Links

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

A Kingdom from Dust / California Sunday Magazine

Stewart Resnick is the biggest farmer in the United States, a fact he has tried to keep hidden while he has shaped what we eat, transformed California’s landscape, and ruled entire towns. [...] My grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, traveled 7,000 miles by ship and train in 1920 to find out if his uncle’s exhortation — “The grapes here are the size of jade eggs” — was true. My father, born in a vineyard outside Fresno, was a raisin grower before he became a bar owner. I grew up in the suburbs where our playgrounds were named after the pioneers of fruit and canals of irrigation shot through our neighborhoods to the farms we did not know. For half my life, I never stopped to wonder: How much was magic? How much was plunder? I’m going to Kern County, just shy of the mountains, to figure out how the biggest farmers in America, led by the biggest of them all, are not only keeping alive their orchards and vineyards during drought but adding more almonds (79,000 acres), more pistachios (73,000 acres), more grapes (35,000 acres), and more mandarins (13,000 acres). Even as the supplies of federal and state water have dropped to near zero, agriculture in Kern keeps chugging along, growing more intensive. The new plantings aren’t cotton, alfalfa, or carrots — the crops a farmer can decide not to seed when water becomes scarce. These are trees and vines raised in nurseries and put into the ground at a cost of $10,000 an acre to satisfy the world’s growing appetite for nuts and fruits. [...] There was a majordomo of the house, a butler, a chef, a sous-chef, three housekeepers, a limo driver, and a trio of assistants who worked in the basement, juggling Lynda’s calendar and the buying, wrapping, and shipping of gifts she handed out to her Rolodex of “highfalutin people.” Stewart had made it clear that Lynda would not be joining us. She had her own book — about her genius as a marketer — going. He had spent the morning on his exercise bike reading Fortune. Fresh from a shower, a red Kabbalah string tied around his wrist and a multihued pair of socks covering his feet, he welcomed me. If he had his druthers, he said, he’d still be living in a little ranch house in Culver City. “None of this is my idea. This is my wife. This is Lynda.”

http://bit.ly/2E1a6JZ


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

Welcome to Monowi, Nebraska: population 1 / BBC

Eighty-four-year-old Elsie Eiler pays taxes to herself, grants her own alcohol licence and is the only remaining resident in Monowi, Nebraska. [...] Like so many restaurants and bars in rural America, the Monowi Tavern essentially serves as a community living room. While Eiler cooks up hamburgers ($3.50), hot dogs ($1.25) and gizzards ($4) in the kitchen, families tack graduation notices, baptism invitations and holiday cards to the bar’s white bulletin board. People come from up to an hour away for the Sunday night Euchre card game, and Eiler doesn’t usually close up until after 21:30 when things quieten down.

http://bbc.in/2E0Ul5C


The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility / Quartz

Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter. This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the “panpsychist” view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose. [...] Panpsychism offers an attractive alternative solution: Consciousness is a fundamental feature of physical matter; every single particle in existence has an “unimaginably simple” form of consciousness, says Goff. These particles then come together to form more complex forms of consciousness, such as humans’ subjective experiences. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, merely that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle.

http://bit.ly/2E2F708


The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone / The Atlantic
The idea isn't new at all, but this piece is well-argued -- the best I've read on the topic:

Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line. Suppose you drop out after a year. You’ll receive a salary bump compared with someone who’s attended no college, but it won’t be anywhere near 25 percent of the salary premium you’d get for a four-year degree. Similarly, the premium for sophomore year is nowhere near 50 percent of the return on a bachelor’s degree, and the premium for junior year is nowhere near 75 percent of that return. Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do. [...] You could blame the difficulty of the questions—until you read them. Plenty of college graduates couldn’t make sense of a table explaining how an employee’s annual health-insurance costs varied with income and family size, or summarize the work-experience requirements in a job ad, or even use a newspaper schedule to find when a television program ended. Tests of college graduates’ knowledge of history, civics, and science have had similarly dismal results. [...] Of course, college students aren’t supposed to just download facts; they’re supposed to learn how to think in real life. How do they fare on this count? [...] The benefit of college seemed to be zero: Fourth-year students did no better than first-year students. [...] Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested. [...] I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people. I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring. I’m cynical about “deciders”—the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students comply.

http://theatln.tc/2E0Y8zI


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

Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers? / The Atlantic
Will truckers be automated? (from the comments) / Marginal Revolution

The outlook for trucking jobs has been grim of late. Self-driving trucks, several reports and basic logic have suggested, are going to wipe out truckers. Trucking is going to be the next great automation bloodbath. But a counter-narrative is emerging: No, skeptics in the industry, government, academia are saying, trucking jobs will not be endangered by autonomous driving, and in the brightest scenarios, as in new research by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, there may be an increase in trucking jobs as more self-driving vehicles are introduced. [...] For one, Uber does not believe that self-driving trucks will be doing “dock to dock” runs for a very long time. They see a future in which self-driving trucks drive highway miles between what they call transfer hubs, where human drivers will take over for the last miles through complex urban and industrial terrain. For that reason, Woodrow says that he saw their version of self-driving trucks as complementing humans, not replacing them.

http://theatln.tc/2DZNb1A

I wonder how many of the people making predictions about the future of truck drivers have ever ridden with one to see what they do? One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details. For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever. [...] I’ve been working in automation for 20 years. When you see how hard it is to simply digitize a paper process inside a single plant (often a multi-year project), you start to roll your eyes at ivory tower claims of entire industries being totally transformed by automation in a few years.

http://bit.ly/2DVVCuD


To Be, or Not to Be / New York Review of Books

Svetlana Boym had a private theory: an émigré’s life continues in the land left behind. It’s a parallel story. In an unpublished piece, she tried to imagine the parallel lives her Soviet/Russian/Jewish left-behind self was leading. Toward the end of her life, this retracing and reimagining became something of an obsession. She also had a theory about me: that I had gone back to reclaim a life that had been interrupted. In any case, there are many stories to be told about a single life. [...] On Valentine’s Day in 1982—I was fifteen—I went to a gay dance at Yale. This was a great time for gay dances. It was no longer terrifying to be queer on campus, but gay life was still half-hidden in a way that was thrilling. I do not remember, in fact, dancing, and I don’t even remember catching anyone’s eye. In other words, I’m pretty sure that no one noticed me. Strangely, that wasn’t crushing. Because what I do remember is standing somewhere dark, leaning against something, and feeling like I was surrounded by community. I remember thinking, This is who I could be. What the syncope of emigration had meant for me was the difference between discovering who I was—the experience I had in the woods outside of Moscow—and discovering who I could be—the experience I had at that dance. It was a moment of choice and, thanks to the “break in my destiny,” I was aware of it. In this sense my personal narrative splits from that of the American gay and lesbian movement. The latter was based on choicelessness. A choice may have to be defended—certainly, one has to be prepared to defend one’s right to make a choice—while arguing that you were born this way appeals to people’s sympathy or at least a sense of decency. It also serves to quell one’s own doubts and to foreclose future options. We are, mostly, comfortable with less choice—much as I would have felt safer if my parents had not set out on their great emigration adventure.

http://bit.ly/2E0MeWK


Letter of Recommendation: Rodney Dangerfield / New York Times

Imagine having no talent. Imagine being no good at all at something and doing it anyway. Then, after nine years, failing at it and giving it up in disgust and moving to Englewood, N.J., and selling aluminum siding. And then, years later, trying the thing again, though it wrecks your marriage, and failing again. And eventually making a meticulous study of the thing and figuring out that, by eliminating every extraneous element, you could isolate what makes it work and just do that. And then, after becoming better at it than anyone who had ever done it, realizing that maybe you didn’t need the talent. That maybe its absence was a gift. These were the stations on the via dolorosa of Jacob Cohen, a.k.a. Rodney Dangerfield, whose comedy I hold above all others’. At his peak — look on YouTube for any set he did between 1976 and 1990 — he was the funniest entertainer ever. That peak was long in coming; by the time he perfected his act, he was nearly 60. But everything about Dangerfield was weird. While other comedians of that era made their names in television and film, Dangerfield made his with stand-up. It was a stand-up as dated as he was: He stood on stage stock-still in a rumpled black suit and shiny red tie and told a succession of diamond-hard one-liners. The one-liners were impeccable, unimprovable. Dangerfield spent years on them; he once told an interviewer that it took him three months to work up six minutes of material for a talk-show appearance.

http://nyti.ms/2DZfVHK


Amazon Health / Stratechery

What would make more sense to me is that, having first built an interface for its employees, and then a standardized infrastructure for its health care suppliers, is that Amazon converts the latter into a marketplace where PBMs, insurance administrators, distributors, and pharmacies have to compete to serve employees. And then, once that marketplace is functioning, Amazon will open the floodgates on the demand side, offering that standard interface to every large employer in America. This is certainly ambitious enough — basically intermediating U.S. employers and the U.S. healthcare industry — but in fact this only sets the stage for the wholesale disruption of American healthcare. First, Amazon could not only open up its standard interface to other large employers, but small-and-medium sized businesses, and even individuals; in this way the Amazon Health Marketplace could aggregate by far the most demand for healthcare.

http://bit.ly/2DZ2WWo


The Banana Trick and Other Acts of Self-Checkout Thievery / The Atlantic
I am naive and would definitely not have guessed this:

“Anyone who pays for more than half of their stuff in self checkout is a total moron" [...] Self-checkout theft has become so widespread that a whole lingo has sprung up to describe its tactics. Ringing up a T-bone ($13.99/lb) with a code for a cheap ($0.49/lb) variety of produce is “the banana trick.” If a can of Illy espresso leaves the conveyor belt without being scanned, that’s called “the pass around.” “The switcheroo” is more labor-intensive: Peel the sticker off something inexpensive and place it over the bar code of something pricey. Just make sure both items are about the same weight, to avoid triggering that pesky “unexpected item” alert in the bagging area. How common are self-scanning scams? If anonymous online questionnaires are any indication, very common. When Voucher Codes Pro, a company that offers coupons to internet shoppers, surveyed 2,634 people, nearly 20 percent admitted to having stolen at the self-checkout in the past.

http://theatln.tc/2DVWyiD


Fossil of school bus-sized dinosaur dug up in Egyptian desert / Reuters

Scientists have unearthed in a Sahara Desert oasis in Egypt fossils of a long-necked, four-legged, school bus-sized dinosaur that lived roughly 80 million years ago, a discovery that sheds light on a mysterious time period in the history of dinosaurs in Africa. [...] Its remains, found at the Dakhla Oasis in central Egypt, are the most complete of any mainland African land vertebrate during an even larger time span, the roughly 30 million years before the dinosaur mass extinction 66 million years ago.

http://reut.rs/2E0MS6C


How Carob Traumatized a Generation / New Yorker

A wry disgruntlement will forever unite those of us who were children during the height of the nineteen-seventies natural-foods movement. It was a time that we recall not for its principles—yes to organics, no to preservatives—but for its endless assaults on our tender young palates. There was brown rice that scoured our molars as we chewed, shedding gritty flecks of bran. There was watery homemade yogurt that resisted all attempts to mitigate its tartness. And, at the pinnacle of our dietary suffering, worse even than sprout sandwiches or fruit leather or whole-wheat scones, there was carob, the chocolate substitute that never could.

http://bit.ly/2E2jb59


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

Can You Hear the Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Pianos? / YouTube
Pretty cool:

I started the video by playing in a cheap piano, and then in the more expensive ones. I played 5 different pianos.

http://bit.ly/2E0CFa8


A choir imitates a thunderstorm / Kottke

Before they start to sing Toto’s Africa, the Angel City Chorale perfectly imitates a thunderstorm by rubbing their hands together, snapping, and stomping their feet. You might want some headphones for this one. What a cool effect.

http://bit.ly/2E0ZnyS


Knife-Sharpening Master Turns A Block Of Wood Into A Super Sharp Knife / Digg

Yes, this knife is sharp enough to cut and peel hard vegetables. And it's 100% wood.

http://di.gg/2E1tyGx


Paris, Reviewed / The Paris Review

Real life reviews from the City of Light, compiled from TripAdvisor.com [...] [1-star review for the Musee d'Orsay] Not worth unless you are into art. Only go if you are interested in art history. I love history, but I couldn’t stay here for more than an hour, as its pictures doesn’t make sense to me.

http://bit.ly/2E2Dpvm


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