This might turn out to be the best issue of the year; the articles this week are unusually compelling.

----- 4 stars -----

How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda / New Yorker
The best piece I've read in months, and recommended to me by many people. Trust me, you should read it:

The messages I dread the most come not from Internet strangers but from people who know me—my aunt, my uncle, my mother’s childhood best friend. On WeChat, they link to various Chinese-language articles about me and ask, “Have you read this?” The next question would be almost funny if it weren’t so painfully earnest: “Do you know this Jiayang Fan?” I do not presume to know this character, but countless social-media posts, video blogs, and comments describe her as a creature driven by self-loathing. I find a story about my mother and me in the Global Times, a state-controlled Chinese newspaper with twenty-eight million followers on Weibo. It has been picked up by the country’s most popular news aggregator and then energetically disseminated on various platforms. The more I read, the more fascinated I become by the creation of this alter ego. I am watching a portrait of myself being painted, minute by minute, anonymous hands contributing daubs and strokes, the more lurid the better. “Jiayang Fan, of Chongqing, China, followed her parents to the U.S. at the age of eight,” one article begins. “Even though her body flows with Chinese blood—the blood of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor—she has decided to metamorphose into an American citizen and denigrate her Chinese face as an indisputable burden!” [...] On July 4th—a date that had no meaning to me except that it was exactly a month short of my eighth birthday—my mother and I landed at J.F.K. Airport, our six suitcases bulging with rolls of hand-sewn bedding, bags of Sichuanese chili peppers, a cast-iron wok, and her stethoscope. My mother now found herself, at the age of forty, living in a tiny studio apartment in New Haven, Connecticut—my father was at Yale by then—with a husband who, she soon discovered, was carrying on an affair. Within a year and a half, he had left us, and she was faced with eviction; she had less than two hundred dollars to her name, and spoke little English. Now the two of us became the embodiment of the Chinese phrase xiang yi wei ming—mutual reliance for life. My mother knew that in a vastly unequal and under-resourced world she would have to secure whatever small advantages she could. [...] A brutal, unsentimental pragmatism shaped her deepest instincts. Her decision to become a physician sprang not from a passion for medicine but from the realization that this was her only path to a college education. My parents met in graduate school and, after I was born, a product of China’s one-child policy, entrenched sexism dictated that she should shift her focus from her career to fending for me, her only child. [...] During my first year at Greenwich Academy, I was the only Asian student in my grade. Early on, a classmate whose mother was friends with my mother’s employer plopped down next to me on the school bus and asked a question whose answer she already knew perfectly well: “So your mother is a maid?” Not long afterward, another classmate, an elfin-faced blonde, asked me how I had escaped being killed in China. “You know,” she said, “because they murder all girl babies over there.” In a current-events class, I was struck by the teacher’s deployment of pronouns: us and them, the Americans and the Chinese. When I tried to answer a question about China, I was flummoxed by the grammar required; as the only Chinese-born person in the room, was I meant to say “they” or “we”?

Buying Myself Back / The Cut
Emily Ratajkowski:

I was walking through Tompkins Square Park with a friend and her dog and sipping a coffee when Jim’s name lit up my phone. “See you’re getting sued. My advice …” he began. Jim was a lawyer, familiar with people calling him up to ask for legal advice and therefore used to doling out his opinion even when it wasn’t solicited. “I guess this comes with the territory of being a public persona,” he wrote in a follow-up text. I guess, I thought. I sat down on a bench and Googled my name, discovering that I was in fact being sued, this time for posting a photo of myself on Instagram that had been taken by a paparazzo. I learned the next day from my own lawyer that despite being the unwilling subject of the photograph, I could not control what happened to it. [...] Everyone, especially my boyfriend, made me feel like I should be honored to have been included in the series. Richard Prince is an important artist, and the implication was that I should feel grateful to him for deeming my image worthy of a painting. How validating. And a part of me was honored. I’d studied art at UCLA and could appreciate Prince’s Warholian take on Instagram. Still, I make my living off posing for photographs, and it felt strange that a big-time, fancy artist worth a lot more money than I am should be able to snatch one of my Instagram posts and sell it as his own. The paintings were going for $80,000 apiece, and my boyfriend wanted to buy mine. [...] I was relieved to see that he’d done a tasteful edit, and I went as far as to think he might have chosen the images he remembered I liked. Years passed, and I tucked the images and Jonathan somewhere deep in my memory. I never told anyone about what happened, and I tried not to think about it. A few years after my photo shoot, I received a call from a well-known magazine asking if they could help promote my new book of photographs. “What book?” By then, I’d appeared in David Fincher’s Gone Girl and on the covers of international magazines. When the news broke of a book being sold with my name on it — the cover was completely white and read only EMILY RATAJKOWSKI in bold black lettering — several media outlets reached out to me directly, thinking they were being generous by offering their support to a new project of mine. Confused, I searched my name online. There it was: Emily Ratajkowski, the book, priced at $80. Some of the images were posted on Jonathan’s Instagram, and they were among the most revealing and vulgar Polaroids he had taken of me. I was livid and frantic. New articles about the book, accompanied by images, were popping up hourly. My fingers went numb as I read the comments from eager customers on Jonathan’s page. His followers were skyrocketing, as were the followers of @imperialpublishing, a “publishing company” — I realized after just a few moments of research — that Jonathan had personally funded and set up solely for the purpose of making this book. I wondered what kind of damage this would do to my career as an actress. Everyone had told me to shy away from being “sexy” in order to be taken seriously, and now an entire book containing hundreds of images of me, some of them the most compromising and sexual photos of me ever taken, was available for purchase. And from what was being said online, a lot of people believed the entire situation had been my doing. I, after all, had posed for the photos. My lawyer sent cease-and-desist letters: one to Jonathan’s makeshift publishing company and one to a gallery on the Lower East Side that had announced it would be holding an exhibition of the Polaroids. My lawyer argued that Jonathan had no right to use the images beyond their agreed-upon usage. When I agreed to shoot with Jonathan, I had consented only for the photos to be printed in the magazine they were intended for. The gallery responded by going to the New York Times and telling the paper that it had a signed model release from me. By that time, I’d stopped working with my agent, who’d quit the industry, but reading this, I called her in a panic. “I never signed anything. Did you?,” I asked, trying to catch my breath.

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

The True Story of the Married Woman Who Smuggled Her Boyfriend Out of Prison in a Dog Crate / The Atlantic

Toby Dorr never ran a red light, never rolled through a stop sign, never got so much as a speeding ticket. As a kid, she was always the teacher’s pet, always got straight A’s. Her parents never bothered to give her a curfew, because she never stayed out late. She married the only boy she’d ever dated, raised a family, built a career, went to church. She did everything she was supposed to do. She’s in her early 60s now, just over 5 feet tall, and with her wry smile and auburn curls, she could be your neighbor, your librarian, your aunt. But people in Kansas City remember Toby’s story. She’s been stared at in restaurants, pointed at on sidewalks. For more than a decade, people here have argued about whether what she did was stupid and selfish or brave and inspirational. In the papers, she was known as the “Dog Lady” of Lansing prison, but that moniker barely hints at why she made headlines. Looking back now, it all seems surreal to Toby, like a dream or a movie. Watching news clips from that time in her life makes her sick to her stomach. She has to turn away. She says the woman in those videos is another person entirely. She can hardly remember what she was thinking. “I was a rule follower for sure,” she says with a sweet Kansan lilt. Then she catches herself. “I mean,” she says, “except the one time.”

The Glorious RBG / New York Magazine

Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to instruct her clerks to get it right and keep it tight, so I’ll try to do the same. Only someone so stubborn and single-minded, someone so in love with the work, could have accomplished what she did — as a woman, survived discrimination and loss; as a lawyer, compelled the Constitution to recognize that women were people; as a justice, inspired millions of people in dissent. (I asked her once in an interview what she had changed her mind about and she refused to answer. “I don’t dwell on that kind of question,” she said. “I really concentrate on what’s on my plate at the moment and do the very best I can.”) What made her RBG would also enact the most tragic and sickening ironies of today. The feminist with a fundamentally optimistic vision, who believed that people, especially men, could be better, might be soon replaced by the rankest misogynist. The litigator and jurist who long subordinated her own immediate desires to the good and legitimacy of institutions, who had preached that slow change would stave off backlash, lived long enough to see Trump and the Federalist Society tear off the Court’s thin veneer of legitimacy anyway. In the 2013 voting-rights dissent that earned her the Notorious RBG nickname, Ginsburg offered an addendum to Martin Luther King Jr.’s suggestion that the arc of history eventually bent toward justice: “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” She was thus committed. Still, today she leaves the work not only unfinished but at risk of being undone.

They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen? / ProPublica

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.” [...] Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.

“I Have Blood on My Hands”: A Whistleblower Says Facebook Ignored Global Political Manipulation / BuzzFeed News

Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world, according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News. The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them. [...] “I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count,” she wrote. The memo is a damning account of Facebook’s failures. It’s the story of Facebook abdicating responsibility for malign activities on its platform that could affect the political fate of nations outside the United States or Western Europe. It's also the story of a junior employee wielding extraordinary moderation powers that affected millions of people without any real institutional support, and the personal torment that followed. “I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” Zhang wrote.

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

Life on Venus? Astronomers See a Signal in Its Clouds / New York Times

High in the toxic atmosphere of the planet Venus, astronomers on Earth have discovered signs of what might be life. If the discovery is confirmed by additional telescope observations and future space missions, it could turn the gaze of scientists toward one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Venus, named after the Roman goddess of beauty, roasts at temperatures of hundreds of degrees and is cloaked by clouds that contain droplets of corrosive sulfuric acid. Few have focused on the rocky planet as a habitat for something living. Instead, for decades, scientists have sought signs of life elsewhere, usually peering outward to Mars and more recently at Europa, Enceladus and other icy moons of the giant planets. The astronomers, who reported the finding on Monday in a pair of papers, have not collected specimens of Venusian microbes, nor have they snapped any pictures of them. But with powerful telescopes, they have detected a chemical — phosphine — in the thick Venus atmosphere. After much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation for the chemical’s source. Some researchers question this hypothesis, and they suggest instead that the gas could result from unexplained atmospheric or geologic processes on a planet that remains mysterious. But the finding will also encourage some planetary scientists to ask whether humanity has overlooked a planet that may have once been more Earthlike than any other world in our solar system.

He Killed a Transgender Woman in the Philippines. Why Was He Freed? / New York Times

At 26, Jennifer Laude was full of joy, her friends said. She was fearless and beautiful, her sister added. She was a generous daughter, according to her mother. And she died shortly after 11 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2014, in a motel room in Olongapo, a port city about 100 miles north and west of Manila in the Philippines, at the hands of an American she had met earlier that evening at a nightclub, a Marine who was in the country for joint military exercises. After discovering that Laude was transgender, Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was 19 at the time, choked her and pushed her head into a toilet bowl until she drowned. Then he took a taxi across town to Subic Bay, where his ship was docked, and, according to a shipmate who later testified in court, admitted what he had just done. Fourteen months later, Pemberton was found guilty of homicide, a charge downgraded by the judge from murder, and was sentenced by the Olongapo Regional Trial Court to six to 12 years in prison, which was later reduced to a 10-year maximum on appeal. Pemberton was the second U.S. service member in living memory to be convicted of a felony by a Philippine court — and the first whose conviction stood without being overturned. It marked a major victory in the eyes of human rights advocates in the country who have been fighting to hold American service members accountable for violence against Filipina women — which they see as a byproduct of the U.S. military’s 120-year presence that fueled an exploitative and still-thriving sex industry. With the Pemberton conviction, it seemed that justice was finally moving in the right direction. But on Sept. 13, Pemberton was put aboard a U.S. military cargo plane and flown out of the Philippines, a free man. A week earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte made the bombshell announcement that he had granted Pemberton an absolute pardon, nullifying the Marine’s sentence after less than six years served. The pardon is the final chapter of a polarizing, high-profile case that has cost the U.S. Marine Corps more than half a million dollars and provoked debate over decades-old defense treaties between the two countries.

Why We Don't Like Our Underground House / Dengarden
Kind of a random piece, and some parts are worth skimming, but I found it oddly interesting, especially since I didn't really know underground houses were a thing:

Eighteen years ago, we moved into an earth-sheltered dome home built in a hillside. We were so excited! It was really lovely inside, and surprisingly, well-illuminated with natural light. Our house has approximately 2,500 sq. ft., including three bedrooms, two baths, and an oversized garage. The rooms are large and spacious, with 14-foot domed ceilings. [...] Unfortunately, our enthusiasm didn't last more than a couple of years. Our dream home was less than perfect and certainly didn't live up to the hype from the advertising brochures. Bear in mind that this house is in the price range of typical underground homes. It is not a staged million-dollar display home that you might see in many brochures and websites. Our underground house cost close to $150,000 to build and finish back in 1986, which is above the median price of a conventional home in our state in the 1980s. This is our true story. I don't want to imply that all underground houses are like ours. I truly hope that they are not. Did we get a lemon? If so, we have not been able to make lemonade. Here are some of the problems we've run into.

What If Trump Loses And Won’t Leave? / FiveThirtyEight

For months now, President Trump has carefully planted the seed that he might not leave the office of the presidency willingly if he loses. Whether it’s tweeting that the election should be delayed as it “will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history” or that there will be widespread voter fraud because of the expected uptick in mail ballots due to the coronavirus, Trump seems intent on undermining the electoral process. This, in turn, raises a rather thorny and unprecedented question: What happens if Trump won’t go? The answer is bleak. Experts tell me that the president actually has a lot of power at his discretion to contest the election, and some of the scenarios that could bring us to the edge of a crisis are actually very plausible. [...] That’s just one of the many scenarios the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan collection of over 100 experts, explored this summer while researching how a possible election crisis could unfold. Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law School who co-founded the Transition Integrity Project, told me she and her colleagues weren’t interested in predicting the likelihood of any one scenario they looked at, but more so in understanding the range of possibilities. [...] One big takeaway from the Transition Integrity Project’s simulations was just how much power Trump has at his disposal should he choose to contest the election. “You have just a tremendous differential between the president of the United States of America, who has just awesome coercive powers at his disposal, and a challenger who really has no power whatsoever in our system,” said Brooks. “Joe Biden can call a press conference; Donald Trump could call on the 82nd Airborne.”

Billionaire investor Ray Dalio on capitalism’s crisis: The world is going to change ‘in shocking ways’ in the next five years / MarketWatch

The United States doesn’t have a good income statement and balance sheet in dealing with the rest of the world. It is running a deficit to the rest of the world that is financed by borrowing money so that we are producing liabilities. Our living standards are based on our spending, not on our income statement or balance sheet. If the U.S. loses that ability and it doesn’t force itself to be more productive, one day it will lose that ability to borrow and then will have to cut spending, which is painful. When that pain happens at a time when you have the population at each other’s throats over money, that’s a toxic combination. People can’t take a downturn and have less buying power. So, necessarily the poor will have to be getting money from the rich and the rich are going to want to prevent that, and then if it gets bad enough, that it messes up productivity. [...] In brief, productivity and equal opportunity are most needed. If we could at least agree that we must have these things, that would be great. What we have now is a situation in which we’re fighting each other, we are not providing equal opportunity, and we are losing our productivity gains. One of the greatest problems is that everybody’s fighting for their cause. When the causes people are fighting for are more important to them than the system that binds them together, the system is in jeopardy.

On-line education in Oklahoma, from my email box / Marginal Revolution

10-15 years ago Oklahoma passed a law allowing online-only charter schools with a separate regulatory structure from physical charter schools. Critically, the unions did not think to push for an enrollment cap. There are 5-10 schools, all quite small, except for one named EPIC. [EPIC] has enrollment (~38,000) that is larger than any district in the state. This enrollment is currently surging faster than its usual high growth because of COVID-19 and could reach 46,000 by the Oct 1 “Money Head Count” deadline. [...] Like all public charters in OK, the school is free to attend. Parents get paid $1000 per student per year for school supplies and activities. They have 100% online and blended learning options. Teachers in the online-only are paid by how many students they take on and can earn over $100,000. The state average pay for teachers is just over $50,000/yr. [...] On the Oklahoma State Dept. of Education A-F scorecard, EPIC scores better than every traditional Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools middle school or high school. It performs roughly near the state average. [...] Oklahoma schools are required to have each school facility staffed with a certain number of non-teaching positions (librarian, counselor, etc.) so fixed costs are very high. Teacher salaries are usually 35-40% of the budget and are one of the only variable cost centers. Most money is allocated by the state, following the student. EPIC is not far from doing real damage to traditional school finances. This does not seem to be on most people’s radar. It could get more interesting, yet.

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

The Pythagorean Siphon Inside Your Washing Machine / YouTube

There's a greedy cup siphon in your washing machine fabric softener try. Also called a Pythagorean cup. It's also used in urinals and novelty drinking receptacles. It's an example of a fluid dynamic mechanism.

Let's Remember the Largest Helicopter Ever, Which Was Completely Useless / Popular Mechanics

The largest helicopter ever built was an engineering triumph, but a failure in practice. The Soviet Union built the V-12, known to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the “Homer,” to airlift intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) into place, avoiding telltale railroad networks that would alert U.S. intelligence. Unfortunately, by the time the jetliner-sized helicopter was ready, its main purpose had evaporated, and the V-12 was never placed into production.

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