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Best of the Web

The app that predicts your death

Screengrab from appannie.com

Screengrab from appannie.com

Our pick of the week from the web, including an app estimating your natural life, a history of sleeping pills and why life does not really exist.

23 and You
Virginia Hughes | Matter on Medium | 5 December 2013

Elegantly told tale of a woman seeking her biological father through DNA testing and family-tree websites. “Searching your genetic ancestry can certainly be fun: You can trace the migration patterns of 10,000-year-old ancestors, or discover whether a distant relative ruled a continent or rode on the Mayflower. And then there are people like Cheryl, who learn to their surprise, late in life, that they aren’t the person they thought they were.”

The men who leaked the secrets
Janet Reitman | Rolling Stone | 4 December 2013

You may feel that you have read your quota of articles about Edward Snowden and/or Glenn Greenwald for the current year, but make an exception for this well-made profile, which moves lightly on its feet and offers much new colour and detail throughout – notably on Greenwald’s early life as a lawyer, on Snowden’s time at the NSA, and on how Julian Assange elbowed his way belatedly into Snowden’s drama.

How I cured my impostor syndrome
Hope Jahren | 3 December 2013

Straight talking from a woman scientist about dealing with criticism and sexism. "The folks telling you that you should just grow a thick skin and not care what people say are not your real friends. A thin skin is the way to go. Only if you let the criticism cut to the bone can you fully examine the wound and clean it up so it can heal. But promise me that you’ll also let the praise in, and absorb it just as deeply."

Deathwatch
Mark O'Connell | New Yorker | 3 December 2013

iPhone App called Days of Life is “as chillingly simple and straightforward as its name suggests.” You punch in your date of birth, gender, country of residence, and the app estimates your natural life expectancy. The selling point is that it will “terrify you into productivity”. A note advises older users: “In case your settings determine you should already be dead, the app adds 10 more years to your life expectancy.”

Die, Selfish Gene, die
David Dobbs | Aeon | 3 December 2013
For a century the primary account of evolution, culminating in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, has emphasised the gene as the determinant of the species. Not so. The more we learn about genes, the more they take on the character of variables: they can act and interact to produce lots of different outcomes. We may be able to adapt to new environments without changes to our DNA; changes in the way our DNA operates may be enough.

Life does not really exist
Ferris Jabr | Scientific American | 2 December 2013

Life is a concept, not a thing. It cannot be demonstrated or isolated. “All matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive.”

The Big Sleep
Ian Parker | New Yorker | 2 December 2013

If you take sleeping pills, this piece is for you. It begins and ends with a gripping close-up account of a team of Merck scientists pitching a new type of sleeping pill, suvorexant, to the US Food and Drug Administration; sandwiched in the middle is a history of the market leader, Ambien. The whole hangs together a bit awkwardly, as though the Merck end of the story didn’t quite pan out as expected, but still, fine bedtime reading.

Interview: Stephen Wolfram
John Koetsier | Venture Beat | 29 November 2013

Mathematician and computer scientist talks up his new project, Wolfram Language, which will supposedly revolutionise computer programming. “It will spawn a whole mass of new startups. Now it becomes realistic for someone to build out a complete algorithm and automation system in a few hours.” This is basically a pitch, by a man never knowingly undersold, but the conversation is interesting and intelligent throughout.

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