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3 stars

The Last Children of Down Syndrome | The Atlantic

Denmark is not on its surface particularly hostile to disability. People with Down syndrome are entitled to health care, education, even money for the special shoes that fit their wider, more flexible feet. If you ask Danes about the syndrome, they’re likely to bring up Morten and Peter, two friends with Down syndrome who starred in popular TV programs where they cracked jokes and dissected soccer games. Yet a gulf seems to separate the publicly expressed attitudes and private decisions. Since universal screening was introduced, the number of children born with Down syndrome has fallen sharply. In 2019, only 18 were born in the entire country. […]

The forces of scientific progress are now marching toward ever more testing to detect ever more genetic conditions. Recent advances in genetics provoke anxieties about a future where parents choose what kind of child to have, or not have. But that hypothetical future is already here. It’s been here for an entire generation.

Fält-Hansen says the calls she receives are about information, helping parents make a truly informed decision. But they are also moments of seeking, of asking fundamental questions about parenthood. Do you ever wonder, I asked her, about the families who end up choosing an abortion? Do you feel like you failed to prove that your life—and your child’s life—is worth choosing? She told me she doesn’t think about it this way anymore. But in the beginning, she said, she did worry: “What if they don’t like my son?”

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The Curse of the Buried Treasure | New Yorker

Powell, a warehouse worker in his early thirties, and Davies, a school custodian a dozen years older, were experienced “detectorists.” There are approximately twenty thousand such enthusiasts in England and Wales, and usually they find only mundane detritus: a corroded button that popped off a jacket in the eighteen-hundreds, a bolt that fell off a tractor a dozen years ago. But some detectorists make discoveries that are immensely valuable, both to collectors of antiquities and to historians, for whom a single buried coin can help illuminate the past. Scanning the environs of King’s Hall Hill, the men suddenly picked up a signal on their devices. They dug into the red-brown soil, and three feet down they started to uncover a thrilling cache of objects: a gold arm bangle in the shape of a snake consuming its own tail; a pendant made from a crystal sphere banded by delicately wrought gold; a gold ring patterned with octagonal facets; a silver ingot measuring close to three inches in length; and, stuck together in a solid clod of earth, what appeared to be hundreds of fragile silver coins. […]

The word “treasure” conjures everything from a religious relic to a pirate chest spilling over with booty. But in British law the term has a specific meaning: the Treasure Act of 1996 defines a treasure as any object that is more than three hundred years old and at least ten per cent gold or silver. Because finds of single coins are quite common, they are exempted from this rule, no matter their metallic content or rarity, but a find of two or more coins in the same place—and certainly of a hoard—qualifies as treasure, and the finder is legally obliged to report the discovery to local authorities.

The Treasure Act was passed, in large part, because metal detecting had become such a popular activity. […]

After trespassing onto Lord Cawley’s land, Powell and Davies could have knocked on his door, baseball caps in hand, and made an excuse for having strayed—claiming, say, that they’d got turned around in the landscape—in the hope that, in light of their thrilling discovery, Lord Cawley would overlook a minor violation of protocol. Instead, they returned to South Wales, where Davies posted an image of three coins from the find on the online forum of a metal-detecting club. Gareth Williams, of the British Museum, told me, “The finders were stupidly indiscreet.”

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Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy | The Atlantic

Barack Obama: The 2020 60 Minutes interview | YouTube

In an exclusive interview, the former president identifies the greatest threats to the American experiment, explains why he’s still hopeful, and opens up about his new book. […]

A Promised Land is an unusual presidential memoir in many ways: unusually interior, unusually self-critical, unusually modern (this is the first presidential memoir, I believe, to use the term ethereal bisexual to describe an unrequited love interest), and unusually well written. The book does suffer at times from a general too-muchness, and it has its arid stretches, although to be fair, no one has yet invented a way to inject poetry into extended explanations of cap-and-trade, or Mitch McConnell’s motivations. […]

“America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold. There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work,” he said. […]

He went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”

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The former president shares the advice he would give President Trump, his thoughts on the killing of George Floyd, and what's behind the divisions in Washington and across the U.S. Scott Pelley reports.

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2 stars

Do Not Choose Susan Rice | The Scholar’s Stage

Biden Has a Serious Credibility Problem in Asia | Foreign Policy

Why Do Chinese Liberals Embrace American Conservatives? | New York Times

There is a grand tradition in American politics of bashing the other side's nominees. In the spirit of that tradition, I have a new piece out in the American Conservative that questions whether Susan Rice is fit to be the Biden administration’s nominee for Secretary of State. Rice is a controversial figure for all sorts of reasons. Most go back to her role in the Clinton administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide, or of her handling of the Libyan and Syrian crises in the Obama administration. Most famously, Rice became the Republican beat-up-doll of choice in 2013, when the terrorist attack in Benghazi was being used for maximum partisan advantage.

I have always considered the Benghazi stuff to be a bit spurious. Larger questions surrounding the wisdom of American intervention in Syria and Libya have far more merit, and I was disappointed—if not surprised—to find that Rice’s memoir does not honestly grapple with the poisonous legacies of America's decision to intervene in either of these conflicts. But my critique of Rice in the American Conservative is not grounded in her behavior in the Near East, but the Far. […]

My fear, however, is that the Biden administration will succumb to the sore temptation to abandon any genuine good done over the last four simply because a Trump official was the one who do it. An evenhanded evaluation of the Trump era’s mistakes and accomplishments in this domain is needed, so that new the administration may jettison less helpful schemes without throwing out the policies that increased America's credibility and leverage in the region.

I am sure that today’s piece will be the first of many in this vein. It should be seen as building on earlier work written by James Crabtree and Jeremy Stern earlier this year. Both have pointed out that Trumpish diplomacy was not nearly as subversive in Asia as it was in Europe.

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Bilahari Kausikan, a former high-ranking Singaporean diplomat, is known to be outspoken. But his recent comments about Susan Rice, a U.S. national security advisor during the Obama administration, were even blunter than usual. “Rice would be a disaster,” he wrote on Facebook in August, when Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was reportedly considering Rice as a running mate. Kausikan described Rice—a possible candidate for secretary of state or defense in a Biden adminstration—as weak-willed on Beijing: “She was amongst those who thought the United States should deemphasise competition to get China’s cooperation on climate change, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of international relations.” His prediction in case of a Biden victory: “We will look back on Trump with nostalgia.”

If Kausikan’s sharp views have often made him an intellectual outlier in Asia, this case is different. To a degree that will surprise many in Washington, the United States’ friends in the region are quietly anxious about a Biden victory, and that counts even more for vital partners such as Japan and India. In the United States, Trump’s critics on both the left and right find him offensive and despair of his politics—and assume that any right-minded foreigner would, too. That may be the case in much of Europe, but not so in much of Asia: Officials in Tokyo, Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore, and other capitals have grown relatively comfortable with Trump and his tough approach on China. The prospect of a Biden presidency, by contrast, brings back uncomfortable memories of an Obama era that many Asian movers and shakers recall as unfocused and soft toward Beijing. Whether or not that memory is correct is beside the point. Biden has an Asian credibility problem—and one that may prove tricky to solve.

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For months, some of China’s best-known dissidents have served up a striking anomaly: While pushing for democracy and free speech at home, they have supported the re-election of Donald Trump, a president who has disdained democratic norms in the United States, sometimes even mimicking China’s leaders, for example by calling for political opponents to be locked up.

Now that Joe Biden has defeated Mr. Trump, this paradox might seem to be of interest only to historians of Chinese thought. In fact, these Chinese liberal thinkers offer a stark warning about the potential direction of U.S. foreign policy and, more so still, the pitfalls facing American society.

Many Chinese liberals have expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Trump for so demonstrably ignoring the conventional wisdom of diplomatic engagement with China, in particular the claims that more trade would soften China’s authoritarian politics and that it is better to talk quietly behind closed doors than openly confront China over any disagreements.

In some ways this position can be chalked up to the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”: For some Chinese liberals, Mr. Trump’s strident opposition to the Chinese Communist Party automatically made him seem like an ally.

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What’s Gold for? | The Diff

For reasons that have more to do with physics than finance, gold is the asset class with the longest unbroken performance record. We have a decent idea of what a given amount of gold bought in ancient Greece, imperial Rome, renaissance Genoa, revolutionary France, and the modern US. Other products have existed about as long; there are records of loans going back to ancient Mesopotamia. But they’re a discontinuous time series—we have those records because they were written on clay tablets, which were then baked because the city they were in was razed to the ground. This typically results in a default with no recovery for the creditor. Gold, though, is durable; in general, the gold we have will last indefinitely, barring extreme events.

There are roughly three ways to think about gold, two of which are fairly crazy, one of which is boring but sometimes useful.

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The man who wants to help you out of debt – at any cost | The Guardian

Three hours a day, five times a week, 16 million people tune into the Dave Ramsey Show, Ramsey’s decades-running radio program, for his financial counsel. It is the third biggest talk radio program in the country, after only Rush Limbaugh’s and Sean Hannity’s. Unsurprisingly, his following includes a growing number of debt-burdened millennials.

Ramsey has been described as the “financial whisperer to Trump’s America”, an interlocutor for struggling people forgotten by coastal corridors of power. Critics argue that his worldview ignores the structural economic reasons so many Americans are in debt, such as higher education and healthcare costs, and encourages them to view indebtedness as a personal failing.

But if his fans are to be believed, Ramsey has saved their lives, helping them to pull themselves, bootstrap by bootstrap, out of indebtedness and poverty. His seven-step program is taught widely at churches, schools, corporations and military bases. His audience is likely to grow even further in future years. Americans currently owe more than $14tn in consumer debt. Of that, $372bn is at least 90 days late and considered seriously delinquent. The average American owes $6,194 in credit card debt, and Americans owe a collective $1.6tn in student loans.

As Ramsey sees it, America’s debt crisis is an epidemic akin to drug addiction, and its roots lie in individual behavior. The only way to escape its crushing weight is to stop enabling yourself and go cold turkey: live on rice and beans, get a second job, sell your money-sucking car.

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The day I left my son in the car | Salon

He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I'd come to recognize as a sort of pre-tantrum agitation. "No, no, no, no, no! I don't want to go in," he repeated, and turned back to his game.

I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I've been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I'd never done before. I left him. I told him I'd be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.

He didn't die. He wasn't kidnapped or assaulted or forgotten or dragged across state lines by a carjacker. When I returned to the car, he was still playing his game, smiling, or more likely smirking at having gotten what he wanted from his spineless mama. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition. […]

We flew home. My husband was waiting for us beside the baggage claim with this terrible look on his face. "Call your mom," he said.

I called her, and she was crying. When she'd arrived home from driving us to the airport, there was a police car in her driveway.

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Playing on Hard Mode | Stratechery

And yet, for all of Facebook’s initial challenges, the truth is that the company was, relatively speaking, playing on easy mode. Yes, the company practically invented the modern growth hacking discipline and feed advertising, but its core product was about digitizing offline relationships that already existed, and the means by which it did that — text and photos, at least at the beginning — were native to the Internet. To the extent it was difficult to figure out how to monetize advertising it was because advertising was so easy that there was effectively infinite inventory.

You can make a similar argument about Google. […]

Amazon, in contrast, has played on a much higher difficulty setting from the beginning, selling and shipping physical items, with all of the marginal costs that entails. If anything the company has doubled down on the physical world, investing billions to deliver items in one day; I don’t think it is a coincidence it is Amazon that is Google’s true competitor.

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Ivanka Trump was my best friend. Now she’s MAGA royalty | Vanity Fair

We met at an all-girls school on the Upper East Side and were inseparable for more than a decade. Gradually, though, our differences divided us—“Why would you tell me to read a book about fucking poor people?” she once asked—and I watched her blow up her carefully curated image of refined privilege to embrace her father wholesale. […]

But in public, we’ve stayed silent because that’s what we are taught to do. I told myself it wouldn’t make a difference if I shared my bird’s-eye view of the first family because the public had long ago grown inured to the run-of-the-mill instances of misogyny, elitism, and poor character that I could recollect. In reality, I was afraid I’d lose friends and get skewered from all sides as a hypocritical, privileged elitist looking to capitalize on her Trump connection. My disgust with the Trumps was outweighed by my fear of being dragged through the mud, dismissed by the family as a nasty loser. Even now, as self-proclaimed former friends vow that Ivanka can never show her face in Manhattan again, few of these detractors are quoted by name in the many takes about her future.

A few weeks ago, after I voted early against her dad, I sat down at my computer and began to write about my friendship with Ivanka with no eye toward publication. But the more I wrote, the surer I became that I did not owe her my silence. Although friends and family have warned that this article won’t be received the way I want, I think it’s past time that one of the many critics from Ivanka’s childhood comes forward—if only to ensure that she really will never recover from the decision to tie her fate to her father’s.

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DoorDash and Societal Arbitrage | The Margins

“we are legal”.

That’s it. Those three words. Even if things seemed out of bounds, everything Uber was doing was within the limits of the law. Everything Doordash has done has been within the rules of the game as we, as a society, have outlined them.

  • Scraping websites of unwitting restaurants under the guise of "demand generation". It's legal!

  • Misleading customers around tipping practices and blaming a confusing UX? It only counts if you get caught!

  • Paying your workers substandard wages while not providing health insurance, meanwhile investing $48 million into a political campaign to make sure they will never be employees, and creating councils and writing long blog posts about empowering minorities? A+ to the content and policy teams.

  • Making an antitrust-y acquisition before the topic really became part of the national conversation? Approved.

  • And of course, continuing to raise hundreds of millions of dollars while losing money. Then being celebrated for 'only' losing $131 million. Welcome to 2020.

It’s all within the rules. The regulatory rules. The labor rules. The antitrust rules. The consumer protection rules. Full credit to Tony Xu and their team - they have out-executed every competitor. They are winning this weird and twisted game of heavily-funded food delivery apps.

But this is less a 'good for them' than a 'bad on us' sentiment.

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A Ride on the Assembly Line With the World’s Most Famous Chalk | New York Times

Hagoromo chalk is a cult favorite of elite academics, artists and others around the world who praise it for its silky feel, vibrant colors, scant dust and nearly unbreakable quality. Mathematicians in particular are prone to waxing poetic about it, and buying it in bulk. The YouTube video, produced by Great Big Story, has been viewed more than 18 million times.

Despite its renown, Hagoromo is still produced on a relatively small scale, using custom-made equipment, much of it run by two laborers who are identical twins — a throwback in a high-tech era where interactive displays are replacing chalkboards.

The chalk has survived World War II and, nearly 70 years later, the closing of the Japanese company that originally made it. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest threat, hurting sales as education and other activities go virtual.

Hagoromo’s continued existence is an unlikely story that bridges Japan and South Korea, two countries that have had an uneasy, and often bitter, relationship ever since the war.

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1 star

Chris Nikic, You Are an Ironman. And Your Journey Is Remarkable. | New York Times

Nikic, 21, became the first person with Down syndrome to conquer the grueling endurance race, offering lessons in perseverance and hope. […]

To understand the long odds Nikic faced during that race, held in Panama City Beach, Fla., on a recent Saturday, you have to go back to his childhood.

At 5 months old, he endured open-heart surgery. He was so weak and had such poor balance that he did not walk on his own until he was 4. To keep him from choking, his family fed him baby food until he was 6. When he learned to run, it took months for him to discover how to swing his arms at his side instead of holding them straight above his head.

It took years for him to learn how to tie his shoes.

At every turn, experts spoke of Nikic in terms of limits instead of possibilities.

“I always felt isolated, left out, excluded,” he told me during a video call this week, as he described the emotions that he felt growing up.

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This Insect Has The Only Mechanical Gears Ever Found in Nature | Smithsonian Magazine

The small hopping insect Issus coleoptratus uses toothed gears (magnified above with an electron microscope) to precisely synchronize the kicks of its hind legs as it jumps forward. […]

Malcolm Burrows and Gregory Sutton, a pair of biologists from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., discovered that juveniles of the species have an intricate gearing system that locks their back legs together, allowing both appendages to rotate at the exact same instant, causing the tiny creatures jump forward.

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What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In? | New York Times

“I am challenging the call-out culture,” Professor Ross said from her home in Atlanta, where she was lecturing on Zoom to students on a recent evening, in a blue muumuu from Ghana. “I think you can understand how calling out is toxic. It really does alienate people, and makes them fearful of speaking up.” […]

That perspective has made Professor Ross, 67, an unlikely figure in the culture wars. A radical Black feminist who has been doing human rights work for four decades, she was one of the signatories of a widely denounced letter in Harper’s Magazine, for which she herself was called out. “There’s such an irony for being called out for calling out the calling-out culture,” she said. “It really was amusing.” […]

Yet she tells students when they enroll: “If you need a trigger warning or a safe space, I urge you to drop this class.”

“I think we overuse that word ‘trigger’ when really we mean discomfort,” she said. “And we should be able to have uncomfortable conversations.”

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A Perfect Photo of a Kingfisher, 720K Pictures in the Making | Wired

Photographer Alan McFadyen captures a kingfisher the moment before it plunges into the water.

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Biden-voting counties equal 70% of America’s economy. What does this mean for the nation’s political-economic divide? | Brookings

Most notably, the stark economic rift that Brookings Metro documented after Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory has grown even wider. In 2016, we wrote that the 2,584 counties that Trump won generated just 36% of the country’s economic output, whereas the 472 counties Hillary Clinton carried equated to almost two-thirds of the nation’s aggregate economy.

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Inside the Studio Where Paint and Water Create Mesmerizing Photos | My Space | Wired

Kim Keever squeezes paint into a 200 gallon fish tank to make his art. The resulting photographs are vibrant odes to physics.

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