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Best of the Web

Why do we laugh?

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Our picks of the week from around the web, including how to flawlessly predict anything, the function of laughter and the man who saved the dinosaurs.

Superintelligence
Caspar Henderson | Guardian | 17 July 2014

Discussion of new books by philosopher Nick Bostrom and natural scientist James Lovelock. According to Bostrom, artificial intelligence will arrive towards the end of the century, rapidly outstrip human intelligence, and “shape the world according to its preferences”, which are likely to “involve the complete destruction of human life and most plausible human values. The default outcome, then, is catastrophe.”

How to flawlessly predict anything
Andy Baio | Medium | 15 July 2014

It’s easy. So long as you are predicting an event with a limited number of outcomes, you predict all possible outcomes and then take credit only for the prediction that comes true. On the internet you can delete the wrong predictions, leave the correct prediction in place with timestamps, and make your claim even more plausible. Which leads to a rule of thumb: “Never trust a prediction revealed after its outcome.”

What’s so funny?
Mary Beard | Chronicle Review | 14 July 2014

Is laughter a biological phenomenon or a cultural one? Does all laughter have something in common, or are there distinct kinds? Science acknowledges three main theories of laughter: it preserves the ancient triumphalism of bare-teethed hunters; it is a modern response to the illogical or unexpected; it is the release of nervous energy or suppressed emotion. But where does tickling come in?

Meat without the murder
Carole Cadwalladr | Observer | 13 July 2014

Interview with Professor Mark Post, whose lab produced the first in-vitro hamburger last year with funding from Sergey Brin. Interesting throughout. Commercial production of synthetic beef may come in seven years; cost about £15 per kilo. Could whale meat be made likewise? Yes, but that probably wouldn’t stop whaling. And human flesh? Yes, but “are you sure you want to go there? Let’s do this one weird step at a time.”

The man who saved the dinosaurs
Richard Conniff | Yale Alumni Magazine | 12 July 2014

Yale paleontologist Robert Ostrom transformed our understanding of dinosaurs. Before his work in the 1970s they were seen as “plodding, thunderous monsters, cold-blooded and stupid”. He showed them to “have been fleet-footed, highly predaceous, extremely agile”, covered in feathers and related to birds. His view of birds as living dinosaurs, revolutionary when first presented, has become mainstream.

Complexity, prediction and politics
Dominic Cummings | 11 July 2014

An oddly structured piece of writing somewhere between a fugue and a rant. The first three-quarters is a collage of observations and anecdotes about probability, mathematical logic and chaos theory. The final quarter is a cry of despair that politicians, charged with making a country’s most momentous decisions, typically have no knowledge of these fields and little experience of well-managed complex organisations.

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