----- 3 stars -----

The Underground Railroad of North Korea / GQ

Any North Korean knows that escaping their nation is nearly impossible. First, the woman called “Faith” would have to evade the soldiers and surveillance cameras on the border. But even once she'd sneaked into China, the danger would only have just begun. To reach a South Korean embassy, where she could receive asylum, she would still have to clandestinely journey thousands of miles across China and then several Southeast Asian countries. If she was discovered anywhere along that trek, she would likely be repatriated to one of her nation's infamous gulags, where prisoners slave with so little food they capture rats to eat. But after more than 30 years of never daring to criticize the dictatorship out loud, even after enduring a famine, she was willing to risk anything to free herself. By late 2017, thanks to the help of a secret network of activists who serve as an underground railroad of sorts for North Koreans seeking asylum, Faith had managed to make it over 2,500 miles from her home. As she approached China's border with Vietnam, where many refugees have been arrested—she recognized that she was facing one of the most hazardous passages of her odyssey. Faith, her two preschool-age kids, and five other North Koreans hiked on a mud path through farmland and jungle, following a Vietnamese man in silence, for speaking Korean would blow their cover to anyone they passed. At the end of the trail, a soldier appeared, guarding a bridge over a river, and their guide hailed him. Safety lay just beyond the soldier. She waited for him to respond. In this moment, she would discover if her bravery had won a better life for her and her children—or if she had doomed them all. [...] Stephen Kim is a man whose life has been shrouded in legend. For leading the rescue of over 700 North Koreans, he has been called “the Oskar Schindler of North Korea,” a nickname that he shares with several other humanitarians who do similar work. Associates refer to him by the code name Superman, and he has been called “mythical” by human-rights activists, as reported by The Times of London. When I first met him, in the fall of 2018, at a private location in Seoul, I was struck by his constant wry smile—the kind that suggests someone who knows something they aren't telling you. After months of unsuccessfully attempting to arrange our interview through an intermediary, Kim had suddenly agreed to meet. “People need to know that the Underground Railroad is under attack by Kim Jong-un and China,” he explained. “And they need to do something about this and help the North Koreans.”

30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact / The Atlantic

The windows on Izidor’s third-floor ward had been fitted with prison bars. In boyhood, he stood there often, gazing down on an empty mud yard enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. Through bare branches in winter, Izidor got a look at another hospital that sat right in front of his own and concealed it from the street. Real children, children wearing shoes and coats, children holding their parents’ hands, came and went from that hospital. No one from Izidor’s Cămin Spital was ever taken there, no matter how sick, not even if they were dying. Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages. Izidor was destined to spend the rest of his childhood in this building, to exit the gates only at 18, at which time, if he were thoroughly incapacitated, he’d be transferred to a home for old men; if he turned out to be minimally functional, he’d be evicted to make his way on the streets. Odds were high that he wouldn’t survive that long, that the boy with the shriveled leg would die in childhood, malnourished, shivering, unloved. [...] In 1998, at a small scientific meeting, animal research presented back-to-back with images from Romanian orphanages changed the course of the study of attachment. First the University of Minnesota neonatal-pediatrics professor Dana Johnson shared photos and videos that he’d collected in Romania of rooms teeming with children engaged in “motor stereotypies”: rocking, banging their heads, squawking. He was followed by a speaker who showed videos of her work with motherless primate infants like the ones Harlow had produced—swaying, twirling, self-mutilating. The audience was shocked by the parallels. “We were all in tears,” Nelson told me.

'A chain of stupidity': the Skripal case and the decline of Russia's spy agencies / The Guardian

What began as a way of scoring points over online adversaries evolved into something bigger. Smartphones with cameras, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, Google street view, YouTube – the digital world was multiplying at an astonishing rate. This stuff was open-source: anyone could access it. By cross-checking video footage with existing photos and Google maps, it was possible to investigate what was going on in a faraway war zone. These techniques offered interesting possibilities. Open-source journalism might be applied to the realm of justice and accountability. Sometimes soldiers filmed their own crimes – executions, for example, carried out on featureless terrain. If you could identify who and where, this could be evidence in a court of law. The shadow cast by a dead body was a strong indication of time of death. At home, and surrounded by his daughter’s discarded toys, Higgins unearthed a number of scoops. He found weapons from Croatia in a video posted by a Syrian jihadist group. The weapons, it emerged, were from the Saudis. The New York Times picked up the story and put it on the front page – an indication of how armchair analysis could be as telling as dispatches from the ground. [...] Chepiga and Mishkin’s world began to unravel even before Bellingcat outed them in parliament. Their photos – as Petrov and Boshirov – had been sprayed all over the place. This presented a dilemma for the GRU. One option was to hide the pair away for ever. Another was to instruct them to give a media interview. Someone inside the Russian state decided to try this model. It may have been Putin, who used a conference in Vladivostok to urge them to come forward. Chepiga and Mishkin agreed (or, more probably, were told) to speak to RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Simonyan was a trusted person and Russian media star – a leading apparatchik who sat on top of a global propaganda empire. Putin had given her an award for “objectivity” for RT’s coverage of Crimea. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, everything. Chepiga and Mishkin’s joint interview on RT was a disaster. It was an unintentionally comic performance that made them and the GRU a laughing stock, not only among English-speaking countries, but across Russia, too. They were professional spies, and so lacked media experience.

Inside the Coronavirus / Scientific American

For all the mysteries that remain about the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes, scientists have generated an incredible amount of fine-grained knowledge in a surprisingly short time. In the graphics that follow, Scientific American presents detailed explanations, current as of mid-June, into how SARS-CoV-2 sneaks inside human cells, makes copies of itself and bursts out to infiltrate many more cells, widening infection. We show how the immune system would normally attempt to neutralize virus particles and how CoV-2 can block that effort. We explain some of the virus's surprising abilities, such as its capacity to proofread new virus copies as they are being made to prevent mutations that could destroy them. And we show how drugs and vaccines might still be able to overcome the intruders.

How I Became a Poker Champion in One Year / The Atlantic

Three years ago, Seidel began to teach me how to play poker. Why on earth would a professional poker player—the professional poker player—agree to let a random journalist follow him around like an overeager toddler? It’s not for money or exposure. Seidel is notoriously reticent, and he hates sharing his tactics. I was, however, an ideal pupil in a few ways. Most important, I have a Ph.D. in psychology, and so I was well positioned to understand Seidel’s style of play. I also never had much of an interest in cards, meaning Seidel wouldn’t have to rid me of any bad habits. My academic training and my inexperience made me a perfect vehicle for an experiment to see if Seidel’s psychological game could still triumph over a strictly mathematical style.

A Short History of the Cooper Black Typeface / Kottke

In this video from Vox, Estelle Caswell talks to Bethany Heck and Steven Heller about the seemingly ubiquitous typeface Cooper Black. "There’s a typeface that has made a resurgence in the last couple of years. It’s appeared on hip hop album covers, food packaging, and advertising. Perhaps you know it from the Garfield comics, Tootsie Roll logo, or the Pet Sounds album cover by the Beach Boys. It’s called Cooper Black, and its popularity and ubiquity has never waned in the hundred years since it was first designed." Cooper Black tends to get a bad rap from type aficionados (too popular, too cartoony) but this video — and Heck’s comments in particular — have given me a new appreciation for it.

----- 2 stars -----

The Rebel Physicist on the Hunt for a Better Story Than Quantum Mechanics / New York Times

But the standard take on quantum mechanics suggests something far more surprising: that a complete understanding of even the objective, physical world is beyond science’s reach, since it’s impossible to translate into words how the theory’s math relates to the world we live in. Bassi, a 47-year-old theoretical physicist at the University of Trieste, in northeastern Italy, is prominent among a tiny minority of rebels in the discipline who reject this conclusion. [...] The act of observation itself is then posited to somehow convert this nonsensical situation into the world we see, of objects having definite locations and other properties. This makes human beings, who are after all the ones making the observations, in essence responsible for conjuring the reality we experience out of a murky netherworld that quantum mechanics implies is simply unknowable. [...] Bassi’s research is focused on a possible alternative to quantum mechanics, a class of theories called “objective collapse models” that doesn’t rely on human observation to collapse a wave function’s possibilities to a single outcome, but that invokes instead an objective, physical process to do the job whether anyone’s looking or not. And Bassi is now leading the most ambitious experiment to date that could show that objective collapse actually happens. If he is proved right, the implications for physics, technology and, yes, even philosophy, would be immense. Such an outcome would speak to questions of what we can hope to understand about the world, and conversely, which questions are destined to remain forever off-limits.

How Baseball Players Became Celebrities / New Yorker

The rise of sports as big business and the handling of athletes as human capital are often dated to 1960, the year Mark McCormack founded the International Management Group, with Arnold Palmer as his first client. McCormack saw that in sports, as in Hollywood, it’s the stars that sell the product, and he turned athletic success and good publicity into dollars. Thanks to television, the number of available dollars for the clients of sports agents mushroomed. But the possibilities had been glimpsed and the opportunities realized almost forty years earlier, by a man named Christy Walsh. Walsh was born in St. Louis in 1891, and went to college in Los Angeles. He bounced around a little—worked as a sports cartoonist and a ghostwriter—but it was his background in advertising and publicity for automobile companies that prepared him to become the first sports agent in the modern mold. He wasn’t just a promoter or a handler but someone who took charge of an athlete’s complete on-field and off-field package, who controlled the publicity as well as the contracts. He signed his first client in 1921. And that client turned out to be the greatest sports figure of his day, or possibly, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, of any day: Babe Ruth. Ruth didn’t just do what every ballplayer did but better. On the field and off, he was in a class by himself. Walsh began working for Ruth just as advertising was joining forces with the new “science” of public relations, a union that produced the entertainment-media-merchandising combine that supplies much of the content for contemporary American culture. Walsh understood how that synergy worked, how the entertainment feeds the media and the media feeds the sales. Stories in the papers about Babe Ruth visiting an orphanage, say, are good for the Babe Ruth brand. They raise the value of Ruth’s next endorsement deal. But stories about Babe Ruth also sell newspapers, which then can sell more advertising space. It’s in everyone’s interest (including the orphanages’) to make Ruth a magnet for public eyeballs. All Ruth has to do is to keep hitting home runs and winning championships. The agent takes care of the rest. This multiplier effect is why the stars’ incomes keep rising exponentially—why Tiger Woods, who has made about a hundred and twenty million dollars in prize money, is said to be worth close to a billion. Everyone in the combine wants Tiger to continue to make money so they can continue to make money off Tiger.

A City’s Buried Shame / Los Angeles Times

Now, however, Snow, an Oklahoman, is preparing to unearth victims of a dirty war on his native soil. As part of a state-sponsored investigation, he will, over the next few months, exhume bodies from possibly the worst race riot in the history of the United States: a 1921 blood bath that killed as many as 300 of Tulsa’s black citizens and left 1,000 houses burned to ash. Once the killings ended, researchers are finding, authorities buried the victims in unmarked mass graves, refused help for the survivors and even tried to confiscate land from those forced from their homes. Finally, they tried to wipe the disaster from public memory--an effort that largely succeeded. [...] “Kinney, is the world on fire?” his 6-year-old sister asked. But even the young Booker knew it wasn’t the whole world--only the black section of Tulsa called Greenwood or, sometimes, “the Negro Wall Street.” Until that night, Tulsa had been a hopeful city for blacks, somewhere to flee from violence-ridden places such as Texas. Greenwood was home and workplace for the city’s black doctors, teachers and laborers. And it prospered. Fifty blocks wedged north of downtown, Greenwood reflected both Tulsa’s segregation and the economic possibilities for its 15,000 blacks.

Why Statistics Don’t Capture The Full Extent Of The Systemic Bias In Policing / FiveThirtyEight

The data seems to overwhelmingly point to a criminal justice system riven by racial bias. But, remarkably, it could be even more overwhelming than some studies make it seem. That’s because of a statistical quirk called “collider bias,” a kind of selection bias that means that the crime data that shows racial bias is, itself, biased by racist practices. If you thought crime data showed clear evidence of racism before, understanding how collider bias affects these analyses might make it even clearer. To understand how all this works, we’re going to get mathy.

The Gaslighting of Parasite / Marginal Revolution

I am late to this but Parasite, now available on streaming services, is the most willfully misinterpreted movie that I have ever seen. The conventional interpretation is so obviously wrong that I cannot but think that it is anything but a collective gaslighting. The conventional interpretation is that the film is about inequality and on the surface that makes sense. After all, there is a rich family and a poor family, and an upstairs and a downstairs, and everyone knows that inequality is the problem of our age so despite the subtitles this Korean film must be a version of what we expect to see. Hence, Manohla Dargis writing at the New York Times says “The story takes place in South Korea but could easily unfold in Los Angeles or London.” True but not in the way she imagines! Rather than a conventional discourse on “inequality,” Parasite is deeply, shockingly, politically incorrect, even subversive.

An American Spring of Reckoning / New Yorker

Consider for a moment how the events of May 25th through June 9th—the days of democratic bedlam in the streets, bracketed by the death and the burial of George Floyd—would appear had they occurred in some distant nation that most Americans have heard of but might not be able to find on a map. Consider that, in the midst of a pandemic whose toll was magnified by government incompetence, a member of a long-exploited ethnic minority was killed by the state, in an act defined by its casual sadism. Demonstrators pour into the streets near the site of the killing, in a scene that is soon repeated in city after city. The police arrest members of the media reporting the story. The President cites a threat to law and order, and federal agents are dispatched to disrupt protests in the nation’s capital, using tear gas and a military helicopter. These acts further erode his already tenuous position, prompting church leaders to rebuke him, and decorated generals to question his fitness for office. [...] The American Spring has not toppled a power, but it has led to a reassessment of the relationship between that power and the citizens from whom it is derived.

Brexit set to cost the UK more than £200 billion by the end of the year / The London Economic

The enormous economic impact of the Coronavirus is now being shown in jaw dropping hard data. The UK economy has shrunk by 20.4 per cent in April – the largest monthly contraction ever recorded. This is ten times worse than anything recorded during the 2008-2009 financial crash and four times worse than The Great Depression of 1931. To compound this misery the UK is also feeling the economic impact of Brexit. Bloomberg research shows that Brexit is set to have cost the UK more than £200 billion in lost economic growth by the end of this year. This is a figure that almost eclipses the total amount the UK has paid into the EU budget over the past 47 years (£215 billion) since joining in 1973. Research by Bloomberg Economics estimates that the economic cost of Brexit has already hit £130 billion ($170 billion), with a further £70 billion set to be added by the end of this year. The British economy is now 3 per cent smaller than it could have been EU membership had been maintained.

----- 1 star -----

Making Music in Excel / Kottke
Bonus internet points for you if you know why I'm only giving this one star while the PowerPoint programming video got four stars last year:

Dylan Tallchief created a complete digital music studio app in Excel and in this video, he demonstrates how he used his spreadsheet program to recreate a-ha’s Take On Me.

Duke University researchers say every brain activity study you’ve ever read is wrong / Fast Company

You know all those studies about brain activity? The ones that reveal thought patterns and feelings as a person performs a task? There’s a problem: The measurement they’re based on is inaccurate, according to a study out of Duke University that is rocking the field.

Stonehenge: Neolithic monument found near sacred site / BBC

A ring of large shafts discovered near Stonehenge form the largest prehistoric monument ever discovered in Britain, archaeologists believe. Tests carried out on the pits suggest they were excavated by Neolithic people more than 4,500 years ago. Experts believe the 20 or more shafts may have served as a boundary to a sacred area connected to the henge.

Murderer solves ancient math problem and finds his mission / DW

A convicted murderer in a US prison has taught himself the basics of higher mathematics, enabling him to solve a complicated arithmetic problem. And he has been passing on his math passion to his fellow inmates.

How to Turn Your Pants Into a Flotation Device / Art of Manliness

In 2019, Arne Murke and his brother were sailing off the coast of New Zealand, about to head east for an ocean-crossing trip that would eventually land them in Brazil. But they soon ran into bad weather. Massive swells and problems with their mainsail made the boat unstable, and Murke went overboard. His brother tried to toss him a life jacket, but it was quickly lost in the rough water. Without a life jacket, and faced with the prospect of having to tread water for hours, or possibly days, Murke knew he was in trouble. So, he turned to a survival skill he had heard about years before: turning his pants into a flotation device. Four hours later, search and rescue teams found Murke, a little tired, but calm, bobbing in the waves with his inflated pants buoying him up. Turning your pants into an ad-hoc life jacket seems a little funny, but is actually quite effective, and something that the US Navy and SEALs actively teach their sailors as a life-saving technique. If you find yourself overboard without a means to stay afloat, pray you’re wearing pants, and follow these steps.

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