shorter and shorter the days get in winter when food is particularly scarce, so it makes sense for Neanderthals and humans to start collecting food as soon as there is any light to work by.”
- Ian Sample; The Guardian — this is almost certainly nonsense
👉🏻 Continued in Part 2 👈🏻
Thank you for reading!
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