Oliver Burkeman

What's More Frightening Than an Evil World Leader? A Stupid One

As you’ll have noticed, there’s an awful lot of stupidity afoot in the world. To take the obvious example, consider the principle the journalist Josh Marshall calls “Trump’s razor”, after the philosophers’ rule known as Occam’s razor: when trying to decode the president’s actions, the stupidest explanation you can think of is always likeliest to be true. It’s sometimes argued that we should be grateful for stupid leaders, since at least their stupidity makes life less hazardous: imagine if they were sufficiently focused and clever to implement their worst ideas! But that wasn’t the view of the late Italian economist Carlo Cipolla. In 1976 he published a tongue-in-cheek essay that’s been gaining new attention in the age of Trump. The Basic Laws Of Human Stupidity makes the alarming case that stupid people are by far the most dangerous.

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Put Down Your Iced Coffee and Stop Torturing Your Taste Buds

“A hot  coffee?” asked the man-bunned barista at my local coffee shop, his eyebrows rising high (toward his bun). It was one of the sweltering days we’ve been enduring recently here in New York, when the rivulets of sweat coursing down your back are sufficiently torrential to distract from the stench of baking garbage in the streets.

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There's No Escape from Advertising

If, like me, you can’t bear those little TV screens in the backs of taxis, just be grateful that you don’t live in Seoul (unless you live in Seoul). There, a few years back, bus passengers were exposed to an even more invasive form of advertising: each time the bus approached a branch of Dunkin’ Donuts, an “aromatizer” device sprayed the scent of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee into the vehicle. The ad executives responsible for this received not lengthy prison sentences, as might have seemed appropriate, but an industry award for “best use of ambient media”.

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Why Is Bureaucracy Worse Than Ever?

Last month, I became a customer of Time Warner Cable, New York’s favorite quasi-monopolistic provider of patchy broadband that’s worse than the internet in Bucharest. Given the firm’s reputation, I was genuinely surprised at how smoothly it all went, up to the point at which I’d entered my debit card details. (I know, I know; in hindsight it seems so obvious.) Then the trouble began. It took five visits from engineers, plus countless phone calls, to get things working; the job required a specific ladder, but the booking system seemed serially unable to dispatch a van equipped with one. Finally connected, I went online to cancel the stopgap internet service I’d been using from another company, only to find that online cancelation wasn’t allowed. And yet, how weird is this: when the day came for Time Warner to process my first month’s payment, everything went off without a hitch.

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Proof That Atheists Are Getting a Bad Rap

Why are atheists so angry? The question – regularly flung around in debates about religion – is a self-fulfilling one, since atheists get pretty irritated whenever they’re asked it. But it’s revealing, too, because it pinpoints a surprising zone of agreement between believers and non-believers: many on both sides accept the premise that atheists are angrier than average.

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Why We Tell Our Secrets to Strangers

Ask around and you’ll discover a mysterious truth about travelling on planes and trains: almost everyone can recall being stuck next to a stranger who wouldn’t stop boring on about his health, job or marriage, yet almost nobody will admit to being that seatmate themselves. Maybe there really is one guy who spends his life oversharing on public transport, and we’ve all bumped into him. But a more likely explanation, in light of studies by the Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small, is that we confide in strangers more than we realise. Many scholars have long assumed our “core discussion network” to be those to whom we’re closest. The modern romantic ideal is to “marry your best friend”, someone who is lover, confidant, co-parent and drinking buddy in one. Yet when asked who they’d most recently confided in, almost half the respondents said it wasn’t someone important to them, but a bartender, hairdresser – or maybe you, trapped in the window seat on a six-hour flight.

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Are We Slaves to the Physical Needs of Our Bodies?

It’s probably the weirdest puzzle in philosophy: do humans really have free will? (Spoiler alert: I won’t be resolving the matter here.) It certainly feels as if we do: at the supermarket, as I reach for some cheddar, it’s surely up to me to suddenly change plans and go for wensleydale instead. Yet this seems to violate the laws of science: everything that happens, including in our brains, is caused by earlier events, which are caused by earlier ones, and so on, all the way back to the start of time. There’s no room for spontaneous choice, cheese-related or otherwise. The problem has big implications: if we don’t have free will, for example, does that mean we shouldn’t punish murderers? So it was unnerving to learn about a study suggesting people’s beliefs on the subject change when they’re tired, sexually aroused or need to urinate. All three conditions, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Michael Ent concluded, make us less likely to believe free will’s real.

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Want to Be a Happier, More Successful Person? Try the Power of Negative Thinking

In 2011, the New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingenpublished the results of an elegant study, conducted with her colleagueHeather Kappes, in which participants were deprived of water. Some of these parched volunteers were then taken through a guided visualisation exercise, in which they were asked to picture an icy glass of water, the very thing they presumably craved. Afterwards, by measuring everyone’s blood pressure, Oettingen discovered that the exercise had drained people’s energy levels, and made them relax. The implication is startling: picturing an imaginary glass of water might make people less motivated to get up and head to the watercooler or the tap in order to quench their real, non-imaginary thirst.

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The New Apple Pay Is a Really Cool Way to Drain Your Bank Account

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced something genuinely terrifying was introduced to the world at Apple’s much-hyped special event in California on Tuesday. Apart from a new U2 album, I mean.

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Airlines, Apple and More Corporations are Pitting Us Against Each Other

The Great Airplane Seat Recliner Wars of 2014 have now caused at least three flights to be diverted, following passenger altercations, while providing much-needed ammunition for professional opinion-havers on the internet. Is it acceptable to use a Knee Defender to prevent the person in front of you from reclining, or monstrous? Should you pay me if you don't want me to recline, or is it "simple decency towards your fellow humans" to refrain to spread out? Is reclining a right or a privilege?

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Confusing Activity with Productivity: How a Lot of Work is Pointless

This week, a survey of more than 500 American employees revealed – and I’m using the word “revealed” in its journalistic sense, to mean “confirmed the staggeringly obvious fact” – that nobody’s paying attention during conference calls. Sixty-five per cent of those questioned said they did other work at the same time as pretending to participate; 55% that they prepared or ate food; 47% that they went to the bathroom; and 25% that they played video games. Twenty-seven per cent confessed to falling asleep at least once during a call, while 5% said they’d had a friend pose as themselves in order to skip it completely.

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One Weird Trick to Beat Online Password Thieves: Stop Worrying So Much

If you still needed convincing that passwords are utterly broken as a system of online security, reports of the largest password theft in history ought to settle the matter. According to the New York Times, a Russian crime ring has obtained 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses. (The Verge is skeptical.)

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The Gun Lobby’s New Tactic: Redefining 'School Shootings' So They Don’t Count

The drumbeat of news about gun violence in the United States is so steady and rhythmic these days that it’s starting to fade into the background. Another week, another school shooting. One of the biggest risks now is of a population-wide numbness, eroding the will to tackle the crisis. So perhaps we should be grimly grateful whenever the gun lobby demonstrates that it retains the power to horrify.

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Screw Positive Thinking! Why Our Quest for Happiness Is Making Us Miserable

The man who claims that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio, and — according to the orange man — I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever.” I’m skeptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America’s “most popular business motivational seminar,” and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.

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