3 stars

Book Review: The New Sultan | Astral Codex Ten

Recep Tayyip Erdogan transformed Turkey from a flawed democracy to a partial dictatorship over the past few decades, and I wanted to know more about how.

As an analysis of the rise of a dictator, this book fails a pretty basic desideratum: it seems less than fully convinced the dictator's rise was bad. Again and again I found myself checking to make sure I hadn't accidentally picked up a pro-Erdogan book. I didn't; author Soner Cagaptay is a well-respected Turkey scholar in a US think tank who's written other much more critical things. The fact is, Erdogan's rise is inherently a pretty sympathetic story. If he'd died of a heart attack in 2008, we might remember him as a successful crusader against injustice, a scrappy kid who overcame poverty and discrimination to become a great and unifying leader.

I want to go into some of this in more depth, because I think this is the main reason why Erdogan's example doesn't generalize to other countries. What went wrong in Turkey was mostly Turkey-specific, a reckoning for Turkey’s unique flaws. Erdogan rose to power on credible promises to help people disenfranchised by the old system; by the time he turned the tables and started disenfranchising others in turn, it was too late to root him out. If there's a general moral here, it's that having the "good guys" oppress and censor the "bad guys" is fun while it lasts, but it's hard to know whether you're building up a karmic debt, or when you're going to have to pay the piper.

Given how hard it is to convince people of that moral, let's go through the full story in more detail.


2 stars

How the West Lost COVID | New York Magazine

This piece has been getting all kinds of hype this week. And so maybe my expectations were too high. I mean, it’s pretty good, but it belongs in the 2-star section:

And yet for all that mystery, one distinct pattern stands out, with national outcomes falling into three obvious clusters whose basis and cause may be investigated for decades as the most significant feature of the whole global pandemic.

In Europe, North America, and South America: nearly universal failure. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: high caseloads and low death rates, owing largely to the age structure of populations. In East Asia, South-East Asia and Oceania: inarguable success. You can compare countries within these clusters, and wonder why Canada has outperformed the U.S. or why Uruguay has outshone Argentina, why Iran suffered so much or how Japan, which never locked down and never tested all that widely, succeeded so brilliantly. But the differences in outcomes between the groups of nations are far greater than those within them, so much so that they appear almost as the burn scars of entirely different diseases. By damage, the coronavirus has not been a “Chinese flu” but a western malady, and if you were making guesses about how a particular nation has fared, by far the most significant piece of data would be where on the planet it was located. […]

As early as the spring, the former Portuguese diplomat Bruno Maçães was suggesting that indifference in Europe and the U.S. reflected a kind of pandemic Orientalism. When China put Wuhan into lockdown, he told me, the intervention was doubly and catastrophically discounted by the NATO states. The disease was dismissed as a culturally backward outgrowth of wet markets and exotic-animal cuisine, and the shutdown was seen not as a demonstration of extreme seriousness but as a sign of the reflexive authoritarianism of the Chinese regime (and the imagined servility of its population). In fact, China was not in the habit of quarantining entire metropolises. “It was a huge shock for them,” Tooze says now. “With SARS, they hardly did a shutdown at all … We should have said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Wuhan — 11 million super-affluent people. Jesus, that’s what we’re going to have to do.’” But that “would have required the West to really own what was going on in China,” he says. “I think that’s the big problem. You would have had to have said to people in the West, ‘Look, this is going to look crazy — we are going to stop JFK and Heathrow in their tracks. But look what they’re doing in China.’” […]

At this point, the U.S. had 13 confirmed cases, and though the true number was certainly much higher, preparation (or even response on the South Korea model) was still possible. But Messonnier was offering her observation as a statement of deep cultural truth, one that was echoed through the seasons in comparisons between the American and European response to the pandemic and those observed in East Asia: People here would never stand for lockdowns, it was said, or surveillance-scale testing, or mandatory quarantine. In a lot of these comparisons, there were problematic invocations of “Confucian” culture and mischaracterizations of liberal democracies like Japan and Taiwan as “authoritarian.”

But then, in short order, many Americans did stand for something like lockdown.


Meghan Markle Didn’t Do the Work | The Atlantic

As someone aspiring to become English, maybe I should care more about the royal family; luckily, Caitlin Flanagan makes anything interesting:

Like Diana, Meghan entered the Royal Family at a time when it faced a considerable challenge to its longevity, one that she was uniquely capable of forestalling. In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government passed an act that would permanently change the face and character of the United Kingdom, something that the writer and social critic Benjamin Schwarz called the country’s “most profound social transformation since the Industrial Revolution.” In an effort, apparently, to make the U.K. a full participant in the modern, globalized world, the government radically relaxed immigration policies, making it much easier for people to settle there. […]

In October 2019, Meghan and Harry made an official visit to South Africa. Meghan was received with adulation and great excitement, and this was evidence that she was the best thing that could have happened to the Royal Family, making it relevant and modern and respected by a new generation. In Cape Town’s Nyanga township, she visited a human-rights organization and made a speech to a large group of women. She began it this way:

“While I am here with my husband as a member of the Royal Family, I want you to know that for me, I am here with you as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of color, and as your sister. I am here, and I am here for you.”

When I watched the video of the speech, I thought, This woman is going to single-handedly save the British monarchy.

But it turned out that visit was really the end of things. […]

She told Oprah that she had never even Googled her future husband’s name—a remark that united the viewing world in hilarity, time zone by time zone. It was an assertion that strained credulity, but it was necessary to her contention that she’d had no idea that the Windsors had not, as we now say, “done the work” when it came to exploring their own racial biases. Had she herself done some work by punching her beloved’s name into a search engine, she would have understood that she was not marrying the most racially conscious person on the planet. […]

Meghan had, in fact, realized the highest aspiration of many married people: She had convinced her spouse that his entire family was a bunch of losers. (Harry, on life before meeting Meghan: “I was trapped, but I didn’t know I was trapped.”) She had plucked him out of its bosom and made herself and their child his only true family. She was—depending on your point of view—either a virago or an icon.


Did the coronavirus leak from a lab? These scientists say we shouldn’t rule it out. | MIT Technology Review

Balanced and nuanced:

As Petrovsky considered whether SARS-CoV-2 might have emerged in lab cultures with human cells, or cells engineered to express the human ACE2 protein, a letter penned by 27 scientists appeared suddenly on February 19 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The authors insisted that SARS-CoV-2 had a natural origin, and they condemned any alternate hypotheses as conspiracy theories that create only “fear, rumors, and prejudice.”

Petrovksy says he found the letter infuriating. Conspiracy theorists is “the last thing we were,” he says, “and it looked to be pointing at people like us.” […]

Still, skeptics who doubt the lab-leak hypothesis say SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t look anything like an engineered virus. Instead of appearing in discrete chunks, as would be expected with a genetically engineered microbe, the differences with RaTg13 are distributed randomly throughout the viral genome. In an email to Undark, University of Chicago emeritus virology professor Bernard Roizman wrote that “we are many, many years away from a complete understanding of viral gene functions and regulation—the key elements critical for construction of lethal viruses.” […]

Petrovsky describes himself as politically neutral, and according to sources, he is highly regarded in the vaccine world. Maria Elena Bottazzi, a microbiologist at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, says Petrovsky doesn’t make scientific claims that aren’t fully supported by evidence. And yet, simply following the science, Petrovsky suggests, had become too politically fraught. They were “dealing with global forces,” he says, “that are way more powerful than a scientist trying to tell a science-based story.”

The Australian findings were also caught up in a backlash against papers claiming evidence of lab origins by scientists who had jumped opportunistically into the field. Many of these scientists had little relevant experience and no understanding of “how molecular evolution actually works,” says Rasmus Nielsen, an evolutionary biologist and coronavirus expert at the University of California, Berkeley.


Scientists determine the origin of extra-solar object 'Oumuamua | PhysOrg

Not aliens :-(…

Two Arizona State University astrophysicists, Steven Desch and Alan Jackson of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, set out to explain the odd features of 'Oumuamua and have determined that it is likely a piece of a Pluto-like planet from another solar system. Their findings have been recently published in a pair of papers in the AGU Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. […]

Desch and Jackson found one ice in particular—solid nitrogen—that provided an exact match to all the object's features simultaneously. And since solid nitrogen ice can be seen on the surface of Pluto, it is possible that a cometlike object could be made of the same material.

"We knew we had hit on the right idea when we completed the calculation for what albedo (how reflective the body is) would make the motion of 'Oumuamua match the observations," said Jackson, who is a research scientist and an Exploration Fellow at ASU. "That value came out as being the same as we observe on the surface of Pluto or Triton, bodies covered in nitrogen ice."


Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information | The Guardian

The paper, published by the Royal Society on Wednesday, is authored by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, pre-eminent scientists working with cetaceans, and Tim D Smith, a data scientist, and their research addresses an age-old question: if whales are so smart, why did they hang around to be killed? The answer? They didn’t.

Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes.

“Sperm whales have a traditional way of reacting to attacks from orca,” notes Hal Whitehead, who spoke to the Guardian from his house overlooking the ocean in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches at Dalhousie University. Before humans, orca were their only predators, against whom sperm whales form defensive circles, their powerful tails held outwards to keep their assailants at bay. But such techniques “just made it easier for the whalers to slaughter them”, says Whitehead.


Checking in on the Global South | Noah Pinion

Why focus on Southeast Asia? Because the region was completely colonized by European powers (and briefly by Japan). It started out desperately poor and agrarian at the time of decolonization, and it suffered horrendous wars and atrocities for decades. And yet it has now produced what looks like one fully industrialized nation (two, if you count tiny Singapore), and all the other countries look to be in the process of catching up. If this keeps up, in another 30 years Southeast Asia will join Europe, North America, and Northeast Asia among the ranks of regions that everyone agrees are economically developed.

And that might break the whole concept of the Global South. To some, the idea of a Global South means that history is destiny — that the dead hand of colonialism, or the living hand of neocolonialism, is holding down the developing world. To others, it’s an expression of the idea that poor countries just don’t have what it takes to get rich. Either way, it’s a form of implicit defeatism — a belief that historical and/or cultural forces are stronger than economic forces.

Southeast Asia hasn’t yet broken these ideas on the wheel of hard data, but it might not take much longer to do so. Bangladesh’s similar performance, meanwhile, suggests that South Asia might not be far behind.


1 star

Glitterbomb Trap Catches Phone Scammer (who gets arrested) | Mark Rober (YouTube)

Mark Rober is back, and more sophisticated than ever:

I glitterbombed my way up the scammer chain of command.


What if the World turned to Gold? - The Gold Apocalypse | Kurzgesagt (YouTube)

Let us explore the scientific mystery of what would happen to you, if Earth suddenly turned into gold! The “Midaspocalypse”, based on the ancient tale of King Midas who was cursed so everything he touched turned into gold.


Young Female Japanese Biker Turns Out To Be 50-Year-Old Man With FaceApp | Vice

The Japanese TV video clip is absolutely worth watching, even though I had no idea what they were saying:

Flashing a youthful grin in various selfies with a twinkle in her eyes, she was known to thousands of Twitter followers as a beautiful biker documenting her life in Japan. That was, until recently, when the true identity of this thrill-seeking young woman was revealed. He’s actually a 50-year-old man with FaceApp on his phone. Talk about serious catfishing.

The mysterious biker, known on Twitter as @azusagakuyuki, was exposed on the Monday Late Show, a popular Japanese variety show where hosts discuss the hottest and wackiest topics across the country. The production team had apparently tracked the biker down and found, instead of a bright-eyed young woman, an almost equally bright-eyed middle-aged man.


Sobering Up After the Seventh Inning | Marginal Revolution

Baseball stadiums stop serving alcohol at the bottom of the 7th but the time from bottom of the 7th to the end of the game varies so sometimes people have sobered up by the end of the game and sometimes they haven’t. So what happens when the game runs long or short? […]

When there are extra innings and more game-time after the seventh inning alcohol sales stoppage crime declines significantly around the stadium. The crime reduction benefit of the last call alcohol policy is undone when a complex of sports bars opens in the stadium parking lot in 2012. The results suggest that alcohol consumption during baseball games is a contributor to crime.


Researchers discover a dinosaur preserved sitting on a nest of eggs with fossilized embryos, a first | CNN

Scientists are celebrating the first discovery of a dinosaur preserved while sitting on a nest of eggs with fossilized embryos, including at least three that were visible.

The oviraptorosaur fossil was uncovered from rocks that are 70 million years old in Ganzhou City, China, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) said in a news release in January.


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