Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell review – puzzled by banalities


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Are these lessons on ‘the stranger problem’ and how to engage with other people anything more than statements of the obvious?

Believe it or not, people aren’t totally transparent to one another. Liars can seem honest, spies can seem loyal, nervous people can seem guilty. People’s facial expressions are not a reliable guide to what they are thinking. Or, to put it in Hamlet’s words, one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

If any of this is surprising to you, then you are in exalted company, because it also surprises Malcolm Gladwell, whose job it is to be puzzled by banalities and then replace them, after a great pseudo-intellectual circumambulation, with banalities. Gladwell affects to find it baffling how we can get people we don’t know so wrong. So he calls it “the stranger problem”, and pretends that it explains everything.

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Jeremy Corbyn called Boris Johnson a ‘phoney’ – he chose his word well


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The Labour leader’s choice of adjective, derived from an old con, seems fitting in our age of false Brexit promises

This week Jeremy Corbyn called Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson a “fake populist and phoney outsider”. It was unclear what he meant by “fake populist”, since populists are always fakes in their pretence of caring about the people. Strictly, a “fake populist” should be someone who poses as a populist but is actually a thoughtful and ethical leader, which is probably not what Corbyn meant.

For many readers, meanwhile, the adjective “phoney” will be indelibly associated with JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in which the teenage Holden Caulfield applies it liberally to the hypocrites he sees around him. (“He was the kind of a phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody’s question.”)

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‘Leverage’: Britain’s vocabulary gap in the face of no-deal Brexit


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This week, Britain was warned that a good trade deal with the US is unlikely as it has ‘no leverage’ – a usage coined by William Gladstone

As Dominic Raab flew across the Atlantic this week to feast on chlorinated chicken, a former US treasury secretary warned that we are unlikely to get a good trade deal with the US. Britain is “desperate”, Larry Summers said, but “has no leverage”.

In investing, “leverage” is the practice of borrowing multiples of your stake so you can win more if the bet pays off, as Brexit won’t, but it originally meant simply the action of a lever, from 1724. (“Lever” itself comes, with pleasing directness, from the French lever, to raise.)

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‘Boosterism’: Boris Johnson’s economic policy isn’t rocket science


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The PM wants to put rocket boosters on the British economy. It sounds thrilling, but what does ‘boosterism’ really mean?

Asked this week what his new economic policy was, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson replied: “Boosterism!” He wanted to put “rocket boosters” on the British economy, as a way of “turbocharging” it. Turbocharging (in aviation, originally “turbo-supercharging”) sounds perfectly thrilling, as long as the vehicle one turbocharges is not heading straight for a concrete wall. But is it quite the same as “boosterism”?

A rocket “booster” is the massive first stage of a multipart rocket, such as the Saturn V that delivered the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. But the verb “to boost”, as well as meaning “to steal” in thieves’ cant, has also long meant to support or encourage. And so “boosterism”, since 1926, is the act of talking something up, whether it be a dodgy stock ...

Trigger warning: how did ‘triggered’ come to mean ‘upset’?


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Donald Trump Jr is using the word as the title for his forthcoming liberal-bashing book. But is he being a snowflake?

Donald Trump Jnr announced this week that his new book-shaped object, due out in the autumn, was Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. That might seem a bit snowflakey coming from someone whose racist dad is literally the president, but how did “triggered” acquire the sense of “emotionally distraught”?

The word “trigger” for the lever of a gun or trap was originally spelled “tricker”, and came from the Dutch trekken, to pull. From 1930 “to trigger” an event, idea, or action was to act as a catalyst for it. In 1977, the American jazz cornet player Jimmy McPartland explained: “Before I improvise, I just listen, and that triggers me.” He did not mean that what he heard upset him ...

Trigger warning: how did ‘triggered’ come to mean ‘upset’?


This post is by Steven Poole from Books | The Guardian


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Donald Trump Jr is using the word as the title for his forthcoming liberal-bashing book. But is he being a snowflake?

Donald Trump Jnr announced this week that his new book-shaped object, due out in the autumn, was Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. That might seem a bit snowflakey coming from someone whose racist dad is literally the president, but how did “triggered” acquire the sense of “emotionally distraught”?

The word “trigger” for the lever of a gun or trap was originally spelled “tricker”, and came from the Dutch trekken, to pull. From 1930 “to trigger” an event, idea, or action was to act as a catalyst for it. In 1977, the American jazz cornet player Jimmy McPartland explained: “Before I improvise, I just listen, and that triggers me.” He did not mean that what he heard upset him ...

‘Vaccine hesitant’: a gentler label than anti-vaxxer, but just as scary


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Reluctant parents who keep their opinions on jabs to themselves have been called a global threat by the World Health Organisation

This week we learned that parents who are unsure whether to have their children vaccinated against dangerous diseases are in the grip of “vaccine hesitancy”, a term that first appeared in print in 2008 but is becoming distressingly more common. It is not clear whether there is a symmetrically opposed group who are “vaccine curious”, but to call such waverers “hesitant” is at least gentler than calling them “deniers”.

The word “hesitant” itself is first recorded in 1647, when the Roman emperor Hadrian was said to be “hesitant, or halting”. It comes from the Latin haesito, meaning to stay in one place, and so to vacillate or remain undecided. But sometimes those who decide fastest are the stupidest, and hesitancy has been described as the sign ...

Listen up: why we can’t enough of audiobooks


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In this time-poor, podcast-friendly world, audiobooks are booming. So what is the science behind them – and do they change our relationship with the written word?

Are audiobooks the new… books? It was recently revealed that audiobook sales rocketed by 43% in 2018, while those of print books declined (by 5%) for the first time in five years. Can people no longer be bothered to read for themselves? Is this, rather than the ebook, the harbinger of the slow death of print, about which we have been warned for so long? And if so, what does that mean for literary culture? Let us first retain some historical perspective by noting that Homer’s Iliad was essentially an audiobook before it was ever written down. Oral ...

From tobacco to milkshakes: where did ‘sin taxes’ come from?


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Boris Johnson thinks sin taxes are part of the ‘nanny state’ – but he’s muddling up his authority figures

This week, campaigners were worried that Theresa May’s cherished plans to increase “sin taxes” on tobacco companies and milkshakes would not survive the end of her premiership. Boris Johnson, perhaps a man particularly reluctant to contemplate negative consequences for sin, said that “sin taxes” were part of the “nanny state”. This, however, is to confuse two authority figures. A nanny punishes naughtiness; sin is punished by God.

The phrase “sin tax” is first recorded in 1901, in an article about a young women’s society in the US that fined its members for using slang. (“My sin tax!” exclaimed one as she paid up.) Its political use, to mean state levies on alcohol, tobacco and gambling, is attributed to Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, during his previous time as ...

On reflection: how the ‘albedo effect’ is melting the Antarctic


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This environmental phenomenon is a vicious feedback loop – but would painting our roofs white help?

This week we learned that there has been a “precipitous” fall in Antarctic sea ice since 2014. That won’t increase sea levels, but it’s still bad because white ice reflects more of the sun’s heat back away from Earth than dark water. As the ice melts, more heat will be absorbed, which will melt more ice. This vicious feedback is known as the “albedo effect”.

The term comes from the Latin albus, meaning white, from which we also get “albino” and “album” (which in ancient Rome could mean a blank tablet). In English it is first recorded, meaning “pure whiteness”, in a letter by the astronomer royal John Flamsteed, complaining about Isaac Newton’s Optics: “He calls the colour of that representation of the sun which is made by the collection of his ...

Novacene by James Lovelock review – a big welcome for the AI takeover


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The Gaia theorist, at 100 years old, is infectiously optimistic about the prospect of humanity being overtaken by superintelligent robots

In an acerbic 1976 article on AI research, the computer scientist Drew McDermott was the first to contrast the phrases “artificial intelligence” and “natural stupidity”. Four decades later, researchers warn of the threat posed by computer “superintelligence”, but stupidity is still a far greater peril: both the age-old natural stupidity of humans and the newfangled artificial stupidity displayed by algorithms – such as chatbots supposed to be able to diagnose illness, or facial-recognition software that throws up false matches for ethnic minorities – in which we place far too much trust.

An alternative reason to be cheerful about the coming machine takeover is offered here by the eminent scientist and inventor James Lovelock. A chemist by training, who invented instruments for Mars rovers and helped to discover the depletion of ...

Why has Facebook coined their new cryptocurrency Libra?


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Cryptocurrency is a new word with ancient roots – and Libra is just the latest to enter the digital money market

This week Facebook announced that it was to launch a new cryptocurrency, a form of digital money aimed at hoovering up profits from people in developing countries without access to banks – or, as Mark Zuckerberg put it more subtly: “I believe it should be as easy to send money to someone as it is to send a photo.”

The ancient Greek root kryptos (from which we get “crypt”) means concealed or secret. So an animal might be a cryptodont (lacking obvious teeth), and a politician might be a crypto-fascist. Cryptography is “secret writing”, or coded communication – as with the German Enigma machine, or encrypted messaging services. And cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin) is digital coinage that uses cryptographical techniques for secure transactions.

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What We Really Do All Day review – surprising truths about modern life


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We sleep more than we used to but exercise less than we say – Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan offer a fascinating analysis of data on how we spend our time

Was there ever such a time as this? The pace of life is relentlessly accelerating: change happens faster and faster, we are busier than ever before, and ordinary human warmth is crowded out in the rush. Indeed, there was such a time: it was the late 19th century, during which many writers complained about the unprecedented hurry of the modern age.

A few decades earlier, the telegraph marked a change in the speed of communication that dwarfs anything observed in our lifetimes. In our supposedly accelerationist epoch, smartphones and the major online monopolies have been around for more than a decade, and much trumpeted “innovation” has consisted of attempts to rebrand taxi or hotel businesses as technological breakthroughs. Yet ...

Donald Trump wants the UK to ‘get rid of the shackles’ – what does that mean?


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Shackles have been strapped to prisoners’ legs for a millennium but maybe they are now our final protection from strange American imports

During his state visit this week, Donald Trump tweeted that a “big Trade Deal” would be possible once the UK “gets rid of the shackles”. He was not communicating from a cell in the Tower to negotiate the removal of his leg-irons. Shackles have been prisoners’ fetters for a millennium, but since 1200 or so they have also been any metaphorical restraint.

Our “shackles” in this case are the EU regulations that prevent the UK importing American chlorinated chicken and suchlike. In John Yeats’s 1872 book The Growth and Vicissitudes of Commerce, the author recounts the difficulties caused to domestic industry by the fact that, in the 16th century, the Hanseatic League operated its own steelworks in London as a “state within a state”. When the emperor ...

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer review – how to write clearly and stylishly


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This jaunty set of rules for good writing has become a bestseller in the US. But is it always right?

When a book manuscript has been revised and approved by the editor, it goes to a copy editor, someone who, in the words of Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, “is to prose what a cobbler is to shoes: a mender”. The relationship between author and copy editor can be a testy one: emotions can boil over about the necessity or otherwise of certain commas, let alone word choices and sentence structure. Veterans of such skirmishes on both sides will enjoy learning of the spectacularly prima donna-ish writers Dreyer mentions (anonymously) here: one responded to the copy editor’s suggestions by writing “It’s called style” in the margin; another simply scrawled in red: “WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOK.”

Well, he has, and it’s already a bestseller in the US. Dreyer ...

‘Fiasco’: does Brexit make more sense in Italian?


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A misshapen ‘flask’ or a singer’s bum notes – British politicians are failing in Italian style

The elections for the European parliament this week were a “fiasco”, it was said, for both Labour and the Conservatives. But “fiasco” is the Italian for bottle or flask, so why has it come to mean a disaster, of the sort we seem to be permanently ensconced in?

This English use is first recorded only in 1855, and its derivation – still described as “obscure” by the OED – much exercised literary correspondents to 19th-century journals such as Notes and Queries. The most picturesque explanation sources it to Venetian glassblowing. Once upon a time, a gentleman visiting a glass factory asked to try his hand at blowing a fine specimen, but it turned out to be more difficult than it looked, and the misshapen tube he produced was good only for use as a ...

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem review – are you a Rabbit or a Bear?


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A road trip through the California desert becomes a thumping political allegory for a divided nation


What is a novelist to do in the age of Trump? One option would be to write a story in which the female narrator, a Hillary-supporting New Yorker, is lured by a mystery into the California desert, where she encounters a political allegory about a divided nation. The desert, you see, could be home to two off-the-grid tribes: a matriarchal hippy gang called the Rabbits, and a macho crew known as the Bears, who all but go around in red Make America Great Again caps. Their generations-long standoff could encapsulate quite neatly what the author thought about the modern schisms between Democrats and Republicans.

So it goes with the new novel by Jonathan Lethem, in which Brooklynite Phoebe Siegler, having freshly quit her job at the New York Times, goes in search of her ...

‘Tariff’: what’s in the word behind Trump’s tit-for-tat trade war?


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The trade stand-off between China and the US escalated this week, but what exactly does ‘tariff’ mean?

The trade stand-off between the US and China escalated this week, with Beijing announcing it would increase tariffs in turn. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand what he is doing – he has claimed the Chinese would have to pay for his tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the US, when Americans do. But why are they called “tariffs” anyway?

The word comes from the Italian “tariffa” for arithmetic or accounting, and was first used in English for mathematical tables, before it became a specialised word for customs duties. (The “tariff” was originally the whole set of such duties, or what is now called the “schedule” of tariffs.) Thereafter it could also apply to the list of charges made by a hotel, or a sentencing scale for more or less severe examples ...

‘Tariff’: what’s in the word behind Trump’s tit-for-tat trade war?


This post is by Steven Poole from Books | The Guardian


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




The trade stand-off between China and the US escalated this week, but what exactly does ‘tariff’ mean?

The trade stand-off between the US and China escalated this week, with Beijing announcing it would increase tariffs in turn. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand what he is doing – he has claimed the Chinese would have to pay for his tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the US, when Americans do. But why are they called “tariffs” anyway?

The word comes from the Italian “tariffa” for arithmetic or accounting, and was first used in English for mathematical tables, before it became a specialised word for customs duties. (The “tariff” was originally the whole set of such duties, or what is now called the “schedule” of tariffs.) Thereafter it could also apply to the list of charges made by a hotel, or a sentencing scale for more or less severe examples ...

Bitcoin Billionaires by Ben Mezrich review – the tale of the Winklevoss twins


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Coders, cocktails and a bank heist in reverse – the brothers who sued Mark Zuckerberg and hit bitcoin boom time

If you have seen The Social Network, you will remember the Winklevoss twins: tall, preppy Harvard students (both played by Armie Hammer) who also happened to be Olympic oarsmen and who ended up suing Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea to make Facebook. (Zuckerberg eventually settled for $65m.) In that film they were portrayed as faintly ridiculous comic relief, personifying the establishment against which the geeks triumphed. No doubt, then, they were eager to be interviewed for this book, in which they are the heroes.

Ben Mezrich wrote the non-fiction account on which The Social Network was based, The Accidental Billionaires, and since it seems that the word “billionaires” works well in a book title, he is back to tell the story of how the Winklevi ...