- I’m grateful to this Boston Globe article by Matthew Guerrieri for introducing me to the work (and, for that matter, the existence) of the Latvian composer Jazeps Vitols. He shipped off to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 13 to study with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later stayed on there as a teacher, where he counted Prokofiev among his students. I’ve been pouring through his music on Youtube and there are some great pieces, including this theme and variations for solo piano on the Latvian folk song, Ej saulīte drīz pie Dieva (“Go sun soon to God”), and this Dramatic Overture.
- Souciant has an interesting excerpt from Oleg Kalugin’s 1995 book Spymaster: My Thirty-two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West (full text available here). As someone who came to Cold War-era espionage via John Le Carré novels, it’s amazing how much the factual history reads like a George Smiley story.
- Slate Star Codex has an interesting post up on meritocracy that is kind of a defense of a pure form of the concept. The follow-up post highlighting reader comments from the original post is just as interesting, if not more so. SSC is one of the few places on the Internet where reading the comments is always worth it.
- This Vanity Fair piece by Michael Lewis about the Department of Energy under Trump is both fascinating (the DOE is way cooler than I had thought) and terrifying.
- But not nearly as terrifying as this BBC piece on supervolcanoes. Seriously, this piece, more than even the starkest assessment of nuclear war, filled me with existential dread.
- No one asked me, but Germany should really agree to a reparations deal with Namibia. Despite the existence of German deniers, the Herero and Namaqua genocide (which, incidentally, was the first genocide of the 20th century) is as well documented as it is atrocious. Back in May the Economist had a good run-down of where the German and Namibian governments and the various factions within both nations stand on the matter.
- Artificial Intelligence researchers at Facebook created two bots designed to compete against one another, which then proceeded to develop their own private language that the researchers could not decipher. Gulp. I’ve already come across a few Skynet references in the frothier regions of the Internet. The write-up on the Facebook AI Research web page is a bit more anodyne and full of interesting technical details, as are some of the referenced research papers (see here, here, and here). Between this and Google’s Multilingual Neural Machine Translation System, it looks like one of the unintended beneficiaries of this recent golden age of AI research will be linguistic studies.
- This is cool: there are only two species of flowering plants found on Antarctica, and they could hold the key to better means of protecting people and plants from ultraviolet light. How far away are we from being able to CRIPR UV-resistant genes into human beings?
- Estonia recently changed their geodetic datum from the Russian system to the European system, and the nation of Estonia will now officially be 20 centimeters higher.
- Quanta Magazine has an interesting piece about bacterial biofilms and their similarity to cities. These days I’ll probably read any big think piece of the type “What Urban Planning Can Tell Us About [totally unrelated phenomenon].”
- Narrative.ly has a tragic piece about how the Toto people, an isolated indigenous tribe in West Bengal, India, may completely die out from a rare blood disorder known as thalassemia. It’s not untreatable but the remoteness of tribe, and general unawareness of the disease, is hindering treatment efforts.
- This Wired article about Cuba’s DIY Internet is pretty great, the author’s flatfooted attempt to ape Hunter S. Thompson notwithstanding. Having tried to re-book a flight using Havana’s scratch-off WiFi system, I can confirm the government Internet blows. The ingenuity of the Cuban people, however, is pretty awesome. On excerpt:
Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal (“the weekly package”). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable, and least interactive form: its content. This collection of video, song, photo, and text files from the outside world is cobbled together by various media smugglers known as paqueteros, and it travels around the island from person to person, percolating quickly from Havana to the furthest reaches in less than a day and constituting what would be known in techie lingo as a sneakernet: a network that transmits data via shoe rubber, bus, horseback, or anything else.
Oddly, it works. Cubans can be as conversant as any Netflix-and-chill American about popular shows like House of Cards or Black Mirror, and they drop allusions to the Lannisters and Omar Little constantly. It’s been reported that as many as 3 million Cubans access content via the paquete.
- Stravinsky in South Africa, a radio documentary from the BBC World Service about a concert that Stravinsky gave in 1962, at the age of 80, to South Africa. This is one of the best things I’ve listened to in a while. The SA government had arranged for Stravinsky to perform only for white audiences, but after being pressured he was allowed to do a concert in one of the Townships. The audio of the concert is excellent, the reminiscences of the attendees are touching, and there are wonderful impromptu vocal performances throughout.
- Breaking News, from Radiolab, gives a disturbing taste of a technology that is probably only a few years away: realistically altering audio and video media to make it look like a person is saying something they didn’t in fact say. This video, which fakes an Obama video and which they did using the non-proprietary software, is probably convincing enough to fool millions on Facebook. We’re in for a wild ride in the coming years.
- Chapo Trap House has gotten some negative press in recent weeks, most of it little more than huffiness over a slight rhetorical excess (extremely slight in the context of the show’s frequently extreme rhetorical excesses). While the show is often vulgar I do feel like this podcast is to the Trump presidency what Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was to the GW Bush presidency: the show best able to satirize the entire milieu because they understand the current moment better than almost anyone else. Anyway, the recent criticism of the show made me re-listen to the episode that originally made me a fan: the Adam Curtis interview they did right after the election last November. Love it or hate it, this episode (and Curtis’s work) is required listening for anyone on the political left at this moment.