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Great Impractical Ideas in Computer Science: PowerPoint Programming / YouTube
This is brilliant on so many levels. I'm guessing that even the less computer-inclined amongst you will find this impressive and amusing. If for some reason you feel like skipping ahead, the second part, starting at 23:30, is completely different from the first part but arguably even more interesting.

My friend teaches a student-taught course on Esoteric Programming Languages. He invited me to do a guest lecture on PowerPoint.

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'I thought I was smarter than almost everybody': my double life as a KGB agent / The Guardian

On a chilly morning in December 1988, computer analyst Jack Barsky embarked on his usual morning commute to his office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, leaving his wife and baby daughter at home in Queens. As he entered the subway, he caught sight of something startling: a daub of red paint on a metal beam. Barsky had looked for it every morning for years; it meant he had a life-changing decision to make, and fast. Barsky knew the drill. The red paint was a warning that he was in immediate danger, that he should hurry to collect cash and emergency documents from a prearranged drop site. From there, he would cross the border into Canada and contact the Soviet consulate in Toronto. Arrangements would be made for him to leave the country. He would cease to be Jack Barsky. The American identity he had inhabited for a decade would evaporate and he would return to his former life: that of Albrecht Dittrich, a chemist and KGB agent, with a wife and seven-year-old son waiting patiently for him in East Germany. Barsky thought of his American daughter, Chelsea: could he really leave her? And, if he didn’t, how long could he evade both the KGB and US counterintelligence?

How Does the Human Soul Survive Atrocity? / New York Times

Enas was contemplating suicide. She was only 17. For three years she’d been living in Mamrashan, a remote mountain camp for displaced people in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Mamrashan was just one of 16 camps scattered around Duhok, a province smaller than Connecticut. At its peak, Duhok was home to nearly half a million people displaced by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Many have yet to return home. Two weeks earlier, her 16-year-old cousin lit herself on fire in a camp bathroom, next door to Enas’s tent. She was too scared to go to the hospital and see her cousin’s melted skin. “I saw the smoke,” Enas told me. “I could smell the body.” She often dreamed about the night that ISIS came to kill the men in her village and enslave the women. Enas is a Yazidi, a Kurdish religious minority group of some 700,000 people, most of whom lived west of Mosul in a district called Sinjar. Her family escaped on foot, sleeping in empty stores at night. One morning, she woke to learn that her uncle and his lover had killed themselves. It was April 2019 when we met at the camp’s “psychosocial center,” a cluster of modular buildings on the edge of a field blooming with yellow flowers. Enas, whose last name is being withheld because she is a minor, wore jeans and a colorful sweater, her long hair twisted into a tight bun. She was being treated by Ziad Ahmad Basheer, a graduate student at Iraq’s first and only master’s program in psychotherapy. Called the Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at the University of Duhok, the program was founded two years ago and is overseen by Jan Kizilhan, a prominent Kurdish psychologist from Germany. Its mission is to train the first generation of psychotherapists in Iraq and to integrate licensed psychotherapy into the nation’s health system and eventually the broader Middle East. Basheer will be among the first students to graduate. One of his other patients was a Yazidi who fell in love with a jihadist. They met on Facebook, but he died before she could marry him. She had told no one but Basheer about her plans. Enas couldn’t stop fainting. She was always fainting, and when we finished talking, she fainted. “This is very normal,” Basheer told me, about traumatized Yazidis. “They are trying to go to another place.”

Financial incentives are weaker than social incentives but very important anyway / Slate Star Codex

The article starts with some surprising facts. Increased taxes on the rich don’t make rich people work much less. Salary caps on athletes don’t decrease athletic performance. Increased welfare doesn’t make poor people work less. Decreased job opportunities in one area rarely cause people to move elsewhere. Then it presents a neat chart showing that most people believe others would respond to an incentive, but deny responding to that incentive themselves. For example, 60% of people say a Medicaid program with no work requirement would prevent many people from seeking work, but only 10% of people say they themselves would stop seeking work with such a program. [...] They conclude that this argues in favor of policies like raising taxes on the rich and removing all requirements from welfare programs. The authors are Nobel Prize winning economists, so I assume they’re basically right. And I’m not up to doing a complicated literature review to compare all the cases where economic incentives do work to the cases where they don’t and develop a well-informed understanding of the subtleties in their position. So instead, a few low-effort thoughts. First, it matters less whether the average person responds to economic incentives, and more whether the marginal person will. If I need someone to cover the graveyard shift at work, nobody will do it for normal pay, and I offer double pay, all I need is for one employee to be incentive-sensitive enough to take me up on it. Maybe most people wouldn’t accept any amount of money to become an oil rig worker, a McKinsey consultant, or a camgirl, but ExxonMobil/McKinsey/ only need just enough qualified people to accept whatever deal they’re offering. Likewise, perhaps if I had no alarm system protecting my house, 99.999% of people still wouldn’t rob me. But 99.999% of people not robbing you is still known as “getting robbed”. So “most people don’t respond to most economic incentives” is totally compatible with “economic incentives rule the world and control everything around us.”

Can the Catholic Church Help Explain Western Psychology? / Harvard Magazine

Economists and psychologists run studies on their students, and then sometimes use those results to make broad claims about human tolerance for risk, moral reasoning, or even the way people perceive lines on a page. But they often are just describing a W.E.I.R.D. subgroup of humanity—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—as an influential study calls them. That subgroup represents only 12 percent of the world’s population, but a whopping 96 percent of subjects in psychological studies. [...] In an argument fusing methods from anthropology, psychology, and history, the authors claim that the unusual levels of individualism seen in the West come in part from the emergence of the nuclear family—which is vanishingly rare outside of Europe. [...] The authors’ argument goes like this. The emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago favored societies that could work together on big projects, like growing crops. This kind of collaboration required people to be members of tightly bound social networks, strengthened by individuals who showed solidarity with one another. Families in farming societies fostered intense connection among people, because their survival depended on it: extended relatives lived under one roof, polygamy was often allowed, and people married within their own communities and families. Practices like ancestor worship and shared ownership further strengthened these bonds, both in Europe and in many farming societies around the agricultural world. When the Catholic Church emerged, everything changed. The medieval church in western Europe promulgated unusually strict rules about families: newlyweds were often required to move to a new house, polygamy was weeded out, arranged marriages were discouraged, remarriage was banned, and legal adoption was stopped.

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I Accidentally Uncovered a Nationwide Scam on Airbnb / Vice

It seemed as if one person or group might have created numerous phony accounts to run a much larger Airbnb operation. If that proved true, it meant whoever ran the five accounts I’d located was controlling at least 94 properties in eight different cities. How many other people who had been scammed out of money like me? Feeling as if I was entering a Pynchonian nightmare, I sent a message to Airbnb alerting them to what increasingly seemed like an elaborate scam. But Airbnb, which plans to go public next year, seemed to have little interest in rooting out the rot from within its own platform. When I didn’t hear back from the company after a few days, and saw that the suspicious accounts were still active, I took it upon myself to figure out who exactly had ruined my vacation.

Baghdadi Story Reveals Divided — and Broken — News Media / Rolling Stone
Matt Taibbi sometimes annoys me, but he's spot on here:

Appropriately, many Americans used to roll their eyes at the brazen pettiness of Fox News. During the Obama years, the network seemed constitutionally incapable of reporting positive news of any kind, or even dealing with anodyne developments rationally. “This is proof he’s a Marxist,” was a famed Fox line about Obama’s decision to wear a tan suit. Trump is inspiring similar insanity now with Fox’s opposites at the Times, Post, CNN, MSNBC, etc. I’m no fan of Trump either, but this has gotten to the point where there’s no longer anyplace to go, if you’re looking for unslanted first-draft takes on news. I’m increasingly forced to turn to the BBC and AFP to try to grab raw quotes and numbers before spin doctors in American outlets have a chance to salt news with hot takes. [...] The al-Baghdadi story is a classic example of what happens when that dynamic is allowed to play out to its logical conclusion. From Fox to the New York Times, all of the major commercial outlets this weekend were more consumed with telling audiences who benefited politically from the al-Baghdadi mission, than getting the facts about that mission out. This is a disservice to audiences, who deserve to know the basics. Who is al-Baghdadi? How did he come to be the leader of ISIS/ISIL? Why was he in Idlib? The story of this person ought to have been a mix of the enraging and the sobering. Al-Baghdadi was reportedly involved in all sorts of atrocities, from beheadings to crucifixions, but he seems to have become radicalized by America’s invasion of Iraq.

How Trump Reshaped the Presidency in Over 11,000 Tweets / New York Times
Impressively thorough analysis:

“He needs to tweet like we need to eat,” Kellyanne Conway, his White House counselor, said in an interview. In a presidency unlike any other, where Mr. Trump wakes to Twitter, goes to bed with it and is comforted by how much it revolves around him, the person he most often singled out for praise was himself — more than 2,000 times, according to an analysis by The New York Times. [...] The Times examined Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter since taking office, reviewing all his tweets, retweets and followers, and interviewing nearly 50 current and former administration officials, lawmakers and Twitter executives and employees. What has emerged is a rich account, with new analysis, previously unreported episodes and fresh details of how the president exploits the platform to exert power. It is often by brute repetition. He has taken to Twitter to demand action 1,159 times on immigration and his border wall, a top priority, and 521 times on tariffs, another key agenda item. Twitter is an instrument of his foreign policy: He has praised dictators more than a hundred times, while complaining nearly twice as much about America’s traditional allies. Twitter is the Trump administration’s de facto personnel office: The chief executive has announced the departures of more than two dozen top officials, some fired by tweet. More than half of the president’s posts — 5,889 — have been attacks; no other category even comes close.

Building intuitions on non-empirical arguments in science / Slate Star Codex

As always, a single quote doesn’t do the argument justice, so go read the article. But I think this captures the basic argument: multiverse theories are bad, because they’re untestable, and untestable science is pseudoscience. Many great people, both philosophers of science and practicing scientists, have already discussed the problems with this point of view. But none of them lay out their argument in quite the way that makes the most sense to me. I want to do that here, without claiming any originality or special expertise in the subject, to see if it helps convince anyone else. Consider a classic example: modern paleontology does a good job at predicting dinosaur fossils. But the creationist explanation – Satan buried fake dinosaur fossils to mislead us – also predicts the same fossils (we assume Satan is good at disguising his existence, so that the lack of other strong evidence for Satan doesn’t contradict the theory). What principles help us realize that the Satan hypothesis is obviously stupid and the usual paleontological one more plausible? One bad response: paleontology can better predict characteristics of dinosaur fossils, using arguments like “since plesiosaurs are aquatic, they will be found in areas that were underwater during the Mesozoic, but since tyrannosaurs are terrestrial, they will be found in areas that were on land”, and this makes it better than the Satan hypothesis, which can only retrodict these characteristics. But this isn’t quite true: since Satan is trying to fool us into believing the modern paleontology paradigm, he’ll hide the fossils in ways that conform to its predictions, so we will predict plesiosaur fossils will only be found at sea – otherwise the gig would be up! A second bad response: “The hypothesis that all our findings were planted to deceive us bleeds into conspiracy theories and touches on the problem of skepticism. These things are inherently outside the realm of science.” But archaeological findings are very often deliberate hoaxes planted to deceive archaeologists, and in practice archaeologists consider and test that hypothesis the same way they consider and test every other hypothesis. Rule this out by fiat and we have to accept Piltdown Man, or at least claim that the people arguing against the veracity of Piltdown Man were doing something other than Science. [...] Consider the riddle of the Sphinx. There’s pretty good archaeological evidence supporting the consensus position that it was built by Pharaoh Khafre. But there are a few holes in that story, and a few scattered artifacts suggest it was actually built by Pharaoh Khufu; a respectable minority of archaeologists believe this. And there are a few anomalies which, if taken wildly out of context, you can use to tell a story that it was built long before Egypt existed at all, maybe by Atlantis or aliens. So there are three competing hypotheses. All of them are consistent with current evidence (even the Atlantis one, which was written after the current evidence was found and carefully adds enough epicycles not to blatantly contradict it). Perhaps one day evidence will come to light that supports one above the others; maybe in some unexcavated tomb, a hieroglyphic tablet says “I created the Sphinx, sincerely yours, Pharaoh Khufu”. But maybe this won’t happen. Maybe we already have all the Sphinx-related evidence we’re going to get. Maybe the information necessary to distinguish among these hypotheses has been utterly lost beyond any conceivable ability to reconstruct. I don’t want to say “No hypothesis can be tested any further, so Science is useless to us here”, because then we’re forced to conclude stupid things like “Science has no opinion on whether the Sphinx was built by Khafre or Atlanteans,” whereas I think most scientists would actually have very strong opinions on that.

In China, every day is Kristallnacht / Washington Post

In China, every day is Kristallnacht. Eighty-one years ago this week, in what is also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” hundreds of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany were damaged or destroyed, along with thousands of Jewish-owned businesses. It was in a sense the starting gun for the genocide that culminated in the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. In western China, the demolition of mosques and bulldozing of cemeteries is a continuing, relentless process. In a cultural genocide with few parallels since World War II, thousands of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed. At least 1 million Muslims have been confined to camps, where aging imams are shackled and young men are forced to renounce their faith. Muslims not locked away are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, forced to drink and smoke in violation of their faith, barred from praying or studying the Koran or making the pilgrimage to Mecca. And — in possibly the most astonishing feature of this crime against humanity — China has managed to stifle, through 21st century repression and age-old thuggery, virtually any reporting from the crime scene. Which makes all the more significant the publication last week of a heartrending compendium of evidence: “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghur Mosques and Shrines,” by Bahram K. Sintash.

Polyamory Is Growing—And We Need To Get Serious About It / Quillette

Polyamory is still a smallish subculture, but it is already much more common than being gay or lesbian. Americans think that about 24 percent of people are gay or lesbian, but the true percentage is closer to 2 percent. Thus, among America’s 83 million Millennials, 24 million are sympathetic to poly ideals, 17 million have tried poly, and 4 million are currently poly—compared to 3 million who are gay/lesbian. When I taught my university course on “Polyamory and Open Sexuality” in 2017, my undergrads were astonished that being poly was more common than being gay—even though most of them personally had more poly friends than gay friends. [...] Well, monogamy solved some specific problems that might not be as relevant anymore. Monogamy increased paternity certainty—a man’s confidence that his kids are really his—thereby increasing paternal investment. If you know you’re the real dad, you’re likely to be a better dad. But with condoms, contraception, and paternity testing, this is less of a concern—at least at the rational level. Monogamy reduced the spread of sexually transmitted infections that could undermine women’s fertility. However, STIs have become much less common over the last few centuries. STIs now are more easily avoided with vaccines, PReP, condoms, and safer sex, and are more treatable with medications. Poly people are generally very safety-conscious about STIs, and have infection rates no higher than monogamists. Maybe most importantly, monogamy reduced the ability of high-status males to monopolize women, and helped to equalize mating opportunities. This decreased violent competition among males. [...] I don’t know what percentage of Americans will adopt open relationships in the next twenty years, but it will almost certainly increase. To avoid a new “culture war” over sexuality, I think it’s important for conservatives and religious people to understand that polyamorous openness can be integrated with marital commitment, family values, and pronatalism.

Why We Are Not Living in a Post‑Truth Era / Skeptic

Is the statement “We are living in a post-truth world” true? If your answer is “yes” then the answer is “no” because you’ve just evaluated the statement in an evidentiary manner, so evidence still matters and facts still matter. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker explains why were are not living in a post-truth world in this deeply insightful cover story from Skeptic magazine 24.3 (2019). [...] So if anyone tries to excuse irrationality and dogma by pointing a finger at our evolutionary origins, I say: Don’t blame the hunter-gatherers. Rational inference, skepticism, and debate are in our nature every bit as much as freezing in response to a rustle in the grass. Why were truth and rationality selected for? The answer is that reality is a powerful selection pressure. As the science fiction author Philip K. Dick put it, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”10 Either there is an armadillo in the burrow or there isn’t. Those who were so hidebound by stereotype or habit that they could not deduce out where it was or how to kill it went hungry. Closer to home, I’m often asked why I even bother to try to persuade people with data and graphs, because everyone knows that people never change their minds when faced with contradictory evidence. But this is an exaggeration. People indeed dig in and double down when evidence challenges a sacred belief that is close to their social identity. But Nyhan and Reifler have shown that evidence can change people’s minds, even on highly politicized issues, such as whether there has been a rise in global temperature (among people on the right) or whether George W. Bush’s military surge in Iraq in 2007 reduced terrorist attacks (among people on the left). When the facts were presented in clear graphs, even the partisans changed their minds.

Scientists Now Know How Sleep Cleans Toxins From the Brain / Wired

What she discovered was that during non-REM sleep, large, slow waves of cerebrospinal fluid were washing over the brain. The EEG readings helped show why. During non-REM sleep, neurons start to synchronize, turning on and off at the same time. “First you would see this electrical wave where all the neurons would go quiet,” says Lewis. Because the neurons had all momentarily stopped firing, they didn’t need as much oxygen. That meant less blood would flow to the brain. But Lewis’s team also observed that cerebrospinal fluid would then rush in, filling in the space left behind. “It’s a fantastic paper,” says Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester who led the 2013 study that first described how sleep can clear out toxins in mice. “I don’t think anybody in their wildest fantasy has really shown that the brain’s electrical activity is moving fluid. So that’s really exciting.” One big contribution of the paper is it helps show that the systems Nedergaard has been studying in mice are present and hugely important for humans too. “It’s telling you sleep is not just to relax,” says Nedergaard. “Sleep is actually a very distinct function.” Neurons don't all turn off at the same time when we're awake. So brain blood levels don't drop enough to allow substantial waves of cerebrospinal fluid to circulate around the brain and clear out all the metabolic byproducts that accumulate, like beta amyloid.

New Atheism: the godlessness that failed / Slate Star Codex
A lot of data marshalled behind this argument:

Thucydides predicted that future generations would underestimate the power of Sparta. It built no great temples, left no magnificent ruins. Absent any tangible signs of the sway it once held, memories of its past importance would sound like ridiculous exaggerations. This is how I feel about New Atheism. If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they? Other intellectual movements have left indelible marks in the culture; the heyday of hippiedom may be long gone, but time travelers visiting 1969 would not be surprised by the extent of Woodstock. But I imagine the same travelers visiting 2005, logging on to the Internet, and holy @#$! that’s a lot of atheism-related discourse what is going on here? [...] What happened to it? I think it seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement. [...] As it took its first baby steps, the Blue Tribe started asking itself “Who am I? What defines me?”, trying to figure out how it conceived of itself. New Atheism had an answer – “You are the people who aren’t blinded by fundamentalism” – and for a while the tribe toyed with accepting it. During the Bush administration, with all its struggles over Radical Islam and Intelligent Design and Faith-Based Charity, this seemed like it might be a reasonable answer. The atheist movement and the network of journalists/academics/pundits/operatives who made up the tribe’s core started drifting closer together. Gradually the Blue Tribe got a little bit more self-awareness and realized this was not a great idea. Their coalition contained too many Catholic Latinos, too many Muslim Arabs, too many Baptist African-Americans. Remember that in 2008, “what if all the Hispanic people end up going Republican?” was considered a major and plausible concern. It became somewhat less amenable to New Atheism’s answer to its identity question – but absent a better one, the New Atheists continued to wield some social power. Betweem 2008 and 2016, two things happened. First, Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as president. Second, Ferguson. The Blue Tribe kept posing its same identity question: “Who am I? What defines me?”, and now Black Lives Matter gave them an answer they liked better “You are the people who aren’t blinded by sexism and racism.” Again, it was beautiful, simple, and perfect. We were “the reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on blind hatred and prejudice.

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The Milky Way Reflected in the World’s Largest Mirror / Kottke

I love this photograph by Peruvian photographer Jheison Huerta. It’s a shot of the Milky Way above the Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia. After it rains, the thin layer of water transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror, some 80 miles across. Beautiful.

Why are Jamaicans the fastest runners in the world? / Marginal Revolution
Facial recognition isn’t just about China and airports / Marginal Revolution
Harvard sentences to ponder / Marginal Revolution
The Causal Effect of Cannabis on Cognition / Marginal Revolution
My 1-star section is often dominated by neat Kottke finds and quick factoids from Marginal Revolution, but this week is extreme even by my standards. Here's a quick compilation of MR factoids...

That is one chapter in Orlando Patterson’s new and excellent The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament. One thing I like so much about this book is that it tries to answer actual questions you might have about Jamaica (astonishingly, hardly any other books have that aim, whether for Jamaica or for other countries). So what about this question and this puzzle? Well, in terms of per capita Olympic medals, Jamaica is #1 in the world, doing 3.75 times better by that metric than Russia at #2. This is mostly because of running, not bobsled teams. Yet why is Jamaica as a nation so strong in running? Patterson suggests it is not genetic predisposition, as neither Nigeria nor Brazil, both homes of large numbers of ethnically comparable individuals, have no real success in running competitions. Nor do Jamaicans, for that matter, do so well in most team sports, including those demanding extreme athleticism. Patterson also cites the work of researcher Yannis Pitsiladism, who collected DNA samples from top runners and did not find the expected correlations.

The child labor activist, who works for Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, had launched a pilot program 15 months prior to match a police database containing photos of all of India’s missing children with another one comprising shots of all the minors living in the country’s child care institutions. He had just found out the results. “We were able to match 10,561 missing children with those living in institutions,” he told CNN. “They are currently in the process of being reunited with their families.” Most of them were victims of trafficking, forced to work in the fields, in garment factories or in brothels, according to Ribhu. This momentous undertaking was made possible by facial recognition technology provided by New Delhi’s police. “There are over 300,000 missing children in India and over 100,000 living in institutions,” he explained. “We couldn’t possibly have matched them all manually.”

We show that Harvard encourages applications from many students who effectively have no chance of being admitted, and that this is particularly true for African Americans. African American applications soared beginning with the Class of 2009, with the increase driven by those with lower SAT scores. Yet there was little change in the share of admits who were African American. We show that this change in applicant behavior resulted in substantial convergence in the overall admissions rates across races yet no change in the large cross-race differences in admissions rates for high-SAT applicants.

Does smoking lots of pot make you dumb or do dumb people smoke lots of pot? Mostly, the latter.

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