Welcome to those who subscribed this week via Quartz (and thanks to those at Quartz for the mention!). The links below are roughly rank-ordered by some blend of quality and seriousness. So yes, I hear some people only read the 1-star ones.
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The Poison We Pick / New York
Another excellent piece from Andrew Sullivan:
How does an opioid make you feel? We tend to avoid this subject in discussing recreational drugs, because no one wants to encourage experimentation, let alone addiction. And it’s easy to believe that weak people take drugs for inexplicable, reckless, or simply immoral reasons. What few are prepared to acknowledge in public is that drugs alter consciousness in specific and distinct ways that seem to make people at least temporarily happy, even if the consequences can be dire. Fewer still are willing to concede that there is a significant difference between these various forms of drug-induced “happiness” — that the draw of crack, say, is vastly different than that of heroin. But unless you understand what users get out of an illicit substance, it’s impossible to understand its appeal, or why an epidemic takes off, or what purpose it is serving in so many people’s lives. And it is significant, it seems to me, that the drugs now conquering America are downers: They are not the means to engage in life more vividly but to seek a respite from its ordeals. [...] The American project always left an empty center of collective meaning, but for a long time Americans filled it with their own extraordinary work ethic, an unprecedented web of associations and clubs and communal or ethnic ties far surpassing Europe’s, and such a plethora of religious options that almost no one was left without a purpose or some kind of easily available meaning to their lives. Tocqueville marveled at this American exceptionalism as the key to democratic success, but he worried that it might not endure forever. And it hasn’t. What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction.
A ‘Bright Light,’ Dimmed in the Shadows of Homelessness / New York Times
The woman’s name was Nakesha Williams. She said she loved novels, and they discussed the authors she was reading, from Jane Austen to Jodi Picoult. She and P.J. chatted as time allowed, or until Nakesha veered into topics that hinted at paranoia: plots and lies against her. Yet, P.J. realized she knew little about Nakesha, and she wondered about her past. Nearly three decades earlier, another woman took notice of Nakesha, then an 18-year-old college freshman, and considered her seemingly boundless future. Sandra Burton, director of the dance program at Williams College in Massachusetts, was struck immediately by Nakesha’s vibrancy and talent as a dancer. She became Nakesha’s teacher and mentor, and she began to closely track her development. Nakesha, she recalled, stood out no matter the setting: the stage, the classroom, even across a kitchen table. [...] Over the course of more than a year, I delved into Nakesha’s life, trying to understand the events and forces that put her and so many of the city’s homeless on the street. I spoke with dozens of people and benefited from having access to hundreds of emails that Nakesha sent over the years to friends and others, and scores of meticulously typed letters that she copied at libraries and handed to passers-by. In these, she offered a winding, rudimentary diary of her existence on the street. My effort revealed a deeply complicated, at times contradictory, journey — a life of spectacular promise undone by demons. No simple answer to the puzzle of Nakesha emerged. But at the same time, another narrative revealed itself: a story of New Yorkers and others who went to extraordinary lengths to try to help her, only to be left frustrated.
‘An Endless War’: Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died in a Remote African Desert / New York Times
The four men, along with four Nigerien soldiers and an interpreter, were killed in a conflict that few Americans knew anything about, not just the public, but also their families and even some senior American lawmakers. The deaths set off a political storm in Washington, erupting into a bitter debate over how the families of fallen soldiers should be treated by their commander in chief. In a call with one of the families after the ambush, President Trump was accused of diminishing the loss, telling the soldier’s widow that “he knew what he signed up for.” Mr. Trump angrily disputed the claim, leading to a public feud. But beyond the rancor, dozens of interviews with current and former officials, soldiers who survived the ambush and villagers who witnessed it point to a series of intelligence failures and strategic miscalculations that left the American soldiers far from base, in hostile territory longer than planned, with no backup or air support, on a mission they had not expected to perform. They had set out on Oct. 3, prepared for a routine, low-risk patrol with little chance of encountering the enemy. [...] But the raid was scrapped at the last minute, and the Americans on patrol were sent in its place. They didn’t find any militants. Instead, the militants found them. Short on water, the patrol stopped outside a village before heading back to base the next morning. Barely 200 yards from the village, the convoy came under deadly fire. Four months later, tough questions remain unanswered about the chain of decisions that led to American Special Forces troops being overwhelmed by jihadists in a remote stretch of West Africa.
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This Multibillion-Dollar Corporation Is Controlled by a Penniless Yoga Superstar / Bloomberg
Twenty-three years ago, when he was a poor young yoga instructor living at the foot of the Himalayas, Baba Ramdev pledged to spend the rest of his life as a sanyasi—a Hindu ascetic. He forswore possessions and renounced the material world. But today he can be found in the most material of places. Turn on an Indian TV, and there’s Ramdev, a supple yoga megastar in saffron robes, demonstrating poses on one of the two stations he oversees. Flip the channel, and there’s Ramdev in commercials selling shampoo and dish soap. Walk any city on the subcontinent, and there’s his face in stores selling the wares of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd., the multibillion-dollar corporation he controls. Ramdev has said his goal is to sell an ayurvedic item, based on India’s ancient medical traditions, for every household need: toothpaste made from cloves, neem, and turmeric; hand soap made from almonds, saffron, and tea tree oil; floor cleaner made from the “natural disinfectant” cow urine. Since 2012, Patanjali’s revenue has climbed twentyfold, from $69 million to $1.6 billion. It’s the fastest-growing company in Indian consumer goods, and Ramdev predicts he will overtake the subsidiaries of multinational giants such as Nestlé SA and Unilever NV as soon as next year. “The ‘gate’ in Colgate will shut,” he once gloated. “Pantene will wet its pants, the lever of Unilever will break down, and the little Nestlé bird will fly away.” It might seem like an impossible arrangement—observing an oath of poverty while also being one of India’s top entrepreneurs. But Ramdev is a master of contortion.
Welcome to the Center of the Universe / Longreads
McClure is nervously tapping a stack of round CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE stickers on a table. “The data is always stored, so it’s fine,” he says, trying to reassure me. “Once it hits the ground it’s stored.” The staff speaks to one another like doctors in an emergency room moments before attempting to jump-start a quiet heart. “Okay, trying to reconnect now.” The data controller grabs the paddles. “Not getting anything. Nothing. Trying again.” The Cassini Mission ACE, the liaison between Earth and the spacecraft, rushes in, his messenger bag slung over his shoulder, and mumbles something to McClure. He hurries to his station, lit up in neon blue, past the barricade with a homemade sign that reads, DO NOT FEED THE ACE — TO THE WOLVES. He plops his bag onto the floor, hunches over his desk, taps the keyboard, and begins trying to talk to Saturn. When a mission launches into space, whether it is to Venus, Mars, or as far out as Pluto, we have to be able to track it, send commands, and receive data — all over a signal about as powerful as the wattage of a refrigerator light bulb. These faint whispers are hard to hear, and losing track of them for any length of time can be a harrowing experience. If the Deep Space Network goes down, if we permanently lose our connection to Cassini, it would not only be a loss of billions of dollars but also two decades of work.
Qualcomm, National Security, and Patents / Stratechery
I can see why the New York Times (and most other commentators) immediately attributed this decision to protectionism: not only does that match President Trump’s rhetoric both on the campaign trail and also in office, but it follows closely on the decision to impose tariffs on imported steel. Moreover, Broadcom is a Singapore-based company (and Singapore is a U.S. ally) that had promised to move back to the U.S.. National security, at least at first glance, looks like a fig leaf. In fact, though, I think the Trump administration got this right. [...] This is why the focus on Broadcom’s Singaporean domicile misses the point — and why Broadcom’s promise to re-domicile in the U.S. didn’t matter either (as for Broadcom’s further promise to not halt investment in 5G, well, that process is nearly over — the issue is really about 6G and beyond). The entire issue is that the structure of the deal itself said far more clearly than anything else that Broadcom wanted to feast off of Qualcomm’s past innovations and contribute far less to future ones than Qualcomm would on its own. And, given ever-increasing Chinese dominance of wireless, that is indeed a national security problem. That noted, to the extent that Broadcom’s acquisition was a national security problem because of how future Qualcomm investment would be curtailed, the U.S. is lucky that Broadcom happened to be a foreign company — that is precisely why CFIUS’s review and President Trump’s order were even legal. Had Broadcom been a domestic entity CFIUS wouldn’t be involved at all, and President Trump would have much less discretionary power.
A primer on the primal origins of humans on Earth / Popular Science
Discoveries pushing back milestones in human development happen all the time. That can get confusing. So here’s a very basic (but not brief) cheat sheet of the current research and findings—for the next time the origin of humanity comes up during happy hour. [...] “One of the things we see is that around 500,000 years ago in the rift valley of southern Kenya, all hell breaks loose. There's faulting that occurs, and earthquake activity was moving the landscape up and down. The climate record shows there is a stronger degree of oscillation between wet and dry. That would have disrupted the predictability of food and water, for those early people,” Potts says. “It’s exactly under those conditions that almost any organism—but especially a hunter-gatherer human, even an early one—would begin to expand geography of obtaining food or obtaining resources. It's under those conditions that you begin to run into other groups of hominins and you become aware of resources beyond your usual boundaries.” Potts thinks that the environmental changes encouraged early trade and social networks to start developing between these people around 320,000 years ago.
For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It / National Geographic
How we present race matters. I hear from readers that National Geographic provided their first look at the world. Our explorers, scientists, photographers, and writers have taken people to places they’d never even imagined; it’s a tradition that still drives our coverage and of which we’re rightly proud. And it means we have a duty, in every story, to present accurate and authentic depictions—a duty heightened when we cover fraught issues such as race. We asked John Edwin Mason to help with this examination. Mason is well positioned for the task: He’s a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, a frequent crossroads of our storytelling. He dived into our archives. What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché. Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.
135 Amazing Facts for People Who Like Amazing Facts / Mental Floss
1. Mister Rogers always mentioned out loud that he was feeding his fish because a young blind viewer once asked him to do so. She wanted to know the fish were OK. 2. Boring, Oregon and Dull, Scotland have been sister cities since 2012. In 2017, they added Bland Shire, Australia to their "League of Extraordinary Communities." 3. Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt once sneaked out of a White House event, commandeered an airplane, and went on a joyride to Baltimore.
...and so forth.
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Just Sit Back And Have Your Mind Melted By This Wicked Optical Illusion / Digg
Everyone loves that feeling of a good illusion knocking you on your intellectual and logic-parsing ass. And the Müller-Lyer Pulsating Star sure is a doozy. Take a look below. Remember: not only are the blue and black segments the same length, they also never actually change lengths.
A ghost island in the middle of the Indian Ocean / BBC
Some cool photos:
Ross Island, an abandoned British settlement in the remote Andaman archipelago, is being taken over by its rightful owner: nature.
Holy mountains haloed by drone light / Kottke
Oh, I love these photos by Reuben Wu. As part of his project Lux Noctis, Wu flies drones in circles around mountain peaks and takes long-exposure photos, creating these beautiful haloed landscapes.
Will an AI Ever Be Able To Centrally Plan an Economy? / Marginal Revolution
Well that's too bad:
I will begin by accepting that there is nothing inherently impossible about an AI running an economy so, for the sake of argument, let’s say it could be possible using today’s computing power to run a small economy in say 1800. Nevertheless, I assert that an AI will never be intelligent enough to perfectly organize a modern economy. Why? The main reason is that AIs will themselves be part of the economy. Firms and individuals use AIs to make decisions. Thus, any AI has to take into account the decisions of other AIs. But no AI is going to be so far advanced beyond other AIs that this will be possible. In other words, as AIs increase in power so does the complexity of the economy. The problem of perfectly organizing an economy does not become easier with greater computing power precisely because greater computing power also makes the economy more complex.
Why Can't Everyone Do the 'Asian Squat'? / The Atlantic
The internet is rife with suggestions that most Americans cannot squat properly, an idea with which I particularly enjoyed taunting my white American boyfriend. But is this true? Were my taunts fact-based? How much is this nature or nurture? I figured I first had to understand the physiology of the deep squat.
Puzzle twins / Kottke
For her project entitled Within 15 Minutes, artist Alma Haser made identical jigsaw puzzles out of portraits she’d taken of identical twins and then swapped every other piece when putting them together, creating these serendipitously fragmented portraits.