The Best of The Economist – October 2013

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Fighting terrorists: Kill or capture? Two raids by special forces hint at a tactical shift by Barack Obama. On October 5th American special forces launched two nearly simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia. Rather than sending in a Predator drone to vaporise jihadists with Hellfire missiles, the plan was to capture them and take them to America to face justice. The targets were Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir (a leader of the Shabab group that carried out the recent massacre in a shopping mall in Kenya) and Abu Anas al-Libi (a veteran al-Qaeda operative, long on the FBI’s most wanted list).

Canadian Freemen: Freeloaders on the landAmerican-style anti-government eccentrics take root in Canada. Until recently Canada was not known for the type of nutty anti-government movement that is a staple of life in the United States. That has changed because of a bizarre and protracted dispute between a landlord and a tenant in Calgary, Alberta.

Canada’s First Nations: These schools are our schoolsAnd they’re much worse than they could be. Officialdom in Canada has a long and sordid history when it comes to the First Nations (Indians), who make up 60% of the country’s 1.2m aboriginal inhabitants. The British depended on them in the war of 1812 against the United States but betrayed them in the peace settlement. Colonial and then Canadian governments took away most of their land by treaty or trickery and forced their children into residential schools aimed at assimilation. There they faced grisly punishments—a needle through the tongue or electric shocks—for speaking their mother tongue. Many students were sexually abused.

Technology and luxury goods: Catwalk credentialsWhy Burberry’s boss is a perfect fit for Apple. Among stewards of big luxury brands Angela Ahrendts, the boss of Burberry, is probably the geekiest. Her main achievement has been to make the 150-year-old British company the most technologically savvy of its peers. Burberry plans to be the first luxury company that is “fully digital end to end”, she boasts. But what can she do for Apple, which on October 14th said it would poach her to run its retailing operations? Probably the opposite: revive a sense of style at a tech firm that has lately looked a bit dowdy.

Taxis and technology: Tap to hailIn ever more cities, smartphone apps are reshaping the taxi market. Since last month the citizens of Johannesburg have been able to hail and pay for taxis through SnappCab, a local start-up. A tap on SnappCab’s smartphone app summons a cab; a driver accepts on his own phone; and the passenger sees the driver’s name and photo, so he knows whom to expect and when. At journey’s end, he can pay with another tap through a pre-loaded credit card, or in cash. The idea is simple: the app makes it easier to bring together drivers, whose cabs are often empty, and passengers. Time and fuel are saved. Money is made.

Geothermal geopolitics in Korea: Another rumblerNorth Korea allows British scientists onto its most sacred peak. Mount Paektu, a dormant volcano which straddles today’s border between China and North Korea, has long been considered a holy place. The mountain, and the lake at its summit, are revered by North and South Koreans as the birthplace of Tangun, the mythical founder of Korea. It still features in the opening verse of South Korea’s national anthem. In North Korea it is taught that, in the 1930s, Kim Il Sung led an anti-Japanese guerrilla movement under the cover of Mount Paektu’s dense forests, and that his son, Kim Jong Il, was born in a hut on its flanks. The Chinese too, who call it Changbaishan, have long prized it. Hikers and pilgrims visit, though the border has not been without dispute. After the war that split Korea in two in the 1950s, the North agreed to a new border with China across the middle of the lake, a solution which still angers many Koreans.

Tablet computers: OverdoseThe market for tablets has already split into two. Nokia is going out with a flourish. In Abu Dhabi on October 22nd, at its last launch party before the sale of its mobile-phone division to Microsoft, the Finnish company showed off its first tablet. Like Nokia’s smartphones, the Lumia 2520 uses a version of the American firm’s Windows operating system. New models of Microsoft’s own Surface tablets, announced last month, went on sale the same day.

Interstellar travel:Starship troupersIf starships are ever built, it will be in the far future. But that does not deter the intrepid band of scientists who are thinking about how to do it. Space, as Douglas Adams pointed out in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, is big. Really big. It is so big, in fact, that even science fiction struggles to make sense of it. Most sci-fi waves away the problem of the colossal distances between stars by appealing to magic, in the form of some kind of faster-than-light hyperdrive, hoping readers will forgive the nonsense in favour of enjoying a good story.

The economics of interstellar flight: Starship enterprisesDismal scientists also like speculating about space flight. Starships are a fantastical subject. Yet when engineers design them, they try to be as rigorous as possible. After all, the laws of physics apply to a starship just as much as they apply to bridges or motorbikes.


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