Here’s a fair critique: this newsletter has degenerated into a “best of” sampler for a small number of Substacks. Sadly, I think this is partly true; my reading is less diverse than it used to be, and I don’t really have the bandwidth to fix this.
That said, being a “best of” filter is not completely worthless, and there are still usually a bunch of good non-Substack pieces. Anyway, all of this is an extended apology for some of the links below.
“Bambi” Is Even Bleaker Than You Thought | New Yorker
Unlike many other Disney classics, from “Cinderella” to “Frozen,” this fright fest is not based on a fairy tale. It was adapted from “Bambi: A Life in the Woods,” a 1922 novel by the Austro-Hungarian writer and critic Felix Salten. The book rendered Salten famous; the movie, which altered and overshadowed its source material, rendered him virtually unknown. And it rendered the original “Bambi” obscure, too, even though it had previously been both widely acclaimed and passionately reviled. The English-language version, as translated in 1928 by the soon to be Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers, was enormously popular, earning rave reviews and selling six hundred and fifty thousand copies in the dozen-plus years before the film came out. The original version, meanwhile, was banned and burned in Nazi Germany, where it was regarded as a parable about the treatment of Jews in Europe.
As that suggests, “Bambi” the book is even darker than “Bambi” the movie. […]
Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, who has also translated the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, maintains in his introduction that Chambers got “Bambi” almost as wrong as Disney did. Which raises two questions: How exactly did a tale about the life of a fawn become so contentious, and what is it really about?
Felix Salten was an unlikely figure to write “Bambi,” since he was an ardent hunter who, by his own estimate, shot and killed more than two hundred deer. He was also an unlikely figure to write a parable about Jewish persecution, since, even after the book burnings, he promoted a policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany. And he was an unlikely figure to write one of the most famous children’s stories of the twentieth century, since he wrote one of its most infamous works of child pornography. […]
But perhaps the most vociferous if also the smallest group of critics consists of devotees of Salten, who recognize how drastically Disney distorted his source material. Although the animals in the novel do converse and in some cases befriend one another across species, their over-all relations are far from benign. In the course of just two pages, a fox tears apart a widely beloved pheasant, a ferret fatally wounds a squirrel, and a flock of crows attacks the young son of Friend Hare—the gentle, anxious figure who becomes Thumper in the movie—leaving him to die in excruciating pain. Later, Bambi himself nearly batters to death a rival who is begging for mercy, while Faline looks on, laughing. Far from being gratuitous, such scenes are, in the author’s telling, the whole point of the novel. Salten insisted that he wrote “Bambi” to educate naïve readers about nature as it really is: a place where life is always contingent on death, where starvation, competition, and predation are the norm.
That motive did not make Salten go easy on human beings. On the contrary: his depiction of our impact on nature is considerably more specific and violent than the one in the film, not to mention sadder. Consider the moment when Bambi, fleeing the hunting party that kills his mother and countless other creatures, comes across the wife of Friend Hare, in a scene that reads like something out of “Regeneration,” Pat Barker’s novel about the First World War:
“Can you help me a little?” she said. Bambi looked at her and shuddered. Her hind leg dangled lifelessly in the snow, dyeing it red and melting it with warm, oozing blood. “Can you help me a little?” she repeated. She spoke as if she were well and whole, almost as if she were happy. “I don’t know what can have happened to me,” she went on. “There’s really no sense to it, but I just can’t seem to walk. . . .”
In the middle of her words she rolled over on her side and died.
The Final March of Coach K | ESPN
Krzyzewski's office is in the top of the tower Duke built in 1999 after he'd won two of his five national championships as its head basketball coach. He is on the sixth floor, and all the other coaches are a level below. Coach only needs to take a right out of his office, then another right down a back stairwell, to get to his assistants. For the past 42 seasons he's called the Duke campus home, bringing his wife and family into the operation — his daughter Debbie Savarino keeps an office down the hall from his — and that is all coming to an end. He's lived a life that would have seemed impossible to his parents in their working-class Polish neighborhood in Chicago. Not long ago, he flew back to his hometown in a private jet, and his best friend from childhood, Dennis "Moe" Mlynski, picked him up in his wife's minivan. The big jet landed as Moe watched from inside the private terminal. The pilot parked a few yards from the door and still a golf cart came to pick up Krzyzewski. Coach saw Moe gearing up to demolish him for being soft and rich as he took his first steps inside.
"Moe, don't say a word," he said. […]
A young Mike Krzyzewski idolized Knight, even as part of him probably hated him, in that way that ambitious people sometimes can't tell the difference. The basketball press made the comparison all the time until Coach K bristled at that, both wanting his mentor's approval and wanting to be seen as his own man. As he started his climb in the sport, Knight loomed large in his mind, especially in the early 1980s. "You could almost see the wheels turning," Bilas says. "What would Knight do?" […]
One of the most poignant parts of this season has been the constant stream of former players coming to meet Coach, bringing family members and children, wanting to be part of the end. He has spent his final season surrounded by the relationships he built over five decades, relationships that remain intact in no small part because he saw firsthand how not to treat someone. There have been rifts along the way, but the relationships always seemed to win out in the end. The people close to Krzyzewski understand that Knight's worst impulses live in Coach K but he has managed to control them.
When I ask him about Knight, he sighs and says, "It's complicated."
Hybrid offline/online transactions | Bits about Money
Konbini are deeply woven into the fabric of Japanese life, and I like to think of them as privately owned public infrastructure. You can rely on there being a konbini close to you, virtually everywhere in Japan, and since this is true for you, it is true for everyone you might do business with in Japan. There are seven within a seven minute walk of my apartment here in Tokyo, but there’s also one in all but the most isolated communities. They’re open 24/7, which is an annoying expectation for some rural franchisees but considered fairly core to the brand promise by the chains.
Konbini welcome all comers. People in our social class often do not appreciate that this is not true of all businesses in society, including banks. You don’t need a brand-name employer, good credit, stable housing, government ID, or even literacy to use most konbini services. If you’ve got cash, they’ll take it.
This is extremely unlike credit card issuers. And it is the dominant reason why people, once they hear about voucher payments, viscerally understand why they are so popular in emerging markets.
So what explains their popularity in Japan, which is a highly developed nation?
An Englishman in Russia Bids His Daughter Farewell | Quillette
I am an Englishman in Southern Russia. For nearly four years I’ve lived here, helping my Russian ex-partner bring up our (now) eight-year-old daughter. At 9 o’clock last night I saw both of them onto a sleeper-train to Moscow. From there they will fly to Italy and the mother’s new boyfriend, perhaps never to return.
The parting was an almost comically clichéd wartime scene—the escape on the night-train, tears, hugs, the heaving suitcases, the conversations through the glass and, finally, the faces disappearing into the distance. The grandmother and I walked back together to our empty flats, silent and sad, neither of us knowing when we would see these two people again. It may be a sentimental motif of wartime, and anyone who has ever wanted to feel they were living in history will, after experiencing a farewell like this, feel that history has finally got their number. It was a scene from a novel I’d read many times and in many variations. I couldn’t help remembering that in those books the child almost never sees the father again. And this time the father is me.
Ukraine: Watching the war on Russian TV - a whole different story | BBC
Ukraine war: 'My city's being shelled, but mum won’t believe me' | BBC
Never was there a better illustration of the alternative reality presented by Russian state media than at 17:00 GMT on Tuesday. As BBC World TV opened its bulletin with reports of a Russian attack on a TV tower in the capital Kyiv, Russian TV was announcing that Ukraine was responsible for strikes on its own cities.
So what are Russian TV viewers seeing of the war? What messages are they hearing over the airwaves? Below is a snapshot of what ordinary Russians would have picked up, on Tuesday 1 March, while channel-hopping across the country's key TV stations, which are controlled by the Kremlin and its corporate allies.
Oleksandra and her four rescue dogs have been sheltering in the bathroom of her flat in Kharkiv since the shelling began.
"When I heard the first explosions, I ran out of the house to get my dogs from their enclosures outside. People were panicking, abandoning their cars. I was so scared," she says.
The 25-year-old has been speaking regularly to her mother, who lives in Moscow. But in these conversations, and even after sending videos from her heavily bombarded hometown, Oleksandra is unable to convince her mother about the danger she is in.
"I didn't want to scare my parents, but I started telling them directly that civilians and children are dying," she says.
"But even though they worry about me, they still say it probably happens only by accident, that the Russian army would never target civilians. That it's Ukrainians who're killing their own people."
Are There Lost Alien Civilizations in Our Past? | Kurzgesagt [YouTube]
Long time readers will know that one of my favourite pet theories is that dinosaurs had civilisation of some sort. Here’s Kurzgesagt’s take:
When we think about alien civilizations we tend to look into the vastness of space, to far away planets. But there is another incredibly vast dimension that we might be giving too little thought to: time.
Could it be that over the last hundreds of millions of years, other civilizations existed on earth? Indigenous technological species that rose and died out? And that they or their artifacts are buried beneath our feet? What does science have to say about this and what are the implications for us?
The Wicked Problem Experience | Cold Takes
Flashback to 2007 GiveWell […]
Now I’m sitting at my computer trying to write down what I just said in a way that an outsider can read - the “hypothesis articulation” phase.
I write, “GiveWell doesn’t evaluate every charity in the world. Our goal is to save the most lives possible per dollar, not to create a complete ranking or catalogue of charities. Accordingly, our research is oriented around identifying the single charity that can save the most lives per dollar spent,”
Hmm. Did we identify the “single charity that can save the most lives per dollar spent?” Certainly not. For example, I have no idea how to compare these charities to cancer research organizations, which are out of scope. Let me try again:
“GiveWell doesn’t evaluate every charity in the world. Our goal is to save the most lives possible per dollar, not to create a complete ranking or catalogue of charities. Accordingly, our research is oriented around identifying the single charity with the highest demonstrated lives saved per dollar spent - the charity that can prove rigorously that it saved the most” - no, it can’t prove it saved the most lives - “the charity that can prove rigorously that ” - uh -
Do any of our charities prove anything rigorously? Now I’m looking at the page we wrote for our #1 charity and ugh.
The big sanctions: A quick explainer | Noahpinion
Just a couple of days ago, these sanctions were almost unthinkable, with SWIFT cutoff sometimes called the “nuclear option” (not a phrase I like to use in this particular situation). But the moral clarity of the unprovoked and brutal Russian assault has changed minds I’ll discuss each of these in turn, but first an overview. These sanctions are designed to do two things:
To punish Russian oligarchs and Putin allies for supporting the war, and
To make it harder for Russia to finance its war effort.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian economy has become increasingly entangled and increasingly symbiotic with the economies of Europe. The Soviet economy was somewhat self-contained, doing much of both its resource extraction and its manufacturing domestically. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, has focused on its comparative advantage — oil and gas — and let other countries do much of its manufacturing and services for it. […]
So that’s the basic idea of sanctions at this point. Deterrence obviously failed, but enough pressure from Russian leaders and society might force Putin to call it a day. The question is how to do that without creating havoc in European economies at the same time.
Why a Multipolar World Will Be More Humane | Richard Hanania’s Newsletter
Another Hanania piece I somewhat disagree with that nevertheless makes good points:
Nonetheless, as a more general matter, it is worth considering whether we would rather have a world order that is American-led, Chinese-led, or – in what I think is the most likely scenario and one we are already starting to see emerge – multipolar. If that is the question, I would argue that the US is a uniquely destructive force, and multipolarity is a much more desirable state of affairs than what we currently have. Coming to this conclusion requires some comparison of the moral status and decision-making ability of the people who run American foreign policy relative to those who would replace them. It does not imply a comparison, for example, between how the US and China treat their people at home; throughout history, we have seen states that give their own citizens a high degree of freedom while being vicious towards foreign adversaries, and others that are brutal at home but largely passive abroad. To think in terms of countries as “good” or “evil” in a way that can explain both domestic and foreign policy is a mistake. […]
Obviously, A represent Putin, or Xi Jinping, or most of the world leaders we classify as “bad guys.” B is the United States. A person who commits crimes for rational self-interested reasons is always less dangerous, and in some ways more moral, than one who does so for ideological reasons or because he enjoys watching the world burn down (the analogy isn’t perfect because American foreign policy is in the interests of a certain class, but not the country as a whole, so it is “rational” in a different sense).
In Afghanistan right now, millions of children are at risk of famine. This is directly attributable to the US stealing that country’s money and cutting it off from the international economy. What makes this particularly grotesque is that there’s no conceivable reason for it; if the Taliban was a threat to Americans, you could at least understand the policy as an overreaction. And this is being done by the same establishment that just months ago was saying we couldn’t abandon the people of Afghanistan when supporting them meant dropping more bombs. American weapons and military technology have facilitated the war in Yemen, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people. These aren’t isolated instances.
Match Group and Managed Dissatisfaction | The Diff
Online dating is displacing every other form of matchmaking, and this graph actually understates it—an important thing people in the online dating business learn is that online daters are pathologically dishonest, but generally incrementally so; as it turns out, a surprising number of heights round up to exactly six feet, and an astonishing range of dealbreakers don't actually break deals. So when you look at a chart indicating that "Met in a Bar or Restaurant" took off as a how-we-met story right alongside the ubiquity of cheap broadband and the smartphone, you can comfortably attribute those gains to online dating, too, from people who are slightly embarrassed to admit it.
If online dating determines how most people meet, that means it's a marginal determinant of who has kids, with whom, and when. And that's a pretty big deal: if online dating encourages longer courtships than people would otherwise prefer, for example, it delays family formation, and that warps the demographic pyramid and slows economic growth. […]
Success for the online dating business means controlling the cost of customer acquisition—easier with an intrinsically viral product, at least on the way up—and then minimizing churn. Which, for users, means that an experience that feels promising but ultimately keeps them in the dating world indefinitely is ideal for the company.
A moment that changed me: I was so desperate to leave home I agreed to smuggle 80,000 Bibles into the USSR | The Guardian
One day a man in a tan mac and a comb-over appeared at my family’s door. I have no idea how he found me but he had an exciting proposition
Studying the Script | Lapham’s Quarterly
China invented the longest lasting and most stable writing system in history. Chinese—the language—as we know it today is almost the same as the first inscriptions from nearly 3,200 years ago. And Chinese—the script—is the only system in the world still used to represent the language for which it was invented.
Somehow, someway, even the first grumblings of its existence were remarkable. We find a fully formed system, a complete repertoire of signs, from the very first moment we encounter it: no proto-, no tag labels, no numeric tablets with four names carved into them. The first examples of Chinese contain complete sentences, almost all comprehensible. An unprecedented feat.
So does this mean that the Chinese script was invented overnight? That it sprouted like a mushroom at the end of the second millennium bc, already fully formed? Not likely. Much more probable is that what we’re seeing is already an advanced stage, far removed (though we don’t know how far) from the moment of invention. Its syntax is flexible, the number of characters already substantial—between three thousand and five thousand, all well designed and clear. Hundreds of inscriptions on turtle shells, ox scapulae, and bronze objects, buried in various tombs, concentrated around the capital of the Shang dynasty, Anyang, in northeast-central China.
“The Great Lutefisk Mystery,” solved | The Norwegian American
Though Norwegian Americans practically define who they are through the eating of lutefisk during the Christmas season, I have found to my surprise that the vast majority of Norwegian Americans know nothing about the practical reasons behind the making and eating of lutefisk. When you ask them why Norwegians prepare and eat this unusual dish, most just stare blankly back at you with silly grins on their faces—it is clear they just eat it because that is what most Norwegian Americans do at Christmastime. Others, slightly more informed, eagerly begin to tell you tall tales and goofy stories about its origins that they heard when they were kids. […]
But why did this tradition of making and eating lutefisk begin in the first place? Norwegians are a practical people and would not blindly start eating fish the Irish had allegedly poisoned with lye or that they found in a burned-out fish shed. Norwegians are not that stupid! There had to be practical benefits behind the making and eating of lutefisk.
For the past year, I have searched for an answer and, for the most part, run into countless dead ends.
What is the Probability of a Nuclear War, Redux | Marginal Revolution
I agree with Tyler who wrote recently that “the risk of nuclear war remains the world’s No. 1 problem, even if that risk does not seem so pressing on any particular day.”
The probability of a nuclear war is inherently difficult to predict but what strikes me in this careful survey by Luisa Rodriguez for the Effective Altruism Forum is how much higher all the expert predictions and model forecasts are compared to what we would like them to be. Keep in mind that the following are annualized probabilities. For a child born today (say 75 year life expectancy) these probabilities (.0117) suggest that the chance of a nuclear war in their lifetime is nearly 60%, (1-(1-.0117)^75). At an annualized probability of .009 which is the probability from accident analysis it’s approximately 50%. See Rodriguez and also Shlosser’s Command and Control on the frightening number of near misses including one nuclear weapon dropped on North Carolina.
These lifetime numbers don’t strike me as crazy, just crazy high.