----- 4 stars -----

How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success / New Yorker

In 2002, Burnett rented Wollman Rink, in Central Park, for a live broadcast of the Season 4 finale of “Survivor.” The property was controlled by Donald Trump, who had obtained the lease to operate the rink in 1986, and had plastered his name on it. Before the segment started, Burnett addressed fifteen hundred spectators who had been corralled for the occasion, and noticed Trump sitting with Melania Knauss, then his girlfriend, in the front row. Burnett prides himself on his ability to “read the room”: to size up the personalities in his audience, suss out what they want, and then give it to them. “I need to show respect to Mr. Trump,” Burnett recounted, in a 2013 speech in Vancouver. “I said, ‘Welcome, everybody, to Trump Wollman skating rink. The Trump Wollman skating rink is a fine facility, built by Mr. Donald Trump. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Because the Trump Wollman skating rink is the place we are tonight and we love being at the Trump Wollman skating rink, Mr. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” As Burnett told the story, he had scarcely got offstage before Trump was shaking his hand, proclaiming, “You’re a genius!” Cut to: June, 2015. After starring in fourteen seasons of “The Apprentice,” all executive-produced by Burnett, Trump appeared in the gilded atrium of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, to announce that he was running for President. Only someone “really rich,” Trump declared, could “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” He also made racist remarks about Mexicans, prompting NBC, which had broadcast “The Apprentice,” to fire him. Burnett, however, did not sever his relationship with his star. He and Trump had been equal partners in “The Apprentice,” and the show had made each of them hundreds of millions of dollars. [...] Burnett is an avid raconteur, and his anecdotes about his life tend to have a three-act structure. In Act I, he is a fish out of water, guileless and naïve, with nothing but the shirt on his back and an outsized dream. Act II is the rude awakening: the world bets against him. It’s impossible! You’ll lose everything! No such thing has ever been tried! In Act III, Burnett always prevails. Not long after arriving in California, he landed his first job—as a nanny. Eyebrows were raised: a commando turned nanny? Yet Burnett thrived, working for a family in Beverly Hills, then one in Malibu. As he later observed, the experience taught him “how nice the life styles of wealthy people are.” Young, handsome, and solicitous, he discovered that successful people are often happy to talk about their path to success. [...] “The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”

----- 3 stars -----

Apple’s Errors / Stratechery

What makes this quarter seem so much worse was both the already negative sentiment surrounding the shift in Apple’s reporting (the presumption being the company wanted to hide declining unit sales), and also the fact that Apple’s management forecast was so off. [...] If you will forgive a brief aside, this article requires a few very large caveats: first, Apple has not yet released its final quarter numbers [...] Secondly, thanks in part to the lack of information, this miss is catnip for confirmation bias [...] Third, well, I happen to think that I am right as well: I believe that Apple’s management made three critical errors in their forecast for this last quarter that were predictable precisely because they had made the same errors before — errors that I wrote about at the time. In other words, I am very much susceptible to confirmation bias as well. That noted, if indeed I am right, then that is good news for Apple: I suspect the company is in better shape than the last week of hysteria suggests. [...] That this exact quarter would be challenging for Apple is exactly what I predicted in May 2017 in Apple’s China Problem; specifically: In most of the world, Apple is differentiated first-and-foremost by its integration between hardware and software; the company has a “monopoly” on iOS, which allows it to sell its hardware at much higher prices than the competition. However, in China iOS is much less of a lock-in, thanks to the dominance of cross-platform Chinese-specific services, particularly WeChat (WeChat, while the most important factor, is not the only one: indeed, given that Android in China is specifically tuned to the Chinese market by Chinese OEMs, iOS is if anything a hindrance). The net result is that Apple in China competes not on the basis of integration, but rather on the attractiveness of its hardware; in other words, Apple is, to far greater degree in China than anywhere else, simply another OEM. [...] Management needs to appreciate that the plane of competition in China is different than the rest of the world: the company is a luxury brand, but only in terms of hardware. If anything, iOS in China needs to cater more to the local market; as far as hardware, perhaps it is time for the ‘S’ strategy to be retired.

----- 2 stars -----

Is Sunscreen the New Margarine? / Outside

Current guidelines for sun exposure are unhealthy and unscientific, controversial new research suggests—and quite possibly even racist. How did we get it so wrong? [...] Yet vitamin D supplementation has failed spectacularly in clinical trials. Five years ago, researchers were already warning that it showed zero benefit, and the evidence has only grown stronger. In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of the vitamin ever conducted—in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years—found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke. How did we get it so wrong? How could people with low vitamin D levels clearly suffer higher rates of so many diseases and yet not be helped by supplementation? As it turns out, a rogue band of researchers has had an explanation all along. And if they’re right, it means that once again we have been epically misled. These rebels argue that what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. That was just a marker. Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health—that big orange ball shining down from above. [...] The idea that slavish application of SPF 50 might be as bad for you as Marlboro 100s generated a flurry of short news items, but the idea was so weird that it didn’t break through the deadly-sun paradigm. Some doctors, in fact, found it quite dangerous.

The Weight I Carry / The Atlantic

I weigh 460 pounds. Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write. Nobody knows that number—not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs about 195 pounds; I’m two of those guys, with a 10-year-old left over. I’m the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met, or ever will. The government definition of obesity is a body mass index of 30 or more. My BMI is 60.7. My shirts are size XXXXXXL, which the big-and-tall stores shorten to 6X. I’m 6 foot 1, or 73 inches tall. My waist is 60 inches around. I’m nearly a sphere. Those are the numbers. This is how it feels. [...] Some days, when I see that disaster staring back, I get so mad that I pound my gut with my fists, as if I could beat the fat out of me. Other times, the sight sinks me into a blue fog that can ruin an hour or a morning or a day. But most of the time what I feel is sadness over how much life I’ve wasted. When I was a kid, I never climbed a tree or learned to swim. When I was in my 20s, I never took a girl home from a bar. Now I’m 50, and I’ve never hiked a mountain or ridden a skateboard or done a cartwheel. I’ve missed out on so many adventures, so many good times, because I was too fat to try. Sometimes, when I could’ve tried anyway, I didn’t have the courage. I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of. But I’ve never believed I could do anything truly great, because I’ve failed so many times at the one crucial challenge in my life. What the hell is wrong with me?

The Mysterious Life (and Death) of Africa’s Oldest Trees / Topic

The baobab trunks are thick and bulbous and fat. The bark is shiny and red. The trees don’t sway. They don’t whistle with the wind. Movement is slow and barely perceptible, if they move at all. Baobabs can grow to 100 feet tall; their diameters can reach up to 40 feet. For the most part their leaves appear for just a few months during the wet season and look like the unnatural hair that emerges from a chia pet. Their most dynamic motions are during the roughly five minutes at dusk when their night-blooming flowers open for the bats and moths who drink their pollen, and in death, when they topple suddenly and dramatically in just a few hours. [...] To get to the delta and see some of Botswana’s baobabs, I am flown in a small, single-propeller bush plane from Maun—the fifth-largest city in the country, with a population of 56,000. From hundreds of feet in the air, the rivers ebb and flow below, veining through lush growth even in the dry season. Elephants can be observed munching leaves. Even from afar, the baobab maintains its prominence. The plane lands on a dirt strip with a wind sock and dry vegetation. I am greeted by Diesel, 38, a manager of Bushman Plains, a camp in the middle of the Okavango Delta where I’ll stay. The camp is unique, in that it’s the only black-owned one in Botswana. He is there to drive me the two hours into the bush in order to see the trees. [...] I am reminded of the Khoi and San mythology around the tree, that during creation the gods gave the baobab to a hyena to plant, and he was so upset with the gift of an ugly tree that he threw it to the ground upside down, roots open to the sky. Though damaged, this baobab, like all the others, looks like an experiment gone wrong, a first draft of a tree, more like a gnarled, gentle giant from an ancient fable. While the redwoods and sequoias I grew up with in California appear mighty, silent, intimidating, and stoic—very treelike—baobabs have an anthropomorphic quality; I imagine that if someone painted a face on their trunks, they’d speak and laugh and hug with their gangly limbs, maybe even giggle. [...] They had heard rumors that some baobabs might be as old as 6,000 years, maybe even older. After cataloguing so many collapsed baobabs, they made another conclusion: that the trees were in peril. They published the ages of trees in the peer-reviewed Nature Plants, along with the alarming fact that nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs that they sampled had died or partly collapsed in the past 12 years. The reports of the old trees’ deaths led to shocking headlines.

What Is Glitter? / New York Times
A surprisingly excellent read:

So: what is glitter? A manipulation of humans’ inherent desire for fresh water. An intangible light effect made physical. Mostly plastic, and often from New Jersey. Disposable by design but, it turns out, not literally disposable. A way to make long winter nights slightly brighter, despite the offshore presence of Germans. An object in which the inside of a potato chip bag meets the aurora borealis.

On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted / The Paris Review

Lately, I’ve come to suspect that maybe a lot of people, especially men, still have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in America going about her life while trying, and at times failing, not to be assaulted. So, these past weeks, I’ve been observing myself. [...] Sometimes, I’ll read a novel written by a man in which a woman walks home alone, late at night, in America, without having a single thought about her physical safety, and it’s so implausible that I’ll put the book down. [...] A few months ago, I published my first novel. I’ve been traveling a lot, talking about the book, and people sometimes ask why there’s sexual violence in my novel, or why there’s so much of it, or why multiple women are sexually assaulted during the course of a short novel—the question has variations, but the central inquiry is the same, and it’s most often from men: why did you make that choice. My go-to response is that I tend not to write with overarching whys, that I don’t have any special messages in mind. [...] But here’s what else is true: for all the attention I’ve paid to the ongoing project of my personal safety, it’s still not enough. The gropings, men’s hands where they shouldn’t be, the strangers in bars, the editor who, when I said I didn’t want to go up to his room at the end of the night, put his hands in my hair and pulled. My novel’s mostly set on a college campus. In my experience of college, as well as of life, I haven’t known how to get through a day without considering the possibility of violence against my person. So, perhaps, sexual violence shows up in my novel the way light does, or dialogue: it’s so intrinsically a part of my life that I find it hard to imagine leaving it out.

The Perils of Pearl and Olga / New Yorker
From the August 8, 1953 issue:

On the morning of December 31, 1946, two young women, among many other people, got on a subway train separately at the Fifty-fifth Street B.-M.T. station in Brooklyn, and sat down across from each other in a car as the train moved off toward Manhattan. They had never met, had never spoken, but their lives had been drawn together and the entwinement was a sinister one. They were both working girls and more than ordinarily attractive. One of them was tall, with pale, clear skin and large, dark eyes and shining black hair; she was twenty-eight years old, and her face, besides being beautiful, had an interesting, troubled look about it. She had noticed that the other girl was carrying a gift-wrapped package about the size of a large shoe box. It had an aperture at one end, from which protruded what looked like the lens of a camera. Without thinking much about it, she wondered idly what kind of gift was inside the package. The other girl was barely nineteen and was small and blond. Her name was Pearl Lusk. Only a week earlier, on the day before Christmas, Pearl had found herself disillusioned with New York and its ways, but the mood hadn’t lasted long. Now, as the subway train jounced and clattered along, she felt excited and happy. She held her gift-wrapped package carefully on her lap with both hands. Every now and then, she glanced briefly at the tall, dark girl across the aisle, as if to make sure she was still sitting there. Except for two things that happened to her on Christmas Eve, Pearl Lusk had been pleased with New York ever since she came to the city to seek her fortune, and she told everybody so.

The Democrats’ Latest Idea on Taxes Will Only Help Trump / Bloomberg
From Tyler Cowen:

One of my strongest political memories is of Democrats lamenting their loss to Donald Trump. How could this have happened, they asked. We won’t ignore the Midwest again! We’ll pay closer attention to the working middle class! Yet I now see Democrats making a similar mistake: They are talking about a 70 percent marginal tax rate in a manner that could not be better designed to split their coalition. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been promoting the idea of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate, and Paul Krugman has been defending it. Matthew Yglesias of Vox has written that 70 percent might be too low. Call it the Trump re-election campaign. Let’s consider the economics of such a tax reform. Most of the income of America’s super-wealthy comes not from labor but from capital. It can be earned through capital gains, exercising stock options, and from corporations with possible foreign domiciles. Raising the marginal income tax rate to 70 percent will not, for better or worse, squeeze them very much.

----- 1 star -----

Easter Island statues: mystery behind their location revealed / The Guardian

The huge stone figures of Easter Island have beguiled explorers, researchers and the wider world for centuries, but now experts say they have cracked one of the biggest mysteries: why the statues are where they are. Researchers say they have analysed the locations of the megalithic platforms, or ahu, on which many of the statues known as moai sit, as well as scrutinising sites of the island’s resources, and have discovered the structures are typically found close to sources of fresh water. They say the finding backs up the idea that aspects of the construction of the platforms and statues, such as their size, could be tied to the abundance and quality of such supplies.

AI Algorithm Can Detect Alzheimer’s Earlier Than Doctors / Kottke

A machine learning algorithm programmed by Dr. Jae Ho Sohn can look at PET scans of human brains and spot indicators of Alzheimer’s disease with a high level of accuracy an average of 6 years before the patients would receive a final clinical diagnosis from a doctor.

When State-Building Hinders Growth: The Legacy of China’s Confucian Bureaucracy / Marginal Revolution

Recent work has shown that earlier state-building may lead to higher levels of present-day growth. By contrast, I use a natural experiment to show that the regions of China with over a thousand years of sustained exposure to state-building are significantly poorer today. The mechanism of persistence, I argue, was the introduction of a civil service exam based on knowledge of Confucian classics, which strengthened the social prestige of the civil service and weakened the prestige of commerce. A thousand years later, the regions of China where the Confucian bureaucracy was first introduced have a more educated population and more Confucian temples, but lower levels of wealth.

Americans Greatly Overestimate Racial Economic Equality in Our Country / Kottke

Despite the magnitude and persistence of this inequality, Americans (both black and white) vastly underestimate racial gaps in income and wealth. [...] The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

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