Our pick of the week from the web, including relationships in the 21st Century, crazy ants terrorising Texas and why spies are infiltrating online games.

The mercenary position
James Marcus | Harper's | 11 December 2013

Entertaining review of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone, which includes some “truly archaeological digging” into Amazon’s history and ideology. Central question: Is Amazon a missionary company, or a mercenary one? “Missionaries have righteous goals and are trying to make the world a better place. Mercenaries are out for money and power and will run over anyone who gets in the way.”

World of Spycraft
Justin Elliott | Pro Publica | 9 December 2013

Quite literally fantastic. According to leaked Snowden documents, “American and British spies have infiltrated World of Warcraft and Second Life. Fearing that terrorist networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by elves, gnomes and supermodels. The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers.”

Everyone on the couch
Theodore Dalrymple | City Journal | 9 December 2013

Savaging of the American Psychiatric Association’s 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders', which tries to “colonise human experience” by labelling all problematic behaviour as illness. “The DSM is an instrument for weakening human resilience, self-reliance, fortitude, and resolve. It turns humans into mechanisms, deprives their conduct of meaning, and makes them prey to entrepreneurs of misery.”

Crazy ants terrorise Texas
Jon Mooallem | New York Times | 8 December 2013

Wonderful piece of writing and reporting. In ten years, a new ant species has infested half of Texas. “They effectively terrorise people by racing up their feet and around their bodies, coursing everywhere in their impossibly disordered orbits. They overtake beehives and destroy the colonies. They may smother bird chicks struggling to hatch. They swarm into cows’ eyes. So far, there is no way to contain them.” (Metered paywall)

Notes on 21st-Century relationships
Douglas Coupland | FT Magazine | 6 December 2013

A dozen scattered paragraphs, a jewel in every one. “I sometimes wonder about people who wake up and spend most of the day online. When they go to bed at night, they’ll have almost no organic memories of their own. If they do this for a long time, you can begin to say that their intelligence is, in a true sense, artificial. Which, I guess, means sex lives have never been as artificial as they are now.”

How the Bitcoin protocol actually works
Michael Nielsen | DDI | 6 December 2013

Does exactly what the headline says. Walks you through the workings and history of Bitcoin from generic principles to a useful level of understanding without straying too far into algebra. The conclusion also explains why Bitcoin is the worst choice for anonymity, at least over time. When somebody works out who you are on the Bitcoin graph, which eventually they will, they have your whole transaction history for ever.

Current trends in robotics
Satyandra Gupta | IEEE Spectrum | 5 December 2013

Notes from the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo. Four main trends apparent. Industrial robots are being built with two arms rather than one, to co-operate more easily with humans on complex tasks. Cameras – “eyes” – are being built into robots’ hands for close-up work. Wearable robots are coming for market for ageing and disabled people. Pick-and-place robots are reaching speeds comparable to fixed automation.

How robots will transform human intimacy
Thomas Rodham Wells | Philosopher's Beard | 4 December 2013

We’ve heard plenty about robots in the workplace. What about robots in the home – as servants, carers, lovers? “The arrival of cheap robot-servants will revolutionise the political economy of households. We will be able to produce consumption goods like meals and child-care much more efficiently since the number of human hours involved will be much less. The standard ‘team’ of two adults will no longer be required.”

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