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The Siege of Carrie Lam / Idle Words
Another wonderfully-written piece by Maciej Cegłowski:

Carrie Lam is a Theresa May-like figure who seems to thrive on a performative stoicism, standing firm in the face of a self-inflicted crisis that a more capable politician would simply wiggle out of. She is a tragic figure in the same way that a pilot who points the nose of the aircraft at a mountain and refuses to listen to the passengers screaming for her to turn is a tragic figure. You puzzle over her motives while also wishing that someone, anyone, would throw her out of the plane. But while May was at least an elected politician, Carrie Lam is an administrator down to her bones, a career civil servant who was elevated to power in 2017 and sees her role as a protector of order. Her litany throughout the crisis has been that Hong Kongers who are not the police must respect the rule of law, even when that law (as would happen a week after this event) is imposed by emergency decree. A former head prefect at her Catholic school, she has all the empathy of a supervisor at the department of motor vehicles explaining that your car will be compressed into a cube because of overdue parking fines. Lam seems to have an innate aversion to the mob, the rabble, the people who in luckier places we would call voters. After a quarter of the city’s population marched in July, she called the protesters “a small minority of people” who “had no stake in their society.” [...] When the crisis in Hong Kong began, it was universally believed that Carrie Lam was executing a subtle plan dictated from Beijing. The attempt to rush an extradition law through the Legislative Council looked like a move in China’s long geopolitical chess game to erase constitutional protections in Hong Kong without spooking international finance. So it was a shock to everyone when it emerged later in the crisis that the extradition law had been Carrie Lam's own initiative. Rather than playing six-dimensional chess, it appeared that Beijing had accidentally appointed the most inflexible politician in China to head the Hong Kong S.A.R., and was now watching the ensuing disaster unfold as helplessly as everybody else. [...] Like a player scoring an own goal through an otherwise impenetrable defense, Lam had achieved by accident what no Chief Executive could have done through years of toil. She had forged Hong Kong into a nation. She was the accidental mother of her country.

The Humanoid Stain / The Baffler

Of course, our reactions to Paleolithic art may bear no connection to the intentions or feelings of the artists. Yet there are reasons to believe that Paleolithic people had a sense of humor not all that dissimilar from our own. After all, we do seem to share an aesthetic sensibility with them, as evidenced by modern reactions to the gorgeous Paleolithic depictions of animals. As for possible jokes, we have a geologist’s 2018 report of a series of fossilized footprints found in New Mexico. They are the prints of a giant sloth, with much smaller human footprints inside them, suggesting that the humans were deliberately matching the sloth’s stride and following it from a close distance. Practice for hunting? Or, as one science writer for The Atlantic suggested, is there “something almost playful” about the superimposed footprints, suggesting “a bunch of teenage kids harassing the sloths for kicks”? [...] In the Paleolithic, humans were probably less concerned about the opinions of their conspecifics than with actions and intentions of the far more numerous megafauna around them. Would the herd of bison stop at a certain watering hole? Would lions show up to attack them? Would it be safe for humans to grab at whatever scraps of bison were left over from the lions’ meal? The vein of silliness that seems to run through Paleolithic art may grow out of an accurate perception of humans’ place in the world. Our ancestors occupied a lowly spot in the food chain, at least compared to the megafauna, but at the same time they were capable of understanding and depicting how lowly it was. They knew they were meat, and they also seemed to know that they knew they were meat—meat that could think. And that, if you think about it long enough, is almost funny.

Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg / New Yorker [PDF]
A classic Malcolm Gladwell piece from 1999, with the core idea here eventually making it into The Tipping Point:

Cindy Mitchell first met Lois twenty-three years ago, when she bundled up her baby and ran outside into one of those frigid Chicago winter mornings because some people from the Chicago Park District were about to cart away a beautiful sculpture of Carl von Linné from the park across the street. Lois happened to be driving by at the time, and, seeing all the commotion, she slammed on her brakes, charged out of her car -- all five feet of her -- and began asking Cindy questions, rat-a-tat-tat: “Who are you? What’s going on here? Why do you care?” By the next morning, Lois had persuaded two Chicago Tribune reporters to interview Cindy and turn the whole incident into a cause célèbre, and she had recruited Cindy to join an organization she’d just started called Friends of the Parks, and then, when she found out that Cindy was a young mother at home who was too new in town to have many friends, she told her, “I’ve found a friend for you. Her name is Helen, and she has a little boy your kid’s age, and you will meet her next week and the two of you will be best friends.” That’s exactly what happened, and, what’s more, Cindy went on to spend ten years as president of Friends of the Park. “Almost everything that I do today and eighty to ninety per cent of my friends came about because of her, because of that one little chance meeting,” Cindy says. “That’s a scary thing. Try to imagine what would have happened if she had come by five minutes earlier.” It could be argued, of course, that even if Cindy hadn’t met Lois on the street twenty-three years ago she would have met her somewhere else, maybe a year later or two years later or ten years later, or, at least, she would have met someone who knew Lois or would have met someone who knew someone who knew Lois, since Lois Weisberg is connected, by a very short chain, to nearly everyone.

John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues / Physics Today

There may never be a good time to lose a secret, but some secrets are worse than others to lose, and some times are worse than others to lose them. For US physicist John Archibald Wheeler, January 1953 may have been the absolute worst time to lose the particular secret he lost. The nation was in a fever pitch about Communists, atomic spies, McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the Korean War. And what Wheeler lost, under the most suspicious and improbable circumstances, was nothing less than the secret of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon of unimaginable power that had first been tested only a month before. Wheeler is best remembered today for being an audaciously original thinker whose contributions span fields from the theory of nuclear fission through relativity and quantum theory and for coining several new pieces of physics vocabulary, including the now ubiquitous term “black hole.” Wheeler’s deep connections to the budding national security state, however, are less well known. He was a major scientist at the Hanford plutonium production site in Washington State during World War II, and from 1951 to 1953, he was the head of Project Matterhorn B, the H-bomb project centered at Princeton University. It was his role at Matterhorn B that led Wheeler to take a fateful overnight train trip from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, in January 1953. He had with him a short but potent document that explained exactly how the US, at that time the only nation in the world with an H-bomb, had overcome the many obstacles to producing a multimegaton thermonuclear weapon. Somewhere on the train ride, that document went missing. Wheeler’s Federal Bureau of Investigation file, recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, has shed new light on the incident, the secrets that lay at its heart, and the massive search for the missing document. A multitude of consequences came out of that single event—a testimony to the power of secrecy during the Cold War and to the ways in which a few pages, improperly situated in spacetime, can set off an unexpected chain of events.

The only metric of success that really matters is the one we ignore / Quartz

Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, many of us are still nominally in touch with our high-school friends and coworkers from several jobs ago. But in our daily lives, communities are shrinking. From 1985 to 2009, the average size of an American’s social network—defined by the number of confidants people feel they have—has declined by more than one-third. We may have hundreds of friends on Instagram, but evidence is mounting that those connections are not the ones that provide us the social balm we need, which is human contact. Instead, the more “connected” we become, the more we seem to let our social relationships atrophy, failing to catch up with an old friend, invite a neighbor over for coffee, or engage in some of life’s banal daily rituals—talking with someone on the way to the tube, getting coffee from a cafe where you know the barista’s name—which soothe our social needs. [...] In 2010, Holt-Lunstad published research showing that people who had weaker social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of dying early than those with stronger ones. Being disconnected, she showed, posed danger comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity. You can have friends and family and still feel deprived of community. John Cacioppo, who died last year, pioneered the field of social neuroscience and dedicated more than two decades to studying loneliness. He explained how misunderstood it could be—associated with social isolation, depression, introversion, and poor social skills, when in fact it does not discriminate by income or class, by ethnicity or gender. It is everywhere. Indeed, anyone living in a big city knows this is true: you can have 100 friends and feel lonely.

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LeBron James Is Still the King of Queens / The Ringer

As other players soaked in the spotlight, James began to face questions about whether the greatest player of his generation was starting to slow down. (He’d clearly heard all that rumbling; you don’t start sarcastic-hashtagging stuff #WashedKing out of blissful ignorance.) For the first time since he won his first title in Miami, it seemed at least possible that the NBA’s long-tenured grandmaster had found himself checkmated—by time, by age, by all the weight he’d carried on those broad shoulders for 16 seasons, and by the arrival of a generation of players for whom he helped pave the way. Now, though, it’s looking less like LeBron’s in check and more like he’s putting the clock on the league again. [...] After the most disappointing season of his career, James is now back in the heat of title contention, thanks in no small part to how that disappointment unfolded. LeBron responded to it with his latest chess move—the opportunistic retreat. Suffering a serious groin strain on Christmas Day 2018, missing a month in the middle of the season, and sputtering down the stretch to miss the playoffs wasn’t how James planned his first season as a Laker to unfold. He sure does seem to have made some tasty lemonade out of all the chaos and his longest offseason in more than a decade, though.

Every Kind of Thing in Space / YouTube [Domain of Science]

This video explores all of the things in the Universe from our Earth and local Solar System, out to the Milky Way Galaxy and looks at all of the different kinds of stars from Brown Dwarfs to Red Supergiant Stars. Then to the things they explode into like white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. Then we look at all the other kinds of galaxy in the universe, blazars, quasars and out to the cosmic microwave background and the big bang. It covers most of the different things that we know about in the Universe.

Seeing Like a Finite State Machine / Crooked Timber

This collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it). [...] In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors.

Is virtue signalling a perversion of morality? / Aeon

Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of a kind of hypocrisy. The accused person claims to be deeply concerned about some moral issue but their main concern is – so the argument goes – with themselves. They’re not really concerned with changing minds, let alone with changing the world, but with displaying themselves in the best light possible. As the journalist James Bartholomew (who claimed in 2015 to have invented the phrase, but didn’t) puts it in The Spectator, virtue signalling is driven by ‘vanity and self-aggrandisement’, not concern with others. [...] Perhaps, in fact, virtue signalling, or something like it, is a core function of moral discourse.

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52 things I learned in 2019 / Medium
This is now an annual classic, from Tom Whitwell:

7. At least three private companies have fallen victim to ‘deep fake’ audio fraud. In each case, a computerised voice clone of the company CEO “called a senior financial officer to request an urgent money transfer.” [...] 14. The goal of walking 10,000 steps per day may have originated when a Japanese pedometer manufacturer noticed that the 万 symbol (which means 10,000) looks a little like someone walking. The actual health merits of that number ‘have never been validated by research. [...] 20. Teenagers with acne get higher marks, are more likely to complete college and, if female, eventually get paid more than people without teenage acne. [...] 26. Gravitricity is a Scottish startup planning to store energy by lifting huge weights up a disused mine shaft when electricity is cheap, dropping them down to generate power when it is expensive. Using a 12,000 tonne weight (roughly the weight of the Eiffel tower), it should be half as expensive as equivalent lithium ion battery. [...] 40. 80% of prisoners released late 2018 in a presidential pardon have opted to return to Kinshasa’s infamous Makala jail due to lack of means to live. [...] 49. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were invented by a cleaner at a Frito-Lay factory. He’s now VP of multicultural sales for PepsiCo America.

Russian Jokes Tell the Brutal Truth / The Atlantic

Vladimir Putin is calling the White House, begins one joke that’s been making the rounds. “Hello, Donald? I would like to discuss Ukraine with you.” Trump: “What’s Ukraine?” Putin: “Thanks, Donald!” This genre of dark political joke—the anekdot—has been a staple of Russian humor at least since Soviet times, and anyone associated with the Kremlin is fair game. Though he’s lampooned far less often than Putin is, Trump has become a subject of numerous anekdoty because of his odd fascination with, and deference to, his counterpart in Moscow. Trump has asked Putin to prove that he never helps Trump, declares one current anekdot. Another asserts, Trump has fired all his intelligence chiefs. He will be getting all information from its source: Putin. When I was a college student in the U.S.S.R., anekdoty circulated mainly by word of mouth. Today they abound on the internet. (Many of the anekdoty in this article are drawn from online forums; the rest I’m recounting from memory.) They still offer a glimpse into how everyday Russians see their leaders and their country’s relationship with the world. Every society has jokes, of course, but cynical humor serves an additional purpose in societies where the media are under state control and intentional disinformation abounds.

The Deep Sea /
A fun scrolling page showing different sea creatures at different depths

Small Trial Shows Eating in a 10-Hour Window Could Have Significant Benefits For Some / Science Alert

Studies done in mice and fruit flies suggest that limiting when animals eat to a daily window of 10 hours can prevent, or even reverse, metabolic diseases that affect millions in the U.S. [...] In a unique collaboration between our basic science and clinical science laboratories, we tested whether restricting eating to a 10-hour window improved the health of people with metabolic syndrome who were also taking medications that lower blood pressure and cholesterol to manage their disease. [...] We found most of them lost a modest amount of body weight, particularly fat from their abdominal region. Those who had high blood glucose levels when fasting also reduced these blood sugar levels. Similarly, most patients further reduced their blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. All of these benefits happened without any change in physical activity. Reducing the time window of eating also had several inadvertent benefits. On average, patients reduced their daily caloric intake by a modest 8%.

This Philippine City Is the Most Typical Place in the World / Bloomberg

I’ve long wondered what might be the most typical place in the world, and I believe I now have an answer. It is Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, from which I have just returned. What do I mean by the world’s most typical place? On a variety of measures — economic, demographic and cultural, to name a few — Cebu is remarkably representative of the world as a whole.

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