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Late in the spring of 2020, Jan Marsalek, an Austrian bank executive, was suspended from his job. He was a widely admired figure in the European business community—charismatic, trilingual, and well travelled. Even at his busiest, as the chief operating officer of Wirecard, Germany’s fastest-growing financial-technology company, he would assure subordinates who sought a minute of his time that he had one, just for them. “For you, always,” he used to say. But he would say that to almost everyone.
Marsalek’s identity was inextricable from that of the company, a global payment processor that was headquartered outside Munich and had a banking license. He had joined in 2000, on his twentieth birthday, when it was a startup. He had no formal qualifications or work experience, but he showed an inexhaustible devotion to Wirecard’s growth. The company eventually earned the confidence of Germany’s political and financial élite, who considered it Europe’s answer to PayPal. When Wirecard wanted to acquire a Chinese company, Chancellor Angela Merkel personally took up the matter with President Xi Jinping.
Then, on June 18, 2020, Wirecard announced that nearly two billion euros was missing from the company’s accounts. The sum amounted to all the profits that Wirecard had ever reported as a public company. There were only two possibilities: the money had been stolen, or it had never existed.
This annual letter is becoming a must-read; there are insights here you won’t find anywhere else:
Mountains offer the best hiding places from the state.
There were a lot of state controls to escape from in 2022. Two days before Shanghai locked down in April, I was on the final flight from the city to Yunnan, the province in China’s farthest southwest. Yunnan’s landmass—slightly smaller than that of California’s—features greater geographic variation than most countries. Its north is historic Tibet, while the south feels much like Thailand. People visit the province for its spectacular nature views: rainforest, rice terraces, fast rivers, and snowy mountains. Otherwise tourists are drawn to its ethnic exoticism. As many as half of the country’s officially-recognized ethnic groups have a substantial presence there, including many of those that have historically resisted Han rule.
As Shanghai’s lockdown became protracted, a trip planned to last days grew into one that lasted months. Wandering through Yunnan gave me a chance to contemplate the culture of the mountains.
Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls. Here’s the Evidence. | After Babel
Most of the news coverage last week noted that the trends pre-dated covid, and many of them mentioned social media as a potential cause. A few of them then did the standard thing that journalists have been doing for years, saying essentially “gosh, we just don’t know if it’s social media, because the evidence is all correlational and the correlations are really small.” For example, Derek Thompson, one of my favorite data-oriented journalists, wrote a widely read essay in The Atlantic on the multiplicity of possible causes. In a section titled Why is it so hard to prove that social media and smartphones are destroying teen mental health? he noted that “the academic literature on social media’s harms is complicated” and he then quoted one of the main academics studying the issue—Jeff Hancock, of Stanford University: “There’s been absolutely hundreds of [social-media and mental-health] studies, almost all showing pretty small effects.”
In this post, I will show that Thompson’s skepticism was justified in 2019 but is not justified in 2023. A lot of new work has been published since 2019, and there has been a recent and surprising convergence among the leading opponents in the debate (including Hancock and me). There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause, not just a tiny correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide.
Asked to imagine what life looked like for humans from this era, a 20th-century archaeologist or anthropologist would likely picture the hunting and gathering being done almost exclusively by adults, prompting researchers to write journal articles with titles such as ‘Why Don’t Anthropologists Like Children?’ (2002) and ‘Where Have All the Children Gone?’ (2001). We forget that the adults of the Palaeolithic were also mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents who had to make space for the little ones around them. In fact, children in the deep past may have taken up significantly more space than they do today: in prehistoric societies, children under 15 accounted for around half of the world’s population. Today, they’re around a quarter. Why have children been so silent in the archaeological record? Where are their stories? […]
But using new techniques, and with different assumptions, the children of the Ice Age are being given a voice. And what they’re saying is surprising: they’re telling us different stories, not only about the roles they played in the past, but also about the evolution of human culture itself.
Twitter’s staff spent years trying to protect the social media site against impulsive billionaires who wanted to use the reach of its platform for their own ends, and then one made himself the CEO.
It’s 11:05 a.m. on a Tuesday, and none of the 20 or so reporters huddling outside George Santos’ congressional office wants to grab the last of twelve donuts he brought to the Longworth House building. The gaggle has been here for hours, camped out next to a cardboard carafe of coffee rapidly growing stale. Around 8 a.m., Santos had waltzed in, ceremoniously plopping a Dunkin’ Donuts bag on a side table placed outside L-1117, a confectionery bounty. He didn’t need to be here so early (his first vote is at 6:30 p.m.), but he had teased a “surprise” the day before on Twitter, “for the ‘journalists’ assigned to stake out side [sic] of my office,” the quotation marks smacking of cheerful condescension. “I brought you guys some donuts!” he exclaims. “Donuts and coffee, for all the hard work you guys do.”
“Thank you. Seriously,” he says, by now half-inside his office, just before the door swings shut against the videographers and photographers and reporters, all of whom crave answers more than pastries.
Is Sperm Count Declining?
People say it is. […]
But Willy Chertman has a long analysis of fertility trends here, and concludes that there’s no sign of a biological decline. Either the sperm count distribution isn’t wide enough to push a substantial number of people below the 30 million bar, or something else is wrong with the theory. […]
Unless I’m misunderstanding this, it seems like to support sperm count decline, you’d have to claim that everyone who argued about it for the first forty years or so was working off of useless data, but by coincidence they happened to be right anyway.
There’s no reason this can’t be true, but it makes me suspicious.
I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s very cool in a nerdy way. It’s a ton of pages that look like this:
A century ago, humans were quite short. For example, the average South Korean woman was about 4-foot-7, or 142 centimeters, while the average American woman was about 5-foot-2, or 159 centimeters. Humans were fairly short by today’s standards, and that was true throughout nearly all of human history.
But in the past century, human heights have skyrocketed. Globally, humans grew about 3 inches on average, but in South Korea, women grew an astounding 8 inches and men grew 6 inches.
Imagine ExxonMobil releases a statement on climate change. It’s a great statement! They talk about how preventing climate change is their core value. They say that they’ve talked to all the world’s top environmental activists at length, listened to what they had to say, and plan to follow exactly the path they recommend. So (they promise) in the future, when climate change starts to be a real threat, they’ll do everything environmentalists want, in the most careful and responsible way possible. They even put in firm commitments that people can hold them to. […]
Planning For AGI And Beyond (“AGI” = “artificial general intelligence”, ie human-level AI) is the latest volley in that campaign. It’s very good, in all the ways ExxonMobil’s hypothetical statement above was very good. If they’re trying to fool people, they’re doing a convincing job!
Still, it doesn’t apologize for doing normal AI company stuff in the past, or plan to stop doing normal AI company stuff in the present. It just says that, at some indefinite point when they decide AI is a threat, they’re going to do everything right.
This is more believable when OpenAI says it than when ExxonMobil does. There are real arguments for why an AI company might want to switch from moving fast and breaking things at time t to acting all responsible at time t + 1 . Let’s explore the arguments they make in the document, go over the reasons they’re obviously wrong, then look at the more complicated arguments they might be based off of.
Discovery of ‘superhighways’ suggests early Mayan civilization was more advanced than previously thought | CNN
A 110-mile (177-kilometer) network of raised stone trails, or causeways, that linked the communities reveals that the early civilization was home to an even more complex society than previously thought, according to a recent analysis on the architecture groupings, published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.
“They’re the world’s first superhighway system that we have,” said lead study author Richard Hansen, a professor of anthropology at Idaho State University. “What’s amazing about (the causeways) is that they unite all these cities together like a spiderweb … which forms one of the earliest and first state societies in the Western Hemisphere.”
More broadly, I worry about a culture of negativity on the political Left — and yes, that includes the center-left of which I count myself a part. Acknowledging any amount of progress on any problem is often seen as encouraging complacency. But failing to acknowledge any progress eventually backfires, turning into helpless doomerism — if nothing ever gets better, why try?
Instead, doomerism is a psychological tendency that must be constantly and actively resisted. And in the modern day, that’s no easy task. Plenty of research shows that negative news is more attention-grabbing than positive news. And with the advent of social media, it’s not just click-hungry media outlets bombarding you with negative news — it’s every clout-chasing 2000-follower account hoping for their big break. There’s always plenty of bad stuff going on in the world, but now there are literally millions of people with an incentive to find every bit of that bad stuff and shove it directly into your face, hoping you’ll reward them with a retweet or a follow.
In other words, maybe it is the phones after all.
Is Sally Rooney the undeniably universal millennial experience as the rest of the world claims? Jaime interviews Na Zhong, the Simplified Chinese translator of Sally Rooney’s three novels to date, to find out […]
After the book came out, I joined another writer on a podcast about Sally Rooney and the host asked a question about Marxism, and it suddenly hit me that actually, what Sally Rooney meant by Marxism is quite different from what it means in China. […]
The level of interest in themselves shown by Sally Rooney’s characters would risk being criticized as self-absorption in Chinese literature, which is why I haven't seen any young writer who writes in a similar vein. But a new generation of Chinese writers are emerging, and many of them are dealing with feminism and their relationships with the world in a very original way.
For most of her life, Joy Milne had a superpower that she was totally oblivious to. She simply had no idea she possessed an utterly amazing, slightly terrifying biological gift that scientists would itch to study.
In fact, Joy probably would have stayed oblivious if it hadn't been for her husband, Les Milne.
I also wondered a lot why men rule exactly the whole world, or did until about 50 years ago. When I realized the answer, it was so obvious that I felt stupid for not having thought of it earlier.
The obvious answer is: Men make war. Or rather, groups of men make war. The groups that were good at making war remained. The groups that were less good at making war perished. That way, human history is a history of successful male military cooperation. Groups with weak male bonding were defeated by groups where men cooperated better.
If you learn a little psychology, you might come away thinking that people are stupid.
After all, one of psychology’s main exports is cognitive biases. There’s the conjunction fallacy, the endowment effect, false consensus, false uniqueness, the curse of knowledge, the availability heuristic, the better-than-average effect, the worse-than-average effect, hyperbolic discounting, pareidolia, the hot-hand fallacy, the Turkey illusion, the Semmelweiss reflex, social cryptomnesia, reminiscence bump, and the “women are wonderful” effect. That’s just a taste, and the list gets longer every year. With all these cognitive biases, it’s amazing that people even manage to feed and bathe themselves.
In fact, “people are stupid” seems to be an assumption we all share and a chorus we love to hear.
I did not think I would like this piece; I was wrong:
Put all of these events together — the 2000 election, 9/11, the China Shock, the Iraq War, the productivity slowdown, Hurricane Katrina, the housing crash, the financial crisis, and the Great Recession — and you have quite a decade of disasters. Not quite a Crisis of the Third Century, but enough to send America reeling into a long drunken stagger.
The unifying theme of all of these calamities was that the U.S. was reverting to the mean after the successes of the late 20th century. In our arrogance and our complacency we squandered what previous generations had fought so hard to achieve — moral leadership and soft power, an economy that worked for the majority of its participants, state capacity, political stability, and military power as well. This set the U.S. firmly on a path toward the unrest of the 2010s and the new Cold War of the 2020s. […]
And yet despite all those disasters, the 2000s were something of a golden time for much of American society and culture.
I thought I’d just share today one of my favourite things about reading philosophy books: The examples.
Sometimes you’re reading a long through a whole bunch of theory in a philosophy book, and they stop the theory and just drop a truly stellar example that you just want to sit with for a while and consider on its own, almost detached from the context of the book.
As someone who has a dinosaur civilisation pet theory, I enjoyed this:
I think there’s pretty strong evidence against lost Egypt- or Great Britain- level Ice Age civilizations.
I don’t want to rule out a lost Stonehenge or Gobekli Tepe level civilization, but there’s not much positive evidence, and there’s some negative evidence. Stonehenge was built by Neolithic farmer-pastoralists, who had lots of domesticated crops and animals. Gobekli Tepe was built right next to the area where wheat was domesticated at around the same time. Existing early monuments mostly suggest a story where sedentary city- and temple- building civilizations either require domesticated agriculture, or invent it very quickly.
None of this means Ice Age people didn’t have fascinating cultures of their own which were advanced in other ways - interesting laws, taboos, mythologies, customs, oral traditions. Tyler Cowen says that everything started earlier than you think, and this is what we’ve been finding about various forms of human culture too (cf. Against The Grain, The Dawn Of Everything). I just don’t expect lost Ice Age cities or giant monuments.
Nothing sucks more than a supermassive black hole, but according to a group of researchers, the enormous objects found at the heart of many galaxies may be driving the expansion of the cosmos.
The radical claim comes from an international team who compared growth rates of black holes in different galaxies.
Every year, I produce a big presentation exploring macro and strategic trends in the tech industry. This year, ‘The New Gatekeepers’.
ASMR videos don’t really do anything for me, but I could watch videos of gears and mechanisms doing their thing all day long. I watched this video of 20 mechanical Lego widgets being combined into one useless machine, absolutely rapt. Bevel gears, rack and pinion, camshaft, worm gear, universal joint, Schmidt coupling — this thing has it all.
A Carnegie geologist makes the case that minerals have evolved over time and may have helped spark life
Nope, coffee won’t give you extra energy. It’ll just borrow a bit that you’ll pay for later | The Conversation
You might think coffee gives you the energy to get through the morning or the day – but coffee might not be giving you as much as you think.
The main stimulant in coffee is the caffeine. And the main way caffeine works is by changing the way the cells in our brain interact with a compound called adenosine.
There are all these simple little games that people play using their surroundings: don’t step on the cracks, balance beam railroad tracks (or curbs), bicycle slalom, etc.
Using PISA 2018 data from nearly half a million 15-year-olds across 72 middle- and high-income countries, this study investigates the relationship between economic development and adolescent subjective well-being. Findings indicate a negative log-linear relationship between per-capita GDP and adolescent life satisfaction. The negative nexus stands in stark contrast to the otherwise positive relationship found between GDP per capita and adult life satisfaction for the same countries.
Ok this video from The Pudding is cool for two different reasons. First, you learn about which NBA player had the most unexpectedly great performance since 1985 (e.g. when a guy who is usually good for 6-8 pts inexplicably drops 50). But, you also get a fun little tutorial in how statistical analysis works and the importance of paying attention to the right data in order to get an answer that’s actually meaningful and relevant.
Hey Creatives - get in the habit turning your fave tv/ film/ ad/ music video techniques into gifs that you can use when you are presenting scripts. Here are some of my faves i've used recently. Feel free to steal!
This is pretty amazing: a guy making a 0.6mm screw for a watch using a very precise watchmaker’s lathe. It’s so small! I love that the hardest part is trying to find the impossibly tiny thing after it detaches from the high-RPM lathe.