Links

I was a bit reluctant to send this out today; after all, even though I skip weeks here and there, this newsletter has consistently gone out on Sundays for about 16 years. And yet…there’s basically no downside to getting this out a day earlier (no promises for the future), and the first article is such an important piece to read that giving you a few more weekend hours to read it seems worthwhile. The other links are also pretty good; this is probably the best compilation I’ve sent out in months.

4 stars

One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps | The Atlantic

Stunning, haunting piece. If you haven’t read it yet, you must:

If you took an Uber in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago, there was a chance your driver was one of the greatest living Uyghur poets. Tahir Hamut Izgil arrived with his family in the United States in 2017, fleeing the Chinese government’s merciless persecution of his people. Tahir’s escape not only spared him near-certain internment in the camps that have swallowed more than 1 million Uyghurs; it also allowed him to share with the world his experience of the calamity engulfing his homeland. The following articles are Tahir’s firsthand account of one of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises, and of one family’s survival.

Before I met Tahir, I knew his poems. I encountered them soon after I began working as a translator in Xinjiang, the Uyghur region in western China. A close friend there kept telling me that if I really wanted to understand Uyghur culture, I had to read the poetry. Like many Americans, I rarely felt drawn to poetry, but one day, another friend put a sheaf of Tahir’s verses in my hand. Poetry had never affected me so deeply. […]

Tahir and his family are now in the midst of the asylum application process. A few years passed before Tahir was ready to set down his experiences in writing. Once he began, it poured out of him. He sent me new entries faster than I could translate. The articles that follow comprise one man’s recounting of the political, social, and cultural destruction of his homeland—corroborated by The Atlantic’s fact-checkers, who contacted others intimately familiar with these details, and who reviewed personal documentation, reports from the press and human-rights organizations, and similar eyewitness testimonies collated by the Xinjiang Victims Database. […]

Most of the Uyghurs detained in the mass arrests had been summoned by phone to the local neighborhood-committee office or police station and then taken away. But some, especially intellectuals, had been spirited from their homes in the middle of the night. The police would knock on the door of the person they planned to arrest, slap handcuffs on their wrists, and haul them off. They wouldn’t let them change clothes; whatever they were wearing was what they would leave in. Some people had even been taken away in their pajamas.

Everyone knew what happened next. The police would imprison these people in cells or lockups where there was nothing besides a high ceiling, four thick walls, a camera in every corner, an iron door, and a chilly cement floor. If you felt hot, you could remove clothes, but if you were cold, there was nothing you could do. Even in high summer, this was a practical problem. If someone knocked on my door in the middle of the night, I planned to put on these warm clothes and autumn shoes before answering. Kamil was arrested during the day, but I had a strong feeling that they would come for me at night.

Merhaba and I were both silent for a moment. We lay side by side on the bed. I turned out the light.

“I’m going to ask you something,” I said to Merhaba, “and you have to promise me you’ll do it.”

“What is it? Tell me first,” she said.

“I’m serious. Promise me first,” I said firmly.

“All right,” she replied quietly.

“If they arrest me, don’t lose yourself. Don’t make inquiries about me, don’t go looking for help, don’t spend money trying to get me out. This time isn’t like any time before. They are planning something dark. There is no notifying families or inquiring at police stations this time. So don’t trouble yourself with that. Keep our family affairs in order, take good care of our daughters, let life go on as if I were still here. I’m not afraid of prison. I am afraid of you and the girls struggling and hurting when I’m gone. So I want you to remember what I’m saying.”

“Do you have to talk like you’re heading to your death?”

“You know the PIN numbers for my bank cards.”

Merhaba began crying. In the pitch black, there was no sound besides her weeping.

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3 stars

The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds | The Atlantic

Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, sat atop his stallion Smokey and faced the camera. It was Saturday, August 1, 2020. Miller had a message to share.

“Good morning, patriots,” Miller began, raising the coiled lasso in his right hand by way of greeting. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of all these surprises coming out of China. First it was the Chinese virus, then we had the murder hornets, then we had to close the embassy in Houston because of espionage … Now we’ve got all these mystery seeds coming in in the mail.”

It was the seeds that Miller wanted to speak about. By then, news of the seeds had been circulating for several days. Packets were turning up at homes across the United States; residents of every state would eventually report receiving them. Their address labels and Customs declarations indicated that they had been sent from China. The contents were usually described as an item of jewelry—something like “rose stud earrings”—but inside would be a small packet of unidentified seeds. There was no evident reason why particular people were receiving particular seeds, or why people were receiving seeds at all.

Miller advised anyone who received one of these packages to handle it with extreme care. “Treat them like they’re radioactive,” he said. […]

I assumed that Amazon would have come around to this reality, but when I contacted the company in March, I was astonished to hear that its position hadn’t changed: As far as it was concerned, any Amazon packages involved had contained real, delayed orders. I didn’t try very hard to hide how implausible I found this, and my next move seemed obvious. I proposed that I’d supply examples for Amazon to check out, ones I was confident would not match its narrative. My hope was that, once we’d established that people had received seeds they hadn’t ordered, Amazon would work with me to explain further. […]

Lori Culley, the grandmother from Utah who first alerted the American media, seemed the perfect test case. Her two packages carried these telltale Amazon numbers, so with her permission, I sent the company her information.

And that’s when things got really weird.

Culley ordered those seeds herself, Amazon told me.

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The Tinder Swindler | VG

Rather impressively documented (e.g. you get video from inside the private jet):

He has seduced and swindled young women for millions and is a fugitive from justice in several countries.

He finds his victims on the dating app Tinder and then seduces them with travel by private jet, luxury hotels and expensive dinners.

They believe they are dating a wealthy business man, but other women he has swindled are paying for the luxury.

VG has spent six months chasing the swindler across several continents. We found him in Munich – at one of Europe’s most fashionable hotels.

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Things I Learned Writing The Lockdown Post | Astral Codex Ten

Lockdown Effectiveness: Much More Than You Wanted To Know is the most ambitious post I've tried to write since starting the new blog. […]

This question was too multi-dimensional. As in, you could calculate everything right according to some model, and then someone else could say "but actually none of that matters, the real issue is X", and you would have a hard time proving it wasn't.

A long time ago, I remember being asked whether banning marijuana was good or bad. I spent a long time figuring out the side effects of marijuana, how addictive it was, how many people got pain relief from it, how many people were harmed by the War on Drugs, etc - and it turned out all of this was completely overwhelmed by the effects of deaths from intoxicated driving. If even a few people drove on marijuana and crashed and killed people, that erased all its gains; if even a few people used marijuana instead of alcohol and then drove while less intoxicated than they would have been otherwise, that erased all its losses. This was - "annoying" is exactly the right word - because what I (and everyone else) wanted was a story about how dangerous and addictive marijuana was vs. how many people were helped by its medical benefits, and none of that turned out to matter at all compared to some question about stoned driving vs. substituting-for-drunk-driving, which nobody started out caring about. […]

The same was true here. How do we quantify the effect of Long COVID? Who knows? Given the giant pile of bodies, maybe we just round COVID off the the number of deaths it causes, and ignore this mysterious syndrome where we've only barely begun the work of proving it exists? But under certain assumptions, the total suffering caused by Long COVID is worse than the suffering caused by the acute disease, including all the deaths! […]

This is an especially bad fit with writing a "red state good, blue state bad" (or vice versa) article, because how do you distribute glory/praise/credit/Rationality Points if one side was right about everything except for some complicated weird effect that nobody thought about and which you can't quantify intelligently? And then when you add this in, maybe the other side was “right” for reasons they never thought of and that they shouldn’t get any credit for at all? […]

Challenging mathematically gifted people about math is scary and unpleasant. "We have HARD MATH on our side," they say. "Yes," you ask, "but how come this other person also did a mathematical model and got completely different results?" "Oh," they reply condescendingly, "obviously they failed to crenulate their zeugma. Obviously." And then you're confronted with the prospect of either trying to learn enough math to figure out what a zeugma is and why you would want to crenulate one - not just to a basic level, but to a level where you can understand disputes between statisticians about when to do it or not - or just hating everyone in the world and retreating to total Cartesian skepticism.

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The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine? | The Guardian

For most of us, to be caffeinated to one degree or another has simply become baseline human consciousness. Something like 90% of humans ingest caffeine regularly, making it the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and the only one we routinely give to children (commonly in the form of fizzy drinks). Few of us even think of it as a drug, much less our daily use of it as an addiction. It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the fact that to be caffeinated is not baseline consciousness but, in fact, an altered state. It just happens to be a state that virtually all of us share, rendering it invisible. […]

Humanity’s acquaintance with caffeine is surprisingly recent. But it is hardly an exaggeration to say that this molecule remade the world. The changes wrought by coffee and tea occurred at a fundamental level – the level of the human mind. Coffee and tea ushered in a shift in the mental weather, sharpening minds that had been fogged by alcohol, freeing people from the natural rhythms of the body and the sun, thus making possible whole new kinds of work and, arguably, new kinds of thought, too. […]

The Islamic world at this time was in many respects more advanced than Europe, in science and technology, and in learning. Whether this mental flourishing had anything to do with the prevalence of coffee (and prohibition of alcohol) is difficult to prove, but as the German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch has argued, the beverage “seemed to be tailor-​made for a culture that forbade alcohol consumption and gave birth to modern mathematics”. […]

In a 2014 experiment, subjects given caffeine immediately after learning new material remembered it better than subjects who received a placebo. Tests of psychomotor abilities also suggest that caffeine gives us an edge: in simulated driving exercises, caffeine improves performance, especially when the subject is tired. It also enhances physical performance on such metrics as time trials, muscle strength and endurance.

True, there is reason to take these findings with a pinch of salt, if only because this kind of research is difficult to do well. The problem is finding a good control group in a society in which virtually everyone is addicted to caffeine. But the consensus seems to be that caffeine does improve mental (and physical) performance to some degree.

Whether caffeine also enhances creativity is a different question, however, and there’s some reason to doubt that it does. Caffeine improves our focus and ability to concentrate, which surely enhances linear and abstract thinking, but creativity works very differently. It may depend on the loss of a certain kind of focus, and the freedom to let the mind off the leash of linear thought.

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Why We’re Blind to the Color Blue | Caleb Kruse

Whoa…

I'm always in the market for surprising facts. One of my favorites is that the color blue is always out of focus for the human eye. It's hard to believe since it appears that we see blue clearly, but it's astonishing when shown an example. Here, I'll explain why we're unable to focus on blue, and show examples of what it means for image sharpness. […]

I may have buried the lede in this explanation, since the results of chromatic aberration in the eye are so striking. To visualize how little resolving power we have for sharpness in blues, we'll take an image and split it into its red, green, and blue components. We'll then blur one of the channels, and recompose the image.

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2 stars

Fraud on the Farm: How a baby-faced CEO turned a Farmville clone into a massive Ponzi scheme | Rest of World

Farm Bank went on to weave a complicated, meta-business model: in 2017, the company began setting up deli franchises across Turkey. Franchisees paid Farm Bank about $30,000 (100,000 lira) to open shops that sold sausage, cheese, butter, honey, and other goods emblazoned with the Farm Bank logo — suggesting that the produce had come from the company’s livestock. It did not. 

Meanwhile, Farm Bank players received 95% of their earnings in cash and 5% in vouchers that they could use to purchase items from the delis. The company would then pay deli owners a 20% profit on the items players bought with the vouchers. More than 100 Farm Bank delis popped up throughout Turkey. 

It was in the midst of this apparent success that the app’s founder, 26-year-old Mehmet Aydın, approached freelance software programmer Cudi Cumhur Yurdakul, then 27, to work on developing Farm Bank. At the time, Yurdakul couldn’t have guessed where the job would take him —  across the Atlantic ocean several times, and ultimately to prison. “When I met Mehmet,” Yurdakul told Rest of World, “the only thing that I noticed was that he was a determined person.”

In March 2018, a year after Yurdakul joined the company, the Farm Bank house of cards collapsed. News broke that Aydın had fled the country with loads of cash from his investors. In less than two years of running the company, the company had collected around $250 million (1.14 billion lira) from Farm Bank users. Aydın made off with upwards of  $80.5 million (322 million lira) , which he took with him to South America. There, reports captured the elusive executive driving fast cars and living in luxury. 

At the height of Farm Bank’s popularity, more than half a million users played the game, 132,000 of whom invested money. Like Ataş, many of them ended up losing most of what they invested — if not more. It is perhaps the biggest and most lucrative app-based grift to date.

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Delta Variant: Everything You Need to Know | Uncharted Territories

From Tomas Pueyo:

I don’t think people are paying enough attention to Delta, and no single piece I read summarized everything I wanted to know. So here it is. Hope it helps you be more informed and prepared. […]

Depending on which figure you use, it would put Delta’s R0 between 4 and 9, which could make it more contagious than smallpox. […]

It looks like the risk of death is 2x higher for Delta than for the original variant.

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Taking Strategy Seriously | The Diff

One of the guilty pleasures of equity investing is listening to the occasional brutal earnings call. […]

A few years ago, United Airlines had a disappointing quarter, with poor guidance; the company took credit for some new initiatives, but their impact was just enough to get the business to worse-than-expected. So they got questions like: […]

[H]ow can we have any confidence in the 2018 [expense] story, particularly given the headwind that you guys went out of your way to lay out on this call?

And sometimes it was more of a comment than a question:

These numbers are not terribly useful. So what I'm looking for is kind of more useful numbers.

Since the key deliverable for a quarterly conference call is past numbers that are pleasant and future numbers that are both good and believable, this is roughly the equivalent of sending an entree back to the kitchen or walking out of a movie early, except that several billion dollars of market capitalization disappears in the process.

Normally, when a company reports a bad quarter, it's a chastening experience. They reconsider big plans and focus their attention on the basics. If they're doing so much that management's attention is divided, they need to scale back. UAL management made some ambiguous comments on the call about considering the marginal impact of changing their schedule and adding or pulling back capacity, but the general assumption was that they had learned an important lesson about biting off more than they could chew and would be more cautious in the future.

Not quite. […]

This list, and the clusters of airlines that went under in the same difficult years, was the first place investors' minds went when United laid out its plans.

Over the next two days, United's stock dropped 15%, and airlines as a whole dropped 6%.

After that, something interesting happened: the strategy worked.

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A fake wedding, and a $250,000 scam | BBC

When a British charity worker got engaged to a young Ukrainian woman, he thought he was building a new life for them both in Odessa - he was wrong.

James's car pulled up at the Villa Otrada. The 52-year-old British charity worker had been looking forward to this moment for months.

He was excited to see his fiancee, Irina, waiting for him outside the restaurant on Ukraine's Black Sea coast. Twenty years younger than him, she looked glamorous, her blonde hair fresh from the hairdresser.

Not far away were what James thought were Irina's parents and 60 invited guests, also dressed to the nines.

James got out of the car and the waiting crowd turned to clap.

It was July 2017, the start of a hot summer in Odessa, and tables had been laid out on Villa Otrada's terrace overlooking the sea.

Moments later, James and Irina recited their wedding vows under an arch of flowers.

But what should have been the perfect moment was in fact nothing of the sort. By midnight James was lying alone in hospital, sick from a suspected spiked drink. He was married, but it wasn't to the woman he loved. It was the couple's wedding planner.

This is a story about how a British man lost most of his life savings, as well as his dignity. And how Ukraine's justice system laughed in his face.

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The University of California Is Lying to Us | The Atlantic

Caitlin Flanagan, with righteous anger:

In May, the University of California announced an immediate end to the use of standardized testing in admissions and scholarship decisions at the nine schools in its system that accept undergraduates. It is a move so widely hailed by the administrators and faculty that you know someone’s getting hustled, and in this case the marks are the state’s low-income Black and Latino students––the very ones whom the new policy is supposed to help. The university has long claimed that it is “shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge.” What’s one more lie?

The university has averred that standardized tests discriminate against low-income Black and Latino students; its evidence is that these students tend to perform worse on the SAT and ACT than students from other racial and ethnic groups. If we were to think about this assertion rationally instead of emotionally, we would have to face what California has done: consigned its most vulnerable students to some of the worst K–12 schools in America. There can be no more obvious example of state-sponsored discrimination than the condition of these schools, which, decade after decade, have robbed students of 13 years and given them little in return. All the standardized tests do is reveal the obvious outcome of our cruelty. […]

Only the counterrevolutionary impulse would lead anyone to want to douse the flames of social justice with the fire retardant of fact. But the truth is that no high-school graduate in California is denied higher education because of a test score. […]

How do I know all of this? Because unlike the regents, who enthusiastically voted to eliminate the tests for the first time in 2020, I did not ignore the findings of a 225-page report that was prepared for them at the request of the UC’s then-president, Janet Napolitano. […]

Why did the regents completely ignore this report? I have a guess. People in power today would much rather do something that seems to promote “equity” than make an evidence-based choice that could lead to accusations of racism. This is the kind of infuriating policy decision that looks like it is going to help poor, minority students but will actually harm them. […]

The unspoken assumption many advocates of scrapping the SAT make is that cutting the undeserving white population down to size would make these numbers fairer. But white students are also underrepresented, if only ever so slightly, at the UC: They make up 21 percent of the undergraduate population and 22 percent of K–12 schoolchildren.

There is only one group of students who are “overrepresented,” to use the chilling language of social engineering, at the university: Asian Americans. Twelve percent of K–12 students are Asian or Pacific Islander, compared with 34 percent of UC undergraduates. Aligning enrollment with state demographics would require cutting the share of those students by almost two-thirds. It would mean getting right with contemporary concepts of anti-racism by reviving one of California’s most shameful traditions: clearing Asians out of desirable spaces.

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NASA Releases First Detailed Map of the Insides of Mars | New York Times

NASA’s InSight mission revealed Mars’s inner workings down to its core, highlighting great differences of the red planet from our blue world.

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Mitch Fowler and the brain-bending world of 'speedrunning' | MacLean’s

Mitch Fowler was skeptical that he was minutes away from setting a new world record. Somebody in his audience had dared to mention his impressive pace. “This is a good run? Well, you know what happens to good runs,” he replied: Fowler had come this close before. Ten minutes shy of a new record, he fell silent. His gaze barely shifted. His hands were sweaty. He cleared another hurdle. “We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said to no one in particular. A few minutes later, a setback that slowed his momentum: “Surprise, surprise!” he barked. Two minutes after that, big exhales and barely contained glee as all that was left was waiting for his final time. The clock stopped at one hour, nine minutes and 58 seconds. Fowler had beaten his own world’s best time by three seconds. “We did it,” he celebrated. “The minute barrier.”

Nobody had ever made a run faster than 70 minutes, but Fowler’s stunning achievement on Feb. 7 was no athletic feat. The 33-year-old Canadian gamer who lives in Salt Lake City had been racing to beat every level in Super Mario Bros. 3, the iconic Nintendo game first released in 1990. Fowler is a “speedrunner,” the name for gamers who obsessively search for optimal paths and exploit glitches that save precious seconds to post the fastest times. He plays to thousands of spellbound fans on the live streaming platform Twitch.

Beating a classic video game might sound like a fun hobby, but Fowler’s years of speedrunning have ballooned into a full-time gig. And scientists say Fowler’s craft produces more than just the income that pays his bills. Speedrunning enhances his cognitive abilities, and even blurs the connection between his conscious mind and his tapping fingers.

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Swimming Tentacled Droplets | Kottke

Well, this is really quite odd. A group of scientists discovered that if they cool ordinary oily droplets floating in water down to around 2-8°C, they change shape, grow tentacles, and propel themselves around like tiny little sci-fi creatures.

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This Is as Close to a Shark’s Intestines as You’ll Ever Hope to Get | New York Times

The inside of a shark is full of curiosities, starting with rows of hardworking teeth that can be replaced by fresh ones throughout its life. But quite a bit farther down the digestive tract — in fact, right before the shark ends — lies another odd structure: the spiral intestine, an intricate staircase made of shark flesh. […]

But on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers published one of the most detailed looks at those spiral intestines so far by turning a CT scanner on them, revealing the complex inner geographies of more than 20 species of sharks. After filling the intestines with fluid, they also made a discovery: Some of them function like natural versions of a valve that Nikola Tesla patented in 1920, drawing fluid ever onward in one direction without moving parts.

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1 star

HE ONLY NEEDS ONE ARM! 🔥 BEST OF Hansel Enmanuel! | YouTube

Some pretty neat basketball highlights:

Hansel Enmanuel has taken the internet by storm. Regardless of having just one arm, this kid is the real deal and is dominating against the best teams in the country. Where would you like to see Hansel play at the next level!?

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Can A.I. Grade Your Next Test? | New York Times

This spring, Philips Pham was among the more than 12,000 people in 148 countries who took an online class called Code in Place. Run by Stanford University, the course taught the fundamentals of computer programming.

Four weeks in, Mr. Pham, a 23-year-old student living at the southern tip of Sweden, typed his way through the first test, trying to write a program that could draw waves of tiny blue diamonds across a black-and-white grid. Several days later, he received a detailed critique of his code.

It applauded his work, but also pinpointed an error. “Seems like you have a small mistake,” the critique noted. “Perhaps you are running into the wall after drawing the third wave.”

The feedback was just what Mr. Pham needed. And it came from a machine.

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The Arch Deluxe Was a Hell of a Burger. It Was Also McDonald’s Most Expensive Flop. | Eater

In the ’90s, fine dining chef Andrew Selvaggio was tasked with creating a burger that would appeal to sophisticated palates. The problem was no one wanted it.

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COVID-19: kids are using soft drinks to fake positive tests – I’ve worked out the science and how to spot it | The Conversation

Children are always going to find cunning ways to bunk off school, and the latest trick is to fake a positive COVID-19 lateral flow test (LFT) using soft drinks. So how are fruit juices, cola and devious kids fooling the tests and is there a way to tell a fake positive result from a real one? I’ve tried to find out.

First, I thought it best to check the claims, so I cracked open bottles of cola and orange juice, then deposited a few drops directly onto LFTs. Sure enough, a few minutes later, two lines appeared on each test, supposedly indicating the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19.

It’s worth understanding how the tests work.

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