I disagree with many of the arguments and conclusions in this week's articles, but they're certainly thought-provoking.

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

The Uncounted / New York Times

Later that same day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled “Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of “multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,” posing “a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.” Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses. [...] Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. [...] We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like Basim Razzo, remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

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

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men? / The Paris Review

They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them. [...] But the minute I confessed to having a funny feeling when I watched Manhattan—I believe I said the film was making me “a little urpy”—this man stormed off my page, declaring himself done with me forevermore. I had failed in what he saw as my task: the ability to overcome my own moralizing and pettifoggery—my own emotions—and do the work of appreciating genius. But who was in fact the more emotional person in this situation? He was the one storming from the virtual room. I would have a repeat of this conversation with many men, smart and dumb, young and old, over the next months: “You must judge Manhattan on its aesthetics!” they said. [...] There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say. I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?

Paleo Politics / New Republic
Why did we start farming? / London Review of Books
Two reviews of the same fascinating book -- the first a bit punchier and to-the-point, the second by an academic with additional nuance.

Grain is special, but for a different reason. It is easy to standardize—to plant in rows or paddies, and store and record in units such as bushels. This makes grain an ideal target for taxation. Unlike underground tubers or legumes, grain grows tall and needs harvesting all at once, so officials can easily estimate annual yields. And unlike fugitive wild foods, grain creates a relatively consistent surplus, allowing a ruling class to skim off peasant laborers’ production through a tax regime of manageable complexity. Grain, in Scott’s lexicon, is the kind of thing a state can see. On this account, the first cities were not so much a great leap forward for humanity as a new mode of exploitation that enabled the world’s first leisured ruling class to live on the sweat of the world’s first peasant-serfs. As for writing, that great gateway to history, Scott reports that its earliest uses suggest it was basically a grain-counting technology. Literary culture and shared memory existed in abundance both before and after the first pictographs and alphabets—consider Homer’s epics, the products of a nonliterate Greek “dark age” before the Classical period. Writing contributed a ledger of exploitation. [...] The barbarians beyond the walls are the charismatic figures in Scott’s book. Their hierarchies were flatter and perhaps looser, and, compared to laborers on the grain corvée, they seem free. Part of Scott’s goal in recasting the story of civilization is to open a new space for its “dark twin,” the great majority of human experience that has been lived outside cities and empires. Such lives are easily neglected in hindsight. Precisely because they were stateless, their labor did not produce many stone monuments, and their stories did not enter the annals of the early historians. They burned up their surpluses feasting together, in camps or villages whose materials decayed a few generations after they died. They left no Ozymandias.

According to the conventional narrative, once the transition to farming had taken place, further progress would have been swift, culminating in the city-states with their glorious architecture, art and secure economies. This did happen eventually: by 3200 BCE Uruk in Mesopotamia was the largest city in the world, with between 25,000 and 50,000 inhabitants, soon joined by the city-states of Kish, Nippur, Isin, Lagash, Eridu and Ur. As well as monumental architecture, they all had thick city walls; a class of administrators and priests; centralised production of crafts such as ceramics and textiles; social hierarchies topped by a king; and – surely the key index of human ‘progress’ – tax collectors. But why did it take so long – about four thousand years – for the city-states to appear? The reason is probably the disease, pestilence and economic fragility of those Neolithic villages. How did they survive and grow at all? Well, although farming would have significantly increased mortality rates in both infants and adults, sedentism would have increased fertility. Mobile hunter-gatherers were effectively limited by the demands of travel to having one child every four years. An increase in fertility that just about outpaced the increase in mortality would account for the slow, steady increase in population in the villages. By 3500 BCE the economic and demographic conditions were in place for a power-grab by would-be leaders.

Exclusive: What Trump Really Told Kislyak After Comey Was Canned / Vanity Fair

During a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office, the president betrayed his intelligence community by leaking the content of a classified, and highly sensitive, Israeli intelligence operation to two high-ranking Russian envoys, Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov. This is what he told them—and the ramifications. [...] It was against this reassuring backdrop of recent successes and shared history, an Israeli source told Vanity Fair, that a small group of Mossad officers and other Israeli intelligence officials took their seats in a Langley conference room on a January morning just weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump. The meeting proceeded uneventfully; updates on a variety of ongoing classified operations were dutifully shared. It was only as the meeting was about to break up that an American spymaster solemnly announced there was one more thing: American intelligence agencies had come to believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump, he declared without offering further specifics, according to a report in the Israeli press. Israel, the American officials continued, should “be careful” after January 20—the date of Trump’s inauguration. It was possible that sensitive information shared with the White House and the National Security Council could be leaked to the Russians. A moment later the officials added what many of the Israelis had already deduced: it was reasonable to presume that the Kremlin would share some of what they learned with their ally Iran, Israel’s most dangerous adversary. Currents of alarm and anger raced through those pres­ent at the meeting, says the Israeli source, but their superiors in Israel remained unconvinced—no supporting evidence, after all, had been provided—and chose to ignore the prognostication.

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Contra Robinson on Public Food / Slate Star Codex

Because the whole “public food” argument hinges on a giant case of double standards. Presented with evidence that corporations do bad things, it concludes that the inherent logic of capitalism demands badness. Presented with evidence that governments do bad things, it concludes that if we just put some nice people in power, everything would go great. Why is that? Could someone with the opposite bias propose that Coca-Cola Inc would be fine if it just got a socially responsible CEO? But that the inherent logic of government demands that people who focus on electoral demagoguery and bureaucratic empire-building will always outcompete the altruistic public servants? Why is that any less plausible than the original article’s treatment? [...] Capitalism is Moloch. But democracy is also Moloch. Both are intense competitions. Both are going to be won by people trying to win the competition, not people trying to be nice and do the right thing. In both, we expect that winning the competition will have something to do with being good – capitalists win partly by making good products, candidates win partly by making good policy. But both systems have equally deep misalignments that can’t be eliminated just be filling them with nice people. I’m focusing on democracy and elections here, but this is potentially true of any government.

Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention? / Bank Underground

Smartphone apps and newsfeeds are designed to constantly grab our attention. And research suggests we’re distracted nearly 50% of the time. Could this be weighing down on productivity? And why is the crisis of attention particularly concerning in the context of the rise of AI and the need, therefore, to cultivate distinctively human qualities? [...] In the workplace, there’s some evidence that distractions cause more distractions. Mark (2015) finds that workers who get interrupted by external stimuli (eg message notifications) are significantly more likely to later go on to ‘self-interrupt’ – stop what they’re doing and switch to something else before reaching a break point. In other words, if you keep getting distracted by external stimuli, your mind’s more likely to wander off on its own accord.

Long live the Butt Fumble / ESPN

Think we've put this, ahem, behind us? Think again. On its fifth anniversary, we proudly present the definitive oral history of the best worst play in football.

The first asteroid we've seen from outside our Solar System is totally bizarre / The Verge
Like many internet commenters, I'd like to think this is a dead alien spaceship:

Astronomers have confirmed that an object that recently passed by our planet is from outside our Solar System — the first interstellar asteroid that’s ever been observed. And it doesn’t look like any object we’ve ever seen in our cosmic neighborhood before. Follow-up observations, detailed today in Nature, have found that the asteroid is dark and reddish, similar to the objects in the outer Solar System. It doesn’t have any gas or dust surrounding it, like comets do, and it’s stretched long and skinny, looking a bit like an oddly shaped pen. It’s thought to be about a quarter-mile long, and about 10 times longer than it is wide. That makes it unlike any asteroids seen in our Solar System, none of which are so elongated.

Why are some people so much luckier than others? / Ninjas and Robots

Richard Wiseman was a professional magician before he became a famous psychologist. Given his interest in magic, he has a healthy dose of scepticism for things like superstitions and good luck charms. So Wiseman has spent a good deal of his career studying luck. [...] It’s easy to look at successful people and chalk up their achievements to good luck. And sure enough, some people really do just win the lottery, or get born so beautiful that someone notices them on the street and puts them in a movie. But if you go back through James’ story: Paul Gregory was just one of many, many friends James kept making. He noticed his friend’s name in Newsweek, that sign in Hollywood, that parking space that opened up not because he’s lucky, but because he’s so keenly observant. And of course he’s observant; he’s one of the most relaxed people you could have met. He’s just happy to have gotten through that horrific childhood. Is James Garner luckier than you or me? Maybe. But that’s because James Garner created his own luck.

The Values That ‘Values Voters’ Care About Most Are Policies, Not Character Traits / FiveThirtyEight

In a state where 35 percent of the population identifies as white evangelical Protestant, the continued support of this constituency will be essential for Moore, who so far has refused calls from party elders to leave the race. Moore has lost some support among Alabama evangelical voters since the allegations surfaced, but not a lot — he dropped by only 6 percentage points among evangelicals in the JMC poll. This constituency’s loyalty to a man who is accused of preying on teenage girls might seem like a head-scratcher, or even hypocritical, coming as it does from the ranks of “values voters,” who place issues related to traditional sexual morality at the heart of their political agenda. But there are several reasons that are consistent with their political history and worldview that explain why they’ve decided — so far — to double down on Moore.

The End of the End of History / Spiegel
A view from Germany, in light of the collapse of the coalition government:

Sometimes we in the West forget that our view of the world is just one among many that are possible. And that neither our understanding of human rights nor our adherence to liberal democracy are attractive across the globe. Is the Western way of life morally superior? And even if it were, is it the most constructive or effective way of organizing human societies? We in the West also tend to interpret history to reflect positively on ourselves. Were the many centuries during which Europe or the United States were at the center of global events not inevitable? Were they not based on the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, on our engineering prowess, on our technological preeminence? Was it not based on our overall brilliance? After the collapse of communism in 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote "The End of History," by which he meant the triumph of Western values. Soon the entire world would be democratized, the victorious political order seemed clear. How absurd that worldview seems now, in November 2017.

The show so far, a continuing series / Marginal Revolution

Some thoughts on the Trump administration from the always-interesting Tyler Cowen:
The situation with North Korea has moved to one of open confrontation. That said, there are stronger commercial sanctions on North Korea than before, and the attitude of the Chinese does seem to have shifted toward recognizing North Korea as a problem needing to be solved. For the time being, both the missile tests and the jawboning have stopped, for unknown reasons. Note that the South Korean and Japanese markets remain high, of course the U.S. market is strong too. [...] The apparent “green light” from the Trump administration probably raised the likelihood and extremity of the Saudi purge/coup. I give this a 20% chance of working out well, though with a big upside if it does. Whether you like it or not, so far it appears to me this is Trump’s most important initiative. [...] I am seeing deeply biased assessments of tax reform, from both sides. I don’t favor raising the deficit by $1.5 trillion (or possibly more), I do favor cutting corporate rates and targeting some of the most egregious deductions. I am disappointed that there is not more celebration of the very good features of the plan on the table, that said big changes in the proposed legislation still are needed.

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So You Just Bought a $450 Million Leonardo da Vinci Painting. Now What? / Artnet

From decoy trucks (yes, really) to tax wizardry, here's what happens after you win the most expensive painting in auction history.

A Cake That Demands an Oven of Its Own / Taste

Baumkuchen is a centuries-old staple of German weddings and Christmases, but it’s getting harder to find. Except one place.

Where We Play / Strava

A marathon PR in Berlin, a bikepacking adventure in Mongolia and a ski down the slopes in Utah. Each of these plus over a billion other Strava activities were used to create the new Heatmap. It includes over 27 billion kilometers of data, overlapping to show the most frequented spots for sport on the globe. This incredible visualization was created with 200 thousand years of movement including thousands of marathons and countless coffee rides. What looks like a multihued map of the Earth is actually the white hot visualization of over 1 billion activities on Strava. We dove deep into the map and found some of our favorite pieces of art, created by effort.

3,000-year-old fortress discovered in Turkish lake / Independent

A lost 3,000-year-old castle has been discovered by divers and researchers in Turkey’s Lake Van. The spectacular ruins are thought to be those of a fortress built by the Uratu civilisation which flourished in the iron age between the 9th and 6th centuries BC.

Baby Koalas Learning To Climb Are So Cute That Our Minds Can't Quite Compute / Digg

And instead of trees, they are using their carers' legs to practice their climbing.

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