Weekend reads

How Animals Think

In the past 30 years, research has explored the distinctive ways in which children as well as animals think, and the discoveries deal the coup de grâce to the ladder of nature. The primatologist Frans de Waal has been at the forefront of the animal research, and its most important public voice. In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he makes a passionate and convincing case for the sophistication of nonhuman minds.

The Anomaly of Barbarism

For the current generation of liberal thinkers, modern history is a story of the march of civilization. There have been moments of regression, some of them atrocious, but these are only relapses into the barbarism of the past, interrupting a course of development that is essentially benign. For anyone who thinks in this way, ISIS can only be a mysterious and disastrous anomaly.

The car century was a mistake. It’s time to move on.

Cars were never necessary in cities, and in many respects they worked against the fundamental purpose of cities: to bring many people together in a space where social, cultural and economic synergies could develop. Because cars require so much space for movement and parking, they work against this objective — they cause cities to expand in order to provide the land cars need. Removing cars from cities would help to improve the quality of urban life.

How an internet mapping glitch turned a random Kansas farm into a digital hell

For the last decade, Taylor and her renters have been visited by all kinds of mysterious trouble. They’ve been accused of being identity thieves, spammers, scammers and fraudsters. They’ve gotten visited by FBI agents, federal marshals, IRS collectors, ambulances searching for suicidal veterans, and police officers searching for runaway children. They’ve found people scrounging around in their barn. The renters have been doxxed, their names and addresses posted on the internet by vigilantes. Once, someone left a broken toilet in the driveway as a strange, indefinite threat.

The heads of Presidents Park

The US is the land of roadside attractions. One of those was the, short-lived, Presidents Park in Virginia; an open-air park where visitors could amble among giant presidents' heads.

When it all went belly-up, the heads were moved to a nearby field to avoid destruction and have been slowly wasting away since…

In Croaker, Virginia stands a sight that would make just about anyone stop in their tracks. 43 ghostly effigies of presidents past crowd together in the tall grass. Some of the 18-to-20-foot busts have crumbling noses. Tear-like stains fall from the eyes of others. All have bashed-in heads to some degree. This could be a scene from the world’s most patriotic horror movie, but it’s all too real—and Howard Hankins’ family farm is just the latest stop on the busts’ larger-than-life journey from iconic pieces of art to zombie-like markers of America’s past.

Read more at Smithsonian Magazine.

A few recent reads

An end to parking?

A city run on shared autonomous cars would likely have a dramatically lower environmental footprint. That's partly because you'd get rid of the "circling" that plagues urban traffic. But it's also because high-tech cars would be new—and, given that they'll probably emerge en masse about 10 years from now, they'd be electric. A model of city traffic published in Nature last July by Berkeley Lab scientist Jeffrey Greenblatt deduced that emissions would be 90 percent lower if cars were all autonomous and electric. And the truth is, it's easier for a fleet of robot cars to go electric than it is for individual car owners to do so.

Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating

Europeans believed that food shaped the colonial body. In other words, the European constitution differed from that of Indigenous people because the Spanish diet differed from the Indigenous diet. Further, bodies could be altered by diets—thus the fear that by consuming “inferior” Indigenous foods, Spaniards would eventually become “like them.” Only proper European foods would maintain the superior nature of European bodies, and only these “right foods” would be able to protect colonizers from the challenges posed by the “new world” and its unfamiliar environments.

Why We All Dream of Being Jewel Thieves

One of the most interesting aspects of London, from both an historical and urban perspective, has always been its sponge-like porosity: the presence of tunnels, sewers, and ancient basements waiting just below the surface of the city. Indeed, London hides an unusually intense world of secret architectural connections. Whether it’s the city’s abandoned Tube stations and lost rivers or its Roman archaeological sites and medieval catacombs, the cumulative effects of these examples is that the city seems riddled with shortcuts, promising an unexpected link from one building to another behind the next basement door or a forgotten underground world lurking silently beneath the next manhole.

A long range forecast of our dark future

Charles Stross pulls together a rather apocalyptic, but all too believable, forecast for the next decade. An explosive cocktail of climate change, mass-migration, growing xenophobia and financial crazyness.

It's well documented, so it's worth going down the rabbit holes peppered throughout the article.

This is a toxic combination. We've just weathered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and we're undergoing an infrastructure crisis (due to climate change) and the extinction of an economic backbone industry—admittedly one we will be far better off without: coal and oil pollution directly kill tens of thousands of people even in developed nations—which will ultimately require the replacement of tens of trillions of dollars' worth of fossil fuel infrastructure worldwide. Add nativist/racist/right wing politics on top, from Hungary through Poland (above) and Russia and it really looks like we're in for a replay of the 1930s.

Some recent articles of interest

How Coca-Cola has tricked everyone into drinking so much of it

You may think you have come to like soda all on your own. But that desire is the product of decades worth of focused and often troubling efforts on behalf of the soda industry.

Unearthing America's Deep Network of Climate Change Deniers

A loose network of 4,556 individuals with overlapping ties to 164 organizations do the most to dispute climate change in the U.S., according to a paper published today in Nature Climate Change. ExxonMobil and the family foundations controlled by Charles and David Koch emerge as the most significant sources of funding for these skeptics. As a two-week United Nations climate summit begins today in Paris, it's striking to notice that a similarly vast infrastructure of denial isn't found in any other nation.

The insults of age

Hard-chargers in a hurry begin to patronise you. Your face is lined and your hair is grey, so they think you are weak, deaf, helpless, ignorant and stupid. When they address you they tilt their heads and bare their teeth and adopt a tuneful intonation. It is assumed that you have no opinions and no standards of behaviour, that nothing that happens in your vicinity is any of your business.

“The pigs were glowing deep gold”: The amazing experience that ended my life as a pig farmer

It was a perfectly ordinary day, until I had an incredibly intense experience while starting to take care of a group of pigs. The experience lasted only for a single second, maybe two, but it was so extraordinary and powerful — one might rightly call it a mystical experience — that at its end I resolved to change my life completely.

Recently read longform content

Living and Dying on Airbnb

It’s only a matter of time until something terrible happens,” The New York Times’s Ron Lieber wrote in a 2012 piece examining Airbnb’s liability issues. My family’s story — a private matter until now — is that terrible something.

Mothers of ISIS

Their children abandoned them to join the worst terror organization on earth. Now all they have is each other.

The doomsday invention

Bostrom does not find the lack of obvious existential threats comforting. Because it is impossible to endure extinction twice, he argues, we cannot rely on history to calculate the probability that it will occur. The most worrying dangers are those that Earth has never encountered before. “It is hard to cause human extinction with seventeenth-century technology,” Bostrom told me.