Apologies for the hiatus -- but it looks like getting back to sending weekly is realistic. Also, on the bright side, there's a ton of great stuff this week. I had taken a break from compiling this e-mail but not from reading, so I was able to be particularly selective when putting this together.
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Nuance: A Love Story (My affair with the intellectual dark web) / Medium
Those of you who know me know that I like nuance. If anything, I like it too much. So the way public discourse has degenerated into black-and-white soundbites is frustrating. And it won't be a surprise that I loved this piece by Meghan Daum:
Questions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries requiring scrutiny and nuance were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, especially as far as liberal types were concerned. I first noticed it with issues pertaining to feminism. If, for instance, you suggested that (or even wondered aloud if) the gender wage gap might not be due entirely to systemic sexism but also to women’s interests, choices, and the inconvenient but unavoidable realities of pregnancy and young-child rearing, you were likely to be labeled an internalized misogynist. This same dynamic played out in other spheres of public debate, of course: gun control, immigration, and due process in campus sexual assault cases, to name a few. If you more or less toed the requisite liberal line but thought there were some gray areas that warranted consideration, you were quite possibly on the wrong side of history. If you called for nuance, you were part of the problem. [...] For the most part, though, I spent most of my adulthood fairly aligned with the kinds of people I’d gone to college with. That we were all on the same team was simply a given. We all read the New York Times, listened to NPR, and voted for Democrats. We would all go to the mat for women’s rights, gay rights, or pretty much any rights other than gun rights. We lived, for the most part, in big cities in blue states. When Barack Obama came into the picture, we loved him with the delirium of crushed-out teenagers, perhaps less for his policies than for being the kind of person who also listens to NPR. We loved Hillary Clinton with the fraught resignation of a daughter’s love for her mother. We loved her even if we didn’t like her. We were liberals, after all. We were family. [...] For me, it was as if the obscure indie rock band I’d been following for years suddenly hit it big. I was excited but also a little worried. For starters, “intellectual dark web” was a terrible name. It reeked of sci-fi histrionics and, moreover, was too easily confused with that cybercrook-choked subbasement of the internet known as the regular “dark web.” Not that it was any better than the name I’d privately assigned them: Free Speech YouTube. What will I do tonight? Make some popcorn and hang out with Free Speech YouTube! I didn’t agree with my Free Speech YouTube friends on every point; far from it. Still, I was invigorated, even electrified, by their willingness to ask (if not ever totally answer) questions that had lately been deemed too messy somehow to deal with in mainstream public discourse.
How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million / New York Times
This is from July, and even though it came up a number of times in my various feeds, I hadn't gotten around to reading it. I finally did this week after it was referred to in an e-mail newsletter as "the best article of 2018." I wouldn't go that far, but it's pretty good, and deeper than I would have guessed:
At first, Goop — so named not just for her initials and for, you know, goop, but because someone along the way told her that all the successful internet companies had double O’s — appealed to an audience that admired G.P.’s rarefied lifestyle. [...] By the time she stood in that Harvard classroom, Goop was a clothing manufacturer, a beauty company, an advertising hub, a publishing house, a podcast producer and a portal of health-and-healing information, and soon it would become a TV-show producer. It was a clearinghouse of alternative health claims, sex-and-intimacy advice and probes into the mind, body and soul. There was no part of the self that Goop didn’t aim to serve. “I want to help you solve problems,” G.P. said. “I want to be an additive to your life.” Goop is now worth $250 million, according to a source close to the company. [...] The minute the phrase “having it all” lost favor among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces. It was a way to reorient ourselves — we were not in service to anyone else, and we were worthy subjects of our own care. It wasn’t about achieving; it was about putting ourselves at the top of a list that we hadn’t even previously been on. Wellness was maybe a result of too much having it all, too much pursuit, too many boxes that we’d seen our exhausted mothers fall into bed without checking off. Wellness arrived because it was gravely needed. Before we knew it, the wellness point of view had invaded everything in our lives: Summer-solstice sales are wellness. Yoga in the park is wellness. Yoga at work is wellness. Yoga in Times Square is peak wellness. [...] The weirder Goop went, the more its readers rejoiced. And then, of course, the more Goop was criticized: by mainstream doctors with accusations of pseudoscience, by websites like Slate and Jezebel saying it was no longer ludicrous — no, now it was dangerous. And elsewhere people would wonder how Gwyneth Paltrow could try to solve our problems when her life seemed almost comically problem-free. But every time there was a negative story about her or her company, all that did was bring more people to the site — among them those who had similar kinds of questions and couldn’t find help in mainstream medicine.
Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Breaks Democracy? / New Yorker
Ancient Rome became a lifelong fascination, first because of the language (“It’s very much like coding or math, and so I appreciated that”) and then because of the history. Zuckerberg told me, “You have all these good and bad and complex figures. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.” For non-classics majors: Augustus Caesar, born in 63 B.C., staked his claim to power at the age of eighteen and turned Rome from a republic into an empire by conquering Egypt, northern Spain, and large parts of central Europe. He also eliminated political opponents, banished his daughter for promiscuity, and was suspected of arranging the execution of his grandson. “What are the trade-offs in that?” Zuckerberg said, growing animated. “On the one hand, world peace is a long-term goal that people talk about today. Two hundred years feels unattainable.” On the other hand, he said, “that didn’t come for free, and he had to do certain things.” In 2012, Zuckerberg and Chan spent their honeymoon in Rome. He later said, “My wife was making fun of me, saying she thought there were three people on the honeymoon: me, her, and Augustus. All the photos were different sculptures of Augustus.” The couple named their second daughter August. [...] As Facebook grew, Zuckerberg and his executives adopted a core belief: even if people criticized your decisions, they would eventually come around. In one of the first demonstrations of that idea, in 2006, Facebook introduced the News Feed, a feature that suddenly alerted friends whenever a user changed profile pictures, joined groups, or altered a relationship status. (Until then, users had to visit a friend’s page to see updates.) Users revolted. There was a street protest at the headquarters, and hundreds of thousands of people joined a Facebook group opposing the change. Zuckerberg posted a tepid apology (“Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”), and people got used to the feed. [...] In 2006, Zuckerberg made his most unpopular decision at the fledgling company. Yahoo was offering a billion dollars to buy Facebook and, as Matt Cohler, a top aide at the time, recalls, “Our growth had stalled out.” Cohler and many others implored Zuckerberg to take the offer, but he refused. “I think nearly all of his leadership team lost faith in him and in the business,” Cohler said. Zuckerberg told me that most of his leadership “left within eighteen months. Some of them I had to fire because it was just too dysfunctional. It just completely blew up. But the thing that I learned from that is, if you stick with your values and with what you believe you want to be doing in the world, you can get through. Sometimes it will take some time, and you have to rebuild, but that’s a pretty powerful lesson.” [...] The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve “problem after problem after problem,” no matter the howling from the public it may cause. At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it.
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Runs in the Family / ESPN
Quite moving and highly recommended:
Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough went searching for his biological parents. He found them where he never would have expected.
How We Know Kavanaugh Is Lying / Current Affairs
Every time Ford and Kavanaugh dodged a question, in one chart / Vox
I do my best to read pieces from across the political spectrum, but there's no doubt I lean decidedly left (by American standards...I may well be right-leaning here in London). So I admit I come into this Kavanaugh situation with some bias, but, well, the titles of these two articles give you a fair idea of which position I find more credible.
What is the best way, then, to figure out the truth? It’s absolutely the case that Christine Ford has no eyewitnesses to support her. She cannot remember exactly where the assault happened, or exactly when. She can’t remember all the people who were at the house, and the people she does say were there have said they have no memory of the event. She told nobody about it at the time. Looking at these facts, we can see how someone strongly committed to due process might think the allegation extremely weak. [...] Not quite. The existence of a “he said, she said” does not mean it’s impossible to figure out the truth. It means we have to examine what he said, and what she said, as closely as possible. If both parties speak with passion and clarity, but one of them says many inconsistent, evasive, irrational, and false things, while the other does not, then we actually have a very good indicator of which party is telling the truth. If a man claims to be innocent, but does things—like carefully manipulate words to avoid giving clear answers, or lie about the evidence—that you probably wouldn’t do if you were innocent, then testimony alone can substantially change our confidence in who to believe.
Beyond the style of their testimonies, there was a striking difference in the content of their words. Both Ford and Kavanaugh fielded questions from senators and the prosecutor hired by Republicans, Rachel Mitchell. But only Ford made an effort to answer every single question. Kavanaugh actively dodged questions. He often repeated the same non-answer over and over. Other times, he insisted on answering a question with “context” — which inevitably was a long story about his childhood — but never actually answered the question. We went through the transcript of the hearing and noted every single time a question was asked of Ford and Kavanaugh. (We didn’t include the times a questioner didn’t ask an explicit question.) Then we noted every instance in which answered the question or said they didn’t know the answer — and we also noted every time they either refused to answer or gave an answer that didn’t address the question. Here are the results.
The million-dollar brownstone that no one owned / The Outline
On December 12, 2013, a three-story brick townhouse in a swank part of Brooklyn sold for $20,000. A mysterious organization called AOTA LLC bought it from a guy named Barrington Adrian, who had bought it 10 years before from Rosa Perez, a Puerto Rican lady, who had lived there for 30 years with her son Eddie, and still lived there when I moved in in 2011. How could a house in a desirable neighborhood sell for less than the price of a parking space underneath a condo on the same block? It took me years to find out, and years to tell this story. It’s a hard story to tell. One that’s both personal, financial, and also historical, since it’s the story of a house that remains all but unsalable today. No one person will buy it. And no one person will buy it because the house has what’s called a “clouded history.” And the clouded history is the result of the mortgage crisis that happened 10 years ago, which nearly brought about a second Great Depression and did bring about 8 million Americans losing their homes.
Sperm Count Zero / GQ
A strange thing has happened to men over the past few decades: We’ve become increasingly infertile, so much so that within a generation we may lose the ability to reproduce entirely. What’s causing this mysterious drop in sperm counts—and is there any way to reverse it before it’s too late? [...] The Hebrew University/Mount Sinai paper was a meta-analysis by a team of epidemiologists, clinicians, and researchers that culled data from 185 studies, which examined semen from almost 43,000 men. It showed that the human race is apparently on a trend line toward becoming unable to reproduce itself. Sperm counts went from 99 million sperm per milliliter of semen in 1973 to 47 million per milliliter in 2011, and the decline has been accelerating. Would 40 more years—or fewer—bring us all the way to zero?
The Men Who Have Taken Wiffle Ball to a Crazy, Competitive Place / New Yorker
Nearby, a lean twenty-three-year-old named Daniel Whitener was dressed in a vintage White Sox jersey and stretching his right arm with a rubber exercise band. A sidearm relief pitcher for the Chowan University baseball team, in North Carolina, he said that he prefers Wiffle ball because it allows him to deploy a more varied repertoire. “I would say I usually hit the zone consistently with nine or ten pitches,” he said. These, apparently, include a screwball, a riser, a slider, a super curve, and a change-up drop, among others, thrown from various arm angles. “Depending on the wind, I can probably get it up to sixteen.” He learned his techniques by watching YouTube videos and practicing in his parents’ back yard, in Chesapeake, Virginia—a seven-hour drive from Blauvelt. “Got to the point where I had people in the neighborhood saying I took it too seriously,” he said. “I wanted to do this.” He nodded toward Bevelacqua, who was busy adjusting a mounted iPad that would soon broadcast the “game of the week,” between the Brewers and the Giants, on Facebook Live. The previous game of the week had attracted seventeen thousand views, more attention than most college baseball games receive. “You don’t get this in Virginia,” Whitener said.
The Best Thing My Psychic Mom Taught Me Is No One Wants To Hear The Truth / BuzzFeedNews
My mother didn’t want to be a psychic. “Divination is a sin,” she was always saying — as a warning, as an explanation for her bad luck, and as a preface to all the stories about her father. Her father had been a curandero. I am sure he would have liked me to use the polite word: homeopath. In fact, that’s what his business card read: “Rafael Contreras A. Homeopath. Cures you of all kinds of illnesses: diabetes, obesity, sinusitis, cancer, and witchcraft.” It was said Nono had the power to move clouds. Many people came from neighboring cities in the state of Santander, Colombia, to see Nono in Bucaramanga, and in the house Mami grew up in, the living room teemed with people awaiting treatment and readings.
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The Big Lie / Chronicle of Higher Education
The chemistry professor and his wife argued often in those days, as their marriage was coming to an end and a custody battle brewed over their two young children. Then, one summer night, things got so heated that the police were called to intervene. Brian and Stacey McNaughton had bought their single-family home in Fort Collins, Colo., six years earlier for $525,000. It was the sort of place, situated on an oversize corner lot in a neighborhood filled with doctors and lawyers, that projected the kind of solid middle-class status that the couple had achieved after years of study. Brian McNaughton, once a first-generation college student, was on the tenure track at Colorado State University, and his wife was a nurse anesthetist. ut all of that risked being torn asunder because of the big lie — a lie that they shared, and that Stacey McNaughton was now threatening to expose. She would recount to the police how she had signaled plans to call her husband’s boss, reveal his deception, and derail his career. The couple struggled for control of a phone, and the professor pleaded with his wife to reconsider, before Stacey McNaughton ran out the back door screaming for help. She jumped a fence and took refuge with some neighbors who were having a backyard campfire. On that night and many thereafter, Brian McNaughton feared that his wife would tell people at Colorado State how he had fabricated a job offer from another university. It was a simple scheme, one designed to earn him the kind of money and respect that is often so elusive for early-career professors. As McNaughton had hoped, the fake letter spurred a counteroffer, forcing his dean and department chair to reconsider what he might be worth.
On going on and on and on / Aeon
Immortality: a prize so great that some would die in attempting to secure it. But are they wise to do so? The Last Crusade suggests not. After all, not only are the two people who throw their lives away villains, but the knight who guards the Grail explicitly warns that the cost of living forever is having to stay in that very same temple, forever. And what sort of life would that be? Immortality – the film is suggesting – might be a curse, rather than a blessing. Such a conclusion will not come as a surprise to philosophers who have considered the issue. [...] Scheffler’s case is thus not simply that immortality would make us miserable (although it probably would). It’s that, if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are. But then, if we were somehow to attain immortality, it wouldn’t get us what we want from it: namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever. A desire for immortality is thus a paradox: it would frustrate itself were it ever to be achieved.
Echo Chamber Incites Online Mob to Attack Math Profs / Andrew Gelman
Like many things, more complicated than it seems:
The story starts as follows: There’s evidence for greater variability in the distribution of men, compared to women, in various domains. Two math professors, Theodore Hill and Sergei Tabachnikov, wrote an article exploring a mathematical model for the evolution of this difference in variation. [...] He ended up with the impression that there had been a politically-motivated campaign against his paper, causing it to be yanked from the Intelligencer and the NYJM as the result of an intimidation campaign by academic activists. Then last week he wrote up the whole story as a blog entry or online article at the site Quillette. [...] Hill is annoyed, and justifiably so. For a journal editor to accept his paper, then reject it, that’s not cool. It’s happened to me a couple of times, and it pisses me off, to put in all the work of writing an article, going through the review process, finally the paper appears or is scheduled to appear, and then, Bam! the journal pulls the rug out from under you. The problem is that Hill is focusing his annoyance on the wrong people. And there’s a clue in Hill’s own post, where he writes, “My quarrel, the vice-provost [of the University of Chicago] concluded, was with the editors-in-chief who had spiked my papers . . .” That’s right! The problem is with the editors who broke the rules, it’s not with reviewers who raised concerns.
The Quiet Rage Of Mazie Hirono / NPR
Mazie Hirono used to be known as the "good girl" of Hawaii politics. She was seen as polite, never in-your-face, not a boat-rocker. But now, that view has changed. As one Hawaii columnist put it, she is a "badass." "I always was," Hirono said in an interview with NPR. "I just wasn't very noisy about it. I've been a fighter all my life. I just don't look like that." The Senate's only immigrant takes that fight to President Trump, whom she openly calls "xenophobic" and a "liar." "To call the president a liar, that is not good, but it happens to be the truth," the soft-spoken Hawaii senator told Time recently.
This major discovery upends long-held theories about the Maya civilization / Washington Post
Nearly a century later, surveyors once again took flight over the ancient Maya empire, and mapped the Guatemala forests with lasers. The 2016 survey, whose first results were published this week in the journal Science, comprises a dozen plots covering 830 square miles, an area larger than the island of Maui. It is the largest such survey of the Maya region, ever. The study authors describe the results as a revelation. “It’s like putting glasses on when your eyesight is blurry,” said study author Mary Jane Acuña, director of El Tintal Archaeological Project in Guatemala. In the past, archaeologists had argued that small, disconnected city-states dotted the Maya lowlands, though that conception is falling out of favor. This study shows that the Maya could extensively “exploit and manipulate” their environment and geography, Acuña said. Maya agriculture sustained large populations, who in turn forged relationships across the region. Combing through the scans, Acuña and her colleagues, an international 18-strong scientific team, tallied 61,480 structures. These included: 60 miles of causeways, roads and canals that connected cities; large maize farms; houses large and small; and, surprisingly, defensive fortifications that suggest the Maya came under attack from the west of Central America.
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Decoding the Unusual Shape of the Nepali Flag / Atlas Obscura
A very strange thing about national flags is how similar they are. More than 75 percent of all national flags include the color red, and more than 72 percent include the color white. A whopping 30 national flags have the red, white, and blue color combination. Stripes, stars, and crosses are exceedingly common. There are no rules, no international governing bodies, that tell a country what a flag can and cannot be, and yet all flags save one are rectangles. (As all squares are rectangles, the square flags of Switzerland and Vatican City are not as unusual as they might think.) That one outlier is Nepal. The Nepali flag consists of two overlapping triangles, of different sizes defined with mathematical precision. It is the world’s only five-sided national flag. Other countries could do this and do not, and probably never will. So how did this happen?
Do Boys Have a Comparative Advantage in Math and Science? / Marginal Revolution
Even with a question mark my title, Do Boys Have a Comparative Advantage in Math and Science, is likely to appear sexist. Am I suggesting the boys are better at math and science than girls? No, I am suggesting they might be worse. Consider first the so-called gender-equality paradox, namely the finding that countries with the highest levels of gender equality tend to have the lowest ratios of women to men in STEM education.
Theo Jansen’s New Wind-Powered “Strandbeest” Is Super Fast / Kottke
Earlier this summer, Theo Jansen released an improved iteration of his strandbeests, wind-powered machines that walk along the beach. The newest version doesn’t have any joints, so it doesn’t need lubrication or protection from the sand to keep it from moving. As a result, it zips along at a pretty good clip down the beach.
MINERVA-II1: Images from the surface of Ryugu / JAXA
Japan's space agency JAXA has landed a rover on the surface of an asteroid:
The MINERVA-II1 rovers were deployed on September 21 to explore the surface of asteroid Ryugu. Here is the second report on their activities, following our preliminary article at the start of this week. We end this report with a video taken by one of the rovers that shows the Sun moving across the sky as seen from the surface of Ryugu. Please take a moment to enjoy “standing” on this new world.