Links: Roundup of my favourite sources

Hi everyone — sorry about the two-week hiatus; despite London still being fully locked down, life has proven surprisingly busy.

And yet, as an inveterate procrastinator, I often read the most when I’m busy. In the last three weeks, I’ve read over 50 pieces that I found interesting enough to share.

I don’t really want to write an e-mail with over 50 carefully-selected blurbs, nor would it likely get read in any detail. [Now that I’m done with this e-mail, I suppose I should point out that I still ended up selecting too many blurbs too carefully, and that this is still way too long. Oh well! Won’t do anything about it now.] So this week, I’m trying something different.

First, I’ll highlight some of my favourite blogs / newsletters / Substacks (whatever the right term is these days), since much of what I liked was from these sources. I’ll also share a few recent pieces from each that I’ve enjoyed. To keep the formatting marginally readable, please note that in addition to the green bits, underlined titles are also links.

The second half of this e-mail will be “normal,” but with shorter excerpts.

Astral Codex Ten

Scott Alexander is back! Longtime readers likely know that I enjoyed his writing immensely for years on his previous blog (Slate Star Codex); a weirdly dramatic episode I’ll explain later means that he’s now blogging at Astral Codex Ten. I highly recommend subscribing; nearly all of his content is free. Here’s Jason Crawford (of Roots of Progress) with a good primer and his favourite posts: Who is Scott Alexander and what is he about?

Some recent posts I’ve liked:

3 stars: WebMD, And The Tragedy Of Legible Expertise

WebMD is the Internet's most important source of medical information. It's also surprisingly useless. Its most famous problem is that whatever your symptoms, it'll tell you that you have cancer. […]

Drug 1 is aspirin. Drug 2 is warfarin, which causes 40,000 ER visits a year and is widely considered one of the most dangerous drugs in common use. I challenge anyone to figure out, using WebMD's side effects list alone, that warfarin is more dangerous than aspirin. I think this is because if WebMD said "aspirin is pretty safe and most people don't need to worry about it", people might use aspirin irresponsibly, die, and then their ghosts might sue WebMD. Or if WebMD said "warfarin can be dangerous, be careful with this one", people might refuse to take warfarin because "the Internet said it was dangerous", die of the stuff warfarin is supposed to treat, and then their ghosts might sue WebMD. WebMD solves this by never giving the tiniest shred of useful information to anybody. […]

Right now I think my database is better and more useful than WebMD. This isn't because I'm smarter or more of an expert than whoever WebMD employs. It's because I'm small enough to have a sort of security by obscurity.”

3 stars: Book Review: Why We're Polarized

Did you know that seventy years ago, our grandparents were having an underpolarization crisis? True! In 1950, the American Political Science Association "released a call to arms...pleading for a more polarized political system".

2 stars: Know Your Amphetamines

In the 1950s, a shady outfit called Obetrol Pharmaceuticals made a popular over-the-counter diet pill called Obetrol. If you're familiar with any of: the 1950s, shady pharma, or diet pills, your next question will be "did it contain amphetamines?" and the answer is yes, loads of them. […]

As usual in pharma, someone bought Obetrol Pharmaceuticals, then someone else bought them, and after a few iterations of this, all their intellectual property ended up with a company called Richwood. They decided to rebrand Obetrol as "Adderall" and pitch it as an ADHD cure.

1 star: Riddle Of The Sphinx II: Sustained Release Riddlin'

I was driving down to LA when the cops pulled me over. "You have to turn back sir, the Sphinx here eats any traveler who can't answer her riddle."

"I've trained my whole life for this" I said, and stepped on the gas. Soon I saw a Sphinx lounging in the middle of the road. When she spotted me, she asked: "What has braces, crowns, and retainers, but is not teeth?”

"A medieval king in armor. My turn. What has pupils, irises, and whites, but is not an eye?"

"A gardening class during apartheid. How is a river like the Federal Reserve?"

So, what was the weirdly dramatic episode I mentioned? In June 2020, Scott wrote this: “NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog.” After deleting the blog, causing a decent-sized internet uproar that garnered some press, quitting his job, and otherwise changing his life such that having his real name out there might not affect his work as a psychiatrist, Scott announced his return with this post about a month ago. (That post goes into more detail on the “decent-sized internet uproar”; I found it rather interesting.)

With Scott back to blogging, the New York Times did end up publishing a story on him, which I found egregiously bad. Most of you probably aren’t interested, but on the off-chance you are, here are several people from across the political spectrum explaining better than I can why it was a terrible no-good article:

  • First, Scott’s own Statement on New York Times Article: “There was recently a negative article about me and my blog in the New York Times. Most of you already know the history behind this, but for anyone referred here by NYT, this is where I give my side and defend myself. […] After doing all these things, I started blogging again, this time under my real name so that I would not be under the constant threat of doxxing in the future. Predictably, the NYT piece came out soon after, and predictably, it was very negative. I want to respond to four main negative claims in the article – there are more, but these should give a general sketch of why I feel it was unfair.”

  • Matthew Yglesias: “Then on Saturday, Cade Metz’s NYT article about SSC finally dropped. And it’s terrible. […] On its face, the idea of profiling an obscure blog written by a pseudonymous psychiatrist that has a surprisingly high-clout readership is perfectly good. Alexander’s readers include many Silicon Valley people including, as Metz details, some very high-ranking executives. It’s an interesting story. But I think Metz from the get-go kind of misses what’s interesting about it.”

  • Scott Aaronson: “I spent many hours with Cade, taking his calls and emails morning or night, at the playground with my kids or wherever else I was, answering his questions, giving context for his other interviews, suggesting people in the rationalist community for him to talk to, in exactly the same way I might suggest colleagues for a quantum computing story. And then I spent just as much time urging those people to talk to Cade. […] What happened next is already the stuff of Internet history. […] And now, as an awkward coda, the New York Times article itself is finally out. […] I repeatedly muttered to myself, as I read: “dude, you could make anything sound shady with this exact same rhetorical toolkit!” Without further ado, here’s a partial list of my issues.”

  • Noah Smith: “This weaves a compelling narrative: The technologists who are building our future had their heads filled with right-wing ideas by reading a popular blog. The problem is, I don’t think the article has the evidence to support this narrative. […] Other data sources back this up. In 2020, according to OpenSecrets.org, the internet industry gave 92% of its donations to Democrats! […] And most importantly, they score lower on racial resentment and lower on the authoritarianism scale than the average Democratic base voter. In short, tech entrepreneurs are standard liberal nerds.”

As a New York Times subscriber and general fan (as you can tell from all the NYT pieces I link to), as well as someone who’s read every Scott Alexander blog post for the last six years (and therefore admittedly have my biases but also likely a better understanding of the blog than Cade Metz), I’m now concerned that I’ve fallen victim to the The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect re: the New York Times:

Named after famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Amnesia Effect was coined by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton to describe the act of feeling skeptical as you read a magazine or newspaper article about an area in which you have expertise and then completely forgetting that skepticism as you turn the page and read about something you know less about. If they could get it so wrong for one, why don’t we assume they could get it so wrong for all?

Alright, that’s enough about Scott Alexander. Moving on…

Matt Levine’s Money Stuff

I’ve only recently subscribed to Matt Levine’s free newsletter. Before a few weeks ago, Scott Alexander was unquestionably my favourite blogger (you may have noticed from the last section). I’m no longer so sure. Even though I don’t care much for or about finance, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every single Money Stuff issue I’ve read, to the point where I was a bit concerned that I’d end up linking five Matt Levine pieces every week under my 3-star section.

Instead, I’ll just highlight two recent columns that I found particularly enjoyable:

3 stars: GameStop Missed All the Fun

Why didn’t GameStop Corp. sell any stock last month when its price rallied to insane levels due to Reddit-driven retail enthusiasm? I speculated about this question a few times. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission speculated about it too, and went so far as to release a sample comment letter that it would have sent to a hypothetical GameStop-like company if it had sold stock during a meme frenzy. 

But Reuters has the actual answer and it is disappointingly prosaic. […]

It’s particularly dumb because, you know, people were not buying GameStop in January to speculate on last quarter’s earnings. There is a disconnect between what investors actually wanted and what GameStop felt obligated to give them. Like imagine how those meetings went:

GameStop Chief Financial Officer: Consensus analyst estimates are for 8.5% growth in same-store sales, and our preliminary data suggests the number will actually be more like 8.3%.

GameStop General Counsel: Well obviously we have to disclose that, analysts are laser-focused on same-store sales and if we missed by 20 basis points we need to confess that before we sell stock.

CFO: It’s true, we don’t want to undermine trust with our analysts.

Hordes standing on the lawn outside GameStop’s offices (chanting in unison): GME TO 1000! DIAMOND HANDS!

CFO: Meanwhile we’ve made good progress on SG&A and we should be able to deliver better-than-expected reductions there.

Hordes: SHORT SQUEEZE! GAMMA!

GC: Let’s be really careful that those numbers are buttoned up, we don’t want to report something so material to Wall Street if we’re not sure it’s accurate.

Hordes: ROCKET EMOJI! ROCKET EMOJI! ROCKET EMOJI!

CFO: Yeah we are still trying to nail down a few items where the accounting policies are more complex.

Elon Musk (landing on lawn with a jetpack, addressing hordes)Gamestonk!!

Hordes: [sustained incoherent screaming]

GC: I am just not sure that we can get this disclosure to a point that a reasonable investor will feel confident in it.

3 stars: How Will the GameStop Game Stop?

Every other endgame has the basic contour of “the stock keeps going up to $1,000 (or whatever), then it crashes back down again.” That’s how bubbles work, and speculative manias, and pump-and-dump schemes. These words are bad words, and this process is often considered a bad thing, but of course if you buy at the beginning and sell at the top it is good for you.

The trick, then, is figuring out when it is going to hit the top. I am not going to tell you how to do that, of course—it is quite hard!—but let’s talk generally about the thought process. If you are buying GameStop right now, at 1,700% or whatever above its price a month ago, you would ideally have some theory of who you are going to sell it to. […]

Yeah, look, I sympathize. If you keep letting people in, some of them are going to get in at the top, and then some of them are going to say, unfairly, “why did you let me in at the top?” Though of course when you stop letting people in, that might be what ends the fun—the stock plunged this morning after Robinhood’s move—and so whoever you last let in will necessarily have gotten in at the top and will sue you even more. (“Why did you let me in at the top, and why did you then cause the crash?”) Also I have to say that if Robinhood stops letting people gamble on meme stocks, that is going to hurt its ability to attract customers who want to gamble on meme stocks.

And if you’re curious, here’s more on Matt Levine from the previously-vilified New York Times (2 stars):

On April 20, something occurred that was unprecedented in the history of financial markets: The price of oil went negative.

It wasn’t the case that the cost of a barrel had fallen to some scary-low number. It actually went below zero, meaning there were traders out there who would pay you to own oil. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, sending stocks sharply down, and by the time the exchanges closed at 4 p.m., many financial news outlets were still struggling to explain why. […]

One group of news consumers got a more comprehensible take. The approximately 150,000 people who subscribe to Money Stuff, a free newsletter written by Matt Levine, a columnist at Bloomberg, found an email in their inboxes with the subject line “There’s Nowhere to Put the Oil.”

Remarkably, Mr. Levine’s piece was written more than an hour before the market went haywire. It was a cleareyed, colorful distillation of something almost no one had contemplated. It read like a bedtime story about West Texas Intermediate Crude.

“Oil is voluminous and oozy and poisonous and flammable and smelly,” Mr. Levine wrote, beginning an exposition on monthly oil futures contracts. […]

After graduating from Harvard in 2000, with a major in classics, Mr. Levine taught Latin at a high school in a Boston suburb. Then he went to Yale Law. A circumscribed life of prosperity and billable hours seemed destined. He clerked for a federal appeals court judge, and put in time as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

In 2007, he took a position at Goldman Sachs, applying his knowledge of corporate law to the financial markets. […]

The idea of leaving Wall Street for a precariously capitalized blog would probably strike a lot of financiers as romantic, quaint, even idiotic. But Mr. Levine was never a high roller. He never joined an elite social club or spent six figures on a Hamptons summer rental. And so, at 33, Mr. Levine sat down to write.

Stratechery

Another excellent blog. Again, I’m on the free version, though people tell me it’s worth paying for. This is another blog that I may link to too much; more often than not, I include the previous week’s article in my e-mail.

2 stars: Intel Problems

One of the first Articles on Stratechery, written on the occasion of Intel appointing a new CEO, was, in retrospect, overly optimistic. Just look at the title: The Intel Opportunity

The misplaced optimism is twofold: first there is the fact that eight years later Intel has again appointed a new CEO (Pat Gelsinger), not to replace the one I was writing about (Brian Krzanich), but rather his successor (Bob Swan). Clearly the opportunity was not seized. What is more concerning is that the question is no longer about seizing an opportunity but about survival, and it is the United States that has the most to lose.

2 stars: Publishing is Back to the Future

Andreessen Horowitz is going direct [and building its own media property]. […]

Journalists, needless to say, were not amused. […]

Still, I get the concern. Andreessen Horowitz, at the end of the day, succeeds or fails on the basis of its investment returns. It is unreasonable to expect the company to cast a truly critical eye towards new technologies or companies given how significant its conflicts of interest are. At the same time, this also explains why Fowler’s tweet isn’t quite right: the tech industry, from the smallest startup, to the loudest venture capitalist, to the largest behemoth, has no problem when it comes to the motivation necessary to “grow and improve its products”. Competition will quite quickly kill the startup, the returns, or the long-term competitive position of any entity that ignores market forces.

Just look at journalism.

2 stars: The Relentless Jeff Bezos

What is clear, though, is that any attempt to understand the relentlessness of the company redirects to their founder, Jeff Bezos, who announced plans to step down as CEO after leading the company for twenty-seven years. He is arguably the greatest CEO in tech history, in large part because he created three massive businesses, all of which generate enormous consumer surplus and enjoy impregnable moats: Amazon.com, AWS, and the Amazon platform (this is a grab-all term for the Amazon Marketplace and Fulfillment offerings; it is lumped in with Amazon.com in the company’s reporting). These three businesses are the result of Bezos’ rare combination of strategic thinking, boldness, and drive, and the real world manifestations of Amazon’s three most important tactics: leverage the Internet, win with scale, and being your first best — but not only — customer.

Noah Smith

I’ve only recently subscribed, and I’m not really sure how to describe this Substack yet. Noah was previously a finance professor, now he’s a Bloomberg columnist, and I guess he writes about economics, society, and politics? Something like that. Regardless, he’s excellent.

2 stars: Taiwan is a civilization

As a Taiwanese-American who is undoubtedly biased but still finds Taiwan bafflingly unrenowned, I enjoyed this piece a lot (I want to give it three stars but probably shouldn’t):

This means that there is a nonzero chance that the U.S. might find itself embroiled in a superpower conflict on Taiwan’s behalf sometime in the next decade. Which is a good reason for Americans to learn more about Taiwan.

But an even better reason is just that Taiwan is a very interesting and unique place. People can argue all day about whether it’s really a country (it is), but what’s more important is that Taiwan is a civilization. […]

Besides tensions with China, there was another big news item that made me more aware of Taiwan this year: Public health. Taiwan handled the COVID-19 pandemic better than just about any other nation, probably rivaled only by New Zealand. […]

It also has one of the world’s best health care systems overall, if not the best. […]

Taipei is not large — just 2.6 million people in the city proper, and 7 million total in the metropolitan area. But it seems like it deserves to be higher on people’s list of tourist destinations, and deserves to be included in conversations about how to build a functional, inclusive, beautiful city. […]

Taiwan has one of the most progressive societies, if not the most progressive, in Asia. It was the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage, and sports a vibrant gay culture. Taiwan ranks as one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, equivalent to Norway and higher than France on the commonly used GII scale. The President, Tsai Ing-Wen, is a woman, and women make up 42% of the legislature. The country has actively pushed for gender equality in business, and the gender pay gap, at 14% in 2018, is smaller than in the U.S.

2 stars: The end of the War on Islam

The “Muslim Ban”, one of the most odious legacies of the Trump administration, is gone. That’s a relief. But beyond simply expunging one more bigoted piece of Trumpian symbolism, the ban’s cancellation — and the lack of controversy around that cancellation — serves to remind us how much less anxious Americans have become about the religion of Islam in general.

2 stars: Triumph of the HODLers

Now, real financial markets are not efficient. Bubbles are not efficient! Sometimes worthless, crappy assets really do pop up, get a surge of interest, then crash and go to zero. Many people over the years have argued that Bitcoin is this type of trash asset. A few people probably still do make that argument.

But let’s assume it’s not. Suppose Bitcoin’s value is slowly rising to some long-term equilibrium. The existence of semi-regular bubbles and crashes every few years will tend to slow that process, because it keeps some people scared and keeps them out of the Bitcoin market. That depresses the price today. But then as the bubbles keep happening and the skeptics realize that this is just how Bitcoin works, they eventually lose their fear and jump into the market, and Bitcoin’s price rises.

Lower initial price + same final price = higher return. Thus, in this scenario, repeated bubbles are just part of the risk-reward tradeoff. In other words, Bitcoin’s behavior so far looks exactly like that of a risky but rewarding asset that is here to stay.

2 stars: Carbon removal is how we make climate change fair

Climate change is not fair.

In fact, it is one of the most insanely unfair things that has ever happened. For many decades, industrialized nations — Europe, the U.S, Japan, and a few others — belched carbon dioxide willy-nilly into the atmosphere as they pursued their programs of economic development (and war). […]

This means that the burden of reducing greenhouse emissions must, mathematically, fall mostly on developing countries like China, India, and the countries of Southeast Asia. This is not a moral judgement. It is not a political judgement. It is merely physics and arithmetic. The climate does not care about per capita emissions. And historical emissions are already over and done. Which means that if we want to stop pumping carbon into the air and destroying the planet, developing countries are going to have to make the biggest changes.

It’s a burden they don’t deserve. […]

And this is how we get to climate fairness. The countries that emitted lots of historical CO2 — the U.S., Europe, Japan, and now China — can pony up the cash to scale up direct air capture, while India and other latecomers to industrialization sit back and relax and build cheap solar plants to power their economic growth. By paying to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, we of the old-money countries can atone for the sins of our ancestors, saving the planet at our own expense.

It’s a perfect solution, except for one thing. It will require trust.

Marginal Revolution

Many of you are probably familiar with MR, which is one of the more famous blogs out there: “Marginal Revolution is the blog of Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, both of whom teach at George Mason University. MR began in August of 2003 and there have been new posts daily since that time. In numerous reviews and ratings over the years Marginal Revolution has consistently been ranked as the best or one of the best economic blogs on the web, but it is more (and less) than that, also representing the quirks of its authors.” I also link to them a lot; I feel less guilty about that since there are so many posts that a bit of filtering seems helpful. Also, they’re usually quick 1-star links.

1 star: The Experts are Very Worried

Here is an interview with Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the lead developer of a COVID vaccine being produced in India. He thinks the AstraZeneca vaccine should be approved immediately, as I have long argued.

1 star: Scott Sumner on Vaccine Nationalism

Experts in the UK have looked at the AstraZenaca vaccine and found it to be safe and effective. And yet Americans are still not allowed to use the product. So if paternalism is not the actual motive, why do progressives insist that Americans must not be allowed to buy products not approved by the FDA? What is the actual motive?

The answer is nationalism. The experts who studied the AstraZenaca vaccine were not American experts, they were British experts. Can this form of prejudice be justified on scientific grounds? Obviously not. There has been no double blind, controlled study of comparative expert skill at evaluating vaccines. We have no way of knowing whether the UK decision is wiser than the FDA decision. Instead, the legal prohibition is being done on nationalistic grounds.

1 star: Why was trading restricted?

ANTHONY DENIER: Well, it wasn’t our choice. Our clearing firm gave us a call and said we’re going to have to stop allowing new opening positions in the three names, AMC, GME, and KOSS. Highly volatile, and what happens is this is not a political decision. And unfortunately, it got political. I think, you know, I think it was once said that don’t let any good crisis go to waste. And that’s clearly what’s happening here.

And we’re seeing politicians jump on the bandwagon so they can get – so they can start trending on Twitter. But in reality, what’s going on is that there is a two-day settlement between if you buy the stock today, those brokerage firms that you bought that stock on have to fund that trade with the clearing central house called DTC for two whole days. And because of the volatility of stocks, DTC has made the cost of the collateral of the two-day holding period extremely expensive.

1 star: What does the minimum wage literature really tell us?

The disagreement among studies of the employment effects of minimum wages in the United States is well known. What is less well known, and more puzzling, is the absence of agreement on what the research literature says – that is, how economists even summarize the body of evidence on the employment effects of minimum wages. Summaries range from “it is now well-established that higher minimum wages do not reduce employment,” to “the evidence is very mixed with effects centered on zero so there is no basis for a strong conclusion one way or the other,” to “most evidence points to adverse employment effects.”

The Scholar’s Stage

Perhaps a bit more niche, but I find Tanner Greer to be the best analyst around of East Asian geopolitics. (He does write about other subjects, too.)

3 stars: Understanding Taiwanese Nationalism: A Historical Primer in Bullet Points

Noah Smith has a recent substack note discussing Taiwan. In the comments section there are a number of heated arguments over whether Taiwanese language, history, politics, and so forth are enough to justify thinking of Taiwan the way Smith does: as its own “civilization.” When reading through these debates I was struck by the need for a succinct explanation for why the people of Taiwan believe themselves to be a separate and distinct nation from the people of China.

This is actually a fairly complicated story with many moving parts and ethnicities thrown in, but I think the essentials can be reduced down to about ten bullet points. To do this, I intentionally simplify historical events and movements. If these bullets are still too long for you, you can skip to the bottom where I have condensed the gist of the entire thing into one paragraph. […]

Taiwan has spent the last 115 years on a separate political, economic, cultural track from the mainland. Taiwan diverged from the other subject of the Qing dynasty before Han nationalists began their century long project to forge a united Chinese nation. Not only did they never experience the fruits of that project, but they have not shared any of the other historical experiences or common cultural touchstones that have shaped Chinese identity over the last hundred years. The migration of the waishengren in the 1940s inserted a demographic group into Taiwanese life that had experienced some of these things, but the waishengren were always a minority within Taiwan and found their efforts to inculcate a sense of shared Chinese identity in the rest of Taiwan frustrated first by their complete isolation from Communist China, and then later by the opposite trajectories of the Taiwanese and Chinese political systems. Chinese who claim that Taiwanese are their blood brothers rarely appreciate the scale and scope of this divergence. As I have noted before, what divides Taiwan from China today far exceeds that what divided America from England in 1775.

As someone who has lived years in both Taiwan and in China I can also give a more anecdotal assessment: the differences between the two countries and their respective cultures (to say nothing of their political systems) is clear. They are simply not the same people.

Kottke.org

Another famous blog you’ve probably heard of: “Founded in 1998, kottke.org is one of the oldest blogs on the web. It’s written and produced by Jason Kottke and covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity. Frequent topics of interest among the 26,000+ posts include art, technology, science, visual culture, design, music, cities, food, architecture, sports, endless nonsense, and carefully curated current events, all of it lightly contextualized.” Again, I mostly just try to filter down to what I find most interesting, and these are usually quick and fun 1-star links:

1 star: Delightful Acapella Versions of Familiar Jingles

This is a fun discovery: a Korean acapella group called Maytree that does impressions of famous cultural jingles and sound effects.

1 star: Home Movie: The Princess Bride

In June and July of 2020, Jason Reitman directed an at-home reenactment of the entirety of The Princess Bride featuring too many notable actors to list here. It ran in 10 installments on doomed streaming platform Quibi — which is why you probably haven’t heard of it — but it is fantastic. Mixed media, multiple actors playing all the roles, Fred Savage and Cary Elwes reprising their roles from the original, the star power & talent, the fact that they got permission to do it — it’s just so weird and good. You can watch the whole thing embedded above.

A few other good sources before I finish (all of which have free versions I’m subscribed to): The Browser, Longreads, NextDraft, Digg, News Items, Letters from an American, The Diff, Shtetl-Optimized, FiveThirtyEight. I’m in Matter’s private beta and recommend joining their waitlist. I’m also a big Andrew Sullivan fan, but he’s now paywalled (this is the only newsletter I pay for). And then of course, there’s traditional media, but I don’t need to introduce you to those sources. It’s entirely possible that I read too much.

3 stars

Beyond the !Kung | Aeon

Through research on the !Kung and similar hunter-gatherers, anthropologists now have a clear picture of what society looked like for most of our species’ history. We were mobile. We were egalitarian. We shared. We lived in small bands composed mostly of kin. We had few possessions and weak notions of property. Slavery was unknown. Then, 10,000 years ago: a rupture. The world warmed. Sea levels rose. We started to settle. We domesticated plants and animals. We invented inequality and slavery. Property intensified. War intensified. Societies became larger and more complex. Strangers became neighbours. We built courts. We built governments. We built monuments and bureaucracies and moralistic gods and every other instrument of power exercised in service of order and oppression. Prehistory ended. History began.

This is more than just a theory of prehistory. It’s the modern, scientific origin myth. Yes, we live in mega-societies with property and slavery and inequality but, at heart, we are mobile, egalitarian hunter-gatherers, wired for small groups and sharing. […]

This view serves as a narrative of human nature, a symbol of our capacity to establish good societies, and a reminder of just how far we have strayed in the past 10,000 years.

It’s also probably wrong.

Link

Harvard’s top astronomer says our solar system may be teeming with alien technology | New Statesman

I’ve sent several pieces about Avi Loeb and ‘Oumuamua, and it just doesn’t cease to fascinate me:

Practically all of Loeb’s predictions have had the backing of his peers, except one.

In the autumn of 2019, Loeb and a colleague – a senior astronomer at Harvard – attended a seminar on ‘Oumuamua. “After it ended,” Loeb told me, “I left the room together with a colleague of mine who is a conservative, mainstream astronomer, and he said: ‘This object is so weird – I wish it never existed.’”

This is, Loeb says, “a terrible thing to say for a scientist… you should accept with open arms anything that nature gives you”. But he has also found such attitudes to be common. There is, he says, a widespread “taboo” on talking about extraterrestrial intelligence.

Why does Loeb believe that ‘Oumuamua was alien technology?

Link

2 stars

European beads found in Alaska predate Columbus, controversial study claims | Live Science

Brilliantly blue beads from Europe unearthed by archaeologists in Arctic Alaska may predate Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, a new controversial study finds.

These blueberry-size beads were likely created in Venice during the 15th century and then traded eastward, enduring a 10,500-mile (17,000 kilometers) land-based journey east across Eurasia and then boated across the Bering Strait to what is now Alaska, according to the study.

Link

Once we can see them, it’s too late | Shtetl-Optimized

This month Robin Hanson, the famous and controversy-prone George Mason University economics professor who I’ve known since 2004, was visiting economists here in Austin for a few weeks. So, while my fear of covid considerably exceeds Robin’s, I met with him a few times in the mild Texas winter in an outdoor, socially-distanced way. It took only a few minutes for me to remember why I enjoy talking to Robin so much.

See, while I’d been moping around depressed about covid, the vaccine rollout, the insurrection, my inability to focus on work, and a dozen other things, Robin was bubbling with excitement about a brand-new mathematical model he was working on to understand the growth of civilizations across the universe—a model that, Robin said, explained lots of cosmic mysteries in one fell swoop and also made striking predictions. My cloth facemask was, I confess, unable to protect me from Robin’s infectious enthusiasm.

As I listened, I went through the classic stages of reaction to a new Hansonian proposal: first, bemusement over the sheer weirdness of what I was being asked to entertain, as well as Robin’s failure to acknowledge that weirdness in any way whatsoever; then, confusion about the unstated steps in his radically-condensed logic; next, the raising by me of numerous objections (each of which, it turned out, Robin had already thought through at length); finally, the feeling that I must have seen it this way all along, because isn’t it kind of obvious? […]

To cut to the chase, Robin is trying to explain the famous Fermi Paradox: why, after 60+ years of looking, and despite the periodic excitement around Tabby’s star and ‘Oumuamua and the like, have we not seen a single undisputed sign of an extraterrestrial civilization? […]

Robin’s answer to the puzzle is as simple as it is terrifying. Such civilizations might well exist, he says, but if so, by the time we noticed one, it would already be nearly too late.

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The NBA Is Literally Becoming a Make-or-Miss League | The Ringer

Three-point shooting is dictating outcomes more than ever before, and there isn’t much defenses can do to stop it

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Dramatic discovery links Stonehenge to its original site – in Wales | The Guardian

An ancient myth about Stonehenge, first recorded 900 years ago, tells of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in England as a memorial to the dead.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account had been dismissed, partly because he was wrong on other historical facts, although the bluestones of the monument came from a region of Wales that was considered Irish territory in his day.

Now a vast stone circle created by our Neolithic ancestors has been discovered in Wales with features suggesting that the 12th-century legend may not be complete fantasy.

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The missing continent it took 375 years to find | BBC

It took scientists 375 years to discover the eighth continent of the world, which has been hiding in plain sight all along. But mysteries still remain.

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How knitters got knotted in a purity spiral | UnHerd

But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.

It’s not just another word for ‘woke culture’, or even ‘cancel culture’, or ‘virtue signalling’. Even though intersectional social justice is a pretty great breeding ground for purity spirals, it is one among many. Nor is it confined to the Left: neo-Nazi groups offer some of the clearest examples of purity spirals: the ongoing parsing of ethnic purity into ever-more Aryan sub-groups. Perhaps the most classic one of all hails from Salem, Massachusetts. […]

Our documentary analysed just two latter-day purity spirals — Instagram knitting culture and young adult novels. Both seemed perfectly-sized to be taken over — they were spaces big enough to have their own star system, yet small enough for the writ of a dominant group to hold.

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What Exactly Makes a Rolls-Royce Worth the Six-Figure Price Tag?

Can a car that costs as much as a house be worth the price tag? That’s the question prospective buyers of Rolls-Royce automobiles must ask themselves, and it’s not hyperbolic. The starting price for the British marque’s lineup is just north of $300,000, about the same as the median home price in the U.S.

Writers Simon Van Booy and Harvey Briggs didn’t set out to answer this question with their new book Rolls-Royce Motor Cars: Making a Legend. Instead, they wanted to invite the world into the halls of the first-name in vehicular opulence — and they succeeded, providing an exclusive look at the company’s home in Goodwood, never-before-seen archival materials, interviews with the artisans and engineers, and profiles of some of the most decadent vehicles to ever bear the Spirit of Ecstasy.

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Doctor Do-Little | The Drift

As someone who thought highly of Fauci (though admittedly it doesn’t take much to look good on COVID compared to Trump), I was surprised to find this piece so compelling:

Anthony Fauci is no doubt a dedicated public servant, respected by his colleagues, beloved by many Americans. But the puzzle remains: why has the man most closely associated with the public health response to the pandemic entirely avoided accountability for its failure?

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Three Weeks Inside a Pro-Trump QAnon Chat Room | New York Times

As President Biden’s inauguration ticked closer, some of Donald Trump’s supporters were feeling gleeful. Mr. Trump was on the cusp of declaring martial law, they believed. Military tribunals would follow, then televised executions, then Democrats and other deep state operatives would finally be brought to justice.

These were honestly held beliefs. Dozens of Trump supporters spoke regularly over the past three weeks on a public audio chat room app, where they uploaded short recordings instead of typing. In these candid digital confessionals, participants would crack jokes, share hopes and make predictions.

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What Jeffrey Epstein Did to Earn $158 Million From Leon Black | New York Times

Mr. Epstein specialized in aggressively pitching ways to minimize paying taxes. And not just to Mr. Black, the private equity chief executive who was his main benefactor in his later years.

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New Industries Come From Crazy People | Palladium

So why was a leading businessman like Boulton so prone to chasing burglars? Antics like his might be chalked up to youthful enthusiasm, except that he was 72 when he ambushed the burglars. You might expect such a long-standing captain of industry to be sober and conservative, rationally maximizing his gains with a minimum of noise and fuss. Perhaps his business life was more moderate? Hardly.

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Did Moving The Arc Bring The 3-Pointer To A Breaking Point? | FiveThirtyEight

The NBA overtook NCAA men’s teams last season in share of threes attempted.

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Miami Heat to use coronavirus-sniffing dogs to screen fans at games | ESPN

The Miami Heat are bringing back some fans, with help from some dogs.

The Heat will use coronavirus-sniffing dogs at AmericanAirlines Arena to screen fans who want to attend their games. They've been working on the plan for months, and the highly trained dogs have been in place for some games this season in which the team has allowed a handful of guests -- mostly friends and family of players and staff.

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How to identify every European language | Reddit

A pretty awesome flowchart:

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Making Vaccine | LessWrong

Back in December, I asked how hard it would be to make a vaccine for oneself. Several people pointed to radvac. It was a best-case scenario: an open-source vaccine design, made for self-experimenters, dead simple to make with readily-available materials, well-explained reasoning about the design, and with the name of one of the world’s more competent biologists (who I already knew of beforehand) stamped on the whitepaper. My girlfriend and I made a batch a week ago and took our first booster yesterday.

This post talks a bit about the process, a bit about our plan, and a bit about motivations. Bear in mind that we may have made mistakes - if something seems off, leave a comment.

All of the materials and equipment to make the vaccine cost us about $1000. We did not need any special licenses or anything like that. I do have a little wetlab experience from my undergrad days, but the skills required were pretty minimal.

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Geologist Finds Rare Formation Inside Rock That Looks Exactly Like Cookie Monster on Sesame Street | Good News Network

The title is clickbait, but I still thought this was cute:

What this Californian scientist wasn’t expecting was to open up a volcanic rock in Brazil—only to find inside an uncanny resemblance to the Cookie Monster.

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Beautiful Yet Unnerving Photos of the Arctic Getting Greener | Wired

Using tricked-out drones, scientists are watching vegetation boom in the far north. Their findings could have big implications for the whole planet.

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This Unusual Japanese Train Station in the Middle of Nowhere Has No Entrance or Exit | My Modern Met

Sometimes we're in such a hurry to get to a destination that we forget to take in our surroundings. But that's not the case when passengers step onto the platform of the Seiryu Miharashi train station in Japan. In fact, they have no choice but to take in the view. Opened in March 2019 on the Nishikigawa Seiryu Line in the southern part of the country is an unusual platform that has no exit and no entrance. The intention of this design is to encourage travelers to take some time to admire the nature around them before they resume their journey.

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The mysterious photo of a purple flower that receives 78 million hits each day | Rest of World

How India’s TikTok ban may have inadvertently caused a random image to become extremely popular.

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How do wombats poop cubes? Scientists get to the bottom of the mystery | Science

Humans may be fascinated by cubes, but only one animal poops them: the bare-nosed wombat. This furry Australian marsupial squeezes out nearly 100 six-sided turds every day—an ability that has long mystified scientists. Now, researchers say they have uncovered how the wombat intestine creates this exceptional excrement.

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