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The Age of Robot Farmers / New Yorker
A wide-ranging, fascinating piece on the present and future of agriculture:
Picking a strawberry properly, and doing it fast enough to earn a living wage, requires speed, dexterity, and stamina. On a typical plant, only some of the berries will be ripe; the pickers must identify them by working their hands through the thick canopy of leaves with little fruit-seeking movements of their fingers, catching the stem of the ripe berries in the webbing of their fingers, and cupping the fruit. Then, with a wristy twist that prevents bruising around the calyx, they pluck the berry from the vine the way you might pop a frosty can of beer from a six-pack. [...] Summarizing the potential, Slaughter said, “For the first time, farmers can know what’s going on in their fields on the level of the individual plant. The idea is that you can run a farm with the same intimate care you would use on a back-yard garden, where you know each plant individually.” Farmers could irrigate and fertilize only those plants that needed it, and not waste resources on the current one-size-fits-all approach. Agriculture accounts for seventy per cent of fresh-water consumption worldwide, and, in the U.S. alone, farms use more than a billion pounds of pesticide each year; strawberry farms are especially heavy users. “Precision agriculture,” the name given to this slowly unfolding revolution, could dramatically reduce such wasteful and chemical-dependent practices. [...] He described the labor situation in the U.K. as a crisis. The strawberry pickers are mostly from Bulgaria and Romania, two of the poorest countries in the European Union. “And now we’ve got the situation where we’re trying to leave the E.U. but we haven’t done it yet, and that’s made it even more difficult to recruit workers,” he said. He wasn’t sure how growers were going to get the berries picked this season. “The British don’t work in the fields?” I asked. Harnden laughed. “Not any longer.” Wishnatzki, who had been listening, said, “Every developed country in the world, it’s the immigrants doing the hard work.” “Absolutely,” Harnden agreed. “Wherever you go, it’s somebody else’s population that’s doing the agricultural work.” In Costa Rica, Nicaraguans work on the coffee farms. In Malaysia, Indonesians harvest bananas. Like all growers who use H-2A workers, Wish Farms must advertise its jobs to American workers first. Mike Carlton, the labor-relations director of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, told me that he did not know of any growers in the state of Florida who got a response to their ads this past season.
When the police break your teammate’s leg, you’d think it would wake you up a little. When they arrest him on a New York street, throw him in jail for the night, and leave him with a season-ending injury, you’d think it would sink in. You’d think you’d know there was more to the story. You’d think. But nope. I still remember my reaction when I first heard what happened to Thabo. It was 2015, late in the season. Thabo and I were teammates on the Hawks, and we’d flown into New York late after a game in Atlanta. When I woke up the next morning, our team group text was going nuts. Details were still hazy, but guys were saying, Thabo hurt his leg? During an arrest? Wait — he spent the night in jail?! Everyone was pretty upset and confused. Well, almost everyone. My response was….. different. I’m embarrassed to admit it. Which is why I want to share it today. Before I tell the rest of this story, let me just say real quick — Thabo wasn’t some random teammate of mine, or some guy in the league who I knew a little bit. We’d become legitimate friends that year in our downtime. He was my go-to teammate to talk with about stuff beyond the basketball world. Politics, religion, culture, you name it — Thabo brought a perspective that wasn’t typical of an NBA player. And it’s easy to see why: Before we were teammates in Atlanta, the guy had played professional ball in France, Turkey and Italy. He spoke three languages! Thabo’s mother was from Switzerland, and his father was from South Africa. They lived together in South Africa before Thabo was born, then left because of apartheid. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Thabo was one of the most interesting people I’d ever been around. We respected each other. We were cool, you know? We had each other’s backs. Anyway — on the morning I found out that Thabo had been arrested, want to know what my first thought was? About my friend and teammate? My first thought was: What was Thabo doing out at a club on a back-to-back?? Yeah. Not, How’s he doing? Not, What happened during the arrest?? Not, Something seems off with this story. Nothing like that. Before I knew the full story, and before I’d even had the chance to talk to Thabo….. I sort of blamed Thabo. I thought, Well, if I’d been in Thabo’s shoes, out at a club late at night, the police wouldn’t have arrested me. Not unless I was doing something wrong. Cringe. It’s not like it was a conscious thought. It was pure reflex — the first thing to pop into my head.
The intentions behind the Nazi salute photograph seen around the world were hardly as sinister as they first appeared. But in Trump and Twitter’s America, as one small Midwestern town discovered, image is everything. [...] The events of May 5, 2018, would eventually cast Phillip Zolper as an international symbol of racism in Donald Trump’s America. But if he was worried about anything when he woke up that morning, it was dancing at his junior prom. Like a lot of 17-year-old boys, Zolper wondered if he would embarrass himself in front of his date, a friend. And there were so many things to take care of first. Zolper had to buy a corsage. But he didn’t like any of the precut ones, so he bought untrimmed flowers instead. Then, there were the pictures. Around 10 in the morning, Zolper, his date, and the prom group met at a house in the bluffs west of town, where they posed for each other. Afterward, Zolper, his friends, and their dates caravanned down the county trunk highway to the center of Baraboo, the small, middle-class Wisconsin city where most of them attended high school. When they arrived, the lawn in front of the Sauk County Courthouse was already mobbed. Promgoers had been coming here for years the day of the dance for big class photos; today it seemed like everyone’s families had turned out too.
Three decades ago, an influential Harvard Business School professor made the argument that CEO pay should be tied to stock performance. Was he horribly wrong? [...] According to data from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, average CEO compensation at the largest firms rose from $1.8 million per year in the 1980s — roughly in line with the previous 45 years — to $4.1 million in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, it had risen to $9.2 million. And those numbers are after adjusting for inflation. The majority of that growth came in the form of options and stock grants, just as Jensen had recommended. But what if Jensen was wrong? What if CEOs don’t play much of a role in driving stock price performance, and the “aligned incentives” of equity incentive pay don’t change behavior in any way that benefits shareholders? What if the “best and brightest” — those executives with the most dazzling CVs and track records — don’t perform any better than less credentialed executives? And what if Jensen’s philosophy produced better outcomes for CEOs and business school graduates — including those from his own school — but not better outcomes for investors or society at large?
When We Say 70 Percent, It Really Means 70 Percent / FiveThirtyEight
One of the reasons I like FiveThirtyEight so much (incidentally, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, also often included in this e-mail, does this too):
We really care about the difference between a 60 percent chance and a 70 percent chance. That’s not always how we’re judged, though. Both our fans and our critics sometimes look at our probabilistic forecasts as binary predictions. Not only might they not care about the difference between a 60 percent chance and a 70 percent chance, they sometimes treat a 55 percent chance the same way as a 95 percent one. There are also frustrating moments related to the sheer number of forecasts that we put out — for instance, forecasts of hundreds of U.S. House races, or dozens of presidential primaries, or the thousands of NBA games in a typical season. If you want to make us look bad, you’ll have a lot of opportunities to do so because some — many, actually — of these forecasts will inevitably be “wrong.” Sometimes, there are more sophisticated-seeming criticisms. “Sure, your forecasts are probabilistic,” people who think they’re very clever will say. “But all that means is that you can never be wrong. Even a 1 percent chance happens sometimes, after all. So what’s the point of it all?” [...] Calibration measures whether, over the long run, events occur about as often as you say they’re going to occur. For instance, of all the events that you forecast as having an 80 percent chance of happening, they should indeed occur about 80 out of 100 times; that’s good calibration. If these events happen only 60 out of 100 times, you have problems — your forecasts aren’t well-calibrated and are overconfident. But it’s just as bad if they occur 98 out of 100 times, in which case your forecasts are underconfident. [...] What you’ll find, though, is that our calibration has generally been very, very good. For instance, out of the 5,589 events (between sports and politics combined) that we said had a 70 chance of happening (rounded to the nearest 5 percent), they in fact occurred 71 percent of the time. Or of the 55,853 events that we said had about a 5 percent chance of occurring, they happened 4 percent of the time.
Abigail Disney, 59, is an activist and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. She is also the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, making her an heiress to the Disney family fortune (she declines to say how much she inherited, but has given away over $70 million since she turned 21). Raised in North Hollywood, California, with three siblings, she has a doctorate from Columbia and currently lives in New York. Here, she talks about the paradoxes of growing up in tremendous wealth.
See, a $400 jacket isn’t a jacket that costs $400. It’s a jacket that could have cost $30 and utilities for a month and a week’s worth of groceries. So when I wear the jacket, I feel that excess. It’s a bad decision hanging elegantly on my back. You could call it money dysmorphia: I feel like I do not have money, even though I do. I know objectively that I can go out to lunch, order a $17 burger, and have plenty of money left over. But still, I’ll sit at the table stewing with anxiety over what I might need that money for someday. My warped reality comes from fears about the future – one where I might be back in a dingy bedsit, unable to pay bills or, even worse, relying on a man. I live in worst case scenario mode to protect myself from the financial perils of naivety. I worry that if I actually let myself accept that I have money now, it will be even more of a shock if poverty does come.
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M87 Black Hole Size Comparison / xkcd
What it sounds like -- Randall Munroe has compared the newly-"photographed" black hole to the solar system.
What's the Most Isolated City in the World? / YouTube (CuriosityStream)
Dog owners are much happier than cat owners, survey finds / Washington Post
These differences are quite large: The happiness divide between dog and cat owners is bigger than the one between people who identify as middle and upper class, and nearly as large as the gap between those who say they’re in “fair” versus “good or excellent” health. However, correlation doesn’t equal causation, and there are probably a number of other differences between dog and cat owners that account for some of the differences. The General Social Survey data show that dog owners, for instance, are more likely to be married and own their own homes than cat owners, both factors known to affect happiness and life satisfaction.
Researchers at Yale and Oxford say exercise is more important to your mental health than your economic status. The scientists found that while people who exercise regularly tend to feel bad for 35 days a year, nonactive participants felt bad for 18 days more. The team also found that certain sports that involve socializing can have more of a positive effect on your mental health than others.
But when taking into account other factors, like the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity, those classic, plastic shopping bags are actually the most benign of the current common options.
Now Vélez has lost even his notoriety. On Monday night, Chris Davis, the first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, went 0–5, extending his hitless streak, which began last season, to forty-nine at-bats and counting. Aside from an adjacency in the record books, the stories of Vélez and Davis could hardly be more different. Vélez was a backup player earning close to the league-minimum salary; Davis is the highest paid player on his team, in the midst of a seven-year, hundred-and-sixty-one-million-dollar contract, and the burly, eye-blacked face of the franchise. (As part of his deal, the Orioles are scheduled to continue making deferred-salary payments to Davis until 2037.) This isn’t a bad hitter leaving baseball with a whimper; it is a fall from great heights. Davis twice led the majors in home runs, and, despite never batting for average, was an immensely valuable player—a paragon of the three-true-outcome hitting, in which a batter most often strikes out, walks, or hits a home run. The strikeouts are only tolerable, however, when a player is doing the other two things. Davis ended last season with just sixteen home runs against a hundred and ninety-two strikeouts, while recording the lowest batting average—.168—in M.L.B. history by an everyday player. As of Monday, in twenty-eight at-bats this season, Davis has struck out fifteen times.
By focusing on grant proposals that fell just below and just above the funding threshold, we compare “near-miss” with “near-win” individuals to examine longer-term career outcomes. Our analyses reveal that an early-career near miss has powerful, opposing effects. On one hand, it significantly increases attrition, with one near miss predicting more than a 10% chance of disappearing permanently from the NIH system. Yet, despite an early setback, individuals with near misses systematically outperformed those with near wins in the longer run, as their publications in the next ten years garnered substantially higher impact. We further find that this performance advantage seems to go beyond a screening mechanism, whereby a more selected fraction of near-miss applicants remained than the near winners, suggesting that early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere. Overall, the findings are consistent with the concept that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”