3 stars

2020 letter | Dan Wang

I usually avoid year-end letters (I’m not sure why). But this one kept on getting recommended to me, and when that happens, I’m rarely disappointed. I’ll warn you that this piece is occasionally a bit slow, but trust me, it’s worth it:

This year, I read every issue of Qiushi (translation: Seeking Truth), the party’s flagship theory journal, whose core task is to spell out the evolving idea of socialism with Chinese characteristics. For those not familiar, Qiushi reads like a cross between the New Yorker and the Federal Register. Published twice a month, the magazine features lengthy essays, thick pages, and some of the finest writers in the party. […]

As every discussion on China grows more strident, and as every proposition about it has to be vested with sentiment, I submit that it’s all the more important to be able to see things as they are. That entails having coming to terms not just with a rise of its repressive capabilities, but also with its growing commercial and institutional strengths. US elites have abandoned the idea that China would liberalize nicely. They should put another idea to bed: that this authoritarian system, riddled with weaknesses, is on the brink of collapse. The country’s strengths are real and improving while the government becomes more nasty towards its critics and the rest of the world. […]

I wrote a column on what a gamechanger these actions can be for Chinese industrial policy. Hardly any of China’s largest technology companies have escaped some form or threat of US sanctions, and many more are wondering if they will end up on some poorly-understood blacklist. Thus the US government has aligned the interests of China’s leading tech companies with the state’s interest in self-sufficiency and technological greatness. […]

Commentators who criticize China’s efforts as doubling down on a state-led approach seem not to realize that the world has fundamentally changed in the last few years. First, the US cannot credibly guarantee to sell goods that Chinese firms need. And second, US actions have removed the political room that Chinese companies have had to push back against state demands that companies buy domestic. Apart from the processor, a Huawei phone is using comparable amounts of Chinese hardware as the iPhone. ByteDance, Alibaba, and Tencent have been using the best-in-class software and hardware, which are usually American. The state will have an easier time now enlisting these companies to use alternatives.


2 stars

Leaving the Grace of This World | Outside

More than 17 years ago, a successful Michigan attorney took his life on a cherished trout stream, devastating close friends and family. Haunted by what happened, his nephew investigated and discovered tragic truths that were in plain sight all along.


Uncanny V——s | Dianaverse

As usual, censored not out of prudishness but rather to avoid overzealous spam filters:

Sex is consistently underrated as a driver of innovation. Yes, space exploration helped us develop the technology for things like cochlear implants, powdered (machine) lubricants and scratch resistant lenses. Lust has furthered the development of cash transfers, point-of-view filming and video chat. I predict that historians of the development of artificial intelligence are going to see sexual gratification as one of the phenomenon’s great motivators. Evolutionary psychology can give us insight into how sex robots are going to develop and the ramifications they’ll have on society. […]

Men high in conscientiousness, who are sensitive to social disapproval but who nonetheless have difficulty reading subtle social cues, could make good husbands for women. These men are unlikely to want to take the risk of approaching women. As substitutes like sex robots and virtual companions become better and cheaper, they will monopolize the attention of such men. […]

The kinds of men described above, who have difficulty reading social signals but who are nonetheless strongly sexually motivated, have a characteristic that means they’ll be less put off by sex robots than the average person: resistance to perceiving the uncanny valley. […]

Sex is weird. Sex is gross and awkward. Natural selection addressed this issue by causing arousal to attenuate the human disgust response. It’s worth noting that men have a much lower baseline sexual disgust than women, and that sexual excitement further reduces disgust sensitivity in men. […]

Perhaps we should encourage some men to use sex robots. Men who get environmental cues that they’re evolutionary dead-ends disproportionately menace society. In the 1980s, evolutionary psychologist couple Wilson and Daly found that perpetrators of violence and homicide had something in common: they were young, single and didn’t have access to the kinds of resources with which to win mates. Polygynous societies in which wealthier men have access to multiple women are more violent and less stable because they have a class of young men without the prospect of getting a mate. Monogamy, rather than being the state of nature, may have been an important cultural technology for reducing violence.


My vaccine crackpottery: a confession | Shtetl-Optimized

I should probably read more Scott Aaronson…

I think that, in a well-run civilization, the first covid vaccines would’ve been tested and approved by around March or April 2020, while mass-manufacturing simultaneously ramped up with trillions of dollars’ investment. I think almost everyone on earth could have, and should have, already been vaccinated by now. I think a faster, “WWII-style” approach would’ve saved millions of lives, prevented economic destruction, and carried negligible risks compared to its benefits. I think this will be clear to future generations, who’ll write PhD theses exploring how it was possible that we invented multiple effective covid vaccines in mere days or weeks, but then simply sat on those vaccines for a year, ticking off boxes called “Phase I,” “Phase II,” etc. while civilization hung in the balance.

I’ve said similar things, on this blog and elsewhere, since the beginning of the pandemic, but part of me kept expecting events to teach me why I was wrong. Instead events—including the staggering cost of delay, the spectacular failures of institutional authorities to adapt to the scientific realities of covid, and the long-awaited finding that all the major vaccines safely work (some better than others), just like the experts predicted back in February—all this only made me more confident of my original, stupid and naïve position.


A Far-Right Terrorism Suspect With a Refugee Disguise: The Tale of Franco A. | New York Times

At the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, a bearded man in sweatpants walked into a police station. His pockets were empty except for an old cellphone and a few foreign coins.

In broken English, he presented himself as a Syrian refugee. He said he had crossed half the continent by foot and lost his papers along the way. The officers photographed and fingerprinted him. Over the next year, he would get shelter and an asylum hearing, and would qualify for monthly benefits.

His name, he offered, was David Benjamin.

In reality, he was a lieutenant in the German Army. He had darkened his face and hands with his mother’s makeup and applied shoe shine to his beard. Instead of walking across Europe, he had walked 10 minutes from his childhood home in the western city of Offenbach.


A Decades-Old Computer Science Puzzle Was Solved in Two Pages | Wired

With a stunningly simple proof, a researcher has finally cracked the sensitivity conjecture, "one of the most frustrating and embarrassing open problems."


Ancient snack stall uncovered in Pompeii, revealing bright frescoes and traces of 2,000-year-old street food | CNN

Archaeologists in Pompeii, the city buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, have made the extraordinary find of a frescoed hot food and drinks shop that served up the ancient equivalent of street food to Roman passersby.

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park's Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly colored frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.


A Mysterious Black Spot Offers Clues to a Doomed Explorer’s Last Moments | Atlas Obscura

Nearly a century after a tragic Arctic expedition secured a portion of Greenland for Denmark, a final diary entry by one of the explorers has offered up a clue to how he spent his last, frigid moments. The secret lay in a mysterious spot of dark material stuck to the page, rather than in the words themselves.

“No food, no foot gear, and several hundred miles to the ship,” wrote Jørgen Brønlund, the last survivor of a three-man sledge team that perished in 1907 during the Denmark Expedition to survey far northeastern Greenland. The men were attempting to return to base camp in Danmarkshavn when delays forced them to summer in a fjord and await the return of ice and snow more favorable for dog sledge travel. They were, however, already critically short of food and supplies.


1 star

WheatNOil | Twitter (Threadreader)

The mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) are kind of brilliant at a science level. I’ve had a few people in my real non-Twitter life ask me to explain how it works so I’m going to try my best here in this thread while I’m waiting for a patient to show.


Japan developing wooden satellites to cut space junk | BBC

A Japanese company and Kyoto University have joined forces to develop what they hope will be the world's first satellites made out of wood by 2023.

Sumitomo Forestry said it has started research on tree growth and the use of wood materials in space.

The partnership will begin experimenting with different types of wood in extreme environments on Earth.


Doctors Aren’t Sure How This Even Came Out of a Patient | The Atlantic

Somehow, a man coughed up an intact blood clot shaped like a lung passage.


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