Cautiously Welcoming Our New Computer Overlords

Report from an MIT seminar led by Erik Brynjolfsson, author of The Second Machine Age, about the rise of intelligent robots. The world of work divides between “power systems” (mostly machines) which move things around, and “control systems” (mostly people) who control the power systems. What’s happening now is that machines are taking over the control systems — leaving the humans nowhere to go (1,116 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)

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)

The Electronic Holy War

Why it’s so much more difficult to programme a computer to win at Go, than to win at chess. Chess is highly directional: “At the grandmaster level, to tell who is winning, you add up the pieces on the board. To win, you just stay ahead the whole time”. With Go, “It is often hard to determine at any given time whether a group of pieces is being surrounded or doing the surrounding, and thus who is ahead” (1,350 words)

Forces Of Divergence

Capital In The Twenty-First Century, a “sweeping account of rising inequality” by French economist Thomas Piketty, is the most talked-about economics book in years. An early reviewer calls it “one of the watershed books in economic thinking”. Picketty argues that “modern capitalism has an internal law of motion” that leads, most of the time, to the rich getting richer, and the rest trailing ever further behind (4,215 words)

Sacred And Profane

Reflections on the FBI’s siege and storming of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993, leaving 73 dead. Tragedy could have been avoided if the FBI had taken the religious values of the Davidians seriously. Negotiators thought they were dealing with a crazy cult, as in Jonestown. But the Davidians were more like 19C Mormons: Fairly regular people with studious habits and deeply-held radical beliefs (6,100 words)

Her Again: The Unstoppable Scarlett Johansson

Portrait of the actress, approaching 30, pregnant, and starring in her “best movie to date”, Under The Skin. She plays “a form of alien, landed or stranded among us, and acquiring human males not for sex or friendship but for the serial harvesting of their meat … No one will ever quite unravel what Johansson is, or does, in Under the Skin, but no one, equally, could improve on her own distillation of the outsider’s time on Earth” (5,430 words)

Zero Dark Cavity

A new chewing gum could save the US Army $100m a year by reducing tooth decay. “They’re calling it combat gum”. Dental emergencies “account for 10% of all injuries that cause soldiers to be evacuated from the battlefield”, not counting battle itself. The gum contains a “synthetic sequence of anti-microbial peptides” which mimics bacteria-killing molecules naturally found in saliva. Civilians will get it eventually (750 words)

Haiti’s Shadow Sanitation System

Portrait of Leon, a bayakou, “a manual laborer who empties the cesspools that collect human waste under Haiti’s back-yard latrines”. In a country with no working sewers “he is the sanitation infrastructure”. The job is considered shameful. Some bayakous “never tell their wives what they do for a living”. But the money is good. You can make more in three days than you might from a year sewing T-shirts (1,600 words)

Sandy Hook: The Reckoning

A voyage into the life of Adam Lanza, who killed his mother, himself, and twenty-six others in December 2012. Includes conversations with Peter Lanza, Adam’s estranged father. “Most people would like to have things that belong to others; many people have felt murderous rage. But the reason that almost no one shoots twenty random children isn’t self-restraint; it’s that there is no level at which the idea is attractive” (7,560 words)

Crimea And The Hysteria Of History Pick of the day

Sound take on the crisis in Ukraine. In brief: Calm down. “Russia is behaving as every regional power in the history of human regions has always behaved, maximising its influence over its neighbours. In response, we should be doing what sane states should always be doing: searching for the most plausible war-avoiding, nonviolent arrangement, even at the cost of looking wishy-washy” (984 words)

Italy’s Young Prime Minister In A Hurry

Matteo Renzi has “the appeal of a young Bill Clinton or Tony Blair … the brashness of someone who does not intend to wait in line”. He “exudes optimism and possibility”; some call him “a kind of Silvio Berlusconi of the left”, but he is more of a “pragmatic centrist”; his “ambitious legislative agenda” would cut taxes and public spending. His power “rests on fragile alliances”, but voters love him (1,520 words)

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Graphic memoir about life with — and, eventually, the death of — elderly parents. “Graphic” in the sense that this is an artist’s sketchbook, not that it is particularly shocking; although it is deeply moving, and may, indeed, be a masterpiece of some kind. “I wasn’t great as a caretaker, and they weren’t great at being taken care of”

A Star In A Bottle

The “most complex machine ever built” is a nuclear reactor “based on an idea that Andrei Sakharov had in the 1950s” which will create “an artificial earthbound sun” by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium, releasing enough heat to “solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years”. Cost so far: $20bn. Start-date: 2020. The site in France looks like something “drawn from the imagination of JG Ballard” (14,790 words)

Big Score: When Mom Takes The SATs

On retaking the Scholastic Assessment Test as an adult. “I found the test more difficult than I had as a teen and more disappointing. Many of the questions were tricky; some were genuinely hard. But, even at its most challenging, the exercise struck me as superficial. Critical thinking was never called for, let alone curiosity or imagination. The SAT measures those skills — and really only those skills — necessary for the SATs” (3,080 words)

Postscript: Mavis Gallant

Her short stories “sit solidly, almost bad-naturedly, in memory”. They “come to dinner, and, no matter how late the hour, you just can’t show them to the door”. She lived most of her life “as a foreigner, in France, childless and husbandless”. She showed no regrets, but she may have felt them. The reader is “haunted both by the moments of beauty and intelligence and by the scenes of devastating loneliness or disappointment” (915 words)

Seduce The Whole World

Notes on the methodology of Gordon Lish, teacher of creative writing and celebrated editor for Esquire and Knopf. “In two ways his workshop extended beyond the established boundaries of the classroom: if he really liked what you were doing, he might sleep with you, or he might publish your book”. He told young writers, in effect, to exploit their reserves of personal trauma — which produced some good first books (3,860 words)

Construction Of A Twitter Aesthetic

Profile of Eric Jarosinski, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who tweets as @NeinQuarterly. His ambition: “I want to see myself as an aphorist — and not even a Twitter aphorist. I think we need to reestablish that as a profession”. Sample tweet: “At Starbucks I order under the name Godot. Then leave.” Style tip: “Tweets work best in dialogue form, because dialogue helps readers imagine a scene” (1,110 words)

This Old Man: Life In The Nineties

“I’m ninety-three, and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours. I get around with a couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking. My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape” (5,000 words)

Chopin’s Heart

Chopin’s body lies in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where he died in 1849; but his heart is in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, thanks to his sister, who had it cut out, pickled it in Cognac, and smuggled it into Poland a year later. During the Warsaw Uprising a German priest gave it to Heinz Reinefarth, “a high-ranking SS officer who professed to be a Chopin admirer”, and it spent the rest of WW2 in Nazi headquarters (1,000 words)

Standoff In Kiev

As the protests in Ukraine enter a fourth month, the prospect of compromise becomes more distant. The protest is not, at root, for Europe or against Russia; it’s against the whole “succession of marauding criminals” who have carved up Ukraine since the Soviet collapse, capturing the wealth and ruling by violence. President Victor Yanukovych is merely the latest and the worst of them. “The bandits have to go” (1,930 words)

Faith Starts To Fade

Review of recent books on atheism and religious belief. “There seem to be three distinct peaks of modern disbelief, moments when, however hard it is to count precise numbers, we can sense that it was cool to be a scoffer, trendy to vote No. One is in the late eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, another in the late nineteenth century, just before the Russian Revolution, and now there’s our own” (4,740 words)

Cheap Words

Big thumb-sucker about the history of Amazon, the (fairly evil) genius of Jeff Bezos, and the fate of books. Amazon has led revolutions of scale and technology in bookselling and publishing. But its basic innovation has been one of sensibility. Unlike other publishers and booksellers, Amazon truly doesn’t care whether a book is any good or not. “Jeff is trying to create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand” (11,800 words)

The Cost Of Survival

Review of Claude Lanzmann’s film Last of the Unjust, about Benjamin Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi who led the Jewish Council at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and saw his role as one of buying time and preserving lives, “however degraded those lives became”. The film is “stirred and enlivened by the tribute that it pays to pure survival, even if that of Murmelstein will strike some viewers as too dearly bought” (1,590 words)

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