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Best of the Web

Nuclear fusion: The ‘most complex machine ever built’

(Science Photo Library)

(Science Photo Library)

Our pick of the week from around the web, including the quest for nuclear fusion, the invasion of the taxi snatchers and new uses for Bitcoin.

Cognitive science explained
Jason Shepherd | The Conversation | 27 February 2014

Brisk tour of current research. There may be effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease within 10 years, based on catching the disease early. No evidence that any common virus is a “major cause” of neurological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, but “gut in the bacteria is a fascinating area of research right now”. Chronic use of marijuana by adolescents “can lead to cognitive decline, especially in working memory”.

Where do savant skills come from?
Scott Barry Kaufman | Scientific American | 25 February 2014

Savants remember lots but understand little. Kim Peek, a model for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, knew by heart some 12,000 books including The Bible. “Theoretically, all that is required to explain savant skills is an innate predisposition to find redundancies and sequential regularities fascinating and an intact implicit learning system that gradually extracts those regularities over many hours of experience.”

A star in a bottle
Raffi Khatchadourian | New Yorker | 24 February 2014

The “most complex machine ever built” is a nuclear reactor “based on an idea that Andrei Sakharov had in the 1950s” which will create “an artificial earthbound sun” by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium, releasing enough heat to “solve the world’s energy problems for the next 30 million years”. Cost so far: $20bn. Start-date: 2020. The site in France looks like something “drawn from the imagination of JG Ballard."

Publishers withdraw 120 gibberish papers
Richard Van Noorden | Nature | 24 February 2014

Top academic publishers accept scores of nonsense papers written by a computer programme called SCIgen, developed at MIT, which “randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers”. Fiasco reveals a “spamming war at the heart of science”. Researchers rush to earn publishing credits, overwhelmed publishers let quality controls slide.

Markov models of social change
Alastair Jamieson-Lane | Azimuth | 24 February 2014

How to make decisions in a complex world. You can listen only to the advice that you want to hear. Or you can try to balance conflicting advice and information, and then construct scenarios of where different decisions may lead. Here’s a relatively simple template for doing the latter. True, it gets a bit more complicated towards the end when the algebra kicks in, but there’s plenty of useful pointers before then.

Manliness Manifesto
Dave Barry | Wall Street Journal | 21 February 2014

How modern living has diminished everyone, not only men. “If you hand a cashier a $20 bill for an item costing $13.47, both you and the cashier are going to look at the cash register to see how much you get back and both of you will unquestioningly accept the cash register’s decision”. Includes guides to the lost art of grilling a steak, and to jump-starting your car (“Obtain a working car from somewhere”).

Invasion of the taxi snatchers
Brad Stone | Business Week | 20 February 2014

How car hire service Uber became “one of the most loved and hated start-ups of the smartphone age”. Customers “rave about the reliability and speed of service” even as they “bitterly complain about so-called surge pricing” at peak times. But surge pricing stays, says CEO Travis Kalnick: “People would love to have 100% reliability at a fixed price all the time. I get it. That is not possible.”

Marginally useful
Paul Ford | MIT Technology Review | 18 February 2014

Ingenious essay on possible uses for Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. “Imagine an online advertising campaign where people who clicked on an advertisement would be given the virtual coins. Small amounts of money might be distributed without friction. The entire web of advertising would suddenly become a more interesting place. Before, the ads seemed to hunt you, but now you would have reason to hunt for ads.”

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