Woodblock print of swimming prawns

Eukaryote in Asterisk Magazine + New Patreon Per-post setup

Eukaryote elsewhere

I have an article in the latest issue of Asterisk Magazine. After you get really deep into the weeds of invertebrate sentience and fish welfare and the scale of factory farming, what do you do with that information vis-a-vis what you feel comfortable eating? Here’s what I’ve landed on and why. Read the piece that Scott Alexander characterized as making me sound more annoying to eat with than I really am.

(Also check out the full piece of delightful accompanying art from Karol Banach.)

Check out the rest of the issue as well. Favorites include:

A new better Patreon has landed

This blog has a Patreon! Again! I’m switching from the old per month payment model to a new pay per post system, since this blog has not been emitting regular monthly updates in quite some time. So if you get excited when you see Eukaryote Writes Blog in your feed, and you want to incentivize more of that kind of thing, try this new and improved system for giving me money.

Here’s the link. Consider a small donation per post. Direct incentives: Lots of people are fans. I’m no effective charity but the consistent revenue does have a concrete and pleasant impact on my life right now, so I do really appreciate it.

It’s important to me that the things I write here are freely available. This will continue to be true! I might think of some short bits of content that will be patron-exclusive down the line, but anything major? Your local eukaryote is here to write a blog, not a subscription service. It’s in the name.

Helpful notes

  • To be clear, the payment will trigger per substantial new post. Updates of content elsewhere, metablogging like this, short corrections, etc, won’t count.
  • You can set a monthly limit in Patreon, even with the per-post model. For the record, I think it’s unlikely I’d put out more than 1-2 posts per month even in the long term future.
  • And of course, you can change your payment or unsubscribe at any old time you please.
Woodblock print of swimming prawns
Excerpt of Horse Mackerel (Aji) with Shrimp or Prawn, by Utagawa Hiroshige, ~1822-23. Public Domain.
An old knit tube with colorful stripes

Who invented knitting? The plot thickens

Last time on Eukaryote Writes Blog: You learned about knitting history.

You thought you were done learning about knitting history? You fool. You buffoon. I wanted to double check some things in the last post and found out that the origins of knitting are even weirder than I guessed.

Humans have been wearing clothes to hide our sinful sinful bodies from each other for maybe about 20,000 years. To make clothes, you need cloth. One way to make cloth is animal skin or membrane, that is, leather. If you want to use it in any complicated or efficient way, you also need some way to sew that – very thin strips of leather, or taking sinew or plant fiber and spinning it into thread. Also popular since very early on is taking that thread, and turning it into cloth. There are a few ways to do this.

A drawing showing loose fiber, which turns into twisted thread, which is arranged in various ways to make different kinds of fabric structures. Depicted are the structures for: naalbound, woven, knit, looped, and twined fabric.
By the way, I’m going to be referring to “thread” and “yarn” interchangeably from here on out. Don’t worry about it.

(Can you just sort of smush the fiber into cloth without making it into thread? Yes. This is called felting. How well it works depends on the material properties of the fiber. A lot of traditional Pacific Island cloth was felted from tree bark.)

Now with all of these, you could probably make some kind of cloth by taking threads and, by hand, shaping them into these different structures. But that sounds exhausting and nobody did that. Let’s get tools involved. These different structures correspond to some different kind of manufacturing technique.

By far, the most popular way of making cloth is weaving. Everyone has been weaving for tens of thousands of years. It’s not quite a cultural universal but it’s damn close. To weave, you need a loom.1 There are ten million kinds of loom. Most primitive looms can make a piece of cloth that is, at most, the size of the loom. So if you want to make a tunic that’s three feet wide and four feet long, you need cloth that’s at least three feet wide and four feet long, and thus, a loom that’s at least three feet wide and four feet long. You can see how weaving was often a stationary affair.


Here’s what I said in the last post: Knitting is interesting because the manufacturing process is pretty simple, needs simple tools, and is portable. The final result is also warm and stretchy, and can be made in various shapes (not just flat sheets). And yet, it was invented fairly recently in human history.

I mostly stand by what I said in the last post. But since then I’ve found some incredible resources, particularly the scholarly blogs Loopholes by Cary “stringbed” Karp and Nalbound by Anne Marie Deckerson, which have sent me down new rabbit-holes. The Egyptian knit socks I outlined in the last post sure do seem to be the first known knit garments, like, a piece of clothing that is meant to cover your body. They’re certainly the first known ones that take advantage of knitting’s unique properties: of being stretchy, of being manufacturable in arbitrary shapes. The earliest knitting is… weirder.

SCA websites

Quick sidenote – I got into knitting because, in grad school, I decided that in the interests of well-roundedness and my ocular health, I needed hobbies that didn’t involve reading research papers. (You can see how far I got with that). So I did two things: I started playing the autoharp, and I learned how to knit. Then, I was interested in the overlap between nerds and handicrafts, so a friend in the Society for Creative Anachronism pitched me on it and took me to a coronation. I was hooked. The SCA covers “the medieval period”; usually, 1000 CE through 1600 CE.

I first got into the history of knitting because I was checking if knitting counted as a medieval period art form. I was surprised to find that the answer was “yes, but barely.” As I kept looking, a lot of the really good literature and analysis – especially experimental archaeology – came out of blogs of people who were into it as a hobby, or perhaps as a lifestyle that had turned into a job like historical reenactment. This included a lot of people in the SCA, who had gone into these depths before and just wrote down what they found and published it for someone else to find. It’s a really lovely knowledge tradition to find one’s self a part of.

Aren’t you forgetting sprang?

There’s an ancient technique that gets some of the benefits of knitting, which I didn’t get to in the last post. It’s called sprang. Mechanically, it’s kind of like braiding. Like weaving, sprang requires a loom (the size of the cloth it produces) and makes a flat sheet. Like knitting, however, it’s stretchy.

Sprang shows up in lots of places – the oldest in 1400 BCE in Denmark, but also other places in Europe, plus (before colonization!): Egypt, the Middle East, centrals Asia, India, Peru, Wisconsin, and the North American Southwest. Here’s a video where re-enactor Sally Pointer makes a sprang hairnet with iron-age materials.

Despite being widespread, it was never a common way to make cloth – everyone was already weaving. The question of the hour is: Was it used to make socks?

Well, there were probably sprang leggings. Dagmar Drinkler has made historically-inspired sprang leggings, which demonstrate that sprang colorwork creates some of the intricate designs we see painted on Greek statues – like this 480 BCE Persian archer.

I haven’t found any attestations of historical sprang socks. The Sprang Lady has made some, but they’re either tube socks or have separately knitted soles.

Why weren’t there sprang socks? Why didn’t sprang, widespread as it is, take on the niche that knitting took?

I think there are two reasons. One, remember that a sock is a shaped-garment, tube-like, usually with a bend at the heel, and that like weaving, sprang makes a flat sheet. If you want another shape, you have to sew it in. It’s going to lose some stretch where it’s sewn at the seam. It’s just more steps and skills than knitting a sock.

The second reason is warmth. I’ve never done sprang myself – from what I can tell, it has more of a net-like openness upon manufacture, unlike knitting which comes with some depth to it. Even weaving can easily be made pretty dense simply by putting the threads close together. I think, overall, a sprang fabric garment made with primitive materials is going to be less warm than a knit garment made with primitive materials.

Those are my guesses. I bring it up merely to note that there was another thread → cloth technique that made stretchy things that didn’t catch on the same way knitting did. If you’re interested in sprang, I cannot recommend The Sprang Lady’s work highly enough.

Anyway, let’s get back to knitting.

Knitting looms

The whole thing about roman dodecahedrons being (hypothetically) used to knit glove fingers, described in the last post? I don’t think that was actually the intended purpose, for the reasons I described re: knitting wasn’t invented yet. But I will cop to the best argument in its favor, which is that you can knit with glove fingers with a roman dodecahedron.

“But how?” say those of you not deeply familiar with various fiber arts. “That’s not needles,” you say.

You got me there. This is a variant of a knitting loom. A knitting loom is a hoop with pegs to make knit tubes. This can be the basis of a knitting machine, but you can also knit on one on its own.. They make more consistent knit tubes with less required hand-eye coordination. (You can also make flat panels with them, especially a version called a knitting rake, but since all of the early knitting we’re talking about are tubes anyhow, let’s ignore that for the time being.)

Knitting on a modern knitting loom. || Photo from Cynthia M. Parker on flickr, under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Knitting on a loom is also called spool knitting (because you can use a spool with nails in it as the loom for knitting a cord) and tomboy knitting (…okay). Structurally, I think this is also basically the same thing as lucet cord-making, so let’s go ahead and throw that in with this family of techniques. (The earliest lucets are from ~1000 CE Viking Sweden and perhaps medieval Viking Britain.)

The important thing to note is that loom knitting makes a result that is, structurally, knit. It’s difficult to tell whether a given piece is knit with a loom or needles, if you didn’t see it being made. But since it’s a different technique, different aspects become easier or harder.

A knitting loom sounds complicated but isn’t hard to make, is the thing. Once you have nails, you can make one easily by putting them in a wood ring. You could probably carve one from wood with primitive tools. Or forge one. So we have the question: Did knitting needles or knitting looms come first?

We actually have no idea. There aren’t objects that are really clearly knitting needles OR knitting looms until long after the earliest pieces of knitting. This strikes me as a little odd, since wood and especially metal should preserve better than fabric, but it’s what we’ve got. It’s probably not helped by the fact that knitting needles are basically just smooth straight sticks, and it’s hard to say that any smooth straight stick is conclusively a knitting needle (unless you find it with half a sock still on it.)

(At least one author, Isela Phelps, speculates that finger-knitting, which uses the fingers of one hand like a knitting loom and makes a chunky knit ribbon, came first – presumably because, well, it’s easier to start from no tools than to start from a specialized tool. This is possible, although the earliest knit objects are too fine and have too many stitches to have been finger-knit. The creators must have used tools.)

(stringbed also points out that a piece of whale baleen can be used as circular knitting needles, and that the relevant cultures did have access to and trade in whale parts. Although while we have no particular evidence that they were used as such, it does mean that humanity wouldn’t have to invent plastic before inventing the circular knitting needle, we could have had that since the prehistoric period. So, I don’t know, maybe it was whales.)

THE first knitting

The earliest knit objects we have… ugh. It’s not the Egyptian socks. It’s this.

Photo of an old, long, thin knit tube in lots of striped colors.
One of the oldest knit objects. || Photo from Musée du Louvre, AF 6027.

There are a pair of long, thin, colorful knit tubes, about an inch wide, a few feet long. They’re pretty similar to each other. Due to the problems inherent in time passing and the flow of knowledge, we know one of them is probably from Egypt, and was carbon-dated to 425-594 CE. The other quite similar tube, of a similar age, has not been carbon dated but is definitely from Egypt. (The original source text for this second artifact is in German, so I didn’t bother trying to find it, and instead refer to stringbed’s analysis. See also matthewpius guestblogging on Loopholes.) So between the two of them, we have a strong guess that these knit tubes were manufactured in Egypt around 425-594 CE, about 500 years before socks.

People think it was used as a belt.

This is wild to me. Knitting is stretchy, and I did make fun of those peasants in 1300 CE for not having elastic waistlines, so I could see a knitted belt being more comfortable than other kinds of belts.2 But not a lot better. A narrow knit belt isn’t going to be distribute most of the force onto the body too differently than a regular non-stretchy belt, and regular non-stretchy belts were already in great supply – woven, rope, leather, etc. Someone invented a whole new means of cloth manufacture and used it to make a thing that existed slightly differently.

Then, as far as I can tell, there are no knit objects in the known historical record for five hundred years until the Egyptian socks pop up.

Pulling objects out of the past is hard. Especially things made from cloth or animal fibers, which rot (as compared to metal, pottery, rocks, bones, which last so long that in the absence of other evidence, we name ancient cultures based on them.) But every now and then, we can. We’ve found older bodies and textiles preserved in ice and bogs and swamps.3 We have evidence of weaving looms and sewing needles and pictures of people spinning or weaving cloth and descriptions of them doing it, from before and after. I’m guessing that the technology just took a very long time to diversify beyond belts.

Speaking of which: how was the belt made? As mentioned, we don’t find anything until much later that is conclusively a knitting needle or a knitting loom. The belts are also, according to matthewpius on loopholes, made with a structure called double knitting. The effect is (as indicated by Pallia – another historic reenactor blog!) kind of hard to do with knitting needles in the way they achieved it, but pretty simple to do with a knitting loom.

(Another Egyptian knit tube belt from an unclear number of centuries later.)

Viking knitting

You think this is bad? Remember before how I said knitting was a way of manufacturing cloth, but that it was also definable as a specific structure of a thread, that could be made with different methods?

The oldest knit object in Europe might be a cup.

Photo of a richly decorated old silver cup.
The Ardagh Chalice. || Photo by Sailko under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

You gotta flip it over.

Another photo of the ornate chalice from the equally ornate bottom. Red arrows point to some intricate wire decorations around the rim.
Underside of the Ardagh Chalice. || Adapted from a Metroplitan Museum image.


Black and white zoom in on the wire decorations. It's more  clearly a knit structure.
Photo from Robert M. Organ’s 1963 article “Examination of the Ardagh Chalice-A Case History”, where they let some people take the cup apart and put it back together after.

That’s right, this decoration on the bottom of the Ardagh Chalice is knit from wire.
Another example is the decoration on the side of the Derrynaflen Paten, a plate made in 700 or 800 CE in Ireland. All the examples seem to be from churches, hidden by or from Vikings. Over the next few hundred years, there are some other objects in this technique. They’re tubes knitted from silver wire. “Wait, can you knit with wire?” Yes. Stringbed points out that knitting wire with needles or a knitting loom would be tough on the valuable silver wire – they could break or distort it.

Photo of an ornate silver plate with gold decorations. There are silver knit wire tubes around the edge.
The Derrynaflen Patten, zoomed in on the knit decorations at the end. || Adapted from this photo by Johnbod, under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

What would make sense to do it with is a little hook, like a crochet hook. But that would only work on wire – yarn doesn’t have the structural integrity to be knit with just a hook, you need to support each of the active loops.

So was the knit structure just invented separately by Viking silversmiths, before it spread to anyone else? I think it might have been. It’s just such a long time before we see knit cloth, and we have this other plausible story for how the cloth got there.

(I wondered if there was a connection between the Viking knitting and their sources of silver. Vikings did get their silver from the Islamic world, but as far as I can tell, mostly from Iran, which is pretty far from Egypt and doesn’t have an ancient knitting history – so I can’t find any connection there.)

The Egyptian socks

Let’s go back to those first knit garments (that aren’t belts), the Egyptian knit blue-and-white socks. There are maybe a few dozen of these, now found in museums around the world. They seem to have been pulled out of Egypt (people think Kustat) by various European/American collectors. People think that they were made around 1000-1300 AD. The socks are quite similar: knit, made of cotton, in white and 1-3 shades of indigo, geometric designs sometimes including Kufic characters.

I can’t find a specific origin location (than “probably Egypt, maybe Kustat?”) for any of them. The possible first sock mentioned in the last post is one of these – I don’t know if there are any particular reasons for thinking that sock is older than the others.

This one doesn’t seem to be knit OR naalbound. Anne Marie Decker at Nalbound.com thinks it’s crocheted and that the date is just completely wrong. To me, at least, this cast doubts on all the other dates of similar-looking socks.

That anomalous sock scared me. What if none of them had been carbon-dated? Oh my god, they’re probably all scams and knitting was invented in 1400 and I’m wrong about everything. But I was told in a historical knitting facebook group that at least one had been dated. I found the article, and a friend from a minecraft discord helped me out with an interlibrary loan. I was able to locate the publication where Antoine de Moor, Chris Verhecken-Lammens and Mark Van Strydonck did in fact carbon-date four ancient blue-and-white knit cotton socks and found that they dated back to approximately 1100 CE – with a 95% chance that they were made somewhere between 1062 and 1149 CE. Success!

Helpful research tip: for the few times when the SCA websites fail you, try your facebook groups and your minecraft discords.

Estonian mitten

Photo of a tattered old fragment of knitting. There are some colored designs on it in blue and red.
Yeah, this is all of it. Archeology is HARD. [Image from Anneke Lyffland’s writeup.]

Also, here’s a knit fragment of a mitten found in Estonia. (I don’t have the expertise or the mitten to determine it myself, but Anneke Lyffland (another SCA name), a scholar who studied one is aware of cross-knit-looped naalbinding – like the Peruvian knit-lookalikes mentioned in the last post – and doesn’t believe this was naalbound.) It was part of a burial that was dated from 1238 – 1299 CE. This is fascinating and does suggest a culture of knitted practical objects, in Eastern Europe, in this time period. This is the earliest East European non-sock knit fabric garment that I’m aware of.

But as far as I know, this is just the one mitten. I don’t know much about archaeology in the area and era, and can’t speculate as to whether this is evidence that knitting was rare or whether we have very few wool textiles from the area and it’s not that surprising. (The voice of shoulder-Thomas-Bayes says: Lots of things are evidence! Okay, I can’t speculate as to whether it’s strong evidence, are you happy, Reverend Bayes?) Then again, a bunch of speculation in this post is also based on two maybe-belts, so, oh well. Take this with salt.

By the way, remember when I said crochet was super-duper modern, like invented in the 1700s?

Literally a few days ago, who but the dream team of Cary “stringbed” Karp and Anne Marie Decker published an article in Archaeological Textiles Review identifying several ancient probably-Egyptian socks thought to be naalbound as being actually crocheted.

This comes down to the thing about fabric structures versus techniques. There’s a structure called slip stitch that can be either crocheted or naalbound. So since we know naalbinding is that old, so if you’re looking at an old garment and see slip stitch, maybe you say it was naalbound. But basically no fabric garment is just continuous structure all the way through. How do the edges work? How did it start and stop? Are there any pieces worked differently, like the turning of a heel or a cuff or a border? Those parts might be more clearly worked with crochet hook than a naalbinding needle. And indeed, that’s what Karp and Decker found. This might mean that those pieces are forgeries – no carbon dating. But it might mean crochet is much much older than previously thought.

My hypothesis

Knitting was invented sometime around or perhaps before 600 CE in Egypt.

From Egypt, it spreads to other Muslim regions.

It spread into Europe via one or more of these:

  1. Ordinary cultural diffusion northwards
  2. Islamic influence in the Iberian Peninsula
    • In 711 CE, Al-Andalus was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate…
      • Kicking off a lot of Islamic presence in and control over the area up until 1400 CE or so…
  3. Meanwhile, starting in 1095 CE, the Latin Church called for armies to take Jerusalem from the Byzantines, kicking off the Crusades.
    • …Peppering Arabic influences into Europe, particularly France, over the next couple centuries.

… Also, the Vikings were there. They separately invented the knitting structure in wire, but never got around to trying it out in cloth, perhaps because the required technique was different.

Another possibility

Wrynne, AKA Baronness Rhiall of Wystandesdon (what did I say about SCA websites?), a woman who knows a thing or two about socks, believes that based on these plus the design of other historical knit socks, the route goes something like:

??? points to Iran, which points to: A. Eastern Europe, then to 1. Norway and Sweeden and 2. Russia. B. to ???, to Spain, to Western Europe.

I don’t know enough about socks to have an sophisticated opinion on her evidence, but the reasoning seems solid to me. For instance, as she explains, old Western European socks are knit from the cuff of the sock down, whereas old Middle Eastern and East European socks are knit from the toe of the sock up – which is also how Eastern and Northern European naalbound socks were shaped. Baronness Rhiall thinks Western Europe invented its sockmaking techniques independently based only having had a little experience with a few late 1200s/1300s knit pieces from Moorish artisans.

What about tools?

Here’s my best guess: The Egyptian tubes were made on knitting looms.

The viking tubes were invented separately, made with a metal hook as stringbed speculates, and never had any particular connection to knitting yarn.

At some point, in the Middle East, someone figured out knitting needles. The Egyptian socks and Estonian mitten and most other things were knit in the round on double-ended needles.

I don’t like this as an explanation, mostly because of how it posits 3 separate tools involved in the earliest knit structures – that seems overly complicated. But it’s what I’ve got.

Knitting in the tracks of naalbinding

I don’t know if this is anything, but here are some places we also find lots of naalbinding, beginning from well before the medieval period: Egypt. Oman. The UAE. Syria. Israel. Denmark. Norway. Sweden. Sort of the same path that we predict knitting traveled in.

I don’t know what I’m looking at here.

  • Maybe this isn’t real and this places just happen to preserve textiles better
  • Longstanding trade or migration routes between North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe?
  • Culture of innovation in fiber?
  • Maybe fiber is more abundant in these areas, and thus there was more affordance for experimenting. (See below.)

It might be a coincidence. But it’s an odd coincidence, if so.

Why did it take so long for someone to invent knitting?

This is the question I set out to answer in the initial post, but then it turned into a whole thing and I don’t think I ever actually answered my question. Very, very speculatively: I think knitting is just so complicated that it took thousands of years, and an environment rich in fiber innovation, for someone to invent and make use of the series of steps that is knitting.

Take this next argument with a saltshaker, but: my intuitions back this up. I have a good visual imagination. I can sort of “get” how a slip knot works. I get sewing. I understand weaving, I can boil it down in my mind to its constituents.

There are birds that do a form of sewing and a form of weaving. I don’t want to imply that if an animal can figure it out, it’s clearly obvious – I imagine I’d have a lot of trouble walking if I were thrown into the body of a centipede, and chimpanzees can drastically outperform humans on certain cognitive tasks – but I think, again, it’s evidence that it’s a simpler task in some sense.

Same with sprang. It’s not a process I’m familiar with, but watching Sally Pointer do it on a very primitive loom, I can see understand it and could probably do it now. Naalbinding – well, it’s knots, and given a needle and knowing how to make a knot, I think it’s pretty straightforward to tie a bunch of knots on top of each other to make fabric out of it.

But I’ve been knitting for quite a while now and have finished many projects, and I still can’t say I totally get how knitting works. I know there’s a series of interconnected loops, but how exactly they don’t fall apart? How the starting string turns into the final project? It’s not in my head. I only know the steps.

I think that if you erased my memory and handed me some simple tools, especially a loom, I could figure out how to make cloth by weaving. I think there’s also a good chance I could figure out sprang, and naalbinding. But I think that if you handed me knitting needles and string – even if you told me I was trying to get fabric made from a bunch of loops that are looped into each other – I’m not sure I would get to knitting.

(I do feel like I might have a shot at figuring out crochet, though, which is supposedly younger than any of these anyway, so maybe this whole line of thinking means nothing.)

Idle hands as the mother of invention?

Why do we innovate? Is necessity the mother of invention?

This whole story suggests not – or at least, that’s not the whole story. We have the first knit structures in belts (already existed in other forms) and decorative silver wire (strictly ornamental.) We have knit socks from Egypt, not a place known for demanding warm foot protection. What gives?

Elizabeth Wayland Barber says this isn’t just knitting – she points to the spinning jenny and the power loom, both innovations in yarn production in general, that were invented recently by men despite thousands of previous years of women producing yarn. In Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, she writes:

“Women of all but the top social and economic classes were so busy just trying to get through what had to be done each day that they didn’t have excess time or materials to experiment with new ways of doing things.”

This speculates a kind of different mechanism of invention – sure, you need a reason to come up with or at least follow up on a discovery, but you also need the space to play. 90% of everything is crap, you need to be really sure that you can throw away (or unravel, or afford the time to re-make) 900 crappy garments before you hit upon the sock.

Bill Bryson, in the introduction to his book At Home, writes about the phenomenon of clergy in the UK in 1700s and 1800s. To become an ordained minister, one needed a university degree, but not in any particular subject, and little ecclesiastical training. Duties were light; most ministers read a sermon out of a prepared book once a week and that was about it. They were paid in tithes from local landowners. Bryson writes:

“Though no one intended it, the effect was to create a class of well-educated, wealthy people who had immense amounts of time on their hands. In conesquence many of them began, quite spontaneously, to do remarkable things. Never in history have a group of people engaged in a broader range of creditable activities for which they were not in any sense actually employed.”

He describes some of the great amount of intellectual work that came out of this class, including not only the aforementioned power loom, but also: scientific descriptions of dinosaurs, the first Icelandic dictionary, Jack Russel terriers, submarines aerial photography, the study of archaeology, Malthusian traps, the telescope that discovered Uranus, werewolf novels, and – courtesy of the original Thomas Bayes – Bayes’ theorem.

I offhandedly posited a random per-person effect in the previous post – each individual has a chance of inventing knitting, so eventually someone will figure it out. There’s no way this can be the whole story. A person in a culture that doesn’t make clothes mostly out of thread, like the traditional Inuit (thread is used to sew clothes, but the clothes are very often sewn out of animal skin rather than woven fabric) seems really unlikely to invent knitting. They wouldn’t have lots of thread about to mess around with. So you need the people to have a degree of familiarity with the materials. You need some spare resources. Some kind of cultural lenience for doing something nonstandard.

…But is that the whole story? The Incan Empire was enormous, with 12,000,000 citizens at its height. They didn’t have a written language. They had the quipu system for recording numbers with knotted string, but they didn’t have a written language. (Their neighbors, the Mayans, did.) Easter Island, between its colonization by humans in 1000 CE and its worse colonization by Europeans in 1700 CE, had a maximum population of maybe 12,000. It’s one of the most remote islands in the world. In isolation from other societies, they did develop a written language, in fact Polynesia’s only native written language.

Color photo of a worn wooden tablet engraved with intricate Rongorongo characters.
One of ~26 surviving pieces of Rongorongo, the undeciphered written script of Easter Island. This is Text R, the “Small Washington tablet”. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution. (Image rotated to correspond with the correct reading order, as a courtesy to any Rongorongo readers in my audience. Also, if there are any Rongorongo readers in my audience, please reach out. How are you doing that?!)
A black and white photo of the same tablet. The lines of characters are labelled (e.g. Line 1, Line 2) and the  symbols are easier to see. Some look like stylized humans, animals, and plants.
The same tablet with the symbols slightly clearer. Image found on kohaumoto.org, a very cool Rongorongo resource.

I don’t know what to do with that.

Still. My rough model is:

A businessy chart labelled "Will a specific group make a specific innovation?" There are three groups of factors feeding into each other. First is Person Factors, with a picture of a person in a power wheelchair: Consists of [number of people] times [degree of familiarity with art]. Spare resources (material, time). And cultural support for innovation. Second is Discovery Factors, with a picture of a microscope: Consists of how hard the idea "is to have", benefits from discovery, and [technology required] - [existing technology]. ("Existing technology" in blue because that's technically a person factor.) Third is Special Sauce, with a picture of a wizard. Consists of: Survivorship Bias and The Easter Island Factor (???)

The concept of this chart amused me way too much not to put it in here. Sorry.

(“Survivorship bias” meaning: I think it’s safe to say that if your culture never developed (or lost) the art of sewing, the culture might well have died off. Manipulating thread and cloth is just so useful! Same with hunting, or fishing for a small island culture, etc.)

…What do you mean Loopholes has articles about the history of the autoharp?! My Renaissance man aspirations! Help!

Delightful: A collection of 1900’s forgeries of the Paracas textile. They’re crocheted rather than naalbound.

1 (Uh, usually. You can finger weave with just a stick or two to anchor some yarn to but it wasn’t widespread, possibly because it’s hard to make the cloth very wide.)

2 I had this whole thing ready to go about how a knit belt was ridiculous because a knit tube isn’t actually very stretchy “vertically” (or “warpwise”), and most of its stretch is “horizontal” (or “weftwise”). But then I grabbed a knit tube (fingerless glove) in my environment and measured it at rest and stretched, and it stretched about as far both ways. So I’m forced to consider that a knit belt might be reasonable thing to make for its stretchiness. Empiricism: try it yourself!

3 Fun fact: Plant-based fibers (cotton, linen, etc) are mostly made of carbohydrates. Animal-based fibers (silk, wool, alpaca, etc) and leather are mostly made of protein. Fens are wetlands that are alkaline and bogs are acidic. Carbohydrates decay in acidic bogs but are well-preserved in alkaline fens. Proteins dissolve in alkaline environments fens but last in acidic bogs. So it’s easier to find preserved animal material or fibers in bogs and preserved plant material or fibers in fens.

Cross-posted to LessWrong.

Fiber arts, mysterious dodecahedrons, and waiting on “Eureka!”

Part 1: The anomaly

This story starts, as many stories do, with my girlfriend 3D-printing me a supernatural artifact. Specifically, one of my favorite SCPs, SCP-184.

This attempt got about 75% of the way through. Close enough.

We had some problems with the print. Did the problems have anything to do with printing a model of a mysterious artifact that makes spaces bigger on the inside, via a small precisely-calibrated box? I would say no, there’s no way that be related.

Anyway, the image used for the SCP in question, and thus also the final printed model, is based a Roman dodecahedron. Roman dodecahedrons are a particular shape of metal object that have been dug up in digs from all over the Roman period, and we have no idea why they exist.

Roman dodecahedra. || Image source unknown.

Many theories have been advanced. You might have seen these in an image that was going around the internet, which ended by suggesting that the object would work perfectly for knitting the fingers of gloves.

There isn’t an alternative clear explanation for what these are. A tool for measuring coins? A ruler for calculating distances? A sort of Roman fidget spinner? This author thinks it displays a date and has a neat explanation as for why. (Experimental archaeology is so cool, y’all.)

Whatever the purpose of the Roman dodecahedron was, I’m pretty sure it’s not (as the meme implies is obvious) for knitting glove fingers.1


1: The holes are always all different sizes, and you don’t need that to make glove fingers.

2: You could just do this with a donut with pegs in it, you don’t need a precisely welded dodecahedron. It does work for knitting glove fingers, you just don’t need something this complicated.

3: The Romans hadn’t invented knitting.

Part 2: The Ancient Romans couldn’t knit

Wait, what? Yeah, the Romans couldn’t knit. The Ancient Greeks couldn’t knit, the Ancient Egyptians couldn’t knit. Knitting took a while to take off outside of the Middle East and the West, but still, almost all of the Imperial Chinese dynasties wouldn’t have known how. Knitting is a pretty recent invention, time-wise. The earliest knit objects we have are from Egypt around 1000 CE.

Possibly the oldest knit sock known, ca 1000-1200 CE according to this page. || Photo is public domain from the George Washington University Textile Museum Collection.

This is especially surprising because knitting is useful for two big reasons:

First, it’s very easy to do. It takes yarn and two sticks and children can learn how. This is pretty rare for fabric manufacturing – compare, for instance, weaving, which takes an entire loom.

Sidenote: Do you know your fabrics? This next section will make way more sense if you do.

Woven fabricKnit fabric
Commonly found in: trousers, collared/button up shirts, bedsheets, dish towels, woven boxers, quilts, coats, etc.
Not stretchy.
Loose threads won’t make the whole cloth unravel.
Commonly found in: T-shirts, polo shirts, leggings, underwear, anything made of jersey fabric, sweaters, sweatpants, socks.
If you pull on a lose thread, the cloth unravels.

Second, and oft-underappreciated, knitted fabric is stretchy. We’re spoiled by the riches of elastic fabric today, but it wasn’t always so. Modern elastic fabric uses synthetic materials like spandex or neoprene; the older version was natural latex rubber, and it seems to have taken until the 1800s to use rubber to make clothing stretchy. Knit fabric stretches without any of those.

Before knitting, your options were limited – you could only make clothing that didn’t stretch, which I think explains a lot of why medieval and earlier clothing “looks that way”. A lot of belts and drapey fabric. If something is form-fitting, it’s probably laced. (…Or just more-closely tailored, which unrelatedly became more of a thing later in the medieval period.)

You think these men had access to comfortable elastic waistlines? No they did not. || Image from the Luttrell Psalter, ~1330.

You could also use woven fabric on the bias, which stretches a little.

Woven fabric is stretchier this way. Grab something made of woven fabric and try it out. || Image by PKM, under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Medieval Europe made stockings from fabric cut like this. Imagine a sock made out of tablecloth or button-down-shirt-type material. Not very flexible. Here’s a modern recreation on Etsy.

Other kinds of old “socks” were more flexible but more obnoxious, made of a long strip of bias-cut fabric that you’d wrap around your feet. (Known as: winingas, vindingr, legwraps, wickelbänder , or puttees.) Historical reenactors wear these sometimes. I’m told they’re not flexible and restrict movement, and that they take practice to put on correctly.

Come 1000 CE, knitting arrives on the scene.

Which is to say, it’s no surprise that the first knitted garments we see are socks! They get big in Europe over the next 300 years or so. Richly detailed bags and cushions also appear. We start seeing artistic depictions of knitting for the first time around now too.

Italian Madonna knitting with four needles, ~1350. Section of this miniature by Tommaso de Modena.

Interestingly, this early knitting was largely circular, meaning that you produce a tube of cloth rather than a flat sheet. This meant that the first knitting was done not with two sticks and some yarn, but four sticks and some yarn. This is much easier for making socks and the like than using two needles would be. …But also means that the invention process actually started with four needles and some yarn, so maybe it’s not surprising it took so long.2

(Why did it take so long to invent knitting flat cloth with two sticks? Well, there’s less of a point to it, since you already have lots of woven cloth, and you can do a lot of clothes – socks, sweaters, hats, bags – by knitting tubes. Also, by knitting circularly, you only have to know how to do one stitch (the knit stitch) whereas flat knitting requires you also use a different stitch (the perl stitch) to make a smooth fabric that looks like and is as stretchy as round knitting. If you’re not a knitter, just trust me – it’s an extra step.)

(You might also be wondering: What about crochet? Crochet was even more recent. 1800s.)

Part 3: The Ancient Peruvians couldn’t knit either, but they did something that looks the same

You sometimes see people say that knitting is much older, maybe thousands of years old. It’s hard to tell how old knitting is – fabric doesn’t always preserve well – but it’s safe to say that it’s not that old. We have examples of people doing things with string for thousands of years, but no examples of knitting before those 1000 CE socks. What we do have examples of is naalbinding, a method of making fabric from yarn using a needle. Naalbinding produces a less-stretchy fabric than knitting. It’s found from Scandinavia to the Middle East and also shows up in Peru.

The native Peruvian form of naalbinding is a specific technique called cross-knit looping. (This technique also shows up sometimes in pre-American Eurasia, but it’s not common.) The interesting thing about cross-knit looping is that the fabric looks almost identical to regular knitting.

Here’s a tiny cross-knit-looped bag I made, next to a tiny regularly knit bag I made. You can see they look really similar. The fabric isn’t truly identical if you look closely (although it’s close enough to have fooled historians). It doesn’t act the same either – naalbound fabric is less stretchy than knit fabric, and it doesn’t unravel.

The ancient Peruvians cross-knit-looped decorations for other garments and the occasional hat, not socks.

Cross-knit-looped detail from the absolutely stunning Paracas Textile. If you look closely, it looks like stockinette knit fabric, but it’s not.

Inspired by the Paracas Textile figures above, I used cross-knit-looping to make this little fox lady fingerpuppet:

I think it was easier to do fine details than it would be if I were knitting – it felt more like embroidery – but it might have been slower to make the plain fabric parts than knitting would have been. But I’ve done a lot of knitting and very little cross-knit-looping, so it’s hard to compare directly. If you want to learn how to do cross-knit looping yourself, Donna Kallner on Youtube has handy instructional videos.

I wondered about naalbinding in general – does the practice predate human dispersal to the Americas, or did the Eurasian technique and the American technique evolve separately? Well, I don’t know for certain. Sewing needles and working with yarn are old old practices, definitely pre-dating the hike across Beringia (~18,000 BCE). The oldest naalbinding is 6500 years old, so it’s possible – but as far as I know, no ancient naalbinding has every been found anywhere in the Americas outside of Peru, or in eastern Russia or Asia – it was mostly the Middle East and Europe, and then, also, separately, Peru. The process of cross-knit looping shares some similarities with net-making and basket-weaving, so it doesn’t seem so odd to me that the process was invented again in Peru.

For a while, I thought, it’s even weirder that the Peruvians didn’t get to knitting – they were so close, they made something that looks so similar. But cross-knit-looping doesn’t actually particularly share any other similarities with knitting more than naalbinding or even more common crafts like basketweaving or weaving – the tools are different, the process is different, etc.

So the question should be the same for the Romans or any other other culture with yarn and sticks before 1000 AD: why didn’t they invent knitting? They had all the pieces. …Didn’t they?

Yeah, I think they did.

Part 4: Many stones can form an arch, singly none

Let’s jump topics for a second. In Egypt, a millenium before there were knit socks, there was the Library of Alexandria. Zenodotus, the first known head librarian at the Library of Alexandria, organized lists of words and probably the library’s books by alphabetical order. He’s the first person we know of to alphabetize books with this method, somewhere around 300 BCE.

Then, it takes 500 years before we see alphabetization of books by the second letter.3

The first time I heard this, I thought: Holy mackerel. That’s a long time. I know people who are very smart, but I’m not sure I know anyone smart enough to invent categorizing things by the second letter.

But. Is that true? Let’s do some Fermi estimates. The world population was 1.66E8 (166 million) in 500 BCE and 2.02E8 (202 million) in 200 CE. But only a tiny fraction would have had access to books, and only a fraction of those in the western alphabet system. (And of course, people outside of the Library of Alexandria with access to books could have done it and we just wouldn’t know, because that fact would have been lost – but people have actually studied the history of alphabetization and do seem to treat this as the start of alphabetization as a cultural practice, so I’ll carry on.)

For this rough estimate, I’ll average the world population over that period to 2E8. Assuming a 50 year lifespan, that’s 10 lifespans and thus 2E10 people living in the window. If only one in a thousand people would have been in a place to have the idea and have it recognized (e.g. access to lots of books), that’s 1 in 2E7 people, or 1 in 20 million. That’s suddenly not unreachable. Especially since I think “1 in 1,000 ‘being able to have the idea’” might be too high – and if it’s more like “1 in 10,000” or lower, the end number could be more like 1 in 1 million. I might actually know people who are 1 in 1 million smart – I have smart friends. So there’s some chance I know someone smart enough to have invented “organizing by the second letter of the alphabet”.

Sidenote: Ancient bacteria couldn’t knit

A parallel in biology: Some organisms emit alcohol as a waste product. For thousands of years, humans have been concentrating alcohol in one place to kill bacteria. (… Okay, not just to kill bacteria.) From 2005 to 2015, some bacteria have been getting 10x resistant to alcohol.

Isn’t it strange that this is only happened in the last 10 years? This question actually lead, via a winding path, to the idea that became my Funnel of Human Experience blog post. I forgot to answer the question, but suffice to say that if alcohol production is in some way correlated&&& with the human population, 10 years is more significant but still not very much.

And yet, alcohol resistance seems to have involved in Enterococcus faecium only recently. The authors postulate the spread of alcohol handwashing. Seems as plausible as anything. Or maybe it’s just difficult to evolve.

Knitting continues to interest me, because a lot of examples of innovation do rely heavily on what came before. To have invented organizing books by the second letter of the alphabet, you have to have invented organizing books by the first letter of the alphabet, and also know how to write, and have access to a lot of books for the second letter to even matter.

The sewing machine was invented in 1790 CE and improved drastically over the next 60 years, where it became widely used to automate a time-consuming and extremely common task. We could ask: “But why wasn’t the sewing machine invented earlier, like in 1500 CE?”

But we mostly don’t, because to invent a sewing machine, you also need very finely machined gears and other metal parts, and that technology also came up around the industrial revolution. You just couldn’t have made a reliable sewing machine in 1500 CE, even if you had the idea – you didn’t have all the steps. In software terms, as a technology, sewing machines have dependencies. Thus, the march of human progress, yada yada yada.

But as far as I can tell, you had everything that went into knitting for thousands of years beforehand. You had sticks, you had yarn, you had the motivation. Knitting doesn’t have dependencies after that. And you had brainpower: people in the past everywhere were making fiber into yarn and yarn into clothing all of the time, seriously making clothes from scratch takes so much time.

And yet, knitting is very recent. That was so big of a leap that it took thousands of years for someone to figure it out.

1 I’m not displaying the meme itself in this otherwise image-happy post because if I do, one of my friends will read this essay and get to the meme but stop reading before they get to the part where I say the meme is incorrect. And then the next time we talk, they’ll tell me that they read my blog post and liked that part where a Youtuber proved that this mysterious Roman artifact was used to knit gloves, and hah, those silly historians! And then I will immediately get a headache.

2 Flexible circular knitting needles for knitting tubes are, as you might guess, also a more modern invention. If you’re in the Medieval period, it’s four sticks or bust.

3 My girlfriend and I made a valiant attempt to verify this, including squinting at some scans of fragments from Ancient Greek dictionaries written on papyrus from Papyri.info – which is, by the way, easily one of the most websites of all time. We didn’t make much headway.

The dictionaries or bibliographies we found on papyrus seem to be ordered completely alphabetically, but even those “source texts” were copies from ~1500 CE or that kind of thing, of much older (~200 CE) texts. So those texts we found might have been alphabetized by the copiers. Also, neither of us know Ancient Greek, which did not help matters.

Ultimately, this citation about both primary and secondary alphabetization seems to come from Lloyd W. Daly’s well-regarded 1967 book Contributions to a history of alphabetization in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, which I have not read. If you try digging further, good luck and let me know what you find.

[Crossposted to LessWrong.]

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 their 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30918973. Photo of metamorphosed axolotl from deleted reddit user, via this thread: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eyebleach/comments/etg7i6/this_is_itzi_he_is_a_morphed_axolotl_no_thats_not/ ]

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6342924 ]

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63402150. Blackberry photo by By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4496657. ]
  • 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.

For more outraged plant content, I really enjoy both Botany Shitposts (tumblr) and Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t (youtube.)

[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. Artbreeder.com 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.

Explorable.es: 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!)