Busy week, so fewer links than usual. Sorry about that!

3 stars

Here be humans | Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning

Discovery of ‘Dragon Man’ Skull in China May Add Species to Human Family Tree | New York Times

First, the 3-star article from Razib Khan:

In the year 2000, the orthodoxy was that humans spread across the world 60,000 years ago, and were descended exclusively from a small population in Africa. Neanderthals and various other human groups (and yes, we didn’t even deign to give them all names) were evolutionary “dead ends.” Of interest mostly to scholars, they were dismissed as failed experiments in a world our ancestors won. Today, this tidy story of us no longer passes a basic fact check.

In 2010, genomes recovered from ancient remains of “archaic hominins” in Eurasia turned out to have genetic matches in many modern humans. It seems they weren’t quite as “archaic” as we thought. In addition, we had to get used to the new reality that a solid 2-3% of the ancestry of all humans outside Africa is Neanderthal. About 5% of the ancestry of Melanesian groups, like the Papuans of New Guinea, actually comes from a previously unimagined new human lineage discovered in Denisova cave, in Siberia of all places.

Since these first major overhauls, the genetic picture has only grown more complex. Trace, but detectable (0.2% or so), levels of “Denisovan” ancestry are found across South, Southeast, and East Asia (as well as among indigenous people of the Americas). Similarly, trace but detectable levels of Neanderthal ancestry actually appear in most African populations. And, though we have no ancient genomes to make the triumphant ID, a great deal of circumstantial DNA evidence indicates that many African groups harbor silent “archaic” lineages equivalent to Neanderthals and Denisovans. We call them “ghost” populations. We know they’re there in the genomes, but we have no fossils to identify them with. […]

And now, one after another, new dramatis personae, mostly ghosts, keep entering stage left, complicating what once seemed our simple soliloquy. In The New York Times, Carl Zimmer reports on a very well-preserved fossil, Discovery of ‘Dragon Man’ Skull in China May Add Species to Human Family Tree. Meanwhile, an Israeli group has a paper out in Science on a human population discovered there which seems to resemble Neanderthals and dates to 120,000 to 140,000 years ago. “Dragon Man” is at least 140,000 years old, and it is a very well preserved skull which exhibits a mixture of “primitive” and “modern” features.


And here’s the New York Times article referenced (I had given it two stars, but it makes sense to put it here):

Scientists on Friday announced that a massive fossilized skull that is at least 140,000 years old is a new species of ancient human, a finding that could potentially change prevailing views of how — and even where — our species, Homo sapiens, evolved.

The skull belonged to a mature male who had a huge brain, massive brow ridges, deep set eyes and a bulbous nose. It had remained hidden in an abandoned well for 85 years, after a laborer came across it at a construction site in China.

The researchers named the new species Homo longi and gave it the nickname “Dragon Man,” for the Dragon River region of northeast China where the skull was discovered.

The team said that Homo longi, and not the Neanderthals, was the extinct human species mostly closely related to our own. If confirmed, that would change how scientists envision the origin of Homo sapiens, which has been built up over the years from fossil discoveries and the analysis of ancient DNA.


When Graphs Are a Matter of Life and Death | New Yorker

In “A History of Data Visualization and Graphic Communication” (Harvard), Michael Friendly and Howard Wainer, a psychologist and a statistician, argue that visual thinking, by revealing what would otherwise remain invisible, has had a profound effect on the way we approach problems. The book begins with what might be the first statistical graph in history, devised by the Dutch cartographer Michael Florent van Langren in the sixteen-twenties. […]

Van Langren could have put these values in a table, as would have been typical for the time, but, as Friendly and Wainer observe, “only a graph speaks directly to the eyes.” Once the numbers were visualized, the enormous differences among them—and the stakes dependent on those differences—became impossible to ignore. Van Langren wrote, “If the Longitude between Toledo and Rome is not known with certainty, consider, Your Highness, what it will be for the Western and Oriental Indies, that in comparison the former distance is almost nothing.”

Van Langren’s image marked an extraordinary conceptual leap.


San Antonio, After All That | Texas Monthly

Because I am from San Antonio, where preserving the past is almost a religion, I am pretty good at the game of What Used to Be. I can tell you, for instance, what used to be where the Fuddruckers now sits just southwest of Alamo Plaza—my grandfather’s men’s clothing store, Frank Brothers. I can tell you what used to be at the intersection of Mulberry Avenue and St. Mary’s—the stables where, before the golden era of liability lawsuits, I used to rent beleaguered old horses to ride on the trails in Brackenridge Park. Before a luxury high-rise occupied the intersection of Hildebrand and Broadway, Earl Abel’s 24-hour restaurant, where I wooed diners for tips, sat there. There used to be stray cats all over the Alamo grounds, and I remember tiny alligators in an enclosure in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. […]

That I would ever come to miss San Antonio did not seem possible, because it did not occur to me that I could ever lose it. But then my mother died suddenly from a fall, in 2009, and my father’s worsening dementia required us to move him to Houston, in 2013. Back then, I could not bring myself to sell my parents’ condo. My excuse was that I was too busy working. I was caring for my dad. I was overwhelmed. I simply did not have time to dismantle my parents’ world, two hundred miles away. But I knew there was more to that nondecision. 


2 stars

‘We Are Very Free’: How China Spreads Its Propaganda Version of Life in Xinjiang | New York Times

Recently, the owner of a small store in western China came across some remarks by Mike Pompeo, the former U.S. secretary of state. What he heard made him angry.

A worker in a textile company had the same reaction.

So did a retiree in her 80s. And a taxi driver.

Mr. Pompeo had routinely accused China of committing human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, and these four people made videos to express their outrage. They did so in oddly similar ways.

“Pompeo said that we Uyghurs are locked up and have no freedom,” the store owner said.

“There’s nothing like that at all in our Xinjiang,” said the taxi driver.

“We are very free,” the retiree said.

“We are very free now,” the store owner said.

“We are very, very free here,” the taxi driver said.

“Our lives are very happy and very free now,” the textile company worker said.


Why Is It OK to Be Mean to the Ugly? | New York Times

Not all the time, but often, the attractive get the first-class treatment. Research suggests they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired when interviewed and more likely to be promoted than less attractive individuals. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on those loans.

The discriminatory effects of lookism are pervasive. Attractive economists are more likely to study at high-ranked graduate programs and their papers are cited more often than papers from their less attractive peers. One study found that when unattractive criminals committed a moderate misdemeanor, their fines were about four times as large as those of attractive criminals.

Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is among the bottom one-seventh in looks earns about 10 to 15 percent less a year than one in the top third. An unattractive person misses out on nearly a quarter-million dollars in earnings over a lifetime.

The overall effect of these biases is vast. One 2004 study found that more people report being discriminated against because of their looks than because of their ethnicity.

In a study published in the current issue of the American Journal of Sociology, Ellis P. Monk Jr., Michael H. Esposito and Hedwig Lee report that the earnings gap between people perceived as attractive and unattractive rivals or exceeds the earnings gap between white and Black adults. They find the attractiveness curve is especially punishing for Black women. Those who meet the socially dominant criteria for beauty see an earnings boost; those who don’t earn on average just 63 cents to the dollar of those who do.


Why would Pakistan grow? | Noahpinion


But I think a more fundamental question — or at least, a preliminary one — is why Pakistan’s leaders would do any of this stuff. If you don’t actually do the stuff, policy recommendations are useless.

To some, the answer might seem obvious: Growth makes your people materially better off. It gives them food to fill their bellies, a roof over their heads, convenient transportation, sanitation and health care, leisure and entertainment, and so on. Surely Pakistan’s leaders care at least somewhat about the welfare of their people, no?

Well, they probably do. But so far they’ve been able to satisfy Pakistanis’ basic consumption needs through means other than economic development. […]

In other words, Pakistan is eating its proverbial seed corn instead of planting it in the ground. Bangladesh and India, in contrast, are planting their seed corn — foregoing current consumption in order to build productive capital and be richer tomorrow.

One of several things Pakistan does to sustain consumption is to chronically overvalue its exchange rate. If you peg your exchange rate higher than the market value, you can sustain higher imports for a while, but eventually you’re going to have a run on your currency and a “sudden stop”, requiring a bailout from the IMF or some other source. Pakistan has had a number of “sudden stops” over the years. And it has taken out quite a lot of loans from the IMF, including loans that were officially bailouts and loans that were not officially bailouts. […]

Why would Pakistan consume today instead of investing for the future? I’m not sure, but my guess is that it has to do with the country’s political system.


1 star

Rembrandt’s Damaged Masterpiece Is Whole Again, With A.I.’s Help | New York Times

Sections of “The Night Watch” were cut off in the 18th century and lost. Now, new technology lets viewers imagine how the original work might have looked.


The Inner Universe of Tropical Fruit | Kottke

This stop motion animation takes us on a journey through various tropical fruits, as if we’re seeing animated MRI slices of them. If you’re wondering how it’s done, a behind-the-scenes immediately follows the animation. The sound design on this video is fantastic.


Inside a GHOST TOWN of Abandoned Disney Castles | YouTube

There have been several viral posts about this, but I think this YouTube video is the most engaging:

This is Burj al Babas, a ghost town of abandoned Disney castles in Turkey. A $200M Village falling to pieces. It's a development project gone wrong.

Starting in 2014, the idea was to build 732 Renaissance Style Villas to appeal to rich investors in the Middle East. Originally 350 of the 587 kitsch villas were bought in the first phase. At 500,000 Dollars each (400,000 Euro), these investors were buying into a fantasy life, a Disney Land perfect paradise. Each home with a jacuzzi on each floor, an elevator, and a thermal spa. The complex housing 3 lakes, a shopping mall, mosque, pool, and golf course. The first tenants were expected summer 2020. It sounded too good to be true...

It was. Enter the Turkish real estate crisis. Enter the Cheesiness of it all. The company went bankrupt. The place fell to ruin.

And now we're here to explore. The very first group to get inside in years.


Andreessen on Crypto | Marginal Revolution

I suppose you could read the entire interview, but I haven’t, so instead I’ll link to Alex Tabarrok’s highlight of a very interesting excerpt:

From Noahpinion’s interview with Marc Andreessen:

[C]rypto represents an architectural shift in how technology works and therefore how the world works.

That architectural shift is called distributed consensus — the ability for many untrusted participants in a network to establish consistency and trust. This is something the Internet has never had, but now it does, and I think it will take 30 years to work through all of the things we can do as a result. Money is the easiest application of this idea, but think more broadly — we can now, in theory, build Internet native contracts, loans, insurance, title to real world assets, unique digital goods (known as non-fungible tokens or NFTs), online corporate structures (such as digital autonomous organizations or DAOs), and on and on.


'Higgs Bison' Is The Missing Link In European Bison Ancestral Tree | NPR

For a decade, people who study Europe's bison population have been baffled by a genetic mystery. The animals, which are a protected species, seemed to have appeared out of thin air about 11,000 years ago.

"There's something very fishy in the history of European bovids," says Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide, one of the lead authors of a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. […]

The team ground up bone fragments and sequenced the full DNA, only to find a surprising answer to the mystery.

About 120,000 years ago, ancient cows and steppe bison had created a hybrid species that survived for thousands of years, which Cooper says is rare.

Cooper and his colleagues jokingly called the new hybrid animal the "Higgs bison," a reference to the famed particle physics discovery.


Clues to how birds migrate using Earth's magnetic field | BBC

Not very much new here, but cool to see additional evidence:

The mystery of how birds migrate long distances over land and sea is a step closer to being cracked.

By studying robins, scientists have found clues to how birds sense the Earth's magnetic field.

Just as you might reach for a magnetic compass to find which way is north or south, birds are thought to have an in-built "living compass".

A chemical in the eye that is sensitive to magnetism could be proof of this theory, according to a new study.

Peter Hore, professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, said it could be that birds can "see" the Earth's magnetic field, although we don't know that for sure.


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