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Best of the Web

Silicon Valley’s biggest problem? Age

Old hands on keyboard (Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Our picks of the week from around the web, including why Botox is rife in tech, the Neanderthal in the family and new insights into the Big Bang.

Human evolution: The Neanderthal in the family
Ewen Callaway | Nature | 26 March 2014

New techniques for recovering DNA from ancient samples make it only a matter of time before the first million-year-old genome is sequenced. “Researchers may have luck using new extraction techniques on previously vexing remains such as Egyptian mummies.” Genetic discoveries are confirming the existence of long-extinct human populations – “ghost populations” – which were previously conjectures.

The electronic Holy War
Patrick House | New Yorker | 25 March 2014

Why it’s so much more difficult to programme a computer to win at Go, than to win at chess. Chess is highly directional: “At the grandmaster level, to tell who is winning, you add up the pieces on the board. To win, you just stay ahead the whole time”. With Go, “It is often hard to determine at any given time whether a group of pieces is being surrounded or doing the surrounding, and thus who is ahead.”

Injecting computation everywhere
Stephen Wolfram | 25 March 2014

Extended transcript of SXSW talk introducing Wolfram Language, a decades-in-the-making programming language. The future lies with ubiquitous, intelligent, natural-language computing. “Increasingly, we’re going to have preemptive computation. We’re building towards that a lot with the Wolfram Language. Being able to model the world, and make predictions about what’s going to happen. Being able to tell you what you might want to do next.”

The brutal ageism of tech
Noam Scheiber | The New Republic | 23 March 2014

The world’s second-biggest dispenser of Botox is a San Francisco plastic surgeon who helps Silicon Valley males in their 40s look a decade or two younger so they fit more credibly into the youth-dominated tech industry. Most venture capitalists won’t back older entrepreneurs: “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32”. Young bosses want young staff. “It can all add up to a wakeful nightmare for the lower-middle-aged.”

New insights into the Big Bang
Alan Guth | MIT News | 19 March 2014

 A leading physicist on what we have learnt about the Big Bang and its aftermath. “It is possible that the total energy of the entire universe is exactly zero, with the positive energy of matter completely cancelled by the negative energy of gravity. The universe is the ultimate free lunch, since it actually requires no energy to produce a universe.”

Getting cancer wrong
Alexander Nazaryan | Newsweek | 20 March 2014

Radiologist Robert Gatenby wants to model the behaviour of cancers mathematically so that their movements become “as predictable as those of a hurricane”, and easier to arrest. It’s a big job; he’s been at it for 30 years; but “complexity doesn’t mean there aren’t simple rules”, starting with those of evolution. Doctors should aim to “understand cancer with the same totality that Newton understood gravity.”

Music composed by an algorithm analysing novels
Physics Arxiv Blog | 20 March 2014

Step one: You measure the emotional temperature of a book by counting the density of words associated with the eight basic emotions of anticipation, anger, joy, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and trust. Step two: You generate automatic music that reflects these moods and how they evolve throughout the book. Here are some of the results, as Soundcloud embeds, and they are really pretty good.

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