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

Operation Columba / London Review of Books
Fascinating; if this were just slightly better written it probably would have gotten four stars:

Pigeons move through a human world. They stay close to the land, often flying at street level, below the height of the rooftops. Recent studies have suggested that they navigate using human structures as well as natural ones: they follow roads and canals, and have been observed going round roundabouts before taking the appropriate exit. [...] Operation Columba was conceived and run by a raggle-taggle band of secret service officers, pigeon-fanciers, aristocratic animal lovers and soldiers, who didn’t always work well together. [...] In 1939 he suggested that pigeons could be used not only to receive intelligence from established agents but also as a means of recruiting new ones. MI6 thought the idea ridiculous and wanted nothing to do with it. But Military Intelligence, which was run by the army and based at the War Office rather than the Foreign Office, allowed Pearson to go ahead. [...] The messages they carried were by turns useful, unintelligible, petty, funny and moving. People wrote asking for supplies (sometimes guns and ammunition; often whisky and cigarettes), to taunt the enemy, to denounce traitors and ask for them to be condemned on the radio, or to tell the allies to be more careful when they dropped their bombs. Sometimes they just seemed intrigued by the birds. ‘I found this pigeon … early in the morning while I was cutting clover for the animals,’ one person wrote, ‘and I have looked after it well and given it food and drink and am now anxious to know if the little animal reaches its loft.’ [...] When, in 1941, some friends discovered a Columba pigeon on their land, Raskin organised the assembly of an extraordinarily detailed message – five thousand words long and containing several maps – to send back to London. The group released the pigeon on 12 July and it arrived at its loft in Ipswich the same day. Their message was on a desk in Whitehall within 36 hours. Despite describing Columba as a ‘racket’, MI6 had to admit the report was useful.

The Church of Living Dangerously: How One of America’s Biggest Pastors Became a Drug Runner for a Mexican Cartel / Vanity Fair

He looked like Sammy Hagar, preached like Billy Graham, and brought a 350-pound tiger to church. Then he shot heroin with his son and was busted at the border for running drugs for a Mexican cartel. [...] “Unchurched people don’t wear ties,” Bishop says. “Unchurched people are really messy to deal with. They have drug problems, addictions, marriage problems. Churches want people in their suits looking polished and happy, smiling ear to ear. But it’s fake. It's a façade.” Instead, Bishop embraced a more radical notion: He decided to risk being himself. He began speaking from the heart about his own troubled past—his father’s drinking, the abuse, the childhood fight club—shedding the conservative attire for his usual wardrobe of jeans and a T-shirt and letting his mane of surfer-blond hair grow past his ears. He also worked overtime to make sure that none of his flock would feel bored, the way he had when he first started going to church. Working with Michelle and his three children—David, Katie, and Hannah—he staged increasingly theatrical productions for his sermons. “It was almost like [a] Las Vegas thing,” Michelle says. “What would bring people in? You get them in the doors, and then they’re hearing about the gospel.” [...] The next morning, David chastised his friend for getting his father high. But Bishop insisted it was his choice. “Jesus came to be human to understand our lives, so we could believe he loves us enough to understand us,” he told David. “I want to do the same with you. I have nothing to lose. Nothing to gain. Maybe I should be a drug addict.” Addicts are skilled at rationalizing their compulsion to get high, and Bishop’s godliness served as a perfect cover for his neediness. David, for his part, was desperate to reconnect. So father and son set out on a road trip to Cabo.

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

The McKinsey Way to Save an Island / New York Magazine

Why is a bankrupt Puerto Rico spending more than a billion dollars on expert advice? [...] Since 2016, Puerto Rico has been buffeted by a natural disaster and several overlapping, man-made catastrophes. Its government is bankrupt and owes $74 billion to bondholders: a staggering sum that amounts to 99 percent of the island’s gross national product, or $25,000 for each of its 3 million men, women, and children. It faces a vociferously hostile president, a stalemated and colonial relationship with Congress, entrenched local political dysfunction, and a bunch of angry creditors — most notably, a group of hedge funds that speculate in distressed debt and are fighting for every last penny they think they’re owed. “I mean, it’s basically a management crisis,” Bertil Chappuis said one afternoon, as we sat at a Cuban luncheonette in San Juan. “Set aside the politics. Set aside policy. Set aside all of that. There was a true management crisis that had come to a head because of the debt.” Nail, meet hammer: Chappuis is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, perhaps the world’s most influential management consulting firm. McKinsey prides itself on tackling the world’s most important and intractable problem. Over its century-long existence, the firm — or “The Firm,” as its employees refer to it — has conceived and propagated many of the ideas that now rule American business, which is to say, American life. Its influence can be seen in corporate suites (a disproportionate number of Fortune 500 CEOs are ex-McKinsey consultants) and grocery stores (the bar code is a McKinsey innovation), in banks, universities, and hospitals. All the while, the firm has maintained an air of mystery, seldom disclosing the details of its works, deflecting credit when its efforts are successful, dodging blame when they blow up or inflict pain on those on the receiving end of its efficiencies. For the last two years, though, Chappuis and the firm have taken on an unusually visible role in Puerto Rico’s contentious and very public bankruptcy process.

The Raisin Situation / New York Times

One man wanted to change the raisin industry for the better. He got more than he bargained for. [...] When he came west, though, he was taken aback by the level of animosity he encountered in the U.S. raisin industry, the entirety of which is crammed into a few hundred square miles in California’s Central Valley. Three months into his tenure, which began on Halloween of 2017, Mr. Overly attended a meeting of some raisin industry players in the back room of a restaurant in Fresno, Calif. This introduction left him shaken. “I’m not saying this lightly, because — you can read about this in different spots — people kind of think there’s this raisin mafia out there and that kind of stuff,” Mr. Overly said. He said that he asked the group how they thought they could work together. “And the answer I got back was nothing short of collusion,” he said. While no one was proposing they take action, the anti-competitive tactics discussed in that back room, he said, were “completely illegal.”

Buspirone Shortage in Healthcaristan SSR / Slate Star Codex

Now there’s a national shortage. My patients can’t get it, or have to go hunting from pharmacy to pharmacy until they find one that has it. I’ve told people find a source to stockpile a supply so they don’t run out. It feels like we’re living in the Soviet Union. How did this happen? [...] So the FDA shut down a major buspirone factory. But government agencies – ones that are a lot less nice than the FDA – shut down methamphetamine factories all the time without creating methamphetamine shortages. Why is the buspirone market so vulnerable? [...] Is this really how economics works? There’s a medicine that millions of people desperately need? But nobody will produce it because they can’t make a profit? Huh? Isn’t the usual solution to just raise the price? And people will buy it at the higher price, because they need it so badly? And then you will make more profit, and can keep on making the medication? Isn’t “nobody will supply this product, it’s too cheap” just the economics version of “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”?

How Mapping Shots In The NBA Changed It Forever / FiveThirtyEight
The NBA is obsessed with 3s, so let's finally fix the thing

Every year, NBA players take about 200,000 shots. Each season, 30 teams combine to play 1,230 games, and at the end of the regular season, you can bet the sum total of shots taken will be very close to 200,000. In the hands of a cartographer, a season’s worth of this shooting data is a veritable treasure trove of information. But here’s the thing: In the first decade of this century, there weren’t many cartographers working in the NBA league office or for analytics departments in any of the team front offices. [...] When I first got my hands on these massive haystacks of shooting data, I was teaching cartography at Harvard. I’d found a way to retrieve five seasons’ worth of shooting data from the web, and I built a database that included over 1 million NBA field-goal attempts, who shot them and where they shot them from. [...] The next thing I noticed was even more surprising. When you look at leaguewide shooting numbers between 6 and 25 feet, the league is strangely consistent. I expected to see a marked decrease in field-goal percentage with greater distance: I thought shorter jump shots would go in at higher rates than longer jump shots. While this is true, the effect is much more subtle than I would have expected.

"There's no basketball anymore, there's no beauty in it," Popovich said back in November. "Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn't, you win. You don't even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don't even care." Pop is right. Not only has the analytics era of the NBA dramatically reshaped shot selection across the league, but shooting is by far the most important component of winning games. Teams with a higher effective field goal percentage (eFG%) than their opponents won 81 percent of their games during the regular season, and they're winning 90 percent of them in the playoffs. [...] Warning: The following idea has often been ridiculed as the dumbest thing I ever proposed. However, a few people have told me it's brilliant. I present it again here, and will let you decide for yourself: What if every team in the NBA could draw the 3-point line wherever they wanted? [...] Ray Allen's incredible 3-point shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals was arguably one of the great shots in league history. But here's the thing: That place where Ray took the shot from -- that little spot along the baseline where the 3-point line is straight -- is generally regarded as the "smartest jump shot on the floor." In fact, that place might actually be the silliest shot on the floor. The corner 3 is based on an analytical loophole, a seemingly minor decision in 1961 that now influences almost every half-court possession in the NBA. [...] The stationary rooks in the corners effectively turn many NBA possessions into three-on-three. The cornermen and their defenders are reduced to bit players -- unless of course one of the rook's defenders dares to play help defense on a driving player after a ball screen. In that case, a future corner 3 happens via the drive-and-kick. But is this interesting?

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

Tactical Driving Looks Fun (But Don’t Try This at Home) / Kottke

Wyatt Knox is a former rally car driver and driving instructor at Team O’Neil Rally School and in this video, he shows us some of the tactical driving techniques that would be in the repetoire of law enforcement or special operations personnel, including running cars off the road, backing up at high speed, and doing a j-turn.

The Peter Principle Tested / Marginal Revolution

We provide evidence that the Peter Principle may be the unfortunate consequence of firms doing their best to motivate their workforce. [...] Our research suggests that companies are largely aware of the Peter Principle. Because workers value promotion above and beyond a simple increase in salary, firms may not want to rid themselves entirely of promotion-based incentives.

Dept. of Uh-Oh, college and mobility edition / Marginal Revolution

Intergenerational mobility is higher among college graduates than among people with lower levels of education. In light of this finding, researchers have characterized a college degree as a great equalizer leveling the playing field, and proposed that expanding higher education would promote mobility. This line of reasoning rests on the implicit assumption that the relatively high mobility observed among college graduates reflects a causal effect of college completion on intergenerational mobility, an assumption that has rarely been rigorously evaluated. [...] Analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, I find that once selection processes are adjusted for, intergenerational income mobility among college graduates is very close to that among non-graduates.

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