On Running the Marathon in North Korea

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 7.52.25 AM

Jeré Longman recently ran a marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea. He was one of several hundred foreign tourists allowed to participate in the spectacle. Writing for The New York Times, he reflects on the experience:

We could not leave the loop course, but we could leave our minders for an hour or two or four. Maybe we could make a personal connection that seemed less scripted than the opening ceremony: a brief smile, a wave, a hello, a thank you, a small encouragement.

Or would it all be staged, a Potemkin race in an authoritarian capital for the elite and loyal, our perceptions influenced by stories in the West, true or not, that Kim Jong-il scored a perfect 300 in his first bowling match and five holes in one on his maiden round of golf?

An early uphill stretch carried us past modest but encouraging crowds along a wide street of apricot blossoms. A soldier high-fived a few runners. A woman waved from the window of her apartment building. Other women in red jackets poured water into cups at small hydration tables.

The 6.2-mile loop brought us back and forth across the Taedong River via bridge and tunnel, the roads decorated with clusters of North Korean flags, their red star and red field meant to symbolize the spilled blood of liberation in a military-first nation.

For the natives, the marathon may have been a chance to act rebelliously:

During his half-marathon, Hank Mannen, 36, of the Netherlands, was startled to see a young woman blow him a kiss. He said he reciprocated, then thought for a moment, “She’s in big trouble now.

Great read.

When Banks Pay Borrowers’s Mortgage Interest, Europe Edition

Falling interest rates in Europe have put some banks in an interesting position: owing money on loans to borrowers.The Wall Street Journal reports on the curiosity:

At least one Spanish bank, Bankinter SA, the country’s seventh-largest lender by market value, has been paying some customers interest on mortgages by deducting that amount from the principal the borrower owes.

The problem is just one of many challenges caused by interest rates falling below zero, known as a negative interest rate. All over Europe, banks are being compelled to rebuild computer programs, update legal documents and redo spreadsheets to account for negative rates.

Interest rates have been falling sharply, in some cases into negative territory, since the European Central Bank last year introduced measures meant to spur the economy in the eurozone, including cutting its own deposit rate. The ECB in March also launched a bond-buying program, driving down yields on eurozone debt in hopes of fostering lending.

So in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, the base interest rate used for many loans, especially mortgages, is the euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor. The rate is based on how much it costs European banks to borrow from each other. Banks set interest rates on many loans as a small percentage above or below a benchmark such as Euribor. If the spread plus the Euribor is below 0, the Bank pays the borrower.

Early Retirement and the Paradox of Success

This is a good piece in The New York Times on the paradox of success:

Similarly, to succeed in the N.F.L., it is not enough to be strong and fast. Witness all the college players who exhibit all the physical skills they need in the league’s draft who never succeed as professionals. Rather, the best players display a certain manic competitiveness such that they keep playing. The Denver Broncos’ quarterback, Peyton Manning, has won a Super Bowl and made $230 million from football alone, and he looked to be in profound physical pain at the end of last season. Yet with his intensively competitive streak, he intends to come back next season at age 39.

The paradox of success is this: The mental wiring that enables a person to claw to the tippy-top of Corporate America or sports or entertainment or any other field that offers vast wealth is the same mental wiring that most of the time leads people not to retire before they have to — no matter what the diminishing marginal utility of money would suggest.

More here.

Researchers Find a Way to Unboil an Egg

Consider this one of the fundamental truths as I was growing up and taking a number of courses in basic biology (and later, microbiology and chemistry): once you boil an egg, there is no way to unboil that egg. Proteins denature once subjected to heat, and do not re-fold back to their original shape/structure.

Turns out, based on most recent research, that may not necessarily be the case: According to findings published in the journal ChemBioChem,

University of California Irvine and Australian chemists have figured out how to unboil egg whites – an innovation that could dramatically reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other segments of the $160 billion global biotechnology industry.

To re-create a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, he and his colleagues add a urea substance that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material. That’s half the process; at the molecular level, protein bits are still balled up into unusable masses. The scientists then employ a vortex fluid device, a high-powered machine designed by Professor Colin Raston’s laboratory at South Australia’s Flinders University. Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those tiny pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form.

In a paper titled “Shear-Stress-Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies,” this is the abstract:

Recombinant protein overexpression of large proteins in bacteria often results in insoluble and misfolded proteins directed to inclusion bodies. We report the application of shear stress in micrometer-wide, thin fluid films to refold boiled hen egg white lysozyme, recombinant hen egg white lysozyme, and recombinant caveolin-1. Furthermore, the approach allowed refolding of a much larger protein, cAMP-dependent protein kinase A (PKA). The reported methods require only minutes, which is more than 100 times faster than conventional overnight dialysis. This rapid refolding technique could significantly shorten times, lower costs, and reduce waste streams associated with protein expression for a wide range of industrial and research applications.

Obviously, this is tremendous news that will seek other labs trying to replicate the study.

The Green Bay Packers and Settlers of Catan

As the Green Bay Packers take on the Seattle Seahawks in tomorrow’s NFC Championship game, I found this story interesting about how part of the team spends its time playing Settlers of Catan:

There may not be a more unusual bonding tradition in the NFL than the gang of Packers who get together regularly to play a boardgame called “Settlers of Catan.” For the past two months, it’s been the talk of the lockerroom. The number of players that have devoted a long night to the game is in the double-digits—including most of the team’s starting offensive line, among others. And don’t let the words “board game” fool you, this is not Candy Land.

packers

On any day in Green Bay’s locker room, you can find starting tackle David Bakhtiari, who introduced the game to the team, rounding up players for a Settlers get-together that night—and there’s no shortage of willing participants. But players may not know what they are in for. Backup quarterback Matt Flynn said he was interested in the game because it was “a nonviolent version of Risk,” referring to Parker Brothers’ notoriously lengthy game of world domination. But Flynn said the players take it so seriously that when he stopped by to play for the first time after a win last month, he was shocked by what happened when he attempted to turn on some celebratory music.

I visited Green Bay in December and it is true what they say: there isn’t much to do in the city when it gets too cold.

Sumo Wrestling, Yukio Mishima, and a Search for a Forgotten Man

I’ve been a fan of Brian Phillips’s writing ever since reading and recommending “Pelé as a Comedian.” This year, Brian’s best writing probably comes via his piece at Grantland titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he goes on a two week trip to Japan. During his visit, he witnesses a sumo tournament, traverses around Tokyo and other parts of Japan, and recounts his fascination with a failed coup attempt by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, which ended in ritual suicide, seppuku.

A wonderful description of Tokyo:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

It’s a dream city, Tokyo. I mean that literally, in that I often felt like I was experiencing it while asleep. You’ll ride an escalator underground into what your map says is a tunnel between subway stops, only to find yourself in a thumping subterranean mall packed with beautiful teenagers dancing to Katy Perry remixes. You will take a turn off a busy street and into a deserted Buddhist graveyard, soundless but for the wind and the clacking of sotoba sticks, wooden markers crowded with the names of the dead. You will stand in a high tower and look out on the reason-defying extent of the city, windows and David Beckham billboards and aerial expressways falling lightly downward, toward the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea.

This is a beautiful description:

It takes a sumo novice perhaps 10 seconds of match action to see that among the top-class rikishi, Hakuho occupies a category of his own. What the others are doing in the ring is fighting. Hakuho is composing little haiku of battle.

The majority of the piece gives the reader this feeling as though one is in a ship, being gently throttled back and forth as Phillips describes his experiences of traveling and getting lost:

So I wandered, lost, around Tokyo. I went to the shrine of Nomi no Sukune, the legendary father of sumo, who (if he lived at all) died 2,000 years ago. I went to the food courts in the basements of department stores. I thought I should look for the past, for the origins of sumo, so early one morning I rode a bullet train to Kyoto, the old imperial capital, where I was yelled at by a bus driver and stayed in a ryokan — a guest house — where the maid crawled on her knees to refill my teacup. I climbed the stone path of the Fushimi Inari shrine, up the mountain under 10,000 vermilion gates. I visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, rebuilt in 1955 after a mad monk burned it to the ground (Mishima wrote a novel about this), and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, weirder and more mysterious because it is not actually covered in silver but was only intended to be. I spent 100 yen on a vending-machine fortune that told me to be “patient with time.”

Highly recommended in entirety.

 

The Secret Lives of Passwords

Ian Urbina, writing in The New York Times, confesses his fascinations with passwords. In a piece titled “The Secret Life of Passwords,” he explains:

Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything: Scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive.

On the changing state of the passwords looking into the future:

This year, for example, Google purchased SlickLogin, a start-up that verifies IDs using sound waves. iPhones have come equipped with fingerprint scanners for more than a year now. And yet passwords continue to proliferate, to metastasize. Every day more objects — thermostats, car consoles, home alarm systems — are designed to be wired into the Internet and thus password protected. Because big data is big money, even free websites now make you register to view virtually anything of importance so that companies can track potential customers. Five years ago, people averaged about 21 passwords. Now that number is 81, according to LastPass, a company that makes password-storage software.

The TL;DR version:

Passwords do more than protect data. They protect dreams, secrets, fears and even clues to troubled pasts, and for some, they serve as an everyday reminder of what matters most.

It’s a wonderful piece, but makes me wonder about all the people Mr. Urbina interviewed who felt compelled to reveal (or maybe make up) their passwords to make themselves or their lives sound more interesting than they really are.

Anyway, my antidote to the humanizing of passwords: download, install, and use 1Password.