Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including NSA operatives, the political economy of surveillance and why we sign emails with “thank you”.

Why we sign emails with “Thank You”
Krystal D'Costa | Scientific American | 11 June 2013

The rules of social engagement require politeness formulae at the close of communications. When letters took time to write and send, it was important for the sender to attest to her reliability. Hence the preference for valedictions such as “Yours sincerely”. With emails, the ease of writing and sending means that the most effective politeness formula is one that thanks the recipient for sparing the time to read the thing at all.

Obituary: Iain Banks
Anonymous | Telegraph | 9 June 2013

Author dies at 59. “His principal childhood interests were television, reading science fiction, and producing homemade explosives.” First book, The Wasp Factory, brought him immediate notoriety. “Even before its appearance, one publisher claimed that the book had made him vomit into his waste paper basket.” After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he proposed to his partner, asking her to “do me the honour of being my widow.”

Using metadata to find Paul Revere
Kieran Healy | 9 June 2013

How an 18C NSA operative might have used “the new-fangled methods of Social Networke Analysis” to arrest Paul Revere. “If a mere scribe such as I can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor from those of 254 other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what might be possible in the defence of liberty one or two centuries from now.”

Loss of privacy and collapse of creative ambiguity
Tyler Cowen | Marginal Revolution | 8 June 2013

The political economy of surveillance. “The old equilibrium is perhaps no longer stable. People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks. But if they acquiesce too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse. You should not think that recent events will simply cement a previous status quo in place, rather it moves us down a very particular path.”

Blood is their argument
Napoleon Chagnon | Edge | 7 June 2013

Symposium on the work of Darwinian anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, renowned for his study of the Yanomamo tribes in the Amazon. His finding that they lived “in a state of chronic warfare” earned him much hostility from colleagues, some of whom felt he was arguing that violence was a necessary and inevitable part of the human condition. With Chagnon, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker and others.

There was a time before Mathematica
Stephen Wolfram | 6 June 2013

Wolfram tells how he came to build Mathematica, computational software for science and maths, released 25 years ago. “It was November 1979. I was 20. I’d just gotten my PhD in physics. I was spending a few weeks at Cern, planning my future in (as I believed) physics. I concluded that, to do physics well, I’d need something better than Macsyma. I decided the only way I’d have a chance to get what I wanted was if I built it myself.”

How likely is the NSA PRISM program to catch a terrorist?
Corey Chivers | Bayesian Biologist | 6 June 2013

Not very, even on the most implausibly favourable assumptions. Say that NSA’s algorithms can distinguish terrorist communications from pizza orders with 99% accuracy, and, furthermore, that they can get the false positives down to less than one in 100. Even so: “For every positive there is only a 1 in 10,102 chance that they’ve found a real bad guy. Big brother is always watching, but he’s still got a needle in a haystack problem.”

Darwin, the greatest psychologist
Allen Frances | Project Syndicate | 4 June 2013

We don’t often think of Darwin as a psychologist. But, as Darwin himself was keenly aware, his theory of evolution applied as much to the mind as the body, and provided a scientific basis for psychology, which previously had been rooted more in philosophy. “Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, was mistaken in calling Freud ‘the Darwin of the mind’. Darwin himself was the Darwin of the mind. Freud was his great populariser.”

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