Joe Stiglitz On High-Frequency Trading

A rather brilliant set of notes by Salmon on a rather brilliant speech by Stiglitz, making the case against market volatility in general and high-frequency trading in particular. Markets should “reward people who find out information about the real economy”. But HFT robots “steal the rents that otherwise would have gone to those who had invested in information”, with the result that “the market will become less informative” (1,650 words)

It’s Adventure Time Pick of the day

In praise of Adventure Time, a “smash hit cartoon” for children aged six to eleven, and also “a serious work of moral philosophy, a rip-roaring comic masterpiece, and a meditation on gender politics and love in the modern world.” The heroes, a boy called Finn and a dog called Jake, “possess a blind optimism that is as clueless as it is comforting”. This is not merely great television, it is great art, and not only for kids (11,340 words)

Life After Aids

Advances in pharmacology have beaten back HIV/Aids, at least in rich countries. Deaths are “incredibly rare” in Britain. “For those diagnosed with HIV now, life expectancy is similar to someone who does not have the virus. The medical profession considers HIV a chronic disease in the same category as, for example, type 2 diabetes. As a doctor I can tell you that, medically speaking, I’d rather have HIV than diabetes” (Metered paywall) (1,130 words)

How To Reset The Climate Change Debate

Scare tactics about climate change have failed to move public opinion and weakened trust in government. Climate change is not “an inevitable cataclysm”, but nor is it a hoax. It is a “relatively straightforward but profound risk”, against which the world needs insurance. Governments should take “practical and economic steps” to “manage the risk”, and present these, like insurance, as a “sensible, even boring, necessity” (760 words)

Sign Warfare

With the Ugandan army hunting the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2011. Joseph Kony’s militia has a jungle the size of Germany to hide in. The hunt continues to this day. Kony has become a byword for inexplicable savagery. “If there is a true enigma about the LRA, it lies in the fact that a political uprising originally brought on by genuine oppression so quickly mutated into a practice of radical violence” (4,900 words)

San Francisco’s Housing Crisis Explained

Housing is expensive because supply is constrained. Local laws deliberately make new construction difficult, slow, rare and expensive. Which suits existing home owners; and tenants in rent-controlled apartments, who don’t want to be evicted by developers. Those categories account for 80% of housing stock in San Francisco, so don’t expect things to change soon, whatever the social and economic pressures (12,900 words)

Review: Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty’s “extraordinarily important” book incorporates “four remarkable achievements”: Vast historical scope; innovative empirical research; simple explanatory models; bold policy recommendations. Piketty shows that inequality of wealth is rising spectacularly; he does not explain why this matters. The answer is political, rather than economic: people in liberal societies should be equal as citizens (1,211 words)

The Dickens Of Detroit

That’s Elmore Leonard, and no exaggeration. A tribute to his mighty five early Detroit novels, 52 Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man #8, The Switch, and City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, which stake out Leonard’s lifelong territory of armed robbery, blackmail, kidnapping, alcoholism. “Nobody ever used airport lockers with as much verve and creativity as Elmore Leonard did. The man was the Miles Davis of the airport locker” (4,925 words)

I Was Swallowed By A Hippo

From the archives. If you think you are having a rough day, this may help to put things in perspective. “It was as if I had suddenly gone blind and deaf. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout” (800 words)

The Truth About Google X

Inside Google’s innovation lab, Google X. Not to be confused with Google Research: Research is “mostly bits”; X is “mostly atoms”. X is “tasked with making actual objects that interact with the physical world”. Main products so far: driverless cars, Google Glass, high-­altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and glucose-monitoring contact lenses. “Failure is not precisely the goal at Google X. But in many respects it is the means” (5,530 words)

The Slaughter Bench Of History

War is terrible when it happens, but in the long run it makes humanity safer and richer. How so? Because war spurs peoples to create larger, more organised societies, ruled by stronger governments; stronger societies are better able to maintain peace, and so create the preconditions for prosperity. War may be the worst imaginable catalyst for this process, but “it is pretty much the only way humans have found” (2,680 words)

The Mystery Of The Dots Pick of the day

A glorious parody. A new case for Sherlock Holmes: “I received this cable this morning. Observe, Watson, that it has been sent from Washington, DC in America. It was composed therefore in the middle of the night by the sender, this Yellen. Who sends a transatlantic message at that hour? Someone who is agitated in the extreme and cannot sleep, and finally resolves to consult a higher authority” (1,890 words)

A Radical’s Emancipation Of Color

Appreciation of Henri Matisse’s “exuberant painted-paper cutout”, The Snail. Matisse began using paper cutouts to test colour combinations when working on murals in the 1930s. He returned to them as his main medium when old age and surgery left him bedridden and scarcely able to paint. “Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it — the one modifying the other — I draw straight into the colour” (1,020 words)

Interview: Arundhati Roy

Interesting throughout, on India’s politics and economy. Narendra Modi and the BJP speak for a “brash new middle class” panicked by slowing growth: “They were sitting in an aircraft hoping to take off and suddenly it’s frozen”. Corporate India backs Modi. It wants aggressive government. Modi will deliver. But his target will not be Muslims, as many have predicted. It will be anybody who resists massive industrialisation (3,080 words)

Four Years Later: Haiti’s Heartbreaking Failure Pick of the day

Notes from Haiti four years after the earthquake that killed 200,000 and left a million homeless. Port-au-Prince was going to be “built back better” by now: That hasn’t happened. “You see the country’s terrible wear and tear, the old buildings in various states of collapse, the mountains turning gray as the topsoil washes away. On bad days, I think Haiti might be a sinking ship, too far gone, too used up to save” (1,725 words)

Michelangelo Made David A Giant

Michelangelo’s David was commissioned for the roofline of Florence cathedral. But it was far too heavy to be lifted there by the means available at the turn of the 16th century. Michelangelo must have known exactly what would happen, even if the church elders didn’t. He never intended to create a cathedral decoration. He meant to create a free-standing masterpiece. Where it went was a secondary question (760 words)

The Front Page 2.0

If you had told newspapers publishers in 1994 that they could soon cut printing costs to near-zero, they’d have jumped at the offer. Which duly happened; but the resulting competition has ruined most incumbents. “Instead of being the only newspaper in town, every English-language newspaper in the world is competing with every other one”. So be it. If two or three great world newspapers survive, that’s enough (2,000 words)

Unsinkable: We Can’t Let Go Of The Titanic

From the archives. Why the sinking of the Titanic still fascinates, a century later: Unlike other disasters, it seems to hold meaning — a warning against technological hubris, a morality tale about class, a foreshadowing of the First World War. It “replicates the structure and the themes of our most fundamental myths and oldest tragedies. Like Iphigenia, the Titanic is a beautiful maiden sacrificed to the agendas of greedy men” (6,120 words)

Irrational Treasure

In genuine appreciation of Nicholas Cage: “There are moments in which Cage seems to be gunning for some as-yet-nonexistent Academy Award presented to ‘Most Actor’ … He’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours”. (The first quarter of this piece, the introduction, is great; for the rest, your mileage may vary) (5,409 words)

How Zebras Got Their Stripes

An obvious question for students of evolution to ask; hard to answer — not because plausible conjectures are lacking, but because there are too many. Perhaps the stripes were favoured for camouflage; perhaps they attracted mates; perhaps they helped herd recognition. But the best answer seems to be: Stripes discourage flies. Flies hate to land on striped surfaces. Next question: Why do flies hate stripes? (785 words)

Parliament And Defence Policy

Short, sharp essay about civilian control of the military in Britain. Soldiers don’t like to be second-guessed by politicians. Politicians never criticise the military when operations are under way. But after horribly misconceived interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, something is broken in the way that defence policy is set. Parliament needs to be more critical, more analytical, less prone to side with the Generals (930 words)

Citizen Walmart

From the archives. The world’s biggest supermarket chain reaches out to small American farmers and helps turn them into consistent suppliers. “Walmart gave me three dollars over the price of the market last year,” says a strawberry farmer. It may be a public-relations play, in which case this piece is the return; and/or it may be capitalism at its far-sighted best — co-opting the locavores instead of fighting them (6,480 words)

The Remarkable Self-Organization Of Ants Pick of the day

Put a few thousand ants on to a pile of dirt and in a week they will have built a labyrinthine city inside it. If a flood hits the colony they can mesh their own bodies together into a raft the size of a dinner plate and ship themselves to safety. All done without blueprint or leader. How? Not because ants are smart. But because they know to follow simple rules. Three, to be exact. (And if ants can do this, so can robots) (2,291 words)

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

Weekend treat. Thanks to Longform for pointing out that this piece, one of the most influential and enjoyable magazine articles ever published, is available ungated on Rolling Stone‘s website. If you haven’t read it before, seize the moment. And if you have, read it again. Just try and stop yourself: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold …” (22,900 words)

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