Swimming, Nuclear Briefcase, Occam's Razor, Smell, Plot, Enlightenment

Hic sunt camelopardus: this historical edition of The Browser is presented for archaeological purposes; links and formatting may be broken.

Why There Are So Many Ties In Swimming

Timothy Burke | Regressing | 12th August 2016

We cannot build pools in which lanes are the same length to the nearest millimetre; so there is no sense in timing swimming races to the nearest millisecond. “In a 50-meter Olympic pool a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. Regulations allow a tolerance of three centimeters in each lane. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim” (250 words)

Nervous About Nukes

Dan Zak | Washington Post | 3rd August 2016

There is no “nuclear button”, but there is an aluminium briefcase that follows the American president everywhere, containing a manual for conducting nuclear war. The manual is like a takeout menu from which the president can choose cities or military installations in enemy countries to attack. To authorise an attack the president uses a card of verification codes that is, ideally, on his person at all times. The briefcase is referred to as “the football”, the card as “the biscuit” (1,400 words)

The Tyranny Of Simple Explanations

Philip Ball | Atlantic | 11th August 2016

The principle of Occam’s razor tells us to prefer the simplest of competing explanations. Thus most scientific theories are intentional simplifications: They ignore some effects, not because these don’t happen, but because they are thought to have a negligible effect on the outcome. Remember: Occam’s razor doesn’t tell us that the simplest explanation is true. It tells us only that the simplest explanation is the most efficient way of proceeding with the information available (2,300 words)

The Smell Of George Orwell

John Sutherland | Guardian | 13th August 2016

After losing his sense of smell, John Sutherland re-reads the books of George Orwell, and finds them changed. In everyday life smell may be the least of the senses, but in Orwell it is everywhere. Perhaps Orwell even invented what we now call the smell-test: “Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, Fascism may win” (2,119 words)

The Story And The Reader

Christian Lorentzen | New York | 10th August 2016

The plot feels essential to the novel while we read it; but plot is the first thing to fade from memory when we close the book. Plot reveals itself as a mere organising device. Recounting what happens in a great novel never conveys what is great in the novel. “If a work of fiction has any force to it, we close the book with a head full of images, lines, and emotions.” We care for the characters of fiction and the how they are portrayed, not for the context in which we first meet them (2,800 words)

The Tolerant Philosopher

Anthony Gottlieb | New Statesman | 13th August 2016

Frederick the Great, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were among the many admirers of Pierre Bayle, the ”forgotten hero” of the Enlightenment. Voltaire called him “immortal” — but his reputation scarcely survived his death in Rotterdam in 1706. His passion for religious tolerance, though radical and brave at the time, was soon a commonplace; and he was a horribly long-winded writer, with the result that his ideas are associated now with other thinkers who expressed them more crisply (2,200 words)

Video of the day: Hunted Dreams

What to expect:

“Two mysterious figures dance in the ruins of an abandoned building”. By Yannay Matarasso & Daniella Meroz (1’32”)

Thought for the day

A fact, in science, is not a mere fact, but an instance
Bertrand Russell

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