The Weekender, March 9, 2017

1) “The Curse of the Bahai Emerald” (Wired, 27 minutes, March 2017). Thanks to two readers, Obi H. and Doreen T., who both suggested this. The story is about a HUGE emerald — one whose ownership is, to say the least, unclear.

Right now, in a vault, controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a mini­fridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million.

[ . . . ]

Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”

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3) “The Future of Not Working” (New York Times, 17 minutes, February 2017). I’ve shared items about “universal basic income” or UBI before — it’s a complicated idea aimed to handle the economic impact of the increasing automation of low-wage jobs. (If you want more on this, the excellent CGP Grey has an 18-minute video on it.) Whether it’s a good idea is debatable and the number of variables and things to consider is immense. But, why not test? That’s what the New York Times reported on — an experiment in a Kenyan village where an NGO named GiveDirectly is giving each person the equivalent of $22 a month (a huge amount for them) for the next 12 years. Thanks to Nancy B. for the suggestion!

4) “Why America’s Airports Suck” (Institutional Investor, 18 minutes, February 2017). And, as the subhead says, how New York city “plans to make the suck less.” But let’s focus on why they suck, ok?

America’s airports feel like bus stations because, broadly speaking, they are funded like bus stations. They don’t rely on taxpayer money, nor are they allowed to turn profits. Anything they earn must be reinvested into the facilities. The trouble for U.S. airports is that what they earn — through pennies on pretzels, rent from airlines, and a $4.50-per-ticket charge — isn’t nearly enough to keep pre-9/11 facilities safe, functioning, and ready for the 21st century. Overseas and in Canada airports have solved this problem by bringing in private investors, selling off operator rights, and taking control of, and often raising, the user fee. Those tactics either aren’t allowed in the U.S. or they haven’t been exercised. The result: places like LaGuardia. All day every day, thousands of people file onto airplanes headed to the U.S. guaranteed of one thing: Wherever they’re leaving is better than what lies ahead.

5) “The Sumo Matchup Centuries in the Making” (FiveThirtyEight, 20 minutes, May 2016). Thanks, Kit K., for sharing this. How do you compare two of the top sumo wrestlers of all time, when they weren’t even alive in the same century? It’s not simple, but it is interesting.

6) “When Prince Made a Chambermaid His Queen For a Day” (Daily Beast, 24 minutes, March 2017). Prince, the rock star, not a prince. Regardless, he’s as close as musicians got to royalty. That said, this isn’t a feel-good story, as the sub-head summarizes: “In 1986, a young motel chambermaid won an MTV dream date with Prince in her tiny Wyoming hometown. On TV, it seemed like a fairy tale. Behind the scenes, coke-fueled chaos reigned..” Thanks to Jeremy G. for the link.

Have a great weekend!