----- 4 stars -----
Contra Askell on Moral Offsets / Slate Star Codex
When I read Slate Star Codex, I often think that Scott Alexander is much smarter than I am. I definitely thought that when reading this post. Maybe his distinction between axiology, morality, and law is self-evident, but it was new to me, and I found it very illuminating: "Offsetting is where you compensate for a bad thing by doing a good thing, then consider yourself even. For example, an environmentalist takes a carbon-belching plane flight, then pays to clean up the same amount of carbon she released. [...] Askell is uncomfortable with this concept for the same reasons I was when I first heard about it. Can we kill an enemy, then offset it with enough money to save somebody else’s life? [...] I think Askell gets the right answer here – you can offset carbon emissions but not city-nuking. And I think her reasoning sort of touches on some of the important considerations. But I also think there’s a much more elegant theory that gives clear answers to these kinds of questions, and which relieves some of my previous doubts about the offsetting idea."
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The school beneath the wave: the unimaginable tragedy of Japan’s tsunami / The Guardian
"Those who work in zones of war and disaster acquire, after a time, the knack of detachment. [...] The events that constituted the disaster were so diverse, and so vast in their implications, that I never felt that I was doing the story justice. In the weeks afterwards, I felt wonder, pity and sadness. But for much of the time I experienced a numb detachment, and the troubling sense of having completely missed the point. It was quite late on, the summer after the tsunami, when I heard about a small community on the coast that had suffered an exceptional tragedy. Its name was Okawa; it lay in a forgotten fold of Japan, below hills and among rice fields. In the years that followed, I encountered many survivors and stories of the tsunami, but it was to Okawa that I returned time and again. And it was there, at the school, that I eventually became able to imagine."
America’s First Addiction Epidemic / Longreads
"The alcohol epidemic devastated Native American communities, leading to crippling poverty, astonishingly high mortality rates, the desperate exodus of entire nations — and a successful sobriety movement."
Lessons from camels / The Monthly
Entertaining: "For reasons that are still unclear to me, I agreed to go on a ten-day camel trek with my parents. When they invited me my initial reaction was I’ve got a whole LIFE going on here, I can’t just take off. I had a pile of junk mail to read and some pretty firm dinner plans. A few weeks later I was at a party where I didn’t think much of the people. Or, more accurately, I didn’t think the people thought much of me. So I wandered outside, thought, Phooey to you, city living, and texted my parents. 'I’m in.' A week before departure they called me from Adelaide, huddled together and shouting into the speakerphone. 'When you get here, we need you to pick up 30 kilograms of potatoes. We’re in charge of the potatoes.' 'Don’t stress him out,' said my mum. 'You just bring yourself.' 'Yeah, yeah, but just – and the potatoes.' "
The Google Memo: What Does the Research Say About Gender Differences? / Heterodox Academy
As far as I can tell, this piece is pretty balanced and sourced very well (Jonathan Haidt is one of the co-authors / editors): "Is Damore correct that such 'population level differences' exist? It’s very hard to evaluate empirical claims about politicized topics because everyone can 'cherry pick' the studies that support their side. The best way to establish the truth in such cases is to examine meta-analyses, which are studies that integrate the findings from many other studies. [...] The research findings are complicated, as you can see from the many abstracts containing both red and green text, and from the presence on both sides of the debate of some of the top researchers in psychology. Nonetheless, we think that the situation can be greatly clarified by distinguishing abilities from interests. [...] Gender differences in math/science ability, achievement, and performance are small or nil. [...] There is some evidence that men are more variable on a variety of traits, meaning that they are over-represented at both tails of the distribution [...] Gender differences in interest and enjoyment of math, coding, and highly 'systemizing' activities are large. [...] Culture and context matter, in complicated ways. [...] In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are 'population level differences in distributions' of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability."
The Blind Traveler: How James Holman Felt His Way Around the World to Become History's Most Prolific Explorer / Mental Floss
"James Holman, one of the passengers who had rushed to the deck, expected to find the Saunders-Hill wrecked to splinters. Instead he felt the boat—the whole boat—lurch from its anchorage and drift into the middle of the Thames. The anchor chain had snapped. An errant coal ship, Holman would learn, had collided with the Saunders-Hill, sending the schooner's rigging—the cat’s cradle of ropes, cables, and chains strung from the masts—bobbing in the current. [...] When the skipper of the Saunders-Hill returned to the helm, his jaw dropped. He had caught glimpses of Holman's white nightgown from across the deck and assumed the person guiding the boat was his wife. Instead, he discovered a 36-year-old blind man. [...] History has bestowed the title of 'World's Greatest Traveler' to many people: Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Ibn Battuta, James Cook, and Rabban Bar Sauma, to name a few. But Holman beat them all. By his death at 70 in 1857, the blind man had walked, climbed, ridden, hiked, and sailed a total distance equal to traveling to the moon. In terms of mileage and the number of cultures he encountered, Holman died as the most well-traveled explorer in world history."
----- 2 stars -----
Why we fell for clean eating / The Guardian
"The oh-so-Instagrammable food movement has been thoroughly debunked – but it shows no signs of going away. The real question is why we were so desperate to believe it"
My Mongolian Spot / Longreads
Meditations on race: "First you should know: I was born with a blue butt. So was my mother. [...] I once asked my mother why we were born blue, and she said matter-of-factly, 'Because we have Mongolian blood.' Then she walked away casual-like, as if such a spurious-sounding answer did not inspire its own army of follow-up inquiries. [...] Mongolian blood aside, my mother to this day enjoys reminding me that I am '100 percent Korean.' She thinks this purity is a gift, says so with immodest superiority, the way some people talk about 100 percent Egyptian cotton sheets. [...] Western medicine classifies the blue butt as 'congenital dermal melanocytosis,' or in common parlance, the Mongolian spot. A German doctor named Erwin Bälz coined the term in 1883. Bälz 'discovered' blue butts on Japanese babies while serving as personal physician to Emperor Meiji and the Japanese imperial household. Our blueness existed far before 1883, though not in the world of white men, and so it goes. [...] It just so happens that the Mongolian that Bälz referred to was not ethnic but taxonomic. To understand this fully, we must traverse backward and west, to 18th-century German scholar Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. In a later edition of his 1775 work, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, Blumenbach divided the human species into five definitive categories: the Caucasian or white race, the Malayan or brown race, the Ethiopian or black race, the American or red race, and the Mongolian or yellow race."
The Search For Aaron Rodgers / ESPN
"I set my phone on the table and press the record button. He pulls out his and does the same. So he won't be taken 'out of context,' he explains. Rodgers is unusually cautious. This is evident whenever he opens his mouth. Before he speaks, he pauses, choosing his words like a surgeon plucking instruments from a table. Some of this comes with the territory -- all-galaxy quarterback, face of a multibillion-dollar insurance company, vessel for an entire state's hopes and dreams -- but it rarely feels calculated. Rodgers, 33, isn't studiously bland, like many of his elite brethren, and he isn't evasive either. He's just ... cautious. Wary of being misunderstood or revealing too much. Over the years, as his celebrity exploded, he closed certain windows, sequestering his private life while he charmed the public with his dry wit and quirky hobbies. (He does crosswords! He likes Wes Anderson films!) He showed us everything and nothing at all. And for a while, that was enough. [...] 'They have a battle for racial equality. That's what they're trying to get a conversation started around.' I ask him what he thinks about that battle -- the actual subject of Kaepernick's protest. As always, he pauses to collect his thoughts. 'I think the best way I can say this is: I don't understand what it's like to be in that situation. What it is to be pulled over, or profiled, or any number of issues that have happened, that Colin was referencing -- or any of my teammates have talked to me about. He adds that he believes it's an area the country needs to 'remedy and improve' and one he's striving to better understand. 'But I know it's a real thing my black teammates have to deal with.' "
The Hotel Room Hacker / Wired
"Cashatt didn’t have a keycard. Instead, he reached underneath the lock on the door until his finger found a small, circular port and inserted the plug of his device. Then he held a frayed wire coming off the board to one end of the battery, completing an electric circuit. Instantly, the lock whirred as its bolt retracted, and a green light flashed above the door handle. For a moment, Cashatt stared in shock, almost disbelief. 'It was like the heavens had opened,' he’d say of the moment years later. Cashatt pushed open the unlocked door, walked into the room, and closed the door behind him. Even in his meth-addled state, he was so taken aback by his success in hacking his way in that he laid down on the room’s king-size bed for perhaps a full minute, his heart racing. Then he sat upright and started thinking about what he could steal."
After The Flame / ESPN
"The 2016 Summer Games were supposed to bring Rio and Brazil to new financial and athletic heights. What's left behind? A city and country shrouded by corruption, debt and broken promises."
What We Get Wrong About Technology / The Undercover Economist
"Blade Runner (1982) is a magnificent film, but there’s something odd about it. The heroine, Rachael, seems to be a beautiful young woman. In reality, she’s a piece of technology — an organic robot designed by the Tyrell Corporation. She has a lifelike mind, imbued with memories extracted from a human being. So sophisticated is Rachael that she is impossible to distinguish from a human without specialised equipment; she even believes herself to be human. Los Angeles police detective Rick Deckard knows otherwise; in Rachael, Deckard is faced with an artificial intelligence so beguiling, he finds himself falling in love. Yet when he wants to invite Rachael out for a drink, what does he do? He calls her up from a payphone. [...] Instead, when we try to imagine the future, the past offers two lessons. First, the most influential new technologies are often humble and cheap. Mere affordability often counts for more than the beguiling complexity of an organic robot such as Rachael. Second, new inventions do not appear in isolation, as Rachael and her fellow androids did. Instead, as we struggle to use them to their best advantage, they profoundly reshape the societies around us."
Bill Joy Finds the Jesus Battery / Wired
"As technology tries to maintain its dizzying ascent, one dead weight has kept its altitude in check: the battery. Our chips keep getting faster and our data rates keep climbing, but at the end of the day—or worse, by mid-afternoon—those power meters on our screens inevitably turn to red. Every great device, gadget, electric car, and robot would be even greater if batteries didn’t suck so badly. Despite a steady flow of rumors that transformative breakthroughs are just around the corner, progress has moved at the pace of a tar flow. But earlier this month came news of a potential game changer, from no less a tech luminary than Bill Joy. [...] As Joy explains it, Ionic’s innovations combine the advantages of the familiar alkaline batteries we buy at the drugstore (cheap, safe, and reliable) with those of the more expensive, fire-prone lithium batteries in our computers and phones (powerful, rechargeable, and more earth-friendly)."
McGregor Versus Mayweather and the Puncher’s Chance / Los Angeles Review of Books
I don't know much about boxing; this was pretty interesting: "Like so many things in life that are there to comfort us, the puncher’s chance is a vague reassurance that usually fails to show up when it matters most. It won’t mean a damn thing August 26. That’s when Conor McGregor will lose to Floyd Mayweather in what should be spectacular fashion. The fight will last exactly as long as the masterful Mayweather wants, and most anyone who knows boxing agrees on that point. Fans don’t want to accept this. They believe in 'the puncher’s chance' largely because they’re not really sure just how impossible the task is that lies ahead of McGregor. To most fans, fighting is just two guys hitting each other. It’s not."
What should you do when two Isis suspects are interrogated right before your eyes? / New Statesman
"The challenges for a journalist were complex. A reporter’s presence could either antagonise the interrogators or mitigate the treatment of captives. Should journalists just watch and say nothing, like they do in so many other incidents during war? Say something? Or walk away? [...] I felt intrigued but uncomfortable, watching it all unfold, the bound and kneeling men waiting for the whip or worse. I knew that if I left the room both prisoners would get thrashed for sure, and likely tortured. If I stayed, they might get thrashed anyway, in front of me, which might have implied my acquiescence. But I also wanted to know what would happen. It was awkward either way."
The Mysterious Case of the Missing Internet Billionaire / Bloomberg
"A dozen years ago, the largest internet company in China wasn’t Alibaba or Tencent, but game developer Shanda Interactive Entertainment Ltd. Its founder was a young man named Chen Tianqiao, who had become a billionaire at 30. Chen was more prominent than Alibaba’s Jack Ma for much of the last decade -- then he disappeared. He left China, dropping out of public view almost completely. He took his Nasdaq-listed company private in 2012."
The Logic of Risk Taking / Medium
Classic Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- probably brilliant, but entirely obscured by poor, rambling writing: "Consider the following thought experiment. First case, one hundred persons go to a Casino, to gamble a certain set amount each and have complimentary gin and tonic –as shown in the cartoon in Figure x. Some may lose, some may win, and we can infer at the end of the day what the 'edge' is, that is, calculate the returns simply by counting the money left with the people who return. We can thus figure out if the casino is properly pricing the odds. Now assume that gambler number 28 goes bust. Will gambler number 29 be affected? No. You can safely calculate, from your sample, that about 1% of the gamblers will go bust. And if you keep playing and playing, you will be expected have about the same ratio, 1% of gamblers over that time window. Now compare to the second case in the thought experiment. One person, your cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa, goes to the Casino a hundred days in a row, starting with a set amount. On day 28 cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa is bust. Will there be day 29? No. He has hit an uncle point; there is no game no more. No matter how good he is or how alert your cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa can be, you can safely calculate that he has a 100% probability of eventually going bust. [...] Let us call the first set ensemble probability, and the second one time probability (since one is concerned with a collection of people and the other with a single person through time). Now, when you read material by finance professors, finance gurus or your local bank making investment recommendations based on the long term returns of the market, beware. Even if their forecast were true (it isn’t), no person can get the returns of the market unless he has infinite pockets and no uncle points. They are conflating ensemble probability and time probability."
The New Front in the Gerrymandering Wars: Democracy vs. Math / New York Times
"Sophisticated computer modeling has taken district manipulation to new extremes. To fix this, courts might have to learn how to run the numbers themselves. [...] Both parties use gerrymandering to cement their hold on power. The effects are especially clear nationwide for congressional delegations, according to a 2012 analysis by the Brennan Center. In the 17 states where Republicans drew the maps this decade — for 40 percent of the total House seats in the country — their candidates won about 53 percent of the vote and 72 percent of the seats. In the six states where Democrats drew the lines, for only about 10 percent of the House, their candidates won about 56 percent of the vote and 71 percent of the seats."
The Uber Dilemma / Stratechery
"What happens in Silicon Valley is far more complex than what can be described in a simple game of Prisoners’ Dilemma: instead of two actors, there are millions, and 'games' are witnessed by even more. That, though, accentuates the degree to which Silicon Valley as a whole is an iterated game writ large: sure, short-term outcomes matter, but long-term outcomes matter most of all. That, for example, is why few folks are willing to criticize their colleagues or former companies. [...] This is why what happened last week was so shocking: the venture capital firm Benchmark Capital filed suit against former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for fraud, break of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty. [...] Benchmark is one of those most successful venture firms ever. [...] Uber’s most recent valuation of $68.5 billion nearly matches the worth of every successful Benchmark-funded startup since 2007. Sure, it might make sense to treat company X and founder Y with deference; after all, there are other fish in the pond. Uber, though, is not another fish: it is the catch of a lifetime. That almost assuredly changed Benchmark’s internal calculus when it came to filing this lawsuit. Does it give the firm a bad reputation, potentially keeping it out of the next Facebook? Unquestionably. The sheer size of Uber though, and the potential return it represents, means that Benchmark is no longer playing an iterated game. The point now is not to get access to the next Facebook: it is to ensure the firm captures its share of the current one."
----- 1 star -----
Fighting Colony Collapse Disorder: How Beekeepers Make More Bees / Conversable Economist
"So here we are, three years later. How have markets adapted to the danger of 'a world without bees,' as the TIME magazine cover put it? Shawn Regan tells the story of 'How Capitalism Saved the Bees: A decade after colony collapse disorder began, pollination entrepreneurs have staved off the beepocalypse.' "
Amazon looks to new food technology for home delivery / Reuters
"Amazon.com Inc is exploring a technology first developed for the U.S. military to produce tasty prepared meals that do not need refrigeration, as it looks for new ways to muscle into the $700 billion U.S. grocery business. The world’s biggest online retailer has discussed selling ready-to-eat dishes such as beef stew and a vegetable frittata as soon as next year, officials at the startup firm marketing the technology told Reuters. The dishes would be easy to stockpile and ship because they do not require refrigeration and could be offered quite cheaply compared with take-out from a restaurant."
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----- 4 stars -----