Sorry about the hiatus. I've taken on a few new projects at work, so I've been a bit busier lately. Issues may be a bit more sporadic in the next few months.
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The Man Who’s Going to Save Your Neighborhood Grocery Store / Longreads
In 2014, Rich Niemann, president and CEO of the Midwestern grocery company Niemann Foods, made the most important phone call of his career. He dialed the Los Angeles office of Shook Kelley, an architectural design firm, and admitted he saw no future in the traditional grocery business. He was ready to put aside a century of family knowledge, throw away all his assumptions, completely rethink his brand and strategy — whatever it would take to carry Niemann Foods deep into the 21st century. “I need a last great hope strategy,” he told Kevin Kelley, the firm’s cofounder and principal. “I need a white knight.” Part square-jawed cattle rancher, part folksy CEO, Niemann is the last person you’d expect to ask for a fresh start. He’s spent his whole life in the business, transforming the grocery chain his grandfather founded in 1917 into a regional powerhouse with more than 100 supermarkets and convenience stores across four states. In 2014, he was elected chair of the National Grocery Association. It’s probably fair to say no one alive knows how to run a grocery store better than Rich Niemann. Yet Niemann was no longer sure the future had a place for stores like his. He was right to be worried. The traditional American supermarket is dying. [...] Today’s successful retail brands establish what Kelley calls a “brand realm,” or what screenwriters would call a story’s “setting.” We don’t usually think consciously about them, but realms subtly shape our attitude toward shopping the same way the foggy, noirishly lit streets in a Batman movie tell us something about Gotham City. Cracker Barrel is set in a nostalgic rural house. Urban Outfitters is set on a graffitied urban street. Tommy Bahama takes place on a resort island. It’s a well-known industry secret that Costco stores are hugely expensive to construct — they’re designed to resemble fantasy versions of real-life warehouses, and the appearance of thrift doesn’t come cheap. Some realms are even more specific and fanciful: Anthropologie is an enchanted attic, complete with enticing cupboards and drawers. Trader Joe’s is a crew of carefree, hippie traders shipping bulk goods across the sea. A strong sense of place helps immerse us in a store, getting us emotionally invested and (perhaps) ready to suspend the critical faculties that prevent a shopping spree. Kelley takes this a few steps further. The Shook Kelly team, which includes a cultural anthropologist with a Ph.D., begins by conducting interviews with executives, staff, and locals, looking for the storytelling hooks they call “emotional opportunities.”
From an outpost in northeastern Thailand, a couple of shadowy men have for years been running the world's most elaborate poaching ring—earning an enormous fortune by destroying some of the planet's most exotic creatures. Now can an enterprising vigilante finally bring down an untouchable smuggling syndicate? [...] Hitting the black market in China or Vietnam, the horns would be shaved into a fine powder and packaged into tiny vials, and then sold to those who cling to ancient beliefs about their power to heal all manner of maladies—like rheumatism, perhaps, or maybe cancer. The price for such a specious remedy is steep. The rhino dust—sometimes stirred carefully into tea, other times ingested directly—can fetch $65,000 per kilogram. For Lemtongthai, that meant nearly $200,000 for a single horn. Illicit though his scheme was, there was nothing particularly clandestine about Lemtongthai's behavior out here in the African bush. He motioned for a young lady—a Thai stripper named “Joy”—to approach the dead rhino. Joy had dressed for the hunt in tight jeans and a purple track jacket. She was given the rifle, and she moved in beside the animal, kneeling with the gun in hand. She flashed a wide smile for a waiting camera. It was critical that she appear to be the one who'd bagged the rhino. A photo of Joy and her prize would help with that.
The streets of East Dallas will do that to a man. But when a 25-year-old posed as a teenager and became a high school hoops star, reinvention led to a darker place.
I often find Maciej Cegłowski's Idle Words a bit weird (and to be fair, this piece isn't necessarily an exception), but he's a charming narrator:
Houston in that era was not an earthly paradise. But try telling that to visitors like us, dazzled by the sheer abundance of American capitalism. There were superhighways in the center city! Everyone had a giant car! You could drive that car up to a restaurant with a yellow “M” on it, and a teenager would hand you a bucket of pink ice cream through the window! According to the sign on the restaurant, this had happened billions of times. It was overwhelming. All that prelude is to say, coming in to the Hong Kong protests from a less developed country like the United States is disorienting. If you have never visited one of the Zeroth World cities of Asia, like Taipei or Singapore, it can be hard to convey their mix of high density, mazelike design, utterly reliable public services, and high social cohesion, any more than it was possible for me or my parents to imagine a real American city, no matter how many movies we saw. And then to have to write about protests on top of it! It’s hard to write articulately about the Five Demands when one keeps getting brought up short by basic things, like the existence of clean public bathrooms. [...] The level of heat and humidity is almost comical. My Slavic body is shutting down, in a process so unsettling to fellow marchers that concerned people start offering me water or tiny, single use tissues. These turn into wet confetti the second they touch my face. You might as well try to stop Niagara with a hand towel. “It’s okay,” I tell them. “This is normal. I’m not dying—I’m Polish.” They edge away. [...] I should say a few words here about the curious way the protests are organized. The protesters learned in 2014 that having leaders was a weakness. Once the leadership was arrested, the heart went out of the occupy movement, and it lost momentum. So in 2019, there is no leadership at all. The protests are intentionally decentralized, using a jury-rigged combination of a popular message board, the group chat app Telegram, and in-person huddles at the protests. This sounds like it shouldn’t possibly work, but the protesters are too young to know that it can’t work, so it works.
We see exceptional intelligence as a blessing. So why, asks Maggie Fergusson, are so many brilliant children miserable misfits? [...] Tom remembers the day he decided he wanted to be a theoretical astrophysicist. He was deep into research about black holes, and had amassed a box of papers on his theories. In one he speculated about the relationship between black holes and white holes, hypothetical celestial objects that emit colossal amounts of energy. Black holes, he thought, must be linked across space-time with white holes. “I put them together and I thought, oh wow, that works! That’s when I knew I wanted to do this as a job.” Tom didn’t know enough maths to prove his theory, but he had time to learn. He was only five. Tom is now 11. At home, his favourite way to relax is to devise maths exam papers complete with marking sheets. Last year for Christmas he asked his parents for the £125 registration fee to sit maths GCSE, an exam most children in Britain take at 16. He is currently working towards his maths A-level. Tom is an only child, and at first Chrissie, his mother, thought his love of numbers was normal. Gradually she realised it wasn’t. She would take him to lectures about dark matter at the Royal Observatory in London and notice that there were no other children there. His teacher reported that instead of playing outside with other kids at breaks, he wanted to stay indoors and do sums. [...] Society prizes intelligence. Geniuses are viewed with awe and assumed to be guaranteed prosperity and success. Yet there is a dark side to intelligence. Like many gifted children, Tom’s childhood has often been unhappy. Aged five, he talked about wanting to end his life: he said he planned to do this by banging his head repeatedly against a wall. “Life’s like a maze, only bigger,” Tom told his mum. “I feel I’m getting lost.” His GP said he was suffering from severe depression, and reckoned its roots lay in Tom’s “genius”, and the frustration and isolation this was causing him. Tom finds it hard to relate to other children and has few friends. At school he has been shunted out on his own into corridors and offices. “They didn’t want him in the class because he’s doing different stuff,” Chrissie says.
The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks. It was born into a time period of writerly experimentation and invention, a time when there were no punctuation rules, and readers created and discarded novel punctuation marks regularly. Texts (both handwritten and printed) record the testing-out and tinkering-with of punctuation by the fifteenth-century literati known as the Italian humanists. The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing, and they called for the study and retranscription of Greek and Roman classical texts as a way to effect a “cultural rebirth” after the gloomy Middle Ages. In the service of these two goals, humanists published new writing and revised, repunctuated, and reprinted classical texts. One of these humanists, Aldus Manutius, was the matchmaker who paired up comma and colon to create the semicolon.
For the first 21 years of my life, brisket only existed in my world as one thing, the main course at Passover. While red meat was served rarely in my house growing up, our annual Seder always included a hulking mass of beef chest, cooked simply with onions and carrots and slathered in ketchup and Coca-Cola. Not one to be fussy in the kitchen, my dad would just toss the brisket into the oven and leave it to braise for hours, until it was super-tender all the way through. It was simple and delicious and there were always tons of leftovers, which I think was intentional (my dad always cooked a brisket large enough to feed twice as many people as we ever had over). That, or brisket always happened to be on sale when he purchased it. [...] People eat brisket all around the world, from Korea to Vietnam to Pakistan to Italy. It's cooked differently everywere, but in the United States, brisket gained fame as the largest jewel in the crown of Texas barbecue, while continuing on as the staple for many Jewish families' yearly Seders. Why does this cut's popularity endure in these two contexts? The simple answer is it used to be the cheapest option.
When you land in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, you can step off the plane and just walk away. There’s no passport control, no armed guard retracing your steps, no biometric machine scanning your fingers. Svalbard is as close as you can get to a place with open borders: As long as you can support yourself, you can live there visa-free. That doesn’t make Svalbard an egalitarian place—far from it. All commercial flights currently go through Oslo or Tromsø, so travelers must obtain transit visas and wait in lines there instead. Svalbard provides minimal social services, so it won’t attract the world’s tired, poor, and weary. When in 2015 a right-wing Norwegian politician offered to send refugee families north rather than accommodate them on the mainland, it was not meant as a kindness. Still, there is something utopian about a place where almost anyone could live. Amid scaremongering about unrestricted migration, I went to Svalbard because I wanted to see whether there were lessons we could learn from this 2,300-person community a few hundred miles south of the North Pole.
Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy / Slate Star Codex
Highlights from the Comments on Billionaire Philanthropy / Slate Star Codex
I didn't realise some people were so upset that some billionaires give away lots of money to charity:
From Vox: The Case Against Billionaire Philanthropy. It joins The Guardian, Truthout, Dissent Magazine, CityLab, and a host of other people and organizations arguing that rich people giving to charity is now a big problem. I’m against this. I understand concern about the growing power of the very rich. But I worry the movement against billionaire charity is on track to damage charity a whole lot more than it damages billionaires. [...] Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to help low-income students? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe? Obviously it’s the low-income students. I’ve heard people criticizing Zuckerberg’s donation constantly for years, and I didn’t even know he had a $59 million Lake Tahoe mansion until I googled “things mark zuckerberg has spent ridiculous amounts of money on” in the process of writing this paragraph. [...] Suppose Jeff Bezos is watching how people treat Bill Gates, and changes his own behavior accordingly. Maybe in the best possible world, when people attack Gates’ donations, Bezos learns that people don’t like ruthless billionaires, decides not to be ruthless like Gates was, and agrees to Bernie Sanders’ demand that he increase his employees’ pay by $4/hour. But Bezos also learns people criticize billionaires’ philanthropy especially intensely, decides not to be charitable like Gates was, and so ten million people die. You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives. In my moral system, this means billionaire philanthropy is not acceptable collateral damage in the war against inequality. Even if for some reason you believe that criticizing billionaire philanthropy is a higher-impact way to fight inequality than criticizing billionaires’ yachts, you should stick to criticizing the yachts.
Thanks to everyone who commented on Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy. For whatever reason, the comments there were exceptionally good. In particular, I’m happy that our usually-quiet leftists finally showed up with some strong (and interesting) pushback. I usually highlight good comments with short responses, but it was hard for me to avoid debating some of these.
A couple of years ago, Ramon Vazquez’s 11-year-old son, Nomar, came to him confused. While online, he had found a video of his father from his playing days in MLB; Vazquez had spent 2001 to ’09 as a utility infielder for six teams. He was good with the glove but an afterthought with the bat, hitting just 22 home runs over those nine seasons. But that’s what made the footage Nomar had found—highlights of a game from Aug. 22, 2007, between the Rangers, his dad's team at the time, and the Orioles—so strange. "He was like, 'I found a video of you hitting two home runs, and one of them made the score 30–3,'" Vazquez says. "Then he says, 'I showed my buddies at school, and they don’t believe it’s you.'" Nomar’s young friends weren’t the only ones who couldn't make sense of a game so full of craziness. On that humid August evening in Baltimore a decade ago, the Rangers crushed the Orioles, 30–3, setting a modern-era record for most runs in a single game and biggest blowout. It was only the ninth time in history a team had reached 30 runs, and it hadn't happened since the Chicago Colts beat the Louisville Colonels, 36–7, in 1897.
Why the French love to say no / BBC
Before moving to London, I would have just chalked this BBC piece up to the Brits' mostly-friendly rivalry with the French, but my company is half-English / half-French, and well... (with apologies to the several lovely and loyal readers from France on this list):
“Non, ce n’est pas possible. I keep telling you, it can’t be done,” the airline booking agent insisted. We’d been on the phone for 20 minutes as I tried to exchange a full-fare, exchangeable plane ticket. Sitting calmly at home, my eyes took in the cliché of our Parisian apartment, complete with 19th-Century gilded mirrors and mouldings of flowers cascading from the ceiling. Over the last 18 years, I’d learned to see the beauty that surrounded me as compensation for living in a society where the default answer to almost every question, request or suggestion is a disheartening ‘non’ (no). A conversation with French friends and family about their use of ‘non’ and why it seems to be the national default reads like the script for a Gérard Depardieu comedy. “No, it’s not true, we don’t always say ‘no’ first,” retorted the 60-something CEO. “No, you’re right, even when we agree, we start with no,” reacted the lawyer. “Hunh, no… I don’t know why…” pondered the young artist. Olivier Giraud, a French comedian who has been sharing insights into French culture for over a decade with his one man show, How to become Parisian in One Hour, explains this reflex by saying, “Answering ‘non’ gives you the option to say ‘oui’ [yes] later; [it’s] the opposite when you say ‘oui’, you can no longer say ‘non’! We must not forget that the French are a people of protest, and a protest always starts with a ‘non’.”
Half a world away, Nova Spivack watched a livestream of Beresheet’s mission control from a conference room in Los Angeles. As the founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to create “a backup of planet Earth,” Spivack had a lot at stake in the Beresheet mission. The spacecraft was carrying the foundation’s first lunar library, a DVD-sized archive containing 30 million pages of information, human DNA samples, and thousands of tardigrades, those microscopic “water bears” that can survive pretty much any environment—including space. But when the Israelis confirmed Beresheet had been destroyed, Spivack was faced with a distressing question: Did he just smear the toughest animal in the known universe across the surface of the moon?
A rapid increase—even if relatively small—in the unemployment rate has been an accurate indication that a recession is underway. For example, the unemployment rate in November 2000 was reported at 4.0 percent. By June of 2001, it was 4.5 percent. While 4.0 or even 4.5 percent are low unemployment rates by historical standards, a recession had in fact begun in March of 2001, and the unemployment rate continued to rise rapidly. The Sahm indicator called this recession at the beginning of July when the unemployment data for June were released. Rapid increases are informative regardless of the level of the unemployment rate. Having an unemployment rate of 6 or even 7 percent does not necessarily mean the economy is in a recession; often when the unemployment rate is 6 or 7 percent, the economy is growing quickly in the aftermath of a recession. In addition to identifying a recession that has already started, one may also want to know how likely it is that a recession is coming. Although predicting recessions is a notoriously difficult enterprise, historical experience may be informative.
The graph at right made the twitter rounds a few days ago (1.3k RTs and 2.7k likes for Noah). The graph looked off to me immediately. [...] People send me this kind of thing all the time. “See,” they say, “Why are the Prices So D*mn High is wrong! It isn’t Baumol!”–and I am always reluctant to follow-up because tracking down the underlying data, figuring out what it means, if there are mistakes etc. is a huge time sink. It was the excellent Conversable Economist who go the ball rolling on the latest iteration of this graph, however, and he cites the graph to noted health economist Uwe Reinhardt’s last book, Priced Out so I thought it could be worthwhile to go deeper. Unfortunately, Reinhardt simply calls this a “famous graph” and it’s clear that he just found it on the internet like everyone else! Oh dear.
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Bill Hader channels Tom Cruise [DeepFake] / YouTube
In case you haven't seen this, Nate says, "Not sure if it's newsletter worthy, but this is the coolest (and thus creepiest) example of a deepfake video I've seen to date." Yep, I agree.
America, in two charts, social average is over / Marginal Revolution
On the difference a college degree makes to mortality
This Backheel Soccer Goal Is Outrageous / Digg
We've seen some great backheel goals in our day, but this — from Chelsea's Pedro in a preseason match against Red Bull Salzburg — is right up there with the best of them. It's bananas.
Oh, I love these abstract oil paintings by Jason Anderson. They are analog and organic but also more than a little pixel-y. Every time I see something like this, I want to get out my paints, stretch a canvas, and try it out. Note: I do not own any paints nor have I ever built any canvases. These “chunky” abstracts (see also Joseph Lee’s work) always make me curious about how much abstraction you can get away with and still have it look like something the viewer can recognize.
Using Heckman and OLS estimation methods we provide empirical evidence for a statistically significant 4% gender wage gap among workers, at the project level. We also find that female workers propose lower wage bills and are more likely to win the competition for contracts. Once we include workers’ wage bill proposals in the regressions, the gender wage gap virtually disappears, i.e., it is statistically insignificant and very small in magnitude (0.3%). Our results also suggest that female workers’ higher winning probabilities associated with lower wage bill proposals lead to higher expected revenues overall. We provide empirical evidence for heterogeneity of the gender wage gap in some of the job categories, all job difficulty levels and some of the worker countries. Finally, for some subsamples we find a statistically significant but very small “reverse” gender wage gap.
Astronomers think they've spotted an alien planet with three suns on its horizon — but that still isn't the most interesting thing about the strange new world's sky. [...] But what's particularly special about it is something that scientists can't yet, but may soon be able to, characterize: its atmosphere.
All the fun of wingsuit piloting without the insane risk.
I like to think of this as the whole sky always being "there", but the Earth blocks about half of it ALL THE TIME! Alternately, if we look straight "up", we're always pointed towards a different part of same sky. I made these reprocessed spherical timelapses to hopefully communicate these perspectives. I think it's pretty incredible how the sky acts like an ever-changing window on our universe. I shot this timelapse over the course of about a week. (the camera was pretty tired and I went through a bunch of 64BG SD cards...) I ended up finally capturing one good 24-hour span with the camera pointed up, and one good 24-hour span with the camera pointed down. I was using a circular fisheye lens with a 185 degree field of view to capture the entire sky in a single photograph.
2 minutes, 29 seconds of pure joy