The top two articles this week are great. Perhaps not 4-star great, but not far off. The 2-star articles, on the other hand, are worse than average, so just stick with the 3-star ones if you're short on time.
----- 3 stars -----
What Happens If China Makes First Contact? / The Atlantic
Wide-ranging, thoroughly interesting piece about SETI, Chinese science (and its history), the philosophy of first contact, and Liu Cixin:
Last January, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first. [...] The skyscrapers and cranes dwindled as the train moved farther inland. Out in the emerald rice fields, among the low-hanging mists, it was easy to imagine ancient China—the China whose written language was adopted across much of Asia; the China that introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; the China that built the river-taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills. Those hills grew steeper as we went west, stair-stepping higher and higher, until I had to lean up against the window to see their peaks. Every so often, a Hans Zimmer bass note would sound, and the glass pane would fill up with the smooth, spaceship-white side of another train, whooshing by in the opposite direction at almost 200 miles an hour.
The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future / The Atlantic
Glimpses of our future, perhaps:
When I initially envisioned writing this essay, I imagined falling under the thrall of Second Life: a wide-eyed observer seduced by the culture she had been dispatched to analyze. But being “in world” made me queasy from the start. I had pictured myself defending Second Life against the ways it had been dismissed as little more than a consolation prize for when “first life” doesn’t quite deliver. But instead I found myself wanting to write, Second Life makes me want to take a shower. Intellectually, my respect deepened by the day, when I learned about a Middle Eastern woman who could move through the world of Second Life without a hijab, and when I talked with a legally blind woman whose avatar has a rooftop balcony and who could see the view from it (thanks to screen magnification) more clearly than the world beyond her screen. I heard about a veteran with PTSD who gave biweekly Italian cooking classes in an open-air gazebo, and I visited an online version of Yosemite created by a woman who had joined Second Life in the wake of several severe depressive episodes and hospitalizations. She uses an avatar named Jadyn Firehawk and spends up to 12 hours a day on Second Life, many of them devoted to refining her bespoke wonderland—full of waterfalls, sequoias, and horses named after important people in John Muir’s life—grateful that Second Life doesn’t ask her to inhabit an identity entirely contoured by her illness, unlike internet chat rooms focused on bipolar disorder that are all about being sick. “I live a well-rounded life on SL,” she told me. “It feeds all my other selves.” But despite my growing appreciation, and my fantasies of enchantment, a certain visceral distaste for Second Life endured—for the emptiness of its graphics, its nightclubs and mansions and pools and castles, their refusal of all the grit and imperfection that make the world feel like the world. Whenever I tried to describe Second Life, I found it nearly impossible—or at least impossible to make interesting—because description finds its traction in flaws and fissures, and exploring the world of Second Life was more like moving through postcards.
A Restaurant Ruined My Life / Toronto Life
I was a foodie with a boring day job who figured he could run a restaurant. Then I encountered rats, endless red tape, crippling costs and debt-induced meltdowns, started popping sleeping pills, lost my house, and nearly sabotaged my marriage.
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Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking / Nautilus
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, when it finally came out in 1976, did not look like a best-seller. But sell it did. It was reviewed in science magazines and psychology journals, Time, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978. [...] In the beginning of the book, Jaynes asks, “This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all—what is it? And where did it come from? And why?” Jaynes answers by unfurling a version of history in which humans were not fully conscious until about 3,000 years ago, instead relying on a two-part, or bicameral, mind, with one half speaking to the other in the voice of the gods with guidance whenever a difficult situation presented itself. The bicameral mind eventually collapsed as human societies became more complex, and our forebears awoke with modern self-awareness, complete with an internal narrative, which Jaynes believes has its roots in language. It’s a remarkable thesis that doesn’t fit well with contemporary thought about how consciousness works. The idea that the ancient Greeks were not self-aware raises quite a few eyebrows. By giving consciousness a cultural origin, says Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, “Jaynes disavows consciousness as a biological phenomenon.”
Does Age Bring Wisdom? / Slate Star Codex
I look back on myself now vs. ten years ago and notice I’ve become more cynical, more mellow, and more prone to believing things are complicated. [...] All these seem like convincing insights. But most of them are in the direction of elite opinion. There’s an innocent explanation for this: intellectual elites are pretty wise, so as I grow wiser I converge to their position. But the non-innocent explanation is that I’m not getting wiser, I’m just getting better socialized. Maybe in medieval Europe, the older I grew, the more I would realize that the Pope was right about everything.
North Korea’s Nukes May Not Be Its Biggest Threat / FiveThirtyEight
In fact, experts warn that North Korea’s biological weapons could wreak as much havoc as its nuclear bombs — and are already fully developed and ready to deploy. [...] Washington and Seoul estimate that Pyongyang has 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of weaponizable chemical agents and a minimum of 13 different biological pathogens in its possession, alongside up to 60 nuclear warheads. Among those biological and chemical arms are some of the deadliest agents and toxins known to man: anthrax, smallpox and the plague, hydrogen cyanide, mustard, sarin and VX, the deadliest of all.
Biomimicry: turning birds into bullet trains / Kottke
Nature has amassed 3.8 billion years of R&D on how to engineer and design things and systems. So when designers are looking at how to solve problems, they should pay closer attention to how the evolutionary process dealt with similar situations. For example, an engineer working on a redesign of the Japanese bullet train used his birdwatching knowledge to borrow design elements from birds like a kingfisher, an owl, and a penguin.
The Fundamentals Favor Democrats In 2018 / FiveThirtyEight
So, does that mean that Democrats are clear favorites to pick up the House next year? No, not necessarily. I’d say they’re favorites, but not particularly heavy ones. Democrats face one major disadvantage, and they have one major source of uncertainty. The uncertainty is time: There’s still a year to go until the midterms. [...] Nonetheless, my sense is that the conventional wisdom has, to this point, somewhat underrated the Democrats’ chances of having a wave election next year. And it’s for some fairly stupid (although understandable) reasons. One is in the tendency to fight the last war. Journalists and pundits are always chastened by the “lessons” of the most recent election, especially if the outcome was surprising to them. [...] Second, the pundit class has a poor understanding of polling, and how it performed in 2016.
----- 1 star -----
Why isn’t the Indian caste system more protested in the United States? / Marginal Revolution
About one-sixth of India is Dalits, or “Untouchables.” And while Western criticisms of caste segregation are a long-standing observation about India, I hardly hear serious complaints over the last two decades or so. In contrast, the apartheid system of South Africa met with demonstrations, boycotts, campus activism, frequent dialogue, and so on. Why don’t we see some modified version of the same for the Indian caste system? No matter how you compare its relative oppression to that of South Africa, it still seems like a massive system of unjust and opportunity-destroying segregation, and an efficiency-loser as well.
How sheep with cameras got some tiny islands onto Google Street View / Washington Post
The Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago that juts out of the cold seas between Norway and Iceland, doesn’t even appear on some world maps. But as of last week, the verdant slopes, rocky hiking trails and few roads of the 18 islands are on Google Street View — and a team of camera-toting sheep helped get them there.
This Mesmerizing Domino Setup Appears To Fall In Both Directions At Once / Digg
YouTuber Hevesh5 put together this domino run to feature a new trick, which she calls "soniverse." The trick combines "sonimod" and "reverminos" techniques, which make it appear that the dominos are falling backwards while they fall forwards
One Bitcoin Transaction Now Uses as Much Energy as Your House in a Week / Motherboard
That means that, at a minimum, worldwide Bitcoin mining could power the daily needs of 821,940 average American homes.