3 stars

What Robots Can—and Can’t—Do for the Old and Lonely | New Yorker

It felt good to love again, in that big empty house. Virginia Kellner got the cat last November, around her ninety-second birthday, and now it’s always nearby. It keeps her company as she moves, bent over her walker, from the couch to the bathroom and back again. The walker has a pair of orange scissors hanging from the handlebar, for opening mail. Virginia likes the pet’s green eyes. She likes that it’s there in the morning, when she wakes up. Sometimes, on days when she feels sad, she sits in her soft armchair and rests the cat on her soft stomach and just lets it do its thing. Nuzzle. Stretch. Vibrate. Virginia knows that the cat is programmed to move this way; there is a motor somewhere, controlling things. Still, she can almost forget. “It makes you feel like it’s real,” Virginia told me, the first time we spoke. “I mean, mentally, I know it’s not. But—oh, it meowed again!”

She named the cat Jennie, for one of the nice ladies who work at the local Department of the Aging in Cattaraugus County, a rural area in upstate New York, bordering Pennsylvania. It was Jennie (the person) who told her that the county was giving robot pets to old people like her. Did she want one? She could have a dog or a cat. A Meals on Wheels driver brought Virginia the pet, along with her daily lunch delivery. He was so eager to show it to her that he opened the box himself, instead of letting Virginia do it. The Joy for All Companion pet was orange with a white chest and tapered whiskers. Nobody mentioned that it was part of a statewide loneliness intervention.

On a Thursday this spring, Jennie (the cat) sat on the dining-room table, by Virginia and her daughter-in-law Rose, who is subsidized by Medicaid to act as Virginia’s caregiver for nine hours each week. Virginia was holding a doughnut very carefully, her thumb pressed into the glaze. Her white hair, which she used to perm before it got too thin to hold a curl, was brushed away from her face. Decades ago, Virginia and her husband, Joe, who ran a nearby campground, had entertained at this table. But everyone who used to attend their parties was either dead or “mentally gone.”

John Cheever wrote that he could taste his loneliness. Other people have likened theirs to hunger. Virginia said that her loneliness came and went and felt sort of like sadness. And like not having anyone to call. “Well, I do. I have a family, but I don’t want to bother them,” she told me. “They say, ‘Oh, you aren’t bothering!’ But, you know, you don’t want to be a bother.” Her daughter was in Florida. Her older son came by with food sometimes, but he spoke so quietly that Virginia couldn’t always hear him, and then she felt bad for being irritating.

Other times, loneliness felt like a big life falling in on itself. It had been years since Virginia could drive anywhere, and even the house seemed to have shrunk. “The kids won’t let me go in the basement,” she said. “They won’t let me go upstairs. They’re afraid I’ll fall.” She did fall sometimes. Once, as she waited on the ground to be rescued, she grew very cold, because she wasn’t wearing stockings.

At the table, Virginia pulled the cat’s tail. It let out a tinny meow: one of more than thirty sounds and gestures—eye closing, mouth opening, head turning—that the Joy for All cats are designed to make. A dollop of jelly fell from Virginia’s doughnut onto her turquoise dress. She laughed and looked over at Jennie: “I can’t believe that this has meant as much as it has to me.”


Kip Kinkel Is Ready To Speak | Huffington Post

In the spring of 1998, Kipland Kinkel, then 15, shot and killed his mother, his father and two students at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. He wounded 25 others. At the time, the country was only beginning to fear that mass shootings at schools might actually become a trend. […]

That image of Kinkel has remained frozen in time: the dangerous child people point to as the reason some kids need to be locked up for life. For decades, Kinkel never tried to correct it. He refused every interview request and even avoided being photographed in group activities inside the prison. He worried that reemerging publicly would only further traumatize his victims. But last year he agreed to speak to HuffPost.

Kinkel is one of about 10,000 people nationwide serving life or life-equivalent sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18, when their brains were not yet fully developed. The U.S. is the only country that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. The children condemned to die in prison are disproportionately Black and brown, the result of years of racist fearmongering about so-called “super-predator” youth. But in Oregon, which is overwhelmingly white and has had a high rate of juvenile incarceration, Kinkel is one of the most infamous prisoners. […]

I have spoken with Kinkel over the phone for about 20 hours over the course of nearly ten months. It was a rare opportunity to hear from the perpetrator of a school shooting; those that survive almost never speak publicly again. No questions were off-limits. He described to me the childhood onset of hallucinations and delusions that would later be identified as symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He walked me through the events that drove him to amass weapons and his memory of the psychotic break he experienced during his crime. He described his intense guilt for what he had done. He told me about the treatment and support he received from his doctors, therapists, sister, volunteers and his community of juvenile lifers.

Today, Kinkel is unrecognizable from the 15-year-old boy who inflicted devastating harm on his community. Within the confines of the prison system, where he has now spent most of his life, Kinkel has earned his college degree, become a certified yoga instructor and advocated for criminal justice reform before elected officials. He is diligent about his mental health treatment and says he rarely hears the voices anymore. When they do emerge, they are quiet and garbled. Even when he can make out what they are saying, he understands them as manifestations of his illness; they don’t hold a powerful influence over him anymore.

I found Kinkel to be a remarkably reliable narrator of his life. When listening back to recordings of phone calls months apart, he remained consistent on even the smallest details, and his version of events was supported by doctors and people who lived with him in the prison.


6 Months Inside One of America’s Most Dangerous Industries | The Atlantic

Getting a job at the Cargill plant was surprisingly easy. The online application for “general production” was six pages long. It took less than 15 minutes to fill out. At no point was I required to submit a résumé, let alone references. The most substantial part of the application was a 14-question form. […]

Four hours and 20 minutes after hitting “Submit,” I received an email confirmation for a phone interview the next day, May 19, 2020. The interview lasted three minutes. When the woman conducting it asked me for the name of my last employer, I told her that it was the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the publisher of The Christian Science Monitor. I had worked at the Monitor from 2014 to 2018. For the last two of those four years, I was its Beijing correspondent. I had quit to study Chinese and freelance.

“And what did you do there?” the woman asked about my time at the Church.

“Communications,” I said.

The woman asked a couple of follow-up questions about when I quit and why. During the interview, the only question that gave me pause was the final one.

“Do you have any issues or concerns working in our environment?” she asked.

After hesitating for a moment, I replied, “No, I don’t.”

With that, the woman said that I was “eligible for a verbal, conditional job offer.”


2 stars

The Lab Leak Theory Doesn’t Hold Up | Foreign Policy

Annoyingly, the first half of this article focuses on trying to cast lab leak evidence as flimsy, coming across as more defensive than substantive; I nearly gave up on this article (despite many recommendations) because of this. The second half is more compelling, in my view:

The real clues about COVID-19’s origin aren’t geopolitical but scientific.

The lab leak theory says the furin cleavage site, a tiny string of amino acids on the virus, is key to understanding the novel coronavirus’s origin.

Goldstein agrees. But, he said, that cleavage site actually points toward the virus’s natural origin.

“You cannot, in a normal cell culture, maintain the furin cleavage site,” he told meWhen the COVID-19 virus is replicated in a cell culture in a lab, he said, the furin cleavage tends to delete itself. A peer-reviewed paper, published in late April in Nature, noted that habit and identified seven other papers that found a similar deletion.

So if researchers were using traditional methods and their preferred cell lines to try to force the virus to replicate, mutate, and change, the furin cleavage site would likely disappear.

The gain-of-function proponents say this furin site is too well adapted for humans to be an accident. But Goldstein said the opposite is true. The cleavage site is imperfect, so odd, that it could have only been a freak of nature. “No virologist would use that cleavage site,” he said.

It is possible to replicate the virus in a lab while preserving the cleavage site, Goldstein added, but it would “require doing things differently than everyone does them.” And, crucially, it would require them choosing cell cultures that replicate the virus more slowly.

So the researchers would have had to make a series of inefficient and strange decisions to preserve a tiny, novel, odd enzyme. Indeed, the researchers at Imperial College London behind the April Nature article found that the addition of four amino acids in the virus’s spike protein “occurred during its emergence from an animal reservoir and created a suboptimal furin [cleavage site].” Another study published in January in Stem Cell Research demonstrated how these furin sites naturally evolve in many coronaviruses.


The Long, Strange Life of the World’s Oldest Naked Mole Rat | Wired

These death-defying rodents do not age normally. Will their weird biology help extend human life spans, or are those ambitions a dead end?


How the U.S. Made Progress on Climate Change Without Ever Passing a Bill | The Atlantic

Yet America refuses. And so the 2010s, once greeted as a “new era” for climate action, now seem unexceptional, the third decade in a row that the United States understood the dangers of climate change but failed to act. Meanwhile the seas rose, wildfires raged, and the Earth saw its hottest 10 years on record.

You have probably heard this tale before; it is a popular and undeniably accurate read of recent history. It has just one flaw: America is decarbonizing anyway.

That 2009 climate bill, the one that President Barack Obama couldn’t pass? It required the U.S. to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 as compared with their all-time high. Yet last year, our emissions were down 21 percent. The same bill said that the U.S. had to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Last year, we met that target. We will surpass it in 2021.

These numbers are not a mere fluke. Last year was a singular, awful moment in economic history, but even accounting for the effects of the COVID-19 recession, America’s real-world emissions last decade outperformed the Obama bill’s targets. From 2012 to 2020, real-world U.S. emissions were more than 1 billion tons below what the bill would have required, according to my analysis of data from Rhodium Group, an energy-research firm.


How I Became the Honest Broker | Culture Notes of an Honest Broker

I knew I needed help, but had run out of options. Then I met the drunk Australian.

He wasn’t a contact on my list, and I can’t even remember his name. This was a chance encounter in a hotel bar late at night. But this hard-drinking Australian was talkative and had interesting things to say. He had spent most of his life bouncing around the capitals of Asia, and was a high-level operator in his own spheres. He bragged about his insider’s knowledge, and claimed—with some accuracy, as I came to discover—that he knew how to maneuver in China better than the clueless Westerners who were now appearing on the scene. He had traced the secret paths to power and knew all the dangerous mistakes amateurs always make.

He reeled off a list of them. “You go into a province or city and flash around some money, then expect the local officials will help you? Forget it. They’ll rob you blind, and even make you bribe them for the privilege. Same goes for the party leaders. From each according to his ability, and all that, my friend. And forget about lawyers—the legal protections here are like this”—he held up his empty glass, then flipped it over as if to emphasize the nothingness of what he was offering to the gods of Marx and Mao. “As for the bankers, you might as well call them wankers.”

The empty glass was also a sign that I needed to order another round of the local brew, and I quickly complied. My new friend fell into a meditative silence until further libations arrived. Finally, after another sip on the stomach-destroying glass of baijiu that passed for spirits at our watering hole, I asked the obvious question.

“So what do I do?  Who can I trust?”

“That’s easy, mate. You need to find the Honest Broker.”


There’s no such thing as a tree (phylogenetically) | Eukaryote Writes Blog

So you’ve heard about how fish aren’t a monophyletic group? You’ve heard about carcinization, the process by which ocean arthropods convergently evolve into crabs? You say you get it now? Sit down. Sit down. Shut up. Listen. You don’t know nothing yet.

“Trees” are not a coherent phylogenetic category. On the evolutionary tree of plants, trees are regularly interspersed with things that are absolutely, 100% not trees. This means that, for instance, either:

  • The common ancestor of a maple and a mulberry tree was not a tree.

  • The common ancestor of a stinging nettle and a strawberry plant was a tree.

  • And this is true for most trees or non-trees that you can think of.

I thought I had a pretty good guess at this, but the situation is far worse than I could have imagined.


Covid doom predictions that never happened | Noahpinion

Unfortunately, many of the bad predictions about COVID-19 came true. The people who saw cases ramping up exponentially, and warned that this was going to be a mass death event, were right, while the people who minimized the threat and waved it away were wrong. And a lot of people are dead because we didn’t listen to the former.

But economic predictions are a different story. When unemployment spiked to Great Depression levels in the early days of lockdown, it seemed to me — and to many, many others — like this downturn was destined to turn into a decade of mass economic hardship. Fortunately, that was completely off the mark! I got it very wrong and Paul Krugman got it right — with no financial crisis and no big overhang of debt, the economy simply wasn’t destined for a repeat of 2008-12. Though the recovery has proven bumpy thus far, but most economists still forecast a relatively swift return to the pre-pandemic growth trend. […]

Suicides had been rising in the U.S. for years prior to the pandemic, and many people predicted that the stress and isolation of lockdown would send the rate soaring even higher. An article in JAMA Psychiatry in April 2020 predicted:

Remarkable social distancing interventions have been implemented to fundamentally reduce human contact. While these steps are expected to reduce the rate of new infections, the potential for adverse outcomes on suicide risk is high.

The Washington Post said we were headed for a mental health crisis, and predicted a wave of suicides. Other researchers reported a rise in suicidal ideation.

Except guess what happened? Suicides fell. A March 2021 JAMA article found that suicide was about 6% lower in 2021 compared to 2020:


Why People Fall For Conspiracy Theories | FiveThirtyEight

“It’s all probabilistic,” said Joshua Hart, a professor of psychology at Union College who has studied the personality traits of people prone to believe conspiracy theories. Hart said when you consider the population as a whole, you can see these traits are correlated with harboring beliefs in conspiracies, but at the individual level, any single trait doesn’t necessarily predispose someone to falling down the rabbit hole. “I don’t think any one of them is going to tip the scale.” […]

This particular exercise was used in a 2018 study to measure something called illusory pattern perception: the tendency to see patterns where there are none. Respondents who believed there was some kind of predetermined pattern to the coin toss sequences were more likely to believe conspiracy theories.


1 star

The Day the Dinosaurs Died – Minute by Minute | Kurzgesagt (YouTube)

66 million years ago, maybe on a Tuesday afternoon, life was the same as it had been the day before or a thousand years before or pretty much a million years before. Things were good for our feathered dinosaur buddies. Until a tiny, tiny detail in the sky changed.


Why Do Things Keep Evolving Into Crabs? | PBS Eons (YouTube)

For some reason, animals keep evolving into things that look like crabs, independently, over and over again. What is it about the crab’s form that makes it so evolutionarily successful that non-crabs are apparently jealous of it?


State of the Windows: How many layers of UI inconsistencies are in Windows 10? | NTDEV

We’ve all heard this riddle: if you dig down deep enough in Windows 10, you’ll find elements that date from Windows 3.x days. But is it actually true? In this article we’ll discover just how many UI layers are in Windows and when they were first introduced.


Embroidered Forests | Kottke

I am enjoying these embroidered forest landscapes by Katrin Vates. The stitching provides a lovely & subtle variable depth to the bushy trees that you don’t get from a drawing or painting.


The best mask-wearing study so far? | Marginal Revolution

Investigating the inconsistency within epidemiological studies, we find that a commonly used proxy, government mask mandates, does not correlate with large increases in mask-wearing in our window of analysis. […] We do not find evidence that mandating mask-wearing reduces transmission. Our results suggest that mask-wearing is strongly affected by factors other than mandates. We establish the effectiveness of mass mask-wearing, and highlight that wearing data, not mandate data, are necessary to infer this effect.


Surprising Evolutionary Relationships | Reddit


Drinking straw device is instant cure for hiccups, say scientists | The Guardian

Sipping water through an L-shaped ‘suction and swallow tool’ cured 92% of attacks, according to study


About this newsletter