Happy Pi Day!

Over half the links I’ve run across this month relate to automation. The topic deserves its own post, especially since it’s been over two years since I first wrote about it. So look out for that. Meanwhile here are the links that don’t quite fit under that rubric.

It seems that lots of folks have had boundaries, borders, and separation on their minds.

First Kevin Simler of Melting Asphalt writes about borders as a first-class foundational construct that appears on multiple levels: the nation-state, the cell, the human body, organizations. Though these borders are all prima facie different things, some conceptual and some physical, at wildly different scales, still they perform the same core functions: those of admitting and concentrating resources and eliminating and repelling waste and other undesirables.

Kevin on borders and agency:

“Border security (I now realize) is a necessary precondition for agency in a hostile ecosystem.”

“strong borders are necessary for strong agency at every scale and in every type of system, because they’re two sides of the same coin.”

On organizational cohesion:

“Organizations exhibit a lot of exclusivity and in-group favoritism, which we like to think are two of the uglier facets of human nature. And maybe they are. But they’re also strict requirements for group-level agency — almost (but not quite) a matter of thermodynamic necessity. Unless an organization treats its insides with more care and respect than its outsides, it will bleed resources (usually to more selfish agents, either predators or parasites) until it has dried up and withered away.”

This might be a fundamental problem for altruistic organizations. How can such an organization maintain its existence while sinking resources into large and intractable problems—and indeed should it even try?

This explains part of my discomfort with RationalWiki-style Skepticism:

“If a germaphobe is someone with a hyperactive behavioral immune system (the kind of person who wears a surgical mask out in public), then a skeptic is someone with a hyperactive epistemic immune system.”

On the arbitrariness of the divisions between academic disciplines:

“The very best explanations, in my experience, ride roughshod over small-minded discipline boundaries.”

This is the essay on borders I wish I’d written. On the one hand, I’m envious of the skilled writing on display and disappointed (however unrealistically) that I didn’t get there first. On the other hand now I don’t have to write the thing. I also realize that if I had tried it wouldn’t have been nearly this good.

Sarah Perry’s latest guest post on RibbonFarm eerily echoes Kevin’s writing (which she acknowledges, though it was written without direct influence). There is also some perhaps-not-so-surprising overlap with my recent piece on Christopher Alexander.

Her piece reads as more of a followup to her previous writing, and primarily concerns itself with the historically recent breakdown of small-scale communities, and their aesthetics and rituals:

“I am mostly interested in boundaries around groups much smaller than a nation state. I suggest that these small group entities... have increasingly had their boundaries undermined, and have largely ceased to exist and function. I suggest that ritual... both functions to draw boundaries and to energize and coordinate human groups.... I suggest that the loss of these small groups, in favor of nation-level organization of atomized individuals, has had serious consequences for human welfare and human agency.”

“It is frequently observed that constraints and obstructions are precisely where great art comes from; far from limiting art, they allow it to happen and feed it.... An aesthetic is one form of a constraint, and aesthetics tend to be developed, elaborated, and enjoyed in small groups.”

Sarah suggests, and I agree, that building communities is both one of the more difficult and important things that individuals can do. While it’s true that “we don’t really know how to make tribes,” we’re beginning to understand some of the requisite conditions of their existence and stability, and I’m hopeful that we will see a resurgence of beneficial small group entities in my lifetime.

While writing about maintaining sanity and ethical consistency, Scott Alexander touches on a related issue:

“Peter Singer talks about widening circles of concern. First you move from total selfishness to an understanding that your friends and family are people just like you and need to be treated with respect and understanding. Then you go from just your friends and family to everyone in your community. Then you go from just your community to all humanity. Then you go from just humanity to all animals.”

This sounds nice, but it’s very threatening if you care about loyalty, and is directly at odds with the conservative tendency to draw sharp boundaries and care more about the interior (family, community, nation) than the exterior (strangers, foreigners). My view is that while a certain amount of this kind of conservatism is essential in order to maintain agency and effectiveness (and this is true for even the most diehard of liberals), it should be possible to draw a boundary within which to act while still caring about and positively impacting those outside the boundary.

Alexander Boland tweets a 41-tweet essay on price signals that I understand maybe half of. It sounds extremely interesting, though. Can anyone fill me in?

New Yorker proofreader Mary Norris writes about punctuation and her history with the magazine. On the origin of commas:

“The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment.”

As someone who spends a lot of time working with data formats it’s interesting to note that the ubiquitous CSV format is true to the comma’s originally intended use.


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