White Gold | The Very Last Page | Flying Too Close To The Robot Sun


“Only years of practice will teach you the mysteries and bold certainty of a real gardener, who treads at random, yet tramples on nothing.” – Karel Čapek

“There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times.” – Yevgeny Zamyatin


White Gold: It’s like diamonds in South America, or cocaine in Latin America—so valuable it’s life-threatening. That’s how one exporter describes Madagascar’s vanilla beans. It’s one of the world’s most expensive flavors, belying the old insult that something is “plain vanilla.” About 80 percent of the world’s vanilla comes from the island of Madagascar, with its lush mountains and perfect climate. Growing vanilla plants takes hard work and patience. Plants must be nurtured and pollinated by hand. The highly-prized vanilla fragrance is emitted from thousands of tiny black seeds within mature bean pods, whose shelf-life is so brief growers must find buyers quickly once beans are picked. The price for mature vanilla pods has soared to about $270 a pound, more than silver, but it’s not the small farmers who are getting rich. The middlemen who cure and pack the beans into boxes, and exporters, rack up the real profits. Every step of the process must be guarded against theft; with little trust in corrupt police, vigilante justice often prevails when a suspected thief is caught.


Trump Trumps War Games: While Russia will engage in its largest military drills in 40 years, with Chinese and Mongolian armies joining in, the United States should not be spending money on war games with South Korea, according to President Trump. His random Wednesday night tweets seemed to contradict statements made a day earlier at a Pentagon press conference by Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis. Then on Wednesday, before the president’s tweets, Mattis said “our military posture has not changed since the conclusion of the Singapore summit and no decisions have been made about suspending any future exercises.” It’s a case of he said–he said–who knows? (WaPo)

Plea To SyriaThe UN envoy to Syria is pleading with government officials not to start a new offensive against Idlib, where almost three million people live. He has called for humanitarian corridors to be set up to allow civilians to be evacuated temporarily. It is estimated there are also around 10,000 al-Nusra and al-Qaeda jihadist fighters in the area, which both Syria and Russia, the government’s main military ally, say must be wiped out. (BBC)

In Which We Fly Too Close To The Robot Sun: Said simply, an algorithm is a rule to automate the treatment of a piece of data; if a happens, then do b, if not, do c. Computer programs are bundles of such algorithms–recipes for treating data. Ellen Ullman has been a distinguished professional programmer since the 1970s, and when it comes to the process of coding, Ullman tells it like it is. She weighed in on the death of a woman hit by a self-driving car, which has highlighted an unfolding technological crisis that happens when code is piled on code, creating a complex, not easily understood, universe. “When algorithms start to create new algorithms, it gets farther and farther from human agency.” (Guardian)

Indian Censors: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are increasingly censoring dissenters and intimidating journalists. On Tuesday police arrested prominent activists and writers and searched their homes, seizing phones, cameras and other electronics, after accusing them of inciting a riot that had occurred months earlier. Police also targeted a Jesuit priest in his eighties who they claimed was involved in a criminal conspiracy in a town 1,000 miles from his home. (WaPo)


The Deflated Peso: Investor concerns over problems in developing countries caused more trouble on Thursday for emerging-market currencies. The Turkish lira, the South African rand, and the Brazilian real dropped against the dollar, but Argentina’s peso suffered the most extreme fall. At the start of this year a dollar bought 18.8 pesos; it now purchases 35.9. Argentina’s Central Bank quickly moved to raise its benchmark lending rate to 60 percent, hoping to allay fears that the peso’s rapid decline would bring on more inflation. Some analysts say the debt issues in Argentina and Turkey are a warning that emerging markets taking on too many cheap loans they can’t pay back spells broader trouble for all financial markets. Others believe the problems in those two countries are peculiar to them, and countries who have managed their economies more responsibly will be fine. As if to bolster the latter analysis, American stock markets remained relatively unfazed, down only about half a percent.


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Casting A Wide NetThe Trump administration is denying passports and renewals to hundreds, possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the border who were born in this country and are American citizens. The administration is claiming the official birth records people have been using all their lives are fraudulent. Passport applicants with official US birth certificates are being jailed in immigration detention centers and entered into deportation proceedings. Those in Mexico trying to reenter the US are having their passports revoked. The administration has been working diligently to reduce both illegal and legal immigration; the government’s treatment of passport applicants in South Texas demonstrates how US citizens are increasingly being swept up by immigration enforcement agencies. (WaPo)

This Week In: Oh No, What Did He Tweet Now?President Trump’s desperation over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is showing up more and more in careless, erratic tweeting. Thursday morning he tweeted: “I am very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Don McGahn as White House Councel! (sic) I liked Don, but he was NOT responsible for me not firing Bob Mueller or Jeff Sessions. So much Fake Reporting and Fake News!” Trump has denied repeatedly he ever tried to fire Mueller, but now, apparently, admits it. He also took the opportunity to attack CNN again, this time by calling for the firing of CNN president, Jeff Zucker. “Little Jeff Z has done a terrible job, his ratings suck, & AT&T should fire him to save credibility!” Trump tweeted. Zucker is currently on six weeks’ leave from CNN to recover from having heart surgery. (WaPo and BBC)

XoXo, Rudy: Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, might seem to be fully immersed in defending the president on television, but he still has time to write to Klaus Iohannis, president of Romania, criticizing Iohannis’ efforts to root out corruption in his country. In recent years Romania has been praised for its efforts to rein in graft, which resulted in thousands of convictions, including of former and current politicians. Giuliani’s letter, dated August 22, expresses concern about the “continuing damage to the rule of law being done under the guise of effective law enforcement,” and recommends that amnesty be given to those convicted in the crackdown. (NYT)

All The King’s Horses: Police were called to the home of a missing man named Brian Egg. Inside the home they found a headless corpse in a fish tank. The police were alerted after neighbors saw a sketchy individual and a “private crime scene cleaning truck” outside of the home. The body has yet to be identified and police are still actively searching for Mr.Egg. (BBC)

– “Texas police say mystery woman in doorbell video found safe: A mystery woman who was caught on a surveillance camera wearing what looked like broken wrist restraints has been found safe, police in Texas say.” (BBC)

– “They’re Young and They Want Change. Now They’re Ready to Vote for the First Time: A surge of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have registered to vote this year.” (NYT)

– “$1.7 Billion Federal Job Training Program Is ‘Failing the Students’: ‘It’s a little bit like prison,’ said Donnell Strange, 17, who joined the electrical apprenticeship program about six months ago after struggling in school back home in Mansfield, near Dallas.” (NYT)


– “What if Emailing During Your Commute Counted as Work?: A study found that the availability of Wi-Fi tethered workers to their jobs even outside the office.” (NYT)

– “Money for Nothing: Many jobs are pointless. Others are being automated away. In the future, who will still work for a paycheck?” No matter what happens in this crazy world there is one job we will always need: a therapist. (New Republic)

– “England Proposes Ban on Selling Energy Drinks to Children” They will instead stick to a more organic diet of Dr. Pepper and Pixie Sticks. (NYT)

– “Miami Will Be Underwater Soon. Its Drinking Water Could Go First” (Bloomberg)

– “Who’s Afraid of a White Minority?: The battle over how to project the future population of the United States has profound political implications.” Demographics is destiny. (NYT)

– “‘Winter is coming’: Allies fear Trump isn’t prepared for gathering legal storm” Insert Stormy Daniels joke here. (WaPo)

– “Why the Earth Has Fewer Species Than We Think: A primer on the epigenome.” And humans are incredible if not ruthless killers of biodiversity. (Nautilus)

– “A lifelong dream washed away: The major league shot he chased his entire life finally arrived. Then it drowned.” (WaPo)

– “The Story of a Gun” It cried a river and killed everyone. (Jezebel)

– “The School Shootings That Weren’t: How many times per year does a gun go off in an American school? We should know. But we don’t.” (NPR)

– Jet lag: “Learn to roll with the inevitable consequences, and the ways we will fail to adjust. You’re getting on a roller coaster, except this one wasn’t planned by anyone.” (Outline)

– “Electric scooters’ sudden invasion of American cities, explained: Turns out there’s a lot of latent demand for a quick and cheap way to get around.” (Vox)

– “How McCain Got the Last Word Against Trump: By the time he died on Saturday, Mr. McCain had carefully stage-managed a four-day celebration of his life — but what was also an unmistakable rebuke to President Trump and his agenda.”


“A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don’t know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn’t even be worth reading.” – Yevgeny Zamyatin

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Yes, I want to sound marginally more intelligent: