Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including the complexities of migrating birds, Apple as a religion, and Elon Musk’s mission to Mars.

The price of hypocrisy
Evgeny Morozov | Frankfurter Allgemeine | 24 July 2013

Lessons from the Snowden affair. “While Silicon Valley runs, updates and monetises the digital infrastructure, the NSA can tap it on demand. Everyone specialises and everyone wins. Decentralisation is liberating only if there’s no powerful actor that can rip off the benefits after the network has been put in place. If such an actor exists – like NSA in this case – those in power get more of what they want quicker, and pay less.”

Slow ideas
Atul Gawande | New Yorker | 22 July 2013

We assume that effective innovations spread quickly and almost inevitably. But that isn’t always the case, at least in medicine, and especially if the benefits aren’t immediately clear and quantifiable. The use of antiseptics against germs took decades to catch on, whereas the use of anaesthetics took just months. To change a doctor’s behaviour, you have to take into account his own beliefs and interests.

Unhappy truckers and other algorithmic problems
Tom Vanderbilt | Nautilus | 19 July 2013

On the “travelling salesman” problem. How do you calculate the quickest route between a lot of stops? Sounds easy, soon gets difficult. Six-city route has 720 possible paths, 20-city route has more than 100 quadrillion possible paths. Computer scientists have been wrestling with this class of problem for decades. How about transport companies, who are doing it for real? What’s their solution? It’s mostly trial and error. And keeping drivers happy.

Faith and works at Apple
Edward Mendelson | New York Review Of Books | 17 July 2013

Deeply strange. Apple as religion. “Programmers risk excommunication if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can jailbreak an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematised by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.” Dissenters have their own cult within the church: Apple Script.

Predictive policing
Mark Johnson | The Economist | 19 July 2013

On the use of big data in policing. No precogs as yet. Systems rely on data analysis to find patterns in past crime, and use those to warn of crime-prone places and situations. British police are testing a computer programme called PredPol: “Cops working with predictive systems respond to call-outs as usual, but when they are free they return to the spots which the computer suggests.”

Your free trial of the internet has expired
Charlie Warzel | Buzzfeed | 18 July 2013

Useful wrap. Nothing new, but everything brought into focus. The era of free online content and services is coming to an end. The turning point was the successful launch of iTunes in 2003, which showed how many people were willing to pay for digital content if the price was right, the payment system was secure, and the transaction was low in friction. Now paywalls are rising everywhere: one-third of US newspapers are using or building them.

Elon Musk’s mission to Mars
Rory Carroll | Guardian | 17 July 2013

Interview with space pioneer: “We’re in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause the technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

How do birds navigate?
Tom Standage | The Economist | 17 July 2013

I hereby propose a new law of science journalism, which holds that any headline ending in a question mark can take the answer: “It’s complicated”. Which is certainly the case here. The global positioning system with which birds are born appears to rely on particles of iron in the ear, nerves in the beak, a chemical reaction in the eyes, and quantum entanglement effects. End-result: birds see magnetic fields as patterns of spots.

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