A Theory Of Troubles

“Since this post is long and not exactly bursting with colour, I’ll go ahead and share the gist of the story in hopes of enticing you to read on: because we rely on market wages to allocate purchasing power we have resisted technology-driven reductions in employment, and because we have resisted that decline in work we have trapped ourselves in a world of self-limiting productivity growth. Enticed? Good” (Metered paywall) (3,100 words)

Sochi Or Bust

The Sochi Winter Olympics is “a celebration of Russia’s resurgence”. But if Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a lot more cash in hand than its Soviet predecessor did, the structure of the economy is too little changed. Oil and gas make up 75% of exports; the state is the biggest employer; state-owned corporations dominate industry. The private sector “is trapped between bad institutions and expensive labour” (Metered paywall) (3,000 words)

Curse Of The Mummyji

Mothers-in-law are “demonised and ridiculed all over the world”. They have an especially feared place in Indian culture, where marriage is arranged; the bride moves into the groom’s house and may be “little more than a skivvy”. “A woman in Delhi says that, when her Bengali mother-in-law visits, she insists on sleeping in the marital bed with her son; the wife budges over or decamps to a sofa” (Free registration required) (3,000 words)

Face-Off In The China Sea

China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea, encompassing airspace and islands disputed with Japan and Taiwan, is a strong new signal that China does not accept the status quo in the region and wants to change it. It is a standing invitation to conflict; sooner or later it will be used. “Any Chinese leader now has an excuse for going after Japanese planes” (Metered paywall) (1,065 words)

More And Better Nuclear Power

Despite Fukushima, nuclear power is coming back. China is adding 32 reactors, Russia 10, India seven. Nuclear stations generate large blocks of power without producing carbon dioxide — and they don’t have to be dangerous. The current industry standard, the light-water reactor using solid uranium fuel, is a “terrible mistake” in engineering terms. Liquid thorium fuel is cheap, plentiful, and far less toxic (Metered paywall) (1,500 words)

How Do You Tamper With A Cricket Ball?

Discreetly. It’s a serious offence. You roughen one side of the ball, on your fingernail or trouser zip, so that it takes more spin. “In the early stages of a game, when the ball is hard, it will swing away from its shiny side. Later on, as the ball gets increasingly scuffed-up on one side, it starts to ‘reverse swing’ — it moves in the opposite direction. It becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of fast bowlers” (Metered paywall) (680 words)

Unreliable Research: Trouble At The Lab

Scientists are getting sloppy, and science journals too. Much recent research is “poorly thought through, or executed, or both”. Statistical errors are frequent. Peer-review fails. Results cannot be reproduced. “Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise.” In career terms, better a reckless result that gets published than a cautious one that does not (Metered paywall) (3,800 words)

How Was Hangul Invented?

Until 1446, Koreans had no writing system of their own. The educated elite wrote in hanja, classical Chinese characters, to record the meaning — but not the sound — of Korean speech. Then King Sejong introduced Hangul, a newly invented alphabet of 28 characters, saying: “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days” (750 words)

The “Breaking Bad” School

You can learn as much about building a business from Breaking Bad as you can from Harvard Business School. Walter White understands scale: he wants to build an empire. He’s obsessed with product quality and branding: he only sells the best meth. He outsources the low-value-added end — the distribution — to gang partners. His cardinal fault: hubris. “The more successful he becomes, the more invulnerable he feels” (100 words)

How Do Internet Addresses Work?

It’s all down to the domain-name system, or DNS, which converts a human-readable domain name, such as economist.com, into machine-readable internet-protocol addresses, in this case 206.79.194.73. Most of the time DNS works invisibly and well. But it was designed for a much smaller internet, in which all users were known and trusted: the more it has been extended, the more vulnerable it has become to malicious hackers (Metered paywall) (620 words)

How Can You Buy Illegal Drugs Online?

Don’t try this at home. You install Tor software to anonymise your web use. You get a Bitcoin account to anonymise your payment trail. Then you go to the Silk Road website, check the user reviews, and order the commodities that you want for delivery by regular mail — which is the point at which you might be arrested. Even so, that’s probably less of a risk than buying drugs from crooks on the street (666 words)

Be A Sociopath — Or Just Act Like One

Review of Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas, said to be “the pseudonym of a female law professor who is also a confirmed sociopath”. Her potentially useful tips include: always hire a sociopathic lawyer. “They are excellent at reading people (useful during jury selection), immune to performance anxiety (useful during trial) and craftily seductive (useful for persuading juror and judge alike)” (850 words)

In Praise Of Laziness

Do less, think more. Don’t confuse being busy with being productive. “Creative people’s most important resource is their time — particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time — and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing” (1,000 words)

Liberty’s Lost Decade

In defence of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. “Every democracy needs its secrets. But to uncover the inevitable abuses of power, every democracy needs leaks too”. A change of posture was inevitable after 9/11, but “America still leans too far towards security over liberty”. America’s constitution “rests on the notion that the people in charge are fallible”. Accountability and transparency are necessary part of the process (1,040 words)

Predictive Policing

On the rise of “predictive policing”. No precogs as yet. Systems rely on data analysis to find patterns in past crime, and use those to warn of crime-prone places and situations. British police are testing a computer programme called PredPol: “Cops working with predictive systems respond to call-outs as usual, but when they are free they return to the spots which the computer suggests” (1,390 words)

How Do Birds Navigate?

I hereby propose a new law of science journalism, which holds that any headline ending in a question mark can take the answer: “It’s complicated”. Which is certainly the case here. The global positioning system with which birds are born appears to rely on particles of iron in the ear, nerves in the beak, a chemical reaction in the eyes, and quantum entanglement effects. End-result: birds see magnetic fields as patterns of spots (540 words)

Astana: Laying The Golden Egg

Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, celebrates its 15th anniversary this month, a monument to the hubris of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. “Astana has all the weirdness of Pyongyang and little of the human scale of Canberra. It is a collection of monuments and boulevards on a scale that screams L’état, c’est moi. The president surveys his city from his marble-clad, blue-and-gold-domed palace” (780 words)

America Against Democracy

I’m sorry if we’re a bit Snowden-heavy today, but this cri de coeur, arguing that a “deep state” has captured American government, demands to be read. “I’d very much like to know what led Mr Obama to change his mind, to conclude that America is not after all safe for democracy, though I know he’s not about to tell us. The matter is settled. It has been decided, and not by us. We can’t handle the truth” (1,470 words)

A Language With Too Many Armies And Navies

Is Arabic one language or many? “A rural Moroccan and a rural Iraqi cannot have a conversation and reliably understand each other. An urban Algerian and an urban Jordanian would struggle to speak to each other, but would usually find ways to cope, with a heavy dose of formal standard Arabic used to smooth out misunderstandings. They will sometimes use well-known dialects, especially Egyptian, to fill in gaps” (1,400 words)

The Other Mile-High Club

Finnish liftmaker Kone has announced a super-strong, super-light cable made of carbon-fiber, 90% lighter than steel, which can raise an elevator a kilometre or more — twice the existing limit. Since the effectiveness of lifts is one of the main constraints on the height of buildings, this breakthrough could allow for a new generation of skyscrapers twice the height of existing ones. The mile-high tower-block is coming. And maybe space elevators too (1,060 words)

Europe’s Reluctant Hegemon

Germany accounts for one-fifth of the EU’s production and one-quarter of its exports. It has low unemployment, a balanced budget, and falling government debt. Power in Europe is shifting to Berlin. For Germany, this ought to be a time of triumph. But Germany isn’t like that, at least not yet. It has no historical experience of successful international leadership, and no great desire to lead. Can it rise to the opportunity? (1,900 words)

Obituary: Bill O’Hagan, Sausage-Maker

By night an editor at the Daily Telegraph. By day an amateur butcher, and the moving spirit of a British sausage renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. His masterpiece: “A succulent tongue-teasing blend of minced lean pork, rolled oats, fresh eggs, sea-salt, chervil and winter savoury, generously dosed with real ale.” Went full-time into the sausage business in 1988; by 1991 was selling 2m sausages a year, Didn’t get rich, did get happy (930 words)

The Humble Hero

Shipping containers delivered a huge boost to globalisation by cutting the time taken to load and unload cargo. “In 1965 dock labour could move only 1.7 tonnes per hour on to a cargo ship; five years later a container crew could load 30 tonnes per hour. This allowed freight lines to use bigger ships and still slash the time spent in port.” Journey times halved, cargo was secure from pilferage, dock workers lost their bargaining power (994 words)

Chasing The Chinese Dream

Backgrounder on what China’s leader, Xi Jinping, means when he talks about pursuing the “Chinese Dream”. He probably adapted the phrase from a Tom Friedman column. He’s keeping the content flexible. The words have a populist touch. But the echo of “American dream” is presumably intended to reassure the new — and potentially disruptive — middle class that private wealth is now seen as part of China’s strength (3,000 words)

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