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You have to cleverly build “common knowledge” to solve this lethal riddle.Wikicommons

You’ve been caught snooping around a spooky graveyard with your best friend. The caretaker, a bored old man fond of riddles (and not so fond of trespassers), imprisons each of you in a different room inside the storage shed, and, taking your phones, says, “Only your mind can set you free.” To you, he gestures toward a barred window. Through it, you can see 12 statues. Out of your friend’s window, which overlooks the opposite side of the graveyard, she can see eight. Neither of you know the other’s count.

The caretaker tells you each, individually, that together you can see either 18 or 20 statues. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell your friend how many you can spot. The only way for you both to escape is for one of you to give the total number of visible statues. Get it wrong, and neither of you ever leave. The caretaker asks you each one at a time, once a day, and you can choose to answer or to pass. Both of you know that you’re always asked first.* If you both pass on a given day, the question—are there…
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What this World Cup reveals isn’t that the stats were wrong—far from it, they were insightfully calculated—but rather that we relate to stats and probabilities in strange ways.Photograph by Hey! Play! / Wayfair

This year’s World Cup has been full of surprises. Tournament mainstays such as the Netherlands and Italy didn’t even qualify, and Germany, the reigning world champions, finished last in their group after upsets by Mexico and South Korea. Statisticians favored powerhouses Spain and Argentina to drive into late stages of the tournament, only to see them lose to sleepers like Russia and Croatia.

Yet what this World Cup reveals isn’t that the stats were wrong—far from it, they were insightfully calculated—but rather that we relate to stats and probabilities in strange ways. Most fans, for example, enthusiastically bring up “x factors” and players who are “on fire,” while stat-wielding commentators coolly remind them that what appears to be a hot run is actually statistically regular and that a victory for the underdog remains forbiddingly unlikely. But then the whistle blows and the bizarre alchemy of the world takes over. Suddenly, a typically underwhelming team like Mexico starts to dazzle and, sensing an advantage, topples a giant.

To be sure, soccer…
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When the Dutch arrived in New York Harbor in 1609, Staten Island—or Staaten Eylandt, as they named it—was a wild wonderland, woodland in the middle and tidal salt marsh on the edges, populated by the local Lenape tribe, plus an embarrassment of natural riches: eels, bluefish, bitterns, herons, muskrats, ducks, clams, crabs, wild turkeys, porpoises, and more. Jutting midway into the island from the west coast, like a hook in the island’s side, was the Fresh Kills estuary, a tidal wetland thriving with plants and critters, created by the retreat of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet some 17,000 years ago.

After World War II, the bursting city of New York found itself with a trash problem. In 1948, the city started officially dumping its trash into the marshes and waters of Fresh Kills. What became America’s first landfill was meant to be temporary, but it stuck. By 1955, it was the biggest landfill in the world—indeed, at 2,700 acres, it was the biggest human-made structure in the world. By 1991, the landfill contained 150 million tons of tightly packed garbage in more volume than could fill the Great Wall of China. Fresh Kills was wetland no more.

The landfill serviced New…
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Eric Lundgren, the 33-year-old, fedora-wearing CEO of a major electronic waste recycling plant in Los Angeles, could be called both the Elon Musk and the Edward Snowden of e-waste. Elon Musk because in 2017 he built an electric car out of recycled batteries that broke the world record for electric vehicle range. Edward Snowden because he’s currently serving a prison sentence for copyright infringement, as a result of printing 28,000 Windows restore disks to be distributed with repaired computers. Lundgren’s court case and electronic creations have made him an icon for the Right to Repair Movement and e-waste reuse.

An unexpected outcome of his sentencing is a boosted interest in the psychology and economics of electronic waste. Taking advantage of the media spotlight, Lundgren has raised awareness of unrepairable products and environmentally destructive planned obsolescence. Each year, 99 billion pounds of e-waste is generated worldwide, according to the United Nations—that’s the equivalent of nearly 4,500 Eifel Towers. Regulations have done little to stem the tide. Even accounting for the thousands of independent e-recyclers in the United States, Lundgren estimates that the percentage of the e-waste stream diverted from landfills barely scrapes the double-digits.

I interviewed Lundgren days before he began…
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Welcome to the Anthropocene. This greeting is belated, of course. We have all been here the whole
of our lives, without knowing it for most of our days. The Anthropocene is a span of geological and evolutionary time (technically, an epoch) during which humans have had an outsized role in transforming the natural world, most of that time without knowledge and awareness of the consequences of their actions. Those who use the term argue about when the epoch begins. Does it start with the Industrial Revolution, late in the 18th century, hastening around 1850? Or does it make sense to push the date back in time to the first appearances of agriculture in scattered populations, as much as 10,000 years before the present, or even earlier? It matters more to scientists and scholars than it does to you, whenever you step out into your dooryard (a patch of the outdoors where the business of human work and play, in and out of doors, transacts with the natural). You’re in the Anthropocene. Choices made by many generations of people just like yourself, just like me, influence what you come across there. You’ll find the influences in small things, mostly. You’ll find them…
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Despite having a standard model of an AGN—a supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disk with jets streaming out in opposite directions, all encompassed by a dusty torus—making sense of our observations is still a challenge.NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al.; MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al.; ESO/WFI.

Astronomers can sometimes be literal to a fault. We like to call things as we see them. For example, if it’s red and it’s huge: “Red Giant.” White and small: “White Dwarf.” Massive explosion: “Big Bang.” Dark and sucks everything in: “Black Hole.” Most of the time, classifying objects this way works fine—either it’s new, or it’s something we already know of. But sometimes, as with Pluto, we make new observations that force us to question the name, reassess the object, and identify it differently. You might think this never happens with something as clearly defined as a black hole, but you’d be wrong.

Though we can’t observe them directly, we can see how the two types of black holes—stellar mass and supermassive—affect their surroundings. Stellar mass black holes, the product of a dying star going supernova and collapsing on itself, are the more familiar, predicted nearly a century ago by Einstein’s theory of general relativity; they usually…
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One survey of 2,000 people found that if you have only one hangover a month, it adds up to two years of total sick time over the course of a lifetime.Photograph by ShotPrime Studio / Shutterstock

From freezing showers to ingesting prickly pear to smoking joints, everyone has a home remedy for alcohol’s notorious afterglow: the hangover. Mongolian men swear by pickled sheep eyes, ancient Egyptians wore necklaces of Alexandrian laurel, and one 17th century English physician even sold a hangover “cure” made with human skulls and dried vipers. Hangovers are a problem that even predates writing. But today with the aid of modern medicine we can treat diarrhea or headaches with over-the-counter drugs—so why not hangovers too? “Each year, many people die because they drink too much,” Yunfeng Lu, a chemical engineering professor at UCLA, said in a phone call. “And currently, we have no antidote.”

But that could change. New research from Lu and his colleagues published in the journal Advanced Materials demonstrates a “hangover pill” that can mitigate some of the damaging effects of alcohol. The antidote mimics the work of hepatocytes, or liver cells, and helps speed up the body’s alcohol metabolism.…
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Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog.

If and when physicists are able to pin down the metal content of the sun, that number could upend much of what we thought we knew about the evolution and life span of stars.Photograph by NASA / SDO / Seán Doran

Like any star in its prime, the sun consists mainly of hydrogen atoms fusing two by two into helium, unleashing immense energy in the process. But it’s the sun’s tiny concentration of heavier elements, which astronomers call metals, that controls its fate. “Even a very small fraction of metals is sufficient to alter the behavior of a star completely,” explained Sunny Vagnozzi, a physicist at Stockholm University in Sweden who studies the “metallicity” of the sun. The more metallic a star, the more opaque it is (since metals absorb radiation), and how opaque it is in turn relates to its size, temperature, brightness, life span, and other key properties. “Metallicity basically also tells you how the star will die,” Vagnozzi said.

But the sun’s metallicity, beyond revealing its own story, also serves as a kind of yardstick for calibrating measurements of the metallicity of all other stars, and thus the…
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Certain features of human behavior recur regardless of culture.Photograph by NASA

Archaeologist Ticia Verveer recently posted a thread on Twitter showing that customer complaints go way back. And I mean way back. Verveer referred to a letter inscribed on a 3,700-year-old Babylonian clay tablet. In the letter, Verveer writes, “The copper merchant Nanni details at length his anger at a sour deal, and his dissatisfaction with the quality assurance and service of Ea-nasir. Nanni complained that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a gulf voyage and that there was a misdirection and a delay of a further shipment.” Damn, some things never change.

The complaint letter was translated by A. Leo Oppenheim, a cultural anthropologist. “His aim was to make Mesopotamian records as commonly understood as classical ones, which when quoted can stay in the original Latin or Greek,” a colleague of Oppenheim’s wrote. In one of his books, Letters From Mesopotamia, Oppenheim explains that clay-tablet letters deal with, well, nearly everything. “Law codes, royal edicts, and legal documents of impressive variety,” Oppenheim writes, “combine with an abundance of administrative records and letters, both private and official, to rough out the functioning of the…
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In 1932, the Soviet Union sent one of its best agents to China, a former schoolteacher and counter-espionage expert from Germany named Otto Braun. His mission was to serve as a military adviser to the Chinese Communists, who were engaged in a desperate battle for survival against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

The full story of Braun’s misadventures in China’s Communist revolution is packed with enough twists and turns for a Hollywood thriller. But in the domain of culinary history, one anecdote from Braun’s autobiography stands out. Braun recalls his first impressions of Mao Zedong, the man who would go on to become China’s paramount leader.

The shrewd peasant organizer had a mean, even “spiteful” streak. “For example, for a long time I could not accustom myself to the strongly spiced food, such as hot fried peppers, which is traditional to southern China, especially in Hunan, Mao’s birthplace.” The Soviet agent’s tender taste buds invited Mao’s mockery. “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” declared Mao. “And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.’ ”


The Mala Project

Taste of SichuanBy Andrew Leonard

If there is a single dish that most exquisitely captures Sichuan’s love for…
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