Best of The Economist, July 2012

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Judaism and the Jews: Alive and wellJudaism is enjoying an unexpected revival, says David Landau. But there are deep religious and political divisions, mostly centred on Israel. Judaism is flourishing, both in Israel, where 43% of the world’s Jews now live, and throughout the Jewish diaspora. The Jews as a nation are flourishing too. Israelis, for all their problems, are the 14th-happiest people in the world, happier than the British or the French, according to a recent global happiness report commissioned by the UN. In the diaspora Jewish life has never been so free, so prosperous, so unthreatened.

Economics of sleep: Snoozing geysersCrisis-stricken Icelanders drink less and sleep more. Wealth clearly parts company with health if it makes you nervier, boozier or fatter. But finding data to prove the links is tricky. A new paper* for America’s National Bureau of Economic Research by Tinna Laufey Asgeirsdottir of the University of Iceland and her colleagues has given some unusually precise answers.

Libraries and e-books: Literary labours lentThe uncertain economics of lending virtual books. Like a tired marriage, the relationship between libraries and publishers has long been reassuringly dull. E-books, however, are causing heartache. Libraries know they need digital wares if they are to remain relevant, but many publishers are too wary of piracy and lost sales to co-operate. Among the big six, only Random House and HarperCollins license e-books with most libraries. The others have either denied requests or are reluctantly experimenting. In August, for example, Penguin will start a pilot with public libraries in New York.

The 19th International AIDS Conference: Looking into the futureNow that the means exist to bring AIDS under control, attention is turning towards a cure. “CAN AIDS be cured?” That was the question being whispered in the back rooms and satellite meetings of the 19th International AIDS Conference, held in Washington, DC, this week. The conference’s formal business was to keep up the momentum behind the most successful public-health campaign of the past 30 years: the taming, at the cost of a few pills a day, of an infection that was once an inevitable killer. It still kills. About 1.7m people succumbed last year. But that figure is down from 2.3m in 2005 (see chart 1), and is expected to continue falling. Now, therefore, some people are starting to look beyond the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs which have brought this success. They are asking if something else could do even better.

The importance of cities: Joy of crowdsAt some point in 2008, someone, probably in either Asia or Africa, made the decision to move from the countryside to the city. This nameless person nudged the human race over an historic threshold, for it was in that year—according to the United Nations, at least—that mankind became, for the first time in its history, a predominantly urban species.

North Korea’s leadership: Disneyland for dictatorsKim Jong Un stamps his own style on his fantasy kingdom. These are unsettling times for watchers of North Korea. Scholars who used to pore over rambling documents on the philosophy of self-reliance are suddenly confronted with strange new questions. Who is the svelte young woman seen accompanying North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un? Why were American symbols such as Mickey Mouse, Rocky Balboa and Frank Sinatra featured at a concert that the two attended in Pyongyang this month? And who are the pop stars with miniskirts and electric violins who elicited an elated thumbs-up from the bouncy mini-Kim?

2012 Olympics: Going for goldThe economic impact of the games. The athletes have begun to arrive. The capital is emblazoned with Olympic rings and over 200,000 pink signs directing spectators to events. The race for medals will begin on July 27th. But however the home team fares, David Cameron, the prime minister, promises to turn the games into gold for Britain.

Do-it-yourself apps: Make your own Angry BirdsHomebrew apps have arrived. Last year Eddie the pig took Chile by storm. The iPhone game “ePig Dash”, featuring Eddie, dislodged “Angry Birds” to become the number-one paid game on the Chilean App Store. By itself, the story of a cute, if flatulent, pig pushing a bunch of irate birds off the top spot is nothing unusual. What is odd is that the creator of “ePig Dash”, a conjuror and economics teacher, knew little or nothing about programming. Instead he used GameSalad, a do-it-yourself tool for app-makers.

Yahoo!: Googling a new bossMarissa Mayer takes on one of the toughest jobs in tech. Shortly after news broke on July 16th of her appointment as the new chief executive of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer revealed that she is expecting her first child later this year. Long-suffering shareholders are hoping that Ms Mayer, who left a senior job at Google to take up her new role, will produce a new Yahoo! as well. But that will not be easy.

Money and the markets: Insatiable longing, Two new books probe the limits of capitalism. Most MOST policymakers, and the economists who advise them, believe that the rich Western economies have suffered a mechanical malfunction. With the right monetary, fiscal and regulatory tools, the growth machine will eventually whirr into life. Others think the West’s true malaise is not mechanical but moral: a love of money, markets and material things.

The Vatican’s woes: God’s bankersA beleaguered papacy is embroiled in intrigue. Some scent a succession struggle. Few things annoy Vatican officials more than lurid novels that depict the papacy as the secretive heart of a global conspiracy. Pope Benedict XVI’s most senior official, his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, this month accused journalists of trying to imitate the American writer, Dan Brown, author of the preposterous—and bestselling—“The Da Vinci Code”. But it was not reporters who put the papal butler, Paolo Gabriele, in a four-by-four-metre cell, accused of leaking a stream of confidential letters. Nor was it they who, the next day, fired the head of the Vatican Bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, and published a blistering statement accusing him of failing to do his job. An Italian police investigation, in which documents were seized from Mr Gotti Tedeschi on June 5th, has stoked fears of more scandal. He has since been quoted as saying he fears for his life.

Advertising on mobile phones: Attack of the covert commercialsDigital ads are popping up in irritating places. Everyone hates digital ads. Yet the ads pay for the free apps that people love to download. Small wonder that crafty firms are slipping them into unexpected places. And that is why, on July 12th, America’s Department of Commerce will hold a public meeting in Washington, DC, to discuss this and other aspects of mobile privacy.

Schumpeter: No rushIn praise of procrastination. There is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. This columnist finds that, whenever his editor starts yapping, his mind focuses on the following subjects. (1) His toenails. Surely they need to be cut? (2) Walter Russell Mead. What is the bearded sage saying about East Timor in his blog? (3) His dogs. They seem desperate for a walk. (4) His inbox. It would be rude not to reply to that graduate student from the University of Tomsk.

Segregation in cities: Living in black and whiteHow different races inhabit cities. Carl Nightingale’s history of segregation claims to be a detailed account of how cities were, for millennia, divided along racial lines. But it is really a history of how colonialism affected the construction, governance and policing of great urban areas.

Nora Ephron and Lonesome George: When Nora met GeorgeNora Ephron, observer of sexual behaviour, died on June 26th, aged 71. Lonesome George, habitual abstainer, died on June 24th, aged perhaps 100. The first story Nora Ephron had to write for the New York Post—the one that made the guys on the city desk fall around laughing, got her the job, and launched her on a career of witty, wise writing on surviving modern life—was about a pair of hooded seals at the Coney Island aquarium. They were not only not mating, as they were supposed to, but also refusing to have anything to do with each other.


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