The last of Dan Wang’s excellent annual letters, at least for awhile:
Most of the young Chinese I chatted with are in their early 20s. Visitors to Thailand are trying to catch up on the fun they lost under three years of zero-Covid. Those who have made Chiang Mai their new home have complex reasons for staying. They told me that they’ve felt a quiet shattering of their worldview over the past few years. These are youths who grew up in bigger cities and attended good universities, endowing them with certain expectations: that they could pursue meaningful careers, that society would gain greater political freedoms, and that China would become more integrated with the rest of the world. These hopes have curdled. Their jobs are either too stressful or too menial, political restrictions on free expression have ramped up over the last decade, and China’s popularity has plunged in developed countries. […]
Many people still feel ambivalence about moving to Thailand. Not everyone has mustered the courage to tell their Chinese parents where they really are. Mom and dad are under the impression that they’re studying abroad in Europe or something. That sometimes leads to elaborate games to maintain the subterfuge, like drawing curtains to darken the room when they video chat with family, since they’re supposed to be in a totally different time zone; or keeping up with weather conditions in the city they’re supposed to be so that they’re not surprised when parents ask about rain or snow.
This is so, so cool:
Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption buried an ancient library of papyrus scrolls now known as the Herculaneum Papyri.
In the 18th century the scrolls were discovered. More than 800 of them are now stored in a library in Naples, Italy; these lumps of carbonized ash cannot be opened without severely damaging them. But how can we read them if they remain rolled up?
On March 15th, 2023, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge to answer this question. Scrolls from the Institut de France were imaged at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford. We released these high-resolution CT scans of the scrolls, and we offered more than $1M in prizes, put forward by many generous donors.
A global community of competitors and collaborators assembled to crack the problem with computer vision, machine learning, and hard work.
Less than a year later, in December 2023, they succeeded. Finally, after 275 years, we can begin to read the scrolls.
The Vox video team spotted a small village in the middle of huge crater in Madagascar. They decided to investigate.
Right in the center of the island nation of Madagascar there’s a strange, almost perfectly circular geological structure. It covers a bigger area than the city of Paris — and at first glance, it looks completely empty. But right in the center of that structure, there’s a single, isolated village: a few dozen houses, some fields of crops, and dirt roads stretching out in every direction.
When we first saw this village on Google Earth, its extreme remoteness fascinated us. Was the village full of people? How did they wind up there?
This video is great for so many reasons. It’s a story about geology, cartography, globalization, the supply chain, infrastructure, and the surveillance state told through the framework of falling down (waaaay down) an online rabbit hole. It reinforces the value of academics and the editing is top shelf.
Three excellent pieces on Apple’s new (revolutionary?) product. First, John Gruber:
For the last six days, I’ve been simultaneously testing three entirely new products from Apple. The first is a VR/AR headset with eye-tracking controls. The second is a revolutionary spatial computing productivity platform. The third is a breakthrough personal entertainment device.
A headset, a spatial productivity platform, and a personal entertainment device.
I’m sure you’re already getting it. These are not three separate devices. They’re one: Apple Vision Pro. But if you’ll pardon the shameless homage to Steve Jobs’s famous iPhone introduction, I think these three perspectives are the best way to consider it.
Next, Tim Urban is back! With his first post in nine months!
What I did know was that it was finally time to write a VR post. I wanted to post this week while everyone was hyped up about the Vision Pro. But I didn’t want to write about it before I had used it a lot, so I could experience not only the honeymoon phase but also what it was like to get thoroughly sick of it.
The plan was clear. I went home, told my wife that I would be deeply ignoring her and our baby for the week, and spent twelve hours a day in the headset for four straight days. I’m writing this on Thursday afternoon, having already logged over forty hours. Here are my thoughts.
These are a big loss: Malik made the case about why the Vision Pro is the best TV ever, but it will launch without native access to the largest premium streaming service and the largest repository of online video period. I myself am very excited about the productivity use cases of the Vision Pro, which for me includes listening to music while I work; no Spotify makes that harder.
For $120,000 a year, Christopher Rim promises to turn any student into Ivy bait. […]
For the past nine years, Rim, 28, has been working as an “independent education consultant,” helping the one percent navigate the increasingly competitive college-admissions process — the current round of which ends in February. He started by editing college essays from his Yale dorm room for $50 an hour but now charges the parents of his company’s 190 clients — mostly private-school kids, many of them in New York — $120,000 a year to help them create a narrative he believes will appeal to college-admissions officers. That company, Command Education, currently has 41 full-time staffers, most of whom are recent graduates of top-tier colleges and universities. The pitch is crafted to appeal to the wealthy clients Rim courts: a “personalized, white glove” service, through which Command employees do everything from curating students’ extracurriculars to helping them land summer internships, craft essays, and manage their course loads with the single goal of getting them in.
“We are texting students, I think it’s like 15 minutes before their math class, to make sure they are turning in their homework,” says Rim, who in interviews is soft-spoken, polite, and confident, occasionally dropping into the demeanor of a start-up bro.
Pretend you are a banked individual, which in the U.S. context means that you have a checking account in your own name trivially available to you. You are handed a physical check. You would prefer to have money. What do you do?
You deposit it with your bank, naturally. This could be at the teller window, through the ATM, or (most likely if you’re reading an essay about financial infrastructure) through the “remote deposit capture” feature of your bank’s mobile app. You might not know it by that specialized name, and instead think “I use my iPhone to take a picture of the check then money shows up.” […]
How cashing a check works if you’re not banked
You begin with a physical check. You generally physically walk it into a local business, which in Chicago are most commonly “currency exchanges” but which can in principle be done in many businesses known by many names (much like e.g. Western Union transfers). You ask to cash it. You speak to a clerk with a high school education, who likely remembers you from previous interactions. The clerk asks you to endorse the check, a ritual we’ll return to in a moment. She swiftly pays you cash from a drawer and retains the physical check. She offers you a receipt, and you do with it exactly what you do with a receipt from McDonalds.
The cash does not match the value printed on the check. The fee you were charged is prominently disclosed on the receipt, on the wall, and in printed material you are passively offered but do not take, for the same reason that you’ve never walked home with a McDonalds menu.
In the West economic development spawned individualism and the spirit of ‘68. Modernisation theorists predicted that growth would deliver liberalism worldwide. Inglehart and Welzel argued that post-industrial societies would champion self-expression. But in fact, this has not transpired. Many prosperous places - like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and South Korea - remain quite conservative. India’s economic growth has not delivered secularism, but Hindu nationalism.
Why explains this global cultural divergence?
The United States leads the world in airline safety. That’s because of the way we assign blame when accidents do happen. […]
What is the worst imaginable consequence of making a mistake? For some, it might be this:
“I really thought I was going to die,” said USAir passenger Laurel Bravo, speaking to the Associated Press. “The row ahead of us just disappeared. The seats all went flying downward…”
For the 89 passengers and crew aboard USAir flight 1493, it had been an unremarkable flight from takeoff in Columbus, Ohio, to touchdown at Los Angeles International Airport. That evening, the first of February 1991, the weather was perfectly clear, the Boeing 737 had a clean sheet with no mechanical faults, and with the runway in sight from 25 miles out, the approach was uneventful. Flying the plane from the right seat, First Officer David Kelly pulled the nose up to ease the touchdown and greased it onto runway 24 Left. He then brought the nose back down, smooth and steady. And then, without time to even shout, all hell broke loose. […]
The fact that Wascher made a mistake was self-evident, as was the fact that that mistake led, more or less directly, to the deaths of 35 people. The media and the public began to question the fate of Ms. Wascher. Should she be punished? Should she lose her job? Did she commit an offense?
How the authorities choose to handle such a mistake says a lot about our society’s conceptions of justice, culpability, agency, empathy, and even vengeance, because the moral dilemma of what to do about Robin Wascher exists as a struggle between diverging values and, in fact, diverging value systems, rooted in the relative prioritization of individual and systemic responsibility.
Cutting straight to the case, Wascher was not punished in any way. At first, after being escorted, inconsolable, from the tower premises, her colleagues took her to a hotel and stood guard outside her room to keep the media at bay. Months later, Wascher testified before the NTSB hearings, providing a faithful and earnest recounting of the events as she recalled them. She was even given the opportunity to return to the control tower, but she declined. No one was ever charged with a crime.
As the aviation industry has learned through hard-won experience, that’s usually how it should be.
My latest policy analysis published today explains why it is impossible for nearly all immigrants seeking to come permanently to the United States to do so legally. The report is a uniquely comprehensive and jargon‐free (to the extent possible) explanation of U.S. legal immigration. Contrary to public perception, immigrants cannot simply wait and get a green card (permanent residence) after a few years. Legal immigration is less like waiting in line and more like winning the lottery: it happens, but it is so rare that it is irrational to expect it in any individual case.
Even if all of these end up going as well as possible - the AIs are provably conscious, exist as individuals, care about art and philosophy, etc - there’s still a residual core of resistance that bothers me. It goes something like:
Imagine that scientists detect a massive alien fleet heading towards Earth. We intercept and translate some of their communications (don’t ask how) and find they plan to kill all humans and take Earth’s resources for themselves.
Although the aliens are technologically beyond us, science fiction suggests some clever strategies for defeating them - maybe microbes like War of the Worlds, or computer viruses like Independence Day. If we can pull together a miracle like this, should we use it?
Here I bet even Larry Page would support Team Human. But why? The aliens are more advanced than us. They’re presumably conscious, individuated, and have hopes and dreams like ourselves. Still, humans uber alles.
Is this specieist? I don’t know - is it racist to not want English colonists to wipe out Native Americans? Would a Native American who expressed that preference be racist? That would be a really strange way to use that term!
I’d missed that Randall Munroe has been doing videos based on his What If? website and books. The one I ran across the other day is about earthquakes:
Since we usually hear about earthquakes with ratings somewhere between 3 and 9, a lot of people probably think of 10 as the top of the scale and 0 as the bottom. In fact, there is no top or bottom to the scale!
There are three more short videos on the channel so far: What if Earth suddenly stopped spinning?, What if NASCAR had no rules?, and What if we aimed the Hubble Telescope at Earth? Good stuff.
Insightful and troubling:
Mostly, it’s just Putin talking, and most of what he talks about is the history of East Europe. He’s arguing that Ukraine is rightfully part of Russia, by dint of linguistic and cultural similarity and historical relationships. He only mentions NATO expansion — a favorite hobbyhorse of Ukraine’s detractors in the West — after Tucker prompts him to talk about it, and even then only briefly.
This is a kind of imperialism that people in the U.S. are not used to thinking about. Mostly, when we Americans think of empires, we think of either the British or the Nazis — most of the fictional empires we depict in media, like the one in Star Wars, are just a mashup of those two. We therefore think of imperialists as being motivated primarily either by commercial interests and resource extraction, or by insane ideologies. But we rarely think about ethnic imperialism — an empire trying to gobble up neighboring polities because of linguistic and cultural similarity, so that it can be the ruler of a specific cultural sphere. (In fact, the British conquest of Ireland, the Japanese conquest of Korea and China, and Hitler’s annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia all had major elements of ethnic imperialism, but we tend to forget that aspect.)
Ethnic imperialism is exactly what we’re facing in Russia right now. Putin doesn’t want Ukraine’s wheat farms. Nor is he motivated by some world-conquering ideology. He simply wants Russia to rule over all the places he views as being within its historic and linguistic sphere of influence.
The question is where that sphere stops. Putin assured Carlson that he has no designs on Latvia or Poland. This rather pointedly leaves out Estonia, where 25% of the population are Russian speakers, and which Russia continually bullies despite its NATO membership. But the elephant in the room here is really Poland.
One of the oldest ways to store up energy is in hot rocks. Egyptians built adobe homes millennia ago that absorbed heat during the day and released it at night, and wood-fired ovens with bricks that radiate residual heat have been around since the Middle Ages.
Now, this ancient form of heating is poised for a breakout year as one of the hottest things in climate tech: thermal batteries. These aren’t the kinds of batteries you’d find in a laptop or electric vehicle. Instead, these stationary, shipping container-sized units can provide the high temperatures necessary to power hard-to-decarbonize industrial processes like smelting or chemical manufacturing. And thanks to the changing economics of clean energy and a generous tax credit in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, investors are increasingly bullish about the technology, helping Silicon Valley startups Antora Energy and Rondo Energy dramatically scale up production with new gigafactories.
On medical care the view that prices and expenditures are incredibly high and wasteful overlooks two important points: i) that prices and expenditures need to be adjusted for quality; and ii) income levels and growth accounts for almost all expenditure differences across countries and over the long run. On higher ed, the underlying problem is that economists (myself included) almost always treat it as single product industry (education) with everything else on campus treated as a type of input. For better or worse, higher ed has developed into a multi-product bundle that includes entertainment/recreation (workout facilities, rec teams, collegiate athletics, drama, …), networking, counseling, and just hanging out with peers (and probably other stuff). A useful analogy would be to a year-round version of a (very upscale) summer camp.
So about a year ago, I was putting my little guy to bed in his crib and I noticed a strange detail on the solar system poster up on his wall …
Venus had a moon called Zoozve. Huh, I thought. Never heard of that.
Put the kid to bed, went back to my room and googled “Does Venus have a moon?” First hit was from NASA: “Venus has no moons.” Weird.
Then I googled “Zoozve” and got no results, literally zero results in English. Only results were in Czech and they were about zoos. Not what I was looking for. […]
Including my detailed plan to officially rename 2002-VE68 to “ZOOZVE” to immortalize the typo and thus retroactively make the poster in my kid’s room correct! This plan falls into the category of so-crazy-it-just-might-work. And we will know the answer VERY soon.
[Spoiler: it’s now named Zoozve!]
Clark’s latest paper (with Neil Cummins) makes a simple but striking point. If the primary systematic determinant of social outcomes is genetic then we expect the father and the mother to contribute equally (each giving half their genes). If, on the other hand, the primary determinant is social then we expect widely different mother-father contributions in different societies and at different times and for different characteristics.
Amy and Ano are identical twins, but just after they were born they were taken from their mother and sold to separate families. Years later, they discovered each other by chance thanks to a TV talent show and a TikTok video. As they delved into their past, they realised they were among thousands of babies in Georgia stolen from hospitals and sold, some as recently as 2005. Now they want answers.
In order to preserve our nation of immigrants, we need to compromise.
New observations of the Red Planet’s mysterious dust blobs may finally answer scientists’ questions about what’s inside.
Google with some very cool video generation tech:
The video accompanying our paper: "Lumiere: A Space-Time Diffusion Model for Video Generation"
E. Fuller Torrey recently published a journal article trying to cast doubt on the commonly-accepted claim that schizophrenia is mostly genetic. Most of his points were the usual “if we can’t name all of the exact genes, it must not be genetic at all” - but two arguments stood out:
Even though twin studies say schizophrenia is about 80% genetic, surveys of twin pairs show that if one identical twin has schizophrenia, the other one only has a 15% to 50% chance of having it.
The Nazis ran a eugenics program that killed most of the schizophrenics in Germany, eliminating their genes from the gene pool. But the next generation of Germans had a totally normal schizophrenia rate, comparable to pre-Nazi Germany or any other country.
I used to find arguments like these surprising and hard to answer. But after learning more about genetics, they no longer have such a hold on me. I’m going to try to communicate my reasoning with a very simple simulation, then give links to people who do the much more complicated math that it would take to model the real world.
The fountain of youth has eluded explorers for ages. It turns out the magic anti-aging elixir might have been inside us all along.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Assistant Professor Corina Amor Vegas and colleagues have discovered that T cells can be reprogrammed to fight aging, so to speak. Given the right set of genetic modifications, these white blood cells can attack another group of cells known as senescent cells. These cells are thought to be responsible for many of the diseases we grapple with later in life.