January 4, 2016
Walter Pitts was used to being bullied. He’d been born into a tough family in Prohibition-era Detroit, where his father, a boiler-maker, had no trouble raising his fists to get his way. The neighborhood boys weren’t much better. One afternoon in 1935, they chased him through the streets until he ducked into the local library to hide. The library was familiar ground, where he had taught himself Greek, Latin, logic, and mathematics—better than home, where his father insisted he drop out of school and go to work. Outside, the world was messy. Inside, it all made sense. ... Not wanting to risk another run-in that night, Pitts stayed hidden until the library closed for the evening. Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead between 1910 and 1913, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. Pitts sat down and began to read. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes. Deciding that Bertrand Russell himself needed to know about these, the boy drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old. But three years later, when he heard that Russell would be visiting the University of Chicago, the 15-year-old ran away from home and headed for Illinois. He never saw his family again. ... Though they started at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, McCulloch and Pitts were destined to live, work, and die together. Along the way, they would create the first mechanistic theory of the mind, the first computational approach to neuroscience, the logical design of modern computers, and the pillars of artificial intelligence. But this is more than a story about a fruitful research collaboration. It is also about the bonds of friendship, the fragility of the mind, and the limits of logic’s ability to redeem a messy and imperfect world. ... “He was absolutely incomparable in the scholarship of chemistry, physics, of everything you could talk about history, botany, etc. When you asked him a question, you would get back a whole textbook … To him, the world was connected in a very complex and wonderful fashion.”
Alibaba is the hottest e-commerce company of the past five years, a fusion of eBay and Amazon whose 386 million active users accounted for $394 billion in sales in fiscal 2015—six times the sales volume of its biggest Chinese competitor. The company created a huge marketplace and a sophisticated distribution network just in time to serve a generation of Chinese consumers attaining middle-class prosperity. “We are seeing Chinese consumers adopt new retail formats and online shopping faster than any of their global counterparts,” says Jasmine Xu, president of e-commerce for Procter & Gamble Greater China. Those trends fueled a rise so impressive that even the mighty Amazon became an Alibaba partner ... Today, however, Alibaba looks mortal. Its growth has slowed, hampered by China’s ebbing economy and by competition from a growing crop of rivals like JD.com. Its stock has fallen 26% from its post-IPO highs, from $115 to the mid $80s. To reignite its growth, chairman and founder Jack Ma and CEO Daniel Zhang plan to lean on U.S. companies—brands that hold enormous appeal in China. “This is an incredibly important strategy for the future of Alibaba,” Ma says. ... Alibaba is pitching itself as a shortcut to the world’s most populous market. Alibaba is helping foreign companies with marketing, data analytics, and shipping. And more recently it has sweetened the pot with a newer service, Tmall Global, that lets U.S. brands sidestep many of the taxes, regulatory hurdles, and logistics hassles that trip up foreign companies in China. ... Tmall, went live in 2008 with a business model sharply distinct from Taobao’s. Tmall is Zhang’s brainchild. He positioned it as a marketplace for higher-quality clothing, food, and electronics, with a focus on luxury brands. ... Tmall owes its growth to China’s rapidly expanding, brand-conscious middle class. Currently there are 109 million Chinese people with a net worth between $50,000 and $500,000, according to Credit Suisse, which estimates that those ranks could surpass 500 million by 2022. It’s a demographic that’s very comfortable with e-commerce: 40% of Chinese consumers buy groceries online, for example, compared with only 10% of Americans.
It is often said that saffron is worth its weight in gold because it is so difficult and labor-intensive to cultivate and harvest. For several weeks every fall, the crocus sativus flower blooms. ... At that moment, saffron producers throw themselves into the harvest. They pick the flowers early in the morning, and on the same day gently tease the bright red, three-filament stigma from each flower and dry them. It takes about 150,000 flowers to produce a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of saffron. ... Little wonder, then, that the precious powder has spawned a trade rife with the kind of deceptions and distortions typical of traffic in gems or illicit drugs: cheap substitutes, diluted shipments, false labeling. ... The turbulence in the saffron market has intensified. The much-anticipated lifting of international financial sanctions against Iran after the nuclear accord last spring has led to brisk saffron speculation inside Iran. (Saffron is several times cheaper here than in Europe, where the retail price can soar to 20,000 euros a kilogram, or about $10,000 a pound).
For a long time, smug worked pretty well for Chipotle Mexican Grill. It’s grown into a chain of more than 1,900 locations, thanks in part to marketing—including short animated films about the evils of industrial agriculture—that reminds customers that its fresh ingredients and naturally raised meat are better than rivals’ and better for the world. The implication: If you eat Chipotle, you’re doing the right thing, and maybe you’re better, too. It helped the company, charging about $7 for a burrito, reach a market valuation of nearly $24 billion. Its executives seemed to have done the impossible and made a national fast-food chain feel healthy. ... Almost 500 people around the country have become sick from Chipotle food since July, according to public-health officials. And those are just the ones who went to a doctor, gave a stool sample, and were properly diagnosed. Food-safety experts say they believe with any outbreak the total number of people affected is at least 10 times the reported number. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from contaminated food every year. ... Whatever its provenance, if food is contaminated it can still make us sick—or even kill. Millennials may discriminate when they eat, but bacteria are agnostic. ... Chipotle has said it will shift more food preparation out of restaurants and into centralized kitchens—that is, it will do things more like the fast-food chains it’s long mocked. Ells’s company has always urged customers to think about its supply chain. Well, now they are. ... It has about 100 suppliers for its 64 ingredients. That doesn’t include local farms—those within 350 miles of a restaurant—which at peak season supply only 10 percent of its produce.
Early on a Tuesday morning last fall, Ronnie O’Sullivan was running through the woods near his home, in Chigwell, Essex, northeast of London. It was damp and muddy, England in November. O’Sullivan, who is thirty-nine, loves the anonymity of running. About ten years ago, he discovered that it was one thing that truly takes him out of himself—more than the drink and the drugs and the antidepressants—and suspends the otherwise unavoidable fact that he is the most talented snooker player of all time. At the age of eleven, O’Sullivan was making good money in the sport, and in the past three decades he has won five World Championships and set a number of records while enduring a bewildering odyssey of breakdowns, addictions, and redemptions, largely precipitated by the imprisonment of his father, whom he loves, for murder. O’Sullivan is frequently described as a genius. But he does not see how this can be so. Most days, he feels like a fraud. His game comes only in fits and starts. He wins because the others lose. He has wondered for a long time whether he would be happier doing something else. He has moved nine times in the past ten years. ... Snooker’s civilized appearance belies its vicious and enervating nature. A snooker table is three times larger than a pool table and its pockets are an inch smaller. Even the most basic shot is a concatenation of foresight, friction, and various Newtonian laws. Players seek to control where at least two balls are going: the red or colored “object” ball, preferably toward a pocket; and the white ball, its rate of braking and spin carefully calibrated, either to stop near another object ball, so the process can begin again, or to continue toward some hostile district of the table, from where the opponent will be unlikely to score. The best players string together thirty shots in a row, in a hushed environment of thick carpet and dinner suits.