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Best of the Web

The man who tried to forecast war

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Our picks of the week from around the web, including the maths of warfare, whether we really want to be normal and why we can’t rule out Bigfoot’s existence.

Why we can’t rule out Bigfoot
Carl Zimmer | Nautilus | 7th August 2014

How experimental science works. You start with the assumption that the effect you are observing is random (the “null hypothesis”), then try to collect data to show that the effect is almost certainly not random – usually meaning a less than 5% probability of occurring by chance. You reject the null hypothesis. This is a high standard of proof. We have not, for example, “disproved” the existence of Bigfoot.

Wanting to be normal
Tania Glyde | The Lancet | 6 August 2014

Psychotherapist Glyde writes that many patients say that they “just want to be normal”. But what’s so great about normal? “I stand to be corrected, but I’ll hazard a guess that there isn’t a Shakespeare play, classical drama, or opera that celebrates the protagonist attaining the state of normal as their climax or finale. A gulf seems to exist between the meaning of normality as an outward state, and its desirability as an inward state.”

Cloudy with a chance of war
David Berreby | Nautilus | 31 July 2014

English physicist and mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson pioneered scientific weather forecasting in the 1920s by developing equations that captured atmospheric turbulence. His maths was too complex to be useful at the time, but now provides the basis of computerised weather forecasting. Richardson’s greater ambition was to develop mathematics for forecasting war. That didn’t go so well.

Pinterest – a database of intentions
Alexis Madrigal | Atlantic | 31 July 2014

Interview with Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest. “We think of Pinterest some days as this crazy human indexing machine. Where millions and millions of people are hand indexing billions of objects – 30 billion objects – in a way that’s personally meaningful to them. We’re not building a machine that answers questions, although that’s great. We’re helping you discover the things you like.”

Singapore: Social laboratory
Shane Harris | Foreign Policy | 29 July 2014

Everything that Edward Snowden warned against, and then some, is happening in Singapore, where government put in place total electronic surveillance after the Sars outbreak of 2003, using techniques developed at the NSA. Government can monitor and analyse all data, all communications. The public approves. Singaporeans believe “light-touch repression” helps keep them safe from foreign and domestic threats.

Military culture versus the robotics revolution
Paul Scharre | War On The Rocks | 29 July 2014

How service culture dictates the way that weaponry is used. US Air Force drones are flown remotely from US bases by a pilot officer in a flight suit, with a joystick, sitting in a mock cockpit. US Army drones are flown by enlisted men using computer screens, but located within the theatre of battle. Why? Because Air Force culture centres on pilot skills; Army culture centres on deployment to war.

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