----- 3 stars -----

The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code / Bloomberg Businessweek

Bill Benter did the impossible: He wrote an algorithm that couldn’t lose at the track. Close to a billion dollars later, he tells his story for the first time. [...] “If you bet on horses, you will lose,” says Warwick Bartlett, who runs Global Betting & Gaming Consultants and has spent years studying the industry. What if that wasn’t true? What if there was one person who masterminded a system that guaranteed a profit? One person who’d made almost a billion dollars, and who’d never told his story—until now? In September, after a long campaign to reach him through friends and colleagues, I received an email from Benter. “I have been avoiding you, as you might have surmised,” he wrote. “The reason is mainly that I am uncomfortable in the spotlight by nature.” He added, “None of us want to encourage more people to get into the game!” But in October he agreed to a series of interviews in his office in downtown Pittsburgh. The tasteful space—the top two floors of a Carnegie Steel-era building—is furnished with 4-foot-tall Chinese vases and a marble fireplace, with sweeping views of the Monongahela River and freight trains rumbling past. Benter, 61, walks with a slight stoop. He looks like a university professor, his wavy hair and beard streaked with gray, and speaks in a soft, slightly Kermit-y voice. He told me he’d been driven only partly by money—and I believed him. With his intelligence, he could have gotten richer faster working in finance. Benter wanted to conquer horse betting not because it was hard, but because it was said to be impossible. When he cracked it, he actively avoided acclaim, outside the secretive band of geeks and outcasts who occupy his chosen field. Some of what follows relies on his recollections, but in every case where it’s been possible to corroborate events and figures, they’ve checked out in interviews with dozens of individuals, as well as in books, court records, and other documents. Only one thing Benter ever told me turned out to be untrue. It was at the outset of our conversations, when he said he didn’t think I’d find anything interesting to write about in his career.

Our Skulls Are Out-Evolving Us / Medium

Science suggests that crooked teeth, overbites, narrow jaws, and crimped nasal airways are a modern phenomenon. Skeletal remains show that just 300 years ago, humans commonly displayed straight, perfectly aligned teeth, wide jaws, flat palates and the large nasal passages that signal habitual, healthy breathing. [...] Then, about 250 years ago, our faces began to change. Boyd argues that industrialization interrupted the ancestral patterns of weaning and feeding, with babies nursing on demand for years while also trying solid foods under adults’ watchful eyes. Boyd says that the widespread adoption of bottle feeding, pacifiers and soft processed food deprived toddlers of practice chewing and distorted the shapes of their mouths. (“In modern society you have Gerber’s baby food,” Corruccini told me. “Etruscan kids had to chew once they were getting off breast milk. Babies have remarkably powerful chewing capabilities.”) Just like diabetes and heart disease, malocclusion — the misalignment of jaws and teeth — followed industrialization around the globe. Meanwhile, people in societies that never industrialized enjoyed well-aligned teeth and jaws. [...] The implications of shrinking modern skulls are more than aesthetic. Our smaller faces do the most harm in one area crucial to physical and mental health: our ability to get a good night’s sleep. [...] Malocclusion and its resultant sleep problems form part of the cluster known as diseases of civilization, including obesity, stress, and depression. These are all conditions largely caused by our modern lifestyle and environment.

----- 2 stars -----

Bresha Meadows Thought You'd Understand / Huffington Post

At the age of 14, she killed her abusive father. Before she pulled the trigger, it hadn’t occurred to her that she would go to jail. [...] Her guess, she says, is that her mind blocked out some stuff to protect her. She remembers steadily extracting the gun from under her dad’s pillow as he slept on the couch. Then putting it down. Picking it up. Putting it down. “You know when you can kinda like, foresee something?” she asked. “I sat there thinking and pictures kept flashing in my head, like my mom’s funeral casket, and then my sister and brother are old enough to move out, and it is just me and him left in the house.” Her dad had been sexually abusing her since she was 8, she said, and beating her mother for her entire life. The last thing she thought before she pulled the trigger was: It’s never gonna stop. It’s only gonna get worse. She clicked the gun and spun around like a wooden spinning top. She was 14. [...] Before she pulled the trigger, Bresha said, it hadn’t actually occurred to her that she would go to jail. She thought it was obvious she was acting in self-defense, and everyone would agree. Nowhere is her 14-year-old mind more evident than in this calculation. It wasn’t until she was inside the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center, and heard her charge ― aggravated murder ― that it dawned on her that she was in serious trouble. If she was tried as an adult and convicted, she could spend the rest of her life behind bars.

Book Review: Against the Grain / Slate Star Codex

Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; in the Paleolithic the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation. Intensive cereal cultivation is miserable work requiring constant toil with little guarantee of a good harvest. Why would anyone leave this wilderness Eden for a 100% wheat diet? [...] Scott’s great advantage over other writers is the care he takes in analyzing the concrete machinery of statehood. Instead of abstractly saying “the state levies a 10% tax”, he realizes that some guy in a palace has resolved to take “ten percent” of the “value” produced in some vast area, with no natural way of knowing who is in that area or how much value they produce. For most of the Stone Age, this problem was insurmountable. You can’t tax hunter-gatherers, because you don’t know how many they are or where they are, and even if you search for them you’ll spend months hunting them down through forests and canyons, and even if you finally find them they’ll just have, like, two elk carcasses and half a herring or something. But you also can’t tax potato farmers, because they can just leave when they hear you coming, and you will never be able to find all of the potatoes and dig them up and tax them. And you can’t even tax lentil farmers, because you’ll go to the lentil plantation and there will be a few lentils on the plants and the farmer will just say “Well, come back next week and there will be a few more”, and you can’t visit every citizen every week. But you can tax grain farmers! You can assign them some land, and come back around harvest time, and there will be a bunch of grain just standing there for you to take ten percent of. If the grain farmer flees, you can take his grain without him. Then you can grind the grain up and have a nice homogenous, dense, easy-to-transport grain product that you can dole out in measured rations. Grain farming was a giant leap in oppressability.

Pete Buttigieg’s Undeniable Allure / New Republic

Watching the way that people listen to a presidential candidate is a surprisingly good indicator of raw political talent. In September 2006, at the annual Tom Harkin Steak Fry near Des Moines, a fledgling Illinois senator named Barack Obama (not yet a presidential candidate) mesmerized 3,500 Iowa Democrats. I knew then, studying the rapt expressions on people’s faces as they listened to Obama deliver his first political speech in Iowa, that 2008 would be his year. The Iowa Democrats all looked like extras from Frank Capra’s movie Meet John Doe. Needless to say, in 2016, neither major Democratic candidate rewarded intense listening. Hillary Clinton offered predictable bromides and Bernie Sanders has a passion for yelling. But this time around, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of a small Indiana city (South Bend) half the size of Des Moines, is acing the listening test. His words, even in a stump speech, tend to be more thoughtful and more surprising than the standard political applause lines of his rivals. Elizabeth Warren often elicits cheers, Joe Biden gets the occasional affectionate chuckle, but Buttigieg summons up a different reaction. I first noticed it while seeing him at a Des Moines house party on a sparkling Saturday morning in June. As with Obama in 2006, members of the audience leaned forward to listen to Buttigieg speak rather than sitting back to applaud politely. What struck me at the time was that Buttigieg was pulling off this listening trick even though he lacked the national political profile that Obama boasted back in 2006, from his electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic convention.

Who Are the Kurds, and Why Is Turkey Attacking Them in Syria? / New York Times

Why did Turkey invade? Why did America leave? How did the Kurds gain so much land? We answer 10 key questions about the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.

Too Much Dark Money in Almonds / Slate Star Codex

Everyone always talks about how much money there is in politics. This is the wrong framing. The right framing is Ansolabehere et al’s: why is there so little money in politics? But Ansolabehere focuses on elections, and the mystery is wider than that. [...] Add up all US spending on candidates, PACs, lobbying, think tanks, and advocacy organizations – liberal and conservative combined – and we’re still $2 billion short of what we spend on almonds each year. In fact, we’re still less than Elon Musk’s personal fortune; Musk could personally fund the entire US political ecosystem on both sides for a whole two-year election cycle. [...] In this model, the difference between politics and almonds is that if you spend $2 on almonds, you get $2 worth of almonds. In politics, if you spend $2 on Bernie Sanders, you get nothing, unless millions of other people also spend their $2 on him. People are great at spending money on direct consumption goods, and terrible at spending money on coordination problems. I don’t want more money in politics. But the same factors that keep money out of politics keep it out of charity too. The politics case is interesting because it’s so obvious. Nobody’s going to cynically declare “Oh, people don’t really care who wins the election, they just pretend to.” It’s coordination problems! It has to be! So when I hear stories like that Americans could end homelessness by redirecting the money they spend on Christmas decorations, I don’t think that’s because they’re evil or hypocritical or don’t really care about the issue. I think they would if they could but the coordination problem gets in the way.

The China Cultural Clash / Stratechery
The NBA Called the Right Play in China / Bloomberg
The NBA Should Call China’s Bluff / Bloomberg

The Global Times, a Chinese government-run English-language newspaper, stated in an editorial: "Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA team the Houston Rockets, has obviously gotten himself into trouble. He tweeted a photo saying 'fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong' on Saturday while accompanying his team in Tokyo. The tweet soon set the team’s Chinese fans ablaze. It can be imagined how Morey’s tweet made them disappointed and furious. Shortly afterward, CCTV sports channel and Tencent sports channel both announced they would suspend broadcasting Rockets’ games. Some of the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners also started to suspend cooperation with the Rockets." There’s one rather glaring hole in this story of immediate outrage from Chinese fans over Morey’s tweet: Twitter is banned in China. [...] The problem from a Western perspective is that the links Clinton was so sure would push in only one direction — towards political freedom — turned out to be two-way streets: China is not simply resisting Western ideals of freedom, but seeking to impose their own. [...] In other words, Morey, a private U.S. citizen posting an image on a social network already banned in China, had to be fired, or the Rockets and the NBA would quite literally pay the price. Abide by China’s standards, or else. [...] I am increasingly convinced this is the point every company dealing with China will reach: what matters more, money or values? I am not particularly excited to write this article. My instinct is towards free trade, my affinity for Asia generally and Greater China specifically, my welfare enhanced by staying off China’s radar. And yet, for all that the idea of being a global citizen is an alluring concept and largely my lived experience, I find in situations like this that I am undoubtedly a child of the West. I do believe in the individual, in free speech, and in democracy, no matter how poorly practiced in the United States or elsewhere. And, in situations like this weekend, when values meet money, I worry just how many companies are capable of choosing the former?

From Tyler Cowen:

In a rare show of bipartisan unity, Twitter has rallied behind the free-speech rights of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. On Friday Morey tweeted his support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, then had to delete his tweet and walk back his view. True to form, I find myself in disagreement with the consensus: Morey committed a blunder, and deleting the tweet was the correct thing to do. [...] The NBA’s mistake was simply to insist on this in far too clumsy and public a manner. In similar fashion, the U.S. customarily expects its ambassadors to refrain from independent commentary on foreign policy events, again even if their comments are entirely correct (sometimes especially when their comments are correct). No one considers this a restriction on the freedom of speech of the ambassadors; in fact, it is more often seen as a normal precondition for taking the job. For another example, consider a company selling cookies and desserts. It can and should expect its chief executives to refrain from talking about the evils of refined sugar, no matter how accurate their comments might be. That kind of private censorship is very common, though it is not usually accompanied by the public act of posting and then deleting a tweet.

China's state-run television announced today that it won’t broadcast a slate of preseason NBA games to be played there this week. It’s a calculated escalation of a backlash against the league after one of its general managers tweeted in support of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement on Friday. The tweet was deleted and the league apologized. But the government has been only too happy to amplify public anger, while hinting that the NBA's sizable business in China is at risk.Don't bet on it. Far from being vulnerable in this fight, the NBA holds all the leverage. It should take stock of basketball's long history in China, its own enduring popularity there, and the 800 million Chinese who watched its broadcasts last year. The government won’t be keen to pick a fight that tempts so many fans to defy it, and the NBA should be able to safely stand its ground.

Why are adult daughters missing from ancient German cemeteries? / Science

Four thousand years ago, the Early Bronze Age farmers of southern Germany had no Homer to chronicle their marriages, travails, and family fortunes. But a detailed picture of their social structure has now emerged from a remarkable new study. By combining evidence from DNA, artifacts, and chemical clues in teeth, an interdisciplinary team unraveled relationships and inheritance patterns in several generations of high-ranking families buried in cemeteries on their farmsteads. Among the most striking of the findings, reported online this week in Science, was an absence: "We were totally missing adult daughters," says team member Alissa Mittnik, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Sons, in contrast, put down roots on their parents' land and kept wealth in the family.

----- 1 star -----

Cancel Billionaires / The Atlantic
How to argue for a wealth tax / Marginal Revolution

Right-leaning politicians and billionaires describe proposals for a wealth tax as the worst kind of personal-grievance politics. Why blame the biggest boats for the fact that the rising tide is not lifting all of them? Those on the left say a wealth tax is necessary to alleviate poverty. Why not tax the biggest boats to help out the little boats? But there are far more urgent reasons than poverty to get rid of billionaires and reverse the trend of economic polarization. A growing body of economic and political-science research demonstrates that Gilded Age–type inequality does not just mean having too many with too little. It is warping the very social fabric of the country, stifling mobility, innovation, investment, and growth, and putting the country at political risk.

I am seeing more people argue for a wealth tax, but I have yet to see them address the core issues. Let’s put aside all of the “big picture what do you think about bigger government issues,” where I do not expect agreement to be easy, and focus on two simple matters of exposition. First, let’s say a proponent argues for a “two percent wealth tax.” In the United States, most of that tax is likely to fall on accumulated capital gains. [...] Of course, rhetorically a “2 percent tax on wealth” sounds much better than say “a 62 percent tax rate on long-term capital gains.” Don’t be fooled! [...] Second, do you have any argument why a higher wealth tax would be better than a higher tax on consumption?

All hail The Blob, the intelligent slime mould confounding science / Wired

Enter The Blob – a yellowish chunk of slime mould set to make its debut at the Paris Zoological Park on Saturday. With nearly 720 sexes, and the ability to heal itself in two minutes if cut in half, The Blob (or La Blob, as it's called in France) is surprisingly accomplished for such a simple organism. And despite having no mouth, eyes or brain, slime mould can remember things and solve simple problems. Impressive, considering that some humans reach political office without mastering most of these tasks. Unsurprisingly, the Parisian slime mould has already captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world. Here’s why slime mould deserves your respect.

Beautiful Drone-Lit Landscapes by Reuben Wu / Kottke

In his Aeroglyphs, Lux Noctis, and Field of Infinity projects, Wu achieves a minimalist sci-fi lighting effect by using drones to light desolately beautiful natural landscapes.

How to Work and Sleep at the Same Time / Marginal Revolution

Many people have claimed that sleep has helped them solve a difficult problem, but empirical support for this assertion remains tentative. The current experiment tested whether manipulating information processing during sleep impacts problem incubation and solving. In memory studies, delivering learning-associated sound cues during sleep can reactivate memories. We therefore predicted that reactivating previously unsolved problems could help people solve them. In the evening, we presented 57 participants with puzzles, each arbitrarily associated with a different sound. While participants slept overnight, half of the sounds associated with the puzzles they had not solved were surreptitiously presented. The next morning, participants solved 31.7% of cued puzzles, compared with 20.5% of uncued puzzles (a 55% improvement). Moreover, cued-puzzle solving correlated with cued-puzzle memory.

Meet Felipe Nunes, a Skateboarder With No Legs / Kottke

Pro skateboarder Felipe Nunes hails from Brazil, is 20 years old, and recently signed on to Tony Hawk’s Birdhouse team. Nunes also lost both legs when he was six.

The Formative Years / Marginal Revolution

People born between 1963 and 1965 are less likely to drive a car to work, are more likely to commute using public transit and are even less likely to own a car than people born just before or after those years. Why? [...] An individual’s initial experiences with a common good, such as gasoline, can shape their behavior for decades. We first show that the 1979 oil crisis had a persistent negative effect on the likelihood that individuals that came of driving age during this time drove to work in the year 2000 (i.e., in their mid 30s). The effect is stronger for those with lower incomes and those in cities. Combining data on many cohorts, we then show that large increases in gasoline prices between the ages of 15 and 18 significantly reduce both (i) the likelihood of driving a private automobile to work and (ii) total annual vehicle miles traveled later in life, while also increasing public transit use.

3 counterintuitive ways to excel in conversation / Ozan Varol

I explained to him the central argument in an academic book I had published the year before. I was a bit starstruck, so I started to ramble and felt his eyes glazing over. I assumed he was feigning interest and being polite. When someone approached us to say hello, I heaved a sigh of relief. But instead of steering the conversation into non-academic territory, the celebrity said, “Meet Ozan. He wrote a book on . . .” and proceeded to describe the book. But he didn’t just describe the book. He pitched the book. He tantalized the other person with the book. He took my dry description of the book and made it fascinating. I was blown away. When I walked away from the conversation seriously questioning my copywriting abilities, a few things stood out to me. The celebrity didn’t say anything about himself. He didn’t tell any jokes. He didn’t make a witty remark. Yet he blew me away.

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