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

The spectacular power of Big Lens / The Guardian Who knew glasses could be so interesting?

Between them, Essilor and Luxottica play a central, intimate role in the lives of a remarkable number of people. Around 1.4 billion of us rely on their products to drive to work, read on the beach, follow the whiteboard in biology lessons, type text messages to our grandchildren, land aircraft, watch old movies, write dissertations and glance across restaurants, hoping to look slightly more intelligent and interesting than we actually are. Last year, the two companies had a combined customer base that is somewhere between Apple’s and Facebook’s, but with none of the hassle and scrutiny of being as well known. Now they are becoming one. [...] The mass market in spectacles did not emerge when they were invented, in 13th-century Italy, but 200 years later, alongside the printed word in Germany, because people wanted to read. In 2018, an estimated 2.5 billion people, mostly in India, Africa and China, are thought to need spectacles, but have no means to have their eyes tested or to buy them. “The visual divide”, as NGOs call it, is one of those vast global shortcomings that suddenly makes sense when you think about it. Across the developing world, straightforward myopia and presbyopia, the medical name for longsightedness, have been linked with everything from high road deaths to low educational achievement and poor productivity in factories. Eye-health campaigners call it the largest untreated disability in the world. [...] Leonardo Del Vecchio is the patron, legend and haunting spirit of the global eyewear business. He is its Citizen Kane and its Captain Ahab. His father died before he was born; his mother was poor; and he was raised in an orphanage in wartime Milan, where he went out to work as a metal engraver at the age of 14. In 1961, Del Vecchio opened a workshop in the town of Agordo, in the Dolomite mountains. He was 25, and starting out on his own. The valley around Agordo was emptying out because of the closure of a mine, and the town was giving away land to companies that were willing to move there. Del Vecchio asked for 3,000 sq metres on the riverbank to build a factory to make parts for spectacles. He had a young family, and in time, he built a house next door to the workshop so he could step from one to the other, starting his day at 3am.

What the Arlee Warriors Were Playing For / New York Times

Starting at noon on Feb. 23, the town of Arlee, Mont., evacuated. Most of its 600-odd residents drove 70 miles south through Missoula and then into the Bitterroot Valley, a river corridor full of subdivisions, trailers, exclusive private communities and ammunition stores. The crowd filtered into the gymnasium at Hamilton High School, wearing red shirts and pins bearing the faces of the Arlee Warriors basketball team, who that evening would be playing the Manhattan Christian Eagles. Manhattan Christian is a faith-based private school near Bozeman. Arlee is a public school on the Flathead Indian Reservation; about half the town is Salish, descendants of the people forced out of the Bitterroot in the 19th century. Manhattan Christian’s boys were tall and muscled; most of Arlee’s players were well under six feet and on the thinner side. Manhattan Christian arrived in a sleek black bus with aerodynamic curvature and tinted windows; Arlee came in a yellow Blue Bird. The Feb. 23 game would be a rematch of the previous year’s Class C state championship, which the Warriors won. On one wall of the gym, Manhattan Christian had hung a banner reading “#unfinished.” Arlee had their own banner, but they did not need it. They had Phillip Malatare.

Murder at the Alcatraz of the Rockies / Atavist

The inside story of the first homicide in America’s most secure prison. [...] ADX Florence, nicknamed the Alcatraz of the Rockies, is where the government locks up the serial killers, terrorists, and drug kingpins considered too dangerous to keep anywhere else. It houses more than 400 inmates, all of them men. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, is there. So is Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center attack, and Terry Nichols, a co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was held there until his transfer to death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 2001. [...] The prison is a veritable fortress. Located about an hour south of Colorado Springs, it’s designed to keep inmates caged and isolated. ADX Florence keeps every prisoner in solitary confinement for upwards of 20 hours per day. For someone to get out, he would have to contend with the thick concrete walls of his cell, remote-controlled steel doors, razor-wire fences, attack dogs, and armed guards. Back in 2005, inmates were rarely permitted more than an hour or two in the rec yards each day, and deciding who was allowed to be outside together was a carefully controlled process. Authorities conducted extensive reviews of disciplinary and arrest records; they monitored inmates’ mail and phone calls. They even posed the question directly to each prisoner: Is there anyone you can’t be grouped with? Men deemed a potential threat to one another weren’t allowed to comingle. With few exceptions, this meant members of rival prison gangs never came into contact. If they did, correctional officers feared, they might try to kill each other on sight. [...] Contrary to its name, the Mexican Mafia didn’t originate south of the border. The group started in 1957 at a juvenile lockup about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Luis Flores, a 16-year-old kid from Los Angeles, hatched a plan to unite rival Mexican American crews into one supergang. Prison was a dangerous place, and the idea was that if they banded together, they’d wield more power and be able to protect themselves. [...] The gang developed an organizational structure not unlike that of a Fortune 500 company, with ranking members and a voting board that weighed in on matters like which new associates to recognize and which hits to approve. But membership wasn’t offered freely. Becoming a mafioso often took years. It required a current member to act as your sponsor and prove your willingness to kill.

Genetics, IQ, and ‘race’ – are genetic differences in intelligence between populations likely? / Wiring the Brain

Last week the Guardian published a piece by me headlined “Why genetic IQ differences between ‘races’ are unlikely”. In it, I argued that the genetic architecture and evolutionary history of intelligence make it different from other traits and inherently unlikely to vary systematically for genetic reasons between large population groups. I was rather quickly taken to task by a number of population geneticists on Twitter for being vague, overly general and hand-wavy, and for ignoring or not citing relevant papers in population genetics. Or indeed, for being flat out wrong. Some of those criticisms may well be valid, but some reflect the limitations of writing a short piece for the general public, so I wanted to go into more detail here on my reasoning. [...] The reason I wrote the piece, for a newspaper in particular, is that there has been a lot of recent public debate about the issue of genetic differences in intelligence between ‘races’, which I felt suffered from an overly casual extrapolation from what we know about the genetics of other traits, especially physical ones. [...] This means that intelligence may, at least partly, reflect overall mutational load in a very general sense. It may, in fact, be not so much a thing in itself, driven by variation in some dedicated genetic and neural modules, but rather a general fitness indicator. This fits with the observation that intelligence correlates with many aspects of general health and longevity – not because being intelligent makes you healthier, but because greater “genomic fitness” makes you both more intelligent and more healthy.

We’re the Good Guys, Right? / n+1

The history of comic book superheroes is one of brief thunderstorms of creativity, followed by long droughts. A surprising number of the heroes you’ve heard of came from one of two four-year bursts of invention, 1938–41, or 1961–64. These are the moments when the culture called forth new myths, when the doors to the pantheon swung open. [...] Marvel's heroes are back again, but with little of the subversive aura that once surrounded them. The Avengers today are led by Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, Marvel’s most conservative characters. A billionaire technologist, the crown prince of an absolute monarchy, and a rabidly nationalistic off-the-books soldier: It’s as if Elon Musk, Mohammed bin Salman, and Oliver North formed a superhero team. And what are the Avengers avenging, precisely? [...] “Hey Cap, how do we know the good guys from the bad guys?” one of the Avengers asks, as he tries to sort HYDRA from SHIELD. “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad,” is Captain America’s less-than-conclusive answer. It’s a quick joke but a meaningful one, because it gets at the central, uncomfortable truth about life in the United States that these movies dance around. The good guys—surveilling everyone’s communications, calling down air strikes, fortifying themselves against the world—look an awful lot like bad guys.

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

Birds of a Feather / Topic
I really enjoyed this piece. It could have gotten three stars, but it's a fairly short essay, and I didn't want it to get lost in the last section. So here it is, leading off this one:

Parrots are very social creatures. In the wild, they live in flocks; in captivity, they like to cuddle and be spoken to by humans, and will even “purr” when held. But if a parrot is ignored or neglected, it will act out, gnawing on wood or tearing at its own feathers. “They’re like three-year-old children,” says photographer Miisha Nash. “They have a lot of capacity for understanding.” [...] That spring I visited a bird farm in suburban Philadelphia. In hay-lined wooden squares resembling those at a farmers market lay squirming piles of baby birds, eyes barely open, their skin goose bumped where feathers were just beginning to grow. This time I was drawn not to the colorful birds but to a bin of African grays, all a soft shade of slate, their budding crimson tails the only splash of color. There was something appealing about their faces, the way the chelonian slope of their heads joined with their majestic black beaks; they seemed solemn and dignified, the Mount Rushmores of the subfamily Psittacinae. One of them was more restless than the others, determined to be noticed. She waddled her way toward me, using nascent wings for leverage, and fit herself into my palm. Through her tissue-paper chest her heart flailed wildly against my skin. [...] Poe required vigilant care, as all babies do. We fed her with a syringe, heating the formula to a precise 103 degrees Fahrenheit, watching her chest—now dusted with dander—fill like a helium balloon. She burbled and chirped as I rubbed the sides of her beak. “Really?” I asked her. “Tell me more.” A few months later she uttered her first word. “Really?” she asked in a slushy version of my voice. “Really?” [...] After mastering a word or phrase through mimicry, she used it in perfect context. “Want some juice!” she sometimes called, adding a gulping noise, an order to fetch orange juice. “Wanna go back” was a command to return her to her cage. “Good morning! Good morning!” she yelled until I got out of bed, then followed with a laugh that sounded exactly like my own. On long days working at home I sometimes treated her like a therapist, confiding my various frustrations. “Oh, shit,” she said, cocking her head. And then: “It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. I love you.”

Google Duplex: An AI System for Accomplishing Real-World Tasks Over the Phone / Google AI Blog
Should our machines sound human? / Kottke
In case you missed it...

Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.

For now, it’s probably the ethical thing to do make sure machines sound like or otherwise identify themselves as artificial. But when the machines cross the AGI threshold, they’ll be advanced enough to decide for themselves how they want to sound and act. I wonder if humans will allow them this freedom. Talk about your moral and ethical dilemmas…

Chasing the Pearl of Lao Tzu / The Atlantic
I'll set expectations low so you enjoy this piece more than I did. After reading the blurb and seeing this story hyped in various places, I was expecting a lot more. Instead, it's a rather confused narrative. I had decided not to include it and only relented when I considered there are some pretty interesting nuggets in here, and I was still glad I had read it:

A tale of ancient philosophers, alien abductions, murder-for-hire—and how the world’s largest pearl came to be the centerpiece of an 80-year-old hoax [...] Legend says the diver drowned retrieving the pearl. Trapped in a giant Tridacna clam, his body was brought to the surface by his fellow tribesmen in Palawan, a province of the Philippines, in May 1934. When the clam was pried open, and the meat scraped out, the local chief beheld something marvelous: a massive pearl, its sheen like satin. In its surface, the chief discerned the face of the Prophet Muhammad. He named it the Pearl of Allah. At 14 pounds, one ounce, it was the largest pearl ever discovered. [...] In 1939, Cobb brought the pearl to New York City, and exhibited it at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, on Broadway. There, a new legend emerged, eclipsing the first. Upon seeing the pearl, Cobb said, an elderly Chinese gentleman “of highest culture and significant wealth” named Mr. Lee “burst into an hysteria of trembling and weeping.” This wasn’t the Pearl of Allah; this was the long-lost Pearl of Lao Tzu.

LeBron or MJ? How the King is settling the GOAT debate / ESPN
An old debate, but with some pretty interesting analytics I hadn't seen before:

Two years ago, when ESPN was ranking the best players in NBA history (result: Jordan first, with James third behind Abdul-Jabbar), I developed a metric that could evaluate the league's greatest stars throughout the decades on a level playing field. The result was championships added, which uses's win shares to estimate how much a player added to his team's chances of walking away with the title that season based on regular-season and playoff performance. Back then, Jordan was first and James third by the numbers, too -- although Chamberlain, not Abdul-Jabbar, occupied the spot between them. [...] That said, accounting for quality of play is an important factor in the GOAT discussion. For instance, without any timeline adjustment for championships added in the playoffs, Jordan would fall behind George Mikan, who dominated a growing NBA still in the process of integrating racially. So I adjust for league quality based on whether returning players play more or fewer minutes per game. When the league improves, minutes per game go down for returnees. When it declines, as with expansion, they tend to play more minutes per game. Because Jordan and James weren't separated by much time, the difference isn't as dramatic as with Mikan. Yet James' leagues still rate on average as 12 percent better than Jordan's, which makes sense given the influx of international talent in that span. [...] When I adjust for league quality, James is no longer merely on the verge of catching Jordan as the greatest player in cumulative value. He already has Jordan in his rearview mirror, with 4.66 total championships added to Jordan's 4.28.

The Happiest Guy in the World? / New York Times (via Kottke, who blurbs it better)

Meet Mario Salcedo, who has spent the last 20 years as a full-time resident of Royal Caribbean cruise ships. [...] You wouldn’t think that watching a video about “The Happiest Guy in the World” would be so depressing. Maybe he’s happy but observing him through filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s lens sure didn’t make me happy. I don’t know quite why, but this reminded me of the writing room for The Onion, where none of the writers laugh at any of the jokes that make it into the paper or onto the website.

I Spent a Weekend With Cyborgs, and Now I Have an RFID Implant I Have No Idea What to Do With / Gizmodo

I came to Grindfest curious about how those on the extreme fringes of body hacking were incorporating technology into their lives and bodies. By the time the weekend was over, I had my own RFID chip implant—a small, potentially powerful electronic lump under the skin of my right hand.

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

I ate nothing for a week, drank water, here is the data [OC] / Reddit
This is pretty cool and covers weight, blood sugar levels, glucose/ketone ratio, etc. Here's the narrative if you want to have more than just the data.

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