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

The Day the Dinosaurs Died / New Yorker

A young paleontologist may have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth. [...] Within two minutes of slamming into Earth, the asteroid, which was at least six miles wide, had gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and lofted twenty-five trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. Picture the splash of a pebble falling into pond water, but on a planetary scale. When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up. The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blast looked nothing like a nuclear explosion, with its signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a “rooster tail,” a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere. [...] “We have the whole KT event preserved in these sediments,” DePalma said. “With this deposit, we can chart what happened the day the Cretaceous died.” No paleontological site remotely like it had ever been found, and, if DePalma’s hypothesis proves correct, the scientific value of the site will be immense. When Walter Alvarez visited the dig last summer, he was astounded. “It is truly a magnificent site,” he wrote to me, adding that it’s “surely one of the best sites ever found for telling just what happened on the day of the impact.”

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

“The Big Error Was That She Was Caught”: The Untold Story Behind the Mysterious Disappearance of Fan Bingbing, the World’s Biggest Movie Star / Vanity Fair

It is hard to convey Fan’s appeal, because there is no star in Hollywood quite like her. She combines the glamour of Nicole Kidman, the sunniness of Julia Roberts, the pluck of Jennifer Lawrence, and the box-office draw of Sandra Bullock. In Beijing, she is the literal girl next door: nearly everyone I met claimed to be her neighbor. A lawyer told me that her house was next to his at Star River, a gated community protected by razor wire. An actor said he often saw her black S.U.V. parked in front of his apartment building. [...] Taken together, Xi’s moves represent a dramatic rollback of the economic reforms and relative freedom that enabled the film industry to flourish in the time before his reign. “Deng Xiaoping kept everyone together by promising to make them rich,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director of Amnesty International. “What keeps things together under Xi is fear. Fear of the system, where no matter how high you are, from one day to the next you can disappear.” When I arrived in Beijing, just before Christmas, everyone in the film industry seemed to be in a state of panic. The tax authorities had issued a directive calling for all film companies to do ziwo piping, or “self-criticism,” and “rectify themselves” by paying the back taxes they owed on unreported income before December 31. Those who paid up would not be fined. Starting in the new year, however, there would be “heavy, random checks,” and those who were caught would be “dealt with seriously.” [...] Because of Fan’s clout in the industry, the probe of her finances had incriminated many companies that were partnering with her on projects. Scores of films have been put on hold. “Everyone you can think of is dealing with taxes right now,” said Kwei, the producer. Many had either already been “invited for tea” at the tax bureau, or were awaiting their turn.

TIMELAPSE OF THE FUTURE: A Journey to the End of Time (4K) / YouTube
This is long but fascinating:

How's it all gonna end? This experience takes us on a journey to the end of time, trillions of years into the future, to discover what the fate of our planet and our universe may ultimately be. We start in 2019 and travel exponentially through time, witnessing the future of Earth, the death of the sun, the end of all stars, proton decay, zombie galaxies, possible future civilizations, exploding black holes, the effects of dark energy, alternate universes, the final fate of the cosmos - to name a few. This is a picture of the future as painted by modern science - a picture that will surely evolve over time as we dig for more clues to how our story will unfold. Much of the science is very recent - and new puzzle pieces are still waiting to be found. To me, this overhead view of time gives a profound perspective - that we are living inside the hot flash of the Big Bang, the perfect moment to soak in the sights and sounds of a universe in its glory days, before it all fades away. [...] Featuring the voices of David Attenborough, Craig Childs, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michelle Thaller, Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, Mike Rowe, Phil Plait, Janna Levin, Stephen Hawking, Sean Carroll, Alex Filippenko, and Martin Rees.

Her Time / California Sunday Magazine

It was early January 2018 when Debra Koosed started working on her taxes. Or was it mid-January? She knew it was January. She knew that she would get confused and would need the extra time. Months, even. Soon, Debra was spending several hours a day bent over the paperwork, her soft body in the heavy wheelchair, pulled up to the round kitchen table that looked out on the Oregon coastline. Why, Brian wanted to know, was she so intent on filing her taxes anyway, given what she planned to do? Because she wanted her affairs to be in order. Because she did not want things left unfinished. “I am tying up loose ends,” she told him. But when Debra looked down at the tax forms, it was as if the pages lost their outer borders and the words danced away. [...] Brian Ruder read through the application package slowly. He had worked with clients like this before — people with fresh diagnoses of dementia — but never someone so young. “I’m writing this letter to request the services of the Final Exit Network in hastening my death,” the applicant, Debra Koosed, had written in her introductory letter. “I’m hoping you can help me … before my brain robs me of ALL my dignity.” Not every would-be client was as circumspect. Sometimes people got scrappy in their pleas for help in a “If you don’t help me, I’ll blow my brains out” kind of way. Brian, who is 77, was born to a German Catholic family in Kansas. He was raised to fear God: certain that the taking of one’s life was a mortal sin, a degradation so complete that it fell beyond the bounds of His mercy. As Brian grew older, he shed his faith and acquired, in its place, a firm devotion to the secular tenets of personal autonomy, especially as they concerned the end of life. “I don’t believe in letting doctors decide when I should die,” he told me. Now that he had lost his God, there was no redemption to be found in anguish, no transcendence in pain. There was no purpose to pain at all. “I don’t believe in suffering,” he said. When Brian left his corporate job in Portland, he started volunteering with Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit group that lobbies state legislatures to legalize physician-assisted death.

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

Neurons and Intelligence: A Birdbrained Perspective

Elephants have bigger brains than humans, so why aren’t they smarter than we are? The classic answer has been to play down absolute brain size in favor of brain size relative to body. Sometimes people justify this as “it takes a big brain to control a body that size”. But it really doesn’t. Elephants have the same number of limbs as mice, operating on about the same mechanical principles. Also, dinosaurs had brains the size of walnuts and did fine. Also, the animal with the highest brain-relative-to-body size is a shrew. [...] So does that mean that intelligence is just a function of neuron quantity? That the number of neurons in your brain, plugged into some function, can spit out your IQ? It…comes pretty surprisingly close to meaning that. Sure, some people point out that elephants have more neurons than humans. But most of those are in the cerebellum, which maybe shouldn’t count. If you focus on cortical neurons, humans have 15 billion and elephants only five billion. A list of animals by cortical neuron count really beautifully matches our intuitive perceptions of which animals are more intelligent, whether we’re talking about primates or birds or whatever.

Democrats Need to Learn From Their Al Franken Mistake / The Atlantic

Crucially, Franken and numerous other senators asked for the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to conduct an investigation. A preliminary inquiry was soon under way, a process Franken said he welcomed, because he was confident he would be cleared. The Senate is the rare workplace in which an established set of procedures addresses such violations. The inquiries are conducted by staff (or sometimes outside attorneys) with subpoena power. They are intended to provide an unbiased examination, and recommend proportional punishment—if appropriate. One of the greatest misfortunes of the Franken case is that this process was abruptly terminated in favor of political posturing. As a result, the country lost an opportunity. The Senate could have modeled how fair procedures can work in a #MeToo case outside the criminal-justice system, illustrating the necessity of restraint and patience when volatile issues are being adjudicated. It should be a source of shame to Franken’s erstwhile colleagues who called for his premature departure that they flouted the basic principles of fairness that underlie the constitutional oath they take.

The Impossibility of Translating Homer into English / Kottke

Emily Wilson, who produced this banging translation of The Odyssey and is currently at work on The Iliad, recently tweeted a list of “reasons why it’s more or less impossible to translate Homer into English in a satisfactory way”. Here are a few of those reasons: 2. There aren’t enough onomatopoeic words for very loud chaotic noises. 3. “Many”, especially when repeated over and over, sounds childish; repeating “lots of” sounds worse. There are not enough words for large numbers of people or objects, and those we have (“multitude”, “plethora”, “myriad”) are often too pompous to use repeatedly.

Why some Asian accents swap Ls and Rs in English / Vox (YouTube)

A foreign accent is when someone speaks a second language with the rules of their first language, and one of the most persistent and well-studied foreign-accent features is a lack of L/R contrast among native Japanese speakers learning English. It’s so well-known that American soldiers in World War II reportedly used codewords like “lallapalooza” to distinguish Japanese spies from Chinese allies. But American movies and TV shows have applied this linguistic stereotype to Korean and Chinese characters too, like Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police, or Chinese restaurant employees singing “fa ra ra ra ra” in A Christmas Story. However, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese are completely different languages that each handle L-sound and R-sounds differently. In this episode of Vox Observatory, we take a look at each language and how it affects pronunciation for English-language learners.

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

This is How Photorealistic Video Game Engines Are Now / PetaPixel

The asset library Quixel has released this new 2.5-minute cinematic short film titled “Rebirth.” It’s an eye-opening look at how photorealistic real-time rendering in video game engines is now. To prepare for the project, Quixel spent a month in cold and wet locations in Iceland, scanning all kinds of objects found in the natural environment using. The team returned with over 1,000 scans that captured the details of the landscape.

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