This e-mail nearly always makes it out on Sundays. Unfortunately, TinyLetter blocked delivery yesterday because the issue below was flagged as spam. (Possibly because one of the articles is titled "How to Buy Drugs," though I wouldn't have thought that that many actual spam e-mails these days would have that phrase in plaintext. But what do I know?) Anyway, sorry about the delay!
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‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims / New York Times
The students booked their tickets home at the end of the semester, hoping for a relaxing break after exams and a summer of happy reunions with family in China’s far west. Instead, they would soon be told that their parents were gone, relatives had vanished and neighbors were missing — all of them locked up in an expanding network of detention camps built to hold Muslim ethnic minorities. The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared. The leadership distributed a classified directive advising local officials to corner returning students as soon as they arrived and keep them quiet. It included a chillingly bureaucratic guide for how to handle their anguished questions, beginning with the most obvious: Where is my family? [...] The directive was among 403 pages of internal documents that have been shared with The New York Times in one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades. They provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years. The party has rejected international criticism of the camps and described them as job-training centers that use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism. But the documents confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown in the words and orders of the very officials who conceived and orchestrated it. Even as the government presented its efforts in Xinjiang to the public as benevolent and unexceptional, it discussed and organized a ruthless and extraordinary campaign in these internal communications. Senior party leaders are recorded ordering drastic and urgent action against extremist violence, including the mass detentions, and discussing the consequences with cool detachment. Children saw their parents taken away, students wondered who would pay their tuition and crops could not be planted or harvested for lack of manpower, the reports noted. Yet officials were directed to tell people who complained to be grateful for the Communist Party’s help and stay quiet.
Slaying the speckled monster / Roots of Progress
Smallpox was one of the worst diseases in human history. It killed an estimated 300 million people or more in the 20th century alone; only tuberculosis and malaria have been more deadly. Its victims were often children, even infants. It is also, among diseases, humanity’s greatest triumph: the only human disease we have completely eradicated, with zero naturally occurring cases reported worldwide, even in the most remote locations and the poorest countries, for over forty years. Along the way, it led to fierce religious and political debates, some of the earliest clinical trials and quantitative epidemiology, and the first vaccines. This is the story of smallpox, and how we killed it.
Robert Lang on the 11 Levels of Complexity of Origami / Kottke
In this video for Wired, physicist and origami master Robert J. Lang demonstrates the 11 increasingly complex levels of origami. How all the legs and antennae and other small features are designed at the more complex levels is fascinating.
How NBA executive Jeff David stole $13 million from the Sacramento Kings / ESPN
It was only one document -- one ordinary little document -- that Stacy Wegzyn had needed from Jeff David. In August 2018, the Kings' senior vice president of human resources had been looking for a copy of a commission structure to build out the corporate sales team. David had neglected to leave the digital document when he'd departed for Miami a few weeks earlier. Wegzyn figured a quick tour of his file directory would produce something, so on Tuesday, six days before the FBI sting in Miami, she'd had the Kings' IT department download an archive from their shared cloud system. As Wegzyn navigated a morass of files in David's old directory, she hadn't been able to discern an organized system, so she'd had to open things one by one. Eventually, she'd stumbled onto a folder titled "TurboTax," whose first item was a depreciation schedule for a home. As someone who owned rental properties, the table of depreciating items looked familiar in its contents -- furniture, a golf cart -- but the name of the entity in question was odd: Sacramento Sports Partners LLC. Wegzyn was aware of other entities associated with the Kings' basketball and real estate assets, but this one didn't sound familiar. Also, she wondered, why would a business whose name suggests it's an arm of the Kings write off a golf cart at a beach house near Los Angeles?
The Jungle Prince of Delhi / New York Times
For 40 years, journalists chronicled the eccentric royal family of Oudh, deposed aristocrats who lived in a ruined palace in the Indian capital. It was a tragic, astonishing story. But was it true?
This Tom Hanks Story Will Help You Feel Less Bad / New York Times
A nice complement to the 4-star piece last time about Mr. Rogers:
The day after Hanks’s new movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which he stars as Mister Rogers, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he was sitting on a bench in a hallway outside a conference room, making jokes to a group of publicists, waiting for me ahead of the appointed time. That does not really ever happen, an actor waiting for me ahead of the appointed time, versus clearly dreading me two hours past it. “I think a long time ago, I learned how important it was to show up a little bit early,” Hanks told me. “Be ready to go, you know? And to respect the whole process, and I think that you could respect the whole process even when the other people don’t.” So Tom Hanks is as nice as you think he is and exactly what you hope him to be, which is great unless you are someone trying to tell a good story about him, with elements like an arc and narrative tension. “Saintly Actor Playing Saintly Public Television Children’s Host Mister Rogers Is Saintly” is not a great story. But what am I supposed to do? He sat facing me, cheerful and focused and willing. Maybe this could just be a story that makes you feel better. [...] It’s been a long time since a magazine article about a celebrity could sell tickets to a movie. But Hanks doesn’t mind doing interviews — “I hate doing disingenuous press. The stuff that you have to essentially perform through the whole damn thing”— though he can now smell the ones that are just trying to get something incendiary into a headline. [...] What happens next confuses him more. “Then they’ll say, ‘Why won’t this guy let me really get to know him?’ It’s because we’re going to be spending altogether about two hours of my 63 years on planet Earth getting to know each other.” I committed something akin to this line of atrocity when I asked him if he had a dark side. He said, “Yes, and finally, finally I’ll get to tell it to The New York Times.” In our interviews, he doesn’t evade any questions, but he doesn’t spill either. He doesn’t appear to have a need to be known by his public, but he also doesn’t have the same strains of contempt for journalists that I’ve seen from other movie stars. Maybe that’s because he’s never been truly screwed by one, but just as likely it’s because he believes in the truth. “The best articles I’ve ever read that have come out have been an accurate reflection of the time I spent with that journalist,” he said.
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The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius / Paul Graham
Everyone knows that to do great work you need both natural ability and determination. But there's a third ingredient that's not as well understood: an obsessive interest in a particular topic. To explain this point I need to burn my reputation with some group of people, and I'm going to choose bus ticket collectors. There are people who collect old bus tickets. Like many collectors, they have an obsessive interest in the minutiae of what they collect. They can keep track of distinctions between different types of bus tickets that would be hard for the rest of us to remember. Because we don't care enough. What's the point of spending so much time thinking about old bus tickets? Which leads us to the second feature of this kind of obsession: there is no point. A bus ticket collector's love is disinterested. They're not doing it to impress us or to make themselves rich, but for its own sake. When you look at the lives of people who've done great work, you see a consistent pattern. They often begin with a bus ticket collector's obsessive interest in something that would have seemed pointless to most of their contemporaries. One of the most striking features of Darwin's book about his voyage on the Beagle is the sheer depth of his interest in natural history. His curiosity seems infinite. Ditto for Ramanujan, sitting by the hour working out on his slate what happens to series. It's a mistake to think they were "laying the groundwork" for the discoveries they made later. There's too much intention in that metaphor. Like bus ticket collectors, they were doing it because they liked it. But there is a difference between Ramanujan and a bus ticket collector. Series matter, and bus tickets don't.
Mental Mountains / Slate Star Codex
So in one of the book’s example cases, a man named Richard sought help for trouble speaking up at work. He would have good ideas during meetings, but felt inexplicably afraid to voice them. During therapy, he described his narcissistic father, who was always mouthing off about everything. Everyone hated his father for being a fool who wouldn’t shut up. The therapist conjectured that young Richard observed this and formed a predictive model, something like “talking makes people hate you”. This was overly general: talking only makes people hate you if you talk incessantly about really stupid things. But when you’re a kid you don’t have much data, so you end up generalizing a lot from the few examples you have. [...] The authors of UtEB claim to have found a therapy-based method that works, which goes like this: First, they tease out the exact predictive model and emotional memory behind the symptom (in Richard’s case, the narrative where his father talked too much and ended up universally hated, and so if Richard talks at all, he too will be universally hated). Then they try to get this as far into conscious awareness as possible (or, if you prefer, have consciousness dig as deep into the emotional schema as possible). They call this “the pro-symptom position” – giving the symptom as much room as possible to state its case without rejecting it. So for example, Richard’s therapist tried to get Richard to explain his unconscious pro-symptom reasoning as convincingly as possible: “My father was really into talking, and everybody hated him. This proves that if I speak up at work, people will hate me too.” She even asked Richard to put this statement on an index card, review it every day, and bask in its compellingness. She asked Richard to imagine getting up to speak, and feeling exactly how anxious it made him, while reviewing to himself that the anxiety felt justified given what happened with his father. The goal was to establish a wide, well-trod road from consciousness to the emotional memory. Next, they try to find a lived and felt experience that contradicts the model. Again, Rationalese doesn’t work; the emotional brain will just ignore it. But it will listen to experiences. For Richard, this was a time when he was at a meeting, had a great idea, but didn’t speak up. A coworker had the same idea, mentioned it, and everyone agreed it was great, and congratulated the other person for having such an amazing idea that would transform their business. Again, there’s this same process of trying to get as much in that moment as possible, bring the relevant feelings back again and again, create as wide and smooth a road from consciousness to the experience as possible.
What Menopause Does to Women’s Brains / The Atlantic
To wit: Two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s patients are women. Why? It has often been posited that this is because women live longer than men, giving the disease more time to set in. But Lisa Mosconi, a colleague of Isaacson’s who directs Weill Cornell Medicine’s Women’s Brain Initiative, wasn’t buying it, even as audience members and some researchers at various scientific conferences she attended begged to differ. Female life expectancy in the United States, for example, is only about five years longer than that of males. The preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s, before symptoms appear, can last decades. These numbers, to her, didn’t add up. Mosconi is in the nascent stages of a research project exploring another theory: Alzheimer’s might be triggered in women years before any signs of the disease appear, during perimenopause, the period of transition into menopause. While the effects of menopause on rodent brains have been studied for decades, Mosconi says that this possibility has received surprisingly little research in humans and almost no public recognition. “Every woman knows that as you reach menopause, your hair goes dry, your skin goes dry—that’s aging,” she says. “Few people are aware that the same thing would happen in the brain. Our brain cells start aging faster.”
The Road That Brought Conservatives and Republicans to This Point / National Review
You really start to dislike the opposition, maybe even hate them. You don’t think of yourself as a hateful person, but it’s abundantly clear that they hate you. You think abortion is wrong, and they accuse you of wanting to impose a theocracy. You don’t want to pay more in taxes, and they accuse you of being greedy. You remember all the times a new government program was supposed to solve a problem and didn’t, and they contend you hate government. They blame you for mass shootings and the Oklahoma City bombing and anti-American extremism overseas and melting polar ice caps. You start to notice they seem to enjoy sticking the thumb in your eye; they sue the Little Sisters of the Poor over providing birth control. You realize they won’t allow anyone to deviate from their vision of how things ought to be. [...] And then one day in 2015, this outlandish celebrity came along who seems to agree with you most of the time. He’s a bit of a jerk, but you kind of like that; he treats everybody who disagrees with him with contempt, the same way the other side treats you with contempt. As time goes by, you realize he’s perhaps more than a bit of a jerk, he’s a raging narcissist and maybe a maniac, but you still like the way he responds to everyone you don’t like — the mainstream media, Democratic politicians — with this constantly erupting volcano of scorn. You feel like you’ve been mistreated for decades; now turnabout is fair play. But much to your shock, a bunch of your favorite writers don’t like him at all. They see him as almost as bad as the opposition.
The War-Crimes President / The Atlantic
Donald Trump is a war-crimes enthusiast. This is not an exaggeration, a mischaracterization, or a misrepresentation. As a candidate, the president regaled his audiences with vivid tales of brutality, some apocryphal, and vowed to imitate them. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently invoked a false story about General John Pershing crushing a Muslim insurgency in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, declaring, “There was no more radical Islamic terror for 35 years!” He vowed to impose torture techniques “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Trump declared that he would “take out the families” of terrorist suspects, assuring skeptics that the military would not refuse his commands, even though service members have a duty to refuse orders that are manifestly illegal. “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” Although Trump was talked out of authorizing torture by his advisers, the president’s ardor for violations of the laws of war has manifested itself in his decisions to intervene in war-crimes cases on behalf of the defendants. In four separate cases since the beginning of his presidency, and for the first time in the history of modern warfare, an American president has aided service members accused or convicted of war crimes, against the advice of his own military leadership. The clearances eroded the rule of law, as well as institutional safeguards against authoritarianism and the politicization of the military. But they were also a rational extension of Trumpist nationalism, which recognizes no moral, legal, or institutional restraints on the president worth upholding, and which sees violence against outsiders as a redemptive expression of national loyalty. Even the cynical invocation of legal restraints on warfare can provide a modicum of protection for civilians, but Trump would do away with this meager safeguard in pursuit of political advantage, in part because he does not see the people whom those restraints protect as fully human to begin with. In the long run, Trump hopes to do with the U.S. military what he has done with the police and immigration enforcement: forge the institution into a partisan weapon for himself to wield against his enemies, using the promise of impunity for crimes against the weak or despised. The White House’s formal announcement of the pardons argued that they were in the interest of justice, on behalf of service members facing extenuating circumstances. But the president himself does not make that case. Instead, he argues that the crimes of which the men are accused are not truly crimes at all. As the president put it on Twitter, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” This is a philosophy that makes no moral distinction between killing combatants and killing the innocent.
Let Me Show You the World / Longreads
Aladdin’s origins are in a story about stories: telling, listening to, and immortalizing them through a centuries-long chain of transmission. But it’s not just the story’s framing that gets lost in the Disney live-action remake. Aladdin lived in China in the original version, an emblem of the Silk Road and the transnational connectivity of the East. He was not an orphan but had a mother. And while Princess Jasmine taking on centuries of unyielding stone should inspire, her voice leaves just the echo of the fearless and clever women who came before her. [...] Oral storytelling, spanning from Southwest Asia to North Africa, dates back to ancient times. The One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla in Arabic) began as an oral tradition in Arabic dialect — not in the eminent fusha, or classical Arabic, in which the Quran is recorded. These stories quickly became popular and spread widely among people who lived within reach of the Islamic Empire. The sexual humor and focus on the lives of commoners suggest a low-brow spirit: these were stories people would encounter on the street, not in scholarly tomes.
There’s Growing Evidence That the Universe Is Connected by Giant Structures / Vice
Scientists are finding that galaxies can move with each other across huge distances, and against the predictions of basic cosmological models. The reason why could change everything we think we know about the universe.
How to Buy Drugs / London Review of Books
In early February this year, what appeared to be a website glitch sent thousands of drugs-buyers into a panic. Liam (not his real name), a student at Manchester University, needed to buy some MDMA for the weekend’s big party. So he did what he had been doing for the last two years: he opened up the Tor browser to get on to the dark web, and typed in the address for Dream Market, the world’s biggest and most dependable source of illegal drugs. Nothing happened. When he tried again, a message popped up on the screen: ‘Hmm. We’re having trouble finding that site. Here are three things you can try: try again later; check your network connection; if you are connected but behind a firewall, check that Tor Browser has permission to access the web.’ Dream Market’s usually excellent customer forum wasn’t working either. It wasn’t until he checked the chatter on Dread, another dark web forum, that Liam discovered that Dream Market had come under attack, through a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). A ‘botnet’, a network of zombie computers, had been instructed to access the site repeatedly, triggering its collapse by overloading it – a standard technique used by both cybercriminals and government agencies to disrupt online activity. For as long as this went on, nobody would be able to access Dream Market at all. On Dread, many shared Liam’s pain. ‘I give it two days before I start freaking out all crazy,’ warned Genghis the Xanlord, his moniker suggesting he was fretting about his supply of benzodiazepines (Xanax for preference, but Valium would be fine).
How China’s Rise Has Forced Hong Kong’s Decline / New York Review of Books
We are witnessing Hong Kong’s descent from leading international city to collateral damage in Beijing’s rise to a strident superpower. While the activists have made their mistakes, the Hong Kong protests are mostly an epic failure of China’s soft power. China has sought to explain the unrest by blaming socio-economic reasons for tensions that could be defused by technocratic solutions—and indeed this is what Ms. Lam implied in a statement Monday, referring to “people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.” This reasoning holds that if certain public policy issues, especially unaffordable housing, could be solved then many of the protesters could be won over. A few conspiracy theorists, or those inside China’s Great Firewall, might buy Beijing’s other line of argument—that “foreign forces” are behind the protests (whereas systematic opinion surveys show most protesters to be well-educated, middle-class people motivated by fear of losing their liberties). These arguments, however, obscure the fact that when China took over Hong Kong in 1997, it gained a global metropolis, thriving and crucial to the world economy. Now, Hong Kong has been eclipsed by other Chinese cities, especially Shanghai. One can say this is due to China’s rising prosperity and that this is a good thing, but it also means that Hong Kong has failed to keep pace.
Failure Found to Be an “Essential Prerequisite” for Success / Scientific American
The title seems misleading to me, but I suppose it's hard to know for sure without reading the paper:
The recipe for succeeding in any given field is hardly a mystery: good ideas, hard work, discipline, imagination, perseverance and maybe a little luck. Oh, and let’s not forget failure, which Dashun Wang and his colleagues at Northwestern University call “the essential prerequisite for success” in a new paper that, among other things, is based on an analysis of 776,721 grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health from 1985 to 2015. In their effort to create a mathematical model that can reliably predict the success or failure of an undertaking, the researchers also analyzed 46 years’ worth of venture capital startup investments. They also tested the model on what Wang calls their “least conventional” but nevertheless important data set — 170,350 terrorist attacks carried out between 1970 and 2017. The takeaway? “Every winner begins as a loser,” says Wang, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, who conceived and led the study. But not every failure leads to success, he adds. And what ultimately separates the winners from the losers, the research shows, certainly is not persistence. One of the more intriguing findings in the paper, published this week in Nature is that the people who eventually succeeded and the people who eventually failed tried basically the same number of times to achieve their goals. It turns out that trying again and again only works if you learn from your previous failures. The idea is to work smart, not hard. “You have to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then focus on what needs to be improved instead of thrashing around and changing everything,” says Wang. “The people who failed didn’t necessarily work less [than those who succeeded]. They could actually have worked more; it’s just that they made more unnecessary changes.”
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Experience: I learned to play the piano without a piano / The Guardian
I was 11 years old when I asked my mum for piano lessons, in 2010. We were in the fallout of the recession and she’d recently been made redundant. She said a polite “no”. That didn’t deter me. I Googled the dimensions of a keyboard, drew the keys on to a piece of paper and stuck it on my desk. I would click notes on an online keyboard and “play” them back on my paper one – keeping the sound they made on the computer in my head. After a while I could hear the notes in my head while pressing the keys on the paper. I spent six months playing scales and chord sequences without touching a real piano. Once my mum saw it wasn’t a fad, she borrowed some money from family and friends, and bought me 10 lessons. [...] I had been told I had started playing too late to reach conservatoire level, but when I Ieft Purcell, I was awarded the senior piano prize and senior academic music prize. That was the point when I realised I wasn’t behind everyone else. I am now at the Guildhall school in London, where I was offered a scholarship. I feel proud: it’s been 10 years since I drew my paper piano and I’m at one of the world’s leading conservatoires.
Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot / Marginal Revolution
Relatively poor countries with extensive air pollution–such as India–are not simply choosing to trade higher GDP for worse health; air pollution is so bad that countries with even moderate air pollution are getting lower GDP and worse heath.
Here’s What’s Happening in the American Teenage Bedroom / New York Times
When he got home, Rowan would turn on his laptop and sit in front of the glowing screen for hours, or flop onto his bed, his phone hovering above his face. His Instagram feed flashed before him like a slot machine. His most popular account, @Zuccccccccccc, taking its name from Facebook’s chief executive, had 1.2 million followers. If his posts were good, his account would keeping growing. If he took some time off, growth would stall. Rowan, like most teenagers on the internet, wasn’t after fame or money, though he made a decent amount — at one point $10,000 a month and more, he said. What Rowan wanted was clout. [...] Rowan’s economy was a primarily teenage one. Mostly he sold ads on his Instagram to other teenagers looking to promote their own pages, apps or online storefronts. He negotiated deals through direct messages on Instagram and posted about 10 ads per day — some in the form of comments, links and images — on his various accounts. The profits supported his lifestyle; he bought Saint Laurent sneakers, an iPhone XR, a Gucci wallet. He planned to purchase a Tesla next year, when he’s eligible to get his driver’s license. Rowan’s meme account was not his first business. Like many teenagers, Rowan had begun leveraging the internet early for financial and social gain. In middle school he’d order stickers in bulk on Amazon, then sell them at a markup to his classmates by promoting them on Snapchat. By the time he reached high school, Rowan had entered the apparel resale market. He would purchase designer clothes and accessories from brands like Supreme on websites like Letgo, OfferUp and Craigslist, then resell them on Grailed, an app for consigning luxury items.
More Pregnancy, Less Crime / Marginal Revolution
Crime rates fall dramatically with pregnancy and in the three years after birth they are 50% lower on average than in the years before pregnancy. Pregnancy imposes some physical limits on women but the effects are also very large for men whose crime rates fall by 25-30% during pregnancy of their partner and continue at that lower rate for years afterwards. Keep in mind that in our paper on three strikes, Helland and I found that the prospect of an additional twenty years to life (!) reduce criminal recidivism by just ~17%, so the effect of pregnancy is astoundingly large.
Dreamy Cave-Like Photos Taken Inside Musical Instruments / Kottke
For a 2012 print campaign for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, photographers Andreas Mierswa and Markus Kluska photographed the insides of musical instruments.
The Typologies of New York City / Kottke
Using almost 1300 photos from Instagram of iconic/stereotypical shots of NYC, Sam Morrison spent 200 hours creating what he calls a crowdsourced hyperlapse video of the city. I love it.
Meet the $50 Strawberries That NYC’s High-End Chefs Are Fawning Over / Eater
The “Omakase berry,” grown at an indoor farm in Jersey, is popping up at Michelin-starred restaurants like Sushi Ginza Onodera and Atomix
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