On a whim, I decided to switch this morning from TinyLetter to Substack. I’d been thinking about this for some time; rumours about TinyLetter’s future didn’t seem too improbable given its clunky and unchanging UX, while Substack has been getting its fair share of hype.

So far, I’m impressed. Importing everything from TinyLetter happened in seconds, and the setup process was polished and took only a few minutes. Putting an e-mail together also seems a lot more user-friendly. Hopefully things continue going smoothly.

While Substack has been in the news for helping its writers make small fortunes from e-mail newsletters, I have no intention of ever charging for this. While I enjoy putting these e-mails together as a hobby, I doubt I’ll ever have enough time and energy to make this something worth paying for, and I suspect you all prefer it this way.

As always, your feedback is welcome! And with that, onto this week’s links…

4 stars

A President Looks Back on His Toughest Fight / New Yorker

Excerpted from Obama's new memoir:

It’s no wonder, then, that by the time I took office there were very few people ready to defend the existing system. More than forty-three million Americans were now uninsured, premiums for family coverage had risen ninety-seven per cent since 2000, and costs were only continuing to climb. And yet the prospect of trying to get a big health-care-reform bill through Congress at the height of a historic recession made my team nervous. Even my adviser David Axelrod—who had experienced the challenges of getting specialized care for a daughter with severe epilepsy and had left journalism to become a political consultant in part to pay for her treatment—had his doubts. “The data’s pretty clear,” he said when we discussed the topic with Rahm Emanuel, my chief of staff. “People may hate the way things work in general, but most of them have insurance. They don’t really think about the flaws in the system until somebody in their own family gets sick. They like their doctor. They don’t trust Washington to fix anything. And, even if they think you’re sincere, they worry that any changes you make will cost them money and help somebody else.” “What Axe is trying to say, Mr. President,” Rahm interrupted, his face screwed up in a frown, “is that this can blow up in our faces.” [...] “So what are we saying here?” I asked. “That despite having the biggest Democratic majorities in decades, despite the promises we made during the campaign, we shouldn’t try to get health care done?” Rahm looked to Axe for help. “We all think we should try,” Axe said. “You just need to know that, if we lose, your Presidency will be badly weakened. And nobody understands that better than McConnell and Boehner.” I stood up, signalling that the meeting was over. “We better not lose, then,” I said. When I think back to those early conversations, it’s hard to deny my overconfidence. I was convinced that the logic of health-care reform was so obvious that even in the face of well-organized opposition I could rally the American people’s support. [...] Many of the working- and middle-class whites gravitating to the Tea Party had suffered for decades from sluggish wages, rising costs, and the loss of the steady blue-collar work that provided secure retirement. [...] And so far, at least, the economy had grown steadily worse with me in charge, despite more than a trillion dollars channelled into stimulus spending and bailouts. For those already predisposed toward conservative ideas, the notion that my policies were designed to help others at their expense—that the game was rigged and I was part of the rigging—must have seemed entirely plausible. [...] The Tea Party also resurrected an old rumor from the campaign: that I was not only Muslim but had actually been born in Kenya, and was therefore constitutionally barred from serving as President. By September, the question of how much nativism and racism explained the Tea Party’s rise had become a major topic of debate on the cable shows—especially after the former President and lifelong Southerner Jimmy Carter offered up the opinion that the extreme vitriol directed toward me was at least in part spawned by racist views. At the White House, we made a point of not commenting on any of this—and not just because Axe had reams of data telling us that white voters, including many who supported me, reacted poorly to lectures about race. As a matter of principle, I didn’t believe a President should ever publicly whine about criticism from voters—it’s what you signed up for in taking the job—and I was quick to remind both reporters and friends that my white predecessors had all endured their share of vicious personal attacks and obstructionism. More practically, I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history. Did that Tea Party member support “states’ rights” because he genuinely thought it was the best way to promote liberty, or because he continued to resent how federal intervention had led to desegregation and rising Black political power in the South? Did that conservative activist oppose any expansion of the social-welfare state because she believed it sapped individual initiative or because she was convinced that it would benefit only brown people who had just crossed the border? Whatever my instincts might tell me, whatever truths the history books might suggest, I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labelling my opponents racist. One thing felt certain: a pretty big chunk of the American people, including some of the very folks I was trying to help, didn’t trust a word I said.

3 stars

Andrew Cuomo, the King of New York / New Yorker

Still, most New Yorkers felt that Cuomo had done a commendable and by some measures miraculous job bringing New York back from the brink. The image they’d formed of him, at the height of the pandemic, still pertained. […] For seven weeks, he had been delivering daily briefings, to widespread and in some circles ardent acclaim. The repetitiveness of these performances, the almost liturgical demonstrations of what seemed like good sense, was itself calming, especially in contrast with whatever fresh craziness came out of the White House each night. Cuomo, by leaning on data, brandishing logic, speaking in paragraphs, and expressing something like human feeling, had stepped into the void left by the federal government’s cynical and capricious response. In the land of the incoherent, the silver-tongued man is king. […] He had running themes, which he enunciated with relish: the preference for facts over opinions (his elongation of “facts” giving the word almost another syllable), the idea that the virus had come to New York from Europe rather than from China (his pronunciation of “China” either eerily or mockingly similar to Trump’s), and this concept of “New York tough,” which, as he kept explaining, with the assistance of PowerPoint slides, meant tough not just in the hard-ass way that people might associate with the city (and with him) but also “smart, disciplined, unified, loving.” Loving! Here was a politician known as a man who doesn’t much like people and whom most people don’t like, at least in the way you might, say, a colleague or a friend. “He was born for social distancing,” a former aide told me. […] Cuomo then summoned the sitcom-dad persona he’d been trying out. “Mariah brought her boyfriend,” he said. “The boyfriend is very nice, and we like the boyfriend. Advice to fathers: the answer of what you think of the boyfriend is always ‘I like the boyfriend.’ Always.” At this point, Cuomo was, as one longtime antagonist described it to me in the spring, “the boyfriend of all America.” Whether you liked the boyfriend or not, you said you liked the boyfriend. He seemed better than the other guys—the President a maniac, the Mayor a buffoon. But what would happen when people got to know the boyfriend a little better?

Stranger Than Fiction / Atavist

The Epoch Times is a key player in the ongoing information war between China and Falun Gong. Indeed, the newspaper is the cornerstone of a media empire that the spiritual movement has built over the past 25 years. It publishes editions in 36 countries and 22 languages; most of the bureaus are run by Li acolytes. In the United States, it reportedly reaches 250,000 weekly print readers, with 34 million monthly page views online. (The Epoch Times and the editors named in this story did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and comment.) Klett didn’t know any of this when he was hired. Nor was he aware that the Epoch Times was becoming embroiled in yet another power struggle, this one in the United States. As the 2016 election approached, the newspaper morphed into a pro-Trump bullhorn. Writing on his personal blog, Klett would later compare the work he did at the paper to that of Russian bots, which “sow discord in the name of activism, and reduce talking points and political agendas to the conflicts that they engender and narratives that they inhabit.” In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Epoch Times has pursued this strategy more vigorously than ever. An NBC investigation found that, in the first half of 2019, the newspaper laid out $1.5 million for some 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook ads—the only organization that spent more was the Trump campaign itself. More recently, the newspaper has peddled narratives about COVID-19 that cast China as the pandemic’s chief villain and Trump as a potential savior.

2 stars

On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers / The Scholar’s Stage

Levin maintains that 21st century Americans largely understand the last decades of the 20th century, and the first decades of the 21st, through the eyes of the Boomers. Many of the associations we have with various decades (say, the fifties with innocence and social conformity, or the sixties with explosive youthful energy), says Levin, had more to do with the life-stage in which Boomer's experienced these decades than anything objective about the decades themselves. […] But his account also helps explain something else—that odd feeling I have whenever I watch Youtube clips of a show like What's My Line. Though products of American pop culture, those shows seem like relics from alien world, an antique past more different in manners and morals from the America of 2020 than many foreign lands today. However, this eerie feeling of an alien world does not descend upon me when I see a television show from the 1970s. The past may be a different country, the border line is not crossed until we hit 1965. This observation is not mine alone. In his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, Ross Douthat describes it as a more general feeling, a feeling expressed in many corners on the 30 year anniversary of the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. The plot of that film revolves around a contemporary teenager whisked back via time machine to the high school of his parents, 30 years earlier. When the film's anniversary hit in 2015, many commented that the same plot could not work today. The 1980s simply seemed far too similar to the 2010s for the juxtaposition to entertain.

‘People Are Going To Be Shocked’: Return of the ‘Shy’ Trump Voter? / Politico

In 2016, pollsters Arie Kapteyn and Robert Cahaly saw Trump coming. In 2020, they see polls again underestimating his support. […] As an illustration, Kapteyn described what his team at USC sees in its polls. Beyond simply asking voters whether they support Biden or Trump, USC asks a “social-circle” question—“Who do you think your friends and neighbors will vote for?”—which some researchers believe makes it easier for people to share their true opinions without fear of being judged for their views. “We actually get a 10-point lead, nationally, for Biden over Trump” when asking voters who they personally plan to support, says Kapteyn. “But if you look at the ‘social-circle’ question, Biden only gets like a 5- or 6-point lead. … In general—and certainly on the phone—people may still be a little hesitant to say to that they’re Trump voters.” “We live in a country where people will lie to their accountant, they’ll lie to their doctor, they’ll lie to their priest,” says Cahaly. “And we’re supposed to believe they shed all of that when they get on the telephone with a stranger?”

It may be time to reset expectations on when we’ll get a Covid-19 vaccine / STAT News

The ambitious drive to produce Covid-19 vaccine at warp speed seems to be running up against reality. We all probably need to reset our expectations about how quickly we’re going to be able to be vaccinated. Pauses in clinical trials to investigate potential safety issues, a slower-than-expected rate of infections among participants in at least one of the trials, and signals that an expert panel advising the Food and Drug Administration may not be comfortable recommending use of vaccines on very limited safety and efficacy data appear to be adding up to a slippage in the estimates of when vaccine will be ready to be deployed. Asked Wednesday about when he expects the FDA will greenlight use of the first vaccines, Anthony Fauci moved the administration’s stated goalpost. “Could be January, could be later. We don’t know,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an online interview with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner.

1 star

Both Candidates Might Fall Short Of 270 Electoral Votes On Election Night. But How Close Might They Get? / FiveThirtyEight

But this year, in addition to the burning question of “Who will win?” people are almost as eager to know, “When will we know the results?” To help answer that, FiveThirtyEight published a comprehensive guide to following the returns on election night, including when the polls close in each state and what time we might get semi-final results. So let’s walk through election night hour by hour, using our forecast as a guide to get a better understanding of just how many electoral votes might be accounted for, including how many Trump and Biden can each expect to win. (Spoiler: Unless one of them has a really good night, it’s unlikely that either will hit 270 electoral votes on election night.)

Colorado is a rectangle? Think again. / Big Think

Colorado looks like a rectangle. It isn't. The Centennial State has not four, but 697 sides. That makes it a hexahectaenneacontakaiheptagon. Does that make Wyoming the only real rectangular state? Well, about that…

The Worst Freelance Gig in History Was Being the Village Sin Eater / Atlas Obscura

Sin eaters risked their souls to soak up the misdeeds of the dead.

This is an experiment about how we view history / The Pudding

We’re going to show you a series of photos from the U.S. and ask you when each picture was taken.

Lab tests show risks of using CRISPR gene editing on embryos / STAT News

A lab experiment aimed at fixing defective DNA in human embryos shows what can go wrong with this type of gene editing and why leading scientists say it’s too unsafe to try. In more than half of the cases, the editing caused unintended changes, such as loss of an entire chromosome or big chunks of it.

Bee Fact of the Day / Marginal Revolution

Although a handful of Asian giant hornets can easily defeat the uncoordinated defenses of a western honey bee colony, the Japanese honey bee (Apis cerana japonica) has an effective strategy. When a hornet scout locates and approaches a Japanese honey bee hive, she emits specific pheromonal hunting signals. When the Japanese honey bees detect these pheromones, 100 or so gather near the entrance of the nest and set up a trap, keeping the entrance open. This permits the hornet to enter the hive. As the hornet enters, a mob of hundreds of bees surrounds it in a ball, completely covering it and preventing it from reacting effectively. The bees violently vibrate their flight muscles in much the same way as they do to heat the hive in cold conditions. This raises the temperature in the ball to the critical temperature of 46 °C (115 °F). In addition, the exertions of the honey bees raise the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ball. At that concentration of CO2, they can tolerate up to 50 °C (122 °F), but the hornet cannot survive the combination of high temperature and high carbon dioxide level.

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