The weekly linklist – July 25, 2020

I’ve decided to publish this linklist via Substack. Next weekend onwards, it will only be available on https://linklist.substack.com. And this is why the list exists and what kind of articles you can find in it.

  • Want to buy a parrot? Please login via Facebook. – “F-commerce emerged in Bangladesh largely because there was no major e-commerce platform to absorb all the business. But although it’s biggest there, this form of selling isn’t exclusive to the country, or even the region: globally, 160 million small stores operate on Facebook, and in countries like Thailand, almost half of all online sales happen through social media.”
  • The history of climate science – “The fact that carbon dioxide is a ‘greenhouse gas’ – a gas that prevents a certain amount of heat radiation escaping back to space and thus maintains a generally warm climate on Earth, goes back to an idea that was first conceived, though not specifically with respect to CO2, nearly 200 years ago. The story of how this important physical property was discovered, how its role in the geological past was evaluated and how we came to understand that its increased concentration, via fossil fuel burning, would adversely affect our future, covers about two centuries of enquiry, discovery, innovation and problem-solving.”
  • The story of cryptomining in Europe’s most disputed state – “In early 2018, millions of digital clocks across Europe began falling behind time. Few took notice at first as slight disruptions in the power supply caused bedside alarms and oven timers running on the frequency of electric current to begin lagging. … European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”
  • Electromagnetic pulses are the last thing you need to worry about in a nuclear explosion – “The electromagnetic pulse that comes from the sundering of an atom, potentially destroying electronics within the blast radius with some impact miles away from ground zero, is just one of many effects of every nuclear blast. What is peculiar about these pulses, often referred to as EMPs, is the way the side effect of a nuclear blast is treated as a special threat in its own right by bodies such as the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, which, despite the official-sounding name, is a privately funded group. These groups continue a decadelong tradition of obsession over EMPs, one President Donald Trump and others have picked up on.”
  • India’s daunting challenge: There’s water everywhere, and nowhere – “I am walking across the world. Over the past seven years I have retraced the footsteps of Homo sapiens, who roamed out of Africa in the Stone Age and explored the primordial world. En route, I gather stories. And nowhere on my foot journey—not in any other nation or continent—have I encountered an environmental reckoning on the scale of India’s looming water crisis. It is almost too daunting to contemplate.”
  • Here be black holes – “During the 15th and 16th centuries, when oceans were the spaces between worlds, marine animals, often so prodigious that they were termed sea monsters, were difficult to see and even harder to analyse, their very existence uncertain. Broadly construed, the history of space science is also a story of looking across and into the ocean – that first great expanse of space rendered almost unknowable by an alien environment. Deep space, like the deep sea, is almost inaccessible, with the metaphorical depth of space echoing the literal depth of oceans. These cognitive and psychic parallels also have an analogue in the practicalities of survival, and training for space missions routinely includes stints under water.”
  • Birds bear the warnings but humans are responsible for the global threat – “Bird omens of a sort are the subject of two recent anthropological studies of avian flu preparedness in Asia. Both Natalie Porter, in Viral Economies, and Frédéric Keck, in Avian Reservoirs, convey the ominousness suffusing poultry farming, using birds as predictors. As both demonstrate, studying how birds interact with human agriculture can provide early warnings of a grim future. Indeed, Keck in Avian Reservoirs explicitly compares public-health surveillance (which he studies in the book) to augury, tracing ‘the idea that birds carry signs of the future that humans should learn to read … back to Roman divination.'”
  • Fiction as a window into the ethics of testing the Bomb – “The stuff that surprised me was on the American side. For example, the assessment by Curtis LeMay [the commander who led US air attacks on Japan] where he basically says, “We’ve bombed the shit out of Japan. Hurry up with your atomic bomb, because there’s going to be nothing left if you don’t.” That shocked me, and also that they deliberately left those cities pristine because they wanted to show the devastation. They wanted, I believe, to kill innocent people, because they were already moving on to the Cold War.”
  • The idea of entropy has led us astray – “Perhaps physics, in all its rigors, is deemed less susceptible to social involvement. In truth, though, Darwinian and thermodynamic theories served jointly to furnish a propitious worldview—a suitable ur-myth about the universe—for a society committed to laissez-faire competition, entrepreneurialism, and expanding industry. Essentially, under this view, the world slouches naturally toward a deathly cold state of disorder, but it can be salvaged—illuminated and organized—by the competitive scrabble of creatures fighting to survive and get ahead.”
  • How massive neutrinos broke the Standard Model – “Niels Bohr … had the radical suggestion that maybe energy and momentum weren’t really conserved; maybe they could somehow be lost. But Wolfgang Pauli had a different — arguably, even more radical — thought: that perhaps there was a novel type of particle being emitted in these decays, one that we simply didn’t yet have the capacity to see. He named it “neutrino,” which is Italian for “little neutral one,” and upon hypothesizing it, remarked upon the heresy he had committed: ‘I have done a terrible thing, I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.'”
  • How a small Arab nation built a Mars mission from scratch in six years – “When the UAE announced in 2014 that it would send a mission to Mars by the country’s 50th birthday in December 2021, it looked like a bet with astronomically tough odds. At the time, the nation had no space agency and no planetary scientists, and had only recently launched its first satellite. The rapidly assembled team of engineers, with an average age of 27, frequently heard the same jibe. ‘You guys are a bunch of kids. How are you going to reach Mars?’ says Sarah Al Amiri, originally a computer engineer and the science lead for the project.”
  • The pandemic has made concentrated reading difficult. How are book reviewers dealing with this? – “To read good and proper, I needed to disconnect from the terrible reality of the present – wishful thinking with the always-on-alert mode that the pandemic thrust upon us. A few pages in, my mind would wander, snapping out of the brief, quiet moment and I’d find myself reaching for my phone. … But as neuroscientists world over have told us, it’s been hard for most people to focus, with our brain in fight-or-flight mode to the threat of the virus. An activity like deep reading is especially difficult because it requires a high level of engagement and quiet. So it wasn’t just me.”
  • Facebook’s employees reckon with the social network they’ve built – “Why was Zuckerberg only talking about whether Trump’s comments fit the company’s rules, and not about fixing policies that allowed for threats that could hurt people in the first place, he asked. ‘Watching this just felt like someone was sort of slowly swapping out the rug from under my feet,’ Wang said. ‘They were swapping concerns about morals or justice or norms with this concern about consistency and logic, as if it were obviously the case that ‘consistency’ is what mattered most.'”

The occasional linklist – July 19, 2020

I have been pondering creating a column on my blog where I share links to articles I read and liked. I perform this function on Twitter at the moment, but the attention some links attract are rubbish, and I reflexively share only relatively bland things there these days as a result. I’m also starting to relish the privilege of not having a shitstorm erupt in my notifications just because I shared something – a link or a viewpoint – that someone disagreed with, and is now giving me headaches because I no longer have the option of ignoring them.

So here goes, the first instalment of articles I recently read and liked. 🙂

An introduction to physics that contains no equations is like an introduction to French that contains no French words, but tries instead to capture the essence of the language by discussing it in English. Of course, popular writers on physics must abide by that constraint because they are writing for mathematical illiterates, like me, who wouldn’t be able to understand the equations. … Such books don’t teach physical truths; what they teach is that physical truth is knowable in principle, because physicists know it. Ironically, this means that a layperson in science is in basically the same position as a layperson in religion.