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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Painkiller Deathstreak Pick of the day

Another treasure from the ungated New Yorker archives. A novelist learns to play video games. “My son could have shot me many times, but he didn’t. ‘Go ahead!’ I said. ‘No, Dad,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to shoot you.’ We carried on this peculiar chivalry for fifteen minutes. Finally I wounded him, and he stabbed me, and we relaxed and began shooting and sniping and running and laughing, just as he did with his friends” (7,000 words)

Mean Outcomes Are Often Meaningless

On the illusions of accounting. Your lottery ticket may win, or not. Your loan may be repaid, or not. You may have a portfolio of diversified loans, but in a crisis they all go down. What is the “fair value” today, when so much depends on tomorrow? “There is no right answer … Only a need to acknowledge that there is never such a thing as a single true and fair view, only a range of possible outcomes (730 words)

Face Off: Photography And Painting

The story of painting from the late 19C onward is the story of painters adapting to the challenge of photography. “Painting had to express something about the visual world that went beyond recording how it looks.” The revolution went full circle from impressionism to abstraction to photo-realism. And somehow, painting has won. It still speaks to us in ways that photography has never learned to do (1,940 words)

The Internet Of Things Will Ruin Birthdays

The birthday messages from your apps are forms of advertising and market research disguised as friendship. It’s a day when “the data tracking and governing algorithms that are part of your everyday internet experience become more visible”. But imagine when every “smart” device in your house is flashing and hooting as well. “Perhaps it will become an annual tradition to shut off all devices on your birthday” (860 words)

The Great Forgetting

Adults generally remember little or nothing from their first three or four years of life. Freud thought such memories were repressed; perhaps they were never formed. Recent research shows that small children can indeed form memories; but the memories disappear within a couple of years. Why? Perhaps because they are not formed systematically enough to co-exist with the influx of new information; they are swept away (3,600 words)

We Experiment On Human Beings

Facebook caused a ruckus when it admitted manipulating users’ moods. But the whole internet is one big continuous psychology experiment, as a co-founder of OKCupid, a dating site, explains, with some striking examples. “OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long. Most ideas are bad. Experiments are how you sort all this out” (1,170 words)

The Hague Penalizes Russia For Yukos Confiscation

Notes on The Hague tribunal’s ruling that Russia must pay $51.6 billion to Yukos shareholders for expropriations a decade ago. “First, the size of the award is enormous, 2.5 percent of Russia’s GDP. Second, Russia is not likely to pay. Operations of Russian state companies will suffer major disruptions around the world. Third, Putin is likely to cancel Russia’s ratification of various international treaties and conventions” (1,470 words)

A Battle For Russia

Russian (but not Kremlin) view of the crisis. The needle is at red. “Expecting Putin to back off, or for the oligarchs to pressure the Kremlin into beating a retreat, betrays a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation. It is no longer the struggle for Ukraine, but a battle for Russia. If Vladimir Putin manages to keep the Russian people on his side, he will win it. If not, another geopolitical catastrophe might follow” (400 words)

The End Of The Experiment

Wide-ranging conversation with physicist and mathematician George Ellis about the future of science. Big experimental science is approaching its limits: We’re never going to build a bigger collider on Earth; astronomical observations are at their visual horizons; we’ve mapped the earth and we’ve almost mapped the oceans. The new challenges are all about complexity. “The brain will give us work to do for many centuries more” (2,780 words)

Anthony Bourdain On Travel, Food And War

Interview. Many interesting points. “You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first. Otherwise you’d spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing. Do I pipe up every time my Chinese host serves me some cute animal I may not approve of? Should I inquire of my Masai buddies if they still practice female genital mutilation?” (2,894 words)

Post-Its, Push-Pins, Pencils

Discussion of Niki Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Sets out as a review, but turns into a rival history, as the reviewer, dissatisfied with Saval’s account, constructs her own; which starts on a lyrical note, with a two-paragraph hymn to the stationery cupboard, the “beating heart” of the pre-1990s office; but grows darker with the computer-assisted fall of the middle class and the rise of the temp (4,600 words)

The Children Of Silicon Valley

Tech companies always aspire to “change the world”. It’s a cliché. It’s also, in general, a bad way to proceed. The world has been through enough turmoil in the past century or so. “Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread” (1,480 words)

The Raw Material Of Wealth

Poor countries that export raw materials may think their best way to riches lies with blocking the exports and processing the raw materials themselves, as South Africa has done. But that’s a very narrow view, and may be a trap. Finland didn’t get rich by processing its timber. It got rich by building machines to process the timber, then applying the machine-building skills in new fields of tech and engineering (1,050 words)

Money Talks: The Language Of Finance

Financial language baffles outsiders with its jargon and density. Such opacity is not necessarily sinister: sometimes words are complicated because reality is complicated. But we should make a special effort to understand. “Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else” (3,500 words)

You Are Not Too Late

Imagine being an online entrepreneur in 1985, when nothing had been invented and every dotcom name was available for free. Paradise. But come 2044, we’re likely to feel the same about 2014: All the great stuff of the future is still to be invented. Barriers to innovation are lower than ever. “The last 30 years has created a marvellous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. You are not too late” (760 words)

Short Stories Everyone Should Read

If an alien beams you up and asks what it’s like to be human, hand it some short stories to read. “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live” (1,200 words)

Wild Speculation On Hamas And Its Rocketry

Rockets are a very inefficient way of killing people, especially when they don’t have effective guidance mechanisms. But rockets can have a powerful disruptive effect: which is why Hamas uses them, and why it has concentrated, at least until now, on range rather than accuracy. “Siege is a fundamentally economic form of warfare; the Israelis are besieging Gaza, and the Gazans are trying to impose a counter-siege” (1,480 words)

Of Maggots And Brain Scans

Brain scans may seem to explain behaviour in biological terms. But what we see so far is loose correlation, not reproducible causation. There is “serious redundancy”. A small group of activated neurons can induce a given behaviour, “but thirty to forty different groups may elicit the same behaviour”. Second, “a given set of neurons may not always produce the same kind of behaviour, even in the same brain” (1,300 words)

If A Cat Could Talk

Dogs confirm us, cats confound us. Our relationship with cats is an “eruption of the wild into the domestic”. Cats blend in; their lethal instincts align with our interests; but they do not assimilate; they belong to the night. Cats are “vehicles for our projections, misrecognition, and primitive recollection”. They are part of our symbolic universe as much as our physical universe. Michel Foucault called his own cat ‘Insanity’ (2,400 words)

The Verbal Dance Around Killing People

“If you want others to avert their gaze while you get down to a bit of your own killing, or you want them to defend your right to kill, make sure they believe that you are ‘at war’. Your job is done. ‘War’ makes us see the violence as bipartisan, as a show put up by two equal protagonists. ‘War’ makes us see violence as purposeful. Naturally, the parties ‘at war’ are entitled to use force to pursue their goals” (1,000 words)

Russia Is Pregnant With Ukraine Pick of the day

Magnificent satire from Russia’s greatest modern novelist. Worthy of Blake or Gogol. “During that hot month, sitting in front of an overheated television set, Russia conceived. A new life stirred in her enormous womb: Free Ukraine. The authorities were horrified, the liberals were jealous, and the nationalists were filled with hatred. Neither the Kremlin nor the people had anticipated such a rapid development of events” (1,120 words)

Public Displays Of Transaction

Old hat to you, no doubt, but new to me: Venmo is a social media app which combines, more or less, the functions of PayPal and Twitter. Other people can watch you making payments. “A lot of people seem unaware of the stories they’re telling in their transactions. This will likely change once it becomes more mainstream, but for now, it’s the Wild West of uninhibited, relatively public commerce” (784 words)

Israel: What’s Different This Time

The assault on Gaza overshadows another event in Israel — Shimon Peres steps down as president. Peres shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin; but his vision then of “a Palestinian state next to an Israeli one, open borders and regional economic cooperation”, seems today “like a tasteless joke”. The Israeli centre is shifting towards “hyper-nationalism”. Peres’s liberalism is dead (1,600 words)

Guinea Worm Is Almost Eradicated

The guinea worm is a debilitating parasite which infected 3.5 million people in 1986. Last year there were just 148 cases. Eradication is in sight, achieved without a vaccine or a cure. The key was public education — teaching sufferers not to bathe in public water sources, which spread the worms’ larvae. Cost of campaign: $350 million. Huge win for ex-president Jimmy Carter, whose NGO led the effort (960 words)

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