October 30, 2015
Humans are social and generally want to be part of the crowd. Studies of social conformity suggest that the group’s view may shape how we perceive a situation. Those individuals who remain independent show activity in a part of the brain associated with fear. ... We are natural pattern seekers and see them even where none exist. Our brains are keen to make causal inferences, which can lead to faulty conclusions. ... Standard economic theory assumes that one discount rate allows us to translate value in the future to value in the present, and vice versa. Yet humans often use a high discount rate in the short term and a low one in the long term. This may be because different parts of the brain mediate short- and long-term decisions. ... We suffer losses more than we enjoy gains of comparable size. But the magnitude of loss aversion varies across the population and even for each individual based on recent experience. As a result, we sometimes forgo attractive opportunities because the fear of loss looms too large.
Meet the iChip, a plastic block that helped scientists discover a new antibiotic that kills superbugs. Will it be enough to save humankind from the coming bacterial apocalypse? ... Even more exciting is the innovation used to discover teixobactin: the unassuming plastic blocks. Each one is called an iChip, short for isolation chip, so-named because of how it captures microbes from soil. Until now, scientists hunting for antibiotics haven’t been able to study 99 percent of the world’s microbial species because, when ripped from the outdoors and encouraged to grow under desolate laboratory conditions, the vast majority of bacteria die. The iChip overcomes this problem by keeping things dirty: Burying soil microbes in their natural habitat during the culturing process preserves the organic compounds they need to thrive, enticing previously stubborn microorganisms to multiply under human supervision. ... An investigation by a U.K. government task force estimates that the global toll of antibiotic resistance is 700,000 deaths per year—and that it could soar to 10 million by 2050. In the United States, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-immune bacteria annually; some 23,000 die. (The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the estimate “a bare minimum.”) All that illness and death exacts substantial economic losses, too: The U.K. task force projects that resistance will sap between 2 and 3.5 percent of the world’s GDP—about $100 trillion—over the next 35 years. ... The iChip could prove an essential tool for warding off bacteria’s looming assault on humans, but it’s not a cure-all. ... Rather than trying to determine what biological compounds soil bacteria need to flourish—science still doesn’t have a precise answer—he focused on the simple fact that many microbes are happy in dirt.
For Zeines and Hurwitz, their time in the promised land has turned out to be a little disappointing. Given the things they’ve seen, life’s long since lost the ability to surprise. With a pound of lox as a housewarming gift, I’ve come to their tax-haven sex mansion to hear their improbable story—how two sons of an ultrareligious Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn witnessed the birth of a new kind of lending, made a fortune, and then saw it all come to an end. Not in the form of an FBI raid, but with Wall Street bankers paying millions to take over the action. ... Zeines and Hurwitz made their money in a field that’s now called merchant cash advance. ... At Second Source, the best customers were the most desperate. Often they were immigrants with poor English. Brokers bragged about their biggest rip-offs. For motivation, Hurwitz would tape $100 bills to the wall. Salesmen who weren’t cutting it would have their chairs taken away. “Why are you sitting on my chair,” Hurwitz would yell, “if you’re not making me any money?”
If you want to understand the nonconformist culture of Southwest Airlines, you’ve got to start with its holiest site: the shrine to Herb. Walk into the company’s headquarters, located in a five-story gray building next to the Love Field airport in Dallas, go past the front desk, and proceed down a broad hallway until you get to a horseshoe-shaped employee lounge with a soaring atrium. There you’ll find a museum of sorts honoring Southwest’s Wild Turkey–swilling, Marlboro-smoking co-founder and former CEO, Herb Kelleher. In one towering poster on the wall he’s shown hamming it up in a sequined Elvis costume; in another he’s arm wrestling an aviation rival for charity. Push a red button and you can hear a recording of three versions of Kelleher’s famous laugh—the guffaw, the chortle, and the roaring belly buster. On the walls there are embossed plaques with a selection of his favorite sayings, none more emblematic than this gem: “If you rest on your laurels, you’ll get a thorn in your butt.” ... The company is in the process of reworking or jettisoning altogether much of Kelleher’s tried-and-true strategy—with plans to fly in a totally new strategic direction. In fact, after years of consistently outsmarting and outperforming the traditional carriers, Southwest is today remaking itself to operate more like them. ... The goal? To attract more of the most lucrative customers: high-fare-paying business travelers flying long distances.
De Beers’ undertaking highlights the dilemma faced by diamond miners, who are forecasting diminishing supplies if they don’t discover new caches of gems. Only a blockbuster discovery will enable them to keep long-term production at current levels, according to De Beers and analysts. ... The problem: Only a fraction of the world’s underground diamond deposits are large enough to justify the expense of harvesting them. ... Global diamond production is expected to peak in 2017, when 164 million carats of diamonds are forecast to be produced, according to McKinsey & Co. After that, production is expected to go into a long-term decline, unless major new discoveries are made, McKinsey’s forecasts show. ... De Beers is marshaling new technology, including advanced computer algorithms that can comb through the mass of data the company gathers as it scans the Kalahari for signs of a diamond-studded kimberlite, a pipe of solidified lava containing rich veins of diamonds pushed up from the earth’s mantle. Only about 15 in 100 kimberlite pipes contains even one diamond, and only a fraction of those have enough to make them worth building a mine to harvest the diamonds
Matt Ginsberg’s training is in astrophysics. He got his Ph.D. from Oxford when he was 24 years old. His doctoral advisor there was the famed mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, and he recalls rubbing elbows with the academic rock stars Stephen Hawking and the late Richard Feynman. He created an artificial intelligence crossword puzzle solver called Dr. Fill and a computer bridge world champion called GIB. ... Unsurprisingly, there’s pretty heavy math involved to make this real-time sports predictor work. For one element of the system’s calculations, Ginsberg sent me a pdf with eight dense pages of physics diagrams and systems of equations and notes on derivations. It uses something called the Levenberg-Marquardt algorithm. It requires Jacobians and the taking of partial derivatives and the solving of quartics, and code efficient enough to calculate it all up to the split second. If predicting the future were easy, I suppose everybody would do it. ... One thing this project can’t predict, however, is its own future. Its uses are, so far, largely speculative, and cashing in on a minor superpower might not be easy. Even gamblers who bet during play would struggle to make much money from a half-second heads-up that a shot is going in. But Ginsberg’s system would find a natural place in the long line of sports technologies that have been used for a singular end — TV.