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 Pick of the day

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)

Five Things To Do About The Heartbleed Bug

Six, actually, since the first thing is: Take this exploit seriously. Next thing: Change the passwords on sites that really matter to you. And, or so it says here, never use the same password on multiple sites; use a password manager to generate difficult passwords and remember them for you. But wait: Do password managers have completely unhackable security? And, if so, why don’t other apps use it? (1,000 words)

What I Learned About Stop-And-Frisk

White father chews over the injustice of stop-and-frisk policing, a relatively common experience for African-Americans in New York, a population including the writer’s son. His suggested corrective: A wider cross-section of New Yorkers should share the experience. Police officers should be required to stop and frisk whites and other ethnic groups in strict proportion to blacks. Then we can have an informed discussion (1,860 words)

The Culture Wars Are Over

Legalization and broad acceptance of gay marriage means that the “last great bastion of government-supported traditionalism in Western society has been swept away”. Religion is declining, marijuana is rising, gender roles are equalising. The Culture Wars are over, the liberals have won. In victory they should reach out to conservatives and build a new consensus around families, employment, and religious tolerance (1,130 words)

Everyone Got The Top 1% Wrong

To focus on the 1% at the top of the income scale is to miss a much more dramatic fact about American inequality. Most of the gains have gone to the very richest people within that group — the bankers and CEOs, the top 0.01%. “While nine-tenths of the top percentile hasn’t seen much change at all since 1960, the 0.01 percent has essentially quadrupled its share of the country’s wealth in half a century” (400 words)

The Overprotected Kid

Sensible, much-needed discussion of over-anxious parenting, part of our wider fetishising of safety over freedom. “It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the 1970s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting” (8,860 words)

My Life As A Retail Worker

White House reporter fired by Politico hits bottom, takes a “nasty, brutish and poor” job serving in a sporting goods store. “Having once supervised an 80-member news division of a major metropolitan newspaper, the first weeks on my new job triggered a self-esteem meltdown … As my past life faded over the horizon, I started to take a weird, internal pride in my crappy menial job, almost against my will” (3,840 words)

Get Ready To Roboshop

Short, action-packed interview with Gibu Thomas, Walmart’s head of mobile, about Walmart’s smartphone apps, which help customers find what they want when they are inside the store. “You could search for toothpicks, let’s say, and it would show you all the different brands of toothpicks, what aisle they’re located in, and a map so you can get to them really quickly. People took to it like ducks to water” (1,200 words)

Oscar Night In Hollywood

Chandler’s critique hits the target today as surely as it did when he wrote it 66 years ago. “It doesn’t really seem to make much difference how the voting is done. The quality of the work is still only recognized in the context of success. A superb job in a flop picture would get you nothing, a routine job in a winner will be voted in. It is against this background of success-worship that the voting is done” (3,870 words)

The Dark Power Of Fraternities

Glorious first paragraph; fascinating throughout; funny and penetrating about youth, education, and the law. But let’s stay with that first paragraph for a moment: “One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes was struck by what seemed to him — under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself — to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass” (15,000 words)

Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators

Many people procrastinate; writers are the worst. An author can be 20 years late with a book. No journalist starts work before deadline. Why so? Perhaps because writers are particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome. They fear to write for fear of writing badly and having their lack of talent exposed; only at the last minute does the fear of producing nothing surpass the fear of producing something terrible (2,373 words)

Who Will Guard The Guardian?

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s arguments for publishing the Snowden files are “flimsy” and “self-contradictory”. He “does not show that anyone has been killed, tortured, sent to the gulags, or even lost their job on account of the collection of phone records and emails”. He has “has no training in assessing intelligence material, and has strong motives to publish the information for glory or gain”. Why trust him? (1,340 words)

Lessons From The World’s Most Tech-Savvy Government

Estonia re-engineers society and government for the digital age. General elections are held online; tax collection is near-frictionless. Key elements in the transformation are a “simple, unique ID methodology” across all systems, and universal acceptance of secure digital signatures. Putting government in the cloud raises the cost of successful cyber attack against the State, but lowers the cost of a physical attack (1,730 words)

What Jobs Will The Robots Take?

Nearly half of today’s American jobs could be automated “in a decade or two”. Jobs with a “99% likelihood” of being replaced by machines include routine-based jobs such as telemarketing and sewing; and work that can be solved by smart algorithms — tax preparation, data entry keyers, insurance underwriters. Fire fighters seem safe. And recreational therapists. But who knows? (1,140 words)

The Stories I Never Wrote

Good writers know to recognise and discard their bad ideas. It hurts, but that’s how they make space for better ideas to come along. “It’s taken me a long time to learn this — that sometimes the best course of action is inaction, that even the best-intentioned projects can be misguided, and that a life well lived sometimes consists of mistakes you never gave yourself a chance to make” (815 words)

How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

How Netflix knows what you want to watch next. It pays human viewers to tag films using more than 70,000 standard terms, which can be matched against customer preferences. “We’re gonna tag how much romance is in a movie. We’re not gonna tell you how much romance is in it, but we’re gonna recommend it. You’re gonna get an action [film] and it may have more or less romance based on what we know about you” (5,900 words)

Surviving Anxiety

Gripping, first-person account of lifelong clinical anxiety centred on emetophobia — a pathological fear of vomiting. “Let’s say you’re sitting in an audience and I’m at the lectern. Here’s what I’ve likely done to prepare. Four hours or so ago, I took my first half milligram of Xanax. About an hour ago, I took my second half milligram of Xanax and 20 milligrams of Inderal, washed down with a shot of scotch” (12,600 words)

Machiavelli Was Right

Obama’s weakness is that he is not Machiavellian enough. The secret weapon of power is indifference. “In politics, the polestar must be the health of the republic alone. We should not choose leaders who agonise, worrying about the moral hazards of the power they exercise in the people’s name. We should choose leaders who sleep soundly after taking ultimate risks with their own virtue. They are doing what must be done.” (1,600 words)

Douglas Hofstadter: Replicating The Human Mind

Hofstadter shot to fame with Gödel, Escher, Bach in 1980, a book that “launched an entire generation of eager young students” into the study of artificial intelligence. He’s been working on AI ever since, but outside, and possibly far ahead of, the tech-driven mainstream. He seeks to model how the human brain thinks; not merely to write programmes that do particular things faster or better than humans (7,780 words)

Why Book Publishing’s Doomsayers Are So Wrong

Book publishers: you can come out now. The sky hasn’t fallen. “Despite a 48-times increase in e-book sales in only four years, hardcover and paperback sales have remained relatively level, only slightly lower than they were”. “E-books now account for about 20 percent of all book sales, but the pace of growth has slowed considerably … The great majority of books are still sold in print copies” (900 words)

The Ethics Of Autonomous Cars

How can we program cars to cope with life-and-death decisions? “It would be an unreasonable act of faith to think that programming issues will sort themselves out without a deliberate discussion about ethics. Is it better to save an adult or child? What about saving two (or three or ten) adults versus one child? We don’t like thinking about these choices, but programmers may have to do exactly that” (2,540 words)

@Horse_Ebooks Is Cyber Fiction

“Today we learned that the Twitter account @horse_ebooks is probably the most successful piece of networked fiction of all time. The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean, in a small, one-off post, revealed that @horse_ebooks — which hundreds of thousands of users believed to be algorithmically-generated — was, in fact, a performance art project. We thought we were obliging a program, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan” (1,020 words)

Congress Can Authorize War Without Declaring It

President Obama’s request for a Congressional resolution authorising intervention in Syria raises constitutional issues as well as strategic and political ones. Here’s a cut-out-and-keep guide. Key point: “A Declaration of War has always been a specific policy tool — a blunt one, and one that many presidents, and Congresses, have chosen not to use. Authorizations, by contrast, permit the two branches to agree on limited war aims” (1,603 words)

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