Not your typical 4-star link, but it qualifies because it meaningfully changed how I think about scientific discovery:
There's something very weird about the timeline of scientific discoveries.
For the first few thousand years, it’s mostly math. Maybe a bunch of math nerds hijacked the list, but it's pretty obvious that humans figured out a lot of math before they figured out much else. The Greeks had the beginnings of trigonometry by ~120 BCE. Chinese mathematicians figured out the fourth digit of pi by the year 250. In India, Brahmagupta devised a way to “interpolate new values of the sine function” in 665, and by this point we're already at mathematics that I no longer understand.
Meanwhile, we didn't discover things that seem way more obvious until literally a thousand years later. It's not until the 1620s, for instance, that English physician William Harvey figured out how blood circulates through animal bodies by, among other things, spitting on his finger and poking the heart of a dead pigeon. We didn't really understand heredity until Gregor Mendel started gardening in the mid-1800s, we didn't grasp the basics of learning until Ivan Pavlov started feeding his dogs in the early 1900s, and we didn't realize the importance of running randomized-controlled trials until 1948. […]
Psychologists have a name for this tendency to think we understand things better than we do: the “illusion of explanatory depth.” […]
And indeed, people born before the discovery of gravity understood this whole falling business exactly as well as they needed in order to survive. They knew that they'd fall and die if they walked off a cliff, that the things they throw in the air will fall down on people's heads, and that houses tip over if they aren't built properly. Maybe they thought they understood it better than they actually did, but for their purposes, they understood it perfectly well.
In fact, I humbly submit that, despite all our progress, the average human today understands the things-falling-down problem only a tiny bit better than the earliest humans did. […]
Okay, so an illusion of explanatory depth is extremely important to staying alive. It does, unfortunately, have a downside: it fools you into thinking the universe isn't full of mysteries.
This, I think, explains the curious course of our scientific discovery. You might think that we discover things in order from most intuitive to least intuitive. No, thanks to the illusion of explanatory depth, it often goes the opposite way: we discover the least obvious things first, because those are things that we realize we don't understand.
Idealistic founders believe they will break the mold when they start scaling. They will not turn into a “typical big company.”
By which they mean: No stupid rules that assume employees are dumb or evil, with everything taking ten times longer than it should, with wall-to-wall meetings, and hiring “average” or “normal” people. […]
Why do they never succeed? Why is it impossible for all of these intelligent, well-meaning founders to run a 500-person organization like a 50-person one? What are these unavoidable forces of scale?
Stunning drone video
Sometimes scholars go on a search for “the historical Jesus”. They start with the Gospels, then subtract everything that seems magical or implausible, then declare whatever’s left to be the truth.
The Alexander Romance is what happens when you spend a thousand years running this process in reverse. Each generation, you make the story of Alexander the Great a little wackier. By the Middle Ages, Alexander is fighting dinosaurs and riding a chariot pulled by griffins up to Heaven.
People ate it up. The Romance stayed near the top of the best-seller lists for over a thousand years. Some people claim (without citing sources) that it was the #2 most-read book of antiquity and the Middle Ages, after only the Bible. The Koran endorses it, the Talmud embellishes it, a Mongol Khan gave it rave reviews. While historians and critics tend to use phrases like “contains nothing of historic or literary value”, this was the greatest page-turner of the ancient and medieval worlds.
There is no single Alexander Romance. Every culture from Ethiopia to Russia added their own bits and adapted it to their own needs. The Persian version changes things around so that Alexander is secretly the descendant of the rightful Shah of Persia; the Jewish version adds bits about how Alexander knelt before the High Priest of Jerusalem and said that the LORD was the one true God. Someone from Syria added the bits about Gog and Magog; nobody knows who added the parts with the 36-foot-tall giants, the three-eyed lions, the sphere-people, or the headless men. This makes it hard to review “the” Alexander Romance - some historians describe it as more of a genre than a single story.
These are just a few signs of an unraveling global order. Pax Americana is in an advanced state of decay, if not already fully dead. A fully multipolar world has emerged, and people are belatedly realizing that multipolarity involves quite a bit of chaos.
What was Pax Americana? After the end of the Cold War, deaths from interstate conflicts — countries going to war with each other, imperial conquest, and countries intervening in civil wars — declined dramatically. […]
Over the past two decades it had become fashionable to lambast American hegemony, to speak derisively of “American exceptionalism”, to ridicule America’s self-arrogated function of “world police”, and to yearn for a multipolar world. Well, congratulations, now we have that world. See if you like it better.
The VCs are not on your board so they can help you, they can help you without being on the board. They are on your board for one reason: to monitor their investment so they can do something if things aren’t going how they want. Founders have many reasons they start companies, but investors really have only one reason they back them: to make money. That’s why they’re called investors. If someone gives you money based on the things you told them you were going to do, they are going to want to sit down with you every month or two to see if you are doing those things. If you have outside investors you must continually increase the value of their investment, that is the implicit deal you made when you took their money. A board of directors will help you keep your half of that bargain. That’s the reason they are on your board. This, by the way, is more than fair. If you take someone’s money then you, in some sense, work for them. And if you work for them you have to expect they will monitor you and give you feedback.
When we have objective measures, the past is never better […]
It’s a curious pattern that whenever we have objective measures of something, the best performers are always from the recent past. This holds for running, darts, field goal kicking, weightlifting, memorizing the digits of pi, and chess. It’s only in subjective fields that require aesthetic appreciation that we see the supposedly “best” performers being from long ago, in areas like theology, philosophy, and literature. The simplest explanation for these regularities is that humanity is getting better at everything all the time, due to increased population, more leisure time, greater wealth, the Flynn Effect, superior training, and more access to previous work and knowledge. But in areas where quality is subjective, people delude themselves by having a kind of affirmative action for the past. Exceptions to this rule that nothing was better in previous centuries might exist in some fields like architecture where an artistic production depends on the complex interplay of political, historical, technological, and economic factors.
It’s absolutely fine to have cultural landmarks, and also to appreciate an artist for his place in the history of literature. As I wrote in my case against books, it can be satisfying to read a poem or story knowing that you are part of a long tradition that extends into the distant past, and creating a common culture can be useful.
So I’m not against reading Shakespeare, or encouraging others to do so.
This shouldn't feel like a contrarian position. […]
The goal of this post is to convey two related facts that make for politically inconvenient bedfellows. They aren’t breaking news by any means. […] But I still think they’re worth repeating. The facts are these:
Until vaccines became available, there was little difference in COVID death rates between blue states and red states.
After vaccines became available, there were clear differences, with red states having higher death rates, almost certainly as a result of lower vaccine uptake among Republicans.
In other words, the vaccines made a real and obvious dent in COVID, whereas the effect of other NPIs — such as school and business closures, masks, and social distancing — is much less clear.
It might have been the greatest year of individual achievement in major-league history. Will we ever see anything like it again? […]
Even for an elite athlete, Ohtani is unusually competitive. “Being a major-league player, a good major-league player, is not enough for him,” says Andrew Bailey, a coach with the San Francisco Giants who was with the Angels when Ohtani arrived in 2018. “He literally wants to be the best player of all time.” Following the 2021 season, he spent time at Driveline Baseball, a facility in Kent, Wash., that advertises “data-driven baseball performance training” for pitchers and hitters. By the time he left, I was told, he held the facility record for both the fastest pitch and the hardest-hit ball. “But he wanted all the records,” says Alex Cobb, a former Angels teammate now with the Giants who was there working on his pitching delivery. During one session, the players were doing box jumps, leaping onto an elevated surface from a standing start. Ohtani asked someone to find out the highest anyone had ever done — not at Driveline, but anywhere. “He sincerely wanted to know what the world record was so he could break it,” Cobb says. “It wasn’t boastful or anything like that. He was just curious. It was, ‘You know, I think I could probably beat the record if I set my mind to it.’”
D3. Why Did Teen Suicides (Especially for Boys) Decline Sharply from 1990 to 2005? | Play Makes Us Human
D4. The Decline in Kids’ Freedom from 1950 to 1990 was Gradual, with Multiple Causes. | Play Makes Us Human
Now, for the first time, I present what I think is a novel theory for why the suicide rate, especially for boys, declined sharply from about 1990 to about 2005. My theory, in brief, is that computer technology and video games brought a renewed sense of freedom, excitement, mastery, and social connectedness to the lives of children and teens, thereby improving their mental health.
All the developments I have described here led, over 40 years, to a dramatic shift in how kids were viewed. While kids were once seen as tough and competent (though often annoying and sometimes delinquent) they came increasingly to be seen—by adults, and most sadly by the kids themselves—as precious, fragile, and economically useless. If you see yourself that way, life is scary and depressing. It is no wonder that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicides rose continuously and dramatically for teenagers over this 40-year period.
To promote discussion these days, I often start by asking people, “What do you consider to have been the most important event in the financial world in recent decades?” Some suggest the Global Financial Crisis and bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, some the bursting of the tech bubble, and some the Fed/government response to the pandemic-related woes. No one cites my candidate: the 2,000-basis-point decline in interest rates between 1980 and 2020. And yet, as I wrote in Sea Change, that decline was probably responsible for the lion’s share of investment profits made over that period. How could it be overlooked?
Last year, when Texas Governor Greg Abbott started sending migrants by bus and by plane to America’s self-designated sanctuary cities, his stated goal was straightforward: He wanted to repudiate President Biden’s “open-border policies.”
He didn’t say he wanted to throw America’s third-largest city into disarray, or to turn Chicago’s residents against Brandon Johnson, the progressive mayor they elected just last April. He certainly didn’t talk about stirring up a hornets’ nest ahead of the Democratic National Convention, set for next summer on Chicago’s lakefront.
But that’s what Abbott has done, and the turmoil in Chicago may have figured in President Joe Biden thinking yesterday, when he confirmed that he was going ahead with construction of about 20 more miles of Trump’s unfinished border wall, saying the current wave of migration over the US-Mexico border left him no choice.
The first draft of the acclaimed biography The Power Broker clocked in at 1 million words. Author Robert Caro spent seven years of his life on it, crafting a magnum opus about the life of New York City municipal builder Robert Moses. It’s considered one of the greatest nonfiction works of the 20th century—less of a biography and more of a sweeping, detailed study about the nature of power.
As Caro’s first published book, it was a portent of the kind of story he’d spend the rest of his life telling. He became famous for his detailed, meticulous approach to biographical research, sometimes taking a full decade to complete a book. Since the 1970s, he has focused his efforts on a five-book series about President Lyndon B. Johnson. Fans are anxiously awaiting the final installment, which he’s been working on since 2012.
You can imagine just how hard it would be to make sense of a decade’s worth of research, let alone bring it all to life in a compelling narrative. There’s a lot we can learn from Caro’s methodical approach to note-taking and writing.
One of the first indicators that Xi Jinping wasn’t as competent a ruler as he was often made out to be was the failure of the Belt and Road megaproject. Belt and Road was one of Xi’s earliest signature initiatives, unveiled in 2013. The idea, as stated, was to have the Chinese government invest in infrastructure projects throughout the world, giving a boost to those countries’ economies while increasing China’s trade opportunities — a massive win-win. There was also the unspoken idea that this lavish outlay would win China geopolitical friends and allies around the world while also enhancing its access to critical natural resources and potentially even military basing sites. According to the Council on Foreign Relations and many other sources, China has already spent $1 trillion on the Belt and Road.
Except the way this actually worked is fairly far from our common-sense definitions of “invest” and “spend”. The word “invest” implies that China was paying for infrastructure in these countries that it would then partially own. And the word “spend” implies that this would actually cost China money in the long run — to be made back, hopefully, from the revenues generated by the successful infrastructure projects. This sort of investment would align the incentives of China and the recipient countries — a true win-win.
Except that this is generally not how Belt and Road actually worked. Instead, what China would typically do is loan countries money to build infrastructure projects. China’s government would then help plan those projects. Then the borrowing country would use the money it borrowed from China to build the infrastructure, often paying Chinese contractors to do the actual work.
None of the answers are obvious when you have an 80-year-old president.
How is it possible that software gets worse, not better, over time, despite billions of dollars of R&D and rapid progress in tooling and AI? What evil force, more powerful than Innovation and Progress, is at work here?
In my six years at Google, I got to observe this force up close, relentlessly killing features users loved and eroding the last vestiges of creativity and agency from our products. I know this force well, and I hate it, but I do not yet know how to fight it. I call this force the Tyranny of the Marginal User.
Simply put, companies building apps have strong incentives to gain more users, even users that derive very little value from the app. Sometimes this is because you can monetize low value users by selling them ads. Often, it’s because your business relies on network effects and even low value users can help you build a moat. So the north star metric for designers and engineers is typically something like Daily Active Users, or DAUs for short: the number of users who log into your app in a 24 hour period.
What’s wrong with such a metric? A product that many users want to use is a good product, right? Sort of. Since most software products charge a flat per-user fee (often zero, because ads), and economic incentives operate on the margin, a company with a billion-user product doesn’t actually care about its billion existing users. It cares about the marginal user - the billion-plus-first user - and it focuses all its energy on making sure that marginal user doesn’t stop using the app. Yes, if you neglect the existing users’ experience for long enough they will leave, but in practice apps are sticky and by the time your loyal users leave everyone on the team will have long been promoted.
So in practice, the design of popular apps caters almost entirely to the marginal user. But who is this marginal user, anyway? Why does he have such bad taste in apps?
In a survey of 24 countries, pizza and pasta take the top spot – closely followed by Chinese and Japanese cuisine
An international YouGov study of more than 25,000 people in 24 countries finds that pizza and pasta are among the most popular foods in the world, as Italian cuisine beats all comers. […]
The lowest opinion any nation had for another nation’s cuisine was Japan towards Saudi Arabian cuisine, with just 11% of Japanese people who have tried it saying that they like it.
In fact, the survey finds that Japanese people are the harshest food critics of any nation surveyed. Of the 34 cuisines we asked about, 23 scored less than 50% among Japanese respondents. On average only 39% of Japanese people who had tried any given foreign food said that they liked it.
By contrast, it’s Filipinos who are the most likely to appreciate international cuisine. An average of 67% of Filipinos who had tried any given cuisine said they liked it, with only five types of food being liked by fewer than half.
New study shines a light on men’s unconscious attraction to fertility cues in women’s faces | PsyPost
Heterosexual men tend to be more attracted to the faces of women when they are near ovulation compared to when they are at other phases of their menstrual cycles, according to new research published in the scientific journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. However, men’s preference for fertility cues appears to be driven by unconscious mechanisms rather than conscious detection.
For most of its length, the Amazon isn't anywhere close to too wide to bridge—in the dry season. But during the rainy season, the river rises thirty feet, and crossings that were once three miles wide can balloon to thirty miles in a matter of weeks. The soft sediment that makes up the river bank is constantly eroding, and the river is often full of debris, including floating vegetation islands called matupás, which can measure up to 10 square acres. It's a civil engineer's worst nightmare.
Dusty samples from the "most dangerous known rock in the Solar System" have been brought to Earth.
I cannot get enough of Dan Coe's high-resolution images of rivers and river deltas constructed from lidar data. So swirly, swoopy, fractally, and squiggly! Many of these images are time machines, showing the various meanders these rivers took hundreds and thousands of years ago.
Youths with parents with higher education had more mental health symptoms; the prevalence of mental health symptom was 37.4% (95% CI = 36.3%, 38.5%) among youths whose parents had graduate degrees compared with 30.3% (95% CI = 23.8%, 36.8%) among those whose parents had less than a high school–level education. By contrast, youths from households with the highest income level (≥ $200 000) had a lower prevalence of mental health symptoms at 30.7% (95% CI = 29.1%, 32.3%) than did those from households with the lowest income level (< $25 000) at 37.3% (95% CI = 34.8%, 39.8%).