Best of February 2015

In Defense of the Selfie Stick: The selfie stick which has been ubiquitous in East Asia for a few years now is hitting the rest of the world. People in these countries are surprised why it is needed. Miguel de Icaza pretty much sums up my opinion on this (inconsequential?) topic.

It assumes that the volunteer will have the patience to wait for the perfect shot (“wait, I want the waves breaking” or “Try to get the sign, just on top of me”). And that the volunteer will have the patience to show you the result and take another picture. Often, the selfista that has amassed the courage to approach a stranger on the street, out of politeness, will just accept the shot as taken. Good or bad. Except for a few of you (I am looking at you Patrick), most people feel uncomfortable imposing something out of the blue on a stranger.

Stop Trying to Save the World: The problems left in the world are complex. In project after project, developed-world intellectuals continue to think they can solve a problem everywhere it occurs with a simple solution and are failing spectacularly.

If someone is chronically malnourished, to pick just one example, you should give them some food, right? Duflo and Banerjee describe dozens of projects finding that, when you subsidize or give away food to poor people, they don’t actually eat more. Instead, they just replace boring foods with more interesting ones and remain, in the statistics at least, “malnourished.” In Udaipur, India, a survey found that poor people had enough money to increase their food spending by as much as 30 percent, but they chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals instead. Duflo and Banerjee interviewed an out-of-work Indonesian agricultural worker who had been under the food-poverty line for years, but had a TV in his house. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand the underlying dynamic here: Cheap food is boring. In many developing countries, Duflo and Banerjee found that even the poorest people could afford more than 2,000 calories of staple foods every day. But given the choice between the fourth bowl of rice in one day and the first cigarette, many people opt for the latter.

How one stupid tweet ruined Justine Sacco’s life: The online naming, shaming and bullying of people for something they said in a moment of stupidity is turning into a seriously bad phenomenon. It might take a while for social norms to evolve to ignore such incidents for what they are, insignificant.

He murmured the joke to his friend sitting next to him, he told me. “It was so bad, I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “Something about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle, a ridiculous dongle. . . . It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.” Moments later, he half-noticed when a woman one row in front of them stood up, turned around and took a photograph. […] The woman had, in fact, overheard the joke. She considered it to be emblematic of the gender imbalance that plagues the tech industry and the toxic, male-dominated corporate culture that arises from it. She tweeted the picture to her 9,209 followers with the caption: “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” Ten minutes later, he and his friend were taken into a quiet room at the conference and asked to explain themselves. Two days later, his boss called him into his office, and he was fired.

Let India’s urban poor pay for good water: Pavan Srinath makes a compelling argument to provide good quality basic utilities to the poor who are willing to pay more for it.

India’s urban poor pay more for water than the rest of us. Take the case of Bangalore. Many of the city’s more deprived residents do not have access to municipal water, in the form of a working connection from the water supply agency. Those who do have a connection can only meet a fraction of their needs on the unreliable supply. The city’s poor by and large get their water through tankers and through informal sellers. A water tanker can cost over Rs50 a kilolitre. Many more buy water by the pot or the bucket, where they may pay a rupee or two for 20 litres. That translates to Rs50-100 again for a kilolitre. By contrast, the most profligate users of Bangalore’s municipal water pay Rs36 a kilolitre.

The Pursuit of Beauty: A beautiful piece on an esoteric mathematician who solved a famous problem on bounded gaps between prime numbers.

From Zhang’s result, a deduction can be made, which is that there is a number smaller than seventy million which precisely defines a gap separating an infinite number of pairs of primes. You deduce this, a mathematician told me, by means of the pigeonhole principle. You have an infinite number of pigeons, which are pairs of primes, and you have seventy million holes. There is a hole for primes separated by two, by three, and so on. Each pigeon goes in a hole. Eventually, one hole will have an infinite number of pigeons. It isn’t possible to know which one. There may even be many, there may be seventy million, but at least one hole will have an infinite number of pigeons.

Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat: Every food item we pick up in a store or restaurant has been carefully engineered by an entire industry to look beautiful, taste great, at cheap cost, but with no word about its long term consequences on our health.

A pastry chef in gleaming whites rounded off his live demonstration by offering sample petits fours to the buyers who had gathered. His dainty heart- and diamond-shaped cakes were dead ringers for those neat layers of sponge, glossy fruit jelly, cream and chocolate you see in the windows of upmarket patisseries, but were made entirely without eggs, butter or cream, thanks to the substitution of potato protein isolate. This revolutionary ingredient provides the “volume, texture, stability and mouthfeel” we look for in cakes baked with traditional ingredients – and it just happens to be cheaper.

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