La cultura circula

Karan Mahajan:

Shakespeare remixed Boccaccio. Dostoevsky loved Dickens. Marquez said, “Graham Greene taught me how to decipher the tropics.” Mohandas Gandhi, a brave and direct writer of Gujarati prose, came to many of his ideas reading Tolstoy, who came to his ideas from Schopenhauer, who said that the work that influenced him the most was the Upanishads.

Chronic Underemployment

Gabriel Thompson:

Six years into the economic recovery, people continue to crisscross the state in search of gigs, putting in three hours of drive time for maybe nine hours of work at $10 an hour…

Solving chronic underemployment could be the next campaign for organized labor. Indeed, several weeks ago, Silicon Valley Rising, a community-labor coalition, submitted paperwork for a ballot measure in San Jose called the “Opportunity to Work Initiative,” which would require large employers to offer additional hours to current part-timers before hiring additional part-time or temp workers…

It takes me seven minutes to make my way to the end of the line; by that time it has stopped completely. We all wait for another 20 minutes, without moving. More workers join, and the line becomes tighter and hotter. Many people have been on their feet since 4 a.m., and we are packed so closely that sitting down is impossible. One woman starts sobbing.

Fair and Square

As quoted by Josh Marshall, a study of 51 recent elections finds that:

In general elections, states with strict photo ID laws show a Latino turnout 10.3 points lower than in states without them. The law also affected turnout in primary elections, where Latino turnout decreased by 6.3 points and Black turnout by 1.6 points.

In short, these laws work as intended.

Certainty is a contact sport

Nicola Twilley:

The LIGO team includes a small group of people whose job is to create blind injections—bogus evidence of a gravitational wave—as a way of keeping the scientists on their toes. Although everyone knew who the four people in that group were, “we didn’t know what, when, or whether,” Gabriela González, the collaboration’s spokeswoman, said. During Initial LIGO’s final run, in 2010, the detectors picked up what appeared to be a strong signal. The scientists analyzed it intensively for six months, concluding that it was a gravitational wave from somewhere in the constellation of Canis Major. Just before they submitted their results for publication, however, they learned that the signal was a fake.

This time through, the blind-injection group swore that they had nothing to do with the signal. Marco Drago thought that their denials might also be part of the test, but Reitze, himself a member of the quartet, had a different concern. “My worry was—and you can file this under the fact that we are just paranoid cautious about making a false claim—could somebody have done this maliciously?” he said. “Could somebody have somehow faked a signal in our detector that we didn’t know about?” Reitze, Weiss, González, and a handful of others considered who, if anyone, was familiar enough with both the apparatus and the algorithms to have spoofed the system and covered his or her tracks. There were only four candidates, and none of them had a plausible motive. “We grilled those guys,” Weiss said. “And no, they didn’t do it.” Ultimately, he said, “We accepted that the most economical explanation was that it really is a black-hole pair.”

South Pasadena, USA

I drove through South Pasadena, California this afternoon. It’s a beautiful neighborhood with tree lined streets and large, stately houses. If you’re looking to buy one, the median price is about a million dollars – more than five times the national rate.

At a quiet intersection, I waited for the car in front of me to make a left turn when I noticed the black Mercedes Benz SUV that was waiting behind me suddently pull around to my side. Just then the car ahead of me completed its left and I started to roll forward. The black SUV that had been behind me was in a right turn only lane but it kept going, effectively cutting me off. Must have been in a hurry.

At the indoor parking lot for the Whole Foods in Pasadena, I was pulling out in reverse when I noticed a woman in a light-colored SUV drive up behind me. I stopped and looked back to make eye contact with her, to see if she was going to wait. She avoided my eye contact but threw her hands up in frustration. I put the car in drive and got out of her way. She kept looking straight ahead and drove off hastily. She was waiting at the next red light when I pulled up behind her. Must have been in a hurry.

An hour or so later, I was making a turn on an especially leafy and quiet street when I noticed an elderly woman walking with great difficulty on the side of the road. She was in her mid 70s, at least. There was grass or hay stuck to the back of her legs and she was carrying a brightly colored parka like the kind Patagonia makes, rolled up in one hand. She looked like she was in trouble so I pulled over to get a better look.


Lost highway


The sleepy beach town of Bolinas has something lively to talk about this week, as reports emerge that a coyote (or coyotes) has been attacking cars along Highway 1 in a manner so bizarre it has residents scratching their heads. The attacks are weird enough that one seemingly outlandish explanation, that the coyotes are eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and vision questing their way into interactions with drivers, is being considered.

A report in the Pacific Sun details the late-night encounters had by numerous motorists.

“A coyote has taken to staring down automobile drivers as they drive through this twisting, turning section of highway,” notes the paper, “before attacking the car and then skulking off back into the wilderness. The coyote runs up to the cars, usually at night, forcing drivers to stop as the beast stares and sniffs around the vehicle.”

robots and secrets

From an overview of consensus by John Cassidy:

Why, then, are the markets so disturbed? One possible explanation has to do with trading algorithms, which encourage trend-following and herding. Once stocks or bonds or oil prices make a sharp move, everyone piles on in the same direction, and the market’s over-all shifts are exaggerated. Even those hedge funds and other institutional investors that aren’t actively shorting tend to adopt a “risk off” strategy, which precludes them from buying very much in response to drops in the market.

Another possible explanation is that the markets, through the magic of aggregated private information, have discovered something that the economists have missed. Perhaps China’s economy is in much worse shape than the authorities are letting on, or big Western banks are much more exposed to the collapse in commodity prices than they are admitting.

Things that make the stock market both fascinating and frightening.

looking at the dark side

George Soros:

Recognizing a problem is an invitation to do something about it. That is the main lesson I learned from the formative experience of my life, in 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary. I might not have survived if my father hadn’t secured false identification papers for his family (and many others). He taught me that it’s much better to face harsh reality than to close your eyes to it. Once you are aware of the dangers, your chances of survival are much better if you take some risks than if you meekly follow the crowd. That is why I trained myself to look at the dark side. It has served me well in the financial markets and it is guiding me now in my political philanthropy. As long as I can find a winning strategy, however tenuous, I don’t give up. In danger lies opportunity. It’s always darkest before dawn.

A movie about the “war on drugs”


At the end of the excellent movie Sicario, Benicio del Toro puts a gun to Emily Blunt’s face and tells her that she should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists because the place where they are – the U.S.-Mexico border – has become a land of wolves and she, unlike he, is not a wolf.

del Toro, who previously played a man who became a wolf in the 2010 movie The Wolfman, thus implies that he has murdered and will continue to murder because he recognizes that the land where they live is no longer governed by human law but rather by a primordial order. In such a time and place, humans must either flee or heed the call of the wild: master or be mastered, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It’s an interesting argument in and of itself but moreso because the movie has already presented other, very different arguments as to who the titular hero, the assassin, is and why he must exist. This abundance of arguments betrays a lack of confidence in an otherwise perfectly confident movie about confident men. Why?


The ebb and flow of public spaces

A slow yielding of public to private spaces led to a tremendous opportunity for Starbucks in the early 1990s: not to sell coffee but to rent public space.

To rent a Starbucks public space you purchase a disposable token (a white Starbucks coffee cup) and place it near your person. The cup contains a complimentary drink. The tokens are uniform in outward appearance but can be filled with various liquids which are sold at different prices to allow the consumer to signal who they are. The liquids may be consumed.

It’s understandable that Starbucks would attempt to program a discussion of race throughout its chain of “public squares.” The effort failed but I bet they’ll try again, perhaps by allowing regional or individual stores to set the agenda and partnering with established brands.

I was reminded of Starbucks’ trade in public spaces by this short history of anti-theft devices in medieval libraries.

By way of analogy, the author asks : “Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe?”


Mick Stevens, The New Yorker – December 1, 2015:

a functional object

All models are unique, mostly handmade and may slightly differ from the models shown in the pictures. All our products are designed as works of art and are sold as such. The orderer is expected to regard these products as works of art. In the event that these works of art are used as functional objects, they shall not be subject to the usual requirements of a functional object. We therefore accept no liability arising from any use of these products other than as works of art.

Den Herder Production House


Confessional – Wikipedia

The priest and penitent are in separate compartments and speak to each other through a grid or lattice… The priest will usually sit in the middle and the penitents will enter the compartments to either side of him… Confessions and conversations are usually whispered. Sometimes a confessional will be built into the church walls and have separate doors for each compartment; other confessionals can be free-standing structures where curtains are used to conceal penitents (and even the priest in some confessionals) from the rest of the church.


the selfie market

New Apple patents seek total dominance of selfie market – The Guardian, January 13, 2015

But on Tuesday, a series of Apple patents surfaced online – and one of them would allow iPhone users to take remote pictures from a mounted camera, controlled from a watch. The patent specifically mentions weaknesses in the GoPro product.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror – John Ashberry, 1974

The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.


An intrepid researcher has mapped some of the microwave towers being used to conduct high-frequency-trading around the world.

HFT requires competitors to use cutting-edge technology to see ahead. It has antecedents:

Height, then, played an important part in facilitating that speed. A trader’s physical height became an advantage, which is part of the reason some traders were former basketball or football players –“taller traders were easier to see”. In the 1990s, some traders wore high heels in the pits to trade faster, and inevitably experienced injuries due to lack of balance. This prompted the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) to impose a ruling making the maximum size of platform heels two inches in November 2000.

via Alexis Madrigal.

Speaking of antecedents, one of the cons lovingly illustrated in the 1990 movie The Grifters involves exploiting time delays to make money on financial markets. The con involved selling the promise of that grift, not actually carrying it out. Brilliant.