Archive for October 2013
Pankaj Mishra’s article is opinionated, but also a great primer on the recent history and current outlook for the largest and least-talked-about (at least in my little American experience) countries in the world.
There is talk once more of a ‘rising’ Asian economy (the Boston Consulting Group predicts that more than half the country’s 242 million people will qualify as middle class by 2020), though recent economic setbacks suggest, as with similar predictions about India, that this may prove to be fantasy. Wealth has brought disconcerting changes: large parts of Sumatra, ravaged by slash-and-burn investors, resemble a lunar landscape, and smoke from land-clearing fires started by palm-oil prospectors extends as far as the cities of Malaysia and Thailand, where doctors warn people with respiratory diseases to wear masks.
One of my harder-to-comprehend ideas that I always gets pushback when I shared is that science isn’t nearly as monolithically reliable as people like to believe. The newest study about how X or Y does or does not cause P or Q is as likely to be totally bogus as genuine and accurate. The Economist shares my thinking, and elaborates it somewhat more cogently:
A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research.
Striking photographs accompanied by an interesting story well told. Its start:
Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”
I didn’t expect to, but I actually found something interesting about Daniel Soar’s peeking under the corners of the NSA. Looking more closely than any one else I’ve seen, Soar reveals some unexpected (though understandably quite limited) details about how the NSA actually works:
One of the things these slides are most revealing of is the marketplace within the NSA. At your desk in S2C41, as you sit down to find the best way to home in on dodgy goings-on by senior Mexicans, you have a whole menu of sexy tools to choose from.
Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting theory about the online illegal drug marketplace, The Silk Road, that authorities shut down a few weeks ago:
But for all of the DOJ details that, if accurate, make The Silk Road an indefensible enterprise, I can’t help but conclude, after reading the complaint, that the world is actually going to be a more dangerous place in the absence of the online marketplace.
It’s an interesting idea, and one I find believable.
That said, I do think it’s likely that this specific market contained almost exclusively nerdy and/or upper-class shoppers. I find it hard to buy that those demographics are typically involved (or victimized by) violent drug markets. Suburban (or more controversially: white, rich) drug distribution is a almost always — for better or worse — ignored by authorities specifically because it’s free of the side-effects Friedersdorf is positing that the Silk Road didn’t have.
Peter Pomerantsev’s profile of Russia’s current politics and public culture is great. The details of the biggest Russian biker gang are fascinating. A subculture triply foreign to me: I’ve never had first-hand experience of syncretic mystical religions, Russia, or bike gangs. And the gang’s on Putin’s payroll:
There are five thousand of them in Russia, five thousand Beowulf-like bearded men in leathers riding Harleys. It’s Weitz who has done most to turn them from outlaws into religious patriots. For the past few years, Vladimir Putin has posed for photo-ops with them, dressed in leathers and riding a tri-bike (he can’t quite handle a two-wheeler). They defended the ‘honour of the church’ after the Pussy Riot affair, roaring in a cavalcade through Moscow bearing golden icons of Mary the Mother of Christ on the front of their Harleys. The Kremlin gives them several hundred million rubles a year and they work to inspire loyalty across the country with concerts and bike shows that fuse flying Yamahas, Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze acts, Spielberg-scale battle re-enactments, religious icons, holy ecstasies, speeches from Stalin and dancing girls (there are booths for go-go girls next to the great crosses).
The easiest way I found to get reasonable pictures of the gang was this tag archive on a blog.
This nearly narrative-less version of history is a really interesting format. Whether you know the players and specific events or not, I think it’s quite a nice map. I also have to say I like the selection of audio-clips that come in beside the music: clearly not incidental.
Perhaps this just shows that I like Apple, but I really like John Gruber’s essay about why Clayton Christensen’s famous disruption theory seems to be sustainably inaccurate in the case of Apple.
There have been periods of low-end Clayton Christensen-style disruption — the Japanese imports in the ’70s and ’80s and corresponding collapse of Ford, GM, and Chrysler’s collective market dominance is a good example. But it is undeniably true that there is a sustainable and profitable high-end of the market, occupied by companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. Point this out and someone will inevitably argue that sure, those companies are thriving, but they all have tiny market share. But Apple is sort of like BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Lexus all rolled into one. There just aren’t that many competitors for this segment of the market in phones and tablets, and most of them aren’t very good.
While President Obama continues the “war on terror” under a different name and different guise, it’s interesting to consider the causes of terrorism. One theory I’d never heard before:
Rather than exploiting the denizens of “remote tribal regions” as Obama’s speech proclaimed, the terrorist activities associated with al-Qaeda and its affiliates are actively engaging the responses of tribal peoples (the thistles of Tolstoy’s metaphor) whose cultures are facing destruction from the forces of modern society—including national governments—currently led by the United States.
The theory being that is tribe, not “global jihad”, as the primary mover of sentiment for prospective terrorists. The review is clear about the limits of the theory, but it makes at least enough sense to keep in mind.
An interesting short piece about some of the impacts that electric cars are starting to and might have on the broad electrical grid. This hadn’t occurred to me:
In most parts of California, charging an electric car [with a dedicated high-voltage charger] of those is the equivalent of adding one house to the grid, which can be a significant additional burden, since a typical neighborhood circuit has only five to 10 houses.