Xiaoice, Roger Straus, Camus, Snakes, Bitcoin

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

Your New Best Friend Is A Robot

Yongdong Wang | Nautilus | 14th September 2017

Microsoft technologist talks about Xiaoice, a wildly popular chatbot developed for social media in China. “This could be the largest Turing test in history. One of its surprising conclusions is that people don’t necessarily care that they’re chatting with a machine. Many see Xiaoice as a partner and friend. Today, she has had more than 10 billion conversations with people, most of them about private matters. Six million have posted their conversation on social media” (1,885 words)

On Roger Straus

John McPhee | Work In Progress | 15th September 2017

A writer’s recollections of his publisher. “Roger was a fountain of garrulity. Words came out of him so fast that he tried to economize by saying, at the end of every other sentence, ‘et cetera, et cetera, and so forth, and so on’. His words wore spats. He was a publisher, not an editor, but his conversational attention to writers was, to say the least, voluminous. He nagged a little. He published my first book, in 1965, and he called maybe forty times a year for something close to forty years” (1,600 words)

The Ideal Husband

Susan Sontag | New York Review Of Books | 26th September 1963

Reflections on the appeal of Albert Camus. “His work, solely as a literary accomplishment, is not major enough to bear the weight of admiration that readers want to give it. One wants Camus to be a truly great writer, not just a very good one. But he is not. Neither art nor thought of the highest quality is to be found in Camus. What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of his work is beauty of another order, moral beauty, a quality unsought by most twentieth-century writers” (3,000 words)

The Breathless Hours

Janaki Lenin | Indian Quarterly | 1st March 2017

The common Indian krait is “the most toxic land snake in Asia, and second only to Australia’s inland taipan in the world”. Kraits are strictly nocturnal; they “enter homes in the dead of night and bite people in their sleep”. The bite is “almost painless”, so victims tend to “brush it off as an ant bite or the jab of a thorn”. Krait venom attacks the nerves and paralyses the body. “What makes krait bite a horror story is that although a victim appears lifeless, he or she is fully conscious” (2,500 words)

Bitcoin Is Worse Is Better

Gwern Branwen | 15th September 2017

Original and thought-provoking, though the early paragraphs will be hard work if you are new to the story. Why did Bitcoin take off, when other attempts to create digital currencies had failed in the preceding decade? Because Bitcoin was optimised for social appeal. “Bitcoin’s greatest virtue is not its deflation, nor its microtransactions, but its viral distributed nature; it can wait for its opportunity. If you sit by the bank of the river long enough, you can watch the bodies of your enemies float by” (9,000 words)

Video of the day: Material World

What to expect:

Experiments with colours and textures, by Foam Studio (0’55”)

Thought for the day

Womb, room, tomb. It sums up living in three words
Anthony Burgess

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