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4 stars

What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind

Several people recommended this piece highly, and it also picked up a ton of buzz online. But while reading its first half, I was thinking this was a solid three-but-not-four-star piece. Stick with it; by the end, it seemed pretty clearly one of the best articles I’ve read this year.

When Bobby McIlvaine died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads. He’d kept the diaries since he was a teenager, and they were filled with the usual diary things—longings, observations, frustrations—while the legal pads were marbled with more variety: aphoristic musings, quotes that spoke to him, stabs at fiction.

The yellow pads appeared to have the earnest beginnings of two different novels. But the diaries told a different kind of story. To the outside world, Bobby, 26, was a charmer, a striver, a furnace of ambition. But inside, the guy was a sage and a sap—philosophical about disappointments, melancholy when the weather changed, moony over girlfriends.

Less than a week after his death, Bobby’s father had to contend with that pitiless still life of a desk. And so he began distributing the yellow legal pads, the perfect-bound diaries: to Bobby’s friends; to Bobby’s girlfriend, Jen, to whom he was about to propose. Maybe, he told them, there was material in there that they could use in their eulogies.

One object in that pile glowed with more meaning than all the others: Bobby’s very last diary. Jen took one look and quickly realized that her name was all over it. Could she keep it?

Bobby’s father didn’t think. He simply said yes. It was a reflex that he almost instantly came to regret.

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3 stars

Adumbrations Of Aducanumab | Astral Codex Ten

Ignore the cryptic title and enjoy this entertaining-but-tragic look at the FDA:

I worry that people are going to come away from this with some conclusion like “wow, the FDA seemed really unprepared to handle COVID.” No. It’s not that specific. Every single thing the FDA does is like this. Every single hour of every single day the FDA does things exactly this stupid and destructive, and the only reason you never hear about the others is because they’re about some disease with a name like Schmoe’s Syndrome and a few hundred cases nationwide instead of something big and media-worthy like coronavirus. I am a doctor and sometimes I have to deal with the Schmoe’s Syndromes of the world and every f@$king time there is some story about the FDA doing something exactly this awful and counterproductive. […]

I want to stress that, despite my feelings about the FDA, I don’t think individual FDA bureaucrats, or even necessarily the FDA director, consistently make stupid mistakes. I think that given their mandate - approve drugs that definitely work, reject ones that are unsafe/ineffective, expect people to freak out and demand your head if any unsafe/ineffective drug gets through, nobody will care no matter how many lifesaving treatments you delay or stifle outright - they’re doing the best they can. There are a few cases, like aducanumab, where it seems like they move a little faster than that mandate would suggest, and a few other cases, like infant nutrient fluid, where they move a little slower. But basically they are fulfilling their mandate to the best of the ability of the very smart people who work there.

And it’s hard to even blame the people who set the FDA’s mandate. They’re also doing the best they can given what kind of country / what kind of people we are. If some politician ever stopped fighting the Global War On Terror, then eventually some Saudi with a fertilizer bomb would slip through and kill ~5 people. And then everyone would tar and feather the politician who dared relax our vigilance, and we would all restart the Global War On Terror twice as hard, and drone strike twice as many weddings. This is true even if the War on Terror itself has an arbitrary cost in people killed / money spent / freedoms lost. The FDA mandate is set the same way - we’re open to paying limitless costs, as long as it lets us avoid a very specific kind of scandal which the media will turn into 24-7 humiliation of whoever let it happen. If I were a politician operating under these constraints, I’m not sure I could do any better.

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Typos, tricks and misprints | Aeon

The arbitrariness of English spelling is a topic that has been covered a million times, and yet this article managed to include a bunch of information that was new to me:

But just how does spelling factor into all this? It wasn’t as if the rest of Europe didn’t also contend with a mix of tribes and languages. The remnants of the Roman Empire comprised Germanic, Celtic and Slavic communities spread over a huge area. Various conquests installed a ruling-class language in control of a population that spoke a different language: there was the Nordic conquest of Normandy in the 10th century (where they now write French with a pretty regular system); the Ottoman Turkish rule over Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries (which now has very consistent spelling rules for Hungarian); Moorish rule in Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries (which also has very consistent spelling). True, other languages did have official academies and other government attempts at standardisation – but those interventions have largely only ever succeeded at implementing minor changes to existing systems in very specific areas. English wasn’t the only language to pick the pockets of others for useful words.

The answer to the weirdness of English has to do with the timing of technology. The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press had arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently.

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2 stars

Global Temperature Over My Lifetime | xkcd

Sobering.

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What We Think We Know About Metabolism May Be Wrong | New York Times

Everyone knows conventional wisdom about metabolism: People put pounds on year after year from their 20s onward because their metabolisms slow down, especially around middle age. Women have slower metabolisms than men. That’s why they have a harder time controlling their weight. Menopause only makes things worse, slowing women’s metabolisms even more.

All wrong, according to a paper published Thursday in Science. Using data from nearly 6,500 people, ranging in age from 8 days to 95 years, researchers discovered that there are four distinct periods of life, as far as metabolism goes. They also found that there are no real differences between the metabolic rates of men and women after controlling for other factors.

The findings from the research are likely to reshape the science of human physiology and could also have implications for some medical practices, like determining appropriate drug doses for children and older people.

“It will be in textbooks,” predicted Leanne Redman, an energy balance physiologist at Pennington Biomedical Research Institute in Baton Rouge, La., who also called it “a pivotal paper.”

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Climate crisis: Scientists spot warning signs of Gulf Stream collapse | The Guardian

Climate scientists have detected warning signs of the collapse of the Gulf Stream, one of the planet’s main potential tipping points.

The research found “an almost complete loss of stability over the last century” of the currents that researchers call the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). The currents are already at their slowest point in at least 1,600 years, but the new analysis shows they may be nearing a shutdown.

Such an event would have catastrophic consequences around the world, severely disrupting the rains that billions of people depend on for food in India, South America and West Africa; increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe; and pushing up the sea level off eastern North America. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

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Does America really lose all its wars? | Noahpinion

One thing leftists and conservatives often seem to agree on is the idea that since World War 2, America has lost all of the wars it has fought. For leftists, who want to see American empire humbled and beaten, this is a way of reassuring themselves — the big baddie is actually a paper tiger, etc. America occupies a position in their cosmology similar to that of Satan in Christian lore — always looming, full of terrible power, yet always defeated by righteousness in the end. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to think that if we would just be less liberal, we’d start triumphing instead of getting whipped every time. […]

But is this true? Does America actually lose all, or even most, of its modern wars? Let’s take a hard-headed look at that question. […]

Besides the obvious reason of needing to push the above-mentioned narratives of national weakness, why do all these people on the left and the right feel the need to repeat the falsehood that America loses all its wars? From what I can tell, there are several reasons.

One reason seems to be that many people compare modern wars to World War 2. In that war, the U.S. committed its full national resources, defeated great-power rivals decisively on the field of battle, occupied its fallen enemies, and helped them transform into some of the world’s richest, most peaceful, and most stable nations (and our enduring allies to boot). In the process, the U.S. improved its technology and its institutions, strengthened its economy enormously, and created a sense of national unity. And the postwar settlement left the U.S., if not the undisputed master of the world, at least the first among equals — the first true superpower in history. That was an absolutely startling success — perhaps the most dramatically positive result ever achieved by a country in any modern war.

Most wars throughout history have been nothing like that. In particular, I challenge you to find any war since World War 2 whose result has looked even remotely like the result of World War 2. You will not find even one. If “didn’t do as well as America in WW2” is the criterion for a loss, then every country loses every war now. […]

So the U.S. actually wins most of its wars. But now let’s ask a more interesting question: Who cares? […]

Instead, I want to make a more useful point here: Victory is not enough of a reason to fight a war in the first place.

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On blankfaces | Shtetl-Optimized

What exactly is a blankface? He or she is often a mid-level bureaucrat, but not every bureaucrat is a blankface, and not every blankface is a bureaucrat. A blankface is anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their actions. A blankface meets every appeal to facts, logic, and plain compassion with the same repetition of rules and regulations and the same blank stare—a blank stare that, more often than not, conceals a contemptuous smile.

The longer I live, the more I see blankfacedness as one of the fundamental evils of the human condition. Yes, it contains large elements of stupidity, incuriosity, malevolence, and bureaucratic indifference, but it’s not reducible to any of those. […]

Some people will object that the term “blankface” is dehumanizing. The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason.

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Tunnels are our Transportation Future | Austin Vernon

Tunnels are getting cheap and that makes a big difference.

Cheap tunnels can significantly improve the throughput of our transportation systems. To understand how, let's overview freight trains, passenger trains, trucks, cars, and tunneling technology. […]

I know mid-century modern is popular right now, but yearning for slow 1960s technology like high-speed rail is lame. Hyperloops and freight tunnels can create super regions and minimize the physical movement of people and goods as a constraint on growth. Commuting daily to a job 300 miles away should be normal. The technology is maturing before our eyes, and the costs are only going to fall. So bring on the tunnels!

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Venice’s Massive Flood Defense System | Kottke

In this video, Tomorrow’s Build takes a look at the $7 billion flood defense system that was built to protect Venice, Italy from increased flooding due to climate change. They detail how the system was built, how well it works, how it compares with other defense systems, the challenges associated with keeping it working, and how well this sort of defense system might work for other coastal cities (NYC, SF, Sydney).

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1 star

Giraffes May Be as Socially Complex as Chimps and Elephants | New York Times

A review of earlier research shows giraffes have the markings of social creatures, including friendships, day care and grandmothers.

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Fantastic photography done inside a squirrel’s nest.

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Which Singers Have the Biggest Vocabularies? | Wordtips

Key Findings

  • The star with the biggest vocabulary overall is legend Patti Smith, who uses 217 unique words per 1,000.

  • Billie Eilish is the modern star with the biggest vocabulary169 per 1,000.

  • Legend Luther Vandross and modern star Trey Songz are tied with 66 for the smallest vocabulary.

  • The song with the most unique words is Lou Reed’s The Murder Mystery, recorded by The Velvet Underground, with 639 words.

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Then & Now Portraits of Centenarians | Kottke

For his Faces of Century project, photographer Jan Langer made portraits of Czech people who are 100+ years old that mimic the style of photos of those same people 70 or 80 years before. If you click on the ⓘ below each pair of photographs, you can read a short biography of each person. All of these folks lived through two world wars, the Cold War, the space age, the computer age, and so much more. Incredible.

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