Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including mastering email, mismanagement of nuclear weapons and the person who hacked Apple’s fingerprint ID.

Myst: Lost to the ages
Emily Yoshida | Grantland | 24 September 2013

Pioneering video game Myst sold more than six million copies in 1993 and launched the era of CD-ROM gaming. “Fans and critics alike held their breath in anticipation of the tidal wave of exploratory, open-ended gaming that was supposed to follow”. But nothing did. Myst was too far ahead of its market. It was as if its creators “had brought a truckload of freshly baked bread to a society that hadn’t even figured out how to harvest wheat yet.”

Ten Commandments for mastering email
Tim Harford | Undercover Economist | 24 September 2013

One: Switch off the alerts. “Someone has always just sent me an email. I’ll answer when I am ready.” Two: Don’t bother sorting your incoming email into folders – just search the archive when you need to find something, it’s four times faster. And a pro tip: “If you’d like to really aggravate a busy person, send them an email with an attachment saying ‘please see the attached letter’, and add no elaboration.”

I hacked Apple’s TouchID
Marc Rogers | Lookout | 23 September 2013

It can be done. But it’s hard. First get a clean copy of the original fingerprint; then “lift” the pattern, which takes police-lab chemical skills; photograph the pattern; and turn it into a 3D fake fingerprint by printing or etching. “Practically, an attack is still a little bit in the realm of a John le Carré novel. It is certainly not something your average street thief would be able to do”. This is not strong security, it’s convenient security.

Nukes of hazard
Louis Menand | New Yorker | 23 September 2013

Review of Eric Schlosser’s "Command and Control", on the management and mismanagement of the world’s nuclear weapons. We’ve been on the brink of disaster fairly regularly, not least when Russia mistook a weather rocket for a possible nuclear attack in 1995. “On most days, the probability of a nuclear explosion happening by accident was far greater than the probability that someone would deliberately start a war.”

The devil and the details
Anonymous | Economist | 21 September 2013

How quantum entanglement may open the way to unhackable cryptography. “If Alice and Bob’s measurements agree more often three-quarters of the time, it suggests their photons are entangled. That means they cannot have been intercepted, since any attempt by Eve to do so would inevitably cause them to untangle. If Alice and Bob each add a third, identical polarisation angle, they can use this extra bit to encode the cryptographic key.”

The books interview: David Epstein
Jonathan Derbyshire | Prospect | 20 September 2013

On the balance between genes and talent in sport. “Exercise genetics is showing that in many cases the most important kind of talent is your ability to profit from your one hour of training more rapidly than your peer does. So just as medical genetics shows that no two people respond to a drug the same way, exercise genetics finds that no two people respond to training the same way.”

Fearful symmetry: Penrose Tiling
Philip Ball | Prospect | 19 September 2013

Roger Penrose’s work on general relativity in the 1960s led to Stephen Hawking’s rewriting of black-hole physics. He also discovered “Penrose tiling”: a pair of rhombus-shaped tiles that can be used to tile a flat surface ad infinitum without the pattern ever repeating itself. The tiling was not only beautiful and practical: it predicted a new class of crystals whose eventual discovery was rewarded with a Nobel prize in chemistry.

Inside Google’s quest to popularize self-driving cars
Adam Fisher | PopSci | 18 September 2013

They’re still on their way, but there a pricing blockage with the rotating radar array which sits on the top of the car and reports what’s happening in the immediate neighbourhood. It costs about $80,000 to make, and needs to sell for more like $1,000 to reach a mass market. But Google is right to bet on full autonomy. Partial autonomy – systems for automated steering, automatic braking – make drivers lazy and distracted.

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