----- 3 stars -----
The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake / The Atlantic
David Brooks (in longform, which suits him much better than his typical short op-ed format):
If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor. This article is about that process, and the devastation it has wrought—and about how Americans are now groping to build new kinds of family and find better ways to live.
‘The intelligence coup of the century’ / Washington Post
This is incredible:
For more than half a century, governments all over the world trusted a single company to keep the communications of their spies, soldiers and diplomats secret. The company, Crypto AG, got its first break with a contract to build code-making machines for U.S. troops during World War II. Flush with cash, it became a dominant maker of encryption devices for decades, navigating waves of technology from mechanical gears to electronic circuits and, finally, silicon chips and software. The Swiss firm made millions of dollars selling equipment to more than 120 countries well into the 21st century. Its clients included Iran, military juntas in Latin America, nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and even the Vatican. But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages. The decades-long arrangement, among the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War, is laid bare in a classified, comprehensive CIA history of the operation obtained by The Washington Post and ZDF, a German public broadcaster, in a joint reporting project. The account identifies the CIA officers who ran the program and the company executives entrusted to execute it. It traces the origin of the venture as well as the internal conflicts that nearly derailed it. It describes how the United States and its allies exploited other nations’ gullibility for years, taking their money and stealing their secrets. The operation, known first by the code name “Thesaurus” and later “Rubicon,” ranks among the most audacious in CIA history. “It was the intelligence coup of the century,” the CIA report concludes. “Foreign governments were paying good money to the U.S. and West Germany for the privilege of having their most secret communications read by at least two (and possibly as many as five or six) foreign countries.”
----- 2 stars -----
Family Business / Medium
A young man returns home from the army and gets a surprising offer from his emotionally distant father: Join the family business and help mom & pop pull off a string of daring cross-country heists. No one expects the betrayals coming. [...] Somewhere between stealing $4 million dollars, a multi-state trail of credit card fraud, and years of FBI scrutiny, the relationship between father and son had soured. Now, a courtroom of lawyers and spectators watched it dissolve over a proffered drink. “Let me ask you, if I poured you a glass of water and brought it up there, would you drink it?” Archie Moretti asked his son, who was sitting on the witness stand. “No,” Vincent Moretti replied. “Why not?” “Because I don’t trust you.” It was March 2013, and father and son were facing off in a courtroom in Portland, Oregon. Vincent’s mother, Marian, sat in the courtroom. Her white hair was pinned behind ears and she wore matronly glasses. She watched as Vincent’s father, the man whose respect had once meant more to him than anything else in the world, cross-examined him. Archie resembled a balding, life-hardened version of Mr. Rogers with a stern military bearing leftover from his service in the Vietnam War. Vincent was softer, seemingly more open and sensitive, despite a muscular build. In happier times he had a disarming smile. He wasn’t smiling now. “You think the judge is going to let me bring poison, you think these marshals are going to let me bring poison into the courtroom?” Archie persisted. “I’m in jail. Let me pour you a glass of water and bring it up there.” Archie addressed the judge: “May I, Your Honor?” “No. That’s absurd,” the judge responded. Against the repeated advice of the court over several months of testimony, Archie was representing himself in a case that would decide whether he would spend the remainder of his life behind bars. His son Vincent was the prosecution’s star witness, the key to pinning nearly two decades of outlandish heists and assorted crimes — the family business, you might say — on his back. Archie’s only hope was to cast doubt on his son’s sanity.
Inside the Pentagon's Secret UFO Program / Popular Mechanics
To be honest, I was expecting this article to be a lot more interesting; it can largely be summarised as "the US government has encountered some flying objects it can't yet explain, and it has spent some money trying to figure out what's going on (and to possibly improve its military tech)." Not uninteresting -- and worth reading if that summary intrigues you -- but sadly, no aliens (...should I not have been expecting aliens?):
The government can’t keep its story straight about its involvement with UFO research. After a yearlong investigation, we bust open the files, break through the noise, and reveal the definitive, staggering truth. [...] As I sit in a small cafe in the shadow of the ancient Roman gates in Trier, Germany, talking to a person whose credibility seems beyond reproach, but who will only agree to talk to me if provide absolute assurances of anonymity, I can’t help but feel like I’m trapped in a Dan Brown novel. The Da Vinci Code, however, never dealt with unidentified flying objects. “Was it about UFOs? Of course,” this person whispers with a grin of melodrama. After almost a year of investigating the U.S. government’s interest in UFOs, what they’ve just said should neither be shocking, nor revelatory. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve only further confirmed what over a dozen other people with backgrounds inside the government and the now-defunct Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS) have already admitted to me. Just like the fictional Robert Langdon, the path to understanding these mysterious government programs has taken me through the catacombs of informal secret societies, whose surprising memberships include accomplished professionals from the military, aerospace, academic, medical, and intelligence communities. Though diverse or abstinent in how they define exactly what it all means, each of these enigmatic characters shares one common belief: unidentified flying objects are neither myth nor figment of overactive imaginations. With absolute conviction, they’ve all told me that UFOs are real. Now, after two years of scant details and a myriad of contradictory statements, Popular Mechanics is ripping open the U.S. government’s massive UFO problem. What follows is a deep, unprecedented well of information that’s only been known by a very small select group of insiders—until now.
'I could have been a K-pop idol - but I'm glad I quit' / BBC
On a typical day we trainees would wake up at 5am to get in some extra dance practice before school started at 8am. When the school day ended we would return to the company to be trained in singing and dancing. Trainees would stay up practising until 11pm or later, in an attempt to impress instructors. At night we were left to look after ourselves. We had a strict curfew to make sure we'd be back in the dorms before they locked up the building. Dating was banned, though some secretly did. Trainees were all supposed to act straight even if they weren't. Anybody who appeared to be openly gay was ostracised by the company. Both male and female trainees would have "managers" - uncle-type figures who would text us at night to keep tabs on us. If we didn't text back, then we would immediately get a phone call, asking where we were. There was no such thing as weekends or holidays. On national holidays like the Lunar New Year, trainees would remain in the company building while staff took the day off. The company sorted us into two main groups, kind of like a Team A and Team B. I was one of the 20 to 30 members of Team A - we were thought to have the most potential. Team B had around 200 trainees. Some of them had even had to pay their way into the company. They could train for years and years and never know if they would actually "debut" - the word used when someone is launched as a K-pop performer. Team A trainees slept in dorms with four girls to a bedroom. The regular trainees would sleep together in a huge room and had to make do with mats on a wooden floor. I saw exhausted Team B trainees sleep in the dance studios after training, because the mats there were just like the ones in their dorms.
The Chaos at Condé Nast / New York Times
At 48, Dan Peres is already an old hand at being a former magazine editor. Condé Nast shut down Details, the men’s glossy that he had been editor of for 15 years, in 2015. Overnight Mr. Peres went from two decades spent as a coveted presence at fashion shows and parties in the world’s capitals to a divorced dad adrift in the ’burbs. [...] In the book, Mr. Peres reveals an opioid addiction that he tried for years to hide, and which, until he got clean in 2007, had him taking as many as 60 Vicodin pills a day. Among many anecdotes that illustrate his wincing desperation, he tells of gobbling up pills that had fallen onto the floor beneath a urinal at a black-tie event in 2003. “Does the five-second rule count for piss-soaked drugs?” Mr. Peres writes. “I’d like to say I hesitated.” “You can’t fault his honesty, although you’ve got to wonder about the judgment of his bosses,” Jay McInerney wrote in a review for The New York Times. And indeed, “As Needed for Pain” is an eye-opening document of how Mr. Peres for seven years spent his working hours and many of his company’s dollars in pursuit of getting high.
First, Do No Harm / Stratechery
Core to the idea of primum non nocere is the danger of unintended consequences; sometimes it is better for a doctor to not do anything than to risk causing more harm than good. I was reminded of this phrase yesterday when the FTC announced it was requesting data from the big tech companies about small scale acquisitions made over the last decade. [...] The first group that benefits from large tech company acquisitions is end users. The fastest possible way for a new technology or feature to be diffused to users broadly is for it to be incorporated by one of the large platforms or Aggregators. Suddenly, instead of reaching a few thousand or even a few million people, a new technology can reach billions of people. It’s difficult to overstate how compelling this point is from a consumer welfare perspective: banning acquisitions means denying billions of people access to a particular technology for years, if not forever. The second group that benefits from large tech company acquisitions is investors. If one of their startups creates something useful, that investment can earn a return even if said startup does not have a clear business model or user acquisition strategy. To put it another way, investors have the freedom to be more speculative in their investments, and pay more attention to technological breakthroughs and less to monetization, because there is always the possibility of exiting via acquisition. This benefit accrues broadly: more money going to more initiatives is ultimately good for society. The third group that benefits from large tech company acquisitions is entrepreneurs and startup employees. Trying to build something new is difficult and draining; it makes the effort — which will likely fail — far more palatable knowing that if it doesn’t work out an acquihire acquisition is a likely outcome. Sure, it might have been easier to simply apply for a job at Google or Facebook, but being handed one because you worked for a failed startup reduces the risk of going to work for that startup in the first place. It’s important to note that the sort of acquisitions the FTC is looking at almost certainly fall predominantly in this third group.
Book Review: Human Compatible / Slate Star Codex
Clarke’s First Law goes: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. Stuart Russell is only 58. But what he lacks in age, he makes up in distinction: he’s a computer science professor at Berkeley, neurosurgery professor at UCSF, DARPA advisor, and author of the leading textbook on AI. His new book Human Compatible states that superintelligent AI is possible; Clarke would recommend we listen. I’m only half-joking: in addition to its contents, Human Compatible is important as an artifact, a crystallized proof that top scientists now think AI safety is worth writing books about. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies previously filled this role. But Superintelligence was in 2014, and by a philosophy professor. From the artifactual point of view, HC is just better – more recent, and by a more domain-relevant expert. But if you also open up the books to see what’s inside, the two defy easy comparison. S:PDS was unabashedly a weird book. It explored various outrageous scenarios (what if the AI destroyed humanity to prevent us from turning it off? what if it put us all in cryostasis so it didn’t count as destroying us? what if it converted the entire Earth into computronium?) with no excuse beyond that, outrageous or not, they might come true. Bostrom was going out on a very shaky limb to broadcast a crazy-sounding warning about what might be the most important problem humanity has ever faced, and the book made this absolutely clear. HC somehow makes risk from superintelligence not sound weird. I can imagine my mother reading this book, nodding along, feeling better educated at the end of it, agreeing with most of what it says (it’s by a famous professor! I’m sure he knows his stuff!) and never having a moment where she sits bolt upright and goes what? It’s just a bizarrely normal, respectable book. [...] My reaction to this book has been “what an amazing talent Russell must have to build all of this up from normality”. But maybe it’s not talent. Maybe Russell is just recounting his own intellectual journey. Maybe this is what a straightforward examination of AI risk looks like if you have fewer crazy people in your intellectual pedigree than I do.
Back to the Future / First Things
Peter Thiel on Ross Douthat:
Are we making progress? Not so much, Douthat answers. Baby boomers will wince at his title, since “decadence” sounds to them like the complaint of an old curmudgeon. They cannot stand to think of themselves as old, nor can they bear to think of the society they dominate as dysfunctional. But this is a young man’s book. Douthat can see our sclerotic institutions clearly because his vision is not distorted by out-of-date memories from a more functional era. Douthat outlines four aspects of decadence: stagnation (technological and economic mediocrity), sterility (declining birth rates), sclerosis (institutional failure), and repetition (cultural exhaustion).
----- 1 star -----
What Is ‘Dance Monkey,’ and How Did It Take Over the World? / New York Times
I found this delightful:
Before the song “Dance Monkey” hit No. 1 in 20 countries, it was a local attraction on the beachfront streets of Byron Bay, Australia. Written by a busker named Toni Watson, 26, who performs as the solo act Tones and I, “Dance Monkey” uses a plunking keyboard and thumping bass line as a backdrop to describe the very specific life of a street musician: “Just like a monkey I’ve been dancing my whole life,” she sings. “And you just beg to see me dance just one more time.” In an unlikely twist, that sentiment went global. A one-time basketball prospect and surf shop employee, Watson moved to Byron Bay, a small resort town south of Brisbane, to play music in a busker’s paradise. She lived out of her van and relied solely on tips from passers-by, who were increasingly mesmerized by the singer’s distinct wail.
Addendum to "Targeting Meritocracy" / Slate Star Codex
I’ve always been dissatisfied with Targeting Meritocracy and the comments it got. My position seemed so obvious to me – and the opposite position so obvious to other people – that we both had to be missing something. Reading it over, I think I was missing the idea of conflict vs mistake theory. [...] I wrote the post from a mistake theory perspective. [...] Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people, it is tautologically correct. The only conceivable problem is if we make mistakes in judging intelligence and competence, which is what I spend the rest of the post worrying about. From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests. At best, merit is uncorrelated with this. [...] This resolves my confusion about why people disagree with me on this point. It reinforces a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: if people seem slightly stupid, they’re probably just stupid. But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.
The Sleep Blanket / Kottke
Over a period of three months, Seung Lee knit a blanket showing a visualization of his infant son’s sleep patterns from birth to his first birthday.
Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on / BBC
"The firestorm is incredible... Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: 'I don't want to burn to death'. I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn." On 13 February 1945, British aircraft launched an attack on the eastern German city of Dresden. In the days that followed, they and their US allies would drop nearly 4,000 tons of bombs in the assault. The ensuing firestorm killed 25,000 people, ravaging the city centre, sucking the oxygen from the air and suffocating people trying to escape the flames. Dresden was not unique. Allied bombers killed tens of thousands and destroyed large areas with attacks on Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin, and the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the bombing has become one of the most controversial Allied acts of World War Two. Some have questioned the military value of Dresden. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed doubts immediately after the attack. "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed," he wrote in a memo. "The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing."
Psychologists have discovered the specific dance moves that attract the opposite sex / Good
Dance is a way humans have attempted to attract one another since the dawn of time. Two recent studies have shown that heterosexual men and women have distinct preferences in the type of dancing they find attractive. Their findings can help us determine whether we should be strutting our stuff on the dance floor or taking our chances striking up some conversation at the bar. A study by Psychologists at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England used computer-generated avatars to uncover the secret to what makes a man a good dancer, according to heterosexual women.
Sex, Lies and Prenups: Donald Trump's Timeless Wisdom on Love / Politico
Donald Trump’s many books are ostensibly about business and the business of being him. They are chock-full, too, though, with love advice. There’s a good reason for that: To Trump, who presents himself as an expert on everything, love is just another deal—because love and business are basically the same thing. “Treat each decision,” he has counseled, “like a lover.” His countless interviews are rife as well with aphorisms and accrued wisdom about the mysteries of love. Except, for him, it’s not actually that mysterious. It all comes down to money. Women are either helping him make it or trying to take it away. Whether you think America’s 45th president is a first-class charmer, a sexual predator, just a crass Casanova or a wounded, stunted narcissist congenitally incapable of anything approaching actual love, one thing is for sure: About women, dating, marriage, commitment or lack thereof, the lascivious, adulterous, thrice-married Trump has had a lot to say. To honor Valentine’s Day, we assembled a collection of Trump’s thoughts on the one subject that confounds everybody—except, of course, him.
A 2020 Overview of Global Population Trends / Kottke
The world population now stands at 7.8 billion inhabitants, having reached the 7 billion milestone in 2011. Demographers expect the 8 billion milestone in 2023, with global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2037 and 10 billion by 2056. This growth is slightly faster than projections from just a few years ago. [...] India will soon pass China as the most populous country in the world and Nigeria’s population will double to blow right by the US for #3 in the world.
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