Our pick of the week’s articles, including caffeine experiments, how Apple disrupted the smartphone market and the untold benefits of universal surveillance.

There are no significant facts about human beings
Charles Foster | Practical Ethics | 2 October 2013

Chance conversation with a biographer provokes a philosopher to wonder how well we can delineate ourselves — let alone other people. “I have no real insight into my motives or influences. I say that I have views and desires, but I have no way of saying whether they are really mine, rather than parroted. It’s immensely unlikely that I’ve ever had a remotely original thought. My genes and my preferences are bequests from unnameable donors.”

Competing with a Mac
Horace Dediu | Asymco | 1 October 2013

Apple captured the profits in the smartphone market by disrupting in a new way: from the top. “For iPhone the core asymmetry was that it was a computing product and not a telecommunications product. It was this asymmetry which confused every observer. Predicting how a high-end product can conquer the low end is fiendishly counterintuitive.” Nokia and Blackberry had sixteen more quarters of growth — then their profits collapsed.

Coffee experiments
Seth Brown | Dr Bunsen | 30 September 2013

How to make the best possible cup of coffee. Using controlled, randomized experiments. And algebra. “As a result of these experiments, my brewing setup is simple, quick, and inexpensive. I buy the cheapest whole-bean shade-grown coffee I can find in my preferred roast. To brew a cup of coffee, I grind the beans with a blade grinder and brew with the Aeropress. The entire brewing process takes about 5 minutes and produces great coffee.”

Do you know where your children are?
Paul Ford | Elle | 30 September 2013

A successful in vitro fertilisation leads to twins — and two spare fertilised embryos, frozen in the clinic fridge. What to do with them? As a parent, you could leave them there indefinitely, at $100 a month; or have them destroyed; you could try for more children; donate the embryos for scientific research; or ask the clinic to give them to another would-be parent. “The embryos are our responsibility, but not our possessions.”

Life in the fishbowl
Stuart Armstrong | Aeon | 30 September 2013

The rise of universal surveillance frightens and angers libertarians. But what about the benefits? The more complete the surveillance, the greater the reduction in crime and terrorism. Society would need fewer police, because there would be much less to investigate; the evidence would all be there on camera. Corruption would be harder. Arms control would be easier. Pandemics would be detected sooner.

Some obvious things about internet reputation systems
Tom Slee | Whimsley | 29 September 2013

Internet reputation systems let individuals rate counterparties, and generate recommendations based on those ratings. The aim is to create the bonds of trust needed to underpin remote transactions. Does it work? Not very well. Communities encourage collusion; the systems are too easily gamed. As online reputation becomes more valuable, so intermediaries proliferate to provide reputation as a paid service.

How Google taught itself design
Farhad Manjoo | Fast Company | 25 September 2013

Google’s aesthetics are catching up with Apple’s. Design revolution began when Larry Page took over as chief executive in April. He called for a unified look and feel across all products: “Our goal is to design everything so it’s beautifully simple”. The outcome so far: a new design process, centred on the “card” — a little white information box that the user can access or dismiss it with a touch or a swipe.

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