----- 4 stars -----

The New China Scare / Foreign Affairs
Fareed Zakaria with a very illuminating piece (it's worth registering to read it for free):

A new consensus, encompassing both parties, the military establishment, and key elements of the media, holds that China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it. [...] Let’s be clear: China is a repressive regime that engages in thoroughly illiberal policies, from banning free speech to interning religious minorities. [...] Do these facts make China a vital threat, and to the extent that they do, how should that threat be addressed? The consequences of exaggerating the Soviet threat were vast: gross domestic abuses during the McCarthy era; a dangerous nuclear arms race; a long, futile, and unsuccessful war in Vietnam; and countless other military interventions in various so-called Third World countries. The consequences of not getting the Chinese challenge right today will be vaster still. The United States risks squandering the hard-won gains from four decades of engagement with China, encouraging Beijing to adopt confrontational policies of its own, and leading the world’s two largest economies into a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope that will inevitably cause decades of instability and insecurity. [...] To say that hedging failed reflects a lack of historical perspective. In the early 1970s, before Nixon’s opening to China, Beijing was the world’s greatest rogue regime. [...] By comparison, today’s China is a remarkably responsible nation on the geopolitical and military front. It has not gone to war since 1979. It has not used lethal military force abroad since 1988. Nor has it funded or supported proxies or armed insurgents anywhere in the world since the early 1980s. That record of nonintervention is unique among the world’s great powers. All the other permanent members of the UN Security Council have used force many times in many places over the last few decades—a list led, of course, by the United States. China has also gone from seeking to undermine the international system to spending large sums to bolster it. Beijing is now the second-largest funder of the United Nations and the UN peacekeeping program. It has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers, more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. [...] As for the effect of mercantilist Chinese policies on the U.S. economy, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has noted that “it cannot be argued seriously that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected U.S. growth by even 0.1 percent a year.” [...] Pompeo has asserted—in a patronizing statement that would surely infuriate any Chinese citizen—that the United States and its allies must keep China in “its proper place.” China’s sin, according to Pompeo, is that it spends more on its military than it needs to for its own defense. But the same, of course, could be said of the United States—and of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and most other large countries. In fact, a useful definition of a great power is one that is concerned about more than just its own security. The old order—in which small European countries act as global heavyweights while behemoths such as China and India are excluded from the first ranks of global institutions—cannot be sustained. China will have to be given a place at the table and genuinely integrated into the structures of decision-making, or it will freelance and unilaterally create its own new structures and systems. China’s ascension to global power is the most significant new factor in the international system in centuries. It must be recognized as such. [...] This dismal success rate is an early indicator of what a broader “decoupling” strategy would look like. China is the largest trading partner of many countries besides the United States, including key players in the Western Hemisphere, such as Brazil. When asked how they would respond to decoupling, senior leaders around the world almost all offer some version of the answer that one head of government gave me: “Please do not ask us to choose between the United States and China. You will not like the answer you get.”

----- 3 stars -----

The Case Against Boeing / New Yorker

“Every past crash that I can think of was an accident, in that there was something that wasn’t really reasonably foreseeable,” Travis told me. “This was entirely different, and I don’t think anyone understands that. This was a collision of deregulation and Wall Street, and the tragic thing is that it was tragic. It was inevitable.” [...] In December, 1996, Boeing announced that it was buying a struggling rival, McDonnell Douglas, for thirteen billion dollars. Sorscher is one of many Boeing employees who have identified the merger as the moment when Boeing went from being led by engineers to being led by business executives driven by stock performance. Sorscher recalled a labor-management breakfast, shortly before the merger, at which a top Boeing executive said that the company would reduce spending on a program that employed engineers to find improvements in the process of making planes. Sorscher, a member of the union’s bargaining unit at the time, pointed out how much money process improvement was saving the company. The executive tipped his head back, as if thinking how best to explain basic economics to a clueless scientist. Finally, as Sorscher recalled, the executive said, “The decisions I make have more influence over outcomes than all the decisions you make.” Sorscher told me, “It was: ‘I can’t help but make a billion dollars every time I pick up the phone. You people do things that save four hundred thousand dollars, that take one shift out of flow time—who gives a crap?’ ” Three years later, the engineers’ union went on strike over bonus pay and cuts in health coverage. James Dagnon, another Boeing executive, said that engineers had to accept that they were no longer the center of the universe. “We laughed,” Sorscher recalled. “This is an engineering company—these are complex, heavily engineered products. Of course we’re the center of the universe. But he wasn’t kidding. We didn’t get it. Who is the center of the universe? It’s the executives.”

The Rise and Fall of an All-Star Crew of Jewel Thieves / The Atlantic

They were highly sophisticated. The local police seemed helpless. Then a retired septuagenarian detective stepped in. [...] The police reports Crowley showed me made the burglars sound like ghosts. At one crime scene, detectives found a single footprint left behind in the drywall dust. At another, investigators were reduced to watching hours of traffic-cam footage, trying to decipher the robbers’ movements based solely on headlights reflecting off the back of nearby buildings. In a frustrating near-miss, a baker came to work at 4 a.m.—while a burglary was under way—and parked his car close to where the perpetrators had stationed their own vehicles. Unfortunately, he saw and heard nothing. In some cases, the target store’s air conditioning would be cranked up, which police later surmised was the thieves’ way of avoiding leaving DNA behind in their sweat. One store was so cold when the owner showed up the next morning that the windows had fogged up like a winter holiday display. Across their six-year run, what appeared to be the same crew committed a virtually identical crime over and over again, Crowley explained. They targeted jewelry stores in strip malls, usually on the edges of small towns whose local police had not yet experienced this kind of sophisticated burglary. The crew struck in the middle of the night, sidestepping stores’ advanced alarm systems with an electronic jamming device. The crew also picked targets that shared a wall with a business that had no real reason to install an alarm of its own. It might be a travel agency, where customers rarely, if ever, paid cash, or a nail salon; an empty storefront was also ideal. They would break into the neighboring business, and then cut entirely new doors through the walls and step through to the jewelry stores. The crew earned Crowley’s nickname—the “Drill Team”—by cracking supposedly impenetrable safes in record time, often drilling just one precise hole. They seemed to have an intimate knowledge of every make and model on the market.

Chaos at the Top of the World / GQ

It was one of the most arresting viral photos of the year: a horde of climbers clogged atop Mount Everest. But it only begins to capture the deadly realities of what transpired that day at 29,000 feet. These are the untold accounts of the people who were there. [...] For this year's climbing season, Nepal handed out 381 permits to scale Everest, the most ever. The Chinese government distributed more than 100 permits for the northern side. According to the Himalayan Database, the number of people summiting Everest has just about doubled in the past decade. And in that time the mountain has become accessible even to relative novices, thanks to a proliferation of cut-rate agencies that require little proof of technical skill, experience, or physical fitness. “Some of these companies don't ask any questions,” says Rolfe Oostra, an Australian mountaineer and a founder of France-based 360 Expeditions, which sent four clients to the summit this year. “They are willing to take anybody on, and that compounds the problems for everyone.”

How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America / New York Times

“The Three-Body Problem” was unlike anything [Ken] Liu had ever read. A mind-bending epic set in Beijing, Inner Mongolia and on a distant planet, the novel was full of heady technical passages about quantum theory, nanotechnology, orbital mechanics and astrophysics, intertwined with profound moral questions about the nature of good and evil and humanity’s place in the universe. But as he began translating, Liu was confronted by what seemed like a more fundamental problem: The narrative structure didn’t make sense. [...] In a move that was unusually invasive for a translator, he suggested pulling up the historical flashback, which was buried in the middle of the narrative, and turning it into the novel’s beginning. When Liu proposed this radical change to the author, a rising figure in China’s burgeoning science-fiction scene named Liu Cixin, he was prepared to be overruled. Instead, the author instantly agreed. “That is how I wanted it originally!” Liu recalls him saying. [...] But his Chinese publisher worried that the opening scenes were too politically charged and would never make it past government censors, so they were placed later in the narrative, he says, to make them less conspicuous. Liu reluctantly agreed to the change, but felt the novel was diminished. [...] When the English translation of “The Three-Body Problem” was published in 2014, it was hailed as a groundbreaking work of speculative fiction. President Barack Obama praised the novel, calling it “just wildly imaginative.” Mark Zuckerberg recommended it to his tens of millions of Facebook followers; George R.R. Martin blogged about it. Publishers around the world chased after translation rights, which eventually sold in 26 languages, including Turkish and Estonian. It won the 2015 Hugo Award, one of the genre’s most prestigious honors, making Liu Cixin the first Asian author to win the prize for best novel. It was also the first time a novel in translation had won the prize. The book and its two sequels went on to sell nearly nine million copies worldwide. Now, Liu Cixin says, he recommends that Chinese sci-fi fans who speak English read Ken Liu’s translation of “The Three-Body Problem” rather than the Chinese version. “Usually when Chinese literature gets translated to a foreign language, it tends to lose something,” he says. “I don’t think that happened with ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I think it gained something.” The success of “The Three-Body Problem” not only turned Liu Cixin into a global literary star; it opened the floodgates for new translations of Chinese science fiction.

He Was One of Mexico’s Deadliest Assassins. Then He Turned on His Cartel. / New York Times

The recruits filed into a clearing, where a group of trainers with the stern bearing of drill sergeants stood in a tight row, hiding something. “How many of you have killed someone before?” one of the instructors asked. A few hands shot up. The trainers separated, revealing a naked corpse face up in the grass. One thrust a machete into the nearest man’s hand. “Dismember that body,” he ordered. The recruit froze. The instructor waited, then walked up behind the terrified recruit and fired a bullet into his head, killing him. Next, he passed the blade to a lanky teenager while the others watched, dumbfounded. The teenager didn’t hesitate. Offered the chance to prove that he could be an assassin — a sicario — he seized it, he said. A chance at money, power and what he craved most, respect. To be feared in a place where fear was currency. “I wanted to be a psychopath, to kill without mercy and be the most feared sicario in the world,” he said, describing the scene. [...] Within a few years, he became one of the deadliest assassins in the Mexican state of Morelos, an instrument of the cartels tearing the nation apart. By 2017, at only 22 years old, he had taken part in more than 100 murders, he said. The authorities have confirmed nearly two dozen of them in Morelos alone. When the police caught him that year, he could have faced more than 200 years in prison. But instead of prosecuting him, the authorities saw an opportunity, a chance to pick apart the cartel from the inside. They made him the centerpiece of an off-the-books police operation that dismantled the cartel in southern Morelos, resulting in the arrest and conviction of dozens of its operatives. For investigators, he was a gold mine, a complete reference book on the state’s murder industry. For the sicario, the government was a lifeline.

----- 2 stars -----

Redemption Arc / Crooked Timber

In June last year I gave a talk at a prize launch in Cambridge. Afterwards, I talked to a young man called Jack Merritt. Clever, energetic, and idealistic in the best possible sense, he said he was involved in some kind of criminal justice project and would like to talk more about it. I didn’t quite catch what it was about but handed over my card. A week later, an invitation arrived to speak at an event he was running in the autumn. The topic was to be something about technology and justice. [...] I’ve always believed in the principle of rehabilitation, of course. Sorrow, regret, forgiveness, redemption; if we don’t practice these things individually we can’t live collectively in safety and in hope. Looking at the website, it was just the sort of project we need to have and should hope people are there to run. But I had misgivings about my own moral position. Someone I love deeply had, not long before, been the victim of a serious criminal offence. The offender was now behind bars. Some things cannot and must not be forgiven. They don’t ever go away. [...] I don’t have the right to forgive trespasses against others and nor do I want to. And yet we cannot throw people away. [...] I was glad to be there, and it was hard to be there. I talked to a couple of the guys. Just as you don’t ask soldiers if they’ve ever killed anyone, you don’t ask prisoners what they’ve done. [...] On the train home I thought about people like Jack who are young but the very opposite of naïve. How forgiveness and recovery are not located in the same feelings or even the same people, and yet they can still work. How each needs to know the other exists. How this helps, yes, but how nothing will ever be enough. Jack Merritt died yesterday. He was killed in the attack on London Bridge, at a prisoner rehabilitation event nearby. The attacker was apparently tagged but otherwise at liberty, and had previously requested de-radicalisation treatment but not received it. Jack’s father, correctly predicting the political use to which this attack would be put, said today: “My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily. R.I.P. Jack: you were a beautiful spirit who always took the side of the underdog. […] Cambridge lost a proud son and a champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.”

25 maps that explain the English language / Vox

English is the language of Shakespeare and the language of Chaucer. It’s spoken in dozens of countries around the world, from the United States to a tiny island named Tristan da Cunha. It reflects the influences of centuries of international exchange, including conquest and colonization, from the Vikings through the 21st century. Here are 25 maps and charts that explain how English got started and evolved into the differently accented languages spoken today.

How Much Ambition Can a Marriage Sustain? / The Atlantic

While nearly all of our highest achievers paired off with men who had comparable degrees, once they became parents ultimately only one person in the couple ended up with a classically successful career. The other spouse opted to stay home with the children, or to have a career with flexible hours that enabled them to be the primary caregiver. It is almost as though, in families where someone has a big job, all of the career ambition has been allocated to one person. So while nearly all of our stay-at-home contingent are married to high–achieving spouses (which in some cases led them to choose to stay at home), our highest achievers are almost exclusively married to stay-at-home fathers or men who have scaled back their careers.

The cultures that are northern Europe / Marginal Revolution
An interesting set of travel notes, linked via MR because spam filters don't like it when I link directly to PDFs on Dropbox. Some of the observations seem a bit naive to me (as an American living in Europe, like the author of these notes); regardless, they're pretty interesting:

In the US, it's common wisdom that a resume should only be one page. This is like a basic rule of resumes, and at places I worked, we would throw out resumes that exceed one page. In Europe, it is uncommon for resumes to be merely one page. European people will put a picture of their portrait on their resume. I found that weird. It seems to imply they think their looks matter, or that I, the resume reviewer, am the kind of person who thinks their looks matter. [...] My Danish coworkers were complaining about how young people today find nudity awkward. Both of them viewed the acceptance of nudity and human bodies as a traditional value that was disappearing in the modern Danish world. One of them said that their sports club makes it a point to do big group bathing together after practice to set a good example for their children. The other told me that at a job he had long ago, the employees went on a ski trip together and they would share beds with their coworkers. He said his bed was so small and his sleeping partner was so big he had to physically hang on to him to stay in the bed. He presented this as a kind of ideal; that that's how things were in the good old days.

What a 5,700-Year-Old Piece of Gum Reveals About Its Chewer / Wired

From a wad of pitch less than an inch long, researchers have painted a detailed portrait of an ancient human—and added another layer to the story of human evolution. [...] Nearly 6,000 years ago, in a seaside marshland in what is now southern Denmark, a woman with blue eyes and dark hair and skin popped a piece of chewing gum in her mouth. Not spearmint gum, mind you, but a decidedly less palatable chunk of black-brown pitch, boiled down from the bark of the birch tree. An indispensable tool in her time, birch pitch would solidify as it cooled, so the woman and her comrades would have had to chew it before using it as a sort of superglue for, say, making tools. Our ancient subject may have even chewed it for its antiseptic properties, perhaps to ease the pain of an infected tooth. Eventually she spit out the gum, and six millennia later, scientists found it and ran the blob through a battery of genetic tests. They not only found the chewer’s full genome and determined her sex and likely skin and hair and eye color, they also revealed her oral microbiome—the bacteria and viruses that pack the human mouth—as well as finding the DNA of hazelnut and duck she may have recently consumed. All told, from a chunk of birch pitch less than an inch long, the researchers have painted a remarkably detailed portrait of the biology and behavior of an ancient human.

SoftBank Vision Fund Employees Depict a Culture of Recklessness / Bloomberg Businessweek

Masayoshi Son’s venture capital firm is famous for making outsize bets on tech startups. It has also been described as an environment of sycophancy and harassment. [...] Every six weeks or so, the SoftBank Vision Fund, the biggest source of investment money flowing to Silicon Valley, convenes a multihour video conference call for 75 people on three continents to catch up on its startups. Masayoshi Son, the Japanese billionaire and founder of the fund’s parent company, SoftBank Group Corp., usually dials in from Tokyo. Masa, as Son is universally known, can be charming and effusively complimentary on the calls, according to three regular participants. Or he can be enraged, berating presenters and demanding a perpetually shifting yet unfailingly detailed set of metrics. Or he can be both. No one ever quite knows where he’ll land on the charm-rage axis. On one call in 2018, the three participants say, a Vision Fund managing partner named Kentaro Matsui was presenting charts showing steady but slow progress from the Chinese shipping startup Full Truck Alliance. Son flipped into rage mode, criticizing Matsui for being too conservative and demanding that he accelerate projections for revenue and valuation growth. “You’re too much like a banker!” he snapped at Matsui, who’s in fact a former banker. Others on the call cringed. It seemed as if Son was demanding that Matsui should find a way to supercharge the startup’s trajectory—a potentially dangerous push. “If you don’t change, I’ll find a way to change your role!” Son said.

The Human Brain Evolved When Carbon Dioxide Was Lower / The Atlantic

The indoor concentration of carbon dioxide concerns him—and not only for the usual reason. Karnauskas is worried that indoor CO₂ levels are getting so high that they are starting to impair human cognition. In other words: Carbon dioxide, the same odorless and invisible gas that causes global warming, may be making us dumber. “This is a hidden impact of climate change … that could actually impact our ability to solve the problem itself,” he said.

----- 1 star -----

The Most 2019 Photos Ever / The Atlantic

Not necessarily the top photos of the year, nor the most heart-wrenching or emotional images, but a collection of photographs that are just so 2019. From “Old Town Road” to “Storm Area 51,” from a fast food banquet at the White House to Tesla’s Cybertruck, from virtual reality for dairy cows to “30-50 feral hogs,” and much more. This is 2019.

The Best Optical Illusion of the Year for 2019 / Kottke

This mind-bending optical illusion concocted by Frank Force has won this year’s Best Illusion of the Year contest. The illusion features a moving shape that somehow can be seen to rotate around both the horizontal and the vertical axis and rotates in two different directions around each axis.

What flying was like 20 years ago / The Points Guy
This doesn't feel like that long ago, but it's fair to say things have changed more than I had remembered:

Outside the U.S., the big Middle Eastern airlines that now dominate long-haul flying weren’t even a blip on the horizon. Emirates and Qatar were mostly regional carriers and would not fly to the U.S. until the mid-2000s; Etihad did not even exist. Today, Emirates is the largest airline in the world by international passengers carried, and its Dubai home base the biggest airport in the world by international passenger traffic. [...] Three-engined passenger jets have been extinct for years now, but in 2000 they were still very much a fixture. Hundreds of Boeing 727s, horrendously noisy and fuel-thirsty by today’s standards, were in U.S. fleets including with American, Delta and United. [...] In biz class, you got recliners, or at best seats that converted to an angled bed, even on the world’s best carriers, like Singapore Airlines. There was just one exception: British Airways again, which introduced flat beds in Club Class, aka business, in 2000. [...] One thing commonly seen on board in 2000 that has disappeared today: built-in phones.

The Most Disappointing Gadgets of the Decade / Gizmodo

Somewhere around Avatar’s release in 2009, some Hollywood people decided that 3D was cool again. In lockstep, TV manufacturers figured that if movie theaters were selling more expensive tickets to 3D features, then they could sell more expensive 3D TVs to consumers. This set off a weird moment in TV design that encompassed not only 3D but also expensive curved screens and other gimmicks that were supposed to change the way we watch TV. It didn’t work. [...] Imagine a device so bad, that after you pre-order it (which you shouldn’t do, pre-orders are bad mmkay?), the company just sends it to you for free, before eventually canceling the device entirely. Well, that’s what happened with Google’s Nexus Q, an ominous plastic orb that was supposed to be part streaming box, part game console, but was actually just a big ball of disappointment.

44,000 Year-Old Cave Painting in Indonesia Is World’s Oldest Figurative Art / Kottke

A team of archaeologists has found a massive painting in a cave in Indonesia that uranium dating analysis shows to be around 43,900 years old, which they say is “currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world”.

Not such a bright idea: why your phone’s ‘night mode’ may be keeping you awake / The Guardian

Many smartphone screens switch to warmer colours in the evening to help you sleep better – but research suggests the science behind this is all wrong.

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