4 stars

The climate crisis haunts Chicago’s future. A Battle Between a Great City and a Great Lake | New York Times

In the search for a big-city refuge from climate change, Chicago looks like an excellent option. At least, it does on a map.

It stands a half-continent away from the threat of surging ocean levels. Its northern locale has protected it, to some extent, from southern heat waves. And droughts that threaten crops, forests and water supplies in so many places? Chicago hugs the shore of one of the grandest expanses of freshwater in the world.

Water is, in fact, why Chicago exists. The nation’s third-largest city grew from a remarkable geographical quirk, a small, swampy dip in a continental divide that separates two vast watersheds: the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin­­. In the 19th century, Chicagoans dug a canal linking those two watersheds, transforming their muddy town into a metropolis of commerce by making the riches of the American Midwest accessible to the world.

The mule-drawn barges that worked its canals long ago gave way to trains, planes and eighteen-wheelers.

But the same waters that gave life to the city threaten it today, because Chicago is built on a shaky prospect — the idea that the swamp that was drained will stay tamed and that Lake Michigan’s shoreline will remain in essentially the same place it’s been for the past 300 years.

The lake may have other plans.

Climate change has started pushing Lake Michigan’s water levels toward uncharted territory as patterns of rain, snowfall and evaporation are transformed by the warming world. The lake’s high-water cycles are threatening to get higher; the lows lower. Already, the swings between the two show signs of happening faster than any time in recorded history.


3 stars

Out of Africa's midlife crisis | Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning

A follow-up to Razib’s excellent post two weeks ago:

Now that Prometheus has basically granted every lowly lab tech superhuman powers, it’s like drinking from a data firehose if you love ancient DNA. And the more we know, the clearer it looks that genetically, all the humans on our planet group into basically three genetic types. You could think of them as 1. the very-diverse, 2. the not-very-diverse 3. the very-not-diverse (and if we’re being thorough: 4. a recent hybrid of 2 and 3.) 

Do you know which you are? You don’t have to tell me anything else about you; by the very fact that you are reading this I can almost guarantee you are in group 2 or 3. Just based on the numbers, I’ll put my money on 3. Six to one odds. (And if you’re in group 1 and haven’t been genotyped but are interested in human genetics, DM me! I can help you get a spit kit. You’re genetically very unique!)

Here is how the groups break down: 

  1. Scarcely half a million of us are very-diverse.

  2. 1.14 billion of us are not-very-diverse. 

  3. 6.42 billion of us are very-not-diverse. 

Alone on our planet today, those maybe half a million very-diverse souls hint at our species’ one-time amazing levels of genetic diversity. In our DNA, we all contain multitudes. But once, we all contained mega-multitudes. Only the very-diverse retain much of it today.


Lockdown Effectiveness: Much More Than You Wanted To Know | Astral Codex Ten

Back when everyone was debating lockdowns, I promised I'd come back to it after there was more data. God willing, the pandemic is over enough that we've got all the data we're going to get. So: did lockdowns work? […]

Judging lockdowns by traditional measures of economic significance, moving from a US red-state level of lockdown to a US blue-state level of lockdown is in the range normally associated with interventions that are debatably cost-effective/utility-positive, with error bars including “obviously good” and “pretty bad”. It’s harder to estimate for Sweden, but plausibly for them to move to a more European-typical level of lockdown in the early phase of the pandemic would have very much cleared the bar and been unambiguously cost effective/utility-positive. […]

It’s harder to justify strict lockdowns in terms of the non-economic suffering produced. Even assumptions skewed to be maximally pro-strict-lockdown, eg where strict lockdowns would have prevented every single coronavirus case, suggest that it would have taken dozens of months of somewhat stricter lockdown to save one month of healthy life. This might still be justifiable if present strict lockdowns now prevented future strict lockdowns (mandated or voluntary), which might be true in Europe but doesn’t seem as true in the US.


Crying in H Mart | New Yorker

Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart. For those of you who don’t know, H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The “H” stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries.” H Mart is where parachute kids go to get the exact brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. It’s where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, a beef soup that brings in the new year. It’s the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that truly understands how much garlic you’ll need for the kind of food your people eat. H Mart is freedom from the single-aisle “ethnic” section in regular grocery stores. They don’t prop Goya beans next to bottles of sriracha here. Instead, you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”

When I was growing up, with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, my mom was my access point for our Korean heritage. While she never actually taught me how to cook (Korean people tend to disavow measurements and supply only cryptic instructions along the lines of “add sesame oil until it tastes like Mom’s”), she did raise me with a distinctly Korean appetite. This meant an over-the-top appreciation of good food and emotional eating. 


Owning Chinese Companies Is Complicated | Bloomberg Money Stuff

In my old life, I was a derivatives structurer at an investment bank, and an experience that I frequently had was getting calls like this:

Relationship banker: Our client wants to do ______.

Me: That’s illegal.

Relationship banker: Yes that’s our problem.

Me: Ah.

Relationship banker: We were hoping there was a … derivative?

Sometimes there was! If you came to me and said “our client would like to buy 8% of a public company, but not disclose her ownership,” I would say “well, under U.S. law you do have to disclose that level of stock ownership, but I could put you in a nice derivative that gets around that requirement.” The client could enter into a swap that gives her economic exposure to the shares, but not actual ownership, so she would not be subject to the laws about ownership disclosure. Everyone is happy, more or less. (No one is happy, and we have talked a few times about how mad everyone is that Archegos Capital Management was allowed to do this.)

So I have a soft spot for Chinese VIEs. The idea is that, under Chinese law, it is somewhere between “complicated” and “forbidden” for foreigners to own certain big important Chinese tech companies. This is a problem for those companies if they want to raise capital from foreign investors and list their stocks on foreign stock exchanges. But there is a solution. “Ownership” of a company is a complicated notion, a vague jumble of rights to elect directors and approve mergers and claim a residual interest in the company’s cash flows. You could break those things up and sell them separately. Write a profit-sharing contract that says “A will pay B all of A’s profits after expenses for the next 100 years, renewable at B’s option,” and hey that’s a residual claim on cash flows. (Or something vaguer: “A will pay B an annual consulting fee that B decides in its total discretion based on the economic value of the relationship,” etc.; not technically a residual claim but what else is it?) “B will provide management services to A and A will follow B’s instructions,” hey that’s basically control. “B will have the right to appoint a majority of A’s board of directors,” put it in a contract, it’s not actually stock ownership. Etc. Write some contracts that, bundled together, look like ownership, but aren’t ownership.


Breathtaking Eagle POV Flying Over The Alps in 4K | YouTube

I mean…you should watch this:


2 stars

The Last Battle Over Big Business | New Yorker

Ralph Nader, now eighty-seven years old, has been a public figure for more than half a century. Many people know him as a long-shot left-wing Presidential candidate in four successive elections, from 1996 to 2008, and as the possible spoiler of a Democratic victory in 2000, when he got almost a hundred thousand votes in Florida and Al Gore lost the state by five hundred and thirty-seven. “Ralph Nader is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors,” Joe Biden told the Times back then. “Nader cost us the election.”

But his real heyday was in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. In 1966, he was the star witness at sensational hearings about automobile safety conducted by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut. Nader, a young lawyer who had just published a book titled “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” seemed to know everything about auto safety, and to be motivated by a pure moral passion. What helped elevate him from star witness to celebrity, though, was the fact that his principal target, General Motors, hired private investigators to dig up dirt on him. There wasn’t any to be found, but Nader caught on and alerted first the Washington Post and then The New Republic. The idea of the country’s paradigmatic giant business corporation going after a penniless, idealistic reformer was journalistically irresistible.


Illumina: "View Source" for Life | The Diff

Here's a quick science fiction story: a five-year-old boy is admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, suffering from symptoms of infantile eosinophilia, a sometimes deadly disease in which the body produces too many of a particular kind of white blood cell. There are a few dozen potential causes, ranging from asthma to roundworms to leukemia. His genome is promptly sequenced, and a day and a half later, the cause has been identified, treatment has begun, and, a few hours later, the symptoms are receding.

This is a bold vision of how humans might conquer disease in the future; it's also nonfiction. This story was related at an investment conference a few weeks ago by the CEO of Illumina, the $68bn market cap leader in genome sequencing.


Book Review: Andy Slavitt’s Preventable | Marginal Revolution

Some of Slavitt’s assertions are absurd.

The U.S. response to the pandemic differed from the response in other parts of the world largely in the degree to which the government was reluctant to interfere with our system of laissez-faire capitalism…

Laissez-faire capitalism??! Political hyperbole paired with lazy writing. It would be laughable except for the fact that such hyperbole biases our thinking. If you read Slavitt uncritically you’d assume–as Slavitt does–that when the pandemic hit, US workers were cast aside to fend for themselves. In fact, the US fiscal response to the pandemic was among the largest and most generous in the world. An unemployed minimum wage worker in the United States, for example, was paid a much larger share of their income during the pandemic than a similar worker in Canada, France, or Germany (and no, that wasn’t because the US replacement rate was low to begin with.) […]

Slavitt’s narrative lines up “scientific experts” against “deniers, fauxers, and herders” with the scientific experts united on the pro-lockdown side. Let’s consider. In Europe one country above all others followed the Slavitt ideal of an expert-led pandemic response. A country where the public health authority was free from interference from politicians. A country where the public had tremendous trust in the state. A country where the public were committed to collective solidarity and the public welfare. That country, of course, was Sweden. Yet in Sweden the highly regarded Public Health Agency, led by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, an expert in infectious diseases who had directed Sweden’s response to the swine flu epidemic, opposed lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the general use of masks.

Moreover, the Public Health Agency of Sweden and Tegnell weren’t a bizarre anomaly, anti-lockdown was probably the dominant expert position prior to COVID.


Mind-controlling parasite makes hyena cubs more reckless around lions | National Geographic

As adults, they’re Africa’s most successful predators. But as cubs, spotted hyenas are a favorite snack for lions. For that reason, hyena cubs usually steer clear of the big cats, spending most of their time near their parents’ dens.  

That’s unless the young hyenas are infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Those unfortunate cubs get closer to lions and are four times more likely to be killed by the big cats than their healthy peers, according to decades’ worth of data collected in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. […]

Toxoplasma is a single-celled parasite that infects at least one-third of the world’s human population. It’s famous for its ability to manipulate its hosts, such as mice, into acting recklessly around felines, such as house cats. But this is the first time scientists have documented such effects in large wild mammals.


Finally, the truth behind the ‘haunted’ Dybbuk Box can be revealed | Input

Back in 2001, Kevin Mannis was out visiting yard sales, looking for supplies for his furniture-restoration business, a hole-in-the-wall shop located at the base of the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

The story goes that he purchased an old wine cabinet from the granddaughter of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor named Havela, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland. Havela’s parents, brothers, sister, husband, two sons, and daughter were all killed. She, with other survivors, fled to Spain and lived there until the end of the war. When Havela, who lived to 103, immigrated to the U.S., the wine cabinet was only one of three items she brought with her.

As Mannis paid for the cabinet, Havela’s granddaughter said, “I see you bought the Dybbuk Box.” Mannis wasn’t familiar with the term. The granddaughter told him her grandmother always kept it shut and out of reach because there was a dybbuk — in Jewish folklore, an evil, restless spirit that possesses the living — inside it. The seller purportedly told Mannis it was never to be opened, and if it was, bad things would happen. He did not heed her warning.


The unsolved mystery of Skeleton Lake | BBC

Nearly 80 years after the Himalayan lake first captured the world's imagination, the mystery continues to confound – even as revolutionary advances are made in understanding our past. […]

In 1942, H K Madhwal, an Indian forest official, stumbled upon hundreds of human skeletons stockpiled in and around Roopkund lake. He reported the bizarre find – a mysterious lake where between 300 to 800 people met their tragic end – and the frigid Himalayas continued to preserve the human remains. In the late 1950s, the macabre mountain find was announced to the public, raising great interest and triggering several investigations that continue to date. […]

Soon, the Roopkund mystery was once again resurrected. Thirty-eight powdered bone samples prepared from skeletal remains stored at the Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata, were sent to 16 labs worldwide for genomic and biomolecular analysis. The results of the five-year-long study, published in 2019, stunned the world.

The new study found that the 38 skeletons belonged to three genetically distinct groups and were deposited at the lake during multiple events over a 1,000 year period. There was a South Asian group, predictably, whose bones were deposited between the 7th and 10th Centuries in multiple events. The team also found a new group of individuals of eastern Mediterranean ancestry originating in the island of Crete, who died in the 19th Century in a single event. And there was one sample that had South-East Asian origin, also from the 19th Century. Surprised by this anomalous finding, the team then did a dietary analysis to see if it supported the results of DNA analysis, and it did.


Engagement’s Second-Order Catastrophes | The Scholar’s Stage

Chinese officials are perhaps the book’s main target audience. Rozelle and Hell worry that unless Communist officialdom takes drastic action soon, China will be stuck in what has been called the “middle income trap.” China was able to climb into middle income status with an economy built around infrastructure construction and manufacturing. There is very little unique about this in the Chinese case except scale: dozens of countries have used variations on this exact same model to pull themselves out of poverty and into the middle-income zone.

Moving from middle income to high income is a more difficult transition. […]

But this post is not about China. Rather, it is about what China did to Mexico. Mexico is the cautionary tale Rozelle and Hell want to scare Chinese officials with. “If you don’t reform now,” they seem to argue, “what you did to Mexico will be done to you!” That is a boogeyman worth fearing.

Mexico was not always the economically stagnant, narcotics ridden country that it is today. As Rozelle and Hell tell it, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s it was a busy manufacturing hub with a bright future. In 1994 Mexico was invited into the OECD precisely because it seemed on the verge of jumping into the high income bracket. This upward climb was derailed when the United States granted “permanent normal trade relations” to the People’s Republic of China. Americans often debate the impact this had on the U.S. industries, but its effect on the Mexican job market is much clearer—and more catastrophic.


1 star

Wombats | The Oatmeal


You Really Need to Quit Twitter | The Atlantic

It is odd to give a Caitlin Flanagan piece only one star, but here we are:

I’m almost 60, and in these many decades I’ve seen people—some of them good friends—taken down by all kinds of things. Alcohol and drugs, mostly. A few years ago, I lost someone to heroin, and hundreds of us sat at his funeral in wordless communion. I know a couple of people who couldn’t shake gambling, and many plagued by food and sex and all the other great distractions. But in all these years—almost 60!—I haven’t had trouble with any of those things. Until now. You know what finally took me down? Fucking Twitter.

The indignity of it! Couldn’t I have gone out on a champagne bender or bet the house on a poker game, or even clogged my heart with so much gelato and fried chicken that the life force was squeezed out of me midway through a slice of cheesecake? Why did it have to be this common, embarrassing habit that just about everyone on Earth knows is a scourge?

I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts. Twenty years of journalism taught me to hit a word count almost without checking the numbers at the bottom of the screen. But now a corporation that operates against my best interests has me thinking in 280 characters. Every thought, every experience, seems to be reducible to this haiku, and my mind is instantly engaged by the challenge of concision. Once the line is formed, why not put it out there? Twitter is a red light, blinking, blinking, blinking, destroying my ability for private thought, sucking up all my talent and wit. Put it out there, post it, see how it does. What pours out is an ungodly sluice of high-minded opinions, sharp rebukes, jokes, transactional compliments, and mundane bulletins from my private life (to the extent that I have one anymore).


About this newsletter