To those of you who learned about this from Outside magazine -- welcome! (And thanks to Outside for the mention.)
As recently as a year ago, I knew the majority of you personally. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to be mentioned in the media a couple times, growing the recipient list substantially, but I never got around to explaining how this came about.
In case you're wondering, here goes. A little over 13 years ago, while a consultant and adept procrastinator, I sent a few colleagues unsolicited e-mails with articles I enjoyed. And while I'm personally not that interesting, it seems that (the best of) what I read isn't bad. So, by word-of-mouth, this eventually turned into a weekly Sunday mailing to several hundred people.
Until last year, this was super low-tech and not very polished -- just a plaintext e-mail sent from GMail to a bcc: list. (For the first few years, the list wasn't even on bcc:, since everyone knew everyone else.) Now it's slightly less low-tech courtesy of TinyLetter, but it's still not very polished, and I think I prefer it that way. Maybe I'm just lazy, but to me this feels a bit more personal and authentic.
As for what I include -- it's pretty random. I do read every word of what I send out, and I filter entirely by what I find interesting. Which has meant that some topics like paleontology, sports analytics, and behavioural psychology are probably slightly overrepresented. Until recently, I've tried to be non-partisan, but I must admit Trump has made this difficult. I'll keep trying though. (Incidentally, I'm American but have lived in London for the last few years, which means I attempt British spellings as much as I can.)
The links below are roughly rank-ordered by some blend of quality and seriousness. I consider 4-star links "must read" -- there are typically only 15-20 per year. That said, a few people tell me they mostly click 1-star links since they're fast and often amusing.
Finally, I do this in my spare time, which is not always plentiful, so sometimes I'll miss a week without warning. Apologies in advance. Should you need more reading material, you can check out the archive, which includes my recent best of 2018 e-mail.
Onto the links!
----- 3 stars -----
The Mad Scramble to Claim the World's Most Coveted Meteorite / Wired
Gregorio Urury, a farmer in Carancas, was sitting outside his small adobe house, taking a break from tending his sheep, when he felt the impact. He listened, paralyzed, as the sound passed over him—a low hum that quickly rose into a scream—until the ground shook. He couldn’t stand up at first. His dogs barked wildly. When he gathered himself and searched the plain, he saw a column of dense smoke rising in the distance. [...] Across the Atlantic on that same day, Mike Farmer walked through an olive grove in central Spain. He scanned the ground in front of his feet as if he’d lost something. Among the fallen olives he spotted a small stone, dark and rough. “Oh, my,” Farmer said, picking it up to look at the black, pitted surface. It was part of a rare achondrite meteorite that had exploded over Spain four months earlier, lighting up the evening for the tourists staying in the surrounding villas. [...] What he didn’t know was that his onetime mentor and current rival, Robert Haag, had just fled this very place. The veteran hunter had arrived a day earlier, rented a car, attached a portable PA system to the roof, and driven around broadcasting an offer to buy meteorite fragments. It was a somewhat inelegant technique that attracted a lot of attention. Haag was essentially advertising what Farmer wanted to hide: that he was a rich yanqui with a wad of cash. At the end of his first day, Haag felt that he had put himself in what he called a “seriously dangerous” situation, and when he tried to leave he found his car surrounded by locals with crowbars. Somehow Haag evaded the angry throng and hurried back to Bolivia. On the road back to La Paz, he probably passed Farmer, Ward, and Karl heading the opposite direction. None of that would have been a likely deterrent anyhow. Meteorite hunting is an obsession, and that sometimes means making ill-advised decisions and putting oneself at risk. In their storied careers, Farmer and/or Ward have been harrassed by authorities in Argentina; nearly abducted by FARC gunmen outside Kali, Colombia; and robbed in Kenya, where Farmer, in search of a new ejecta field, was captured, hooded, and later told by his driver that his Swahili-speaking robbers were deliberating whether they should kill him. (They decided it was too much trouble.)
The challenge from Trump has been especially personal for Germans, whose close relationship with the United States has defined their nation’s postwar renaissance. Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany and credits the United States as essential to the liberation of the East and to German reunification. As the head of Europe’s largest and wealthiest nation, she has sought to guide the Continent through the standoff with Trump, but has struggled, because the President’s harsh words reflect a painful truth: Europeans are dependent on the United States for their security and increasingly divided as Putin’s Russia threatens the nations in the east. “Not all of what he says is wrong,” said the senior German official, one of ten who spoke with me. “Europe has been free-riding for some time.” Asked for comment about Trump’s criticism of Merkel, a White House spokesperson told me, “He is often toughest on his friends, and he considers her one. He views Germany as a powerful, prosperous country that should be doing more on defense spending.” But the risks for Trump are also considerable: call your friends enemies long enough, and eventually they may start to believe you. Is this, then, finally, the end of Pax Americana? [...] The dinner was emotional. Obama later told Benjamin Rhodes, his deputy national-security adviser, that he had said to Merkel that the Trump Presidency would be like a storm. Obama told her to just “try to find some high ground,” and hold on to it, Rhodes recalled to me. By the time they said good night, three hours later, it was the longest that Obama had been alone with another world leader in his eight years in office. In an adjoining room, advisers to Merkel and Obama were concluding their own dinner. Rhodes offered a rueful toast: To Angela Merkel, he said, now “the leader of the free world.” [...] As the realities of Trump and Trumpism have settled at last on European leaders, so, too, has a kind of despair. At a debate that I moderated this summer in Estonia, Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German security analyst, compared Trump’s foreign policy to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with the Europeans as the handmaids. Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign-affairs committee, offered a similarly disturbing metaphor for Trump’s attitude toward Europe. “It’s like your parents questioning their love for you,” he told me, in Berlin, a few days later. “It’s already penetrated the subconscious.” Nowhere in Europe is this more true than in Germany, which overcame the shame of Nazism and defeat in the Second World War by embracing a new postwar order designed by American leaders such as Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall. Working collectively through NATO, the E.U., and other institutions is embedded in modern Germany’s political DNA. “It took Germany the longest of all partners to come to terms with someone like Trump becoming President,” another senior German official told me. “We were very emotional, because our relationship with America is so emotional—it’s more of a son-father relationship—and we didn’t recognize our father anymore and realized he might beat us.”
AI-Generated Human Faces That Look Amazingly Real / Kottke
This is astounding (make sure to watch the video):
The previous line contains two lies: this is not a photograph and that’s not a real person. It’s an image generated by an AI program developed by researchers at NVIDIA capable of borrowing styles from two actual photographs of real people to produce an infinite number of fake but human-like & photograph-like images. [...] The video offers a good look at how this works, with realistic facial features that you can change with a slider, like adjusting the volume on your stereo.
This might be my Magnum Opus. [...] I got upset that my package was stolen so I made a glitter bomb revenge package.
Such choices led Kahneman to conclude that we’re not as interested in happiness as we may claim. “Altogether, I don’t think that people maximize happiness in that sense…this doesn’t seem to be what people want to do. They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness,” he says. In an October interview with Ha’aretz (paywall), Kahneman argues that satisfaction is based mostly on comparisons. “Life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks–achieving goals, meeting expectations.” He notes that money has a significant influence on life satisfaction, whereas happiness is affected by money only when funds are lacking. Poverty creates suffering, but above a certain level of income that satisfies our basic needs, wealth doesn’t increase happiness. “The graph is surprisingly flat,” the psychologist says. In other words, if you aren’t hungry, and if clothing, shelter, and your other basics are covered, you’re capable of being at least as happy as the world’s wealthiest people. The fleeting feelings of happiness, though, don’t add up to life satisfaction. Looking back, a person who has had many happy moments may not feel pleased on the whole.
When Charles Barkley's mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley's hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest. Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports figure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad. "You know, it was obviously a very difficult time," Barkley told me recently. "And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, 'Who’s the Asian dude over there?' I just started laughing. I said, 'That’s my boy, Lin.' They’re, like, 'How do you know him?' I said, 'It’s a long story.' "
lf we look into the world as it may be at the end of another generation, let’s say 2019 — that’s 35 years from now, the same number of years since 1949 when George Orwell’s 1984 was first published — three considerations must dominate our thoughts: 1. Nuclear war. 2. Computerization. 3. Space utilization. [...] In short, there will be increasing co-operation among nations and among groups within nations, not out of any sudden growth of idealism or decency but out of a cold-blooded realization that anything less than that will mean destruction for all. By 2019, then, it may well be that the nations will be getting along well enough to allow the planet to live under the faint semblance of a world government by co-operation, even though no one may admit its existence. Aside from these negative advances — the approaching defeat of overpopulation, pollution and militarism — there will be positive advances, too. Education, which must be revolutionized in the new world, will be revolutionized by the very agency that requires the revolution — the computer.
Holly Wood, who wrote her Harvard sociology dissertation last year on singles’ behaviors on dating sites and dating apps, heard a lot of these ugly stories too. And after speaking to more than 100 straight-identifying, college-educated men and women in San Francisco about their experiences on dating apps, she firmly believes that if dating apps didn’t exist, these casual acts of unkindness in dating would be far less common. But Wood’s theory is that people are meaner because they feel like they’re interacting with a stranger, and she partly blames the short and sweet bios encouraged on the apps. [...] “I’m not saying that it’s not a hassle to go on bad dates. It is a nuisance. You could be hanging out with your friends, you could be sleeping, you could be reading a book,” he says. But, Finkel adds, singletons of generations past would “break out the world’s smallest violin” for young people who complain about Tinder dates becoming a chore. “It’s like, Ugh so many dates, and they’re just not that interesting,” Finkel adds with a laugh. “It used to be hard to find someone to date!”
1. Around 90% of infants lie with their heads facing right. 2. In the NBA, teams down by one at halftime are more likely to win. 3. Neighbors of lottery winners are more likely than average to go bankrupt. [...] 33. Roughly one-fifth of Europeans alive a millennium ago have no living descendants today. [...] 43. The surface area of human lungs is as big as a tennis court.
Coming off three consecutive non-playoff seasons and having just traded for James Harden, the Rockets re-engineered their offense to play not only to their new star’s strengths, but also to The Math. It was during that season that the Rockets began their maniacal pursuit of the most efficient shot on every single possession, turning their collective backs on years of NBA tradition by eschewing the lost art of the mid-range jumper whenever possible in favor of attempts either at the rim or behind the three-point line. It’s easy to see the benefits of that offensive strategy now — six years after the Rockets took it to what then seemed like its logical extreme — but at the time, it was not yet really accepted that this was a healthy way to construct an offense. Not everybody believed in The Math. The Rockets did, however, and they did to a degree that was then unheard of in league history. During that 2012-13 campaign, the Rockets attempted 73.6 percent of their shots from either the restricted area or three-point range, per NBA.com. (For the balance of this piece, we’ll refer to this percentage as a team’s “Moreyball Rate,” in keeping with certain segments of the basketball analytics community.) The next closest team was the Denver Nuggets at 67.4 percent, while the average NBA team had a Moreyball Rate of 57.1 percent.
Another year, another few hundred charts and maps on FiveThirtyEight. (Not to mention our interactive graphics and updating dashboards.) To celebrate the end of the year, our team of visual journalists got together and looked back at some of their favorite graphics. Here are 45, in no particular order. If one really whets your appetite, click on the chart and you’ll be brought to the story from which it sprang.
At 2 a.m., Ivy Deng’s iPhone pings. Her boyfriend is messaging her again. Bai Qi is a contemplative policeman, Deng’s favorite of the men she’s dated recently. Tomorrow morning, he’ll pick her up on his motorcycle. Sort of. Bai doesn’t actually have a motorcycle, or even a real body. And he’s just one of Deng’s four boyfriends, all of whom are virtual characters in the Chinese mobile game Love and Producer. Li Zeyan is an egotistical CEO. Xu Mo is a scientist. Zhou Qiluo is a cloying, cutesy pop star. In the two months after its launch in December 2017, Love and Producer, in which users play a female TV producer, was downloaded more than 10 million times, mostly by women. The app is free, but users can pay to advance the plot through text messages, or phone calls or “dates,” which employ recordings of voice actors. For a while, Love and Producer was the most talked-about game on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Last January, a fan bought a $39,000 LED billboard ad in Shenzhen to wish the character Li a happy birthday. Why are these women so keen to carry on fake relationships with virtual boyfriends? After all, China’s now-abandoned “one-child policy” created a country where men outnumber women by nearly 34 million—which should make finding mates outside a mobile game easy for heterosexual women.
And, of course, there’s also the ridiculousness of bowl-game names. If you want a hilarious trip down college-football memory lane, read Jason Kirk’s excellent SB Nation story ranking the silliest bowl names of all time. For me, nothing beats the fact that there have been actual bowls named after weed eaters and tart cherry drinks. In honor of the bowl season’s sheer absurdity, I decided to put a FiveThirtyEight spin on lists like the one Kirk assembled. For each game going back to 1985 — the dark days right before the dawn of rampant corporate bowl-naming rights — I developed a scoring system that awards “Absurdity Points."
ESA’s Mars Express mission recently photographed the Korolev crater on Mars, filled almost to the brim with water ice. When I first saw this image I thought, oh cute!, assuming the crater was maybe a few dozen feet across. But no, it’s about 51 miles across and the thickest part of the ice is over a mile thick.
The visualization below shows the effect that innovation in technology and falling prices of energy had on the price of light in the UK. In 2006 the price of 1 million lumen-hours of artificial light was £2.89. In the 14th century the price for this same luminous energy – adjusted for inflation – was around £35,000. A 12,000-fold decline of the price of a truly important service.