The Weekender: April 22, 2016

1) “The Asteroid Hunters” (Popular Mechanics, 55 minutes, November 2015). The subhead: “It’s highly unlikely that a gigantic space rock will crash through our atmosphere and destroy civilization as we know it. But it’s not impossible either. Which is why a small but growing community of scientists and astronomers are scrambling to spot and destroy dangerous asteroids long before they hit us.” Yes, it’s long, but it’s really interesting (and it has a neat header image):

On June 30, 1908 — again, early in the morning — an asteroid ripped through the sky and exploded with tremendous force over an area of Siberian taiga near the Tunguska River. There were no humans in the immediate vicinity, but a man sitting on the porch of a remote trading post 40 miles away would later report that he was blown out of his chair and felt a heat so intense that he thought his clothes were on fire. It wasn’t until 19 years later, in 1927, when a scientific expedition through the rugged forest led by the chief curator of the meteorite collection at the St. Petersburg museum — making his second attempt — finally reached the site and found 800 square miles of evergreen forest completely obliterated. More than 80 million trees had been knocked over, and lay in a radial pattern circulating out from the epicenter.

[ . . . ]

Scientists estimate that [the asteroid] was at least 120 feet in diameter, weighed 220 million pounds, and was traveling 33,500 miles-per-hour when it blew up in the lower atmosphere, releasing 185 Hiroshima bombs worth of energy. Barometers as far away as England sensed the shockwave and people who lived many miles from the site later reported seeing “the sky split in two” and a “great fire” appear, followed by a deafening boom. “If you want to start a conversation with anyone in the asteroid business, all you have to say is ‘Tunguska,'” Don Yeomans, retired manager of the NEO Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and a former colleague of Paul Chodas, has said.

2) From the archives: How a Virtual Plague Helped Epidemiologists Save Lives in the Real World. I originally wrote this in June of 2012 but heard it referenced (the topic generally, not my article specifically) on the radio a few weeks back. The short version: a small programming error created an accidental plague in World of Warcraft, which stinks for players — but it’s great for those trying to predict how diseases spread in real life.

3) “I created a fake business and bought it an amazing online reputation” (Fusion, 10 minutes, September 2015).

If you live in the Bay Area and have looked for something special to spice up a birthday party, you might have discovered the Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express, a truck that promises to deliver an unbelievable selection of songs to your doorstep. You might have seen a review on Yelp that said it’s perfect for a girl’s night out or a Facebook review that mentioned it being a crowd-pleaser at a neighborhood block party. You may have been impressed by its 19,000 Twitter followers, and considered hiring this mobile song-slinging truck to drive up to your next outdoor shindig.

What you probably didn’t realize was that there is no such thing as the Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express (or F.A.K.E., for short). I made it up and paid strangers to pump up its online footprint to make it seem real. I didn’t do it to scam anyone or even for the LULZ. I wanted to see firsthand how the fake reputation economy operates. The investigation led me to an online marketplace where a good reputation comes cheap.

4) “If You Don’t Click on This Story, I Don’t Get Paid” (The Awl, 13 minutes, September 2015). I think a lot about the economics of being an online writer/publisher. While most of the stuff in this article is more about magazine-quality/length articles (and therefore doesn’t typically apply to me), it’s still very insightful.


5) “Shut Up About Harvard” (FiveThirtyEight, 9 minutes, March 2016). The title is clickbait-y — it’s not really about Harvard. The article makes a persuasive case that the U.S. media tells the story of the college applicant applying to a top university — replete with the stress and tension that person suffers — but ignores the very different (and still not a lot of fun) experience that the vast majority of would-be college-goers experience.

Here’s how the national media usually depicts the admissions process: High school seniors spend months visiting colleges; writing essays; wrangling letters of recommendation; and practicing, taking and retaking an alphabet soup of ACTs, SATs and AP exams. Then the really hard part: months of nervously waiting to find out if they are among the lucky few (fewer every year, we’re told!) with the right blend of academic achievement, extracurricular involvement and an odds-defying personal story to gain admission to their favored university.

Here’s the reality: Most students never have to write a college entrance essay, pad a résumé or sweet-talk a potential letter-writer. Nor are most, as The Atlantic put it Monday, “obsessively checking their mailboxes” awaiting acceptance decisions. (Never mind that for most schools, those decisions now arrive online.) According to data from the Department of Education,1 more than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates2 attend colleges that accept at least half their applicants; just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any — well under 1 percent — attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent.

6) “Stopping All Stations – The Pyongyang Metro” (Earth Nutshell, 22 minutes, undated). This one is mostly photos — a lot of photos. People outside of North Korea rarely see inside North Korea, but the author/photographer here got access to Pyongyang’s subway system and took picture after picture. It’s very clean, ornate, and very North Korean. I particularly liked the one captioned “Kim Il-Sung reading a book about Kim Il-Sung.”

Have a great weekend!