Lots of good links this week, just barely missing the 4-star threshold.
Searching for Susy Thunder | The Verge
She was known, back then, as Susan Thunder. For someone in the business of deception, she stood out: she was unusually tall, wide-hipped, with a mane of light blonde hair and a wardrobe of jackets embroidered with band logos, spoils from an adolescence spent as an infamous rock groupie. Her backstage conquests had given her a taste for quaaludes and pharmaceutical-grade cocaine; they’d also given her the ability to sneak in anywhere.
Susan found her way into the hacker underground through the phone network. In the late 1970s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of telephone culture: you could dial-a-joke, dial-a-horoscope, even dial-a-prayer. Susan spent most of her days hanging around on 24-hour conference lines, socializing with obsessives with code names like Dan Dual Phase and Regina Watts Towers. Some called themselves phone phreakers and studied the Bell network inside out; like Susan’s groupie friends, they knew how to find all the back doors.
When the phone system went electric, the LA phreakers studied its interlinked networks with equal interest, meeting occasionally at a Shakey’s Pizza parlor in Hollywood to share what they’d learned: ways to skim free long-distance calls, void bills, and spy on one another. Eventually, some of them began to think of themselves as computer phreakers, and then hackers, as they graduated from the tables at Shakey’s to dedicated bulletin board systems, or BBSes.
Susan followed suit. Her specialty was social engineering. She was a master at manipulating people, and she wasn’t above using seduction to gain access to unauthorized information. Over the phone, she could convince anyone of anything. Her voice honey-sweet, she’d pose as a telephone operator, a clerk, or an overworked secretary: I’m sorry, my boss needs to change his password, can you help me out?
In the early ’80s, Susan and her friends pulled increasingly elaborate phone scams until they nearly shut down phone service for the entire city. As two of her friends, Kevin Mitnick and Lewis DePayne, were being convicted for cybercrime, she made an appearance on 20/20, demonstrating their tradecraft to Geraldo Rivera. Riding her celebrity, she went briefly legit, testifying before the US Senate and making appearances at security conventions, spouting technobabble in cowboy boots and tie-dye. Then, without a trace, she left the world behind.
Bounded Distrust | Astral Codex Ten
As usual, far better than I possibly could, Scott Alexander has articulated an argument that’s existed in my brain as an imprecise jumble of thoughts, about how I can be sure about what I know. For instance, how can I be so sure that what I believe is right, and that what millions of anthropogenic climate change deniers, antivaxxers, and QAnon adherents believe is wrong?
The people who lack this skill entirely think it’s crazy to listen to experts about anything at all. They correctly point out time after time that they’ve lied or screwed up, then ask “so why do you believe them on ivermectin?” or “so why do you believe them on global warming?” My answer — which I don’t think is an obvious or easy answer, it’s a bold claim that could be wrong — is “I think I have a good sense of the dynamics here, how far people will bend the truth, and what it looks like when they do”. I realize this is playing with fire. But listening to experts is a powerful enough hack for finding the truth that it’s worth going pretty far to try to rescue it.
But also: some people are better at this skill than I am. Journalists and people in the upper echelons of politics have honed it so finely that they stop noticing it’s a skill at all. In the Soviet Union, the government would say “We had a good harvest this year!” and everyone would notice they had said good rather than glorious, and correctly interpret the statement to mean that everyone would starve and the living would envy the dead.
Really savvy people go through life rarely ever hearing the government or establishment lie to them. Yes, sometimes false words come out of their mouths. But as Dan Quayle put it:
Our party has been accused of fooling the public by calling tax increases 'revenue enhancement'. Not so. No one was fooled.
Imagine a government that for five years in a row, predicts good harvests. Or, each year, they deny tax increases, but do admit there will be “revenue enhancements”. Savvy people effortlessly understand what they mean, and prepare for bad harvests and high taxes. Clueless people prepare for good harvests and low taxes, lose everything when harvests are bad and taxes are high, and end up distrusting the government.
Then in the sixth year, the government says there will be a glorious harvest, and neither tax increases nor revenue enhancements. Savvy people breath a sigh of relief and prepare for a good year. Clueless people assume they’re lying a sixth time. But to savvy people, the clueless people seem paranoid. The government has said everything is okay! Why are they still panicking?
The savvy people need to realize that the clueless people aren’t always paranoid, just less experienced than they are at dealing with a hostile environment that lies to them all the time.
And the clueless people need to realize that the savvy people aren’t always gullible, just more optimistic about their ability to extract signal from same.
Anatomy of a Murder Confession | The Marshall Project
Texas Ranger James Holland became famous for cajoling killers into confessing to their crimes. But did some of his methods — from lying to suspects to having witnesses hypnotized — ensnare innocent people, too?
Russia as the "Great Satan" in the Liberal Imagination | Richard Hanania
While some of what he says still seems ridiculous to me (but perhaps it’s not?), I’m starting to really appreciate Richard Hanania as someone who intelligently challenges my left-skewed filter bubble. (Tangent: Andrew Sullivan does this as well, but he’s nearly always behind a paywall and, as a self-described conservative who is nevertheless an Obama supporter and Trump hater, he doesn’t quite help me understand the other tribe as well.) Anyway:
I think most people are going to be inherently skeptical of the idea that LGBT and identity politics more generally play such a large role in international affairs. Yet people have less trouble accepting the fact that largely symbolic culture war issues related to race, gender, and sexual orientation drive domestic politics. Foreign policy elites are from the same class that gave us the Great Awokening, and if your model of members of this class involves them being illogical and destructive fanatics on matters of identity (the correct model), you should assume that they take their attitudes with them when thinking about international affairs. Their assumptions, deepest convictions, and construction of reality shape the ways in which we discuss geopolitical issues, which most Americans have no firsthand experience with. […]
Brexit, Trump, and the rise of Orban and other right-wing populists in Europe have helped solidify a narrative in which Russian hackers and influence operations are behind everything liberal elites find distasteful, from opposition to Syrian refugees to bans on Critical Race Theory. Here’s a website laying out all the things Russia has been accused of “weaponizing” in the media, including dolphins, federalism, and the weather. The details of debates surrounding the wisdom of NATO expansion and whether Ukraine actually matters to the United States are lost in the larger story, as emotional denunciations of Putin as the source of all anti-democratic activity drives attitudes and policies. Inconvenient facts are ignored because it’s not really about “democracy,” “international law,” or any of the other words they use to obscure the fact that it’s culture wars all the way down. […]
Once we step aside from culture war resentments and focus on the hard realities of geopolitics, it is clear that Russia will eventually get its way because it cares more about Ukraine than the US does, and has the ability to threaten or use military force to get what it wants. When resolve and capabilities line up on the same side, that side is going to win. And the reason that Americans don’t care about Ukraine is that Ukraine objectively does not matter to the US. All the sophistry in the world coming from MSNBC hosts, ex-generals on the payrolls of defense contractors, and think tank analysts can’t change people’s perceptions here. […]
Even setting aside the geography of the country, there is no instance I’m aware of in which a country or region with a total fertility rate below replacement has fought a serious insurgency. Once you’re the kind of people who can’t inconvenience yourselves enough to have kids, you are not going to risk your lives for a political ideal. When the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, their total fertility rates were 7.4 and 4.7, respectively. Chechnya, where Russia has faced insurgencies in recent decades, experienced a population boom after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was still well above replacement with a TFR of 2.6 in 2020, down from 3.4 in 2009, when the last Chechen war ended. Ukraine is at 1.2. We see numbers like this and don’t stop to appreciate the wide chasm that separates the spiritual lives of nations where the average person has 1 kid from those with 3 or more, much less 6 or 7, each.
‘It’s a glorified backpack of tubes and turbines’: Dave Eggers on jetpacks and the enigma of solo flight | The Guardian
We have jetpacks and we do not care. An Australian named David Mayman has invented a functioning jetpack and has flown it all over the world – once in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty – yet few people know his name. His jetpacks can be bought but no one is clamouring for one. For decades, humans have said they want jetpacks, and for thousands of years we have said we want to fly, but do we really? Look up. The sky is empty. […]
When he returns and begins pouring the fuel into the jetpack, only then does it register just how dicey this seems, and why jetpacks have been slow to be developed and adopted. Though every day we fill our cars’ tanks with highly flammable gasoline, there is – or we pretend there is – a comfortable distance between our frail flesh and this explosive fuel. But carrying this fuel on your back, in a glorified backpack of tubes and turbines, brings the reality of the internal combustion engine home. Just watching the kerosene getting poured into the pack, inches from Wesson’s face, is unsettling. But still, it’s the best technology we have, and it took Mayman 15 years, and dozens of unsuccessful iterations, to get here. […]
After he ducks out of the jetpack, Wesson collapses on the plastic chair next to Yancey, his face bright pink and limbs limp. He’s flown just about every kind of airplane and helicopter, but “that”, he says, “is the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.
Which is why I let Jesse go next. […]
Mayman fills the pack with kerosene, and steps back to the side of the tarmac, remote control in hand. Jarry asks if I’m ready. I tell him I’m ready. The jets ignite. The sound is like a category 5 hurricane passing through a drainpipe. Jarry turns an invisible throttle, and I mimic his movements with the real throttle. The sound grows louder. He turns his invisible throttle more, and I turn mine. Now the sound hits a fever pitch, and I feel the thrust down the back of my calves. I step ever so slightly forward, and lock my legs together. (This is why jetpack wearers have their legs stiff like toy soldiers – any deviation is quickly punished by 800-degree jet exhaust.) Jarry mimes more throttle, I give it more throttle, and slowly I leave the earth. It is nothing like weightlessness. Instead, I feel my every pound, feel just how much thrust it takes to get me and this machine to levitate.
A Solution to the Faint-Sun Paradox Reveals a Narrow Window for Life | Quanta
Back when the sun was 30% dimmer, Earth should have frozen solid. Yet water flowed and life blossomed. The solution to the paradox shows that we might have that faint sun to owe for life’s existence — with critical consequences for the possibility of life outside Earth.
Why is Ukraine such an economic failure? | Noahpinion
Ukraine is a middle-income country. Its GDP per capita (PPP) is somewhere around $13000, which is similar to Libya or Paraguay. That’s not terrible, but what is terrible is how Ukraine has stagnated since the fall of the Soviet Union. By the World Bank’s reckoning, Ukraine is about 20% poorer now than it was in 1990! […]
If Ukraine had experienced growth similar to that of Poland or Romania since the fall of communism, it would now have a GDP in the $30,000-$35,000 range, and would essentially be a developed country. Even if it had only managed to match Belarus’ performance, it would be half again as rich as it is now. As things stand, Ukraine’s economic failure has left it less capable of defending itself. It also might have made Russia’s public more likely to support intervention in Ukraine, as Putin’s portrayal of Ukraine as a basket case has been a key part of his justification for aggression.
Wall Street’s Wisest Man
I did this interview with the renowned investment consultant Charley Ellis in June 2001. It still rings true, because wisdom never goes out of style. I especially like the part where he talks about how investing, like manufacturing cookies or toothpaste, is supposed to be boring: “If you find anything interesting, you’ve found something wrong.” […]
Q. You’ve often said that long-term investors should root for stocks to go down, not up. Why?
A. If you’re buying something, wouldn’t you rather pay less for it than more? When stocks get cheaper, how can that not be good news for a long-term investor? There are very few times when you should be bold, and history shows that those times are precisely when it seems you should be most afraid. It’s absolutely cockamamie crazy to sell stocks after they drop. Instead, you should say, “Today there’s a first-rate bargain and I’m buying.” […]
Q. Why index funds?
A. Watch a pro football game, and it’s obvious the guys on the field are far faster, stronger and more willing to bear and inflict pain than you are. Surely you would say, “I don’t want to play against those guys!” Well, 90% of stock market volume is done by institutions, and half of that is done by the world’s 50 largest investment firms, deeply committed, vastly well prepared — the smartest sons of bitches in the world working their tails off all day long. You know what? I don’t want to play against those guys either.
But I don’t have to play against them. Instead, I can hire them — by buying an index fund. Then they all work for me for free, because stock prices express the best judgment of all the investors out there. Most of the time, those prices are approximately right, so most of the time you’ll be wrong if you second-guess them. […]
I’m not smart enough to succeed the intellectual way, and I can’t work hard enough to succeed the physical way. But the emotionally difficult way takes very little time and makes no intellectual or physical demands on you at all. Statistically, judging by how the public invests, most people don’t like the emotionally difficult path. Then again, more and more people are trying it; the amount of money in index funds has been rising year after year. The emotional path is the only reliable way that I know of to succeed.
Labor Econ Versus the World | Marginal Revolution
Where I differ from Bryan Caplan’s Labor Econ Versus the World | Marginal Revolution
What are these “central tenets of our secular religion” and what’s wrong with them?
Tenet #1: The main reason today’s workers have a decent standard of living is that government passed a bunch of laws protecting them.
Critique: High worker productivity plus competition between employers is the real reason today’s workers have a decent standard of living. In fact, “pro-worker” laws have dire negative side effects for workers, especially unemployment.
Tenet #2: Strict regulation of immigration, especially low-skilled immigration, prevents poverty and inequality.
Critique: Immigration restrictions massively increase the poverty and inequality of the world – and make the average American poorer in the process. Specialization and trade are fountains of wealth, and immigration is just specialization and trade in labor.
Tenet #3: In the modern economy, nothing is more important than education.
Critique: After making obvious corrections for pre-existing ability, completion probability, and such, the return to education is pretty good for strong students, but mediocre or worse for weak students.
Tenet #4: The modern welfare state strikes a wise balance between compassion and efficiency.
Critique: The welfare state primarily helps the old, not the poor – and 19th-century open immigration did far more for the absolutely poor than the welfare state ever has.
Tenet #5: Increasing education levels is good for society.
Critique: Education is mostly signaling; increasing education is a recipe for credential inflation, not prosperity.
One thing I liked about reading this book is I was able to narrow down my disagreements with Bryan to a smaller number of dimensions. And to be clear, I agree with a great deal of what is in this book, but that does not make for an interesting blog post. So let’s focus on where we differ. One point of disagreement surfaces when Bryan writes:
Tenet #6: Racial and gender discrimination remains a serious problem, and without government regulation, would still be rampant.
Critique: Unless government requires discrimination, market forces make it a marginal issue at most. Large group differences persist because groups differ largely in productivity.
I would instead stress that most of the inequity occurs upstream of labor markets, through the medium of culture. It is simply much harder to be born in the ghetto! I am fine with not calling this “discrimination,” and indeed I do not myself use the word that way. Still, it is a significant inequity, and it is at least an important a lesson about labor markets as what Bryan presents to you.
Predictions for 2050 | Slime Mold Time Mold
Erik Hoel makes a list of predictions for 2050.
This may seem like the far-flung future, but as Hoel points out, it’s only 28 years away. Making predictions for 2050 based on what we see today is just like sitting in the early ‘90s and predicting what the world will look like in the 2020s.
Hoel makes his predictions based on a simple insight: change is incremental, and the minor trends of today are the institutional changes of tomorrow. If you want to know what 2050 will look like, think about the nascent trends of the early 2020s and project them into the future. […]
We think this approach is really smart. In fact, we like it so much that we wanted to take it for a test drive. In this post, we make our own set of predictions for 2050, using Hoel’s method of picking out trends that we suspect will go on to shape the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s. […]
Europe will become less important, regional politics more important, and general de-globalization
Europe was a technological and cultural backwater for most of history. Then, in the 16th century, Europe began a period of explosive growth and development, sometimes called the Great Divergence. There’s a lot of interesting debate as to why this happened, but it definitely did happen.
It was also definitely a historical anomaly, and there are already signs of things going back to the way they were. There was a crunch in favor of Europa and her direct offshoots up to the middle of the 20th century, but since 1950 things have been turning around.
The Tale of Tiffany | CGP Grey [YouTube]
Someone Dead Ruined My Life… Again. | CGP Grey [YouTube]
In case you don’t know about CGP Grey…well, you really should. These two videos are good examples of his endearing quirkiness and perfectionism.
Tiffany is a very neon 80s name, and not without reason. It exploded in popularity during the decade. But despite Tiffany's modern sound the name wasn't born in the 80s. Tiffany is at least 80 decades old.
It all began with these articles I read saying the name Tiffany is very old, maybe medieval. What a cute and easy video Past-Grey thought, and it could have been if I'd just left things alone, but no, I wanted to read the article sources, which turned out didn't often contain the name Tiffany at all, but rather the ye-olden-name Theophania, or the super-old Theophanu.
Exit Strategy, a Time-Loop Story | Kottke
In this short film, a man stuck in a 24-hour time loop enlists his firefighter brother to stop a fire that will cause many deaths. But their efforts repeatedly fail to change the ultimate outcome of the day and they’re left with what really mattered all along.
Study Challenges Evolutionary Theory That DNA Mutations Are Random | UC Davis
The scientists found that the way DNA was wrapped around different types of proteins was a good predictor of whether a gene would mutate or not. “It means we can predict which genes are more likely to mutate than others and it gives us a good idea of what’s going on,” Weigel said.
The findings add a surprising twist to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection because it reveals that the plant has evolved to protect its genes from mutation to ensure survival.
“The plant has evolved a way to protect its most important places from mutation,” Weigel said. “This is exciting because we could even use these discoveries to think about how to protect human genes from mutation.”
Pass the Ball | Vimeo
3 second animation of a ball.
Pass it to someone in another country
They pick up where you left off.
40 months in the making...
How Cascatelli, the Hot New Pasta Shape, Is Made | Kottke
Eater recently visited the Sfoglini factory to see how cascatelli (and all of their other pastas) are made. Interesting tidbit from the video: Sfoglini originally thought they would sell 5000 boxes and be done, but cascatelli is now the company’s third-best-selling pasta with no signs of slowing down