Seven of the week's best reads
- 7 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
Seven articles published elsewhere on the web this week, as selected by Bob Trevelyan, editor of The Browser.
1. Mass revolt
The Republican candidate for the US presidency, Mitt Romney, was governor of Massachusetts just six years ago. Yet today he's so unpopular there he's barely bothering to campaign in the state. Why did the voters became so alienated? This account of Romney's governorship contends that "the big problems that have been plaguing Romney on the campaign trail - that he's personally inaccessible, that he's had trouble unifying his party, that he's become known as a flip-flopper - all have their roots in Massachusetts".
2. Sicily, a portrait of Italian dysfunction
Welcome to Sicily! An island of beautiful landscape, fabulous food and deeply dysfunctional politics. Since gaining autonomy from Rome in 1946, the island's politicians have handed out cash and jobs like confetti to ensure patronage and forestall reform. How else to account for 10s of thousands of publicly employed "forest workers" in a place with no forests? "In most cases elsewhere, self-determination encourages responsibility. In Sicily, the effect has been the opposite." Now the island - in some ways an extreme version of Italy itself - is reaching breaking point.
3. The economics of video games
Massive multiplayer online games have virtual economies so big and complex that they need real economists to run them. Eve Online has eight. And Valve has hired a top eurozone analyst to organise a monetary union across its various games. "Without oversight, the games' economies can go badly awry - as when a gambling ban triggered a virtual bank run in the online world of Second Life in 2007, with one bank alone costing players $750,000 in real-life money." The flip side is that economists also have a testing ground to see how policy ideas for the real world that no one has been brave or daft enough to implement play out in practice.
4. Creative blocks
The laws of physics tell us that artificial intelligence must be possible. So why does it have such a long record of failure? Says physicist David Deutsch: "I cannot think of any other significant field of knowledge in which the prevailing wisdom, not only in society at large but also among experts, is so beset with entrenched, overlapping, fundamental errors." So what is it that may unblock our understanding? And is there a role for philosophy here?
5. The blind faith of the one-eyed matador
A year ago, a famous Spanish matador received one of the most horrific injuries in the history of bull fighting.
Amazingly, he survived a severe facial goring. Even more amazingly he's now back in the ring.
"In the bull fighting world, there is this saying, Torear la suerte: an aphorism that contains an entire philosophy. Brutishly translated: 'Bullfight your fate.'
"With his eye patch in place, Juan Jose Padilla shakes out the muleta, his red cape, and shouts: 'Toro!' Everybody's eyes are full."
6. It's my birthday too, yeah
How many people do you need to assemble before there's a 50-50 chance that two of them share a birthday? You know that the number is counter-intuitively low (it's 23). But do you know why? If not, invest a couple of minutes here with maths professor Steven Strogatz and his retelling of an episode from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1980.
(See also Are you more likely to die on your birthday? from the BBC Magazine)
7. Diary: Philby in Beirut
Travels in the footsteps of Kim Philby, who spent seven years in the Lebanese capital before defecting to Moscow. By the time he fetched up in Beirut, he'd been forced out of the British secret service and was writing for The Economist and The Observer. But when an old friend was appointed MI6 station chief in Lebanon, he began freelancing for his old employers - possibly both of them. He ran off with a friend's wife, kept a pet fox and, as the net eventually closed in, drank more and more heavily. His escape, in a rainstorm, is worthy of a le Carre novel.