Sorry for skipping last week...I had actually found a decent amount of good articles, but time got away from me over the weekend. And now I'm on holiday, which meant an 8-hour plane ride mostly spent reading. All of which is to say that this is going to be a really long e-mail with several good pieces. Enjoy!
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The art of stealing / NRC
Olga is on her own. Her son is in prison, being held on suspicion of having committed what they are calling on television ‘the art theft of the century’. She knows that the accusation is correct. Along with friends, her son Radu stole seven valuable artworks from a museum in Rotterdam, loaded them into a car and drove them to Romania. There, in Carcaliu, a remote village at the poor south-eastern tip of the country, Olga stands in front of the heating stove in the bathroom. A short while ago she lit the fire then stepped out into the biting cold, making her way to the small graveyard opposite her house where, in the dead of night, she dug up the paintings and brought them back inside. Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Meijer de Haan and Freud. On television they are talking about a loot worth hundreds of millions of euros. The amount is not important to her. The pictures are evidence against her son and destroying the evidence seems like the only way she can help him. The artworks go up like tindersticks. [...] Early in the morning of 16th October 2012, seven valuable artworks were stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. The theft was world news. But what first seemed like a sophisticated burglary by professionals, turned out to be the work of a few small-time Romanian criminals who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They knew about house burglaries, not art, and they certainly didn’t know about selling art. This is the story of the Kunsthal robbery, based on the case files and conversations with those involved.
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Schlitterbahn’s Tragic Slide / Texas Monthly
Jeff often said that his goal in life was to make Schlitterbahn customers happy—“to put a smile on their faces, to give them a thrill or two,” he told me during one of our conversations this summer. “I’m a water showman. That’s what I do.” And Verrückt, a ride that lasted only eighteen seconds, was considered to be his crowning achievement. When the slide opened to the public, in July 2014, riders’ reviews were a publicist’s dream. (“Most amazing ride I’ve ever ridden.” “Like dropping out of the sky.” “Terrifying and horrible and terrific.”) By the time young Caleb climbed Verrückt’s stairs, some 100,000 adrenaline junkies, a few of whom had flown in from across the world, had ridden Verrückt, and Jeff was planning to build a second version of the slide at the Schlitterbahn in Galveston. [...] He said that if he was demanding and impatient, it was because he was consumed with making Schlitterbahn the best water park in the world. In a black notebook, he constantly wrote down ideas for new rides he wanted to build. To get even more ideas, he pored over the history of Roman aqueducts and leafed through Jules Verne novels. He never got a conventional education beyond high school and never formally studied physics or engineering. And that never worried the people around him. “That would be like someone being concerned that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a college degree,” his brother told me. [...] When Jeff and Schooley erected Verrückt, the state charged, they had knowingly created a “deadly weapon.” Instead of using fundamental mathematical and physics calculations to design and build the ride, the two men had “rushed forward relying almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods.” And although they realized that their finished product “guaranteed that rafts would occasionally go airborne in a manner that could severely injure or kill the occupants,” they went ahead and opened the ride anyway. To make matters worse, the grand jury charged, operations director Miles had deliberately concealed evidence about Verrückt’s dangers, going so far as to give a police detective false information.
How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions / The Daily Beast
I did not know this happened...crazy:
Jerome Jacobson and his network of mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, and drug traffickers won almost every prize for 12 years, until the FBI launched Operation ‘Final Answer.’ [...] Inside Hoover’s home, Amy Murray, a loyal McDonald’s spokesperson, encouraged him to tell the camera about the luckiest moment of his life. Nervously clutching his massive check, Hoover said he’d fallen asleep on the beach. When he bent over to wash off the sand, his People magazine fell into the sea. He bought another copy from a grocery store, he said, and inside was an advertising insert with the “Instant Win” game piece. The camera crew listened patiently to his rambling story, silently recognizing the inconsequential details found in stories told by liars. They suspected that Hoover was not a lucky winner, but part of a major criminal conspiracy to defraud the fast-food chain of millions of dollars. The two men behind the camera were not from McDonald’s. They were undercover agents from the FBI. This was a McSting.
Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change / New York Times
I read somewhere that this is the longest piece that the Times has ever published, at over 30,000 words. It's very good, but you've been warned:
Editor’s Note: This narrative by Nathaniel Rich is a work of history, addressing the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989: the decisive decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. Complementing the text is a series of aerial photographs and videos, all shot over the past year by George Steinmetz. With support from the Pulitzer Center, this two-part article is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews. It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe. It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.
Growing Up Jobs / Vanity Fair
During the time my mother was pregnant, my father started work on a computer that would later be called the Lisa. It was the precursor to the Macintosh, the first mass-market computer with an external mouse—the mouse as large as a block of cheese. But it was too expensive, a commercial failure; my father began on the team working for it, but then started working against it, competing against it, on the Mac team. The Lisa computer was discontinued, the 3,000 unsold computers later buried in a landfill in Logan, Utah. Until I was two, my mother supplemented her welfare payments by cleaning houses and waitressing. My father didn’t help. She found babysitting at a day-care center inside a church run by the minister’s wife, and for a few months we lived in a room in a house that my mother had found on a notice board meant for women considering adoption. Then, in 1980, the district attorney of San Mateo County, California, sued my father for child-support payments. My father responded by denying paternity, swearing in a deposition that he was sterile and naming another man he said was my father. I was required to take a DNA test. The tests were new then, and when the results came back, they gave the odds that we were related as the highest the instruments could measure at the time: 94.4 percent. The court required my father to cover welfare back payments, child-support payments of $385 per month, which he increased to $500, and medical insurance until I was 18. The case was finalized on December 8, 1980, with my father’s lawyers insistent to close. Four days later Apple went public and overnight my father was worth more than $200 million. But before that, just after the court case was finalized, my father came to visit me once at our house in Menlo Park, where we had rented a detached studio. It was the first time I’d seen him since I’d been a newborn in Oregon. “You know who I am?” he asked. He flipped his hair out of his eyes. I was three years old; I didn’t. “I’m your father.” (“Like he was Darth Vader,” my mother said later, when she told me the story.) “I’m one of the most important people you will ever know,” he said.
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Are Kilian Jornet's Speed Records Too Good to Be True? / Outside
The Spanish ultra-athlete has spent the past decade crushing a generation of elite rivals and redefining the limits of human endurance. But when he notched back-to-back speed ascents of Everest in 2017, critics pounced on the claims. [...] Everest was the culmination of the Summits of My Life project, which Jornet began in 2012 in an attempt to establish speed records on a collection of iconic peaks, including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Elbrus, Denali, and Aconcagua. By then, at age 24, racing had lost its luster. He continued to compete—he liked meeting people, enjoyed the milieu—but he’d already won everything there was to win, often multiple times, including marquee pain parties like Colorado’s Hardrock 100, the 106-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), and Alaska’s brief but brutal Mount Marathon. Summits was a chance to pursue more imaginative, independent projects, moving how he liked, fast and free, on his own schedule.
The World’s Most Peculiar Company / Chicago Magazine
How does catalog-loving retailer Hammacher Schlemmer, famous for such eccentric and extravagant products as the Navigable Water Park, continue to survive in the age of Amazon?
Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy With the Rolling Stones at Altamont / Vulture
The wait after the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s set had extended for an uncomfortably long time. The Rolling Stones stayed in their trailers as darkness fell, and the crowd was left to stew, smoking joints and popping pills and sipping from bottles and cans to keep warm. [...] Two groups of young men faced each other, almost close enough to shake hands, or at least exchange greetings. On the one side, in their backstage trailer, a British rock group selling a persona two parts prince-of-darkness allure and one part hippie goodwill, all held together by a furious two-pronged guitar attack; on the other, surrounding the stage, a clan of California bikers, increasingly bitter over the thankless job they had been tasked with and sorely tempted to lash out violently. The Rolling Stones and the Hells Angels stared at each other from across a vast gulf, separated by mutual incomprehension. [...] People poked at the windows, shouting and pining for a glimpse of the Stones. The band hoped to play an abbreviated set, then call a halt to the misbegotten concert and send the fans home. The Rolling Stones asked the Hells Angels to escort them to the stage, but Sonny Barger and the other Angels were turned off by what they saw as the band’s antics. Why had they waited so long to play before a clearly violent, dyspeptic crowd? Barger did not like what he saw as an unnecessary delay, intended, as he saw it, to heighten the dramatic tension on an already unbearably tense day. The Hells Angels would no longer serve as bodyguards to “a bunch of sissy, marble-mouthed prima donnas.” [...] The counterculture for which Altamont was intended to be yet another coming-out party prided itself on its political progressive-mindedness, devoted as it was to ending the war in Vietnam and advancing the cause of civil rights. [...] But the brutish corners of American life lingered, even in the very epicenter of hippie ecstasy, and no amount of wishing away the bloody reality of racially motivated hatred and discord rampant in American life with paeans to harmony could make it otherwise. The counterculture was idealistic but blinkered, and Altamont was its metaphoric nadir. One young black man died while thousands of white concertgoers carried on enjoying themselves, unable to see or hear the news of his brutal fate.
Judgment days / Washington Post
In a small Alabama town, an evangelical congregation reckons with God, President Trump and the meaning of morality [...] It was summer, and all over the Bible Belt, support for President Trump was rising among voters who had traditionally proclaimed the importance of Christian character in leaders and warned of the slippery slope of moral compromise. In Crenshaw County, where Luverne is located, Trump had won 72 percent of the vote. Recent national polls showed the president’s approval among white evangelical Christians at a high of 77 percent. One survey indicated that his support among Southern Baptists was even higher, surpassing 80 percent, and these were the people arriving on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say. [...] It was a low-brick house where the Baptists kept stacks of pamphlets about abstaining from premarital sex, alcohol, smoking and other behaviors they felt corrupted Christian character, which was not something Jewell worried about with Trump. “I think they are trying to frame him,” she said, referring to the unflattering stories about the president. [...] “We stick strictly to the Bible that a divorced man is not able to be a deacon,” said Jack, who said it was uncomfortable being such a Bible stickler and supporting a president alleged to have committed adultery with a porn star. “It’s difficult, that’s for sure,” he said, sitting with his wife in the church basement. The way he and Linda had come to think of it, Trump was no worse than a long list of other American presidents from the Founding Fathers on.
What Makes a Hit / Columbia Business School
I'll admit I haven't read the paper, but the methodology used here seems rather suspect to me; however, this still amounts to a well-executed, interactive tour of the last 60 years of popular music:
For a multi-billion dollar industry, popular music gets a bad rap. Pop music is often derided as insipid and endlessly recycled, and critics of the Top 40 often suggest that the key to making a hit is to copy and paste an earlier success with nothing more than some superficial variation. But recent research suggests that the opposite may be true. In their paper “What Makes Popular Culture Popular? Product Features and Optimal Differentiation in Music,” professors Michael Mauskapf of Columbia Business School and Noah Askin of INSEAD analyzed 60 years worth of tracks from the Billboard Hot 100, and found that the songs that chart highest tend to be less similar to their predecessors. When it comes to getting to the top of the charts, it pays to be different — though not too different.
SpaceX’s Secret Weapon Is Gwynne Shotwell / Bloomberg Businessweek
She launches spaceships, sells rockets, and deals with Elon Musk. [...] The 54-year-old engineer has worked with Musk since SpaceX’s founding in 2002, longer than almost any executive at any Musk company. She manages about 6,000 SpaceX employees and translates her boss’s far-out ideas into sustainable businesses—whether it means selling customers on a rocket or telling them not to read too much into @elonmusk. She’s succeeded remarkably. In fact, SpaceX, the business, might be as impressive as SpaceX, the showcase for Muskian wizardry.
An Enormous Study of the Genes Related to Staying in School / The Atlantic
It’s uncontroversial to say that people who are born into rich families are more likely to fare better in school than those from poorer backgrounds. Of course, poor kids can still soar in school, and rich ones can flunk out, but few would deny that money is a powerful influence on people’s futures. Now, consider that household income explains just 7 percent of the variation in educational attainment, which is less than what genes can now account for. “Most social scientists wouldn’t do a study without accounting for socioeconomic status, even if that’s not what they’re interested in,” says Harden. The same ought to be true of our genes.
A small-town couple left behind a stolen painting worth over $100 million — and a big mystery / Washington Post
Jerry and Rita Alter kept to themselves. They were a lovely couple, neighbors in the small New Mexico town of Cliff would later tell reporters. But no one knew much about them. They may have been hiding a decades-old secret, pieces of which are now just emerging. Among them: After the couple died, a stolen Willem de Kooning painting with an estimated worth of $160 million was discovered in their bedroom. More than 30 years ago, that same painting disappeared the day after Thanksgiving from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. And Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that a family photo had surfaced, showing that the day before the painting vanished, the couple was, in fact, in Tucson.
Color or Fruit? On the Unlikely Etymology of "Orange" / Literary Hub
Orange, however, seems to be the only basic color word for which no other word exists in English. There is only orange, and the name comes from the fruit. Tangerine doesn’t really count. Its name also comes from a fruit, a variety of the orange, but it wasn’t until 1899 that “tangerine” appears in print as the name of a color—and it isn’t clear why we require a new word for it. This seems no less true for persimmon and for pumpkin. There is just orange. But there was no orange, at least before oranges came to Europe.
The Peculiar Math That Could Underlie the Laws of Nature / Quanta
In 2014, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, named Cohl Furey rented a car and drove six hours south to Pennsylvania State University, eager to talk to a physics professor there named Murat Günaydin. Furey had figured out how to build on a finding of Günaydin’s from 40 years earlier — a largely forgotten result that supported a powerful suspicion about fundamental physics and its relationship to pure math. The suspicion, harbored by many physicists and mathematicians over the decades but rarely actively pursued, is that the peculiar panoply of forces and particles that comprise reality spring logically from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers called “octonions.”
Tokyo’s Long Lines Lead to Magic (and Life-Changing Ramen) / Afar
Queuing is a big deal in Japan, a physical exercise of the principles of discipline and etiquette that are drilled into every schoolchild and reinforced for every adult. People line up, without apparent impatience, not only at ramen restaurants and store cash registers, but to board subway trains, nab a taxi at a stand, and enter elevators. After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake—an event so tectonically powerful that it shifted the entire main island of Japan eight feet eastward and spat up a towering tsunami that ravaged the country’s northeast—the world watched in awe as millions of affected Japanese refrained almost entirely from looting, and instead waited in calm, orderly lines to receive supplies, sometimes for 12 hours or more. Next to that, how can my aversion to a queue mean anything at all? I realized that⎯like Leah, like everyone else in Tokyo—like it or not, I was going to have to become a person who waits.
10 of the best words in the world (that don't translate into English) / The Guardian
One of the ten:
Lunch – and it is more usually lunch than dinner – will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here. The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day. The world may not have been put completely to rights by the end of the sobremesa, but it will seem a calmer, more benign place.
The Spy Who Drove Me / GQ
Last week, as America’s top national security experts convened in Aspen, a strangely inquisitive Uber driver showed up, too. And caused a minor freak-out. Was the mystery woman some kind of covert agent—or simply a figment of these hyper-paranoid times?
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A New Study Says You Should Stop Playing Hard-to-Get / Curiosity
Playing hard to get can be, well ... hard. You'd love to talk to that cutie you met at the bar, but your friends say you aren't supposed to call or text for at least a few days. And even then, you should come off as cool and indifferent, right? It turns out that the whole "playing it cool" act was never rooted in science in the first place. New research has even more good news: Playing hard-to-get might make your would-be boo less attracted to you. Finally, we can all relax!
This Is What Happened When I Asked My Friends to Rate Me / GQ
We’re all constantly being judged and rated these days—or else judging and rating other people (Uber drivers, Tinder dates). It can make a person feel s#!%ty. But what if we opened ourselves up and tried to find out what all these ratings really say about us? Clay Skipper took the ultimate personal-ratings challenge.
How Trump Won Re-election in 2020 / New York Times
A sneak peek at the Times’s news analysis from Nov. 4, 2020. [...] With neither a recession nor a major war to run against, Democrats sought instead to cast the election in starkly moral terms. Yet by Election Day, the charge that Mr. Trump is morally or intellectually unfit for office had been made so often that it had lost most of its former edge among swing voters. “I don’t care if he lies or exaggerates in his tweets or breaks his vows to his wife, so long as he keeps his promises to me,” Leah Rownan, a self-described social conservative from Henderson, Nev., told The Times, citing the economy and Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominations as decisive for her vote. “And he has.”
This AI makes high-quality slow motion videos from regular 30 fps video / Kottke
NVIDIA trained a deep learning framework to take videos filmed at 30 fps and turn them into slow motion videos at the equivalent of 240 or even 480 fps. Even though the system is guessing on the content in the extra frames, the final results look amazingly sharp and lifelike.
This 6-Year-Old Might Be The Best Running Back Of All Time? / Digg
Think back to when you were six years old, awkwardly trying to corral your limbs into playing a sport with some semblance of coordination. Now watch 6-year-old Rudolph Ingram play flag football.
As Google Maps Renames Neighborhoods, Residents Fume / New York Times
For decades, the district south of downtown and alongside San Francisco Bay here was known as either Rincon Hill, South Beach or South of Market. This spring, it was suddenly rebranded on Google Maps to a name few had heard: the East Cut. The peculiar moniker immediately spread digitally, from hotel sites to dating apps to Uber, which all use Google’s map data. The name soon spilled over into the physical world, too. Real-estate listings beckoned prospective tenants to the East Cut. And news organizations referred to the vicinity by that term. “It’s degrading to the reputation of our area,” said Tad Bogdan, who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years. In a survey of 271 neighbors that he organized recently, he said, 90 percent disliked the name.
What a musical conductor actually does on stage / Kottke
I love hearing people talk about how they work. In this quick video, conductor James Gaffigan explains what it is he does on stage and how different composers like Leonard Bernstein shape and enhance the performance of the musicians they’re leading.
Urban data scientist Geoff Boeing graphed the orientation of the streets in 50 cities from around the world. Here are 10 cities from his analysis.
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