----- 4 stars -----
The Lingering of Loss / New Yorker
My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest. [...] I sewed my first son his first snowsuit when I was pregnant with him, in the middle of a hard and terrible winter, the ramp-up to Y2K, the much anticipated end of the world. He wasn’t due till the very beginning of April; it would be spring by then, thawed, even blooming. Still, wouldn’t he be cold? He was coming out of me: didn’t he need something to go into? I bought a yard of Kermit-green fleece and a matching zipper, and I stitched for him that sort of star-shaped sack Maggie Simpson wears. (Most of my ideas about parenting came from Marge, fretting beneath her blue beehive.) The zipper ran from the left foot to the right shoulder. I sewed on little flaps for his tiny hands to be tucked into, like letters into envelopes. I tried the snowsuit out on a stuffed bear the brown of the bark of a sugar maple. We named the bear Elly, for Eleanor Roosevelt, and I carried her around the house in her new fleece suit, practicing. The doctors had to unzip the baby out of me. I couldn’t push. Maybe I didn’t want to, I don’t know, I don’t remember. When I was trying to deliver him, my best friend, Jane, was on her deathbed, more than a hundred miles away. We were historians, counters of years, markers of time, so this spring, twenty years since that day, day of birth, day of death, I opened her computer, to honor the anniversary.
When researchers at Emory University in Atlanta trained mice to fear the smell of almonds (by pairing it with electric shocks), they found, to their consternation, that both the children and grandchildren of these mice were spontaneously afraid of the same smell. That is not supposed to happen. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is impossible. A mouse should not be born with something its parents have learned during their lifetimes, any more than a mouse that loses its tail in an accident should give birth to tailless mice. If you are not a biologist, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the state of evolutionary science. Modern evolutionary biology dates back to a synthesis that emerged around the 1940s-60s, which married Charles Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discoveries of how genes are inherited. The traditional, and still dominant, view is that adaptations – from the human brain to the peacock’s tail – are fully and satisfactorily explained by natural selection (and subsequent inheritance). Yet as novel ideas flood in from genomics, epigenetics and developmental biology, most evolutionists agree that their field is in flux. Much of the data implies that evolution is more complex than we once assumed.
“Don’t shake his hand when he comes in,” Aleksander Toots, KAPO’s deputy director and the country’s chief spy-catcher, had warned me. “We consider it an insult to shake hands with a traitor.” Metsavas was shivering when he walked in. “Prison is cold,” he said. He’d spent the previous six months behind bars, and while it was clear he was nervous, he appeared fit and healthy. [...] Weeks before our meeting, Metsavas was convicted of spying for Russia’s military intelligence service and sentenced to 15 and a half years in prison. He pleaded guilty at his trial and cooperated with Estonian counterintelligence, offering details of how he was co-opted by Moscow, of his conversations with his longtime handler, and of the classified information—most of it Estonia’s, some of it from Estonian allies—he passed along to Russia. [...] For KAPO, the interview was an opportunity to publicize its already legendary reputation of catching Russian spies. For me, it was an unmissable chance to speak to a contemporary spy and raise the curtain on the inner workings of a Russian intelligence agency whose century-long history of skulduggery—from election tampering to dirty wars, from attempted coups to assassination plots—shows no sign of abating. And for Metsavas, it was a chance to atone for his high crimes against his country, his comrades in the army, his friends and family. I believe he had little apparent incentive to lie: Everything he said would be within earshot of at least one KAPO case officer, tasked with ensuring that he didn’t speak out of turn, or embellish or misrepresent his autobiography. I got the impression that Metsavas, as much as the men who had unmasked him, took such matters earnestly. In general, there was a strange camaraderie between Metsavas and the KAPO case officers who flitted in and out of the interrogation room as our interview wore on. All interacted with him not as an enemy of the state, but as an old acquaintance, with an intimacy born of close proximity and repetition. I asked Metsavas whether he felt compelled in any way to talk to me. He said he didn’t and insisted that this whole thing was his idea in the first place. I eventually saw why.
Cheryl had no interest in the Greenwich social circuit, with its acquisitive pulse. But Chip reveled in it. The Skowrons, already members at one of the town’s several country clubs, applied to join another. Greenwich has a dense calendar of charity galas, and Skowron made sure that he and Cheryl turned up at the right events. He joined the Monticello Motor Club, a speedway in upstate New York where Jerry Seinfeld is a member. One item in his auto collection, an Alfa Romeo 8C Spider, once appeared on a list of Greenwich’s most expensive cars. He traveled widely and lavishly. In Paris he favored the Plaza Athénée; in Barcelona, the Hotel Arts. Among friends and family, Skowron was known to be generous, loyal, and fun-loving—a griller of burgers and sharer of beers. But he was emotionally exhausted, wrung out by the pressure of keeping up appearances and increasingly troubled by a sense of emptiness. “I wanted to be somebody that was important,” he recalls. “I wanted to accomplish, succeed, to be satisfied. It was all illusory.” In November 2010, the façade began to slip. Press reports indicated that Skowron had become a target of a federal investigation into insider trading spearheaded by Preet Bharara [...] As his relationships with the other inmates deepened, he became ashamed of his pride in his education and his wealth, which had insulated him in a cocoon of superiority. He saw that it had enabled a false, destructive worldview—the kind that, widely held, abetted mass incarceration. The people in prison were not who he had expected them to be, and prison, he now believed, was not where the vast majority of them belonged. Increasingly, he felt, they were his brothers. Following his release, in November 2015, Skowron returned to live with his family in Greenwich, where they remained comfortably situated at the house on Doubling Road. [...] Despite the familiar comforts of his Greenwich home, Skowron found his old surroundings isolating. He often awoke in the morning thinking about prison—not from nightmares, but with pangs of longing. He had stayed in touch with perhaps 20 of his fellow inmates and spoke to some of them frequently. But the intimate community they had developed in prison was gone. He felt the lack sharply.
----- 2 stars -----
The Great Model Train Robbery / Bloomberg Businessweek
At market, they can fetch tens of thousands of pounds. And though they’re small, one-twelfth the scale of a normal train, they’re not that small. The locomotives—which burn model-train-size bricks of coal, carried in model-train-scale tenders and fed with tiny shovels—weigh hundreds of pounds each. They’re powerful enough to pull eight children, who ride, straddling passenger cars, around a special narrow-gauge track at 8 mph. [...] When she learned of the robbery, Filley, who’s 72, with sandy bangs and the steady determination of an Alpine cog rail, immediately started calling GMMES members. Arriving at the club with Alan in her Honda Jazz, she saw havoc: The main clubhouse door was ripped off and lay on the ground. Shelves were toppled and chairs flipped. It looked as if a bomb had gone off. “We were gobsmacked,” she says. “I can’t even remember cups of tea being made, because we were so in shock.”
There he is on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, 30 years ago last spring: May 8, 1989. He is on a pitcher's mound, rearing back with a baseball in his right hand, his left foot in the air, his pink face bathed in sunlight beneath the green cap of Brenham High. His tongue is squeezed between his lips. Above his head, a single word in yellow capital letters: SUPERKID. Never before had a high school baseball player been featured on the cover of SI. The story inside opens with a photo spread in which he stands solemnly on that same mound, turned toward centerfield with his hat held over his heart during the playing of the national anthem, his eyes cast downward. Behind him, the school band members in their white polos, and beyond them a sea of blurry faces in the grandstand behind home plate. The headline: AN AMERICAN CLASSIC. [...] There was nothing wrong with this tale, as far as it went. It was just incomplete. The fans in attendance, the reporters covering the event could not have known that not only was this the best day of Peters's young life, but it was also the worst. They couldn't have known that Superkid was in fact a bundle of adolescent insecurity and anger, dating to when he was first nicknamed Big Pete and had to wear an adultsized Little League uniform that looked different from his teammates'. Or that on the eve of the record-setting game, Peters says he swallowed three-quarters of a bottle of Tylenol, one tablet at time, in an attempt to end his own life. "Just wanted it to be all done," he says now. "I felt like everybody's lives would be better without me." He woke up the next morning very much alive, with a fierce ringing in his ears. They couldn't have known that Jon Peters, the athlete, had peaked two years earlier, when his fastball reached 92 mph in winning the Class 4A state championship game.
The most mind-boggling controversy in the contemporary philosophy of science is the “doomsday argument,” a claim that a mathematical formula can predict how long the human race will survive. It gives us even odds that our species will meet its end within the next 760 years. The doomsday argument doesn’t tell what’s going to kill us — it just gives the date (very, very approximately). When I first came across this idea, I thought it was absurd. A prediction must be founded on data, not math! That is by no means an uncommon reaction. One critic, physicist Eric J. Lerner, branded doomsday “pseudo-science, a mere manipulation of numbers.” Yet I now believe the doomsday prediction merits serious attention — I’ve written my latest book about it. Start with J. Richard Gott III. He’s a Princeton astrophysicist, one of several scholars who independently formulated the doomsday argument in the last decades of the 20th century. (Others are physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Brandon Carter and philosopher John Leslie.) In 1969, Gott was a physics undergraduate fresh out of Harvard, spending the summer in Europe. At a visit to the Berlin Wall, he did a quick calculation and announced to a friend: The Berlin Wall will stand at least 2 and 2/3 more years but no more than 24 more years. Demolition on the wall began 21 years later. This motivated Gott to write his method up. He published it in the journal Nature in 1993. There, Gott wrote of the future of humanity itself. He forecast a 95 percent chance that the human race would cease to exist within 12 to 18,000 years.
In fact, while the differences were not huge, women scored at a statistically significantly higher level than men on the vast majority of leadership competencies we measured. We recently updated that research, again looking at our database of 360-degree reviews in which we ask individuals to rate each leaders’ effectiveness overall and to judge how strong they are on specific competencies, and had similar findings: that women in leadership positions are perceived just as — if not more — competent as their male counterparts. [...] As you can see in the chart below, women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most frequently measure.
Brash, bold, and bigoted, he made for an uneasy national mascot.
----- 1 star -----
The new and improved Magnus Carlsen / Marginal Revolution
Yet his preparation has taken an extraordinary spin. Other grandmasters prepare the opening in the hope of achieving an early advantage over their opponents. Magnus’s preparation, in contrast, is directed at achieving an early disadvantage in the game, perhaps willing to tolerate as much as -0.5 or -0.6 by the standards of the computer (a significant but not decisive disadvantage, with -2 signifying a lost position). Nonetheless these are positions “out of book” where Magnus nonetheless feels he can outplay his opponent, and this is mostly opponents from the world top ten or fifteen. So far it is working. One commentator wrote: “Magnus is turning into a crushing monster just like Garry. He isn’t the strangler anymore.” And it is hard to counter someone looking for a disadvantage!
Researchers identified nearly 400 common medical practices and theories that were contradicted by rigorous studies. Here are some of the most notable findings.
The bizarre, tragic, and likely imagined history of Goofy’s wife and family
Perceptions of Anglo-American dominance in movie and music trade motivate restrictions on cultural trade. Yet, the market for another cultural good, food at restaurants, is roughly ten times larger than the markets for music and film. [...] Third, excluding fast food, the largest net exporters of their cuisines are the Italians and the Japanese, while the largest net importers are the US – with a 2017 deficit of over $130 billion – followed by Brazil, China, and the UK.
I Want More Immigrants and a Census Citizenship Question / Bloomberg
This link and the next one are effectively courtesy of the GMU economics department, and while I don't necessarily agree, the points made are interesting:
Unlike many of those who push for the question, I would like to boost the flow of legal immigration by a factor or two or three. Nonetheless, are we supposed to let foreigners in (which I favor), and give them a rapid path to citizenship (which I also favor), but somehow we are not allowed to ask them if they are citizens? To me this boggles the mind. [...] I do understand the following realities. First, asking about citizenship information will make the Census less reliable, as fewer people will respond, typically immigrants but also including some actual citizens and legal permanent residents. An accurate Census has pragmatic value for economic policymaking and also for research. [...] The rationalist in me prefers an open debate about letting more people in legally. Countries that do let in especially high percentages of legal immigrants, such as Canada and Australia, take pretty tough stances in controlling their borders. Both of those countries ask about citizenship on their censuses. When citizens feel in control of the process, they may be more generous in terms of opening the border.
Amazon is simply the best store that ever existed, by far, with incredible selection and unearthly convenience. The price: cheap. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media let us socialize with our friends, comfortably meet new people, and explore even the most obscure interests. The price: free. Uber and Lyft provide high-quality, convenient transportation. The price: really cheap. Skype is a sci-fi quality video phone. The price: free. Youtube gives us endless entertainment. The price: free. Google gives us the totality of human knowledge! The price: free. That’s what I’ve seen. What I’ve heard, however, is totally different. The populists of our Golden Age are loud and furious. They’re crying about “monopolies” that deliver firehoses worth of free stuff. They’re bemoaning the “death of competition” in industries (like taxicabs) that governments forcibly monopolized for as long as any living person can remember. They’re insisting that “only the 1% benefit” in an age when half of the high-profile new businesses literally give their services away for free. And they’re lashing out at businesses for “taking our data” – even though five years ago hardly anyone realized that they had data. My point: If your overall reaction to business progress over the last fifteen years is even mildly negative, no sensible person will try to please you, because you are impossible to please. Yet our new anti-tech populists have managed to make themselves a center of pseudo-intellectual attention. Angry lamentation about the effects of new tech on privacy has flabbergasted me the most. For practical purposes, we have more privacy than ever before in human history. You can now buy embarrassing products in secret. You can read or view virtually anything you like in secret. You can interact with over a billion people in secret. Then what privacy have we lost? The privacy to not be part of a Big Data Set. The privacy to not have firms try to sell us stuff based on our previous purchases. In short, we have lost the kinds of privacy that no prudent person loses sleep over.