Lichtenstein Gets Even Smaller

Notes from Lichtenstein, the tiny principality between Switzerland and Austria which just got even smaller thanks to more precise mapping technology which shaved a quarter-acre off the official territory, leaving 62 square miles for 37,000 residents. The Prince invites them all to his medieval castle for a beer once a year, and a “significant portion of the population” shows up. “Key exports include false teeth” (1,020 words)

A Radical’s Emancipation Of Color

Appreciation of Henri Matisse’s “exuberant painted-paper cutout”, The Snail. Matisse began using paper cutouts to test colour combinations when working on murals in the 1930s. He returned to them as his main medium when old age and surgery left him bedridden and scarcely able to paint. “Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it — the one modifying the other — I draw straight into the colour” (1,020 words)

The Keys To His Heart

British pianist Stephen Hough talks about the difference between playing and composing, and why composing is more satisfying: “It’s the difference, I suppose, between being a foster parent and having your own flesh and blood child. There is no less love — some foster parents are the most heroic and wonderful possible. But I imagine it is different for a woman to see the actual child coming out of her body. You can’t match that” (1,140 words)

Advice For A Happy Life

Marry young: “If you wait until your 30s, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your 20s, it is likely to be a startup.” Choose a mate with similar personal habits: the key variables are “punctuality, orderliness and thriftiness”. Get religion — any religion. Cultivate ambition in youth, but give it a rest when you hit 40. And watch Groundhog Day often: it’s the equal of Aristotle’s Ethics, but a lot more fun (2,240 words)

Review: Plato At The Googleplex

Rebecca Goldstein’s “piquant” book consists of “chapters of scholarly discussion” followed by “fictional accounts of Plato appearing in various contemporary venues” — at Google headquarters on a book tour; in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y; being interviewed on cable television. Plato is “brought marvellously to life” and “philosophy is vindicated” against the “jeerers” of the “scientific era” (1,850 words)

Manliness Manifesto

How modern living has diminished us — all of us, not only men. “If you hand a cashier a $20 bill for an item costing $13.47, both you and the cashier are going to look at the cash register to see how much you get back and both of you will unquestioningly accept the cash register’s decision”. Includes guides to the lost art of grilling a steak, and to jump-starting your car (“Obtain a working car from somewhere”) (2,460 words)

A Word Of Advice — On Advice

“The US is addicted to advice. Americans honestly believe that someone out there knows how to fix all our problems. Maybe Oprah. Maybe Dr. Phil. Don’t smoke. Don’t text on I-95. Don’t allow your teenage son to disappear into his bedroom for the next decade. Exercise 30 minutes a day. Why, then, are so many of us miserable, bankrupt, overweight chain smokers with horrible, illiterate kids?” (2,325 words)

Apple Quietly Builds New Networks

Apple is “stitching together a network of Internet infrastructure capable of delivering large amounts of content to customers”. iCloud, iTunes and the App Store are already big bandwidth users, but the trigger for the new capacity may be rumoured plans for an Apple TV platform. One outsider estimates that Apple has “bought enough bandwidth from Web carriers to move hundreds of gigabits of data each second” (860 words)

Top Products In Two Decades

After 22 years as WSJ’s lead tech reviewer, Mossberg signs off his last column with a list of the 12 products he thinks did most to change the world in that time. Five are from Apple. Most are fairly uncontentious — Netscape, Palm Pilot, Windows 95, Google search etc. But nice to see the Newton honoured. A more questionable inclusion is the MacBook Air, which was a stylistic innovation rather than a substantive one (1,270 words)

A Family Terror: The Boston Bombers

“A friend told me that his mother had rented an apartment to some Chechens. He drove me to a weather-beaten three-family home crammed between others in a tattered corner of Cambridge, Mass. I was led up a narrow stairway, littered with shoes and slippers, to their third-floor apartment — the start of a relationship that came full circle last April, when I encountered the Tsarnaevs again under very different circumstances” (2,700 words)

Rethinking Chess

Chess champions have discovered new skills by playing against computers. “When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces, they are often seeing more deeply into the game. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas. The top human players are now those who most often play the moves that would be chosen by the best engines” (1,200 words)

Ballmer On Ballmer

“I’m big, I’m bald and I’m loud”. Microsoft boss explains his departure. He wanted to refocus on mobile devices and services, but the company wasn’t responding fast enough “because of the very corporate culture he had helped instill … He had trained managers to see the trees, not the forest”. Time to give someone new a chance. But he isn’t losing touch entirely: “I still own a big chunk of Microsoft, and I’m going to keep it” (2,100 words)

Airlines Mine Personal Data In-Flight

Coming soon: Real-time passenger data for aeroplane cabin staff. “Attendants can know that the flier in seat 23B is a vegetarian and the couple behind him are on their honeymoon.” Airlines can stock in-flight trolleys with products that passengers have a history of buying. Cute or creepy? Qantas survey finds mixed reactions: “I do want you to know I like cappuccino but I don’t want you to know that my dog’s name is Sally.” (1,200 words)

Humans 1, Robots 0

Why human cashiers beat check-out machines at the supermarket. “The human is faster. The human has a more pleasing, less buggy interface. The human doesn’t expect me to remember or look up codes for produce, bags my groceries, and isn’t on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet paper. Best of all, the human does all the work while I’m allowed to stand there and stupidly stare at my phone” (990 words)

Design Defects Cripple Health-Care Website

Very sad story. Sign-up for Obamacare tanks in week one because the online architecture cannot cope. Doesn’t even seem to be a case of overloading, but of fundamentally sloppy design. “Basic Web-efficiency techniques weren’t used, such as saving parts of the website that change infrequently so they can be loaded more quickly”. Only a trickle of buyers have been getting through. There is a hot-line to call; but that doesn’t work either (1,170 words)

Inside White House, A Head-Spinning Reversal On Syria

Terrific tick-tock. “An extraordinary 24 days in international diplomacy”. Detailed account of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring as President Barack Obama veered first towards seeking Congressional approval for attacking Syria, then towards working with Russia on a peaceful deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons. “The U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it” (3,000 words)

The Failed Grand Strategy In The Middle East

President Obama has misread Turkey and Egypt, alienated Israel and Saudi Arabia, missed the moment to intervene in Syria. “Just as Nikita Khrushchev concluded that President Kennedy was weak and incompetent after the Bay of Pigs, so President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now believe they are dealing with a dithering and indecisive American leader, and are calibrating their policies accordingly” (2,500 words)

Our Obsession With Rover

Trolley problems with dogs. “Everyone would save a sibling, grandparent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when people considered their own dog versus people less connected with them — a distant cousin or a hometown stranger — votes in favor of saving the dog came rolling in. And an astonishing 40% of respondents, including 46% of women, voted to save their dog over a foreign tourist” (600 words)

Take Back Your Pregnancy

Economist challenges the conventional wisdoms of pregnancy. For example: coffee. “We know that nausea is a sign of a healthy pregnancy, but (as in my case) it also causes women to avoid coffee. This means that the pregnant women who drink a lot of coffee also are more likely to be the ones who aren’t experiencing nausea. So here we may well be mistaking a correlation for an underlying cause” (2,500 words)

The Science Of Winning At Poker

The relevant science used to be psychology. Then it was probability. Now it’s game theory. “The right way to analyse a poker decision is to consider your opponent’s range — that is, the full set of different hands that he could plausibly have, given all the actions that he has thus far taken.” Which is too difficult to do while playing a real game; you have to train your instincts using poker apps (1,050 words)

The Middle-Class Revolution

From Tunisia and Egypt to Turkey and Brazil, political turmoil is driven by the failure of governments to meet the rising expectations of the newly prosperous and educated, who want “democracy, individual freedom and tolerance for alternative lifestyles.” But while the young and educated may be skilful at protesting, they are “pretty clueless” about forming the broad coalitions needed to underpin stable new regimes (2,200 words)

Why I Froze My Eggs (And You Should, Too)

“I decided to freeze on the afternoon of my 36th birthday, when I did a fresh round of baby math on the back of a business card at Starbucks. Even if the man I was dating at the time agreed to start a family in the near future, I was cutting it close to have one baby, let alone a second. As soon as I woke up in the recovery room, I no longer felt as though I were watching my window to have a baby close by the month” (2,550 words)

Great Scientists Aren’t Always Good At Maths

A great scientist writes: “I have a professional secret to share: Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.” According to Wilson, it is far more important to have good ideas than to have good maths. When you need math skills, you can import them: “It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.” (886 words)

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