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Our misguided perception of risk

Our misguided perception of risk

Our misguided perception of risk

Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including the scientists behind chemical weapons and the strange story of Skype.

If this toaster could talk
Alexis Lloyd | The Atlantic | 3 September 2013

Everyday life in the Internet of Things. “As more of our objects and environments become actuated, connected, and data-enabled, these enchanted objects are developing the capacity to contain their own stories. An object can remember its history, can understand how it is used, can talk to other objects around it to understand its environment. As these capabilities evolve, objects no longer become inert backdrops to our experiences, but active participants in our world that can share stories about themselves and us.”

Tor is less anonymous than you think
Meghan Neal | Motherboard | 3 September 2013

Computer scientists take a thorough look at the vulnerability of the Tor network, and find it’s far less secure than users might like to think. “Even if an attacker had no control routers, 80 percent of Tor users could be de-anonymised within six months.” A government with access to control routers could do it in a day. But Tor’s rising popularity may change the math. The more people use the network, the more difficult it becomes to identify any one of them.

Our newfound fear of risk
Bruce Schneier | Schneier On Security | 3 September 2013

“We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange, and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar, and common ones. This leads us to believe that violence against police, school shootings, and terrorist attacks are more common and more deadly than they actually are — and that the costs, dangers, and risks of a militarised police, a school system without flexibility, and a surveillance state without privacy are less than they really are.”

The strange story of Skype
Toivo Tanavsuu | Ars Technica | 2 September 2013

As Skype celebrates its tenth birthday, a look back to its beginnings as the brainwave of six young coders in Estonia who’d come together to build a website for a Swedish telecoms company, then scored a first hit by writing the file-sharing app Kazaa. Their eureka moment came when struck them that Kazaa’s peer-to-peer technology could also be used for voice traffic. Two years later they sold to ebay for $2.6bn.

Man and Superman
Malcolm Gladwell | New Yorker | 2 September 2013

Review of The Sports Gene by David Epstein, and The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton; the first about the role of genetic endowment in creating great athletes, the second about the use of drugs in professional cycling. Nature hands out unfair advantages; why should science not do the same? Why can a baseball player use contact lenses for sharper sight, but a cyclist not oxygenate his blood for more energy?

Chemical weapons and the scientists who make them
Alastair Hay | The Conversation | 30 August 2013

Rare example of a piece that I wish had gone on longer, to tell more about the scientists who make chemical weapons today, as against 100 years ago. Still, it’s a fine subject, and the motivation of Fritz Haber, the German who argued for using chlorine gas in WW1, turns out to have been predictably perverse: He thought gas attacks would bring about quick end to the war, and thus have a humane net effect.

Riches beyond belief
Brett Scott | Aeon | 28 August 2013

The rise of Bitcoin and other private currencies is helping to demystify how money works. “Financial instruments are analogous to high-level programming languages such as Java or Ruby: they let you string commands together in order to perform certain actions. By contrast, money itself is more like a low-level programming language, very hard to see or to understand but closer to gritty reality.”

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