The Browser
Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

The Internet’s Original Sin

Internet elder statesman confesses to a sin of his youth: “We created one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad. It was a way to associate an ad with a user’s page without putting the ad directly on the page, which advertisers worried would imply an association with the page’s content. I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry. Our intentions were good” (4,300 words)

Menu Speak

Entertaining short review of The Language Of Food, in which Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford linguistics professor, dissects the language of restaurant menus. “Every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish”. Expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants” (570 words)

Anti-War Art: Nearly Impossible

Literature is rich in war stories. Why is it not equally rich in anti-war stories? Perhaps because they are formally very difficult. You start telling a story that involves war, even to show its horrors, and the heroism starts creeping in — as happens with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The tension starts with the need for narrative — which is why anti-war poetry works so much better (1,260 words)

Pinterest — A Database Of Intentions

Interview with Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest. “We think of Pinterest some days as this crazy human indexing machine. Where millions and millions of people are hand indexing billions of objects — 30 billion objects — in a way that’s personally meaningful to them. We’re not building a machine that answers questions, although that’s great. We’re helping you discover the things you like” (4,000 words)

Obsessing About Gaza, Ignoring Syria

Far more people are being killed, day by day, in the Syrian civil war, than in the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Yet the attention of the West is focused massively on Israel and Palestine, scarcely at all on Syria. “What happens in Syria should be of first-order interest to the US media. But it is clearly not.” The answer may be that “Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs” (1,520 words)

Why Are All The Cartoon Mothers Dead?

“Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock.” It’s getting hard to find a mother in an animated film who survives until the closing credits. In fairy tales of old, the mother-substitute was the wicked stepmother. For Disney and Dreamworks, it is the super-dad (4,100 words)

Everything We Know About Facebook’s Mood Manipulation

Facebook skewed the news feeds of almost 700,000 users for one week in January 2012. Some saw more happy content, others more sad content. When the week was over, the manipulated users were more likely to post happier or sadder content themselves. The effect was small. No special permission was sought from the users involved, on the grounds that “Facebook manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time” (1,890 words)

How Brando Broke The Movies

Marlon Brando invented the chameleon actor, the disappearing star, “the maze from which modern acting, in its dedication to the protean and its distrust of all that the term movie star used to promise, is still trying to escape”. But for all his roles, he possessed only two real characters: Himself, whom he played in youth, and his father, whom he played in old age. The middle of his career, when neither quite fitted him, was his slump (2,020 words)

The Twee Revolution

Notes on the aesthetics of Twee, the “strangely persistent modern sensibility that fructifies in the props departments of Wes Anderson movies, tapers into the waxed mustache-ends of young Brooklynites on bicycles, and detonates in a yeasty whiff every time someone pops open a microbrewed beer?” Twee is cute, nice, winsome, unthreatening — think Belle And Sebastian, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zooey Deschanel, even Kurt Cobain (1,370 words)

How You Will Get Organised

Experts speculate about the future of personal-information technology. Mitch Kapor, Lotus founder, sees the greatest opportunities lying with audio: “There has been a lot made of Google Glass, but they may be dealing with the wrong human sense. The ubiquitous device may be something that whispers in your ear, a kind of reading glass for the ear that tells you what you need to know” (1,400 words)

The Power Of Two

The lone genius is the dominant artistic stereotype. But John Lennon and Paul McCartney showed that genius could also reside in partnerships. “The work John initiated tended to be sour and weary, whereas Paul’s tended to the bright and naive. The magic came from interaction”. They understood their complementarity and exploited it, in art and in life: “John was able to insult reporters because Paul charmed them” (4,000 words)

How A Funny-Looking Man Conquered Hollywood

Benedict Cumberbatch may be the biggest star in the world just now. Which is a good thing: It means that “our culture is maturing, and no longer considers classical good looks to be paramount. Immanuel Kant drew distinctions between things that are evidently beautiful because we can see they’re beautiful, and things that are sublime because they demand an intellectual response. The sublime is finally triumphant” (1,130 words)

Inside The Air Force’s Drone Training Classroom

Learning to fire Hellfire missiles is “more like sitting in a regular college classroom than you might expect”. There are texts, tests, nervous students. Pro tips: When chasing a vehicle, aim for the centre of the roof; when chasing an individual, aim for the feet. And by now the targets know the warning signs, so get in quick: “An understanding of sonic boom time is what separates mediocre drone pilots from skilled ones” (2,600 words)

How The Novel Made The Modern World

Review of “The Dream of the Great American Novel” by Lawrence Buell; and “The Novel: A Biography” by Michael Schmidt. Schmidt’s book works: “It isn’t just a marvellous account of what the form can do; it is also a record of what it can do to us.” Buell’s doesn’t: “Buell’s prose gives the impression of having been produced by a machine. So does his book as a whole. He never tells us why you’d actually want to read these works” (4,100 words)

The Secret History Of Hypertext

The conceptual history of the World Wide Web is often traced back to an essay by Vannevar Bush published in 1945. But ideas for storing and distributing knowledge across electronic networks were well advanced in Europe in 1930s. A Belgian called Paul Otlet imagined a global chain of “electric telescopes”; Emmanuel Goldberg, founder of Zeiss Ikon, invented a dial-up search engine. Then World War Two intervened (1,700 words)

The Case For Reparations

The exploitation of black Americans remained brutal well into the 20th century; the effects endure to the present day in wealth and income differentials and in widespread segregation of schools and housing. Whether or not you agree that reparations are the answer, Coates makes his argument well: “To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte” (15,800 words)

Should The US Fix Cybersecurity Holes Or Exploit Them?

“The NSA can play either defense or offense. It can either alert the vendor and get a still-secret vulnerability fixed, or it can hold on to it and use it as to eavesdrop on foreign computer systems. Both are important US policy goals, but the NSA has to choose which one to pursue”. We don’t (of course) always know what choices the NSA makes, but here’s some of the logic that ought to be guiding its decisions (1,670 words)

What Do We Save When We Save The Internet?

The arguments over net neutrality are too little, too late. The supposedly “free and open” internet is already so corrupted and corporatised that most of us might be better off without it. “What new growth might erupt if we let the Internet as we know it burn? Shouldn’t we at least ponder the question? Perhaps we’d be better off tolerating the venial regret of having lost something, than suffering the mortal regret of enduring it” (1,420 words)

The Trick That Makes Google’s Self-Driving Cars Work

Google cars drive safely in Mountain View because Google loads them with perfect models of the terrain. “It might be better to stop calling what Google is doing mapping, and come up with a different verb to suggest the radical break they’ve made with previous ideas of maps. I’d say they’re crawling the world, making it legible and useful to computers”. It will be a long job; but Google is playing a long game (2,080 words)

A Eulogy For Twitter

“Something is wrong on Twitter. And people are noticing. Or, at least, the kind of people we hang around with on Twitter are noticing. Users are less active than they once were. Twitter says these changes reflect a more streamlined experience, but we have a different theory: Twitter is entering its twilight. People are still using Twitter, but they’re not hanging out there. The Ezra Kleins of the world have already left” (1,900 words)

Making Food Obsolete

Conversation with Rob Rhinehart, inventor of food-substitute Soylent, “a beige beverage that he claims contains every nutrient the body needs”. Rhinehart argues that tech can always improve upon nature, even in food: “The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life” (2,000 words)

The Pope In The Attic: Benedict In The Time Of Francis

Vivid, charming portrait of two Popes in one Vatican City. “It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church” (5,300 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)

Mathematical Model For The Decay Of A Shower Curtain

Proof that there is poetry in the simplest of things. “In our house, we seem to average about two years between shower curtain re-hangings. When we first moved in, my wife was still my girlfriend. We were engaged by the end of the first shower curtain cycle, married by the second, and entered the third cycle as we had our first kid. Will we have a second child before I change the curtains again?” (1,620 words)

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