The Best of The Economist – November 2013

Motivating workers: Ranked and yankedFirms that keep grading their staff ruthlessly may not get the best from them. It is a brutal management technique in which bosses grade their employees’ performance along a “vitality curve” and sack those who fall into the lowest category. Known as “ranking and yanking”, it had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. In America its popularity faded somewhat after it was seen to have contributed to the fall of Enron. Now it is back in the headlines.

Lexington: Barack, Bibi and IranBinyamin Netanyahu thinks Barack Obama a feckless ally, but he has no better one. A crisis is brewing in America’s relations with Israel. The American public—though strongly pro-Israel—seems either not to have noticed or not to care much.

Time to cheer upAfter a dreadful decade abroad, Americans are unduly pessimistic about their place in the world, writes Edward Carr. On May 1st 2003, at 6pm Pacific daylight time, the immense power of the United States reached a peak. After just six weeks’ fighting, Saddam Hussein’s 375,000-strong army had been routed at a cost of only 138 American lives. Standing on the flight deck of the aircraft-carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, before a banner emblazoned with the words “Mission Accomplished”, President George Bush proclaimed that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

Advertising to children: Cookie Monster crumblesAre children fair game for sophisticated and relentless marketing techniques? Many countries think not. While her husband’s health-care plans founder, Michelle Obama is pressing ahead with her own. Last month, joined by Rosita, a turquoise Latina muppet, and Elmo, a shaggy red one, she announced that Sesame Street’s puppets would promote fruit and vegetables rather than sugary and fatty fare; Cookie Monster may need to find himself a new job. Mrs Obama’s fight against childhood obesity has several fronts (she calls it “Let’s Move!”) but marketing is an important one. In September she convened the first White House meeting on marketing food to children. Their preferences “are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create”, she told the assembled executives. “And that’s where the problem comes in.”

RoboconfWhat is it like to attend a conference remotely, via a robot proxy that provides video- conferencing on wheels? Sci-fi writers have long imagined technologies that would allow you to manipulate and control a perfect replica of yourself in a distant location. Today’s remote-presence robots are crude by comparison, amounting to little more than videoconferencing on wheels. But they can still be surprisingly nifty, as this correspondent discovered while pottering around RoboBusiness 2013, a robotics conference recently held in California, from the comfort of a desk 1,500 miles (2,500km) away, in Austin, Texas.

Virtual currency: Bitcoin under pressureIt is mathematically elegant, increasingly popular and highly controversial. Bitcoin’s success is putting it under growing strain. All currencies involve some measure of consensual hallucination, but Bitcoin, a virtual monetary system, involves more than most. It is a peer-to-peer currency with no central bank, based on digital tokens with no intrinsic value. Rather than relying on confidence in a central authority, it depends instead on a distributed system of trust, based on a transaction ledger which is cryptographically verified and jointly maintained by the currency’s users.