----- 3 stars -----
Into the dark / Macleans
The inside story of an improbable team of divers, a near-impossible plan and the rescue of 12 boys from a Thai cave [...] Today, the mission begins. Either four boys will be rescued or their bodies will be recovered; the bodies of divers may be recovered, too. Jim, the Belgian elf from Ireland, has been called in so late that when he arrives at the site, the other Brits are suited up and coming out of the changing room beside the cave. He’s missed the pool drill, the rock drill, the sedation drill. But Jim’s here for the mission. He enters the cave. It isn’t like any cave he’s seen. There are pumps, electrical cables, pipes, lights, food, Wi-Fi, legions of people. Some guys watch the World Cup nearby. Jim doesn’t have to carry a thing: American Special Forces insist on taking in the divers’ gear; one guy’s favourite is the stocky American who calls himself “the Donkey.” “Hee haw, hee haw! Load me up! Hee haw!” Past a stream, over boulders and through the ad hoc rescue mission village, Jim makes it the 800 m to the water’s edge in Grand Central Station 3. He’s travelling with his station-mate, Connor Roe, another Brit. They will be the last support divers in the chain. Two Brits are waiting to tell Jim and Connor what to expect before they get in the water.
The Senseless Logic of the Wild / New York Times
The whale sighting happened right away, minutes into Day 1. Jon, Dave and I had just been dropped off on a remote Alaskan shoreline, an hour and a half by boat from the closest speck of a town. Jon was working as a sea-kayaking guide that summer in Glacier Bay National Park, and he had invited us up for a seven-day excursion during his week off. As the boat that delivered us vanished, the drone of its engine dampening into a murmur and then finally trailing off, it became unthinkably quiet on the beach, and the largeness and strangeness of our surroundings were suddenly apparent. It was a familiar phenomenon for Jon from the start of all his trips: a moment that people instinctually paused to soak in. To me, it felt like those scenes of astronauts who, having finally rattled free of the earth’s atmosphere, slip into the stillness of space. Except we weren’t in space. We were on earth — finally, really on earth. We were only starting to move around again, packing our gear into the kayaks, when we heard the first huff of a blowhole, not far offshore. Jon was ecstatic. It seemed to him as if the animal were putting on a show, swimming playfully in the kelp, diving, resurfacing, then plowing its open mouth across the surface to feed. He took it as a good omen. Though I had no idea at the time, he was anxious that Dave and I might feel intimidated about making the trip; such a big payoff, so quickly, would get us excited and defuse any apprehensions. For Dave, the whale-sighting had exactly the opposite effect.
Where Warren’s Wrong / Stratechery
Senator Elizabeth Warren deserves credit: I have been writing about antitrust, particularly in the context of Aggregation Theory, for years, but the most concrete proposal I have put forward is that social networks should not be allowed to acquire other social networks. Senator Warren, on the other hand, last week presented a far more wide-reaching proposal that specifically targeted Facebook, Google, and Amazon. [...] Unfortunately, Senator Warren’s proposal helps highlight why I have not gone further with my own: hers would create massive new problems, have significant unintended consequences, and worst of all, not even address the issues Senator Warren is concerned about (with one possible exception I will get to in a moment).
The Tragedy of Baltimore / ProPublica
It takes remarkable fortitude to remain an optimist about Baltimore today. I have lived in the city for 11 of the past 18 years, and for the last few I have struggled to describe its unraveling to friends and colleagues elsewhere. If you live in, say, New York or Boston, you are familiar with a certain story of urban America. Several decades ago, disorder and dysfunction were common across American cities. Then came the great urban rebirth: a wave of reinvestment coupled with a plunge in crime rates that has left many major cities to enjoy a sort of post-fear existence. Until 2015, Baltimore seemed to be enjoying its own, more modest version of this upswing. Though it is often lumped in with Rust Belt economic casualties like Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit, Baltimore in fact fared better than these postindustrial peers. Because of the Johns Hopkins biomedical empire, the city’s busy port and its proximity to Washington, metro Baltimore enjoyed higher levels of wealth and income — including among its black population — than many former manufacturing hubs. The city still had its ills — its blight, suburban flight, segregation, drugs, racial inequality, concentrated poverty. But as recently as 2014, Baltimore’s population, which is 63 percent African-American, was increasing, up slightly to 623,000 after decades of decline. Office buildings downtown were being converted to apartments, and a new business-and-residential district was rising east of the Inner Harbor. The city was even attracting those ultimate imprimaturs of urban revival, a couple of food halls. The subsequent regression has been swift and demoralizing. [...] Explaining all this to people outside Baltimore is difficult, not only because the experience is alien to those even in cities just up or down the interstate from us (though a handful of cities elsewhere, like Chicago and St. Louis, have experienced their own waves of recent violence, albeit less dramatically than Baltimore). It’s also because the national political discourse lacks a vocabulary for the city’s ills. On right-wing talk radio, one of the few sectors of the media to take much interest in Baltimore’s crime surge, there are old tropes of urban mayhem — Trump’s “American carnage.” Typically lacking from these schadenfreude-laced discussions is any sense of the historical forces and societal abandonment that the city has for decades struggled to overcome.
------ 2 stars -----
White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots / The Atlantic
The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. Perhaps the most important among them was a blue blood with a very impressive mustache, Madison Grant. He was the author of a 1916 book called The Passing of the Great Race, which spread the doctrine of race purity all over the globe. [...] America has always grappled with, in the words of the immigration historian John Higham, two “rival principles of national unity.” According to one, the U.S. is the champion of the poor and the dispossessed, a nation that draws its strength from its pluralism. According to the other, America’s greatness is the result of its white and Christian origins, the erosion of which spells doom for the national experiment. People of both political persuasions like to tell a too-simple story about the course of this battle: World War II showed Americans the evil of racism, which was vanquished in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act brought nonwhites into the American polity for good. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 forever banished the racial definition of American identity embodied in the 1924 immigration bill, forged by Johnson and Reed in their crusade to save Nordic Americans from “race suicide.” The truth is that the rivalry never ended, and Grantism, despite its swift wartime eclipse, did not become extinct. The Nazis, initially puzzled by U.S. hostility, underestimated the American commitment to democracy. As the Columbia historian Ira Katznelson writes in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2013), the South remained hawkish toward Nazi Germany because white supremacists in the U.S. didn’t want to live under a fascist government. What they wanted was a herrenvolk democracy, in which white people were free and full citizens but nonwhites were not.
Ketamine: Now By Prescription / Slate Star Codex
Twenty years ago, people noticed that ketamine treated depression. Alas, ketamine already existed – it’s an anaesthetic and a popular recreational drug – so pharma companies couldn’t patent it and fund FDA trials, so it couldn’t get approved by the FDA for depression. A few renegade doctors started setting up ketamine clinics, where they used the existing approval of ketamine for anaesthesia as an excuse to give it to depressed people. But because this indication was not FDA-approved, insurance companies didn’t have to cover it. This created a really embarrassing situation for the medical system: everyone secretly knows ketamine is one of the most effective antidepressants, but officially it’s not an antidepressant at all, and mainstream providers won’t give it to you. The pharmaceutical industry has lobbyists in Heaven. Does this surprise you? Of course they do. A Power bribed here, a Principality flattered there, and eventually their petitions reach the ears of God Himself. This is the only possible explanation for stereochemistry, a quirk of nature where many organic chemicals come in “left-handed” and “right-handed” versions. The details don’t matter, beyond that if you have a chemical that you can’t patent, you can take the left-handed (or right-handed) version, and legally pretend that now it is a different chemical which you can patent. And so we got “esketamine”. Am I saying that esketamine is just a sinister ploy by pharma to patent and make money off ketamine? Yup. In fact “esketamine” is just a cutesy way of writing the chemical name s-ketamine, which literally stands for “sinister ketamine” (sinister is the Latin word for “left-handed”; the modern use derives from the old superstition that left-handers were evil). The sinister ploy to patent sinister ketamine worked, and the latest news says it will cost between $590 to $885 per dose. (Regular old ketamine still costs about $10 per dose, less if you buy it from a heavily-tattooed man on your local street corner.) [...] This is a crappy system – but again, it’s one that occasionally gets us new medicines. So it’s hard to complain. But in this case, there are two additional issues that make it even worse than the usual serving of crappiness. First, esketamine might not work.
Stepping Into the Uncanny, Unsettling World of Shen Yun / New Yorker
Part of the seeming strangeness of Shen Yun could be attributed to a latent Orientalism on the part of Western viewers—including those of us who are of Asian descent. But the real root of Shen Yun’s meme-friendly eeriness is that the ads brightly and aggressively broadcast nothing at all; this is why it’s so easy to imagine them popping up in Ebbing, Missouri, or in the extended Blade Runner universe, or on Mars. The ads have to be both ubiquitous and devoid of content so that they can convince more than a million people to pay good money to watch what is, essentially, religious-political propaganda—or, more generously, an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime. The Chinese Embassy, for its part, warns the American public to “stay away from the so-called ‘Shenyun’ performance of the ‘Falun Gong’ organization so as to avoid being deceived and used by the cult.” Whether Falun Dafa—the name is used interchangeably with Falun Gong—is a cult, in either a strict or loose sense, is debatable. Its practitioners have no record of violence, and the organization does not appear to be coercive. Its stated central values are “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.” The organization’s Web site notes that the “Falun,” meaning an “intelligent, rotating entity composed of high-energy matter,” is planted “in a practitioner’s lower abdomen from other dimensions” and then “rotates constantly, twenty-four hours a day.” Most of the group’s practices fall roughly within the traditions of Tai Chi and Qigong, and the group itself can be situated within China’s long history of apocalyptic sects promising redemptive transformation, such as the White Lotus Society, which dates to the Ming dynasty. [...] Aside from the organ harvesting, the homophobia, the anti-evolution ballad, and the Karl Marx apparition, the thing I found most odd about my Shen Yun experience in Houston was the hosts’ explanation of Chinese classical dance.
The Believer / California Sunday Magazine
After a mysterious freestyle ski run in last year’s Winter Olympics, people called Elizabeth Swaney a scam artist and the worst athlete in the history of the games. They’re wrong.
Americans Are Seeing Threats in the Wrong Places
Janet Napolitano, preaching to the choir:
In the four years I led the Department of Homeland Security, I learned from the inside that the greatest threats to our safety play out differently from how political speeches and news reports might have us believe. True security means educating the public about which dangers are real and likely and which are not. [...] A stubborn or willful misreading of the threat environment leads to poor management of resources and results in failure. And in this regard, I regret to say, we are backsliding terribly. Border protection is one such area. Vetting travelers primarily by nation of origin, as President Trump’s ban on travelers from certain predominantly Muslim countries does, is not a very effective way of catching terrorists. While offering the illusion of toughness, the ban misdirects our efforts. Rather than directing Customs and Border Protection to fend off every traveler from, say, Syria or Yemen, the agency’s resources are better spent when focused on people who, regardless of which passport they use, have suspicious connections and a pattern of traveling to suspicious places. Meanwhile, meat-ax policies such as Trump’s ban provide propaganda points to adversaries and antagonize our allies in the Islamic world—governments whose cooperation has, in the past, helped us immensely. They become, as a result, less reliable partners in endeavoring to mitigate threats to the United States on their soil before those threats mature on ours. We become a go-it-alone nation in protecting our own security rather than working with partners. Similarly, the border wall between the United States and Mexico threatens to waste money, attention, and political capital and antagonize Mexico, our neighbor and ally. In 2013, Mexican intelligence helped the United States foil a plot by an Iranian American who tried to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to bomb a Washington, D.C., restaurant where the Saudi ambassador to the United States dined. We would like Mexico to continue helping us in this way. The choice is not between an open border and a wall.
Actually, Mercury Is Our Closest Planetary Neighbor / Kottke
If you look at the orbits of the planets adjacent to the Earth’s orbit (Venus & Mars), you’ll see that Venus’s orbit is closest to our own. That is, at its closest approach, Venus gets closer to Earth than any other planet. But what about the average distance? According to this article in Physics Today by Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe, and Samuel Cordner, if you run a simulation and do a proper calculation, you’ll find that Mercury, and not Venus or Mars, is Earth’s closest neighbor on average (and spends more time as Earth’s closest neighbor than any other planet).
When Elon Musk Tried to Destroy a Tesla Whistleblower / Bloomberg
It started with a Twitter meltdown and ended with a fake mass shooter. A former security manager says the company also spied and spread misinformation.
----- 1 star -----
How Ian McKellen Acts With His Eyes / Kottke
In the latest episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak examines how Ian McKellen does a lot of heavy lifting with his eyes, especially in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Gwern's AI-Generated Poetry / Slate Star Codex
Some of this is quite impressive:
Gwern has answered my prayers and taught GPT-2 poetry. GPT-2 is the language processing system that OpenAI announced a few weeks ago. They are keeping the full version secret, but have released a smaller prototype version. Gwern retrained it on the Gutenberg Poetry Corpus, a 117 MB collection of pre-1923 English poetry, to create a specialized poetry AI. I previously tested the out-of-the-box version of GPT-2 and couldn’t make it understand rhyme and meter. I wrongly assumed this was a fundamental limitation: “obviously something that has never heard sound can’t derive these complex rhythms just from meaningless strings of letters.” I was wrong; it just didn’t have enough training data.
Mysterious ocean ‘blob’ may have led to fewer baby whales / National Geographic
A persistent mass of warm water in the Arctic provided a preview of how climate change may impact humpback whales.
Density is Destiny: Economists Predict the Far Future / Marginal Revolution
In a paper that just won the JPE’s Robert Lucas Prize, Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg model the evolution of the world economy over the next 400-600 years! Is it laughable or laudatory? I’m not entirely sure. The paper does have an insight that I think is very important, in addition to a number of methodological advances. [...] Thus, if migration restrictions are strict, density is destiny and the dense parts of the world will rule. But what if migration restrictions are loosened? [...] It’s much better to remove migration restrictions today because we get to a much richer world, faster. In addition, population is better distributed in accordance with natural amenities. All is not perfectly rosy, however, in the free migration scenario.
Changing Sketches into Photorealistic Masterpieces / YouTube
More impressive machine learning from nVidia
Mansa Musa: The richest man who ever lived / BBC
I'm not convinced by the title, but there's some interesting history here:
Mansa Musa left such a memorable impression on Cairo that al-Umari, who visited the city 12 years after the Malian king, recounted how highly the people of Cairo were speaking of him. So lavishly did he hand out gold in Cairo that his three-month stay caused the price of gold to plummet in the region for 10 years, wrecking the economy. US-based technology company SmartAsset.com estimates that due to the depreciation of gold, Mansa Musa's pilgrimage led to about $1.5bn (£1.1bn) of economic losses across the Middle East.
The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is … Google Docs / The Atlantic
Interesting if unsurprising.
Click here to subscribe and to see previous issues.