30 June, 2019

What the last Nuremberg prosecutor alive wants the world to know

Benjamin Ferencz: These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite--
Lesley Stahl: What turns a man into a savage beast like that?
Benjamin Ferencz: He's not a savage. He's an intelligent, patriotic human being.
Lesley Stahl: He's a savage when he does the murder though.
Benjamin Ferencz: No. He's a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.
Lesley Stahl: You don't think they turn into savages even for the act?
Benjamin Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.

29 June, 2019

I'm 20. I have 32 half-siblings. This is my family portrait.

When we hung up, I told my parents what I’d learned, and they were equally stunned. I felt both curious and anxious about these people and what they exactly meant to me. The sheer quantity of them gave me a feeling of having been mass-produced.
Even as I was trying to take this information in, I was realizing that one way I could maybe make sense of all of this was through photography, a medium I’ve been interested in from a young age. I could use the camera as an excuse to meet each sibling and maybe the process of making pictures would help me find some sort of stability, even as I also recognized that conflict, discomfort and maybe even a kind of love would be part of the experience.

27 June, 2019

The Day the Music Burned

The label’s dominance rests in large part on its roster of current chart toppers — stars like Drake, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. But UMG’s reputation is also based on the great swaths of music history it owns, a canon that includes Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Queen and many more artists and labels whose catalogs came under the UMG umbrella during decades of acquisition and consolidation. A key part of that legacy — the originals of some of the company’s most culturally significant assets — went up in smoke in 2008.
The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG’s internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 “Vault Loss Meeting,” the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”

26 June, 2019

How Discount Brokerages Make Money


So how do discount brokerages make money?


Suppose I were to give you $100, in return for your promise to give it back when I wanted it and pay me 0.27% annualized interest in the meanwhile. Suppose you invested this in a virtually riskless bond, perhaps a mortgage-backed security with government backing, offering 2.53% annualized interest. You’d earn $2.26 in net interest in a year.
Suppose I were to give you $200 billion dollars. Now I’m the American middle class and you’re Charles Schwab. You would earn something like $5.8 billion dollars in net interest income. This would entirely pay for your sideline business in running a brokerage. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, branch offices, call centers, blah blah blah, it all exists to justify the only pricing page that matters, and all the verbiage on the pricing page is about how much you pay the customer.
This is an exaggeration, but not much of one. 57% of Schwab’s revenues are from net interest. The firm could literally give away every other service; discount the mutual fund fees to zero, do away with commissions, etc etc, and they would still be profitable.

Did anything useful come out of this research project?

Three things that I believe much more strongly than I did previously:
Commissions in discount brokerages will go to zero. Like most repricing, it will continue to be slow until it happens all at once. Interactive Brokers will likely still continue charging them, as it is least similar in character to the rest of the industry.
Roboadvisors are a bad business below scale. I have really liked the model as a user, but I am glad I’m an investor using a roboadvisor rather than an investor in a roboadvisor. The discount brokerage industry works because you can make decisions which are bad for users and lucrative for you (“Ahh you have entrusted me with cash money; let me park it safely and pay you 50 bps while keeping the next 150 bps for me, rather than parking it in the equally safe place any of my product managers could have implemented if they wanted to be fired instantly”); roboadvisors depend on making decisions which are good for users (“Let me minimize that cash drag for you”) and then being very explicit about costs which are anchored very low. (Again, hate to belabor a point, but Wealthfront charges 25 bps all-in (on top of the underlying ETFs) and every customer knows it; Schwab charges 18 bps for cash management alone and virtually no customer has ever even thought there could be a number there.)
Some technologists I am acquainted with should know one esoteric thing about equities markets. If you own a material amount of a publicly traded stock, and the supply of that stock is constrained, and some population of sophisticated people want to short it, maybe you should Charge More rather than letting your broker get that service from you for free. Speak to your trusted advisor, this can have fairly toothy consequences, etc etc.

20 June, 2019

The $44 Million Verdict Against Oberlin

Oberlin College just got hit again with a jury judgment that could cripple the college financially. Last Friday, the jury found the college guilty of libel and returned a verdict award of $11.2 million to Gibson’s, a local store and its proprietors. Today, the jury added $33 million in punitive damages – a clear sign that jurors were sending a strong message. The total of $44 million is likely to be pared back since Ohio State law caps punitive awards at twice the amount of the verdict award. The jurors also added the cost of the plaintiff’s legal fees to the total.
The story, by now, is well-known. A few days after Donald Trump’s election, an underage black Oberlin student attempted to purchase a bottle of wine. The white proprietor of a local store, Gibson’s, refused to sell the wine, prompting the student to try and shoplift it. He and two friends fled the store with the proprietor in pursuit. The arrests of the students prompted protests by other Oberlin students suggesting that the shoplifters were innocent (they weren’t) and that Gibson was racist (it wasn’t).
A senior Oberlin administrator, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, joined in the protests. The college ceased purchasing goods and services from Gibson’s—causing the victims of a crime economic harm. And after the college refused to apologize or release a statement denying Gibson’s racist intent, the store, and its owners sued.

19 June, 2019

Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think

Call it the Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation: the idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige. Problems related to achieving professional success might appear to be a pretty good species of problem to have; even raising this issue risks seeming precious. But if you reach professional heights and are deeply invested in being high up, you can suffer mightily when you inevitably fall. That’s the man on the plane. Maybe that will be you, too. And, without significant intervention, I suspect it will be me.


Cognizant received a two-year, $200 million contract from Facebook to do the work, according to a former employee familiar with the matter. But in return for policing the boundaries of free expression on one of the internet’s largest platforms, individual contractors in North America make as little as $28,800 a year. They receive two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch each day, along with nine minutes per day of “wellness” time that they can use when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of the job. After regular exposure to graphic violence and child exploitation, many workers are subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

18 June, 2019

Chernobyl Scripts

The acclaimed HBO/Sky miniseries written, created and produced by Scriptnotes co-host Craig Mazin debuted May 6, 2019. As promised, here are Craig’s scripts for the five episodes.
You should also listen to the excellent companion podcast co-hosted by Peter Sagal.
  1. Episode 1 – “1:23:45”
  2. Episode 2 – “Please Remain Calm”
  3. Episode 3 – “Open Wide, O Earth”
  4. Episode 4 – “The Happiness Of All Mankind”
  5. Episode 5 – “Vichnaya Pamyat”

17 June, 2019

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane

A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.

15 June, 2019

Amanda Knox, Tearful and Angry, Speaks in Italy, Years After Murder Acquittal


“I was never a defendant, innocent until proven guilty,” she said of the public’s perception. “I was sly, a psychopath, dirty, a slut, guilty until proven otherwise.”

This warped version of her entered into the courtroom, compromising the result of the trial, she said.

The most important lesson she had learned, she said, was that it was easy for the public to distort defendants into monsters. “It’s easy to see what we want to see,” Ms. Knox added, reducing criminal cases to “black and white stories populated by demons and saints.”

Double Mystery

Recent studies of twinship have challenged our most entrenched views of human development and have capsized cherished beliefs about human nature—in particular, the bedrock notion that character is created by experience. But then twins have been confounding humanity from the earliest times—almost as if they were a divine prank designed to undermine our sense of individuality and specialness in the world. Twins are both an unsettling presence, because they sabotage our sense of personal uniqueness, and a score-settling presence, because their mere existence allows us to pose questions we might not have thought to ask if we lived in a world without them.

14 June, 2019

Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National

Augusta National is sometimes likened to Oz. For one thing, it’s a Technicolor fantasyland embedded in an otherwise ordinary tract of American sprawl. Washington Road, the main approach to the club, is a forlorn strip of Waffle Houses, pool-supply stores, and cheap-except-during-the-Masters hotels. In the Hooters parking lot during tournament week, fans line up for selfies with John Daly, the dissolute pro and avatar of mid-round cigarettes and booze. But step through the club’s metal detectors and badge scanners, and you enter a lush, high-rent realm, where you are not allowed to run, talk loudly, or cheer a player’s mistakes. Order is maintained by security guards, who for decades were provided by the Pinkerton detective agency. (Though Pinkerton was acquired by a Swedish company called Securitas, in 1999, many patrons still refer to the guards as Pinkertons.) In 2012, a fan who stole onto a fairway to take a cup of bunker sand was thrown in jail.

11 June, 2019

Better Schools Won’t Fix America

Like many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong. Fighting inequality must come first.

The transition at 2:12 is just amazing

09 June, 2019

Apollo’s brain: The computer that guided man to the Moon

One thing to bear in mind when looking at the AGC is that it was both cutting-edge in design and very old-fashioned in how it was built – both of which presented their own challenges. Unlike modern computers, the AGCs were all handmade in a slow, laborious process that even partial automation and new testing methods did little to speed up or make easier. In all, it took 2,000 man-years to build the computers.

My White Friend Asked Me on Facebook to Explain White Privilege. I Decided to Be Honest

As to you “being part of the problem,” trust me, nobody is mad at you for being white. Nobody. Just like nobody should be mad at me for being black. Or female. Or whatever. But what IS being asked of you is to acknowledge that white privilege DOES exist and not only to treat people of races that differ from yours “with respect and humor,” but also to stand up for fair treatment and justice, not to let “jokes” or “off-color” comments by friends, co-workers, or family slide by without challenge, and to continually make an effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so we may all cherish and respect our unique and special contributions to society as much as we do our common ground.

04 June, 2019

How Chernobyl Became HBO’s Surprise Monday-Night Hit

A miniseries about a 1980s nuclear disaster could easily have proved radioactive to viewers. Instead, HBO’s Chernobyl has turned into an unlikely ratings hit. The network says its five-part miniseries, which wrapped Monday night, has to date attracted a cumulative audience of more than 6 million viewers across all HBO platforms. In a sign of strong word-of-mouth, the critically lauded series also saw its linear ratings tick up between each of its broadcasts last month, an exceedingly rare occurrence in the current TV environment. Once final streaming and on-demand numbers get tallied later this month, Chernobylcould even end up reaching roughly as many viewers as last year’s Amy Adams–led Sharp Objects.

HBO’s Chernobyl is a terrific miniseries. Its writer hopes you don’t think it’s the whole truth.

Comedy, in particular, is like stage magic. You have complete control, you know exactly what you’re doing, and you’re pulling tricks. You’re misdirecting, and you’re setting things up and paying them off, and moving them back around and surprising people, and then they laugh. And if you’re making a horror film, they shriek.
It’s dangerous. I don’t know how else to describe it. I think it’s dangerous. It’s not dangerous if it’s done just for thrills or laughs. But what’s happened is everybody has caught on. So politics is now nothing but weaponized narrative. That’s all it is.
And advertising figured out how to use narrative to sell you things you didn’t need. My favorite example is the engagement ring. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, there was an engagement ring, and it was a diamond. I heard that story and thought, well, that’s just the way it’s been. But no! The De Beers Company invented the diamond ring as part of an advertising campaign in the 1920s. Diamonds were kind of shitty and useless before then; nobody cared about them, and they’re not even rare.

02 June, 2019

Mike Bloomberg Addresses 2019 Harvard Business School Graduates as Class Day Speaker

“Billy treated everyone the same – from senior partners to the custodial staff. No one was better than anyone else. And Billy believed if you were lucky enough to make some money, you had an obligation to give a percentage of it away to help others. In fact, he didn't ask you what the percentage should be, he told you and you did it.
“I've been very lucky in my career. But my luckiest break wasn't getting fired – although that was pretty lucky it turned out. My luckiest break was taking a job where I got to see the ethics I learned growing up put into practice in the workplace. And I'd like to think the principles that I learned at Salomon have guided my life ever since.
“But when we look at today's world, it’s not clear that everyone with a degree in business has those principles. And that's one reason, I believe, that this great country of ours is suffering from an ethical crisis that is corroding our society.

01 June, 2019

The only metric of success that really matters is the one we ignore

This was community. And what I would come to learn, slowly, is that community is about a series of small choices and everyday actions: how to spend a Saturday, what to do when a neighbor falls ill, how to make time when there is none. Knowing others and being known; investing in somewhere instead of trying to be everywhere. Communities are built, like Legos, one brick at a time. There’s no hack.

Does the news reflect what we die from?

What's interesting is that Americans search on Google is a much closer reflection of what kills us than what is presented in the media. One way to think about it is that media outlets may produce content that they think readers are most interested in, but this is not necessarily reflected in our preferences when we look for information ourselves.