Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including magicians Penn and Teller’s gaming experiment, the secrets of the McWrap and Oliver Sacks's ode to old age.

Desert Bus
Simon Parkin | New Yorker | 9 July 2013

Magicians Penn and Teller set out in 1995 to create the worst video game ever. And it sounds like they succeeded. The storyline consists of driving across an American desert, in real time. “Players earn a single point for each eight-hour trip completed between the two cities, making a Desert Bus high score perhaps the most costly in gaming.” But it’s found a semi-ironic second life as a fund-raising instrument for charities.

The wastefulness of automation
Frances Coppola | Pieria | 8 July 2013

If robots put more and more workers out of jobs, will governments have to provide basic incomes for everyone, in place of wages? That will put upward pressure on tax rates; but even for the rich, heavy taxation may be preferable to an economy in which there is little or no demand for the goods which they and their robots produce. Then again, maybe it would be better just to stop building robots, and keep people working.

Government builds free cloud-based backup for ungrateful nation
Totient | Medium | 8 July 2013

“The cloud backup program, called Prism, safely stores all American’s phone and email contacts so that they can be retrieved at any time in the future. A few thousand Americans are currently enrolled in a beta phase version of the program that would successfully backup all of their data, including the contents of their calls, emails, and documents, for years in a completely secure, state of the art data centre located in Utah.”

The joy of old age (no kidding)
Oliver Sacks | New York Times | 6 July 2013

On turning 80. “One can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

Marco Arment | 3 July 2013

Thoughts provoked by the shuttering of Google Reader. It’s part of a much bigger problem. All of the big five – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft – are turning against interoperability. “They want to lock you in, shut out competitors, and make a service so proprietary that even if you could get your data out, it would be either useless (no alternatives to import into) or cripplingly lonely (empty social networks).”

Would you like cucumber with that?
Susan Berfield | Business Week | 3 July 2013

Story behind the introduction of the McDonald’s McWrap, “a 10-inch, white-flour tortilla wrapped around 3 ounces of chicken, lettuce, spring greens, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and cheddar jack cheese”. Everything was focus-grouped, from the name to the dressing. First time cucumbers have been used in a McDonald’s product. Gently does it. “We talked a lot about the veggies. But we went too far. People thought it was a salad.”

America’s artificial heartland
Venkatesh Rao | Aeon | 11 July 2013

“The modern system of retail – distant large-scale production facilities coupled with local human-scale consumption environments – was the first piece of what I’ve come to think of as the ‘American cloud’: the vast industrial back end of our lives that we access via a theatre of manufactured experiences. If distant tea and coffee plantations were the first modern clouds, A&P stores and mail-order catalogues were the first browsers and apps.”

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