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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