Another week of unusually good links
----- 3 stars -----
The Last Days of John Allen Chau / Outside
In the fall of 2018, the 26-year-old American missionary traveled to a remote speck of sand and jungle in the Indian Ocean, attempting to convert one of the planet's last uncontacted tribes to Christianity. The islanders killed him, and Chau was pilloried around the world as a deluded Christian supremacist who deserved to die. Alex Perry pieces together the life and death of a young adventurer driven to extremes by unshakable faith. [...] One reason, I think, that Patrick and a handful of John’s friends spoke with me in the months after his death, breaking a silence they imposed in the face of the coverage he received, was that I had my own experience with the islands. I recognized the giddiness in John’s journal, the way the islands seemed to offer something big and difficult and dangerous and extraordinary. [...] John stuck to his belief that it was his duty to go to North Sentinel. The islanders were damned to “eternal fire” if they never heard the Gospel, and as an outdoorsman with a knack for making friends in new places, John was one of the few souls in Christendom who could save them. It felt ordained, John said, like God was calling him. Patrick believed his son was deceiving himself. This wasn’t just about helping the Sentinelese or obeying God. This was about John’s Messiah complex. He described his son as a victim of fantasies, fanatacism, and extremism. The argument ended without resolution, and Patrick never raised the matter again. But for the next two years he was haunted by their quarrel—and by John’s certainty. He was never able to shake the feeling that he was watching his son walk calmly and confidently toward his own death.
Ten days after I called off my engagement I was supposed to go on a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane on the gulf coast of Texas. Surely, I will cancel this trip, I thought, as I shopped for nylon hiking pants that zipped off at the knee. Surely, a person who calls off a wedding is meant to be sitting sadly at home, reflecting on the enormity of what has transpired and not doing whatever it is I am about to be doing that requires a pair of plastic clogs with drainage holes. Surely, I thought, as I tried on a very large and floppy hat featuring a pull cord that fastened beneath my chin, it would be wrong to even be wearing a hat that looks like this when something in my life has gone so terribly wrong. Ten days earlier I had cried and I had yelled and I had packed up my dog and driven away from the upstate New York house with two willow trees I had bought with my fiancé. Ten days later and I didn’t want to do anything I was supposed to do. [...] Not long before I’d called off my engagement it was Christmas. The woman who was supposed to be my mother-in-law was a wildly talented quilter and made stockings with Beatrix Potter characters on them for every family member. The previous Christmas she had asked me what character I wanted to be (my fiancé was Benjamin Bunny). I agonized over the decision. It felt important, like whichever character I chose would represent my role in this new family. I chose Squirrel Nutkin, a squirrel with a blazing red tail—an epic, adventuresome figure who ultimately loses his tail as the price for his daring and pride. I arrived in Ohio that Christmas and looked to the banister to see where my squirrel had found his place. Instead, I found a mouse. A mouse in a pink dress and apron. A mouse holding a broom and dustpan, serious about sweeping. A mouse named Hunca Munca. The woman who was supposed to become my mother-in-law said, “I was going to do the squirrel but then I thought, that just isn’t CJ. This is CJ.” What she was offering was so nice. She was so nice. I thanked her and felt ungrateful for having wanted a stocking, but not this stocking. Who was I to be choosy? To say that this nice thing she was offering wasn’t a thing I wanted? When I looked at that mouse with her broom, I wondered which one of us was wrong about who I was.
Jordan is long gone from Birmingham, and so are most of the players and coaches who wore the Barons uniform that year. The skipper, Terry Francona, is now in his 19th year of managing in the bigs, with Hall of Fame credentials that include the breaking of the Boston Red Sox's 86-year curse in 2004, another World Series trophy three years later and another trip to the Fall Classic with his current team, the Indians. Of the players on that '94 roster, 20 were either coming down from, or going up to the majors. Jordan never made it to the bigs, but at least he could console himself with his and the Chicago Bulls' second NBA three-peat. Nowadays, sports fans look upon his foray into baseball as a whim, and when they look up his numbers and see that he batted .202, they conclude that his baseball career was a bust. Just like that opening night crowd in '94, they walk away from the memory mildly disappointed. They could not be more wrong. I could not have been more wrong.
Yang likes to say that Trump got all the problems right but offered the wrong solutions. The answer to the decline in blue-collar work is not bringing back coal jobs or protectionist tariffs. A tech company is not going to invest in retraining a fifty-year-old truck driver with chronic health problems. Yang’s vision for the country begins with universal basic income, or, as he decided to call it after some market research, the “freedom dividend.” [...] The income will be funded by a value-added tax on the nation’s corporations. He compares it to the oil dividends received by every adult in the red state of Alaska. “And what is the oil of the twenty-first century?” he asked in New Hampshire. “Technology!” his followers chorused. [...] If Yang were elected, the government would be different. His preferred term to describe this process is, predictably, “disruption.” In Yang’s United States 2.0, Supreme Court Justices and congresspeople will have term limits of eighteen years. Federal laws will automatically sunset after a determined period of time. To neutralize the influence of the wealthy in politics, each American will receive a hundred “democracy dollars” to donate to the candidate of her choosing and a hundred dollars to donate to the nonprofit organization of her choice. They will have access to free financial counselling and free marriage counselling. [...] The voting age will be sixteen, opioids will be decriminalized, and every cop will wear a camera. N.C.A.A. athletes will finally get paid, and mixed-martial-arts fighters will be protected by law from exploitation. Ceremonial events will be attended not by the President of the United States, who has better things to do, but by the “Head of Culture and Ceremony,” who would be a Presidentially appointed famous person, like Tom Hanks, the Rock, or Oprah. High-school students will do exchanges to other parts of the United States to learn about their fellow-Americans. A local journalism fund will finance the regional news, malls emptied by Internet commerce will be revitalized as public spaces, and companies will be forced to reduce their plastic packaging. Airlines will not be allowed to drag their customers from overbooked flights. Tax Day will be a holiday. Puerto Rico will be a state. The penny will be eliminated. Reading the list is like seeing the world-building outline for a work of near-future speculative fiction. [...] A sudden flurry of support among white supremacists, including the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, resulted in Yang issuing a statement denouncing “hatred, bigotry, racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and the alt-right in all its many forms.” “I don’t look much like a white nationalist,” he said, to laughs, during a town hall on CNN. “It’s been a point of confusion.” Yang is not the only child of immigrants in the Democratic field, but he is the only person of East Asian descent, a difference he brings up is his speeches. “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” he frequently says. The crowd in New Hampshire laughed at that line. “If you’re here today,” he said later, “it’s because you’ve heard something like this: there’s an Asian man running for President who wants to give everyone a thousand dollars a month.” For Yang, his personal identity is an advantage for his conciliatory approach. It allows him to speak to disaffected white male conservatives without being mistaken for one of them.
As it happens, I work in an Amazon warehouse in West Sacramento, California. When I showed up at a friend’s annual Fourth of July barbecue, I found myself besieged by well-meaning, right-thinking, Trump-hating friends, all of whom were eager to tell me just what a monstrous company I work for. This was weird because most of them know that Amazon has been a lifesaver for me financially, and they have heard me say how much I enjoy the work and appreciate the money. But they are now convinced that I work in something like a sweatshop. Bemused by this outburst of hostility towards my employer, I was led inside by our host who sat me down in front of his family’s 60-inch plasma TV screen to watch Oliver’s tirade, which he had courteously DVR’d for my benefit. I have to say I found Oliver’s takedown unpersuasive. It is possible that Oliver was aware his material was a little thin, which is why he padded the segment with scattershot complaints about Walmart and Verizon (the enemy did not seem to be Amazon in particular, but large corporations in general). Warehouse work, Oliver solemnly informed his audience, is strenuous, difficult, and doesn’t pay very well. To most Americans (and people in general, for that matter), this will not have been news. [...] Six years ago, I learned first-hand just how obstinate people can be when confronted with facts inconvenient to their preferred political narratives. I had just become one of the first beneficiaries of Obamacare by signing up for health coverage through Covered California. At family gatherings, my wife’s conservative family would say things like, “Not a single person has been able to sign up for health care through the state exchanges.” And: “The cost is so high that nobody who needs Obamacare can possibly afford it.” And: “Just wait until you try to access your coverage. You’ll have to pay hundreds of dollars just to see a nurse.” None of this was true, of course, but they refused to accept it. I started carrying around a copy of my monthly Covered California bill so I could prove to these people that Obamacare was working for at least some people. “That’s Covered California,” they’d say dismissively. “Nowhere on that bill does it say anything about Obamacare.” Try as I might, I couldn’t make them believe that Covered California was Obamacare and that it only cost me a dollar a month. I faced the same stubborn refusal to acknowledge complicating information after John Oliver’s Amazon report, only this time it was my progressive acquaintances who were resistant. I assured everyone at the Fourth of July barbecue that the sortation center where I work is not a miserable sweatshop, that I am treated well, and that I am relatively well remunerated for work I enjoy. But they would not listen. They just looked at me sadly and shook their heads as if to say, “He’s drunk the corporate Kool-Aid.” I don’t object to journalists writing about the trials and tribulations of Amazon employees. I only wish they would do so fairly. Just because a journalist has found an Amazon employee somewhere who got sprayed with bear repellant, that doesn’t mean Amazon employees spend their days in mortal fear of a chemical attack.
----- 2 stars -----
The Man With The Golden Airline Ticket / Narratively
My dad was one of the only people with a good-for-life, go-anywhere American Airlines pass. Then they took it away. This is the true story of having—and losing—a superpower. [...] For several years, the revenues department at American had been monitoring my father and other AAirpass holders to see how much their golden tickets were costing the airline in lost revenue. After 20 years it seems, they’d decided the pass wasn’t such a good idea. My father was one of several lifetime, unlimited AAirpass holders American claimed had breached their contracts. A few months later, my father sued American for breaking their deal, and more importantly, taking away something integral to who he was. They fought out of court for years. The story became front-page news. The LA Times. The New York Post. Fox News. A slew of online outlets. It’s even a perennially popular conversation topic on Reddit. The obvious story is that my father was a decadent jet-setter who either screwed or got screwed by American; depends on your take. In the coverage, whether he’s mentioned by name or in off-handed attributions to ostentatious wealth, it’s always this: sensational. And I think — as does my whole family, including my dad — that at the very least, it doesn’t quite land. [...] In the early 1990s, Dad found his go-to agent at the American Airlines Platinum desk: Lorraine Cross from Raleigh, North Carolina. None of us has ever met her in person. But Lorraine was family. Her Southern lilt, a speakerphone staple at the dinner table. While my father befriended dozens and dozens of American employees throughout his tenure as one of their top fliers, and while we knew plenty by name, and vice versa — from skycaps to Admirals Club employees to people who worked at the ticket counter — no one played a role quite like Lorraine. [...] “Your family’s heart is as big as the state of Texas,” Lorraine says. “It’s incredible how many lives they touched and how many lives touched them because they’re very sensitive and attuned to what goes on in the world.” I’m not saying Dad was a saint. Just that his AAirpass was about more than solipsistic travel. It allowed him to build relationships. Make connections. Form meaningful bonds. And it allowed other people to access the world like he did. That’s what Dad’s AAirpass and ultra-elite flying status yielded for him: lifelong bonds.
A Harvard Law professor who teaches a class on judgment wouldn’t seem like an obvious mark, would he? [...] Later that day, Shuman contacted him to say she was open to discussing pursuing a relationship. When Hay demurred, she told him, in that case, she didn’t see any point in staying in touch. But they would stay in touch. Over the next four years, the law professor would be drawn into a “campaign of fraud, extortion, and false accusations,” as one of his lawyers would later say in legal proceedings. At one point, Hay’s family would be left suddenly homeless. At another, owing to what his lawyer has described as the “weaponiz[ation] of the university’s Title IX machinery against Hay,” he would find himself indefinitely suspended from his job. He would accrue over $300,000 in legal bills with no end to the litigation in sight. “Maria-Pia and Mischa want money,” Hay told me last summer, “but only for the sake of squeezing it out of people — it’s the exertion of power.”
So the argument is this: Wax believes it would be better for the country if the proportion of white citizens were higher than the proportion of nonwhite citizens. And she believes we need an immigration system that keeps immigrants from non-Western countries to a minimum. This is not racist, in Wax’s view, because the system only discriminates against nonwhites “in effect” — it is based on national origin rather than race, and her problem with nonwhite immigrants is cultural rather than biological. Thus can someone who says “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites” say this isn’t racism with a straight face.
Paul Gonzales scammed his online dates into buying him expensive dinners. Then they made him pay. [...] “Look how beautiful she is!” said Paul, as the waitress seated the couple. Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, he boomed: “I don’t deserve to be with her! She’s so gorgeous!” Paul edged his seat closer to hers, then got to work on the menu. Moon said he ordered: “A salad, chicken, fish, and two lobster tails on the side.” When Paul finished, he summoned two more lobster tails. After rounding off the meal with a devilish chocolate soufflé, Paul declared that he wanted to date Moon “exclusively,” then stepped outside to make a phone call. “A few minutes in, I had a funny feeling,” she said. He never came back. Hot with embarrassment, Moon told the maître d’ she’d been ditched. She had never experienced anything like this. Soon the waitress was sitting in her date’s empty chair, crying. “I wish I could take care of your bill,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.” But Moon had no tears to cry. She paid the $250 bill and marched out, imagining the cost of the meal in emergency room hours.
I’m not allowed to touch the moon rocks. In the room where NASA stores the samples that Apollo astronauts brought to Earth decades ago, I peer at rocks and trays of dirt through glass. But my tour guides are firm: Nobody touches the moon rocks. This is the pristine sample lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Being here is a big deal for me. I’ve spent years looking at cosmic rocks from a distance — my childhood involved lots of stargazing through a telescope, and in my college lab job, I processed pictures of Mars. I’ve been itching to scoop up a handful of alien sand and let it run through my fingers. Today, the opportunity feels as close as it is unlikely. [...] From that first collection, about 700 grams went to a biological test lab. There, samples were placed into secure chambers with mice, fish, birds, oysters, shrimp, cockroaches, houseflies, flatworms and single-celled organisms, plus 33 species of plants and seedlings. Scientists watched to make sure that none of the test species died or developed mutations, and that nothing grew in the moon grains themselves. When nothing happened, seven kilograms or so of the Apollo 11 rocks were parceled out to laboratories around the world, as far from Houston as Tokyo and Canberra, Australia. Researchers studying those rocks agreed not to publish their findings before getting together to discuss them at the first Lunar Science Conference, which was held in Houston in January 1970. [...] But in the late 2000s, researchers began to find hints of ancient moisture trapped in lunar samples. Alberto Saal of Brown University and colleagues used an ion microprobe to find water molecules deep within tiny volcanic glass beads from lunar soils, the team reported in Nature in 2008 (SN: 8/2/08, p. 12). Based on the amount of water in the beads, the researchers estimated that the magma beneath the moon’s crust could have had up to 750 parts per million water. Then later studies found water in the moon’s deeper mantle, perhaps as much as Earth’s.
If a war broke out between the United States and China, the clash between two of the world’s most powerful militaries would be horrific. And the United States could very well lose. That’s a concern among current and former defense officials and military analysts, one of whom told Breaking Defense earlier this year that in war games simulating great-power conflict in which the United States fights Russia and China, the United States “gets its ass handed to it.” Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum last week, Admiral Philip Davidson, who oversees U.S. military forces in Asia, called China “the greatest long-term strategic threat to the United States and the rules-based international order.” He described China’s rapid military buildup in nearly every domain—air, sea, land, space, and cyber—and said that while China’s capabilities don’t outnumber America’s in the region for now, it’s possible they could overtake the United States’ within the next five years. But the sheer number of ships, missiles, planes, and people doesn’t tell the whole story. What already gives the Chinese the advantage is geography.
Taylor believes we have evolved to be efficient interpreters of the fractals that surround us in nature—from lightning and waterfalls to the spiral arms of the Milky Way. Our bodies exploit fractal networks to maximize surface areas and help distribute oxygen, cells, and signals. Blood vessels branch out like root systems; the brain houses folds within folds. According to Taylor, this fractal-rich environment means we don’t simply enjoy looking at fractals—we are designed to process them effortlessly, and even have a need to be looking at them. [...] That may be why, for instance, we tend to gaze out the window to refresh ourselves when we’re tired or having trouble focusing at work. Or why patients recover more quickly when their hospital room has a natural view, and why art that takes nature as its subject helps lower anxiety and stress levels. Take a widely read study published in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, an architecture professor who focuses on healthcare design. He and his team examined the medical records of patients recovering from a type of gallbladder surgery in a hospital located in a Pennsylvania suburb. They found, after controlling for other influences, that patients in rooms with a window overlooking leafy trees recovered on average one day faster, suffered from fewer postsurgical complications, and took less pain medication than patients whose window opened up on a brick wall. [...] The fractal dimension of art is not always obvious. The bare-boned Zen meditation garden of Kyoto’s 15th-century Ryoanji Temple, for example, solely of 15 rocks positioned across a rectangular swath of raked gravel. In 2002 a group of researchers decided to investigate the mathematical reason for its appeal to tourists and meditators. Using a technique called medial-axis transformation, they found that the axes of symmetry between the rock clusters formed the fractal contour of a tree. When the rocks were rearranged in computer simulations, that tree-like structure and its meditative effect were lost.
New uses of stem cells and 3-D printing could make baldness obsolete (for the wealthy). [...] This discovery has launched a global arms race to generate sustainable hair follicles that will hold their shape. At the meeting last month, Hamilton’s group proposed one solution. It involves a synthetic scaffold, which Hamilton will describe only as proprietary. The scaffold would be implanted around the cloned follicle to direct the growth of the hair. Stemson Therapeutics recently partnered with the pharmaceutical giant Allergan to develop this scaffold for cloned hair, and Hamilton says they expect to start a clinical trial in humans in about a year and a half. Meanwhile, Angela Christiano, a professor of genetics and dermatology at Columbia University, has used 3-D printing to generate a Jell-O mold that holds the follicle and dermal papillae in place as they differentiate into hair.
In recent years I have substantially increased my estimate of the deadly nature of air pollution. It’s not that I had a contrary opinion earlier but the number and range of studies showing surprisingly large effects has raised this issue in relative importance in my mind. I would not have guessed, for example, that the introduction of EZ Pass could reduce pollution near toll booths enough to reduce the number of premature and low birth weight babies. I also find the following result hard to believe yet also hard to dismiss given the the accumulating body of evidence. Diane Alexander and Hannes Schwandt find that Volkswagen’s cheating diesel cars increased the number of low birth weight babies and asthma rates.
The iPhone Photography Awards (IPPAWARDS) is proud to announce the winners of the 12th Annual Awards. This year’s winners were selected from thousands of entries submitted by iPhone photographers from over 140 countries around the world.
Forget what you’ve heard; the Toyota Century isn’t a “Japanese Rolls-Royce.” The Century is very much its own thing. It’s Japan’s interpretation on the ultimate luxury automobile and unlike any other car, luxury or otherwise, ever made. It sits at the very top of Toyota’s lineup, above even the Lexus LS flagship. After driving the Alphard and Crown, I’ve finally leveled up to the final boss level of Toyota’s premium Japanese domestic lineup with the Century. [...] The Century is unashamedly aimed towards Japanese buyers and Japanese buyers only. The Century isn’t fussed about S-Classes, Flying Spurs, or even Ghosts. It doesn’t need to compete with them on a global scale because it’s not meant to. The Century is a rare breed today: a car designed for one single market. It’s one of the best cars because of it.
The vast majority of people in antiquity were too poor to leave many artifacts behind. But archaeologists have learned how to look beyond the temples and palaces.
We’ve been shooting a Jason Drives special mini-series for this centenary, and while doing some research I happened to stumble upon a fascinating bit of wartime Citroën lore. It involves screwing with Nazis in a genuinely clever and subtle way that nevertheless had big repercussions. I’ll explain.