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Links: Best of 2017
Happy holidays everyone! Here is this year's compilation of 4-star links, again rank-ordered to the best of my ability / memory.
(It's impressive, but perhaps not surprising, how many of these are from the New York Times.)
Trained to Kill: How Four Boy Soldiers Survived Boko Haram / New York Times
An incredible, gut-wrenching piece of reporting. It left me stunned:
The four children, from a fishing village in Nigeria, were among thousands abducted by Boko Haram and trained as soldiers. They learned to survive, but only by forgetting who they were.
My Family’s Slave / The Atlantic
Seven people recommended this article to me. It's not hard to see why. Read this...trust me.
Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding. To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said "please" and "thank you." We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be. After my mother died of leukemia, in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.
The Tamarind Is Always Sour / Granta
Each passenger was given one cup of water and one scoop of rice per day. The toilet was a couple wooden planks resting on iron bars welded to the side of the boat – the outside – and you could only use it once or twice a day in turn, following everyone else in your row. If you tried to go out of turn, or asked for more food or water, the crew would pistol whip you or belt you with a plastic pipe. The business model was to get as many passengers to Malaysia alive as possible, but crews were not shy about shooting or beating people dead to maintain order. The murdered would be thrown overboard, along with the handful on each ship who perished from starvation or sickness. Based on our interviews, we think about twelve of every thousand passengers died at sea, almost all from abuse or deprivation. There could be over 1,800 Rohingya and Bangladeshi bodies on the floor of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. [...] In Thailand, smugglers hauled their human cargo by truck to jungle encampments near the Malaysian border. There they would sequester the Rohingya and Bangladeshis in wooden cages until their families could pay off their debts. To extract payment, the smugglers called the family members of their captives as they beat them, forcing their screams into the phone. Only after payment was received were the prisoners released to Malaysia.
The Reactionary Temptation / New York
A great piece from Andrew Sullivan:
Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. [...] If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power. [...] I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being 'normalized.' But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that 'up to a point, they are right.'
How the World Works / The Atlantic
This James Fallows piece is from 1993, but it's a superb read. (It's also fun to glimpse prevailing assumptions and challenges from 24 years ago -- Japan was to surpass America, and finding a particular book was hard.)
Americans persist in thinking that Adam Smith's rules for free trade are the only legitimate ones. But today's fastest-growing economies are using a very different set of rules. Once, we knew them—knew them so well that we played by them, and won. Now we seem to have forgotten.
The Uncounted / New York Times
Later that same day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled “Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of “multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,” posing “a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.” Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses. [...] Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. [...] We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like Basim Razzo, remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.
Becoming a Steelworker Liberated Her. Then Her Job Moved to Mexico. / New York Times
The man from Mexico followed a manager through the factory floor, past whirring exhaust fans, beeping forklifts, and drilling machines that whined against steel. Workers in safety glasses looked up and stared. Others looked away. Shannon Mulcahy felt her stomach lurch. It was December 2016. The Rexnord Corporation’s factory still churned out bearings as it always had. Trucks still dropped off steel pipes at the loading dock. Bill Stinnett, a die-hard Indiana Pacers fan, still cut them into pieces. The pieces still went to the “turning” department, where they were honed into rings as small as a bracelet or as big as a basketball. Then to “heat treat,” where Shannon — who loves heavy metal music and abandoned dogs — hardened them with fire. Then to “grinding,” where Shannon’s cousin Lorry Mannix smoothed out any imperfections. And then to “assembly,” where Mark Elliott, a former Marine, joined two rings together, one inside the other, with a wheel of spinning rollers in between. The whole contraption was encased in a cast-iron housing machined by John Feltner, a father of three who’d just recovered from bankruptcy. The bearings they made — modern-day equivalents of a gadget designed by Leonardo da Vinci — were packed into crates like enormous Christmas ornaments and shipped around the world. To digging machines that claw the earth. To wheat combines that spin in the fields. To elevators and escalators in the cities. Sometimes a bearing was rumored to have ended up in something notable — the retracting roof of the Dallas Cowboys football stadium or a nuclear submarine — giving the workers a feeling of greatness. But mostly, the bearings were unglamorous. Anonymous. Hidden from view. Like the workers themselves, they were rarely thought of beyond the factory walls.
Death at a Penn State Fraternity / The Atlantic
Many of you have really liked previous pieces by Caitlin Flanagan; here's another insightful and eloquent one:
Every year or so brings another such death, another healthy young college man a victim of hazing at the hands of one of the nation’s storied social fraternities. And with each new death, the various stakeholders perform in ways that are so ritualized, it’s almost as though they are completing the second half of the same hazing rite that killed the boy. The fraternity enters a “period of reflection”; it may appoint a “blue-ribbon panel.” It will announce reforms that look significant to anyone outside the system, but that are essentially cosmetic. Its most dramatic act will be to shut down the chapter, and the house will stand empty for a time, its legend growing ever more thrilling to students who walk past and talk of a fraternity so off the chain that it killed a guy. In short order it will “recolonize” on the campus, and in a few years the house will be back in business. [...] Tim Piazza’s case, however, has something we’ve never seen before. This time the dead student left a final testimony, a vivid, horrifying, and inescapable account of what happened to him and why. The house where he was so savagely treated had been outfitted with security cameras, which recorded his long ordeal. Put together with the texts and group chats of the fraternity brothers as they delayed seeking medical treatment and then cleaned up any traces of a wild party—and with the 65-page report released by a Centre County grand jury, which recommended 1,098 criminal charges against 18 former members and against the fraternity itself—the footage reveals a more complete picture of certain dark realities than we have previously had. Once again, a student is dead and a family is shattered. And all of us are co-authors of these grim facts, as we grant both the fraternities and their host institutions tax-exempt status and allow them to carry on year after year with little change. Is it time we reconsidered what we’re doing?
Contra Askell on Moral Offsets / Slate Star Codex
When I read Slate Star Codex, I often think that Scott Alexander is much smarter than I am. I definitely thought that when reading this post. Maybe his distinction between axiology, morality, and law is self-evident, but it was new to me, and I found it very illuminating:
Offsetting is where you compensate for a bad thing by doing a good thing, then consider yourself even. For example, an environmentalist takes a carbon-belching plane flight, then pays to clean up the same amount of carbon she released. [...] Askell is uncomfortable with this concept for the same reasons I was when I first heard about it. Can we kill an enemy, then offset it with enough money to save somebody else’s life? [...] I think Askell gets the right answer here – you can offset carbon emissions but not city-nuking. And I think her reasoning sort of touches on some of the important considerations. But I also think there’s a much more elegant theory that gives clear answers to these kinds of questions, and which relieves some of my previous doubts about the offsetting idea.
The Fighter / New York Times
This piece follows the story of Sam Siatta, a former Marine convicted of a felony after returning to the US. But it's really a piece about soldiers and the wars we send them to. And while war has always been horrific (arguably, soldiers today encounter less horror than soldiers did in the past), it's so distant for most of us that this well-reported piece is quite jarring and troubling.
The Marine Corps taught Sam Siatta how to shoot. The war in Afghanistan taught him how to kill. Nobody taught him how to come home.
Deliverance From 27,000 Feet / New York Times
Mount Everest occupies a rare spot in the collective imagination — a misty mix of wonder, reverence and trepidation. Hundreds of people successfully and safely reach the summit most years and return home with inspirational tales of conquest and perseverance. Other stories detail the occasional tragedies that leave a few people dead in a typical year. Those disaster stories are now their own genre in books and film. Where most of those stories end is where this one begins, long after hope is gone — the quiet, desperate and dangerous pursuit, usually at the insistence of a distraught family far away, to bring the dead home. The only search is for some semblance of closure. That was why the Sherpas with their oxygen masks and ice axes had come this far, this high, more than a year later. The four Indian climbers, from a vibrant climbing culture in West Bengal, were like so many others attempting Everest. They saw the mountain as the ultimate conquest, a bucket-list item that would bring personal satisfaction and prestige. They dreamed of it for years and made it the focus of their training. As motivation, they surrounded themselves with photographs of the mountain, from their Facebook pages to the walls of their homes. In other ways, however, they were different. Climbing Everest is an expensive endeavor, something to be both bought and earned. Many climbers are middle-aged Westerners — doctors, lawyers and other professionals — with the kind of wealth that the group from India could not fathom. Some spend $100,000 to ensure the best guides, service and safety. These four climbers measured monthly salaries in the hundreds of dollars. They borrowed money and sold off possessions simply for a chance. They cut costs and corners, because otherwise Everest was completely out of reach.
Riding the Rays / Douglas Adams
I'm currently reading Douglas Adams's posthumously-published Salmon of Doubt, and one of the essays was delightful enough that I felt obliged to find it online and share it with you. It's not easy to find a summarising excerpt for it, so I'll just tell you how it starts -- and I hope the four-star rating and Douglas Adams's reputation are enough to compel you to read it:
Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy, Canada is like an intelligent, 35 year old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner. In fact it's not so much a country as such, more a sort of thin crust of semi-demented civilisation caked around the edge of a vast, raw wilderness, full of heat and dust and hopping things. Tell most Australians that you like their country and they will give a dry laugh and say 'Well, it's the last place left now isn't it?', which is the sort of worrying thing that Australians say. You don't quite know what they mean but it worries you in case they're right.
The Hollywood Exec and the Hand Transplant That Changed His Life / Los Angeles Magazine
It is a beautiful hand: strong, with long, slender fingers and smooth skin, its nails ridgeless and pink. If you didn’t know Jonathan Koch—if you first met him, say, on the courts at the Calabasas Tennis & Swim Club—you might not suspect that his hand previously belonged to someone else. The straight line of a scar on his outer left forearm offers no tip-off. There is a bulge where Jonathan’s and the donor’s tendons are woven together, but the mark itself doesn’t catch the eye. The Y-shaped seam on his inner arm does. This scar is a stark reminder of the technical mastery that underlies a medical miracle. In January, about three months after Jonathan and this hand became one, his wife, Jennifer, aims a video camera his way and asks how he is. 'I feel great,' he replies, grinning. To see his muscles straining under a gray Under Armour T-shirt, it’s easy to forget what he’s endured. 'My hand’s getting stronger every day. It’s more attractive than the hand I used to have, so I’m getting a lot of attention,' he quips, adding that the transplant has earned him a few stalkers. A moment later, though, he’s dead serious. 'I wasn’t left-handed,' he says, 'but I am now.'
What Goes Up / Epic
The daredevil, his helicopter, the risk of flying too high, and the birth of modern news [...] Foster still didn’t fit in with the newsroom professionals, who didn’t appreciate that a guy with a 10th-grade education was suddenly stealing their limelight. He tended to stay away from his colleagues but couldn’t always restrain the brawler in him. He got into a few shouting matches with the other journalists. Things were especially tense with the anchor, Bill Close, who once yelled at Foster for coming onto the set for a live report without a coat and tie. Close was annoyed that Foster’s backwoods pilot grunge had earned him a decent Q-score and on-air appeal. But the reality was that Foster was a good newsman. And he was good at what was going to become the dominant mode of local news. In fact, Foster was helping to invent that style of journalism. [...] Later that night, back at the station, the other reporters learned that this clip had been selected to appear on the CBS Evening News: the Arizona traffic pilot saving a man’s life, narrated by Walter Cronkite. The hillbilly reporter had soared directly into the national spotlight. Somewhere along the line Foster had made a pledge to never be more than 20 minutes from his chopper, and to keep that promise he parked his helicopter in the backyard. When he went to a restaurant or a movie or a grocery store, he always chose places that had parking lots big enough for a helicopter to land. He selected his doctor and dentist because each had offices beside an open field.
To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation / New York Times
On a recent October morning in the White House mailroom, on the ground floor of the Executive Office Building just beside a loading dock, 10 interns sat at two long tables, each trying to get through 300 letters. Grab a bundle, sit down and read. It was pretty straightforward: Read. A girl doesn’t want her mom to be deported, and can the president please help? A guy finally admits to his wife that he’s gay, and now he would like to tell the president. A car dealer writes to say his bank is shutting him down, and thanks for nothing, Mr. President. A vet who can’t stop seeing what he saw in Iraq writes a barely intelligible rant that makes his point all the more intelligible: 'Help.' An inmate admits to selling crack to all those people but he wants the president to know he is not a lost cause: 'I have dreams Mr. President, big dreams.' A man can’t find a job. A woman can’t find a job. A teacher with advanced certification can’t find a damn job. A lesbian couple just got married; thank you, Mr. President. A man sends his medical bills, a woman sends her student-loan statements, a child sends her drawing of a cat, a mother sends her teenager’s report card — straight A’s, isn’t that awesome, Mr. President? This pile, that pile, another pile over there; pull from the middle if you want. The narrative was sloppy and urgent, America talking all at once. No filter. The handwriting, the ink, the choice of letterhead — every letter was a real object from a real person, and now you were holding it, and so now you were responsible for it. [...] At the beginning of his first term, President Obama said he wanted to read his mail. He said he would like to see 10 letters a day. After that, the 10LADs, as they came to be called, were put in a purple folder and added to the back of the briefing book he took with him to the residence on the second floor of the White House each night. Choosing which letters made it to the president started here in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.
How to Make a $1500 Sandwich in Only 6 Months / How To Make Everything (YouTube)
How to Make a Formal Suit from Scratch / How To Make Everything (YouTube)
How to Make Eyeglasses from Scratch / How To Make Everything (YouTube)
How to Make $1700 Chocolates From Scratch / How To Make Everything (YouTube)
Turning Corn into Candy Corn / How To Make Everything (YouTube)
As some of you know, I tend to prefer articles to videos (I usually don't have the patience for videos). But this may well be a YouTube channel I could watch forever. It's incredible. I spent more than an hour watching these in rapt fascination.
I spent 6 months and $1500 to completely make a sandwich from scratch. Including growing my own vegetables, making my own salt from ocean water, milking a cow to make cheese, grinding my own flour from wheat, collecting my own honey, and killing a chicken myself.
In a new remixed video, we revisit one of my earliest and most challenging projects to date: attempting to make a formal suit from scratch. For it I travel to Colorado for hemp, Texas for cotton, raise my own silkworms, sheer a sheep and alpaca, spin all the fibers and weave, knit, felt and sew everything into my attempt at a formal suit.
In my next quest, I’m attempting to make a pair of prescription eyeglasses for myself, starting from their natural sources. With some guidance from Dr. Lewis Dartnell, I collected sand, limestone, and hardwood ashes to melt down into the glass. Then I figured out how to grind the lenses down to the correct curvature to match my prescription. I also made the frames for them out of a tree.
To explore what goes into making chocolate, I travel to Mexico and partake in every aspect of making it: from picking raw cacao pods and sugar cane, to fermenting and roasting, to turning it into actual chocolate.
I take a stab at trying to make one of my favorite processed fall candies: candy corn, starting from actual corn.
The Age of the Centaur is *Over* Skynet Goes Live / Marginal Revolution
The future is here – AlphaZero learns chess / ChessBase
This set is different from most four-star links in that the writing is not particularly compelling, there's no emotional engagement, etc. etc. But the latest news out of DeepMind is fascinating, scary, impressive -- and, I suspect, momentous. First, here's Tyler Cowen with an overview (and links to several other pieces):
In this paper, we generalise this approach into a single AlphaZero algorithm that can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case. [...] In other words, the human now adds absolutely nothing to man-machine chess-playing teams. That’s in addition to the surprising power of this approach in solving problems. [...] Did you know that the older Stockfish program considered 900 times more positions, but the greater “thinking depth” of the new innovation was decisive nonetheless. I will never forget how stunned I was to learn of this breakthrough. Finally, I’ve long said that Google’s final fate will be to evolve into a hedge fund.
Of the several links in the Marginal Revolution piece, I agree with Tyler that this one from ChessBase is the best:
Imagine this: you tell a computer system how the pieces move — nothing more. Then you tell it to learn to play the game. And a day later — yes, just 24 hours — it has figured it out to the level that beats the strongest programs in the world convincingly! DeepMind, the company that recently created the strongest Go program in the world, turned its attention to chess, and came up with this spectacular result. [...] There was still a burning question on everyone’s mind: just how well would AlphaZero do if it was focused on chess? Would it just be very smart, but smashed by the number-crunching engines of today where a single ply is often the difference between winning or losing? [...] The test is in the pudding of course, so before going into some of the fascinating nitty-gritty details, let’s cut to the chase. It played a match against the latest and greatest version of Stockfish, and won by an incredible score of 64 : 36, and not only that, AlphaZero had zero losses (28 wins and 72 draws)! [...] Since AlphaZero did not benefit from any chess knowledge, which means no games or opening theory, it also means it had to discover opening theory on its own. And do recall that this is the result of only 24 hours of self-learning. The team produced fascinating graphs showing the openings it discovered as well as the ones it gradually rejected as it grew stronger!
Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future / Wait But Why
Four stars because it's epic, but I do have some reservations about this one:
Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be. The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.
'London Bridge is down': the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death / Guardian
Arcane but fascinating;
She is venerated around the world. She has outlasted 12 US presidents. She stands for stability and order. But her kingdom is in turmoil, and her subjects are in denial that her reign will ever end. That’s why the palace has a plan. [...] For a long time, the art of royal spectacle was for other, weaker peoples: Italians, Russians, and Habsburgs. British ritual occasions were a mess. At the funeral of Princess Charlotte, in 1817, the undertakers were drunk. Ten years later, St George’s Chapel was so cold during the burial of the Duke of York that George Canning, the foreign secretary, contracted rheumatic fever and the bishop of London died. 'We never saw so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons,' reported the Times on the funeral of George IV, in 1830. Victoria’s coronation a few years later was nothing to write home about. The clergy got lost in the words; the singing was awful; and the royal jewellers made the coronation ring for the wrong finger. 'Some nations have a gift for ceremonial,' the Marquess of Salisbury wrote in 1860. 'In England the case is exactly the reverse.' What we think of as the ancient rituals of the monarchy were mainly crafted in the late 19th century, towards the end of Victoria’s reign. Courtiers, politicians and constitutional theorists such as Walter Bagehot worried about the dismal sight of the Empress of India trooping around Windsor in her donkey cart. If the crown was going to give up its executive authority, it would have to inspire loyalty and awe by other means – and theatre was part of the answer. 'The more democratic we get,' wrote Bagehot in 1867, 'the more we shall get to like state and show.'