I really liked a lot of this week's articles. I've tried to avoid grade inflation, and reasonable minds may differ on how I've ranked them, but I strongly recommend any of the top six links below.
----- 4 stars -----
Love Letters From the Battlefield / The Walrus
The Canadian soldier, Harry Macdonald, my grandfather, had sent Jacquelyn Robinson dozens of letters, spanning several years—letters written in spidery cursive by candlelight as rain pounded down on corrugated rooftops or amid the blasts of nearby shelling. His letters were often rushed or cut short, with some started and finished with hours or even days in between. He frequently apologized for his messy handwriting, hoping his words would be legible. One letter, sent five days before, written in haste, contained a question for which he anxiously awaited a reply. The letter had begun with a familiar two words, “Dear Jacquie,” and ended with a question: “Will you marry me?” But, impatient for an answer, he wrote her again. It was March 14 when he found the typewriter. He needed his words to be as clear and as confident as his thoughts. “When I think that even now I could be calling upon you, taking you to a dance, going to a show and doing those things normal people could be doing I feel personally one of the greatest horrors of war—the separation of men from those they love,” he typed. “However, I suppose that if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m in the service it might have taken longer for me to realize just how lucky I am. I hope for the best, darling, no matter which way things turn out.” He signed the bottom of the page, folded the sheet, and slipped it into an envelope and carefully wrote a Vancouver address. Now he waited, not knowing what would come first: death or a reply.
----- 3 stars -----
The 'Geno-Economists' Say DNA Can Predict Our Chances of Success / New York Times
And with a data set this big, the patterns provide a lot of information. The authors calculated, for instance, that those in the top fifth of polygenic scores had a 57 percent chance of earning a four-year degree, while those in the bottom fifth had a 12 percent chance. And with that degree of correlation, the authors wrote, polygenic scores can improve the accuracy of other studies of education. For 19 years, Benjamin and his colleagues were looking for fundamentals. Now, they say, they’ve found them. The genes with which you are born travel during your life through a mediating layer of biology and social experience — racism, puberty, vacations, illness, industrial accidents, sexual harassment, poverty, divorce — that seems so complicated as to be unmeasurable. But their study, part of a field now called “geno-economics,” claims to measure, in part, the degree to which our genes determine who we become. How is that possible? And in an era of dramatic political divisions, predatory companies and systemic inequality, should we really be mapping genetics to social outcomes? [...] Conley describes his early academic work as “lefty sociology.” His Ph.D. thesis was on the black-white wealth gap and he dedicated his early career to studying the transmission of health and wealth between parents and children. At N.Y.U., Conley kept getting into disagreements with geneticists, arguing that their methods were dangerously naïve. It seemed to him implausible that studying only twins — the gold standard of genetics research — was enough to teach us the difference between nature and nurture. But over time, he decided that it wasn’t enough to just argue. Conley is an academic, and even within that tortured group he is something of a masochist. At that time he was a tenured professor, the kind of gig most people see as the endgame of an academic career, and yet he decided to go back and grind out another Ph.D., this time in genetics. He went into his program believing that our social environment is largely the cause of our outcomes, and that biology is usually the dependent variable. By the end of his time, he says, the causal arrow in his mind had pretty much flipped the other way: “I tried to show for a range of outcomes that the genetic models were overstating the impact of genetics because of their crazy assumptions.” He sighs. “But I ended up showing that they’re right.”
Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex? / The Atlantic
“We’d probably have a lot more sex,” one woman noted, “if we didn’t get home and turn on the TV and start scrolling through our phones.” This seems to defy logic; our hunger for sex is supposed to be primal. Who would pick messing around online over actual messing around? Teenagers, for one. An intriguing study published last year in the Journal of Population Economics examined the introduction of broadband internet access at the county-by-county level, and found that its arrival explained 7 to 13 percent of the teen-birth-rate decline from 1999 to 2007. Maybe adolescents are not the hormone-crazed maniacs we sometimes make them out to be. Maybe the human sex drive is more fragile than we thought, and more easily stalled. [...] When I spoke with Wade recently, she told me that she found the sex decline among teens and 20-somethings completely unsurprising—young people, she said, have always been most likely to have sex in the context of a relationship. “Go back to the point in history where premarital sex became more of a thing, and the conditions that led to it,” she said, referring to how post–World War II anxiety about a man shortage led teen girls in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue more serious romantic relationships than had been customary before the war. “Young women, at that point, innovate ‘going steady,’ ” Wade said, adding that parents were not entirely happy about the shift away from prewar courtship, which had favored casual, nonexclusive dating. “If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.” In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. [...] Over the course of numerous conversations, Solomon has come to various conclusions about hookup culture, or what might more accurately be described as lack-of-relationship culture. For one thing, she believes it is both a cause and an effect of social stunting. Or, as one of her students put it to her: “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” For another, insofar as her students find themselves choosing between casual sex and no sex, they are doing so because an obvious third option—relationship sex—strikes many of them as not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible.
Deployment to Iraq changed my view of God, country and humankind. So did coming home. / America Magazine
I looked at the Marines around me—performing their pre-convoy checks on their vehicles and weapons—and then turned to the town surrounding us. There was a small road that intersected the main street we were on, and it ran straight for a bit before curving off into the distance. I felt a desire to start walking down that road, to just wander off from my unit and explore, a feeling somewhat akin to the odd desire one feels standing on a cliff or the edge of a tall building, where that little voice whispers, perversely, “Jump.” I knew that, no matter all the information we had—the maps, the Blue Force trackers, the intelligence reports and timelines of significant events—and no matter the tremendous show of force the town had just witnessed, there was not a single Marine or soldier behind me who would feel comfortable walking down that road alone. [...] But then there were these mortar attacks. Two Americans dead. The sort of thing that requires a response. Major Fishback called a meeting with the sheik whose men he thought were responsible, and the sheik agreed to come. Prior to the meeting, Major Fishback knew that the sheik probably had blood on his hands. Major Fishback made the decision to forgo a hard approach seeking justice for two needlessly dead Americans on behalf of the hope that continuing his relationship with the sheik would lead to better outcomes down the road. This is not a great war story to tell at a bar. It does not have the clean trajectory of sniper’s bullet, the satisfying moral conclusion of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, or the awe-inspiring display of force that was the Second Battle of Fallujah. It is not even really possible to know whether it was the right choice, whether that particular sheik was as reconcilable as Major Fishback thought he was, or whether any of it really mattered in the long term. [...] A senior officer reached out to me and told me that this was a really dramatic story that spoke well of the American military, and I should head to the hospital, talk to the doctors and see if one of the Iraqis was willing to do an interview about what he had experienced and how grateful he was to U.S. forces for saving him. And so, naïvely, I walked over to the hospital and asked to speak to one of the surgeons who’d worked on the tortured Iraqis. When I explained why I was there, it took him a moment to respond. This doctor, he had spent time with these men, with their broken bodies that would never be fully whole again. At first he did not quite understand what I was after. The notion that this was a good news story was inconceivable. It was one of the worst things he had ever seen in his life. Evil, written on the body. “You don’t understand,” he said in a strangled voice. “They’re in really rough shape.” I left ashamed of myself.
I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It. / Thrillist
In my office, I have a coffee mug from Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon. Under the restaurant name, it says “Great hamburgers since 1949.” The mug was given to me by Steve Stanich on the day I told him that, after eating 330 burgers during a 30-city search, I was naming Stanich’s cheeseburger the best burger in America. That same day, we filmed a short video to announce my pick. On camera, Stanich cried as he talked about how proud his parents would be. After the shoot, he handed me the mug, visibly moved. “My parents are thanking you from the grave,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. When I left, I felt light and happy. I’d done a good thing. Five months later, in a story in The Oregonian, restaurant critic Michael Russell detailed how Stanich’s had been forced to shut down. In the article, Steve Stanich called my burger award a curse, “the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” He told a story about the country music singer Tim McGraw showing up one day, and not being able to serve him because there was a five hour wait for a burger. On January 2, 2018, Stanich shut down the restaurant for what he called a “two week deep cleaning.” Ten months later, Stanich’s is still closed. Now when I look at the Stanich’s mug in my office, I no longer feel light and happy. I feel like I’ve done a bad thing. For the past year, the story of Stanich’s has haunted me. For most of that time, I’d been away from Thrillist, as I worked on a book that frequently took me to Portland. Each time I was there, my story would somehow find a way into conversation, like the one with my Lyft driver who asked if I liked burgers. Yes, I said tentatively. “Well, we had a great one here,” he said, as we drove over the Burnside Bridge. “But then some asshole from California ruined it.” Or the time, while sitting at the bar at Clyde Common, the bartender came up to me and in a soft, friendly voice inquired if I’d planned on closing any more burger restaurants while I was in town. As this sort of thing became more frequent, I started, possibly in an attempt to deflect personal responsibility, to think a whole lot about lists.
----- 2 stars -----
The Radical Confidence of Patrick Mahomes / ESPN
I went to the bottom of the internet trying to understand what it's like to have an arm like Patrick Mahomes'. I found a throw so rare that it technically doesn't exist, erased on account of a holding penalty. November 2014. Mahomes is a 19-year-old true freshman at Texas Tech, facing Oklahoma, in only his second start. It's third-and-10 at the Sooners' 39-yard line. He's been coached to look at a pair of receivers in sequence and, if they're both covered, make a play. One, two, go. He takes the snap and is under immediate pressure -- "one, go" -- and he scampers left, not fast but elusive, away from the rush but into a trap. He's within a yard of the sideline and all four Sooners defensive linemen are closing fast ... until, with his weight moving left and a rusher's helmet at his chin, Mahomes snaps his arm -- in that instant, it's his only body part in motion, as if isolated for maximum effect -- and the ball assumes a trajectory that seems impossible without more of a windup, the physical expression of a metaphysical quality, a radical confidence known only by a blessed few. The ball hisses; it spirals fast and tight; it seems to alter the physics and change the possibilities of a football field -- hovering low as it sails across and deep -- until it sticks to a receiver's chest in the end zone as Mahomes hits the ground. I watched that throw 20 times. I saw improvisatory football genius and sheer stones. I saw a man making calculations and assessing risks I couldn't compute. I watched the throw until I was certain of what I was looking at. And then I sat down with him and raved about passes like it. And he took the compliments with a dull stare, as if none of what I attributed to it ever occurred to him. It was just a throw. A throw he always makes -- and has made since he first held a ball.
When Elon Musk Tunnels Under Your Home / The Atlantic
Musk sees the future of American transportation in tunnels like this one. Inside them, electric skates would whisk cars and pods containing passengers to their destinations; eventually, tunnels could also be used for a “hyperloop,” which would transport people even faster through a network of low-pressure tubes. Musk has pledged to revolutionize tunneling technology, and says that digging 40 feet underground will make less noise than someone walking on the surface would. Musk fans and mayors love the idea—the Boring Company told me a new city makes contact daily—and municipalities like Hawthorne have been quick to approve the tunneling. But aboveground, where the poverty rate is 19.2 percent and the median household income is $45,089, people like Warren struggle to meet basic housing needs. They know nothing about Elon Musk or his dreams. Even if Musk is building world-changing transportation underneath Hawthorne, and even if the residents ultimately welcome the technology, he is undertaking this project with strikingly little public input or oversight.
Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way? / New York Times
Our children aren’t being taught to read in ways that line up with what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn. It’s a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level. How do we know that a big part of the problem is how children are being taught? Because reading researchers have done studies in classrooms and clinics, and they’ve shown over and over that virtually all kids can learn to read — if they’re taught with approaches that use what scientists have discovered about how the brain does the work of reading. But many teachers don’t know this science. What have scientists figured out? First of all, while learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need to learn how the words they know how to say connect to print on the page. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. There are hundreds of studies that back this up. But talk to teachers and many will tell you they learned something different about how children learn to read in their teacher preparation programs.
What Great Listeners Actually Do / Harvard Business Review
Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average. [...] However, recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills. We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference. With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners. We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear.
Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’ / Science
Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he's got an answer: "536." Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past. A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year," wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record "a failure of bread from the years 536–539." Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.
----- 1 star -----
Making Maps and Watching Weather On Planets Like Ours / Kottke
So we don't have anything that can see features on the face of the new planet, say, continents and weather systems, if any. Even a 0.3 nrad telescope couldn't do that. But we're closer than you might think. If we fund it (CHARA was founded with @NSF money), odds are fair that we'll map alien worlds and watch alien weather in our lifetimes.
Letters of Note / Twitter
Alan Greenberg sent some top-notch memos during his time atop Bear Stearns. [...] I had a dream. The dream was that I returned to this world as a seller of fax machines and I had Bear Stearns as an account. We are ordering fax machines around here like they are being given away -- and they are not! We had a study done of fax machines and it has been proven conclusively that the machines do not object to different people using them.
Puzzle Montage Art / Kottke
Taking advantage of the fact that puzzle manufacturers typically use the same cut patterns to make many different puzzles, Tim Klein uses the interchangeable pieces to create surrealist mashups of puzzles.
Everyone is upset at Amazon, but… / Marginal Revolution
Now, a draft paper by two New School researchers has conducted an even more comprehensive trawl for Hudson Yards public costs, and while it generally confirms our analysis, it finds a couple of items we missed: A total of $1.1 billion worth of items, in fact, bringing the public price tag to a staggering $5.6 billion, with hundreds of millions of dollars still to flow from city coffers. Ho hum! It’s not a tech company, so who cares? Here is the article, via Alex X. As for FoxConn and Wisconsin: “Remember: Wisconsin is giving Foxconn more $$$ and incentives than New York, Virginia and Tennessee combined gave Amazon. And the real kicker? Foxconn will create far fewer jobs (13,000) than Amazon (55,000)”
This Guy Has Broken The Matrix / Digg
That's what, 29 gainers in a row without stopping? Absurd.