Links

3 stars

The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins | Vanity Fair

Long…but nuanced and well worth reading:

At times, it seemed the only other people entertaining the lab-leak theory were crackpots or political hacks hoping to wield COVID-19 as a cudgel against China. President Donald Trump’s former political adviser Steve Bannon, for instance, joined forces with an exiled Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengui to fuel claims that China had developed the disease as a bioweapon and purposefully unleashed it on the world. As proof, they paraded a Hong Kong scientist around right-wing media outlets until her manifest lack of expertise doomed the charade.

With disreputable wing nuts on one side of them and scornful experts on the other, the DRASTIC researchers often felt as if they were on their own in the wilderness, working on the world’s most urgent mystery. They weren’t alone. But investigators inside the U.S. government asking similar questions were operating in an environment that was as politicized and hostile to open inquiry as any Twitter echo chamber. When Trump himself floated the lab-leak hypothesis last April, his divisiveness and lack of credibility made things more, not less, challenging for those seeking the truth.

“The DRASTIC people are doing better research than the U.S. government,” says David Asher, a former senior investigator under contract to the State Department.

The question is: Why?

Link

The Age of the Essay | Paul Graham

An excellent essay from 2004:

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Oy. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.

Link

Kevin Durant and (Possibly) the Greatest Basketball Team of All Time | New York Times

I could tell you about that asteroid hole forever. But the reason I am telling you now is that Kevin Durant, the basketball superstar, grew up next to it — so close that he can tell you how many blue crabs come in a bushel. On a recent afternoon, when the Brooklyn Nets had a day off, I told Durant the story of the asteroid and the glaciers and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay.

“That’s incredible,” he said, and then he started thinking out loud about the way things evolve over time, how even the tiniest incremental changes can, day after grinding day, turn trauma into beauty. “Sick,” he said admiringly. “That’s sick.” And: “That’s a message to me. You telling me that just took me down a deep hole.”

Spend any time with Durant and what you will notice, I swear, is not his height (6 feet 10¾ inches) or his wingspan (7 feet 4¾ inches) but deeper things, spiritual things. You will notice his large, thoughtful, searching eyes; his matter-of-fact self-consciousness; a certain tender, unhidden sadness. Durant is a four-time scoring champion and a two-time finals M.V.P. and an 11-time All-Star and the protagonist of countless N.B.A. dramas and mini-scandals and memes — by any measure, one of the defining athletes of our time. His decisions about where to play, and which teammates to play with, have thrust whole franchises up to glory and sent others plummeting down.

This season, once again, Durant sits at the center of the wildest drama in basketball: a radical experiment in Brooklyn, where the once-hapless Nets have transformed themselves into a superteam around K.D. and his friends — a knot of talent so dense and strange, thrown together with such sudden force, that it is impossible to say whether it will steamroll the entire league or lose narrowly in the second round or dissolve into chaos and go off the grid and turn up 20 years from now on a submarine in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. The Nets seem designed to raise deep philosophical questions about not only basketball but also life. What is a team? What does it mean to belong? What would happen if we took 17 alternate story lines and folded them up together into an origami swan with three heads and a beard?

Which means they are the perfect team for Kevin Durant. He has exactly the sort of transcendental galaxy brain that likes to rise up very high, and then slightly higher, to think about things like deep time and space rocks and the meaning of life. And the Brooklyn Nets are his galaxy-brain superteam. At long last, after all these many millions of years, Kevin Durant may have finally found his true basketball home.

Link

America's scarcity mindset | Noahpinion

Insightful and important:

But the crazy thing is that America seems to be falling back into this scarcity mindset. Only this time, the shortages are almost entirely of our own creation. […]

The World Values Survey keeps track of these values, and it’s interesting to see how the U.S. has evolved over time. Here’s the map of countries from 2008:

You can see that while we were more traditionalist than most other rich countries, we were also very high on the “self-expression” end of the scale — about the same as Australia, New Zealand, or Denmark. This is basically the classic view of the U.S. — a bit religious, but a very open and tolerant society. Now check out the map for 2020:

The difference is striking. It’s not clear what the absolute change has been (it looks like the variables might have had some renormalization between 2008 and 2020), but the relative position tells the story. The U.S. is way to the left of other English-speaking countries, having shifted strongly toward survival values and away from self-expression. […]

What’s causing this wave of distrust and focus on survival? What are Americans fighting over? This isn’t the 1970s — there’s no historic oil shock, no rampant inflation. Yes, the Great Recession was hard, but we bounced back — the mid and late 2010s were the best time for wage and income growth since the 1960s, especially at the bottom of the distribution. The pandemic was hard, but thanks to generous relief bills, income and consumption actually rose. Where’s the scarcity?

In fact, I see material scarcity in several important areas.

Link

2 stars

The elephant vanishes: how a circus family went on the run | The Guardian

In recent years, circus families like the Kludskys have come under increasing pressure as public opinion has turned against the use of wild animals for entertainment. Today, many circus elephants in Europe are reaching old age. Campaigners want them placed in specially built sanctuaries, where they can enjoy retirement with their own kind. But their owners insist that for the elephants, being separated from their human “families” would be traumatic. The Kludskys and their supporters feel they are accused of cruelty by people who know nothing about the lifelong bond between elephants and their trainers, or the elephant’s pleasure in learning new tricks. The two sides are implacably opposed.

Link

Are U.S. Officials Under Silent Attack? | New Yorker

Top officials in both the Trump and the Biden Administrations privately suspect that Russia is responsible for the Havana Syndrome. Their working hypothesis is that agents of the G.R.U., the Russian military’s intelligence service, have been aiming microwave-radiation devices at U.S. officials to collect intelligence from their computers and cell phones, and that these devices can cause serious harm to the people they target. Yet during the past four years U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to find any evidence to back up this theory, let alone sufficient proof to publicly accuse Russia. “Intelligence is an imperfect science,” a U.S. intelligence official told me. “It’s what you know, and it can change in a blink of an eye.” There is still disagreement about how to refer to the incidents. Privately, officials characterize them as “attacks.” Publicly, they refer to them as “anomalous health incidents.”

Link

Farewell, Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy | New Yrok Times

A few years ago, while on a work trip in Los Angeles, I hailed an Uber for a crosstown ride during rush hour. I knew it would be a long trip, and I steeled myself to fork over $60 or $70.

Instead, the app spit out a price that made my jaw drop: $16.

Experiences like these were common during the golden era of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy, which is what I like to call the period from roughly 2012 through early 2020, when many of the daily activities of big-city 20- and 30-somethings were being quietly underwritten by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets. Collectively, we took millions of cheap Uber and Lyft rides, shuttling ourselves around like bourgeois royalty while splitting the bill with those companies’ investors. We plunged MoviePassinto bankruptcy by taking advantage of its $9.95-a-month, all-you-can-watch movie ticket deal, and took so many subsidized spin classes that ClassPass was forced to cancel its $99-a-month unlimited plan. We filled graveyards with the carcasses of food delivery start-ups — Maple, Sprig, SpoonRocket, Munchery — just by accepting their offers of underpriced gourmet meals.

Link

How Nasty Was Nero, Really? | New Yorker

All of this, according to some recent scholars, is at best an exaggeration and at worst a fabrication: a narrative derived from biased histories, written decades after Nero died, that relied on dubious sources. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, and these posthumous accounts were calculated in part to denigrate this dynastic line and burnish the reputations of its successors. Depictions of Nero as notorious are “based on a source narrative that is partisan,” Thorsten Opper, a curator in the Greek and Roman division of the British Museum, told me recently. The museum has just opened an exhibition that, if not quite aiming to rehabilitate Nero, challenges his grotesque reputation. “Anything you think you know about Nero is based on manipulation and lies that are two thousand years old,” Opper, the show’s lead curator, said. Indeed, some of the stories told about Nero, such as the saying that he “fiddled while Rome burned,” are patently absurd: violins weren’t invented until the sixteenth century.

Link

Nikola Jokic is revolutionizing the center position | Thinking Basketball (YouTube)

Nikola Jokic is one of a kind so it's easy to miss how great he is. Jokic is the best offensive passing big man ever, but he might also be the best offensive center in NBA history. How does he do it? This detailed film room analysis looks at the Nuggets superstar center, incorporating data and stats to understand how good he might be.

Link

The Global Chessboard | Uncharted Territories

There’s nothing new here, but if you’re not familiar with the “geography is destiny” school of thought, this is a good introduction:

In the roulette of geographies, the US won the jackpot. Whoever held that land would become a world power. It was the inevitable empire.

Makes you wonder though: Why, then, did Europeans conquer America, and not the other way around? Why didn’t America develop civilizations that could compete with Europeans a few centuries ago? Why, in fact, did civilizations from the European continent conquer nearly all of the rest of the world at some point? Why aren’t there different countries on the coasts, protected by the mountains from the Mississippian heartland?

Link

Hard time seeing the images? Sometimes they don't load well. View this article on the site by clicking on the title.

Before the Great Divergence: The modernity of China at the onset of the industrial revolution | CEPR

China has been one of the world’s most dynamic economies in recent decades, but how did it fall so far behind? This column argues that the industrial revolution occurred in Europe rather than China because European entrepreneurs were eager to adopt machines to cut down on high labour costs. China didn’t “miss” the industrial revolution – it didn’t need it.

Link

1 star

Instead Of Pledging To Change The World, Pledge To Change Prediction Markets | Astral Codex Ten

All of these pledges have one thing in common - they expire long after the relevant officials are out of power (and in Biden's case, probably dead). As hard as it is to hold politicians accountable in normal situations, it's even worse here. Sure enough, prediction aggregator Metaculus shows that forecasters only give a 15% chance that we reach Biden's emissions target by 2030.

What if instead of pledging anything about emissions, Biden pledged to shift the prediction aggregator?

No, seriously, hear me out. Biden pledges that by the end of his term, Metaculus will predict a 51%+ chance that emissions will be less than half their historic maximum by 2030. If Metaculus gives a lower number than this, we can consider Biden to have failed in his pledge, and we can hold it against him when he tries to get re-elected.

In order to get Metaculus (or some alternative prediction market) to show a 51% chance of meeting emissions targets, Biden would have to pass a credible package of legislation that puts us on the path to achieving that goal, and makes everyone think it’s more likely than not.

Link

When Earth Was In Beta | YouTube

As someone who is unusually fascinated by the Cambrian explosion, I loved this video, which recasts our planet’s history as a video game.

Link

We Did Some Math On The Tesla Roadster's Claimed 1.1 Second 0-60 Time | Jalopnik

Ever since Tesla announced that it’s developing an all-new Roadster, there have been remarkable claims made about its potential for speed. First there’s the claim of getting from zero to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds, which we scrutinized more than once, and now there’s the claim that with a set of cold-gas thrusters known as the “Space X Package,” the roadster could hit a mile-a-minute in an absurd 1.1 seconds. This is a bonkers number to consider, so I reached out to a physicist to run the numbers.

Link

Yo-Yo Ma Answers Questions About the Cello | Kottke

As part of the Tech Support series, Wired had Yo-Yo Ma answer some questions about the cello and music sent in by Twitter users. What I like about this is that no critic or professional interviewer would ask these questions (they are “bad” interview questions) and yet Ma answers them all generously and thoughtfully.

Link

Better Crowdfunding | Marginal Revolution

In 1998, I designed the “dominant assurance contract” (DAC) mechanism for producing public goods privately. In my latest paper, just published in GEB written with the excellent Tim Cason and Robertas Zubrickas we test the theory in the lab and…it works! Kickstarter hadn’t yet been created when I first wrote but the DAC mechanism can now be easily explained as a Kickstarter contract with refund bonuses. On Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites you contribute to a project and if a contribution threshold isn’t reached you get your money back. The Kickstarter contract is useful but it’s still easy for a good project to fail because there are many equilibria with non-funding. For example, if I think that you won’t contribute then I may decide not to contribute and if I don’t contribute then you may decide not to contribute. Neither of us can do better by contributing, given the other person is not-contributing, and so non-contributing is a Nash equilibrium (see my talk at the Foresight Institute for more details). Now introduce refund bonuses which pay out only if the threshold is not reached. Now if I think that you won’t contribute then I want to contribute, to earn the refund bonus, and the same is true for you. Indeed, the only equilibria in the crowdfunding game with refund bonuses have the project being funded. Thus, a nice feature of the refund bonus game is that in equilibrium the refund bonuses are never paid!

Link

The Drawing That Earned Sir Roger Penrose a Nobel Prize | Pioneer Works

In 1965, in an inspired and disarmingly clear article – so brief that the text does not quite fill three journal pages – Roger Penrose draws a figure to summarize his ingenious mathematical proof that would earn him the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” The now legendary Penrose distilled his mathematical calculation into a single paragraph and then distilled the proof even further into a single image that can be read by the initiated. The powerful conclusion: black holes are an inevitable consequence of unhindered gravitational collapse.

The term “black hole” had not yet been coined, and wouldn’t be until the influential American relativist John Archibald Wheeler concluded a lecture in 1967 with the image, “[The star] like the Cheshire cat fades from view. One leaves behind only its grin, the other, only its gravitational attraction…light and particles go down the black hole…”

Link

About this newsletter