4 stars

The Last Two Northern White Rhinos On Earth | New York Times

In 2009, the only remaining eligible breeders — Sudan and Suni and Najin and Fatu — were brought back to Africa, to a wildlife conservancy in Kenya. It was a moonshot: a hope that their native continent might stir something deep in the biology of the final four, that it might produce a miracle.

Alas, it did not. Suni died, then Sudan. Suddenly, there were only two northern whites left. They were still out there in the field, doing the things their ancestors had always done: eating grass, wallowing in mud holes, taking naps in the shade of trees. But now everything was different. They lumbered around in a world between life and death, both here and not-here. Every mouthful of grass they ate was one mouthful closer to the last that would ever be eaten.

After Sudan died, I could not stop thinking about the last two. What were they like? What did they do all day? I found their existence strangely cheering. Although their story was almost unbearably tragic, they themselves were not tragic — they were just rhinos. To meet them would be a chance to look mass extinction in the face.


3 stars

The Capitol Invaders Enjoyed the Privilege of Not Being Taken Seriously | New Yorker

I have thought about lack of fear a lot. When I still lived in Moscow, journalists who had access to the Kremlin often chided me for taking Putin and his goons too seriously. They didn’t exactly deny that he could have people killed and probably did, or that he was building a dictatorship. They just thought I was making too much of it. It took me a long time to understand that this wasn’t because these men knew more than I did, or even thought they knew more. It was precisely because they shared a world with Putin and his men and saw them as normal, as part of their community. We do not fear those whom we see as being like us; we fear the other.

Black Lives Matter protesters are other to the Capitol Police. So are survivors of sexual assault or women who protest for the right to choose. But an armed mob storming the Capitol, and their Instigator-in-Chief, are, apparently, familiar enough to be dismissed as clowns. (Some of them, in their face paint and strange headgear, even seemed to embrace their identification as clowns.) The invaders may be full of contempt for a system that they think doesn’t represent them, but on Wednesday they managed to prove that it does. The system, which shrugged off their violence like it had been a toddler’s tantrum, represents them. It’s the rest of us it’s failing to protect.


2 stars

A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning | New York Times

Punishment and Proportionality | Jill Filipovic

Ms. Groves said the video began as a private Snapchat message to a friend. “At the time, I didn’t understand the severity of the word, or the history and context behind it because I was so young,” she said in a recent interview, adding that the slur was in “all the songs we listened to, and I’m not using that as an excuse.” […]

“It honestly disgusts me that those words would come out of my mouth,” Mimi Groves said of her video. “How can you convince somebody that has never met you and the only thing they’ve ever seen of you is that three-second clip?” […]

Once the video went viral, the backlash was swift, and relentless.


Over the weekend, the New York Times published the latest iteration of a “cancel culture” story, this one a little more complicated than the usual narrative. […]

The reactions to the story seem to fall along two lines: (1) Galligan is a sociopathic monster and cancel culture is out of control; or (2) Groves is a racist who got what she deserved, and anyone who says otherwise is giving a pass to racist white girls while children of color get no such consideration.

Neither of those conclusions are quite right. […]

Both of the kids in the New York Times story — and yes, as teenagers, they are kids — have been phenomenally ill-served by the cowardly adults around them. Adults were slow to integrate the schools in Leesburg; adults didn’t deal with racism and bigotry where they saw it, creating the conditions for racism to thrive at Heritage High School; and across the United States, textbooks and teachers warp American history to whitewash the sins of slavery, to turn confederates into war heroes, to present racism as a bad personal choice and not an ongoing system; and to smooth over the many complicated truths about America. Galligan, also a child, wasn’t protected or advocated for; he wasn’t given any productive avenue through which to deal with the racism he so often faced; he was made to shoulder repeated dehumanization alone as the adults who should have stood up for him shirked their duties. Then, when he takes matters into his own hands, adults on social media jump all over him and accuse him of being evil, vindictive, and sociopathic, and say he’s the one who should be in trouble for bullying. Groves chose to use a word that she knew full well was a racist slur, in a community that tacitly condoned that behavior. When that came back around on her three years later, the adults in the room folded to public outrage and let her shoulder the consequences alone. Then, when others object, the response is, well, her life isn’t ruined and by the way she’s racist so she deserves whatever she gets.


Europe, Unicorns and Global Tech Diffusion - The End of the American Internet | Mosaic Ventures

Silicon Valley was the global cluster for computing, for software and for the consumer internet, and even a decade ago two thirds of all tech venture investing happened in the USA. Europe seemed to punch below its weight, despite a bigger population and a huge single market, some great computer science schools and plenty of entrepreneurs. Maybe Europe just couldn't do tech?

In truth, that was always something of a misconception. […]

A lot of that is changing. Something over 120 ‘unicorns’ have emerged in Europe in the last decade, the top startup events have tens of thousands of eager attendees, and early stage venture investing is up 4x since 2010 and now within 15% of California levels. The virtuous cycle of startup creation is being put together piece by piece.


Did Irrigation Entrench the Patriarchy? | Alice Evans

The most gender equal regions in the world are Northern Europe and South East Asia. Why is this? How did they become more gender equal than the Middle East? This divergence is not recent, it precedes twentieth century development and democratisation.

What are the deep roots of the great gender divergence?

Before the modern era, almost everyone produced their own food, and these systems for producing food profoundly affected gender relations. Where women’s contribution to farming was relatively significant, they have higher labour force participation today. Where men were integral to production women stayed at home. Over the centuries, gender divisions of labour became normalised.

So what farming systems are associated with higher female employment?


New Defaults | Stratechery

Trump and Twitter | Stratechery

For all of the consternation in China about the the initial cover-up, Zhang’s case is a reminder that controlling information for political purposes is China’s default approach. It is worth noting, though, that the willingness to exert control can be useful, particularly during a pandemic. While Wuhan’s lockdown drew the most attention, and some degree of emulation, that wasn’t what actually stopped the virus’ spread. […]

These centralized quarantines were not optional, and they were effective: China had the coronavirus largely under control by late spring, and the economy has unsurprisingly bounced back; China is expected to be the only Group of 20 country to record positive growth for the year. […]

The United States (along with Europe, it should be noted), has not done so well. Actually, that’s being generous: by pursuing selective lockdowns and completely eschewing centralized quarantine, the West has managed to hurt its economies and kill its small businesses, without actually stopping the spread of the coronavirus. […]

Cowen’s first paragraph makes clear that the views in the second are widely held: no politician that I know of, in the U.S. or Europe, seriously argued for centralized quarantine, even though it was likely the only way to contain SARS-CoV-2. The very idea of governments locking up innocent civilians is counter to our default assumption that individual freedom is inviolate.

That, though, is why it is strange that so many have acquiesced to ever-tightening restrictions on information. It seems that over the last year to have a pro-free speech position has become the exception; the default is to push for censorship, if not by the government — thanks to that pesky First Amendment — then instead by private corporations.


Both companies would have been better served by stating the plain truth from the beginning: Trump is the democratically-elected President, which means he can tweet what he wants. It would also establish the framework for what I now believe needs to be done: an exception to the rule.

As I noted above, my preferred outcome to yesterday’s events is impeachment. Encouraging violence to undo an election result one disagrees with is sedition, surely a high crime or misdemeanor, and I hold out hope that Congress will act over the next few days, as unlikely as that seems. That is, as I noted, the right level of the stack wherein to act.

Sometimes, though, the right level doesn’t work, yet the right thing needs to be done. […]

Remember my highest priority, even beyond respect for democracy, is the inviolability of liberalism, because it is the foundation of said democracy. That includes the right for private individuals and companies to think and act for themselves, particularly when they believe they have a moral responsibility to do so, and the belief that no one else will. Yes, respecting democracy is a reason to not act over policy disagreements, no matter how horrible those policies may be, but preserving democracy is, by definition, even higher on the priority stack.


What Trump and His Mob Taught the World About America | The Atlantic

Americans are not the ones who will suffer most from the terrible damage that Trump and his enablers have done to the power of America’s example, to America’s reputation, and, more important, to the reputation of democracy itself. The callow insurrectionists who thought it would be amusing to break into the debating chambers might go to jail, but they will not pay any real price; neither will the conspiracy theorists who believed the president’s lies and flocked to Washington to act on them. Instead, the true cost will be borne by those other residents of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Riyadh, and Minsk—the dissidents and the opponents, the would-be democrats who plan, organize, protest, and suffer, sacrificing their time and in some cases their life just because they want the right to vote, to live in a state governed by the rule of law, and to enjoy the things that Americans take for granted, and that Trump doesn’t value at all.  

After yesterday, they will have one less source of hope, one less ally they can rely upon. The power of America’s example will be dimmer than it once was; American arguments will be harder to hear. American calls for democracy can be thrown back with scorn: You don’t believe in it anymore, so why should we? So much has been carelessly thrown away by this president; so much has been thoughtlessly abandoned; so many hard-won friendships and alliances have been forgotten by Trump, and by his enablers in the Senate, the Cabinet, and the far-right press. They don’t understand democracy’s true value—and they never will.


The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand | New York Times

Many people want a pandemic baby, but some sperm banks are running low. So women are joining unregulated Facebook groups to find willing donors, no middleman required.


The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration | FiveThirtyEight

Between May 1 and November 28, 2020, authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest than a right-wing one. And in those situations when law enforcement chose to intervene, they were more likely to use force — 34 percent of the time with right-wing protests compared with 51 percent of the time for the left. Given when this data was collected, it predominantly reflects a difference in how police respond to Black Lives Matter, compared with how they respond to anti-mask demonstrations, pro-Trump extremists, QAnon rallies, and militia groups.

The differences in intervention weren’t because BLM protests were particularly violent. ACLED found that 93 percent of the protests associated with BLM were entirely peaceful. “Even if we were to put those [7] percent of demonstrations aside and look purely at peaceful [BLM protests], we are seeing a more heavy handed response [compared with right-wing protests],” Kishi said.


Why I'm Losing Trust in the Institutions | Persuasion

When I read this, I was hoping it was untrue — or at least sensationalised. I’ve dug into it a bit, and I’m fairly confident now that this is accurate. Let me know if you have credible sources disputing this:

It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.

In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of “social justice” to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.


The Groundhog Day Diet: Why I Eat the Same Thing Every Day | Art of Manliness

Research has repeatedly shown that when humans (and rats as well) are presented with a wide variety of foods, they tend to eat more total food. Diet researchers call this phenomenon the “Buffet Effect.” 

In an encounter with any novel stimulus, including food, the brain releases pleasure and excitement-creating dopamine, which make you want to dig lustily into a new food. But as a novel food becomes familiar, feelings of satiety increase and the desire to eat the food decreases. This dynamic is called  “sensory-specific satiety.” It explains why the first few bites of a big cheeseburger are divine, while the last few taste more meh. […]

While the Buffet Effect can exert its influence on how much you eat in a single setting, it also impacts how much you eat across a week’s time.

Researchers discovered this back in the 1960s in an experiment where they brought two morbidly obese volunteers into a hospital. The only food these two volunteers got was a bland liquid that supplied adequate levels of all essential nutrients. 


The Politics of Covid Just Got Even More Hellish | Bloomberg

Tyler Cowen:

Preliminary data indicate that the new strain in the U.K. allows the virus to spread from one person to another more easily. The practical upshot is that even the strict lockdowns of early 2020, such as the one just ordered in the U.K. by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, may not be enough to reverse the spread of the virus.

It is far from obvious that politicians will be able to sell voters on strict lockdowns if they still allow the virus to spread. Furthermore, vaccine distribution has been sufficiently slow that a full lockdown would have to last for many months, and that probably isn’t feasible or desirable. Yet not having lockdowns would lead to a much more rapid spread of the virus, overloading hospitals and public health facilities.

It’s hard to come up with the moral language to compare those outcomes when all of them are unacceptably bad. Trust in elites is already weak in the U.S., and it is likely to wane further. Whatever one might think is the correct course of action, how exactly would or should a President Joe Biden present and defend it to the public?


Now We Know Why Platypus Are So Weird - Their Genes Are Part Bird, Reptile, And Mammal | Science Alert

The first complete map of a platypus genome has just been released, and it's every bit as strange as you'd expect from a creature with 10 sex chromosomes, a pair of venomous spurs, a coat of fluorescent fur, and skin that 'sweats' milk.


1 star

100 Tips For A Better Life | Ideopunk

Yes, there are loads of these lists out there, and yes, much of what’s on them is common sense. But there are typically some gems…

1. If you want to find out about people’s opinions on a product, google <product> reddit. You’ll get real people arguing, as compared to the SEO’d Google results. […]

9. Steeping minutes: Green at 3, black at 4, herbal at 5. Good tea is that simple! […]

23. Don’t waste money on multivitamins, they don’t work. Vitamin D supplementation does seem to work, which is important because deficiency is common. […]

49. Don’t confuse ‘doing a thing because I like it’ with ‘doing a thing because I want to be seen as the sort of person who does such things’ […]

87. Don’t punish people for trying. You teach them to not try with you. Punishing includes whining that it took them so long, that they did it badly, or that others have done it better.


Covid-19 immunity likely lasts for years | MIT Technology Review

A new study shows immune cells primed to fight the coronavirus should persist for a long time after someone is vaccinated or recovers from infection.


Globalization is older than you think | Marginal Revolution

Working with an international team to analyze food residues in tooth tartar, the LMU archaeologist has found evidence that people in the Levant were already eating turmeric, bananas and even soy in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages.


SpaceX’s satellites are a huge headache for astronomers | Wired

SpaceX and Blue Origin are launching satellite mega constellations to provide internet across the world, but they could interfere with basic space science


First Doses First? — show your work! | Marginal Revolution

On Twitter I have been asking people to provide comparable back-of-the-envelope calculations against First Doses First.  What is remarkable is that I cannot find a single example of a person who has done so.  Not one expert, and at this point I feel that if it happens it will come from an intelligent layperson.  Nor does the new FDA statement add anything.  As a rational Bayesian, I am (so far) inferring that the numerical, expected value case against First Doses First just isn’t that strong.


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