3 stars

52 things I learned in 2020 | Medium

Tom Whitwell’s annual list is as excellent as always:

Most cities plant only male trees because it’s expensive to clear up the fruit that falls from female trees. Male trees release pollen, and that’s one of the reasons your hay fever is getting worse. […]

All of the ten best-selling books of the last decade had female protagonists. […]

The inventor of the pixel died in 2020 aged 91. He always regretted making pixels square, describing the decision as “something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.”


The Art of Building the Impossible | New Yorker

Since the New Yorker is famously light on multimedia, here’s a look at the SkyHouse described towards the end of this article.

Ellison is a carpenter—the best carpenter in New York, by some accounts, though that hardly covers it. Depending on the job, Ellison is also a welder, a sculptor, a contractor, a cabinetmaker, an inventor, and an industrial designer. He’s a carpenter the way Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the great dome of the Florence Cathedral, was an engineer. He’s a man who gets hired to build impossible things. […]

“Nobody ever hires me to do a conventional building,” he said. “Billionaires don’t want the same old thing. They want better than the last. They want something that no one has done before, that’s specific to their apartment, and that might even be ill-advised.” Sometimes this gives rise to wonders; more often it doesn’t. Ellison has worked on homes for David Bowie, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and dozens of others he’s not allowed to name. His least expensive projects cost around five million dollars, but others can swell to fifty million or more. “If they want Downton Abbey, I can give them Downton Abbey,” he said. “If they want a Roman bath, I’ll build that. I’ve done some hideous places—I mean, disturbingly hideous. But I don’t have a pony in the race. If they want Studio 54, I’ll build that. But it’ll be the best Studio 54 they’ve ever seen—and it’ll have some extra Studio 56 thrown in.” […]

The effect of all that planning was more felt than seen. In the kitchen and the bathrooms, for instance, the walls and floors were both unremarkable and somehow perfect. It was only after you stared at them for a while that you noticed the reason: every tile in every row was complete; there were no awkward joints or truncated borders. Ellison had built the room with these exact final dimensions in mind. Not a single tile had to be cut. “I have this memory of Mark sitting there when I came in,” Dirks said. “I asked what he was doing, and he looked up at me and said, ‘I think I’m done.’ It was just an empty shell, but it was all in Mark’s brain.”


2 stars

The New Wave of Fishless Fish Is Here | Outside

Food scientists and marketers are creating healthy, plant-based, imitation tuna, crab, and shrimp that look and taste like the real thing. Better yet, switching to faux seafood will help curb our reliance on an international fishing industry that has become an environmental and human-rights disaster. […]

I swore off canned tuna last year, after reading The Outlaw Ocean, Ian Urbina’s wrenching account of human-rights abuses in the global fishing industry. For years, my list of morally acceptable seafoods had been narrowing as I learned about the environmental impacts of industrial fishing. Bluefin tuna, of course, went out the window long ago. Then it was Chilean sea bass, swordfish, and farmed salmon. Cod, gone. Shrimp, toast. But I clung to canned tuna, in part because of the convenience. A highly functional shot of protein, shelf-stable and cheap, it seemed morally defensible as long as it sported the logos certifying that it was dolphin-safe and sustainably fished.

But that changed when I plunged into Urbina’s book, the result of more than three years reporting on high-seas crime across 12,000 nautical miles, all five oceans, and 20 smaller seas. He shipped out on roach-infested, barely seaworthy trawlers, chased pirates and poachers, got caught in border wars, and uncovered a grainy cell-phone video of casual assassinations at sea. After all that, Urbina asked, did we really think “that it is possible to fish sustainably, legally, and using workers with contracts, making a livable wage, and still deliver a five-ounce can of skipjack tuna for $2.50 that ends up on the grocery shelf only days after the fish was pulled from the water thousands of miles away”?


AI solves 50-year-old science problem in ‘stunning advance’ that could change the world | Independent

What is the “protein folding problem”? A brief explanation | Roots of Progress

A 50-year-old science problem has been solved and could allow for dramatic changes in the fight against diseases, researchers say.

For years, scientists have been struggling with the problem of “protein folding” – mapping the three-dimensional shapes of the proteins that are responsible for diseases from cancer to Covid-19.

Google’s Deepmind claims to have created an artificially intelligent program called “AlphaFold” that is able to solve those problems in a matter of days.

If it works, the solution has come “decades” before it was expected, according to experts, and could have transformative effects in the way diseases are treated.


DeepMind seems to be calling the protein folding problem solved, which strikes me as simplistic, but in any case this appears to be a major advance. Experts outside Google are calling it “fantastic”, “gamechanging”, etc.

Between protein folding and CRISPR, genetic engineering now has two very powerful new tools in its toolbox. Maybe the 2020s will be to biotech what the 1970s were to computing.


Tony Hsieh’s American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months Of The Zappos Visionary | Forbes

In August, shortly after Tony Hsieh, the legendary entrepreneur behind Zappos, moved to Park City, Utah, he eagerly awaited a visitor: the singer Jewel. The longtime friends originally met the way fellow rock stars should, on Richard Branson’s Necker Island, and Hsieh, who had been buying up properties around the mountain town, was planning to spend the next week showing her around. […]

But within a day, Jewel abruptly left. Shortly after, the singer sent Hsieh a letter via FedEx, since he had forsworn email and texts as part of a digital cleanse.

“I am going to be blunt,” she wrote in the letter, the content of which was shared with Forbes. “I need to tell you that I don’t think you are well and in your right mind. I think you are taking too many drugs that cause you to disassociate.”

She continued: “The people you are surrounding yourself with are either ignorant or willing to be complicit in you killing yourself.” 

Exactly one week ago, in the early morning hours of the day after Thanksgiving, Hsieh died from his exposure to a shocking house fire in Connecticut, where he had been staying. He was just 46.

In the days since, the outpouring of grief has rivaled any for a business leader since the passing of Steve Jobs a decade ago. From Bill Clinton to Ivanka Trump to Jeff Bezos, thousands of people weighed in to share memories, photos and videos of a man who was widely loved, preserving the legacy of a tech entrepreneur who made an impact not just on his peers, but on his employees and even complete strangers, each reciting stories of exceptional generosity,  humanity and vision. 

Taken together, the memories of Hsieh paint an image of a man whose mission in life was to create happiness.


This Japanese Shop Is 1,020 Years Old. It Knows a Bit About Surviving Crises. | New York Times

A mochi seller in Kyoto, and many of Japan’s other centuries-old businesses, have endured by putting tradition and stability over profit and growth.


Detailed Forensic Reconstruction of the Beirut Port Explosions | Kottke

Using photos and videos shot of the incident as well as other materials, a company called Forensic Architecture built a 3D model of the warehouse (inside and out), the fires, and the explosions. They cleverly used the unique second-to-second shape of the smoke plumes to sync up various bits of video shot from different vantage points. […]

It’s a fascinating analysis. After going through more than 9 minutes of explanation of what they learned about the placement of materials (including highly explosive ammonium nitrate, tires, and fireworks) inside the warehouse from smoke colors, interior videos, and warehouse manifests, the narrator says simply: “From an engineering perspective, this is the spatial layout of a make-shift bomb on the scale of a warehouse, awaiting detonation.”


Covid’s Cassandra: The Swift, Complicated Rise of Eric Feigl-Ding | Undark

To me, this piece is less about Eric Feigl-Ding or Covid and more about social media as a “news” medium — both positively and negatively:

This whirlwind tour through viral Covid-19 themes felt like the conversational equivalent of Feigl-Ding’s Twitter account, which has grown by orders of magnitude since the dawn of the pandemic. The Harvard-trained scientist and 2018 Congressional aspirant posts dozens of times daily, often in the form of long, numbered threads. He’s fond of emojis, caps lock, and bombastic phrases. The first words of his very first viral tweet were “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.”

Made in January, weeks before the massive shutdowns that brought U.S. society to a halt, that exclamation preceded his observation that the “R0” (pronounced “R-naught”) of the novel coronavirus — a mathematical measure of a disease’s reproduction rate — was 3.8. That figure had been proposed in a scientific paper, posted online ahead of peer review, that Feigl-Ding called “thermonuclear pandemic level bad.” Further in that same Twitter thread, he claimed that the novel coronavirus could spread nearly eight times faster than SARS.

The thread was widely criticized by infectious disease experts and science journalists as needlessly fear-mongering and misleading, and the researchers behind the pre-print had already tweeted that they’d lowered their estimate to an R0 of 2.5, meaning that Feigl-Ding’s SARS figure was incorrect. (Because R0 is an average measure of a virus’s transmissibility, estimates vary widely based on factors like local policy and population density; as a result, researchers have suggested that other variables may be of more use.) He soon deleted the tweet — but his influence has only grown.

At the beginning of the pandemic, before he began sounding the alarm on Covid-19’s seriousness, Feigl-Ding had around 2,000 followers. That number has since swelled to over a quarter million, as Twitter users and the mainstream media turn to Feigl-Ding as an expert source, often pointing to his pedigree as a Harvard-trained epidemiologist.


Small Data, Big Implications | Zeynep Tufekci

A striking, informative study was just released from South Korea, examining a transmission chain in a restaurant. It is perhaps one of the finest examples of shoe-leather epidemiology I’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s worth a deeper dive.

If you just want the results: one person (Case B) infected two other people (case A and C) from a distance away of 6.5 meters (~21 feet) and 4.8m (~15 feet). Case B and case A overlapped for just five minutes at quite a distance away. These people were well beyond the current 6 feet / 2 meter guidelines of CDC and much further than the current 3 feet / one meter distance advocated by the WHO. And they still transmitted the virus.

That’s the quick and dirty of it. But there’s a lot more detail here, and like many stories, it is best told through a picture.


'Sistine Chapel of the ancients' rock art discovered in remote Amazon forest | The Guardian

One of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric rock art has been discovered in the Amazonian rainforest.

Hailed as “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients”, archaeologists have found tens of thousands of paintings of animals and humans created up to 12,500 years ago across cliff faces that stretch across nearly eight miles in Colombia.

Their date is based partly on their depictions of now-extinct ice age animals, such as the mastodon, a prehistoric relative of the elephant that hasn’t roamed South America for at least 12,000 years. There are also images of the palaeolama, an extinct camelid, as well as giant sloths and ice age horses.

These animals were all seen and painted by some of the very first humans ever to reach the Amazon. Their pictures give a glimpse into a lost, ancient civilisation. Such is the sheer scale of paintings that they will take generations to study.


Chinese team test jet engine ‘able to reach anywhere on Earth within 2 hours’ | South China Morning Post

Chinese scientists have built what they claim is a revolutionary plane engine for Mach 16 flight. An aircraft powered by the engine could reach anywhere in the world within two hours, they said.

The test flight of a prototype in a hypersonic wind tunnel in Beijing suggested unprecedented performance in terms of thrust, fuel efficiency and operational stability.


Why Are Great Athletes More Likely To Be Younger Siblings? | FiveThirtyEight

This is the “little sibling effect,” one of the most intriguing findings in sports science: Younger siblings have a significantly higher chance of becoming elite athletes, as University of Utah professor Mark Williams and I explore in our new book, “The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made.”

The effect was demonstrated in a comprehensive analysis of 33 sports in Canada and Australia. The study compared elite athletes — who had reached senior international competition — with near-elite athletes, who had reached the junior international or senior domestic level. One finding: “Elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children.”


1 star

Coronavirus Was In U.S. Weeks Earlier Than Previously Known, Study Says | NPR

The coronavirus was present in the U.S. weeks earlier than scientists and public health officials previously thought, and before cases in China were publicly identified, according to a new government study published Monday.

The virus and the illness that it causes, COVID-19, were first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, but it wasn't until about Jan. 20 that the first confirmed COVID-19 case, from a traveler returning from China, was found in the U.S.

However, new findings published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggest that the coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, had infected people in the U.S. even earlier.

"SARS-CoV-2 infections may have been present in the U.S. in December 2019, earlier than previously recognized," the authors said.


Props you never knew existed @scottdropandroll TikTok compilation | YouTube

Entertaining look at the world of movie and TV props


The psychology behind ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ | BBC

Rao was doing what the Chinese have called ‘bàofùxìng áoyè’ – or ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. The phrase, which could also be translated as ‘retaliatory staying up late’, spread rapidly on Twitter in June after a post by journalist Daphne K Lee. She described the phenomenon as when “people who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late-night hours”.  

Her post clearly struck a chord. In a reply ‘liked’ more than 4,500 times, Twitter user Kenneth Kwok tweeted: “Typical 8 to 8 in office, [by the time I] arrive home after dinner and shower it’s 10 p.m., probably won’t just go to sleep and repeat the same routine. A few hours of ‘own time’ is necessary to survive.”


You'd really listen to me sing that? (Ep. 2) | YouTube

This is just someone talented singing completely random things, like T&Cs and shampoo ingredients…and yet I really enjoyed it.


Bamboo Woodworking Art | YouTube

Making a bamboo basket by hand


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