There’s no such thing as a tree (phylogenetically)

So you’ve heard about how fish aren’t a monophyletic group? You’ve heard about carcinization, the process by which ocean arthropods convergently evolve into crabs? You say you get it now? Sit down. Sit down. Shut up. Listen. You don’t know nothing yet.

“Trees” are not a coherent phylogenetic category. On the evolutionary tree of plants, trees are regularly interspersed with things that are absolutely, 100% not trees. This means that, for instance, either:

  • The common ancestor of a maple and a mulberry tree was not a tree.
  • The common ancestor of a stinging nettle and a strawberry plant was a tree.
  • And this is true for most trees or non-trees that you can think of.

I thought I had a pretty good guess at this, but the situation is far worse than I could have imagined.

CLICK TO EXPAND. Partial phylogenetic tree of various plants. TL;DR: Tan is definitely, 100% trees. Yellow is tree-like. Green is 100% not a tree. Sourced mostly from Wikipedia.

I learned after making this chart that tree ferns exist (h/t seebs), which I think just emphasizes my point further. Also, h/t kithpendragon on LW for suggestions on increasing accessibility of the graph.

Why do trees keep happening?

First, what is a tree? It’s a big long-lived self-supporting plant with leaves and wood.

Also of interest to us are the non-tree “woody plants”, like lianas (thick woody vines) and shrubs. They’re not trees, but at least to me, it’s relatively apparent how a tree could evolve into a shrub, or vice-versa. The confusing part is a tree evolving into a dandelion. (Or vice-versa.)

Wood, as you may have guessed by now, is also not a clear phyletic category. But it’s a reasonable category – a lignin-dense structure, usually that grows from the exterior and that forms a pretty readily identifiable material when separated from the tree. (…Okay, not the most explainable, but you know wood? You know when you hold something in your hand, and it’s made of wood, and you can tell that? Yeah, that thing.)

All plants have lignin and cellulose as structural elements – wood is plant matter that is dense with both of these.

Botanists don’t seem to think it only could have gone one way – for instance, the common ancestor of flowering plants is theorized to have been woody. But we also have pretty clear evidence of recent evolution of woodiness – say, a new plant arrives on a relatively barren island, and some of the offspring of that plant becomes treelike. Of plants native to the Canary Islands, wood independently evolved at least 38 times!

One relevant factor is that all woody plants do, in a sense, begin life as herbaceous plants – by and large, a tree sprout shares a lot of properties with any herbaceous plant. Indeed, botanists call this kind of fleshy, soft growth from the center that elongates a plant “primary growth”, and the later growth from towards the outside which causes a plant to thicken is “secondary growth.” In a woody plant, secondary growth also means growing wood and bark – but other plants sometimes do secondary growth as well, like potatoes (in roots)

This paper addresses the question. I don’t understand a lot of the closely genetic details, but my impression of its thesis is that: Analysis of convergently-evolved woody plants show that the genes for secondary woody growth are similar to primary growth in plants that don’t do any secondary growth – even in unrelated plants. And woody growth is an adaption of secondary growth. To abstract a little more, there is a common and useful structure in herbaceous plants that, when slightly tweaked, “dendronizes” them into woody plants.

Dendronization – Evolving into a tree-like morphology. (In the style of “carcinization“.) From ‘dendro‘, the ancient Greek root for tree.

Can this be tested? Yep – knock out a couple of genes that control flower development and change the light levels to mimic summer, and researchers found that Arabidopsis rock cress, a distinctly herbaceous plant used as a model organism – grows a woody stem never otherwise seen in the species.

The tree-like woody stem (e) and morphology (f, left) of the gene-altered Aridopsis, compared to its distinctly non-tree-like normal form (f, right.) Images from Melzer, Siegbert, et al. “Flowering-time genes modulate meristem determinacy and growth form in Arabidopsis thaliana.” Nature genetics 40.12 (2008): 1489-1492.

So not only can wood develop relatively easily in an herbal plant, it can come from messing with some of the genes that regulate annual behavior – an herby plant’s usual lifecycle of reproducing in warm weather, dying off in cool weather. So that gets us two properties of trees at once: woodiness, and being long-lived. It’s still a far cry from turning a plant into a tree, but also, it’s really not that far.

To look at it another way, as Andrew T. Groover put it:

“Obviously, in the search for which genes make a tree versus a herbaceous plant, it would be folly to look for genes present in poplar and absent in Arabidopsis. More likely, tree forms reflect differences in expression of a similar suite of genes to those found in herbaceous relatives.”

So: There are no unique “tree” genes. It’s just a different expression of genes that plants already use. Analogously, you can make a cake with flour, sugar, eggs, sugar, butter, and vanilla. You can also make frosting with sugar, butter, and vanilla – a subset of the ingredients you already have, but in different ratios and use

But again, the reverse also happens – a tree needs to do both primary and secondary growth, so it’s relatively easy for a tree lineage to drop the “secondary” growth stage and remain an herb for its whole lifespan, thus “poaizating.” As stated above, it’s hypothesized that the earliest angiosperms were woody, some of which would have lost that in become the most familiar herbaceous plants today. There are also some plants like cassytha and mistletoe, herbaceous plants from tree-heavy lineages, who are both parasitic plants that grow on a host tree. Knowing absolutely nothing about the evolution of these lineages, I think it’s reasonable to speculate that they each came from a tree-like ancestor but poaized to become parasites. (Evolution is very fond of parasites.)

Poaization: Evolving into an herbaceous morphology. From ‘poai‘, ancient Greek term from Theophrastus defining herbaceous plants (“Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies”).

(I apologize to anyone I’ve ever complained to about jargon proliferation in rationalist-diaspora blog posts.)

The trend of staying in an earlier stage of development is also called neotenizing. Axolotls are an example in animals – they resemble the juvenile stages of the closely-related tiger salamander. Did you know very rarely, or when exposed to hormone-affecting substances, axolotls “grow up” into something that looks a lot like a tiger salamander? Not unlike the gene-altered Arabidopsis.

A normal axolotl (left) vs. a spontaneously-metamorphosed “adult” axolotl (right.)

[Photo of normal axolotl from By th1098 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo of metamorphosed axolotl from deleted reddit user, via this thread: ]

Does this mean anything?

A friend asked why I was so interested in this finding about trees evolving convergently. To me, it’s that a tree is such a familiar, everyday thing. You know birds? Imagine if actually there were amphibian birds and mammal birds and insect birds flying all around, and they all looked pretty much the same – feathers, beaks, little claw feet, the lot. You had to be a real bird expert to be able to tell an insect bird from a mammal bird. Also, most people don’t know that there isn’t just one kind of “bird”. That’s what’s going on with trees.

I was also interested in culinary applications of this knowledge. You know people who get all excited about “don’t you know a tomato is a fruit?” or “a blueberry isn’t really a berry?” I was one once, it’s okay. Listen, forget all of that.

There is a kind of botanical definition of a fruit and a berry, talking about which parts of common plant anatomy and reproduction the structure in question is derived from, but they’re definitely not related to the culinary or common understandings. (An apple, arguably the most central fruit of all to many people, is not truly a botanical fruit either).

Let me be very clear here – mostly, this is not what biologists like to say. When we say a bird is a dinosaur, we mean that a bird and a T. rex share a common ancestor that had recognizably dinosaur-ish properties, and that we can generally point to some of those properties in the bird as well – feathers, bone structure, whatever. You can analogize this to similar statements you may have heard – “a whale is a mammal”, “a spider is not an insect”, “a hyena is a feline”…

But this is not what’s happening with fruit. Most “fruits” or “berries” are not descended from a common “fruit” or “berry” ancestor. Citrus fruits are all derived from a common fruit, and so are apples and pears, and plums and apricots – but an apple and an orange, or a fig and a peach, do not share a fruit ancestor.

Instead of trying to get uppity about this, may I recommend the following:

  • Acknowledge that all of our categories are weird and a little arbitrary
  • Look wistfully of pictures of Welwitschia
  • Send a fruit basket to your local botanist/plant evolutionary biologist for putting up with this, or become one yourself
While natural selection is commonly thought to simply be an ongoing process with no “goals” or “end points”, most scientists believe that life peaked at Welwitschia.

[Photo from By Sara&Joachim on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, ]

Some more interesting findings:

  • A mulberry (left) is not related to a blackberry (right). They just… both did that.
[ Mulberry photo by Cwambier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Blackberry photo by By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, ]
  • Avocado and cinnamon are from fairly closely-related tree species.
  • It’s possible that the last common ancestor between an apple and a peach was not even a tree.
  • Of special interest to my Pacific Northwest readers, the Seattle neighborhood of Magnolia is misnamed after the local madrona tree, which Europeans confused with the (similar-looking) magnolia. In reality, these two species are only very distantly related. (You can find them both on the chart to see exactly how far apart they are.)
  • None of [cactuses, aloe vera, jade plants, snake plants, and the succulent I grew up knowing as “hens and chicks”] are related to each other.
  • Rubus is the genus that contains raspberries, blackberries, dewberries, salmonberries… that kind of thing. (Remember, a genus is the category just above a species – which is kind of a made-up distinction, but suffice to say, this is a closely-related groups of plants.) Some of its members have 14 chromosomes. Some of its members have 98 chromosomes.
  • Seriously, I’m going to hand $20 in cash to the next plant taxonomy expert I meet in person. God knows bacteriologists and zoologists don’t have to deal with this.

And I have one more unanswered question. There doesn’t seem to be a strong tend of plants evolving into grasses, despite the fact that grasses are quite successful and seem kind of like the most anatomically simple plant there could be – root, big leaf, little flower, you’re good to go. But most grass-like plants are in the same group. Why don’t more plants evolve towards the “grass” strategy?

Let’s get personal for a moment. One of my philosophical takeaways from this project is, of course, “convergent evolution is a hell of a drug.” A second is something like “taxonomy is not automatically a great category for regular usage.” Phylogenetics are absolutely fascinating, and I do wish people understood them better, and probably “there’s no such thing as a fish” is a good meme to have around because most people do not realize that they’re genetically closer to a tuna than a tuna is to a shark – and “no such thing as a fish” invites that inquiry.

(You can, at least, say that a tree is a strategy. Wood is a strategy. Fruit is a strategy. A fish is also a strategy.)

At the same time, I have this vision in my mind of a clever person who takes this meandering essay of mine and goes around saying “did you know there’s no such thing as wood?” And they’d be kind of right.

But at the same time, insisting that “wood” is not a useful or comprehensible category would be the most fascinatingly obnoxious rhetorical move. Just the pinnacle of choosing the interestingly abstract over the practical whole. A perfect instance of missing the forest for – uh, the forest for …

… Forget it.


Timeless Slate Star Codex / Astral Codex Ten piece: The categories were made for man, not man for the categories.

Towards the end of writing this piece, I found that actual botanist Dan Ridley-Ellis made a tweet thread about this topic in 2019. See that for more like this from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

[Crossposted to Lesswrong.]

Internet Harvest (2020, 3)

Internet Harvest is a selection of the most succulent links on the internet that I’ve recently plucked from its fruitful boughs. Feel free to discuss the links in the comments.

You know how you can “fake write” on a page, and produce a line of ink with a pen that looks kind of like words but isn’t really? There’s a name for that: Asemic writing.

Most images of butterflies you see represent dead butterflies – pinned to better show the wings, and in a posture they rarely are found in nature. Once you notice the difference, you’ll see this everywhere. I originally found this article at least a year ago and I’ve thought about it every time I see a picture of a butterfly.

nabeelqu on understanding: This is a great article about what it takes to understand things. I really, highly endorse “ask dumb questions” as a step for understanding things.

The rate at which new genetic sequences are added to GenBank (an international database for genetics, relied on heavily by biologists) follows Moore’s Law. I have no idea what this implies. [Source]

Niche subreddit of the day: r/VisibleMending. For mending clothing and more with visible, often lovely repairs.

Take a look at the machine that synthesized the voice for number stations. (H/T Nova)

There are a lot of ways to learn about the wonders of aquatic ecosystems. You can watch documentaries, like the Blue Planet or Shape of Life series. You can watch videos from ocean exploration projects, like the EV Nautilus youtube channel. You can go scuba diving, or just go to a beach and whalewatch and collect shells. You can go tidepooling.

Or you can grab a bunch of sand and algae and seaweed and put it in a big jar, seal the lid, and leave it alone for a year, and see what kind of weird guys emerge from it.

Second niche subreddit of the week: r/FridgeDetective, where you post a picture of the inside of your fridge, and other people try and make deductions about you based on it.

Covid Dash is a project for tracking progress on treatments and countermeasures for COVID-19, and finding out where you can volunteer to help with clinical trials.

The vast majority of the ocean is completely lightless. Fish react by evolving to be extremely, extremely black.

I’ve been trying to use Twitter more. It turns out that the only good Twitters are “Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions [In Different Video Games]” and Internet of Shit. Paul Bae’s twitter, Malcolm Ocean’s twitter, Tom Inglesby’s twitter, Dril’s twitter, qntm’s twitter, and Rebecca R. Helm’s twitter are also quality. Elisabeth Bik’s twitter is good if you like hot gossip on academic mispractice. Everyone else’s twitter, including mine, is superfluous and probably doing more harm than good.

Finally, a request: I really like sidenotes or margin notes on websites, like Gwern’s. Does anyone know of a blogging or general website platform that currently allows these without being totally handbuilt? I’m not ready for fiddling with CSS yet.

A love letter to civilian OSINT

[Content warning: discussion of violence and child abuse. No graphic images in this post, but some links may contain disturbing material.]

In July 2017, a Facebook user posts a video of an execution. He is a member of the Libyan National Army, and in the video, kneeling on the ground before his brigade, are twenty people dressed in prisoner orange and wearing bags over their heads. In the description, the uploader states that these people were members of the Islamic State. The brigade proceeds to execute the prisoners, one by one, by gunshot.

The videos was uploaded along with other executions perhaps as a threat or a boast, but it also becomes evidence, as the International Criminal Court orders an arrest warrant on the brigade’s Leader, Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli, for killing without due cause or process – the first warrant they have issued based only on social media evidence. And once the video falls into the lap of international investigative journalism collective Bellingcat, the video also becomes a map leading straight to them.

The video’s uploader is aware that they’re being hunted, and very intentionally, does not disclose the site the incident took place at. The camera focuses on an almost entirely unrecognizable patch of scrubby desert – almost entirely. At seconds, bits of horizon pop into the video, showing the edge of a fence and perhaps the first floor of a few buildings.

Bellingcat reporters knew the brigade was operating in the area around Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. The long shadows of the prisoners in the video suggest the camera was facing one of two directions, in either early morning or late afternoon.

A Twitter user suggested that the sand color resembled that in the southwest of the city moreso than in other parts. The partial buildings glimpsed in the background looked only partly constructed, and within that district of the city, a great deal of construction had stopped do to the civil war. Rebel fighters were rumored to be living in a specific set of buildings – perhaps the same brigade? Using satellite footage, the researchers worked backwards to find where the video must have been shot, such that it could see both a fence, a matching view of a building, and other details like large shrubs. They came back with GPS coordinates, accurate out to six digits, and a date and time down to the minute.

The grim confirmation came when the coordinates were checked against a more recent set of satellite imagery from the area. In the newer footage, on the sand, facing out into the buildings, fence, and large shrubs, were fifteen large bloodstains.

Bellingcat is an organization that does civilian OSINT. OSINT is “Open Source Intelligence”, a name that comes to it from the national intelligence sphere where the CIA and FBI practice it – relevant knowledge that is gathered from openly available sources rather than from spy satellites, hacking, and the like. (OSINT is also a concept in computer security, I believe that’s related but probably a somewhat different context.) Civilian OSINT is to OSINT as citizen science is to science at large – democratized, anyone can do it, albeit perhaps fewer tools than the professionals tend to have. Given that OSINT inherently runs on public material, civilian OSINT has theoretical access to the exact same information that professionals have.

Bellingcat is, of course, an organization that employs OSINT experts (making them professionals), but they also have a commitment to openness and sharing their methods, which I believe classes them in with other. Organizations that focus on this are thin on the ground. (Outside of academia, where certain research on e.g. internet communities could be said do be doing the same thing.) For instance, the Atlantic Council has the Digital Forensics Research (DFR) Lab, which analyzes social media and other internet material in relation to global events.

Other OSINT organizations are less institutional and may be volunteer-based. Europol’s “Find an Object” program crops identifying information from pictures of child abuse, so that only items in the photo are visible (a package of cleaner, a logo on a hat) and then asks the internet if can identify the items and where they are found. WarWire is a network of professionals who gather and analyze social media data from warzones. Trace Labs is a crowdsourced project that finds digital evidence on missing persons cases, the results of which it sends to law enforcement. DNA Doe is a related project where volunteers use genetic evidence to identify unidentified bodies. Less formally, there are dedicated forums like WebSleuths and the “Reddit Bureau of Investigation” (r/RBI).

More often, though, these investigations emerge spontaneously and organically: More commonly, these efforts are not practiced or planned, but form spontaneously and organically – Reddit communities have occasionally made the news for identifying decades-old John Does, stabilizing shakey cell phone footage that provided important evidence in the case of a police shooting, and identifying that a mysterious electrical component in a user’s extension cord was a secret camera.


Volunteer labor is an elegant fit for OSINT:

  • Much of it is digital and doable remotely
  • Many tasks require little training
  • Depending on the cause, volunteers will work
  • Causes are things people care about
  • Volunteers work at their own hours and are thus resilient to the kind of emotional burnout bellingcat has seen in its employees
  • Willing to devote their time

Let’s unpack ‘time.’ Many investigations come down, eventually, to monotonous searches: Bellingcat was eventually able to use just five photos with vague landscape features to pinpoint two geographic locations where human trafficking had taken place for the “Trace an Object” project. A remarkable task – and one that took weeks.

(Steps in the process included “exploring major cities in Southeast Asia via Google Streetview to find ones that looked most similar to photos”, and “guessing that the closest-looking city was the correct one”. This worked.)

Overall, they spent over 2,500 hours to concretely identify 12 Europol photos in the past twelve months, and to partially identify thirteen more. And identification of objects is only one step in the way to arrest – some photographs were years old, the perpetrators and victims likely moved or worse. In the Europol program’s three year history, with tens of thousands of volunteer tips, only ten children have been rescued.

Any child saved from these horrors is, of course, a success. But it suggests that paying people for this type of work isn’t going to be efficient in the standard effective altruism framework of lives-saved per dollar.

I think practical civilian OSINT, to move monotonous mountains like this one, needs to tap into a different reservoir: the kind of digital energy that has built and maintained Wikipedia, countless open-source projects, the universe of fanpages and fanfiction, etc. This sort of collaborative, enthusiastic volunteer labor is well suited to the more repetitive and time-consuming aspects of open source investigation.

(Obviously, different projects will have different payoffs – I’m sure that some will be hugely effective per paid hour, although I don’t know which ones they are.)

Sidenote: What about automating OSINT with neural nets?

I bring this up because I know my audience, and I know people are going to go “wait, image identification? You know DeepMind can do that now, right?”

Well: the neural nets for this don’t exist yet. If someone wants to make them, I could see that being beneficial for OSINT, although I’d advise such a person to take a long hard look at the ‘OSINT is a dual use technology’ section of this post below, and to think long and hard about possible government and military uses for such a technology (both your own government and others.) I suspect this capability is coming either way, either from the government or commercial AI companies, and so may be a moot issue.

Still, I’m talking specifically about what OSINT can be used for now.

OSINT is a dual-use technology

In biology and other fields, a “dual-use” technology is one that can be used for good as well as for evil. A machine that synthesizes DNA, for instance, can be used to make medical research easier, and it can be used to make bioterror easier.

Civilian OSINT is one. While Reddit has identified missing persons, its communities also famously misidentified an innocent man as the Boston Marathon Bomber. Data gathered from a bunch of untrained unvetted internet randos should probably be viewed with some skepticism.

It’s also tragically easy to misuse. A lot of OSINT tools (for e.g. identifying people across social media) could be used by stalkers, abusers, authoritarian governments, and other bad actors just as trivially as it could by investigators. Raising the profile of these methods would expose them to misuse. Improving on OSINT tools would expose them to misuse.

If it helps, I think most small-scale efforts – like anything by Reddit or Trace Labs – are not really doing anything that large governments can’t do, technically speaking.* Ethical civilian OSINT projects should also be expected to go out of their way to demonstrate that they’re using volunteer labor ethically and for a specific purpose.

That leaves the threat as ‘malicious civilians’ (stalkers, etc.) and perhaps ‘resource-limited local governments’. This is a significant issue.

* (Though they can do things that large governments can’t do, time- and resource-wise. Keep reading.)

But here’s why we should use it anyway

Standard police and journalistic investigations (as two common uses of intelligence)are also very fallible. They may rely on misinformation and guesswork, poor eyewitness testimony, faulty drug tests, error-prone genetic methods, and debunked psychological methods. It’s not obvious to me that the average large-group civilian OSINT investigation will have a higher rate of false negatives than a standard investigation.

Moreover, that’s not really the issue. The relevant question is not “is crowd-sourced civilian OSINT worse than conventional investigation?” It’s “is crowd-sourced civilian OSINT worse than no investigation at all?” When Europol puts objects from images of child abuse online and asks for anyone who can identify the objects, and an answer is found and confirmed with online information, Europol workers could also have done that. It just would have taken them too high of a cost in time and human effort. When Reddit users solve cold cases, they are explicitly aiming for cases that are no longer under investigation by the police, or cases where police are under-investigating.

Open investigations like Bellingcat also structurally facilitate honesty because their work can be independently verified – all of the reasoning and evidence for a conclusion is explicitly laid out. In this way, civilian OSINT shares the ideals of science, and benefits because of it.

Where OSINT shines

It seems like cases where civilian OSINT works best have a few properties:

Not rushed. Reddit’s misidentification of the Boston Marathon Bomber happened within that hours after the attack. People were rushing to find an answer.

Results are easily verifiable. For instance, when Europol receives a possible identification of a product in an image, they can find a picture of that product and confirm.

Structure and training. An intentional, curated, organized effort is more likely to succeed than a popcorn-style spontaneous investigation a la Reddit. For instance, it’s probably better for investigations to have a leader. And a method. Many OSINT skills are readily teachable.

Learning OSINT

Despite the rather small number of public and actively-recruiting OSINT projects, there are a few repositories of OSINT techniques.

The Tactical Technology Collective, a Berlin nonprofit for journalists and activists, created Exposing the Invisible: a collection of case studies and techniques for performing digital OSINT research, especially around politics.

Bellingcat also regularly publishes tutorials on its methods, from using reverse image searches to identifying missiles to explaining your findings like a journalist.

The nonprofit OSINT Curious bills itself as a “learning catalyst” and aims to share OSINT techniques and make it approachable. They produce podcasts and videos demonstrating digital techniques. In addition, a variety of free tools intentionally or purposefully facilitate various OSINT practices, and various repositories collect these.

OSINT for effective altruism?

I don’t actively have examples where OSINT could be used for effective causes, but I suspect they exist. It’s a little hard to measure OSINT’s effectiveness since, as I described above, many OSINT tasks are a bad go from a reward-per-hour perspective. But they can use hours that wouldn’t be used otherwise, from people’s spare time or (more likely) by attracting people who wouldn’t otherwise be in the movement.

At the Minuteman Missile Site museum in South Dakota, I read about a civilian effort by peace activists during the Cold War to map missile silos in the Midwest. Then they published them and distributed the maps rurally. The idea was that if people realized that these instruments of destruction were so close to them, they might feel more strongly about them, or work to get them “out of our backyard.” (In a way, exploiting the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics.) Did this work? No idea. But it’s an OSINT-y project that touches on global catastrophic risk, and it’s certainly interesting.

I wondered if one could do a similar thing by mapping the locations of factory farms in the US, and thus maybe instill people to act locally to reform or remove them. The US Food and Water Watch had such an interactive digital map for the USA, but it seems to have gone down with no plans to bring it back. Opportunity for someone else to do so and give it some quality PR?

(In the mean time, here’s one for just North Carolina, and here’s a horrifying one for Australia.)

Again, I don’t know how effective it would be as a campaigning move, but I could imagine it being a powerful tool. The point I want to make is basically “this is an incredible tool.” Try thinking of your own use cases, and let me know if you come up with them.

A shot at – not utopia, but something decent

Here’s my last argument for civilian OSINT.

Trace Labs staff have pointed out that their teams tend to be more successful at finding evidence about people who have recently gone missing, versus people who have gone missing – say – over a decade ago. This is because people in the modern age are almost guaranteed to have extensive web presences. Not just their own social media but the social media of relatives and friends, online records, phone data, uploaded records, digitized news… There used to be no centralized place for the average person to find this info for a far-off stranger. Information was stored and shared locally. Now, teenagers half a world away can find it.

I have a lot of hope and respect for privacy and privacy activists. I think basic digital privacy should be a right. But the ship is sailing on that one. Widespread technology gives governments a long reach. China is using facial recognition AI to profile a racial minority. The technology is there already. A lot of social media identification is in public. A lot of non-public conversation is already monitored in some form or another; that which isn’t can often be made public to governments without too much effort. US federal agencies are hiding surveillance cameras in streetlights. You can encrypt your messages and avoid having your photo taken, but that won’t be enough for long. It’s already not. As long as citizens are happy to keep carrying around internet-connected recording and location-tracking devices, and uploading personal material to the web – and I think we will – governments will keep being able to surveil citizens.

Sci-fi author and futurist David Brin also thinks that this is close to inevitable. But he sees this balanced by the concept of ‘reciprocal transparency’: the idea that the tools that enable government surveillance, the cameras and connectivity and globally disseminated information, can also empower citizens to monitor the government and expose corruption and injustice.

A reciprocally transparent society could be a very healthy one to live in. Maybe not what we’d prefer – but still pretty good. Civilian OSINT seems like the best shot at that we have right now: Open, ubiquitous, and democratized.

Internet Harvest (2020, 2)

Internet Harvest is a selection of the most succulent links on the internet that I’ve recently plucked from its fruitful boughs. Feel free to discuss the links in the comments.

Also, semi-intentionally, none of the links in this harvest are COVID-19-related. If you want some interesting distractions, you might like this post.

First, an eternal recommendation for the SCP Foundation’s Antimemetics Division series. (“Antimemes” are information that resists sharing.) It’s smart, creepy, mind-bending fiction in which a variety of clever protagonists try to save the world from an enemy who they can’t remember exists. The final story in the series is being posted very soon, and you’ll have a lot to work through before then.

“Negative ion” products on Amazon: not only do they not work, many of them are literally impregnated with thorium powder. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. h/t Lorelei.

“Dreamy labyrinthine architecture that is somehow both crushingly oppressive and unimaginably vast” alert: These man-made caverns in New York State.

Relatedly, you should be following BLDGBLOG, a blog about buildings and so much more.

If you can’t find dreamy labyrinthine architecture in real life, you can make your own. is a wonder and free to use. If you’ve tried it before, check again, because in addition to the table-deer-mop hybrids of your dreams, it now allows you to make landscapes and disturbingly realistic human portraits to your desired specifications. Wondering where I got the cover image for this post? I’ve picked up oil painting during self-isolation, I call this one “Lost Carcosa” – just kidding, an AI and I made it in five minutes.

John J Audubon recorded a species of giant eagle he’d occasionally seen in the American midwest. To date, nobody else has found that bird.

Here’s a species of fungus that is found in a little region in Japan, a little region in Texas, and literally nowhere else on earth.

First major use of deepfakes in an election was surprisingly not terrible (“translating” a video of an Indian politician into another language, as though the politician were speaking it himself.)

I’ve harbored a longtime fascination with domestic life, housekeeping, cooking, etcetera – both modern and past. This surprises a lot of people. It was actually a large part of my interest in working on The Funnel of Human Experience – so much of human history was spent by people, mostly women, keeping the home running and the fires hot and the children clothed. In the late 1800s, Ellen Swallow Richards turned the art of home economics into a science – people studying the most time-effective way to make a bed, the best nutrition for a family, sanitation and food safety at home and standardization. There was the 1870’s MIT Women’s Laboratory, and later there were universities with actual living orphan “practice” babies, who the students practiced caretaking on. There are whole books’ worth of history here. (And if you know any good ones about anything on this topic, please let me know.) Anyway, Efficiency is Everything – Industrial engineering applied to life is a re-discovery of the topic for the modern age. Some delightful interactive scientific/technical concept-explainers.

We’ve had sci-fi. There’s worldbuilding fiction, of whole planets and cultures and sentient species. Some of my friends are interested in “soc-fi”, fictional plausible societies. There are con-langs and alternate histories and speculative biology. There’s even time-fi. And now, finally, we have food fiction – fun recipes with beautiful results that don’t work! Unfortunately, it’s masquerading as those short viral videos from Blossom, Five Minute Crafts, So Yummy, etc, that you see all over facebook and youtube, and it’s also known as “lying for profit.”

Trees that harvest high amounts of metals from the soil, so much that e.g. nickel trees exude green sap. BLDGBLOG calls this “metallurgical druidry.”

Sandy Island, New Caledonia: an island near Australia that was discovered not to exist in 2012. This is part of a phenomenon known as “phantom islands.”

A wholesome online retail store that sells zoo animal toys.

Why does a tiny spot in rural Maine produce as much light at night as some cities? Identification of unexpected light sources from a global map of light pollution. (Fun game: try to guess each source before you learn what the answer is.)

A very intense online “game”: Look at videos of lifeguard rescues in swimming pools. See if you can find and click on the drowning kid before the lifeguard rescues them. May be good if you spend a lot of time around kids (or adults?) in water.

Do you know about David Goodsell’s biology art? He makes gorgeous drawings of cells, molecular mechanisms, etcetera, that are also considered good representations of how much stuff there actually is in a cell. A lot more than the sort of sterile, structured drawings you saw in intro biology textbooks.

This Dutch company trains eagles to take down drones. A news article notes:

“What I find fascinating is that birds can hit the drone in such a way that they don’t get injured by the rotors,” said LeBaron [of the Audubon society]. “They seem to be whacking the drone right in the centre so they don’t get hit; they have incredible visual acuity and they can probably actually see the rotors.”

Humans, of course, only see rotors as a blur – LeBaron suspects that the eagles can make out the complete movement and thus have no trouble avoiding injury. It doesn’t hurt, either, that attacking a drone the way a bird might attack another bird is usually effective. “Their method of attack is always going to be to hit it in the middle of the back; with the drones they perceive the rotors on the side and so they just go for the rear.”

This is fascinating and also checks out with the observation that smaller animals, notably birds, seem to have a much faster perception than humans.

It seems like smart speakers, bluetooth headsets, and the like can be hacked to produce harmful levels of sound. Great! That’s another entry for the bestiary.

Do not open this book.


(featured image is from Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 live tracker map on 3-12-2020.)

A lot of people have been asking me questions about the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak, in my informal capacity as “local biodefense person”. I’m not an expert in this. I’m just a grad student with a blog. But I have been trying to keep up on the news and research, and in the interests of sharing what I know and saving my emotional energy for more specific responses (and also the rest of my life), I thought I’d share what I’m thinking about the situation right now.

This is an emerging situation. I’m writing this on March 12th, 2020, I expect any specific information or recommendations to be valid for at least the next few days, but after that, they may change a lot. Also, this post is based on the situation in the US, where most of my readers are. Check recent information (especially in your area) and think carefully about what kinds of precautions you should take.

Q: Are you worried about COVID-19?

A: Hell yes I’m worried.

Q: Why are you worried?

A: The death rate is high, the disease is spreading very rapidly and quietly, and we don’t have medical countermeasures. There were a priori reasons to think this was a bad situation as well – novel respiratory viruses are known to be uniquely bad. SARS and MERS were famous high-lethality coronaviruses well before the current outbreak – if I’d made a list of predictions about what kind of new disease outbreaks we should be worrying about (something I’ll probably do now), I almost certainly would have written down “a SARS-like coronavirus”.

Q: Is this really worse than the seasonal flu?

A: Yes. It spreads faster and the death rate is higher.

Q: Should I be worried?

A: Yes. It depends on where you are – you’re in more active danger if you live in a city and live with or come in contact with a lot of people every day, or you’re older or have one of a few pre-existing conditions (e.g. heart disease, lung disease, diabetes). You should also be more careful if you work with elderly people or in a healthcare setting. In any case, you should almost certainly be taking some kind of precaution.

Q: How bad is this going to get?

A: Ha ha ha ha ha. I have no idea.

At the least, based on where we are now and its recent trajectory, it’s going to get worse. I see a couple plausible trajectories for this:

1) Humanity gets our collective $@%& together and contains it. Perhaps a vaccine or effective countermeasure eases the way. COVID-19 is beaten back and eventually vanishes from the human species. This is a notable outbreak for academic purposes, but in a few decades, most people barely remember it.

2) This gets very big. I’ve heard some guesses that everybody will end up getting infected. It may become endemic, meaning that it’s a constant ongoing infection rather than a one-off spillover from an animal. It may stay as deadly as it is, or attenuate, meaning it becomes less harmful but still spreads around. Or maybe literally everyone doesn’t get it, but many, many people do, and this becomes our generation’s version of the 1918 flu. Or worse.

Q: If everyone’s going to get COVID-19, maybe I should just get it now and get it out of the way?

A: You are actively trying to give me a migraine.

Q: I promise I will still try not to get it. Theoretically, though, wouldn’t it still be better to get it early?

A: Okay, so there is something to this. I’ve seen some elegant little charts going around that look like this:

This suggests that yes, there’s something to spreading out infections over a longer period of time, so that in case you need to get hospitalized, hospitals will be kept under maximum capacity, and this will save lives in the long run.

First, however, these graphs assume that we are capable of getting the infection peak to below the point where hospitals are overwhelmed. I have my doubts.

Second, if you can get the disease later rather than earlier, you’ve bought the healthcare system more time to prepare, and perhaps for the market to provide more supplies.

Third, there’s at least some amount of evidence that the virus is not immunizing in all cases – that there’s some chance you could get the virus, recover, and then get it again. Most people I’ve talked to think that this is probably not actually true and that it’s a mistake with the earlier tests (that is, the tests that showed the person no longer had the virus were wrong, and they did still have it.) But in case it’s not a mistake, it’s horrifying, so maybe don’t get it.

Fourth, if the model that “everyone will get it” is wrong, you’ve just gotten the virus and maybe helped spread it for no good reason at all.

If for some reason you still that this is a good idea, note that if you get the disease, you put everyone you live with and interact with at risk. If you think you have it, you need to stay quarantined and avoid interacting with people face-to-face for at least fourteen days + the duration of any symptoms. Otherwise, you are putting people at unnecessary risk.

Just do your best to avoid getting it. Gosh.

Q: How should I be preparing?

A: If the virus is in your area, you should prepare for:

1) Avoiding transmission via social distancing

Avoid large groups. The degree to which you should do this is dependent on how bad the threat is where you are. In the DC area, I would strongly consider not attending even small parties or meetups at this point. As a reference point, Oregon, Maryland, New York, Seattle, and Santa Clara governments have all banned gatherings of more than a certain number of people (250-500).

Avoid crowded areas. Stock up on shelf-stable groceries now so that you have to go to the store less.

Can you work from home, either full or part-time? If so, figure out how to now.

Elderly and immunocompromised people, as well as people with certain pre-existing conditions (e.g. heart disease, lung disease, diabetes) , are at particular risk. Figure out who these people in your life are. Help them figure out plans for reducing risk. And note that these people will be existing and interacting in public, as always, even if you don’t know who they are.

2) Supply chain disruptions

If the disease gets worse, we may see disruptions in supply chains. We are already seeing shortages of e.g. masks and hand sanitizer in grocery stores. Extra stockpiled food and supplies will be helpful if this happens. (I think “at least two weeks” is a good guideline, but do more if you can. I think I have at least a month of food in my house now.)

If you need medication, try to get a larger supply from your doctor now. (You may try asking for a ninety-day or six-month supply, lots of doctors can do this for travelling patients.) China produces a lot of medication precursor ingredients. This FDA list contains an updated list of which meds are in short supply.

Q: How do I tell when to start doing social distancing?

A: If you’re in the US, the US government has been reacting kind of slowly, so you should be planning to do it before official recommendations say to. I would say: start doing some social distancing as soon as there are reports of community transmission in your area. (That is, someone who did not travel to an infected country gets the disease.) Amp up your distancing efforts as more people get it.

Q: I was about to travel. Should I cancel my plans?

A: I would not take a plane or greyhound-type bus anywhere at this point. If you are very sure you are not sick (no cold- or flu-like symptoms for at least the past 14 days, and no close contact with a sick person), and you’re travelling to a place without community transmission, this is less risky. If you’re planning on driving, it’s even less risky. …But I’d still be careful, and if there’s a lot of community transmission where you are, I think it’s best to stay home.

Q: Actually, I was going on a cruise ship –

A: Do not go on a cruise ship.

Q: What should I be stockpiling?

A: My suggestions:

  • At least two weeks’ worth of shelf-stable food (ideally a month’s worth).
    • Including coffee or tea if you caffeinate (it’s cheap and will make your life much better should you need it).
    • Including food that’s easy to prepare and eat, like canned soup and powdered drink mix, in case you get sick.
    • Including protein and vegetables.
    • Potentially: a multivitamin. In particular, there is some evidence that Vitamin D supplements help prevent respiratory infections.
  • Plenty of hand soap (wash your hands a lot, especially when in public or coming home).
  • Plenty of hand sanitizer (start using this now).
  • Other consumables you need to live – laundry detergent, dish soap, toilet paper, etc.
  • Disinfectant wipes (start using these now. They are largely safe for phone screens).
  • Things you like when you have the cold or flu (painkillers, cough drops, honey, etc) in case you get sick.
  • Extra supplies of essential medication and supplements.
  • Things to do so you won’t get bored out of your mind if you have to start spending most of your days (or spare time) inside – craft supplies, books, whatever. I also got a yoga mat so I could exercise (via youtube videos) indoors.
  • Extra pet food and supplies, if you have a pet.
  • A digital thermometer. COVID-19 infections often come with a fever. If you get a fever, stay home.

Q: I don’t have enough space to stockpile supplies.

A: I live in a studio apartment and still have a couple boxes of calorie-dense dried and canned food and cleaning supplies tucked away. You can probably figure it out. (If you are my friend who lives in a car, you can still do a little but yeah, okay, that kind of blows. Ask a friend if you can keep supplies in their shed.)

Q: What about masks?

A: For preventing you from getting sick, I’m confused about masks. I think they must be beneficial, but also that mask production doesn’t seem to be ramping up quickly and there are already shortages for groups in need. Some groups are saying not to use them to protect yourself, but I think that’s a response to the shortage, and the fact that healthcare workers and immunocompromised people and sick people need them more than you. If you have a mask already, it will probably help you avoid getting sick.

If you are sick, masks will definitely help prevent you from infecting other people. But if you’re sick, try and avoid other people anyway.

I hear that there are DIY masks out there and think it makes sense that there should be some effective ways to make them with common materials, but I haven’t looked into this and have no idea how to assess this. 

A few relevant studies are summarized here, with equivocal results. Note that just slapping e.g. a t-shirt over your face will not help much. Either way, look up how to make sure your mask is fitted properly, and how to take it off safely.

Q: I get my groceries or [INSERT IMPORTANT THING HERE] delivered. Does that work?

A: I wouldn’t count on it. Your deliveryperson or anybody who interacts with your products beforehand might be sick. Stockpile anyway, and if the situation gets really dire, either shut down deliveries or think of ways to disinfect sealed packages first. If you rely on deliveries, I’d order those deliveries in bulk now and reduce deliveries later.

Some of my friends are thinking about ways to disinfect normal postal mail. I don’t know enough to say if this is important yet. I think it’s worth considering. The virus potentially survives for up to 9 days on surfaces (but this likely depends on the surface.) Bleach, alcohol, and quaternary ammonia all seem to kill the virus.

Q: Do I need to stockpile water, or prepare for power outages?

A: Probably not. Utilities, especially water, tend to be relatively easy to keep running even if many people become sick. (In Wuhan, for instance, the power and water supplies never shut off.) That said, it’s never a bad idea to have a few days’ worth of water on hand for disasters, or a backup system for an electronics you absolutely need. Or if you rely on fuel or deliveries for water or power, you may want to store extra. (Note that the US Department of Homeland Security recommends having a 2-week supply of water on hand in pandemics.)

Q: What about people who can’t work from home, or afford to social-distance themselves, or afford to stockpile supplies?

A: They are at higher risk. This just sucks and there’s no great answer. Broadly, these people will still be better off if other people decide to stay at home, stockpile food from the grocery store rather than going every week, etc. If you can do social distancing, keep in mind that you’re not just reducing risk to yourself, but also to everyone else you come in contact with.

Q: Isn’t stockpiling bad because it will deplete supplies for other people?

A: If you stockpile early, you send a signal to the market that they need to provide more food and supplies. If you stockpile too late, yyyesss. I’m not sure what to do about this, aside from noting that you’re probably not the only one doing it. If you’re worried, just stockpile earlier.

Q: We’ve already been seeing xenophobic/racist attitudes towards Chinese people emerge as a result of this. Is it possible this is the real danger?

A: It is a danger, but the stance that stoking racism is “the real danger” is misguided. In the aftermath shortly after 9/11, I think it would have been fair to say that “the social ramifications that this incites will be worse than the attack itself.” But this is not 9/11. This is a lethal disease that has spread worldwide. It has already killed more people than 9/11 and may well kill many, many, many more in the coming months, including in the United States (where most of my readers are). People are afraid and they are right to be fearful.

This does not excuse xenophobia. People should be afraid of the disease – we owe all the compassion we can muster and more to other people. You ought to combat racism where you see it, think about your own attitudes, and certainly not uphold racist ideas like “maybe I should avoid Chinese people” – but you should also be preparing and treating the disease itself as a real threat.

Q: I’m young and have no no pre-existing conditions. I don’t need to be worried, right?

A: You don’t need to be as worried as other groups. But COVID-19 might still have a ~0.2% mortality rate for young, healthy adults. If you were offered the chance to do something really cool for free (hang-gliding, an amusement park) but it came with a 1-in-500 chance you’d be killed, you wouldn’t do it, and you shouldn’t.

Arguably, you should be more scared for other people with worse conditions, but you’re allowed to be scared for yourself too. Do you, personally, need permission to be selfishly afraid? Here it is. I am young and healthy and afraid for my own health. Death is really, really bad, and a 1-in-500 chance of dying is awful, even if other people have it worse. This is a horrible situation.

Also: The worst is yet to come. Pneumonia and hospitalization are deeply unpleasant and still fairly probable outcomes. If hospitals become overloaded, your chance of surviving severe pneumonia goes way down. 

Q: Are there reasons for hope?

A: Yes. At least a couple different groups are now doing human trials on candidate vaccines. After a ~3 month span, this is literally unprecedented in vaccine development.

The virus’ genome was also sequenced faster than any other novel disease.

Also, while the media has been spreading a lot of misinformation and undirected panic, the modern media environment also means that more people can be informed and prepared than ever before.

We’re in this together. Stay strong, readers. ❤

(Thanks to friends for reviewing this piece, especially Glenn Willen / @gwillen.)

A point of clarification on infohazard terminology

TL;DR: “Infohazard” means any kind of information that could be harmful in some fashion. Let’s use “cognitohazard” to describe information that could specifically harm the person who knows it.

Some people in my circle like to talk about the idea of information hazards or infohazards, which are dangerous information. This isn’t a fictional concept – Nick Bostrom characterizes a number of different types of infohazards in his 2011 paper that introduces the term (PDF available here). Lots of kinds of information can be dangerous or harmful in some fashion – detailed instructions for making a nuclear bomb. A signal or hint that a person is a member of a marginalized group. An extremist ideology. A spoiler for your favorite TV show. (Listen, an infohazard is a kind of hazard, not a measure of intensity. A papercut is still a kind of injury!)

I’ve been in places where “infohazard” is used in the Bostromian sense casually – to talk about, say, dual-use research of concern in the biological sciences, and describe the specific dangers that might come from publishing procedures of results.

I’ve also been in more esoteric conversations where people use the word “infohazard” to talk about a specific kind of Bostromian information hazard: information that may harm the person who knows it. This is a stranger concept, but there are still lots of apparent examples – a catchy earworm. “You just lost the game.” More seriously, an easy method of committing suicide for a suicidal person. A prototypical fictional example is the “basilisk” fractal from David Langford’s 1988 short story BLIT, which kills you if you see it.

This is a subset of the original definition because it is harmful information, but it’s expected to harm the person who knows it in particular. For instance, detailed schematics for a nuclear weapon aren’t really expected to bring harm to a potential weaponeer – the danger is that the weaponeer will use them to harm others. But fully internalizing the information that Amazon will deliver you a 5-pound bag of Swedish Fish whenever you want is specifically a danger to you. (…Me.)

This disparate use of terms is confusing. I think Bostrom and his intellectual kith get the broader definition of “infohazard”, since they coined the word and are actually using it professionally.*

I propose we call the second thing – information that harms the knower – a cognitohazard.

Pictured: Instantiation of a cognitohazard. Something something red herrings.

This term is shamelessly borrowed from the SCP Foundation, which uses it in a similar way in fiction. I figure the usage can’t make the concept sound any more weird and sci-fi than it already does.

(Cognitohazards don’t have to be hazardous to everybody. Someone who hates Swedish Fish is not going to spend all their money buying bags of Swedish Fish off of Amazon and diving into them like Scrooge McDuck. For someone who loves Swedish Fish – well, no comment. I’d call this “a potential cognitohazard” if you were to yell it into a crowd with unknown opinions on Swedish Fish.)

Anyways, hope that clears things up.

* For a published track record of this usage, see: an academic paper from Future of Humanity Institute and Center for Health Security staff, another piece by Bostrom, an opinion piece by esteemed synthetic biologist Kevin Esvelt, a piece on synthetic biology by FHI researcher Cassidy Nelson, a piece by Phil Torres.

(UPDATE: The version I initially published proposed the term “memetic hazard” rather than “cognitohazard.” LessWrong commentor MichaelA kindly pointed out that “memetic hazard” already meant a different concept that better suited that name. Since I had only just put out the post, I decided to quickly backpeddle and switch out the word for another one with similar provinence. I hate having to do this, but it sure beats not doing it. Thank you, MichaelA!)

Internet Harvest (2020, 1)

First, a quick note and call for aid. For my final semester in George Mason’s biodefense program, I’m working on a capstone project. I’ll be researching and writing about list-based biosecurity in the US – places where biodefense systems identify risks based on a list of known pathogens.

I see why the systems work this way, and this was probably sufficient in the past – yet as far as I’m aware, it’s all but an unspoken consensus in the field that these won’t protect against engineered organisms – recombinant or genetically altered pathogens that are either totally novel, or “resemble” a harmless organism in most ways while posing significant danger to humans. I want to explore where list-based biosecurity shows up, what the risks are, and possible alternative systems. Ideally, this’ll eventually be published.

If you have thoughts on any of the above, or you know things that I should know, I’d love to chat. My email, as always, is eukaryotewritesblog (at)

Alright, on to the bounty. Internet Harvest is a selection of the most succulent links on the internet that I’ve recently plucked from its fruitful boughs.

I’m interested in feedback on what you think of the section, or the links therein. Feel free to discuss the links in the comments.

Are you following the Wuhan coronavirus/nCoV outbreak? Yeah, me too. This is the first major world event that I actually know anything about that I’m watching unfold live on Twitter, and the misinformation situation on a lot of the hashtags is so much worse than I thought. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is publishing regular updates on the outbreak’s progress, and they know what they’re talking about.

Mystery drone swarms above US cities! Welcome to 2020. This is a thing that happens now, I guess.

An update to the colorful visual Euclid textbook in the last internet harvest: A gorgeous web version.

A confusing Youtube project: “meaningwave”, which features glitchy visuals, soft electronic music, and clips from motivational speakers. Notably Jordan Peterson, but also Alan Watts and Mr Rogers. Dozens of videos, all made by the same person. I don’t like Jordan Peterson but I can recognize when the universe drops something bizarre and beautiful into my lap. This one is my favorite, featuring Naval Ravikant on habits and clips from the Moomin TV show.

The website of, and videos from, a practicing professional Voodoo magician.

My views on gendered pronouns as a mainstay of language are well-exemplified by this classic Douglas Hofstadter essay (yes, the Gödel, Escher, Bach guy), Person Paper on Purity in Language. (Content warning: Lots of ironic racism.)

Speaking of racism, a horrific aspect of it in the US that I didn’t know much about: Sundown Towns. The linked research project includes maps and how to identify if a town was one. (Content warning: Discussion of intense racism, mostly anti-black, and antisemitism.)

Escape a frankly soul-sucking social media ecosystem, and make 2020 the renaissance of the personal website. If anyone wants to set up an unironic webring with me, hit me up.

(Indieweb looks like a decent place to start.)

This month’s podcast recommendation is The Dream, on multi-level marketing schemes. It’s compassionate and cutting at the same time, as well as interesting and informative. I don’t come from an environment where these are common, so it’s boggling to see the scope of these – though I expect if you’re already more familiar with MLMs, you’ll still get something out of this.

You know about moon snails, right? Look ye upon moon snails. (If you live on the west coast of the USA, you can go find these guys on sandy beaches at low tide.)

Algorithmic horror

There’s a particular emotion that I felt a lot over 2019, much more than any other year. I expect it to continue in future years. That emotion is what I’m calling “algorithmic horror”.

It’s confusion at a targeted ad on Twitter for a product you were just talking about.

It’s seeing a “recommended friend” on facebook, but who you haven’t seen in years and don’t have any contact with.

It’s skimming a tumblr post with a banal take and not really registering it, and then realizing it was written by a bot.

It’s those baffling Lovecraftian kid’s videos on Youtube.

It’s a disturbing image from ArtBreeder, dreamed up by a computer.

PIctured: a normal dog. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.

I see this as an outgrowth of ancient, evolution-calibrated emotions. Back in the day, our lives depended on quick recognition of the signs of other animals – predator, prey, or other humans. There’s a moment I remember from animal tracking where disparate details of the environment suddenly align – the way the twigs are snapped and the impressions in the dirt suddenly resolve themselves into the idea of deer.

In the built environment of today, we know that most objects are built by human hands. Still, it can be surprising to walk in an apparently remote natural environment and find a trail or structure, evidence that someone has come this way before you. Skeptic author Michael Shermer calls this “agenticity”, the human bias towards seeing intention and agency in all sorts of patterns.

Or, as argumate puts it:

the trouble is humans are literally structured to find “a wizard did it” a more plausible explanation than things just happening by accident for no reason.

I see algorithmic horror as an extension of this, built objects masquerading as human-generated. I looked up oarfish merchandise on Amazon, to see if I could buy anything commemorating the world’s best fish, and found this hat.

If you look at the seller’s listing, you can confirm that all of their products are like this.

It’s a bit incredible. Presumably, no #oarfish hat has ever existed. No human ever created an #oarfish hat or decided that somebody would like to buy them. Possibly, nobody had ever even viewed the #oarfish hat listing until I stumbled onto it.

In a sense this is just an outgrowth of custom-printing services that have been around for decades, but… it’s weird, right? It’s a weird ecosystem.

But human involvement can be even worse. All of those weird Youtube kid’s videos were made by real people. Many of them are acted out by real people. But they were certainly done to market to children, on Youtube, and named and designed in order to fit into a thoughtless algorithm. You can’t tell me that an adult human was ever like “you know what a good artistic work would be?” and then made “Learn Colors Game with Disney Frozen, PJ Masks Paw Patrol Mystery – Spin the Wheel Get Slimed” without financial incentives created by an automated program.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a faceless adult hand pulling a pony figurine out of a plastic egg, while taking a break between cutting glittered balls of playdoh in half, silent while a prerecorded version of Skip To My Lou plays in the background, forever.

Everything discussed so far is relatively inconsequential, foreshadowing rather than the shade itself. But algorithms are still affecting the world and harming people now – setting racially-biased bail in Kentucky, potentially-biased hiring decisions, facilitating companies recording what goes on in your home, even career Youtubers forced to scramble and pivot as their videos become more or less recommended.

To be clear, algorithms also do a great deal of good – increasing convenience and efficiency, decreasing resource consumption, probably saving lives a well. I don’t mean to write this to say “algorithms are all-around bad”, or even “algorithms are net bad”. Sometimes it’s solely with good intentions, but it still sounds incredibly creepy, like how Facebook is judging how suicidal all of its users are.

This is an elegant instance of Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law says that if you want a certain result and issue rewards for a metric related to the result, you’ll start getting optimization for the metric rather than the result.

The Youtube algorithm – and other algorithms across the web – are created to connect people with content (in order to sell to advertisers, etc.) Producers of content want to attract as much attention as possible to sell their products.

But the algorithms just aren’t good enough to perfectly offer people the online content they want. They’re simplified, relies on keywords, can be duped, etcetera. And everyone knows that potential customers aren’t going to trawl through the hundreds of pages of online content themselves for the best “novelty mug” or “kid’s video”. So a lot of content exists, and decisions are made, that fulfill the algorithm’s criteria rather than our own.

In a sense, when we look at the semi-coherent output of algorithms, we’re looking into the uncanny valley between the algorithm’s values and our own.

We live in strange times. Good luck to us all for 2020.

Aside from its numerous forays into real life, algorithmic horror has also been at the center of some stellar fiction. See:

Internet Harvest (2019, 1)

Inspired by some other favorite bloggers, I’m trying a new post type: a selection of the most succulent links on the internet that I’ve recently plucked from its fruitful boughs.

I’m interested in feedback on what you think of the section, or the links therein. Feel free to discuss the links in the comments.


Best youtube videos of the month: Dubstep video of a sub-antarctic “brinicle” of super-cold saltwater. Zero narration. The drop hits perfectly.

Instead of a video loop of a crackling fire, why not put on BBC Earth’s “Deep Ocean: 10 Hours of Relaxing Oceanscapes” in the background of your winter party? Zero narration, just faint water sounds and lovely footage of spectacular seascapes and bizarre animals. (There are other videos for Open Ocean and other ocean environments.)

Possible method for assessing animal welfare, either in the wild or, in this case, in farms: If you give them antidepressants, do they get better? A Russian factory farm has tried giving antidepressants (lithium) to their pigs.


A journal specifically for works in the public domain.

Ethnography of an online roleplay based on the Warriors Cat series, which took place entirely on book reviews for the Nook e-reader. Humans will build culture in a handful of dust.

A timeline of when food and specific dishes came into being!


Uncomfortable ASMR

A mid-1700’s series of etchings of cavernous fantasy prisons. I think I’ve had nightmares about this place before.

A colorful, visual version of Euclid’s proofs.


“She sells sea shells by the sea shore” is frequently held to refer to Mary Anning, a major figure in palaeontology who found dinosaur and other fossils in Lyme Regis on the southern coast of England. I hold that it would also make sense if it referred to the Seychelles.

Semi-relatedly, the Seychelles are generally a matriarchal society.

I very much enjoyed the Bellingcat Podcast. If you like investigative journalism and careful analysis of fraught political situations, you may as well.

“Privacy-conscious” and open-source alternatives to apps and software you probably use regularly.