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This is a review for asterisk #2, the second edition of a quarterly EA focused magazine

Rating: 5/10

Review: I should again say I think the content was above average on the whole, and my issues were largely with the magazine as a whole. I came out again feeling that the theme of the issue hadn't been put together quite right. This issue had none of the weird or "Is Wine Fake?" sort of articles that I loved from the first, and generally took a serious academic tone that had the collection-of-a-bunch-of-forum-posts feel rather than something of it's own essence. But, the graphics got better, many traded for pictures that I found more compelling on the whole (I really liked the Joseph Turner painting and think it added to the piece), and there were less big text insertions (which I think asterisk doesn't do the best job with)[1]. It's a growing process, and I'm excited to be here for it, but I hope to see more weird/fun stuff in the next article, or at least some theme that separates asterisk as a body of work and justifies it being a magazine and not just a curated sequence on the forum.

Why take the time? The community has moved a lot of funding into this project (at least $1m just from Open Phil), so I think it's pretty important to gather perspectives on it to know if it's a good bet to continue into the future. I give my review below, but I hope this can be a place for others to review the work as well, if you so desire. 

Article Reviews

I'm giving the individual reviews of the articles below to give a better sense of where I think the content went right and wrong, to hopefully give some more concrete feedback.

What Comes After COVID?: Really? You're not even going to start with an article on food? Like one that's completely unrelated, not even a stretch like Salt, Sugar, Water, Zinc? Nothing wrong with the article, it was in fact a wonderfully concise piece that was informative on biosecurity and forecasting simultaneously (and really hats off for the forecasting bit, that was superb). But yeah, thematically this started off on a fairly bad foot. 

The Virtue of Wonder: Martha Nussbaum's Justice for Animals: I like animals. I like Martha Nussbaum. This should have been absolutely splendid. But it wasn't. I'm not quite sure why, I think it's some combination of feeling that this was way to technical and caught in the details and that this also may just not be Martha's best work. Good idea for an article though and I understand why it's here.

Feeding the World Without Sunlight: this was below average, and I was particularly disappointed here because I think the content had great potential. When I try to consider what went wrong for me, I think it's the style of interview, a sort of round robin, AMA sort of style that felt disjointed and like there was never any follow-up, just a reddit AMA taken long form. I get the space is small, but I think at least part of the interview should involve digging deeper into one specific topic (or aspect of a topic) in a way that flows for both the researcher and interviewer (Rob Wiblin does this really well). I think the next article did much better on this note too, so it could be highly dependent on the interviewee as well.

Beyond Staple Grains: Well done. Like I just said, there was more follow-up here and the conversation felt like it flowed much better in and out of topics with a better balance between depth and breadth. The content was somewhat dull, but it did a good job to explain why it's relevant and alerted me to an issue I knew very little about, so this was a really good job on finding something important but a bit more obscure. 

Animal Welfare in the Anthropocene: I was waiting for one on wild animal welfare (WAW). Whoever connected this did a really good job, blending WAW and land use to illustrate interestingly divergent conclusion for what food systems cause the most animal suffering, highlighting the indirect effects in the larger ecosystem over the direct effects we know of. No complaints here at all, really well done and I also enjoyed that they brought in someone who seems vaguely EA skeptical. 

What I Won't Eat: A nice refrain from the more serious tone taken elsewhere in the issue, with a bit more fun and more of a "let's talk about normal life" sort of vibe. I didn't quite connect with it, I think because it seemed a bit more introductory, a bit more geared towards someone who hasn't tried this sort of change before. But I liked the presentation of veganism as a work in progress and not perfection, and thought ending on the recipe was sweet. Maybe part of it was feeling that this is more of a piece meant for conversation than one sided text, as I did come out thinking this is someone who I'd really enjoy having a dinner with. 

Cows vs. Chemists: The Health Debates Over Plant-Based Meat: Phenomenal. Amazing. The peak of this issue. It gave me a ton of new info that is not only relevant to animal welfare but also my life as a vegan, while presenting both sides of the issue and scrutinizing them equally. 

America Doesn't Know Tofu: Tofu guy!!!!! This was entertaining, largely as a history of Chinese tofu practices that interweaved an experience of throwing oneself into it. I would have loved to have seen more on how associations of tofu and vegetarian food with poverty developed though, and found it odd there was no guidance as to how to counteract this effect and keep tofu from a slow downfall in Chinese society. The whole piece seemed to be cheerleading the future of something that's dying, without explaining how we might counteract that and give it more life. It was also a blunder to have NO pictures of food here, like significant time in the article is spent describing visuals and this is like the easiest quality introduction of visuals IMO (but I did really like the graphic, so I understand partly).

Read This, Not That: The Hidden Cost of Nutrition Misinformation: I'm somewhat convinced that this is a significant problem, and think the work they do seems good, but this article was highly repetitive and spent way too long driving home a general message. I would have loved to have seen more examples, more guidance as to what is good, more tangible things, but all I'm leaving this reading with is a slightly more confident view that nutritional information is often dubious and one should tread lightly (oh and with a cool BOTEC for deaths from nutritional misinformation, I think her estimates likely too high but it's nice to have an idea).

My Primal Scream of Rage: The Big Alcohol Study That Didn't Happen: I really quite enjoyed this. It was well written, and brought to my attention something wrong with the world I didn't know about, and gave some idea on how we can do better, a gripping and informative read. The only thing I'll say is...alcohol isn't really food? Like I enjoyed it, but this feels like it would have been highly ideal in a release on drugs instead, or something of the sort? IDK, it's a blurry line, just feels like this could be part of an issue of its own is all.

Salt, Sugar, Water, Zinc: How Scientists Learned to Treat the 20th Century's Biggest Killer of Children: Come on. Like I get it, the basic ingredients here are connected to basic ingredients we use for cooking and thus food, but this article is not about food at all. It was an well written article, and I'm glad I read it (I especially enjoyed learning about so many near misses in development, that was new for me), but this feels like sneaking in a global health article to appeal to a wider readership, rather than a commitment to keep the theme.

Is Cultivated Meat For Real?: Good. This is still academic (so it's not the ideal out there thing I'd like for a magazine like this) but it's topically on point and was very useful for me, giving me a quick, but thorough, sense of the state of affairs on cultivated meat. I'm realizing I wish there was a similar article on plant based meat, but it's also a much larger topic and there were sub pieces focused on it. 

  1. ^

    I also realized what I didn't like about the big text sections. Or rather, I happened to be reading an article that used them well, and I realized this and then went back and tried to figure out what the different was. I think it's largely twofold: less use, and use at a time in the text where you can just begin to understand what the thrust of the quote is at but are just far enough away that it's not an obvious reading of the next logical step in the story.

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Executive summary: The review gives asterisk #2 a rating of 5/10, finding the content above average but issues with lack of coherent theming across articles.

Key points:

  1. The content quality was good, but the theming and flow between articles felt disjointed.
  2. Standout articles included ones on plant-based meat, alcohol research, global health, and forecasting. Weaker ones lacked depth or relevance to theme.
  3. The serious academic tone lacked the fun, weird articles from the first issue. More visuals are needed.
  4. The community has invested significant funding into asterisk, so reviews are important for gauging if it is worth continuing.
  5. Overall a work in progress with potential, but needs more coherent themes tying articles together in a unique way.

 

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