by philh1 min read22nd Apr 202152 comments
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So my phone keyboard has two red heart emojis, one flat () and one shaded () (though idk how those will render here, the editor seems to be treating them as images?), and I wanted to know what the difference was between them. So I opened gmail and copied both of them into a draft which I then opened on my laptop.

Highlighted to copy. xsel gave me hard-to-read garbage which was kind of unsurprising. xsel | hexdump -C should give the UTF-8 encoding -

- but the result was ef bf bc ef bf bc, i.e. the same character twice. Turns out that's object replacement character so that makes sense

Anyway I tried various combinations of whitespace between them or not, and copy by highlighting/xsel or ctrl-c/xsel -b. Turns out that if I highlight I only get object replacement, but if I highlight and then do ctrl-c then xsel and xsel -b both give the correct characters, which render in my terminal (but it doesn't handle their width properly - it renders them as width 2, but only moves 1 space to the right to display the next character)

Also turns out that if I have a space between them, highlight+xsel gives the space as c2 a0 (non-breaking space) while ctrl-c+xsel gives the space as 20 (the normal space character).

Anyway. Both of them are two three-byte characters. The flat heart is e2 99 a5 / ef b8 8f (black heart suit / variation selector 16) while the shaded heart is e2 9d a4 / ef b8 8f (heavy black heart / variation selector 16).

Wikipedia has it that variation selector 16 means "render this as an emoji". Presumably somewhere defines that these two hearts, when rendered as emojis, should look more-or-less like they do. Possibly it even gives them distinct names. But this is as far as I feel like investigating right now.

(To look up those characters, I just googled e.g. "unicode e299a5". I know more-or-less how I'd turn that into 2665 if google didn't help, and if I forgot I know where to look it up. Probably there's also an online converter that would do it for me. But it wasn't necessary.)

A Google search landed me on api dot em tee arr dot pub (not linking to avoid improving rankings), which seems to be a github phising site. And I fell for it and logged in :(

Luckily I have 2fa enabled and don’t reuse that password. And they didn’t present me with a 2fa box (I guess they could have done if they’d passed my password on pretending to be me?), they just said there was an API error or something. So probably not a problem?

I’ve changed password. I wonder if it’s possible to see whether anyone tries to log in. And I wonder if there’s anything useful I can do. There’s a “send feedback on this info” on Google which I used, dunno if anyone will see it.

(it wasn’t the first search result, it was after two results on github and “images”. I opened it in a new tab out of curiosity, then didn’t notice when I was in that tab instead of a github tab.)

An interesting thing here is, I often don't have my browser remember passwords. On my work laptop that's company policy (but we use lastpass), on my personal laptop it's a possibly-overly-paranoid (and inconsistently applied) defense against someone with access to my laptop (or e.g. to a backup of my files).

So I wasn't surprised when the github login form didn't autofill my password. (Even though I think github actually is saved.) If I had been surprised, I wonder if I'd have noticed.

This might be an example of "things which are in theory more secure might be less secure in practice".

For logins such as Github, the trick is to have a password that's complex enough that it's only in the password manager and not in your brain, so you can't be tricked into just typing it out. 

Then, if the password doesn't get filled, it's about starting the password manager and letting the password manager fill it in. 

I take it you mean "if the password manager doesn't fill it in, that's a sign you're on the wrong site"? The password manager I use on my personal laptop isn't integrated with my browser, so that wouldn't have helped in my case, but yeah.

(I don't use an integrated one partly because I've never properly looked into browser extensions. I don't know what's available and I haven't thought about the tradeoffs.)

I do see integrating the password manager is important. Especially with a service like PayPal where it often happens that the side where you are shopping is opening a new window for PayPal it's quite easy for it to give you a fake window.

For those who don't want to look (in a sandbox VM or at least private browser), it visually appears identical to, but with a letsencrypt certificate (not visibly different unless you look).  It presumably exists to get people to type in their github credentials, to be used later for nefarious purposes.

It's a good reminder of just how good phishing sites have gotten.  

Planet Money (Rerun 21 Apr 2021): The Writer's Revolt

Rerun of a 2019 episode.

In theory, if you're a screenwriter for Hollywood, you have an agent who gets you the best deals because that's how they get money. But there's a practice called "bundling", where the agency puts together a collection of a writer, director, showrunner, and sells them to the studio as a package deal. (Agencies represent everyone. Not just Hollywood, e.g. pop stars, and one of them bought Miss America from Trump in 2016 or so.) Then the agency has less incentive to get the best deal for the writer.

The guy who wrote The Wire discovered this when trying to pitch The Wire, and also discovered that he'd been bundled on a previous project of his without being told. The agency had represented both him and the director when they'd been negotiating, which he didn't like because, again, incentives.

We also hear from a writer whose show didn't make it into production because two agencies - neither of whom represented him - were fighting over who got bundling fees.

Anyway, writers didn't like this. They have their own union, so they started doing collective bargaining. Most of the agencies didn't budge, so eventually they fired all those agents at once.

We hear from a head of a smaller agency, who gave in soon after and thinks doing so was good for them because they didn't do that much bundling anyway. Writers feel like they have more power now.

As of 2021, the pandemic has also been good for writers' power versus agencies, because people still watch Hollywood content at home, but not so much pop stars.

I listen to podcasts while doing chores, and often feel like I'm learning something but end up unable to remember anything. So, experiment: I'm going to try writing brief summaries after the fact. I'm going to skip anything where that doesn't feel appropriate, e.g. fiction. By default, nothing here is fact checked, either against reality or against the episode itself.

Planet Money #796 (23 Sep 2017): The Basic Income Experiment

This is a 99% Invisible episode on UBI.

UBI is an idea supported by some on both left and right. Finland is currently trying an experiment. In fact, Finland is currently experimenting with experimentation itself: they set up a whole gov department whose purpose is to help run experiments, and enacted some law or something to avoid these experiments falling foul of the constitution. (Because you have to treat people equally, and having an intervention and a control group isn't doing that.)

Finland's problem: high unemployment, and disincentivizing work. You can collect unemployment for 2+ years after your last job, and you can't earn anything on the side. The person they "hired" to do recording in Finland for this episode worked for free, because otherwise he would have lost benefits.

So they're experimenting with UBI. About 2000 unemployed people given unconditional money each month instead of unemployment. It's a bit less money, but now they can do part-time work without an income cliff. Interview with one of those people: she's now looking for part-time work, but hasn't found it yet.

Problems with study: 2000 people is small, only looks at currently unemployed people (can't see if it makes employed people more likely to stop working).

Person running study thinks UBI will fail.

America almost had something like this under Nixon. But people started looking at the data before it was fully in. There were hints of bad effects, including increased divorce rates (scandalous at the time but Roman wants to make sure you know he thinks it's fine). Don't remember what else. When the data was fully in the effects were smaller than they first seemed/had been rumored, but damage was done.

Planet Money (14 May 2021): Blood Money

America lets you sell blood plasma for money. The centers will call it a donation, but you get money for it, so. You can come in a couple of times a week and especially for low income people it can be a significant addition to their income. There are referral bonuses, and you get paid more if you come in more often. (Seems weird?) These centers are mostly located in low-income areas.

There's a history here involving Nicaragua. Under a dictator there was a center doing this, and a journalist was writing about concerns, and eventually the dictator had the journalist killed. Riots in the aftermath left the center burned down and eventually the dictator got deposed. At some point the WHO wrote up an agreement or something not to allow blood plasma to be sold. Almost everyone's signed, but not the USA. Now almost everyone gets their blood plasma from the USA. Four exceptions, who allow it to be sold and are self-sufficient: Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary.

(Farmer's Dilemma!)

We speak to a Canadian healthcare person about why Canada doesn't allow it. Three concerns. He's not too worried about incentives for people to sell bad blood, apparently we can sanitize it, even of HIV. He's also not too worried about health impacts on sellers; they get a checkup every four months to make sure they're still good, and there's some anecdotal evidence that maybe it should be more frequent but basically it seems fine. He seemed more concerned about "if people can sell plasma, will they do other things like regular blood donation for free?" I don't remember the commentary on that. I think he said that if the USA didn't allow selling they'd probably have to in Canada, but as long as they do it's unlikely to change.

We also speak to a Brazilian doctor saying that plasma and the things it's used for are essential, there are people who will die without it, get over yourselves.

Concerns that if either demand raises (finding new uses: there are studies showing promise in Alzheimers) or supply drops, there might not be enough. In fact supply has dropped during Covid: possible reasons include "sellers need the money less thanks to stimulus"; "if your kids are at home all the time you might be too busy"; "a lot of the sellers near the border are Mexicans who can't come over any more".

Planet Money: Bagging the Birkin

An Hermes Birkin bag costs $10k minimum, average $60k. They're super high status. Guest wanted one from soon after she moved to NYC's upper east side, was walking towards another woman on the sidewalk, and the other woman instead of getting out of the way oriented to sort of direct her to walk into a garbage can. Then brushed her with her bag on the way past, which she thinks was a Birkin. She thinks it was the bag that gave her this power.

But the weird thing is, even if you have the money for a bag it's really hard to get one. There's a waiting list for the waiting list. Hermes says this is because the bags are so hard to make. They're made from unusual leathers like crocodile and ostrich, they're hand stitched, and you have to train for years to make them. Lolno, if they wanted to make more they've had 30 years to build up a supply chain. Actually they just want them to be scarce because it makes them higher value.

Guest had a friend give her advice, apparently if her husband went into a store saying he wanted to buy it as a gift that might help. But no luck. Eventually he found one in Japan: they said they didn't have any, he said he needed it, repeat a few times (which is super rude of him for Japan), and eventually they sold one to him. Another person found that the trick was if you're already spending thousands of dollars in an Hermes store, and pretend it's an afterthought when you say "oh do you have any Birkin bags?" they'll sell you one.

The other weird thing is that the bags are actually kind of underwhelming. They don't look that great. But host still finds herself impressed, feeling like because other people love them maybe it's something wrong with her that she doesn't see it. Uses words like sacred and religious to describe the experience of actually holding (maybe just seeing?) one.

Everyone in this episode is aware of how ridiculous they sound.

If you google "most valuable thing in the world," it shows you a bunch of lists of fancy items covered with rare gems. I think civil engineering and infrastructural projects are much more valuable than these things when we talk about utility and how much value people can get out of them. It's also useless if their utilitarian values aren't being put to use. Efficiency and practicality also plays a huge part. A lot of those Middle East oil countries built a lot of skyscrapers in the middle of nowhere. They probably would've stretched their money a bit if they didn't just copy existing civil engineering designs and came up with something that makes more sense given their own local ecosystem.

Planet Money: The capitalists of North Korea

Jessie grew up in North Korea. One day when she was like eight her family needed matches, so she picked a bunch of wild raspberries and sold them at market for the rough equivalent of a nickle. People didn't buy them so much because they were good raspberries for the price but because she was eight. (I guess similar to lemonade stands.) With the leftover money she got a peach for her mum. Seeing her mum's happiness at the peach she decided to make a lot of money to keep making her mum happy. So she kept that kind of thing up. One time she walked six hours each way to buy purer alcohol than people in her village were drinking, then sold it on. She was still small at the time so she could only carry 5kg of it. Also started smuggling between NK and China, I suspect that came a bit later.

NK has a weapons program, which raises the question where did that money come from? It used to be in an economic race with SK, but now SK's economy is like 50x higher. NK is the only country to have had a peacetime famine in an urban, literate population.

When Kim Jong Un came into power, he said he was going to improve the economy and build weapons. For the economy he started turning a blind eye to capitalists ("dongju"?) like Jessie, who had always been operating illegally. He allowed people in to give business lessons. They weren't allowed to discuss certain things, but if you talk about trading between a fictional "big island" and "small island", everyone knows you mean China and NK. Some people were even allowed out of the country to learn business. One person was excited to see an ATM. But then the profits from this sort of thing went into the weapons program, which is awkward.

And because the capitalists were still in a legal grey area, they could have their stuff seized. Jessie's uncle reported her. She lost everything and was lucky not to go to prison. So she smuggled herself out using her connections from smuggling goods. Now she's in South Korea, but not really planning to go into business again. Her mum is dead now, and that was a lot of her motivation.

Planet Money: the Benefits of Bankruptcy

Rerun of a 2015 episode.

Queen City Appliances was founded ~1950, at some point the founder's son Ronny took over as CEO. It was doing well, and borrowing money to make money. Then 2008 happened, and in 2009 the business was doing badly, no one buying new refrigerators. So Ronny filed for bankruptcy. He had to sign the papers along with his 80something-year-old mother, who had helped to build the business from the ground up and still did accounts four days a week. It was one of the worst days of his life. These papers are public, telling the court and the world everyone you owe money to. Within minutes a local paper had a story about it on its website, and his son texted to ask if he was okay.

But bankruptcy is kind of weird in the US, because you don't necessarily have to stop operating, you can file for "chapter 11". This goes back to railroads, which would run out of money at the slightest economic crisis but everyone still wanted them to run. So some means was developed for that to happen.

QCA went for it. Ronnie had to convince a judge and his creditors (via vote) that he had a way forward. After that, he had to ask permission for everything, including "paying his electricity bill" and "filling his trucks up with gas". And he had to submit weekly progress reports. He went from 17 stores to 4. His creditors wouldn't get everything back, some low on the pecking order only got 10%, but better than nothing. And after 1 1/2 years, he got a super short legal document saying his company was no longer bankrupt.

Everyone else thought the US was crazy when they first implemented this, but some economists think it's part of why they did better during the recession than most, and some other countries are looking to emulate it now. Ronnie's mum also likes bankruptcy more than she used to, having previously thought it was a "morally upright people do not do this" sort of thing. No one at church judged her for it either.

In a present day (as of rerun airing) update, QCA had a couple of bad years in between, but it's doing well again.

Planet Money: The Free Food Market

Originally ran in 2015, reran some other time.

Feeding America accepts food donations and distributes them to food banks. They had what economists call the "local knowledge problem", that central office doesn't know what the local banks need. What they have too much of, what they want more. A bank in Alaska wasn't getting fresh produce because the distributor didn't think their distribution network would get it there in good state, unaware that the bank had set up their own distribution logistics for that purpose.

At some point a new CEO of Feeding America comes in and is like "wtf guys, this sucks". Gets a bunch of economists and food bank people together to hash out a solution. What they come up with is a market using fake money. They give a certain amount daily to each bank, more to the ones they decide are needier. Then banks get to bid on the food they want. They can use their whole allowance every day, or save up to bid high amounts on popular items. They can also bid negative amounts on things that no one really wants, to make up for the hassle of logistics.

One bank person was like "nuts to this, I'm a socialist and I don't want anything to do with markets". He ended up liking it a lot, and him liking it helped convince others.

They also have a way for food banks to sell to each other. But that's not used very much. The bank people talk among each other a lot, they're friends, they share tips about dealing with food bank problems, they'd rather earn social points by giving food away than fake money by selling it to each other.

I'm pretty sure I intended to reference this last bit in my review of Order Without Law (relevant because the bank people seem like a close-knit group) but forgot.

Planet Money: Flood Money

Bill's house has flooded three times since he's lived there, and by now he's getting used to it. Why not move? Insurance!

You can't really get private insurance for floods, because it's too correlated. When the company has to pay out for one person, it has to pay out for everyone, and it goes bankrupt. So this insurance is backed by the government. He pays something like $4k/year for a house that cost him under $500k, and its paid out over $800k so far. That's not counting the most recent flood, after which it'll be over $1m. (I don't remember if this counts the twice it flooded before Bill bought the house.)

The government body in charge of things like this nominally tries to take in more in premiums than it pays out, for a while it even succeeded, but it basically doesn't work. Part of this is because America is generally down on mandated insurance, and only a relative handful of people have this insurance. Bill is a gun-owning, libertarian-leaning Texan, but he still thinks people should be required to buy flood insurance.

The body in question has borrowed more and more money from some other government body to make up for the shortfall. Ostensibly it'll pay it back but it's just going to fall to taxpayers eventually. (One of these bodies is FEMA, I forget which.) It's not allowed to refuse to insure someone, and while it has some control over how much it charges, congress also has a lot of control.

The body also tries to encourage things like "building your house more resilient to floods, like on stilts" and "moving away from flood prone areas", but the cheap insurance kind of doesn't help on that front. Bill actually wants to put his house on stilts, but hasn't been able to get a grant for doing that yet.

Planet Money #1568 (26 Aug 2022): Wake up and smell the fraud

Nina gets a coffee machine that takes coffee pods, and then orders some Nespresso pods from ebay at like half the price they should be. She wonders why they're so cheap, but there's explanations other than them being stolen (like someone having a bunch close to expiry, or getting them free as a loyalty perk or something) so she figures it's probably fine.

But then they show up delivered direct from Nespresso, and a $200 coffee machine shows up along with them. Rather than being like "yay free stuff" she's like "wtf" and tries to investigate. It's difficult to get Nespresso customer service to understand the problem but there's a name on the receipt that isn't hers. She thinks there's probably some kind of scam going on but isn't sure whether that name belongs to the scammer or the victim.

She buys a few more suspiciously-cheap boxes of pods from ebay. One comes with a milk frother, another with twice as many pods as it should. The names on the receipts are different, so she thinks these are probably victims. After a while one says they can't deliver the thing with the sort of bad-grammar-and-sob-story-about-my-mother that screams "internet scam".

Patrick McKenzie comes on to help explain. Credit card fraud is an industry with forums and ratings and conferences and division of labor - "carders" steal credit card numbers and "cashers" turn credit card numbers into money.

An easy thing to do is buy stuff and then sell it at a flea market. But then it shows up at your door which is kinda sus. Or you can set up a fake business and use the credit card numbers at it, but usage patterns there will be pretty sus too. (Plus chargebacks, but those aren't mentioned at this point for some reason?)

So what's going on here is called triangulation fraud. The scammer gets Nina's real money, then uses the victim's card to buy an actual product and send it to her. Nina is (expected to be) happy, the scammer is happy. The victim is sad but the bank makes them whole, and the bank does a chargeback from Nespresso. So Nespresso is the one who loses out. But this scam can easily target lots of different companies, and they all expect a small number of chargebacks, so none of them notice anything particularly off.

But Nina does do something, I forget what, and after a while the cheap coffee pod sellers on ebay disappear.

Why the free coffee machine and other stuff? Unclear, but Nina guesses it's for loyalty and to improve seller ratings on ebay. But she probably wouldn't have investigated if it hadn't arrived.

History of English #40 (21 Mar 2014): Learning Latin and Latin Learning

Previously the Roman Catholic traditions officially won over Irish Celtic, but Irish Celtic stayed alive, especially in Northumbria. And a king shortly after some of the previous kings built a particularly important monastary in that tradition. It had a lot of books, that was a thing for important monastaries. A child (~4yrs) named Beade went to stay there, no one knows why: "orphan" and "noble child" are possibilities, with some evidence for the latter being that the name meant "prayer" in Old English so it might have been intended from birth.

A few years later a plague hit, and only Beade (now 12) and the abbot survived. They kept doing services, but it meant Beade mostly grew up with a lot of books, and became an accomplished scholar. He wrote a bunch of books of his own, most of them are lost to us now but we know about the others through a list in one of the surviving ones. At least one of them was a history, and Beade was pretty groundbreaking in trying to be accurate. He also included dates, and he was the first to start numbering from Jesus, instead of the previous thing of dating by Roman emperors. He wrote in Latin (so we have AD instead of something more Saxon - I guess BC came later?) but was a proud Anglo Saxon, and a few centuries later someone translated his works into Old English.

Some etymology: "cross" comes from the torture and torture device, and gives us several obvious things like "crossroads" and some less obvious things like "cruise" (that one from another branch of IE). "Crisscross" is super old but its meaning has changed, originally it was a line of letters on a page referencing Christ, then came to mean the alphabet and then other things.

"Mass" (as in Church), "mission" (as in Church) and "mess" (as in mess hall) all come from the dismissal at the end of a service, and "mess" (as in messy) comes from mess-as-in-hall.

"Noon" is cognate with "nine". Early sundials divided the daylight into twelve hours, so the ninth was around 3pm. There were prayers at that time. Later those prayers were moved forwards to midday, but still got called noon.

Planet Money (28 Apr 2021): The $100 Million Deli

There's a deli that's publicly traded and has a market cap of just over $100 million. This is crazy. Such a thing would normally be worth more like $100 thousand.

It came to public attention when someone mentioned it in a speech or something as an example of how there seems to be no prosecution of fraud, or something. Someone from CNBC looked into the filings, the CEO is the local high school team's wrestling coach, and another important figure is a Chinese businessman with ties to Macau. Other large shareholders include companies based in Macau, too. And there are a few individuals involved who have been banned by the SEC from trading, or something. One of those individuals used to be coached by the wrestling coach I think.

Also, the deli is hiring one of those companies as a consultant, for $25k a month, on sales of idk what but pretty sure less than that.

What's probably going on is the company is being used as a foothold into the American stock market. Someone doesn't want to do an IPO so instead they merge with an existing public company. Kind of like a SPAC, but different in a way I didn't quite catch. (Matt Levine's explained it as well, but I forget that too.) Call it a SNAC, Special No-purpose Acquisition Company.

The deli didn't allow recording inside, and they didn't want to talk about what was going on, but they made a good sandwich.

Planet Money (13 May 2021): Hot Cheetos

Attention conservation notice: the LA Times says this story is untrue. (I've only skimmed that article but it has some more details and corrections, both wrt reality and wrt what PM reported. For example, his name was Richard, not Robert. h/t Money Stuff, when I listened to the episode I remembered seeing it link to this.)

Robert? grew up in a family of farm workers. He was bussed into a previously all white school, sat with the other Latin Americans, and all the white kids were like wtf at his lunch burrito. He asked his mum to make him a sandwich next time. She made him two burritos, one to share, and soon he was selling burritos at school.

He joined a gang for a bit but sucked at it, kept getting arrested. When he turned 18 his girlfriend said it was time to get a real job. She wrote him a fabricated resume and he got work as a janitor in a chip factory. This was the early 80s?

He thought he was doing great, then someone called him in and said they'd have to let him go, he had no initiative. He blustered his way through, got them to give him another chance. Went home, then went to the library with his girlfriend and they looked up the word in a dictionary. Oh, that thing? I can do that.

So he started learning to do like everything. He'd sit in on sales meetings, and take over for people on the factory floor when they went on breaks, and was still being a janitor. At some point the company instituted a "give us an idea, we'll give you a dollar" policy, a dollar was decent compared to his wage, so he submitted loads. (Not clear if the idea had to be adopted?)

At some point he and his girlfriend decided to make hot chips. Decided for whatever reason that cheetos would be the kind of chip. He took a bunch home with him one day and they experimented, eventually getting something good, sharing it with friends. He went back to work, looked through the company directory and called the CEO. Got past the secretary, who was a bit confused - you work at the ___ factory, like you're the regional manager? Head of sales? Oh, you're the janitor? Um, okay, sure. CEO said he was going to be there in two weeks, he liked to tour his factories, and wanted to meet then.

So two weeks later he was in a room with the CEO and a bunch of other bigwigs pitching his hot cheetos. Latin Americans like spicy stuff, this is an underserved market. How much of the market can we capture, you ask? Thiiis much, opening his arms wide. Whoops, that's not the kind of thing you do in this kind of place. But it's okay, the CEO saves him: gentlemen, do you realize Robert just told us we can capture thiiis much of the market? Opening his own arms wide too.

So they like the idea, and their techies go away to develop hot cheetos. Robert doesn't get in on that, but it's based on his girlfriend's recipe and they don't get any payment for that. And they become a big deal. Later Robert moved up and on and became a manager or exec type at Pepsi, and there's a movie in the works about the story.

Sidenote that there were already hot cheetos on the market, but (I forget the but). Also sidenote that they couldn't verify most of the story, the factory in question didn't keep good records and the CEO passed away (they did speak to the secretary).

99% Invisible: McMansion Hell

Guest writes the blog McMansion Hell. It sounds like there are several things she dislikes about McMansions:

  • Sometimes the owners want weird things on the inside, like a cathedral ceiling. Making that stuff work makes the outside look ugly.
  • People are too far on the "investment" side of "do you build a house as an investment or a place to live in".
  • They look too similar to each other, you can tell where you are in the US from the normal houses but not from the McMansions.
  • Each one is self-inconsistent, it has different styles of windows and different pitches of roof and stuff.

(I feel like there's some tension in these, like the person putting in a cathedral ceiling is probably doing it because they personally really want a cathedral ceiling and not because they think it improves the investment value. Also I can't imagine that being so supposedly ugly improves the investment value. Also I feel like if I was building my own house I'd want to optimize for how it looks on the inside, and if guest wants to judge my taste in interiors she can go fuck herself.)

Guest says that whenever someone writes her saying "I didn't used to care about McMansions but now every time I see one I hate it" she's happy, because now one more person feels what she feels.

(Reiterate that I didn't double check, and I listened to this episode a few days ago now. Higher than usual chance I'm misremembering something, which I mention explicitly because this summary is super negative.)

Fall of Civilizations #13: The Assyrians - Empire of Iron

(Okay look this is a three hour episode, approximately none of the names are in my orthography which means I have trouble telling people apart, and the dates don't mean much to me either. I'd be amazed if I don't misremember anything here.)

During some Persian civil war, one of the combatants hired a bunch of Greek mercenaries. They won one particular battle, but the Persian dude got killed so there wasn't much left for the greeks and they started running away towards the Black Sea. On the way they found two large abandoned cities that they had no idea what was going on. This was before the Parthenon or the Colusseum. Now we know the names of the cities (one was Nineveh, I forget the other) and that they were part of the Assyrian empire.

The empire started with a city named Assur, somehow related to the previous Sumerian empire. It became pretty good at fighting. The god of the city (also called Assur, it was normal for a city to have a god back then) came to take over the place of the king of the gods. Then came the bronze age collapse and it survived better than most.

They started conquering places around them. For a while Babylon kept them in check, but then didn't, and they conquered Babylon. Their kings got pretty brutal. They could field large armies, over 100k when the world population was only like 50m. The armies did have to go home for harvest though, so there were only a few months of the year where they could campaign. Their subjects could time insurrections carefully to avoid getting spanked. Except then they didn't need that, either, and laid siege to a city for three years. They also had army engineers making siege engines and digging roads through mountains and stuff. A lot of their subjects didn't much like them, but they didn't much like each other either, so they didn't team up and Assyria was able to suppress them one at a time even if they rebelled simultaneously.

They also have a lot of writing, on clay tablets which means a lot of it has survived, enough that most has never even been looked at by an expert. There's a letter from a child at school to his mum, complaining that you never buy me new clothes. Father's servant's son gets new clothes. His mother loves him even though he's adopted, but you don't love me.

Babylon was still starting shit, and at some point they got tired of it and completely destroyed the place. They took its god, Marduk, to Nineveh, and later made Nineveh the capital city. Some people think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually there.

At some point there was a lot of insurrections at once, partly aided by Egypt which didn't like Assyria. This included Judah, which had been separated from Israel by previous Assyrian conquests. Assyria marched on Lakish, sacked and destroyed it, and scattered the population throughout the empire - that was a thing they did a lot. Then tried to do the same to Jerusalem. The king had put up a new wall and a tunnel to a water supply, and paid a tribute, but they still besieged. But then something, possibly plague, killed a bunch of them and they had to turn back. This episode is something we have from both sides, because it's in the Bible, though the Assyrians didn't say much about their eventual defeat.

The king who did that seems to have become a lot less warlike and a lot more buildy afterwards. It might have been him who decided to rebuild Babylon in exactly its previous layout. When his eldest son died, he named his eldest remaining son his successor, but then changed his mind and named a different son. Eldest remaining son got pissed and started conspiring with the other sons, the successor had to flee. Successor came back with a big army, and a lot of usurper's army surrendered because usurper had done something or other shitty. Successor killed the conspirators and their families. (Not sure at what point in this the previous king had died.)

This new king wants to avoid that kind of succession crisis, so he appoints his younger son king of Assyria, and elder son king of Babylon, underneath Assyria, when he dies. Which happens after a prolonged bout of possibly-depression, illness and paranoia, on a campaign to kill a bunch of people spreading a prophecy of his doom, in the town where the prophecy was made.

So his sons ascend. The new-new Assyrian king gets tired of the egyptians and attacks them. But then things kind of blow up with the Elamites(?), in modern-day Iran. King of Babylon has been feeling hard done by, no one takes him seriously, his brother is meddling and his advisors listen to his brother instead of him. So he offers to help the Elamites possibly in exchange for getting to be king of Babylon not subject to anyone else. Assyria beats the Elamites, we don't know if they know Babylon was involved. In any case, then Babylon rebels and declares independence. So Assyria besieges Babylon, reduces them to cannibalism, finally enters and sacks the place again. Then goes on a war of extermination against Elam, completely destroys their capital Susa.

Also, this king hadn't originally been intended for Kingship. He'd been going to do some temple work or something. So unlike most kings, he could read and write, and he was proud of it. He built a library and sent around for copies of every book published, which got preserved well when the city got burned later. But towards the end of his reign he seems to get depressed too, his last writing is a woe-is-me. Around this point we stop getting Assyrian chronicles and have to pick up with Babylonian ones a bit later.

So what goes wrong for Assyria? Part of it might be climate change. Until now they'd been in an unusually wet period, but now things started to dry up. In the north they had to start constructing irrigation like they'd been doing already in the south. This would have shaken their power. But the price of wheat didn't change much, so it's not clear how much difference it made.

Narrator thinks it's more significant that the Elamites left a power vacuum, that was filled by the Medes, their old enemies who Assyria hadn't had much contact with. And the Medes decided to attack Assyria, and came and burned Assur. Babylon declared independence again, joined forces with Media (a Babylonian prince married a Median princess, or something), and together they went on to completely destroy Nineveh. The king dies at some point (I think this was a new king by now?) and a general holds out for a bit but they beat him too, and that's it for Assyria. Before too long no one in the area remembers them.

Planet Money: The Day India's Cash Disappeared

2019 rerun of a 2017 episode.

Recently the Prime Minister of India, a guy named Modi, announced that all the 500 and 1000 rupee Indian banknotes would become worthless. That's 85% of India's cash, and most people don't have credit cards. People had just 30 days to trade their cash in, and only a certain amount a day - a high amount by most Indians' standards, but not for the wealthy. And the lines to do so were long.

This sucked hard for a lot of people. A man found 3000 Rupees in his dead wife's Sari, weeks or months of farm work for him, and couldn't trade it in because the deadline had passed. The bank was allowed to make exceptions but didn't. A baby died because its parents didn't have cash for a taxi.

The point was to get black money used by the mafia out of the economy. An engineer named Anil came up with it, along with his engineer buddies. They did run it by some economists too, who broadly thought it was a good idea. Then Anil quit his job and formed a sort of collective devoted to promoting this idea. He gave a talk on it thousands of times, to politicians, professors, businessmen, whoever would listen. Eventually he gave it to Modi, before Modi became Prime Minister but when Modi already had a reputation for being able to get shit done. It was supposed to be a nine minute meeting, it turned into ninety, and Modi said he'd make it happen if he became PM.

Economist criticizes: yes it's a good plan but it's an engineer's plan, you need more data. Anil responds: this is why nothing gets better, you keep asking for more data when you need to do things. This will hurt at first but improve things in the long run.

2019 update: demonetization slowed India's economic growth by 2 percentage points in the early months, which was almost all of its growth. You could see the effects from space as fewer lights were turned on. Since then growth has recovered. (This is not a very detailed update, annoyingly.)

99% Invisible: Matters of Time

A few short stories on the subject of time.

Standardized time across a whole country came into existence with train networks. It was important for these because people needed to know when the train would be there to catch it, and also being a few minutes off could cause crashes. They'd get someone with a good watch to sync it up in London, then travel around the network and have station operators sync their clocks from the watch. A clock on the side of the Bristol Corn Exchange still has both London and Bristol time, 12 minutes apart.

When industrialization started to become a thing, people would have to get up early before dawn to go to their shift, but didn't have alarm clocks yet. (Got the vague impression this was related to standardized time, and I could see that being related, but it also seems unnecessary.) So there'd be knockers-up, who went around waking people. No good to knock on the door, that could wake neighbors too (either annoying them or giving them a service for free). A long cane could rap directly on their bedroom window, or at least one person used a pea-shooter. Not a great wage, a lot of them were older women who couldn't do much physical labor any more. Also constables with the night shift would often moonlight as knockers-up, and the constable first told about the first Jack the Ripper victim was too busy doing that to come look at the body at first. The last one retired only in the early 70s. Vaguely related, there was at least one report in the ripper case saying things like "at 6:19... six minutes later" which is just way more precise than people would have been able to measure at the time.

China doesn't have time zones, the whole country is on Beijing time. For a while it was divided up, but when the PRC became a thing in the 50s it decided to promote unity by having one time zone. Beijing is in the east. Xinjiang, to the west, should really be about two hours behind according to the sun, and most people do run their lives on Xinjiang time, they open their shops later than in Beijing and so on, they just name the times in Beijing time. Except the Uyghurs often talk amongst themselves in Xinjiang time, and switch to Beijing time when talking to Han Chinese. What with state surveillance of phones, having your phone set to Xinjiang time isn't officially illegal but it's a "you might want to look closer at this person" sort of flag. Roman says that having Xinjiang run on Beijing time instead of solar time is "denying reality", and is not surprised it goes along with denying human rights.

Daylight saving time is controversial. People think it was to help farmers, but farmers rise with the sun whatever the time says. In fact it was because a house builder was going for walks and thought it was a shame people were missing out on the daylight. He wrote a pamphlet and it came up before parliament a few times but kept getting rejected. Not long after he died, Germany implemented DST during WWI, and then Britain followed. The advantage was saving energy, less fuel needed to heat and light homes. (Or maybe that was specifically the WWII bit later, and the advantage here was different?) Some people think we should actually be on DST year-round, and double-DST during Summer. Roman thinks this sounds like a nice plan. (He apparently does not consider it to be denying reality?) This has been floated in the UK. It hasn't taken off partly because Scotland doesn't like the idea and it would make them more likely to become independent, and also apparently Jacob Rees-Mogg attached a rider making Somerset time 15 minutes off the rest of the UK. He fully admits he's being ridiculous and just trying to make the bill less likely to pass. Also, it was tried during WWII, and people accepted it as a wartime measure but didn't like it, the dark mornings were crap.

Planet Money: Bad Credit Bureau

Credit ratings agencies started in the late 19th century in Brooklyn. For a while if you wanted to buy from a shop on credit, that was fine, the shopowner knew you. Then more people started moving in, and owners wouldn't know who to trust.

The Sells brothers went around to all the shops, asked to look at their books, and compiled a list of people with simple categorizations: do they pay on time, do they pay cash, is there something you should talk to us about first? Then owners could have a copy of the book and look up an unknown person in that.

This sort of thing was also useful for e.g. banks and insurance companies, and there was competitive pressure to start including more and more detail. Ratings agencies were basically flying under the radar with this sort of thing. Then in the 60s Congress was discussing something else, "it would be bad if this led to..." and someone was like "you know the CRAs do that already right?" Congress apparently did not know this and started looking at the CRAs. One woman had been denied a job for being rated as, like, disagreeable and "neurotic or psychotic"; there was no citation for this, it's not like it was a doctor's diagnosis, just a thing that had been written down for some unclear reason. Congress doesn't like this sort of thing and starts to impose rules on them.

The modern connection is to the Equifax hack.

Planet Money (Rerun 21 May 2021): Big Government Cheese

In the 70s, Carter wanted to increase the retail price of milk by 6¢/gal, a decent amount. The point being that if the USA isn't self-sufficient for food that's a national security thing, so it's worth overpaying to keep your farmers local. Then congress outdid him and wanted the price to raise every six months?

But you can't just say "the price will be this now", you have to do something concrete which will have that effect, either lower supply or raise demand. Lowering supply means telling people not to make milk, not the kind of thing one does in America. (Plus seems like it would defeat the national security thing?) Raising demand means the government buying milk.

That's what it does with wheat and corn, and dumps them in silos. But those keep well, milk doesn't. So instead it decides to buy milk products that do keep well: cheddar cheese, butter, and "nonfat dry milk"? We only follow the cheese story.

Since the government is buying as much as you can produce, obviously farmers are going to want to sell their shittiest cheese. So they hire cheese graders to take core samples, taste them, and check they're good quality. Cheese hack: it's stored in barrels, so you can put good cheese on top and crap cheese on bottom, the grader mentioned that as a thing people did but didn't say how he'd find out or whatever.

And having bought the cheese, it basically just dumps it all in a set of caves in Kansas City. (Private caves that they're renting.) But the stockpile keeps growing and eventually growing mold. And it's hard to get rid of. They can't really sell it, that would compete with the farmers, not at all what they want. Normally they'd give it in foreign aid, but cheese doesn't travel well. The military takes some but not enough. They settle on food banks, the idea being that food bank recipients aren't buying cheese anyway.

It's awkward because it comes in way bigger barrels than the food banks want, but they cut it up and give it out, and government cheese becomes a whole thing in the public consciousness.

Some discussion of unintended consequences and the dangers of meddling in markets, but if there was a "this was clearly bad in hindsight because..." I missed it.

Planet Money (20 May 2021): Get The Vaccine, Lose The Skinny Jeans

Two thematically related stories.

Once the Covid vaccine is available, there's a question of "how do we convince people to get it?" We speak to someone in this area. Her group tried a bunch of things.

  • A joke, "did you hear the one about the flu? Don't spread it!": not effective.
  • "Wealthy educated people are getting the vaccine!": not effective.
  • "Lots of people are getting the vaccine!": effective.
  • Ohio's million dollar lottery: effective.

In other news: Skinny jeans became popular in the early 2000s. Two relevant things are the Strokes wearing them on the cover of an album (their debut?) and stretch denim making them more comfortable and easier to put on/take off. For a long time they just completely dominate the jeans industry, which is awkward for designers because how do you sell someone a new pair when they already have like five?

Then a fashion student? on Tiktok starts giving wardrobe advice during the pandemic. At some point she realizes she has a pair of skinny jeans she hasn't worn in ages, they're (apparently despite stretch fabric?) kind of uncomfortable and a pain to put on and take off and why would she bother in a pandemic. She makes a video like, "three uses for your skinny jeans: trash them, cut them up, burn them". This apparently sparks/unexpectedly finds itself part of a broader anti-skinny-jeans Whole Thing, which is also part of the millenial/gen Z Whole Thing? Anyway by now skinny jeans are down to like, only 30% of all jeans sales.

99% Invisible #442 (11 May 2021): Tanz Tanz Revolution

Berlin is known for its club scene, and this comes from the Berlin wall. No one really wanted to live in West Berlin, it was cut off from the rest of West Germany, so the government offered incentives: subsidized rent and food, exemption from mandatory military service.

(I'm surprised post-war Germany was allowed to have mandatory military service.)

This leads I guess to a bunch of musicians coming in, and they start defining a music scene. There's I think mutual influence between them and Detroit? They broadcast on the radio, and they say where they're DJing tonight, "come to the UFO club to hear this live" kind of thing.

Meanwhile in East Berlin, only state-sanctioned music is allowed, certainly nothing countercultural. If you want to hold a dance party, you need months worth of permits and bullshitting about how this will make the participants better soviet citizens through the ecstacy of dance. But the radio broadcasts from West Berlin are still there, so the East Berliners know what they're missing out on.

Eventually the wall comes down, they're allowed to mix freely, and East Berliners go to West Berlin clubs. Anyone who was there will tell you that the reunification of Germany happened on the dance floor.

West Berlin didn't have that much space, but East Berlin did. And for a lot of it, the ownership was unclear - the nazis had expropriated it from a Jewish owner, then the soviets from the nazis, and now in theory it was supposed to go back to its original owner but that could take a while (if they were even still alive I guess). In the meantime you could kind of just rock up to an abandoned warehouse and hold a rave? You'd be there for a couple of nights and then move on.

At some point one started staying in a dedicated location, somewhere that had held a bunch of records? I kind of zoned out and missed a lot of this.

Discussion of the link between Berlin and Detroit, but I missed a lot of that too. One specific record shop owner in Berlin was important.

Planet Money (7 May 2021): Emission Impossible

Microsoft's CEO has announced that the company will be carbon negative by (2030 or 2050 or something). What does this mean?

(Explanation of carbon offsetting.)

One person selling carbon offsets is an Indonesian guy. He and a buddy bought up a load of Indonesian forest and now they charge money not to cut it down.

(Would cutting it down be a problem? Seems to me as long as you replant, and use the timber for construction, or store it, or otherwise make sure the carbon doesn't get released back in the atmosphere - it would be fine? But then I guess probably an old tree captures more carbon year-on-year than a young one. And also I guess the forest ecosystem is healthier with old trees, and constant replanting would eventually fail?)

Then there's a middleman. He knows how to make his way in Silicon Valley, he describes himself as offering the Airbnb of carbon offsets. The offset seller lists on the brokerage platform, and companies who want to buy offsets find them there.

There are a few potential problems with this. One is "regulation" but I don't remember what that means precisely. Another is, how do we know what it's worth to not cut down a forest? We have to compare to a hypothetical where no one bought the offsets, how much would have been cut down then? We can't know, but seller provides a number anyway. Comparing to similar forests, a study says that number is noticeably too high. There are ratings available, and this particular project gets either 0/5 or 1/5 stars.

(I don't remember if this is brought up in the episode, but I guess also: the person selling the offsets has incentive to encourage more logging in other forests.)

PM interviews someone, I think the broker, about these problems. He seems confident everything is fine. PM is unconvinced. Microsoft does not buy these particular offsets.

99% Invisible #441 (5 May 2021): Abandoned Ships

There are a handful of cargo ships - officially 50, likely more - waiting around in or near a port but not allowed to dock, and the crew isn't allowed to leave. We hear mostly from Mehmed (?). He was third in command on his ship, which arrived in Egypt with a lot of cement or maybe it was concrete. By the time they arrived, their salaries hadn't been paid in months, and the owner said it would be even longer until they did get paid. They refused to unload until they saw the money. The owner resisted and threatened for a bit, and then just went silent.

Egypt didn't want them leaving the ship fully abandoned, it would be a hazard. Ships need constant maintenance. So it said they weren't allowed, and they'd be imprisoned if they did. This went on for months, and they started to ration because they were running out of food. They also started fighting amongst themselves. Mehmed wanted to leave, but not alone, and no one else did. He thought of things like swimming three miles to a beach, or somehow jumping ship to one under a Turkish flag (his home country) and stowing away, but his family talked him out of it.

Two organizations help out in cases like this. Mission for Seafarers (a tiny organization, like two men and a motorboat) gets food and sim cards and so on to them. And some TLA tries to help with legal stuff, contacting owners, putting pressure on home countries, that sort of thing. ("Home countries" are the countries the ships are registered under, usually a flag of convenience.) Eventually (it was over a year at this point, possibly long over) this second organization managed to help in Mehmed's case, they got stuff settled in the Egyptian courts that everyone except the captain was allowed to leave and go home. And the captain got to stay in a hotel near port until the ship was auctioned, which could be months more. We're not told who if anyone is maintaining the ship or what happened to "unmanned ships are a hazard".

Someone from the TLA describes how he once spoke to one of these owners, who basically said the crew were the last thing on his mind and basically just a commodity: he also had a mortgage, other debtors, etc.

A similar story starting in 2013: a ship arrived in Beirut carrying lots of ammonium nitrate (basically a bomb, I think also a fertilizer). Owner couldn't or wouldn't pay or just disappeared entirely. Eventually the crew was let off, the bomb was unloaded into a hangar, and the ship sank. Then in 2020, the bomb was still in a hangar, and famously exploded.

99% Invisible #308 (Rerun 28 Apr 2021): Curb Cuts

Rerun of a 2018 episode.

Dan Roberts (?) got polio as an adolescent. It left him mostly paralyzed, needing an iron lung to breathe. Though he did learn to "frog breathe" so he could escape his wheelchair for a bit at a time. (Maybe he wasn't as paralyzed as I remember them saying?)

When he wanted to go to UC Berkeley, at first they said no, he was too disabled, his wheelchair wouldn't even fit through a dorm room door. Then someone suggested he live in what used to be a hospital wing, and the college agreed. They hired an attendant to wheel him to and from classes and he'd give carbon paper to a classmate to get a copy of her notes.

Over time more disabled students came and they formed a group, possibly called the Quad Wheelers? And at some point someone invented the power wheelchair, originally for the benefit of disabled veterans but other wheelchair riders started to get them too. It gave them a lot more freedom. Dan got one and learned to use it partly because he was dating someone and it sucked to have his attendant accompany them.

(The show has a narrative around "things designed for one group of people turned out to help others", but I'm not convinced the power wheelchair was specifically designed for vets and it just so happened that others could use it. I would guess it was more like, there were enough disabled vets, or they were prominent and sympathetic enough, to attract attention?)

But with or without a power wheelchair, curbs are impassable. So, curb cuts. There were stories of the Quad Wheelers going out at night with sledgehammers and making their own cuts, but someone says that only happened a few times. What they did do was attend a city council meeting, there was a motion to make a bunch of curb cuts, it passed unanimously.

Then later there was the ADA. Wheelchair riders couldn't get up the steps of the capitol, so several of them got out and crawled, when they wanted to be there en masse. And the ADA passed, and it's good but doesn't do everything advocates want.

At some point Dan Roberts died, and his attendant took his wheelchair to the Smithsonian. It's now on display on their website.

At some point there's a mention of earlier curb cuts in a specific town, to help a disabled vet there. I don't remember many specifics. The curbs were unusually high for flood reasons, no mention of whether the curb cuts caused problems there.

The "curb cut effect" is that curb cuts helped others too, e.g. bicyclists and people with strollers, and this sort of thing is generalizable. Like the button you can press to open a door with your hip if you're carrying something, that was originally for disabled people.

Planet Money (1 May 2021): A Superhero Goes to Hollywood

More superhero licensing, this time adaptations. The holy grail they want is a movie. Turns out NPR already has a deal with a studio, the same one producing the Hamilton movie. They paid (censored) to get right of first refusal on anything NPR produces for (censored) number of days, so PM can't shop around for that.

But they can go after other adaptations, and sign three deals. One is with a radio play group (I guess non-profit). Another is a choral music person, this one is more complicated because it's not non-profit, I think they decided on the guy writes the sheet music and then pays them like 15% of the profits of selling it. (We hear a clip but I was on 2.1x speed so it sounded off. Choral music isn't my thing anyway.) And finally there's a broadway musical, even more complicated, they license Micro-Face to the producers and then plan to license the show itself back to produce for PM. (We also hear a clip of the "I am" song from this.)

Then after the ROFR on the movie has expired, someone else gets in touch wanting to do that. He's done a bunch of small, well-reviewed movies, the name I remember is Slaxx which is about a pair of jeans. Looking at the credits for that they were probably talking to Shaked Berenson, I also recognize the name Turbo Kid now. He has a bunch of Rotten Tomatoes Certified Fresh trophies strategically visible behind him on the zoom call.

PM crew love his style, agree on something like: he pays $1500 for the option rights for 18 months. Tries to get together a cast and crew. If he successfully produces a movie, NPR gets 2.5% of the revenue up to $1mm, and then 5% of the profits if it makes a profit.

Planet Money (23 Apr 2021): A Superhero Sells Out

Previously Planet Money found and resurrected the superhero Micro-Face, who had been created long ago and lapsed into public domain. Now they're trying to make money from him, through licensing.

They put out a call for people who wanted to do a licensing deal, and then spent a day talking to them in turn, Dragon's Den style, either accept or reject. Speaking to an expert on licensing (she previously worked on Sesame Street and Beavis and Butthead) they decided to follow what they called the Elmo rule: don't license something out of character.

They reject almost every application. Temporary tattoos because although Micro-Face is a hip guy in NYC, he definitely has tattoos, he wouldn't have temporary tattoos. A recycling company endorsement because he's a journalist, he wouldn't endorse a company. Eventually someone comes along offering Gouda, and they go for it.

Then finally a husband-wife team, The Bitter Housewife, offers an ultimatum on some kind of soda, either work with them or no one. They've already registered the trademark on Micro-Face sodas. Can they do that? Yes, says the lawyer they consult, a trademark doesn't give you exclusive use of the word in every market. Dove cosmetics and Dove chocolate are unrelated, and there's nothing stopping the PM hosts talking about the Greek goddess Nike, or even selling a T-shirt with her picture, as long as they don't use her name on the T-shirt.

But there's also nothing stopping them putting the image of Micro-Face on a soda. (The Bitter Housewife can't do that, but I guess they can use the original Micro-Face?). So out of spite they reach out to a soda manufacturer and do just that, calling it Planet Money Official Superhero Soda ("sour, but never bitter").

99% Invisible #440 (20 Apr 2021): La Brega in Levittown

La Brega is another podcast, focused on Puerto Rico. It's produced with both Spanish and English versions. The name is an expression meaning something like "shit sucks but whatever". Roman interviews the author then runs episode 2.

Levittowns were deliberately built to be places where I think returning veterans from WWII could buy a place and become homeowners. In the American version of the concept they'd only sell to white people.

For a while America was happy to let PR be poor, but then there was the cold war and Cuba became communist, and America wanted to hold up PR as an example of the success of capitalism, so they decided to raise a middle class there. Part of this was building a Levittown. But also there were too many people.

Host mentions forced sterilization and birth control experiments, but the approach taken here seems to be... encouraging PRans to move to the mainland states where there were more opportunities for them? Host seems to think this is obviously bad. Anyway, that worked for a bit and then PRans migrated back to PR.

We follow a family, possibly Host's family? I think the story was they moved to America, back to PR, then almost had to move to America again after the dad finished building houses in Levittown because he couldn't afford them, but then he won the lottery.

At first Levittown seems to have been a success, there were a few different models of house there, they were cement so people could paint them, and people would also extend them according to personal taste. Later, and especially in the wake of the hurricane, it seems not so much?

99% Invisible #439 (14 Apr 2021): Welcome to Jurassic Art Redux

Rerun of a show from 2018. In the present-day into, Roman and someone talk about how even though we can recite that 90% of an iceberg is underwater, we tend to picture that stuff being mostly below the stuff above it, like an ice cream cone, when actually it's a lot more spread out. Drawings can make this sort of thing much more intuitive. They mention a website where you can draw a 2d iceberg shape, and it'll show you how it would orient itself.

For a long time people thought dinosaurs were slow and cold-blooded. They'd picture brontosaurus and diplodocus standing in swamps to help support their body mass. Evidence comes along suggesting they were warm-blooded and at least some of them were fast.

Bob (Barker?) writes an article defending this, and draws a picture of a dinosaur running, and this sets off a wave of other people drawing dinosaurs doing stuff and thinking of dinosaurs as fast and exciting things. Jurassic Park (the movie, book isn't mentioned) is part of this.

But most depictions still assume dinosaurs are basically just what we can derive from the skeletons. You can't figure out the shape of a whale or a camel or an elephant from its skeleton, so you probably can't do it with a dinosaur either. Three things happen in I don't remember what order:

  • We find a dinosaur with some of its softer tissues preserved, and it had quills, maybe feathers?
  • A book comes out, All Yesterdays, with pictures of "we can't rule out that this is what this dinosaur looked like".
  • That kind of thing becomes more accepted, as long as you make it clear that it's "we can't rule this out" not "this is what we know". E.g. you might draw a triceratops with a nose balloon because that's what the big nostrils might be good for.

Also, after All Yesterdays comes All Todays, where people take skeletons (sometimes partial skeletons) of modern day animals and do the All Yesterdays thing to them.

Corecursive (2 May 2021): Etherium Rescue

"Daryl" was an ETH user who fat-fingered a transaction. Went online for help, guest said sorry, nothing anyone can do. Then later guest went o shit maybe there is.

Daryl was playing with uniswap, a smart contract letting people provide liquidity for exchanging crypto, e.g. ETH for USDC. Normally when providing liquidity you'd do two things in one transaction, with something like a try/catch letting you do them atomically. I guess Daryl had only done one of them? Anyway, his money was just sitting there, and as soon as anyone tried to take their liquidity from uniswap they'd get Daryl's money as well.

Guest realized this and went to check, and the money was still there. But! He also remembered stories of generalized ETH frontrunners. These will examine the pending transactions, see if there's something in there they can use to make money, and if so, submit their own transaction with a higher fee so it gets executed first. Guest worried that one of these would show up if he tried to recover the money. He asked on a group chat if others would also be worried, some of them were, and they got together to try to figure something out.

Ultimately they'd need to do some kind of obfuscation so that a bot wouldn't try the thing they were doing. They settled on two separate transactions in one block, where the second one wouldn't do anything unless the first had already happened, hoping bots would only try them separately. But there's stuff set up to protect you from making transactions that don't do anything, and it was stopping them from making the second.

Guest was tired and stressed and the money might disappear at any minute, so eventually Guest said YOLO we'll do them in two different blocks and hope. The second transaction got front-ran and they lost the money. On the plus side his worries were vindicated.

Guest and Adam (host) discuss Meditations on Moloch. The thing they take away from it is that you need regulation/Leviathan. Guest says for Hobbes the Leviathan was hereditary monarchy, recently we've been trying democracy and that seems better overall, but he's optimistic that smart contracts will be another solution.

History of English #39 (5 Mar 2014): Not Lost in Translation

Now that people are writing Christian poetry in (old) English, they need to come up with English words for Christian concepts. One thing was that they had a stock phrase "blank-guardian", and Cadmin's poetry called god "mankind-guardian". (Cadmin was the cowherd from last episode.)

The only history I remember from this episode was a cross called the Roothschild cross or something, which had a poem written on it that was also found in the Italy book from last episode. In the 17th Century the cross was broken up (either because it was Catholic and Protestants were doing that sort of thing at the time, or vice versa) and scattered across church grounds, but eventually it was mostly reconstructed. The poem was written from the perspective of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, and the way it talks about blood has similarities with Beowulf. Some people think it was written by Cadmin but we can't know.

Some etymology: "good" and "god" are unrelated, but they sometimes get mixed up. "Goodbye" comes from "god be with you" and "gospel" comes originally from something meaning "good news" that at some point becomes "godspel". "Drip" comes from blood dripping, and cognate with dreary. "Lord" comes from loaf-guardian ("breadwinner" is more modern but similar) and "Lady" comes from "loaf-maid". That's kind of redundant because "maid" itself comes from "dough-maker", so we have loaf-guardian and loaf-maker.

Rationally Speaking #223 (16 Dec 2018): Chris Fraser on "The Mohists, ancient China's philosopher warriors"

The Mohists were a group from early China, either the Qin dynasty or whoever preceded the Qin dynasty. Then in the following dynasty, they were mostly forgotten.

They were consequentialists, and the consequences they considered good were something like, material wealth, something I forget, and people acting in their assigned roles. (Fathers acting as fathers, administrators acting as administrators, that sort of thing.) They were also anti-war, and their philosophy encouraged them to actually go out into the world and try to make it better. If there was a war, they'd offer their services to the defender, making it more costly to the attacker. They were kind of well-known for that. One story tells their founder walking ten days to talk to an aggressor and try to convince them to call off the attack. Aggressor is like "well but I'm all prepared now, it would be awkward to cancel. Plus I've got these neat siege engines". Mohist demonstrates how he'd defeat the siege engines, and says he's placed thousands of followers on the walls of the defender, which in this case is a flat lie but it works. Aggressor sighs and calls off the attack.

They were very religious, and their philosophy followed from their religion, but I didn't really follow how. Also, they weren't into equality. They thought society should be stratified, and the people above should be rewarded, but also they should use their rewards to help the poor.

A few factors in their decline. One was that their rank-and-file got super into giving stuff away for status, like you couldn't live comfortably and be a proper Mohist, which the central Mohists didn't agree with at all. Parallels to EA there. (Though the central Mohists did think you shouldn't have, like, decorated clothing or weapons, because they function just as well as clothing or weapons without the decoration.) Another was that Chinese unification meant there were fewer wars for them to make themselves useful in. Another was that they sort of got into the water supply, some of their ideas became mainstream and then there was less distinguishing them from others.

Planet Money #946 (23 Oct 2019): Fries of the Future

America doesn't eat a lot of potatoes in general, but it does eat a lot of French fries. Unfortunately, French fries only take a few minutes to go from crispy and great to soggy and shit. This is a problem for fast food.

The industry partially solved the problem once, when drive-through became a thing. Previously it was "drive-in", you'd stay there in your car and a waitress on roller-skates would take your order and deliver it with plates and cutlery. But then people would drive off with their plates and cutlery, which was expensive. Enter the wrapper. Now you'd just get your food and drive home with it. In like the 70s or 80s? this became more common than a sit-down fast food meal. (It also gave us cup holders in cars.) But now your fries would mostly be sitting until you got home, by which time they'd be shit. So they invented "stealth fries", which were french fries coated in something you couldn't see, which kept them crispy for longer.

But delivery makes that harder again. Someone with a fairly high position in the relevant industry happened to go to Shangai? one time, noticed a crazy amount of delivery drivers, followed them around a bit and saw they were delivering a lot of fries. Thought, huh, if this happens in America people won't want fries any more because the fries they get will be shit. So she went back home and tried to convince her bosses to work on making fries keep longer. They didn't think it would be a problem, who wants to wait 30+ minutes for delivery? But she had enough power to work on it anyway, and eventually they managed to solve it. PM reporter sampled them and approved. These new fries aren't available yet though.

PM reporter dips her fries in milkshake. Twelve-year-old me is vindicated.

Planet Money #945 (19 Oct 2019): The Liberty City

Von Army (???, edit: it's Von Ormy) is a city in Texas. It used to be unincorporated, then some firefighters were grousing about how San Antonio was going to annex them and they'd get higher taxes but no representation. One of them was like "we should make our own city", the chief was all "go on then", and they did. That first one became mayor.

Wanted to be as cheap as possible. Initially had property taxes to get them going, but started reducing them every year. One thing they did: buy a squad car from a nearby city that was replacing theirs. It lasted like a year but no regrets.

Another thing they did: some recent college grad from some city-development-related major wanted to do an internship and didn't really like the obvious options. Heard about Von Army, called them up and was like hey do you want an intern? They said sure, and got their intern to write their legal code by looking at codes from nearby cities and copying the good bits. Health and safety, stuff like a fire code, sure. Indoor smoking prohibitions, not so much.

Intern later became City Administrator. Mayor wanted him to do a bunch of stuff but didn't want him raising taxes. Mayor's plan was to attract big businesses (Walmart, Target) with something or other, and collect sales taxes. Administrator tried to work with them, but the lack of sewage was a dealbreaker (residents just had to empty their septic tanks). So Administrator tried to work with San Antonio for sewage, got what he thought was a pretty big deal, but Mayor rejected it. Administrator resigned.

Today he thinks Von Army is not working out very well, and PM reporters spoke to people who also didn't think that. Former Mayor thinks it's fine, people just don't understand that this is the price of low taxes. Von Army still has low taxes, but gets lots of money from speeding tickets for people passing through. $60k this year, expecting $250k next year, reporter is a bit incredulous at that, I don't think Current Mayor explains. (I don't know if $60k is actually a lot in this context. Current Mayor is Former Mayor's mum.) Reporter questions whether it's a bit paradoxical, like "low taxes on residents but high taxes on non-residents", Current Mayor says every place does this.

99% Invisible #438 (7 Apr 2021): The Real Book

In the early days of jazz, musicians would be playing in a club and receive requests, Broadway hits were popular, and have to search through their mountain of sheet music for the song, which they'd then improvise on top of. Some people started making stripped-down versions of the sheet music, not enough to reproduce the original but enough to riff off. Those might have been legal in their original incarnation? And then people started collecting those in "fake books", which were much more convenient to carry around than a mountain of sheet music. Those definitely weren't legal.

They also kind of sucked, they were often wrong and they were outdated, both in terms of what songs they included and in terms of how they were played. Jazz had evolved, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and the fake books hadn't.

(I don't think the show ever said why not, or treated that as an interesting question?)

(I think it was here we heard two versions of a song from Snow White. I couldn't have told you that the jazz version was the same song. Though, listening on 2x probably didn't help.)

Some students at Berkeley Music College in Boston approached their teacher with an idea to create a new fake book, updated for the 1970s. He hesitated because illegal and because people getting money for their work is good, but decided it would be worth it. They called it The Real Book, printed out a few hundred copies themselves, then those started getting copied all over the world. The teacher in question said the music quality when he'd walk down the hall improved, people were now playing the right things.

No one could compete legally with The Real Book because they couldn't get the rights to all those songs. But then someone did get the rights to almost all those songs, and printed a legal version. They kept basically the same design and made a digital font of the original handwriting. Today The Real Book is basically essential for jazz musicians. (Has it been updated since the 1970s?)

Some hand-wringing about how the person who has legal credit as songwriter might not have been the actual songwriter. Some criticism that The Real Book has essentially become canonical in a genre that shouldn't have canon. Some opining that you can't learn jazz from a book, you have to study with other jazz players.

Reporter eventually managed to get an email exchange with one of the original students, who did the handwriting. He wants to stay anonymous basically because it's fun. Agrees with the criticism and the opining. Thinks the digital font isn't very good.

Planet Money #753 (Rerun 16 Oct 2019): Blockchain Gang

Rerun of a show from 2017. Charlie Shrem found bitcoin early, got into it like other kids would get into Ayn Rand. Founded BitInstant, which helped people something something with bitcoin. Other people who liked bitcoin at the time were criminals, some of them used BitInstant, Charlie knew this. He got arrested, convicted of aiding and abetting something or other, and two years in prison.

Prisoners aren't allowed cash so they used tins of mackeral from commissary, which is not a great currency. You could only buy 14 tins at a time, plus one time the guards redistributed all of one inmate's mackeral, left it lying around for others to pick up, inflation. He started thinking about how to "digitize" it. You'd have prisoners writing down transactions in physical notebooks, and to solve the problem of trust you'd have several write down each one, and then at the end of the day everyone would compare and sum up. Sounds like this never got implemented though?

When he got out he discovered that bitcoin is now mainstreamish, the existing institutions have adopted it rather than being replaced like he wanted. He starts a new crypto-related venture, which as of 2019 is no longer a going concern but now he has a podcast.

History of English #37 (21 Jan 2014): Seafarers, Poets and Traveling Minstrels

The inhabitants of England at the time (6th century ish?) had been seafarers and there's a lot in English that comes from this. The word way (cognates include weigh) which was originally more like weg; and the word from Latin that gave us port which is also cognate to ford; and voyage might be cognate to those too, through French, or that might have been a similar-but-unrelated thing.

There was a bit with like four kings, Ethelbert in the south and Ethel??? in the North and someone else in East Anglia and Edwin. Edwin ran away from Ethel??? to the East Anglia dude, Ethel??? tried to bribe East Anglia to give Edwin up, but East Anglia supported Edwin, overthrew Ethel???, became a power, then later Edwin became a power too. At some point we discovered the ship-grave of East Anglia, no body remains but it did have his lyre. Lyre cognate to lyric, and the instrument may predate Indo-European in Greece, one was found in a particular region of it.

Because these guys weren't writing, minstrels just had to remember their poems. Poetry itself is a way to help with this, it's easier to memorize poetry than prose. Modern English poetry is all about rhyming, but Old English poetry was more about alliteration: word endings were more constrained. The standard form was a line would have two halves, the first stressed sound of the second half had to be found in the first half. A modern English example would be:

Jack and Jill / jogged up the hill
Pleasantly pursuing / a pail of water
Jack did drop / damaging his crown
Jill tripped too / tumbling after

Old English also had a lot fewer words than modern English, so poets would invent compounds. Beowulf describes something going over the sea as going "by whale-road", "by sail-road", "by swan-road", changing the middle word according to alliterative need.

There's a possibly-even-older poem from around then too, describing a minstrel meeting all sorts of historical figures including Julius Caesar and Attila the Hun.

After writing comes in, we have someone writing (in this style, possibly as homage) a complaint that no one does things this way any more.

Planet Money #524 (Rerun 27 Sep 2017): Mr Jones' Act

Following the Puerto Rico disaster, people are wanting to suspend the Jones act to get more aid to PR. That happened for Texas and (Florida?), but hasn't happened for PR yet. Because it's relevant, rerun of a 2014 episode.

Jones act says that if you're ferrying something between two ports in America, it needs to be done on an American-owned, American-made, American-crewed ship. There aren't that many of those, so it's expensive. Some workarounds people use: ferrying things from port to a bigger ship using a tiny Jones-acceptable barge that has to make several trips (is the bigger ship in international waters or something, or is port-to-ship just acceptable?); shipping cattle from Hawaii to Canada and driving them down to the states; flying younger cattle from Hawaii to the states. There was a family who ran up against it for their holiday, they missed the boat in not-America but had the chance to fly to Florida and board their cruise ship there, but then they'd have to pay like $300, I didn't catch exactly why.

Economists are not fans. The (Council of Economic Advisors?) to Clinton recommended scrapping it. The person PM spoke to called it "stupid". As a jobs program, it costs $250k/job which is a lot. Military says they need to encourage American shipmaking and skill-building, but council is unconvinced. But diffuse costs, concentrated benefits.

And one I previously wrote.

99% Invisible #434 (9 Mar 2021): Artistic License

This is the most American story.

After states start requiring license plates, Idaho realizes they can be used for advertising, and start boasting about Idaho potatoes on their plates. North Idahoans grumble because that’s more of a Southeast Idaho thing. Tourists start stealing plates as souvenirs, causing people to be very confused when they’re pulled over because who checks whether they still have a license plate.

Anyway, New Hampshire’s state motto is Live Free or Die, I don’t know if that’s just a generic America thing or a specifically fuck-communists America thing. But a super fuck-communists guy gets them to put the motto on the license plate, presumably for fuck-communists reasons but I dunno if that was explicit or just subtext.

And then a Jehova’s Witness is like, no, I don’t want to, God gave me life and I’m not gonna give that up for freedom. So he starts covering up that bit with tape. And he gets arrested and the fuck-communists guy is now governor and not inclined to give an inch, so it goes to the Supreme Court who split 6-3 but the pro-freedom side wins, the government is not allowed to compel you to express your love of freedom.

(Later: Texas allows specialty plates, some group designs a plate to support a cause and then you pay a little extra for it, some going to the group and some to the state. Most of these designs are just rubber stamped. But this is Texas, so the Sons of Confederate Veterans want a license plate supporting their cause, and they want the Confederate flag on it. The state says no, they sue the state, and the Supreme Court sides with the state 5-4.)

I recall that there was a similar experiment conducted during the 1970's in the Interlake region of Manitoba, Canada.  The one obvious negative effect of this was a significant drop in labour participation rates among three groups; youths, women with children, and near-seniors.

The experiment wasn't even set up in such as a way as to expose the worst outcomes.  Such a test would have to restrict the taxes needed to pay for the Guaranteed Basic Income to the same geographic area as the available benefits; allow benefits to those moving to that area; and run for two or three generations.

By 2028, will I think MIRI has been net-good for the world?

Resolves according to my subjective judgement, but I'll take opinions of those I respect at the time into account. As of market creation, people whose opinions I value highly include Eliezer Yudkowsky and Scott Alexander.

As of market creation, I consider that AI safety is important; making progress on it is good and making progress on AI capabilities is bad. If I change my mind by 2028, I'll resolve according to my beliefs at the time.

I will take into account their output (e.g. papers, blog posts, people who've trained at them) but also their inputs (e.g. money and time). I consider counterfactuals valid, like "okay MIRI did X but maybe someone else would have done X anyway"; but currently I think those considerations tend to be weak and hard to evaluate.

If I'm unconfident I may resolve the market PROB.

If MIRI rebrands, the question will pass to them. If MIRI stops existing I'll leave the market open.

I don't currently intend to bet on this market until at least a week has passed, and to stop betting in 2027.

Resolution criteria subject to change; my current plan is to figure out what I'm doing with this market and then make similar ones for other orgs. Feel free to ask about edge cases. Feel free to ask for details about my opinions. If you think markets like this are a bad idea feel free to convince me to delete it.

(Sharing here because I'm interested in more eyes on the market and also in ways to make it better.)

Oh, I guess I can embed the market even. Let's try it:

<iframe src="" title="By 2028, will I think MIRI has been net-good for the world?" frameborder="0"></iframe>

According to this it should have just worked when I included the link? idk

A question I have about the FTX thing: people keep saying that the LUNA crash was part of the thing that sparked it. Is this the same Luna that was a blockchain-related dating service that Scott reviewed the whitepaper of?

No, it's the blockchain Terra (with Luna being its main token).

History of English #38 (17 Feb 2014): Nobles, Nuptials and a Cowherd Poet

After Edwin became king in Northumbria, he didn't want Ethelbert's son down in Kent to do aggro at him, so he married Ethelbert's daughter. She agreed on condition she could stay Christian and bring a priest, which is similar to how her grandmother had eventually converted Ethelbert's father when she married him. (Or how her mother had converted Ethelbert?) The priest tried to convert Edwin. One day one of his enemies sent an assassin, but someone jumped in front of the blade, and also his daughter was born. He was mildly injured, said he'd convert if he recovered. He recovered and eventually converted. Then he got killed by a Welsh king or something.

One of Ethel???'s sons came to take the throne, he was somehow important but I forget how, then he was killed by the same Welsh king. Then his brother came too, possibly named Oswald? Oswald had been in Ireland, which had not been invaded by Germanic tribes and had a monastic culture. Oswald defeated the Welsh king and married Edwin's daughter (also named Ethel??? but a different Ethel??? name) who had gone back down to Kent for safety. So the Roman Catholic and Irish Celtic churches were both trying to be A Thing at this point. It was awkward because they e.g. celebrated easter a week apart, so Oswald would be celebrating while his wife was still fasting.

Since we're talking about marriage, some related words that I mostly forget. The "lock" in "wedlock" is actually "activity". "Bridal" sounds like a normal construction, but it comes from "Bride-ale", as in "Bride-beer", a feast. "Wife" is possibly cognate to "weaver" and "bride" is possibly cognate to "brewer".

Eventually a big meeting happened and they agreed on Roman Catholic doctrine, but the Irish Celtic monastic tradition stayed in place, and in particular it was literary.

At one point, I think this was sort of mid-7th century, there was a monastary with a cowherd. He'd hear the monks reciting poetry but was too shy to recite any himself. One night he had a dream where he came up with some poetry. He recited it to the Abbess who was impressed, and then he came up with a bunch more when asked. (It was a monastary for both men and women, though they'd live separately. Those places were fairly normal, and it was fairly normal for them to have Abbesses.) They wrote it down. And this was in English, which was a big deal because all the religious stuff so far had been in Latin. Some people consider this year as big a deal as 1066 in the history of English.

All the Old English poetry we know comes from four books, and this was one of them. Another, the one that included Beowulf, was just in some dude's large library. Another somehow made its way to Italy, no one knows how. I forget the last.