The Weekender, July 6, 2018

1) “Fatal accidents, off-the-books workers, a union once run by a mobster. The rogue world of one of New York’s major trash haulers.” (ProPublica, 34 minutes, June 2018). That’s not the actual headline but the real one doesn’t help you decide whether to click, and it also can trip up email filters.

The headquarters of Sanitation Salvage, one of the largest private trash haulers in New York City, is a squat brick building that sits unremarkably amid the garbage dumps and razor wire of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.

The Squitieri brothers, owners for decades, can be found on the top floor of the house-like structure on Manida Street. The three brothers are men of considerable wealth and fixtures in Bronx politics, and one of them, Steven, has been seen riding to special events in a white chauffeured Rolls Royce. They are also, according to employees, unforgiving bosses, profane taskmasters who push a small army of drivers and off-the-books workers through grueling shifts of 18 hours or longer.

[ . . . ]

In 2016, Mouctar Diallo, a teenage African immigrant, stepped into the rough-and-tumble world of Sanitation Salvage. He was hired off the streets of the Bronx for a few bucks in cash, then spent 18 months as one of the company’s “third men,” hustling ahead of the trash trucks to grab garbage from the curb and keep the gritty show rolling.

Then, nearing the end of a shift on Nov. 7, 2017, Diallo wound up crushed to death under the wheels of a Sanitation Salvage truck. The men he’d been helping lied to the police, saying their dead colleague was a homeless person who had come out of nowhere. The police took them at their word, and Diallo was buried quietly by his family, the circumstances of his death a cynical fiction.

[ . . . ]

Michael Maldonado worked for 12 years at Sanitation Salvage, where he earned the nickname “Mikey Cardboard” because one of his routes required picking up lots of paper for recycling. Maldonado said the scrutiny of Sanitation Salvage is long overdue. But, like many current and former workers, he believes the Squitieris — who are major donors to the local Bronx Democratic Party machine — are too powerful and connected to face any serious consequences.

“How has this been under the radar for so many years?” he asked. “How is it that somebody has to […] die for people to notice?”

2) ‘How an Ad Campaign Made Lesbians Fall in Love with Subaru” (Priceonomics, 12 minutes, May 2016). I don’t like the headline because the article isn’t really about an ad campaign — it goes much deeper than that. Thanks to reader Ashley W. for the suggestion.

3) “All Queens Must Die” (The Verge, 11 minutes, August 2016). The subhead (almost) explains what they mean: “On Santa Cruz Island, they killed the cows, sheep, and bees. Now it’s time to finish the job.” It’s the story of an island overrun by invasive species, and the ants are the last to go. The article doesn’t lend itself to an ant-related excerpt but the pig portion is great, so here you go.

The pigs were the trickiest. Or trickiest yet. They’d been on the island since the mid-19th century, brought over by the first ranchers, and had long gone feral. The Parks Service and Conservancy closed off most of the island to the public beginning in 2005, called in teams of New Zealand snipers and helicopter pilots and, within a year, had killed 5,000 of them. Over the next few months, some of the remaining pigs were captured and radio collared. Pigs are social, and extremely smart. The snipers tracked the collared, so-called Judas pigs back to their kind and, only if and when they could destroy a group all at once, opened fire. Any pig left alive, even wounded, would become all the more skittish and difficult to find. It would teach others to fear helicopters overhead.

Some of the last remaining island pigs had changed their habits entirely. One Judas seemed to have turned amphibian. When a helicopter team flew by the patch of coastline where the radio collar told them it should be, they found a cave high up on a cliff. A harnessed sniper descended into the cave and, when the pig charged out of the dankness, he put it down. Santa Cruz Island was declared pig-free by 2007. In 2012, it was declared turkey-free, too. The Nature Conservancy was tantalizingly close to its goal — to restore Santa Cruz Island to something approximating its prehistoric, virgin state.


4) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: When the Jazz Didn’t Stop Playing. A serial killer creates an night of all jazz.

TuesdayHow Poker (and Boredom) Can Help Solve Murders. Playing cards which turn inmates into crime fighters.

Wednesday: I took the 4th of July off, but the day before, the Athletic ran an article of mine about the history of the Mendoza Line. (If you don’t know what that means, don’t bother clicking; it’s behind a paywall anyway.)

ThursdayThe Backward American Flag. Why the flag patch on the sleeves of U.S. Army uniforms appears to be backward.

5) “What Defines a Meme?” (Smithsonian, 17 minutes, May 2011). The word “meme,” in the context of the Internet at least, has taken on a new meaning over the last few years — here’s an 11-minute guide to memes today, from Wired. How the definition changed, and so quickly, is a story in and of itself. The Smithsonian story isn’t about that, though. It’s about how ideas spread online — or did seven year ago.

Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1965 for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, proposed an analogy: just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an “abstract kingdom” rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas.

“Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms,” he wrote. “Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.”

Ideas have “spreading power,” he noted—“infectivity, as it were”—and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people. The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry had put forward a similar notion several years earlier, arguing that ideas are “just as real” as the neurons they inhabit. Ideas have power, he said:

“Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet.”

6) “Being Babe Ruth’s Daughter” (Grantland, 25 minutes, January 2012). The subhead: “His last surviving child remembers growing up Ruth.” It’s an interesting look at the life of a child of a celebrity, especially given that it was in a world before the everywhere-media landscape we’re in today.

Have a great weekend!