Weekly newsletter 102


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

Best of the Week

The Locust Economy

3rd April 2013 | Venkatesh Rao | Ribbonfarm

Blog post. "Thinking about locusts and the behavior of customers around services like Groupon, I’ve become convinced that the phrase 'sharing economy' is mostly a case of putting lipstick on a pig. What we have here is a locust economy ... Locust economies are built around three-way markets: an organiser who efficiently disseminates information about transient local resource surpluses; a locust species in dormant grasshopper mode; and a base for predation that exhibits a scarcity-abundance cycle"

Narratives Of War

3rd April 2013 | Michael Howard | Times Literary Supplement

Book review. War From The Ground Up, by Emile Simpson. "A work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military. ... His style is so muscular and aphoristic that he can concentrate complex arguments into memorable sentences that will have a life of their own. In short (and here I shall really go overboard) War From the Ground Up deserves to be seen as a coda to Clausewitz’s On War. But it has the advantage of being considerably shorter"

Damnation Of St Christopher

3rd April 2013 | Michael Wolff | GQ

Posthumous, patronising portrayal of "highbrow barfly" Christopher Hitchens as a mediocre thinker inside a brilliant self-promoter. "I never had any sense of whether he was happy or despairing. Lonely or content. Satisfied or self loathing. But certainly being drunk so much of the time would not suggest he was tiptop. It was an external life. His greatest effort always seemed to be to live in public, with the effort itself being more important than the nature of the opinions or controversy that got him there"

The Bitcoin Bubble and the Future of Currency

3rd April 2013 | Felix Salmon | Medium

Analysis. The price of Bitcoin has gone exponential and is bouncing around at crazy levels. There's a bubble. There will be a crash. But the product — an anonymous, computer-generated, digital currency — is admirable. "Bitcoin is in many ways the best and cleanest payments mechanism the world has ever seen. So if we’re ever going to create something better, we’re going to have to learn from what bitcoin does right – as well as what it does wrong. The source code for bitcoin is free and public, which means that just about every hacker and cryptographer in the world has had a crack at it. And they’ve all come to the same conclusion: it really works"

Facebook Leans In

3rd April 2013 | Kurt Eichenwald | Vanity Fair

Big backgrounder. Tech followers will know the story. Others will value a well-reported piece, even a slightly gushy one, on an always-interesting company, written with access to Mark Zuckerberg, and with lots of eyebrow-raising quotes and facts. Here's Marc Andreessen: “A lot of people looked at Facebook and saw a Web site. None of the people close to Mark and the company thought of Facebook as a Web site. They think of it as a data set, a feedback loop". Sample fact: L'Oréal has 400 staff dedicated to posting stuff on Facebook

Irrepressible Moscow

1st April 2013 | Paul Starobin | City Journal

Portrait of a city. After suffering but surviving the physical and moral destruction of the Soviet period, Moscow has re-emerged more extravagantly discordant than ever, an enthralling mess of rich and poor, old and new, high culture and gross kitsch. "If Moscow has lessons to teach other cities, one is that contrast can be good for its own sake ... None of this is an argument for squalor or bad taste or a plea for wickedness and inequity. Rather, it is a recognition that the disparate parts of a great city don’t have to match; sometimes, they merely have to chafe against one another"

Nancy Hatch Dupree Is Quietly Saving Afghanistan’s History

1st April 2013 | William Dalrymple | Daily Beast

Portrait of "tiny, birdlike 86-year-old woman", whose life is a "series of tales that would rival a Hollywood movie", including "a passionate affair in 1960s Kabul with a handsome, Harvard-educated, ex-paratrooper and archeologist who made Indiana Jones seem positively suburban'. She became an authority on Afghan culture; was thrown out under the Soviets; and is back now, "commuting between her homes in Kabul and Peshawar, sometimes driving herself down the Khyber Pass in her little Renault 5"

Cruel And Unusual Punishment: The Shame Of Three Strikes Laws

27th March 2013 | Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone

In California, the first state to pass a "three-strike" law mandating long prison sentences for third-time offenders, thousands of people are serving life sentences for non-violent and often trivial crimes. "Have you heard the one about the guy who got life for stealing a slice of pizza? Or the guy who went away forever for lifting a pair of baby shoes? Or the one who got 50 to life for helping himself to five children's videotapes from Kmart? This Frankenstein's monster of a mandatory-sentencing system isn't just some localized bureaucratic accident, but the legacy of a series of complex political choices we all made as voters decades ago"

Video of the week: Re-Enacting The Night Watch

Thought for the week:

"The role of thinkers is primarily to keep options open … So when the brute force of events make a change inevitable, there is an alternative available" — Milton Friedman

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