3 stars

That Time Hitler’s Girlfriend Visited Iceland and the British Invaded | Hakai Magazine

The uptight Gerlach arrived in the world’s northernmost capital in 1939, on sabbatical as a medical professor at the German city of Jena. Gerlach was described as one of the best pathologists in Europe, but his devotion to the Nazi Party got him fired years earlier from his university in Switzerland. The Nazi Party was quick to promote him to the highest honor of medical research and in return he ratted out colleagues who gave medical help to Jews. And soon enough, he was invited to serve the Third Reich in Iceland, a place of high culture. What an honor! Imagine the anticipation of a Nazi who’d been promised he could work with pure Aryans. His voyage was like that of a kid heading to an actual unicorn ranch, only to be stabbed by a horn. He struggled to make friends with anyone other than German nationals living in Iceland and a few long-standing German allies.

The people of Iceland were filthy, with gray eyes and auburn hair, according to Gerlach. Furthermore, the newspapers mocked Hitler day after day, and despite Gerlach’s repeated grievances, the prime minister refused to censor the press. Gerlach’s house was near the harbor (the Old Harbor), and rowdy drunks kept him and his family awake at night. Theaters performed plays written by Jews. The retail store where he planned to buy a dress for his wife had just two items on sale, and they were both the same size. People ate pickled sheep testicles (hrútspungar), burned sheep’s head (svið), and held forks in their right hands like shovels. There were no apples in the store. […]

The British army invaded Reykjavík at 5:00 a.m. on a Friday in May. The mission, dubbed Operation Fork, was meant to surprise the people of Iceland, arriving as it did with the ship lights shut off. But when the four warships sailed into harbor, a massive crowd of onlookers stood there watching. They’d seen them miles away. […]

The only two people in Reykjavík certain about the nationality of the approaching ships were the British consul (thanks to a radio telegram) and the German consul (thanks to the process of elimination). Gerlach had long since sensed that the Icelandic public, as well as Icelandic politicians, favored the British in the war. “Iceland: a British country under a Danish crown,” he wrote in one of his secret files—the very documents he’d intended to burn before British forces arrived. “Bring the files! Light the boiler!” he’d ordered, realizing no one at the residence knew how to light the coal heater. […]

The consul, according to witnesses, tapped the shoulder of a policeman standing in the middle of the crowd and asked, “Would you mind getting the crowd to stand back a bit so that the soldiers can get off the destroyer?”

The policeman, whose job description likely did not require him to help foreign invaders, just nodded: “Certainly.”


The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush | New Yorker

The man stopped digging in his yard. Instead, he cut through the floor of his house, which he was renting, and dug to about thirty feet, carting out ore at night. Zanga Muteba, a baker who then lived in Kasulo, told me, “All of us, at that time, we knew nothing.” But one evening he and some neighbors heard telltale clanging noises coming from the man’s house. Rushing inside, they discovered that the man had carved out a series of underground galleries, following the vein of cobalt as it meandered under his neighbors’ houses. When the man’s landlord got wind of these modifications, they had an argument, and the man fled. “He had already made a lot of money,” Muteba told me. Judging from the amount of ore the man had dug out, he had probably made more than ten thousand dollars—in Congo, a small fortune. According to the World Bank, in 2018 three-quarters of the country’s population lived on less than two dollars a day.

Hundreds of people in Kasulo “began digging in their own plots,” Muteba said. The mayor warned, “You’re going to destroy the neighborhood!” But, Muteba said, “it was complicated for people to accept the mayor’s request.” Muteba had a thriving bakery and didn’t have time to dig, but most locals were desperate. In Congo, more than eighty-five per cent of people work informally, in precarious jobs that pay little, and the cost of living is remarkably high: because the country’s infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of dictatorship, civil war, and corruption, there is little agriculture, and food and other basic goods are often imported. For many Kasulo residents, the prospect of a personal cobalt mine was worth any risk.

About a month after the man who discovered the cobalt vanished, the local municipality formally restricted digging for minerals in Kasulo. According to Muteba, residents implored the mayor: “We used to mine in the bush, in the forest. You stopped us. You gave all the city to big industrial companies. Now we discovered minerals in our own plots of land, which belonged to our ancestors. And now you want to stop us? No, that is not going to work.” Muteba recalled, “People started to throw rocks at the mayor, and the mayor ran away. And, when the mayor fled, the digging really started.”


2 stars

Queens of Infamy: Boudicca | Longreads

She was tall — terrifyingly large, in fact. Her tawny hair fell in a “great mass” to her hips. She was dressed in a colorful tunic and cloak, her outfit completed by a giant fuck-off gold torc. Her voice was harsh, unfeminine. She had spent the last weeks murdering and maiming her way across the British countryside, and now she led a force of hundreds of thousands of Britons in a standoff against the occupying Romans. She had a rabbit hidden in her skirt for occult purposes. She was a bloodthirsty barbarian, devoted to a ghoulish religion, out to destroy the social order of the known world. At least, this is how historian Cassius Dio described Boudicca, a British tribal queen, over one hundred years after her death — every civilized man’s worst nightmare.


We Know What You Did During Lockdown | Kottke

I’m personally quite blasé about being tracked by Big Tech, so I watched this with a bit of bemusement rather than terror, but it’s executed very, very well.

After watching this short film on how much data private companies are able to gather about you (data that we willingly give them in some cases), you might be forgiven for thinking that, never mind some far flung future, we are living in a full-on dystopia right now. The set design, the acting, the positioning of the tables, the see-through table tops, the laptop vs. notebook…this was really well done. When the interrogator got up from his desk, I viscerally felt the invasion of privacy.


Book Review: Arabian Nights | Astral Codex Ten

Another ACX book review! Except this one’s actually written by Scott:

Scheherazade's stories are set in an idealized Middle East. The sultans are always wise and just, the princes are always strong and handsome, and almost a full half of viziers are non-evil. Named characters are always so beautiful and skilled and virtuous that it sometimes gets used it as a plot device - a character is separated from his family member or lover, so he wanders into a caravanserai and asks for news of someone who is excessively beautiful and skilled and virtuous. "Oh yes," says one of the merchants, "I talked to a traveler from Cairo who said he encountered the most beautiful and skilled and virtuous person he'd ever seen in a garden there, he couldn't shut up about them for days" - and now you know your long-lost brother must be in Cairo. In one case, a woman went searching for her long-lost son, tasted some pomegranate jam in Damascus, and immediately (and correctly!) concluded that only her son could make pomegranate jam that good. She demanded to know where the merchant had gotten the jam, and the trail led to a happy reunion.


Answering the Techno-Pessimists (complete) | Noahpinion

When I started this Substack six months ago, I made it explicitly a techno-optimist blog. A number of my earliest posts were gushing with optimism over the magical new technologies of cheap solar, cheap batteries, mRNA vaccines, and so on. But a blogger at a blog called Applied Divinity Studies wrote a post demanding more rigor to accompany my rosy projections, and putting forth a number of arguments in favor of continued stagnation. Heavily paraphrased, these were:

  1. We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit of science

  2. Productivity has been slowing down, why should it accelerate now?

  3. Solar, batteries, and other green energy tech isn’t for real

  4. Life expectancy is stagnating

So I decided to write a series of posts addressing all of these arguments. Here’s the whole series in one post. […]

Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood are not techno-pessimists, but they also made the argument that plateauing U.S. life expectancy is a sign of recent technological stagnation.

But there are two big problems with this argument. First of all, life expectancy hasn’t actually stagnated. Here’s a graph with some other developed nations included.


Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications | New York Times

Fewer babies’ cries. More abandoned homes. Toward the middle of this century, as deaths start to exceed births, changes will come that are hard to fathom. […]

The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old. It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation. […]

The ramifications and responses have already begun to appear, especially in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments are struggling to balance the demands of a swelling older cohort with the needs of young people whose most intimate decisions about childbearing are being shaped by factors both positive (more work opportunities for women) and negative (persistent gender inequality and high living costs).


App Store Arguments | Stratechery

Arguments in Epic Games, Inc. v. Apple Inc. wrapped up yesterday; Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers noted she had thousands of documents to pore over, but hoped to issue a decision within the next few months. I think there is a strong chance that Apple prevails, for reasons I’ll explain below, but that doesn’t mean the trial has been waste of time: it has cast into stark relief the different arguments that pertain to the App Store, and not all of them have to do with the law. […]

What I wish would happen — and yes, I know this is naive and stupid and probably fruitless — is that Apple would just give the slightest bit of ground. Yes, the company has the right to earn a profit from its IP, and yes, it created the market that developers want to take advantage of, and yes, the new generation of creators experimenting with new kinds of monetization only make sense in an iPhone world, but must Apple claim it all?

Let developers own their apps, including telling users about their websites, and let creatives build relationships with their fans instead of intermediating everything.

And, for what it’s worth, continue controlling games: I do think the App Store is a safer model, particularly for kids, and the fact of the matter is that consoles have the same rules. The entire economy, though, is more than a game, and the real position of strength is unlocking the full potential of the iPhone ecosystem, instead of demanding every dime, deadweight loss be damned.


Computers Will Be Able to Read Images From Your Brain Within a Decade | Medium

I was excited, then, to learn about an artificial intelligence system from researchers at Kyoto University that is able to do something remarkable: Leveraging breakthroughs in deep learning and generative networks, it can read the images a person sees in their mind’s eye and transform them into digital photographs with up to 99% accuracy.

The system works for images the person is seeing in front of their eyes and ones they’re imagining. Currently, the images are low resolution, and the subject needs to be inside an MRI machine for the system to work. But it points to an amazing possibility, and one I never expected to see within my own lifetime — as the tech improves and brain reading hardware gets better, computers will be able to scan our brains and transform our mental images into actual photos we can save and share. And this could arrive within a decade.


Shohei Ohtani Was Billed As The Next Babe Ruth. This Year, He’s Pulling It Off. | FiveThirtyEight

Even before his much-anticipated move from Japan to America in the offseason of 2017-18, baseball fans knew that Shohei Ohtani had virtually unlimited potential as a two-way talent. The biggest question was simply whether his situation — and his durability — would allow him to live up to that promise and become MLB’s first true two-way superstar in a very long time. And so far this season, in his fourth year with the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani is off to the start fans have long been dreaming of.

In wins above replacement, Ohtani ranks 10th in combined value across hitting, baserunning, fielding and pitching. That’s already impressive, but as’s Mike Petriello points out, it may also be underselling Ohtani’s true value because of how good he’s been in big moments. […]

Between his clutch hitting and valuable pitching, Ohtani currently leads baseball in combined win probability added (WPA), on top of his top-10 WAR showing to date.


1 star

Why the lab leak theory matters | Marginal Revolution

“Our wet market was low quality and poorly governed” is a story consistent with the Chinese elites not being entirely at fault.  Wet markets, after all, are a kind of atavism, and China knows the country is going to evolve away from them over time.  They represent the old order.  You can think of the CCP as both building infrastructure and moving the country’s food markets into modernity (that’s infrastructure too, isn’t it?), albeit with lags.  “We waited too long to get rid of the wet markets” is bad, but if anything suggests the CCP should have done all the more to revolutionize and modernize China.  In contrast, the story of “our government-run research labs are low quality and poorly governed”…that seems to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of the CCP and also on its technocratic, modernizing tendencies.  Under that account, the CCP spread something that “the earlier China” did not, and that strikes strongly at the heart of CCP legitimacy.  Keep in mind how much the Chinese apply a historical perspective to everything.

A number of you have asked me what I think of the lab leak hypothesis.  A few months ago I placed the chance of it at 20-30%, as a number of private correspondents can attest.  Currently I am up to 50-60%.


Hubble Gazes at a Galactic Menagerie | NASA

This packed image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope showcases the galaxy cluster ACO S 295, as well as a jostling crowd of background galaxies and foreground stars. Galaxies of all shapes and sizes populate this image, ranging from stately spirals to fuzzy ellipticals. This galactic menagerie boasts a range of orientations and sizes, with spiral galaxies such as the one at the center of this image appearing almost face on, and some edge-on spiral galaxies visible only as thin slivers of light.


The World’s Greatest Card Trick Can’t Be Taught | Kottke

The embedded YouTube video is worth watching:

World-renowned magician David Berglas, now 94 years old, does a card trick that’s so effortlessly simple and dazzling that no one has figured it out and Berglas himself says it cannot be taught. […]

Of course, his unwillingness to reveal how the trick works or even that he is unable to show someone else how to do it could be part of the trick. But in recent years, Berglas has pulled back the curtain on most of his other tricks, like the time he made a grand piano vanish into thin air, explained by Berglas himself in a YouTube video.


An escalator made of cardboard | YouTube

How it Works. Escalator Cardboard Model.


Kristy Viers | Twitter

I thought I would share how I, as someone who is visually impaired use my iPhone.


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