Sorry for missing last week -- things were quite busy. On the bright side, there's a lot of worthwhile reading this week.
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Death at a Penn State Fraternity / The Atlantic
Many of you have really liked previous pieces by Caitlin Flanagan; here's another insightful and eloquent one:
Every year or so brings another such death, another healthy young college man a victim of hazing at the hands of one of the nation’s storied social fraternities. And with each new death, the various stakeholders perform in ways that are so ritualized, it’s almost as though they are completing the second half of the same hazing rite that killed the boy. The fraternity enters a “period of reflection”; it may appoint a “blue-ribbon panel.” It will announce reforms that look significant to anyone outside the system, but that are essentially cosmetic. Its most dramatic act will be to shut down the chapter, and the house will stand empty for a time, its legend growing ever more thrilling to students who walk past and talk of a fraternity so off the chain that it killed a guy. In short order it will “recolonize” on the campus, and in a few years the house will be back in business. [...] Tim Piazza’s case, however, has something we’ve never seen before. This time the dead student left a final testimony, a vivid, horrifying, and inescapable account of what happened to him and why. The house where he was so savagely treated had been outfitted with security cameras, which recorded his long ordeal. Put together with the texts and group chats of the fraternity brothers as they delayed seeking medical treatment and then cleaned up any traces of a wild party—and with the 65-page report released by a Centre County grand jury, which recommended 1,098 criminal charges against 18 former members and against the fraternity itself—the footage reveals a more complete picture of certain dark realities than we have previously had. Once again, a student is dead and a family is shattered. And all of us are co-authors of these grim facts, as we grant both the fraternities and their host institutions tax-exempt status and allow them to carry on year after year with little change. Is it time we reconsidered what we’re doing?
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany / New Statesman
Almost gave this one four stars. It's fascinating; I had no idea:
This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany. Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. [...] So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.
Book Review: Surfing Uncertainty / Slate Star Codex
Sometimes I have the fantasy of being able to glut myself on Knowledge. I imagine meeting a time traveler from 2500, who takes pity on me and gives me a book from the future where all my questions have been answered, one after another. What’s consciousness? That’s in Chapter 5. How did something arise out of nothing? Chapter 7. It all makes perfect intuitive sense and is fully vouched by unimpeachable authorities. I assume something like this is how everyone spends their first couple of days in Heaven, whatever it is they do for the rest of Eternity. And every so often, my fantasy comes true. Not by time travel or divine intervention, but by failing so badly at paying attention to the literature that by the time I realize people are working on a problem it’s already been investigated, experimented upon, organized into a paradigm, tested, and then placed in a nice package and wrapped up with a pretty pink bow so I can enjoy it all at once. The predictive processing model is one of these well-wrapped packages. Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.
Notes From an Apocalypse / LessWrong
Longtime readers will know that I'm a bit of a paleontology nerd (among other nerdy credentials) and often think more highly of paleontology articles than the average reader. I don't think this is one of these cases; this essay is excellent (despite misclassifying sea urchins!), and it got a good amount of buzz in mainstream sources this week:
The rise in diversity, and in disparity, is unequaled by any other moment in Earth’s history. Something like half of all 21st century animal phyla trace their origins back to that brief moment of generation. Take all the creative power of the last five hundred million years of animal evolution, compress it down to a fraction of a geological instant- that’s the power of the Cambrian Explosion. In less than twenty million years, there are molluscs squirming like modern sea urchins, echinoderms clinging to rocks like modern starfish. Even the trilobite, that ancient symbol of ancient life, suddenly appears here fully-formed. And then, swimming through the open waters, you’d see the most surprising thing of all: one of them has a brain. Animalia Bilateria Chordata, the chordate. [...] What splintered the animal kingdom so thoroughly, and spread the shards of it so widely? Before the Explosion, we apparently had two or three general body plans, each with an accompanying niche. Afterwards- everything else. Personally, my favorite answer to that question is, ‘eyeballs’. [...] Consider the criteria you must satisfy to be a successful precambrian animal. You’re going to need to absorb as many complex carbon molecules as possible. You’re going to have to solve the reproduction problem somehow. And you’re going to have to be structurally sound, rather than collapsing under your own weight or something. It’s fairly simple, mostly revolving around being able to access as much seawater as possible so you can filter organics out of it. And in fact, the three major solutions we see in the fossil record are, “have a large broadside and catch water as it moves by”, “actively pump water towards yourself”, and “move quickly through the water.” When you think about it, that’s a fairly exhaustive list. Every one of these forms is clearly exploring ways to have physical contact with as much seawater as possible, and almost nothing else. And there are only so many ways to be the best at that job. But now let’s add another criterion: “Don’t get eaten.”
On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump / Longreads
I suppose I should start by saying that (in most cases) it's not terribly easy to prove mistreatment due to racism, rather than, say, the typical fraught interpersonal interactions experienced by everyone. There's lots of rudeness and unfairness out there attributable to many reasons other than race. I even cringe a bit when I feel racism is overused as an explanatory factor. However, I do think many of my white friends perhaps underestimate how often race is a factor in the lives of minorities, and as a member of a "model minority," I'm sure I underestimate it in the lives of others as well. Anyway, all of that is to say that I found this piece by an adopted Korean-American thought-provoking:
Of course, to people for whom “American” means “white” — and Trump’s election has only empowered, emboldened such people — it doesn’t matter how loudly or how often you say who you are. When white kids called me names no doubt learned from their white parents and siblings, when white people told me to go back where I came from, they didn’t care that my where had always been here. As a child I rarely gave voice to my fury and confusion when I was made to feel this wasn’t my country; that it never would be. But every morning at school, standing beside my desk with my hand over my heart, I was conscious of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance clearly, reverently, just a fraction louder than everybody else, because I knew I was the only one in the room who had anything to prove. [...] This led my mother to ask what I thought about “all the Asians coming over and having babies so they can stay.” As I tried to think of a response, my mind leapt back to the last time I’d been made to feel so uncomfortable at a family gathering: Several months earlier, during a holiday dinner at my in-laws’ house, the relative of a family friend had informed me that I look like “everyone” on the television show Fresh off the Boat. In that moment, facing a rude stranger with no meaningful support and scrambling to think of an answer that wouldn’t ruin the party for everyone, I honestly hadn’t known if the woman was trying to single me out — perhaps because I’d unknowingly offended her — or if her remark had been made in total ignorance, without the intention to wound. With strangers, I find it’s often difficult to be sure. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t mean to hurt me, and I knew it. I imagine she felt comfortable voicing her question about Asian immigrants because she doesn’t think of me as an Asian American — at least, not first and foremost. To her, I’m just her child, and she genuinely wanted to know what I thought about Asian families attempting to put down roots in America in a way my white relatives seem to view as a fundamentally unfair. If my mother felt a flicker of regret or embarrassment in asking this of me — a child she would never have adopted had my Korean parents not moved here prior to my birth — it was impossible for me to tell.
The Last Invention of Man / Nautilus
An excerpt from a book by MIT professor Max Tegmark (who very much deserves the title of "genius"), discussing AI not abstractly, but rather in the form of a story with a plausible, concrete path for its ascendancy:
It was 9 o’clock on a Friday morning when they decided to launch. Prometheus was humming away in its custom-built computer cluster, which resided in long rows of racks in a vast, access-controlled, air-conditioned room. For security reasons, it was completely disconnected from the Internet, but it contained a local copy of much of the web (Wikipedia, the Library of Congress, Twitter, a selection from YouTube, much of Facebook, etc.) to use as its training data to learn from.* They’d picked this start time to work undisturbed: Their families and friends thought they were on a weekend corporate retreat. The kitchenette was loaded with microwaveable food and energy drinks, and they were ready to roll. When they launched, Prometheus was slightly worse than them at programming AI systems, but made up for this by being vastly faster, spending the equivalent of thousands of person-years chugging away at the problem while they chugged a Red Bull. By 10 a.m., it had completed the first redesign of itself, v2.0, which was slightly better but still subhuman. By the time Prometheus 5.0 launched at 2 p.m., however, the Omegas were awestruck: It had blown their performance benchmarks out of the water, and the rate of progress seemed to be accelerating. By nightfall, they decided to deploy Prometheus to start phase 2 of their plan: making money.
What Happened to Myanmar’s Human-Rights Icon? / New Yorker
On taking office, Suu Kyi emulated her father by announcing talks to resolve the ethnic struggles. “Our country is thirsty for peace,” she proclaimed. But some conflicts have intensified, and the Army has broken ceasefire agreements. Journalists and activists who are critical of the government have been jailed. Most urgently, the plight of the Rohingya has developed into a humanitarian catastrophe. Attacks on Army and police posts by Rohingya militants last October, and again in August, have unleashed a ferocious crackdown. In the past month, more than four hundred thousand Rohingya refugees have fled across the border into Bangladesh, bringing with them accounts of indiscriminate slaughter and mass rape. Satellite images show that more than two hundred Rohingya villages have been incinerated. Within Myanmar, the Rohingya are uniquely despised by almost all other ethnicities. Nearly ninety per cent of the country is Buddhist, and most people regard the Muslim Rohingya as illegal immigrants; they are not included in Myanmar’s official tally of ethnicities. Suu Kyi has done nothing to combat this prejudice. Her government has denied visas to a United Nations human-rights team charged with investigating the crisis, and international organizations have been prevented from delivering aid. [...] Williams has come to think that both the earlier veneration of Suu Kyi as a secular saint of human rights and the current shock at her transformation are based on misinterpretation. “She allowed herself to be misread,” she said. Williams suspects that Suu Kyi’s aims have remained consistent since the period after 1988, when she returned to her homeland, assumed the mantle of her father, set her sights on leadership, and was robbed of victory. “Once she decided to be in the student movement, and then they won the election and it was taken from her, her mind went like a laser beam to getting into power,” Williams said. “That’s been her single ambition, other issues be damned.”
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Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate / BuzzFeed
A cache of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveals the truth about Steve Bannon’s alt-right “killing machine.” [...] The Breitbart employee closest to the alt-right was Milo Yiannopoulos [...] For more than a year, Yiannopoulos led the site in a coy dance around the movement’s nastier edges, writing stories that minimized the role of neo-Nazis and white nationalists while giving its politer voices “a fair hearing.” In March, Breitbart editor Alex Marlow insisted “we’re not a hate site.” Breitbart’s media relations staff repeatedly threatened to sue outlets that described Yiannopoulos as racist. And after the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Breitbart published an article explaining that when Bannon said the site welcomed the alt-right, he was merely referring to “computer gamers and blue-collar voters who hated the GOP brand.” These new emails and documents, however, clearly show that Breitbart does more than tolerate the most hate-filled, racist voices of the alt-right. It thrives on them, fueling and being fueled by some of the most toxic beliefs on the political spectrum — and clearing the way for them to enter the American mainstream.
Diary of a Concussion / The Verge
It was comforting that I knew what a concussion was. I’d written about the cumulative effects. I’d edited pieces about how football helmets protected players from some kinds of brain injuries but not others. I’d described symptoms of concussions. During my recovery, I began to understand the poverty of those descriptions. CTE is terrifying, but concussions themselves are bad enough. [...] You don’t even need to be hit on the head to have one. Your brain is a gelatinous mass, floating in a pool of cerebrospinal fluid inside your skull. A concussion occurs when the brain hits the skull, even if the person’s head doesn’t collide with an object. Whiplash alone can generate a concussion. After all, it doesn’t take much to deform Jell-O. The force of the impact with the skull can cause the brain to twist or even rebound against the other side of the skull. The result is chaos, says John Leddy, a concussion expert at the University of Buffalo. Brain cells stretch and twist, blood vessels become leaky, and the chemicals that the brain uses to communicate dump at random into the spaces between brain cells. The electrical activity of the brain is dampened. There’s a period of diminished activity from brain cells, as well as reduced blood flow in the brain, according to research on the concussion cascade. [...] When I stood up for the first time since the crash, I discovered standing made The Headache worse. I began to shuffle toward the restroom under a nurse’s supervision. The bathroom couldn’t have been more than 20 feet away, but it still took me quite some time to reach it. I had only the vaguest sense of where my limbs were and whether my feet were aligned correctly with the floor. My body had become a clumsy mecha suit, and I was trapped inside, trying to operate what felt like a large hunk of metal.
In 1973, I invented a ‘girly drink’ called Baileys / Irish Times
A story told well:
Hugh looked at me with an almost earnest stare. “What would happen if we mixed Irish whiskey and cream?” he said. “That might be interesting.” He sat back and waited for a response. “Let’s try it,” I replied. Where Hugh was more likely to intellectualise and think through the appalling consequences of dropping cream into Ireland’s beloved whiskey, I was all for doing it there and then. I jumped up, almost grabbed him by the lapels and marched him out into the street and into what was then International Stores at the southern end of Berwick Street market in the middle of Soho. It was the nearest supermarket to our office. We bought a small bottle of Jamesons Irish Whiskey and a tub of single cream and hurried back. It was a lovely May morning. 1973. Underdogs Sunderland had just won the FA Cup. We mixed the two ingredients in our kitchen, tasted the result and it was certainly intriguing, but in reality bloody awful. Undaunted, we threw in some sugar and it got better, but it still missed something. We went back to the store, searching the shelves for something else, found our salvation in Cadbury’s Powdered Drinking Chocolate and added it to our formula. Hugh and I were taken by surprise. It tasted really good. Not only this, but the cream seemed to have the effect of making the drink taste stronger, like full-strength spirit. It was extraordinary.
Work and the Loneliness Epidemic / Harvard Business Review
A piece by the former US Surgeon General:
There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles. During my tenure as U.S. surgeon general, I saw firsthand how loneliness affected people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds across the country. I met middle and high school students in urban and rural areas who turned to violence, drugs, and gangs to ease the pain of their loneliness. I sat with mothers and fathers who had lost sons and daughters to drug overdoses and were struggling to cope alone because of the unfortunate stigma surrounding addiction. And I met factory workers, doctors, small business owners, and teachers who described feeling alone in their work and on the verge of burnout. [...] But to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace. Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and clients but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to address loneliness.
'Sleep should be prescribed': what those late nights out could be costing you / The Guardian
The evidence Walker presents, however, is enough to send anyone early to bed. It’s no kind of choice at all. Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night (part of the reason for this has to do with blood pressure: even just one night of modest sleep reduction will speed the rate of a person’s heart, hour upon hour, and significantly increase their blood pressure).
Citizens of anywhere / The Economist
Christian Kälin, chairman of Henley & Partners, a consultancy, estimates that several thousand people spend a combined $2bn or more a year on adding a passport or residence permit to their collection. The largest sources of custom are China, Russia and the Middle East. Demand is rising fast, says Eric Major, who helped pioneer the industry while at HSBC, a bank. The number of clients from emerging markets whose net worth ranges from $1m-100m is growing at 15-20% a year, he reckons; for them, a few hundred thousand dollars is a bargain for the perks bestowed by an extra nationality.
Different Worlds / Slate Star Codex
It's a bit hard to find a good excerpt from this piece, but perhaps this is as good as any:
The old question goes: are people basically good or basically evil? Different philosophers give different answers. But so do different random people I know who aren’t thinking philosophically at all. Some people describe a world of backstabbing Machiavellians, where everybody’s a shallow social climber who will kick down anyone it takes to get to the top. Other people describe a world where everyone is basically on the same page, trying to be nice to everyone else but getting stuck in communication difficulties and honest disagreements over values. I think both groups are right. Some people experience worlds of basically-good people who treat them nicely. Other people experience worlds of awful hypocritical backstabbers. This can be true even if they live in the same area as each other, work the same job as each other, et cetera.
Spoiling for a fight / Aeon
Short of a battlefield, the most violent place in medieval England was Oxford. Why did Brits stop beating each other up? [...] Oxford in the 14th century was a pretty dangerous place, even without this type of incident. A study of coroners’ rolls from the 1340s suggests a homicide rate of 120 per 100,000 of the population – compared with around 1 per 100,000 of the population today for England, Wales and Scotland, meaning you were 100 times more likely to be murdered in medieval Oxford than you are in modern Britain. And homicide in 14th-century Oxford, for both perpetrators and victims, was an overwhelmingly male affair, whereas now a third of all homicide victims are women.
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Ballet Rotoscope / Kottke
In a short film from 2011, you can see the shapes, curves, and outlines left by a ballet dancer as her arms, legs, and body move through the dance studio. This isn’t quite dancing about architecture, but maybe dancing about geometry?
This Utterly Baffling Card Trick Has A Super Simple Explanation / Digg
A Really Quick, Really Cool Demonstration Of Inertia / Digg
The Underwater Photos Of The Year Are Here, And They're Phenomenal / Digg
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