The Virtual Is Not the Real

You can watch it on YouTube: the moment when Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most talented snooker player in the world, proves a good enough sport to try out a virtual-reality pool game for a software developer in California. He puts on the projecting headset like an oversized diver’s mask with the lenses blacked out, the haptic hand controls imitating a pool cue, and he studies the arrangement of the balls. Then he leans down to line up the shot on the virtual pool table—and promptly falls flat on his face, because the table isn’t, you know, actually there to support him. “@#$%&*,” he curses, “that’s scary.”

Trouble Online

It all started simply and with great optimism. The internet’s developers—dubbed cyber dreamers by the author—envisioned a free, accessible, and easy means of global communication. In many ways those hopes have been realized, but in Alexander Klimburg’s The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace, the reader is taken through a darker dream—the myriad ways cyberspace has been corrupted for criminal, terrorist, and political purposes.

Remembering Stalin’s Hunger

History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the effect of ideas. Scientific knowledge may progress by abandoning its old notions and even forgetting them. But political knowledge—the interplay of regimes and policies and personalities—advances only while we recall the political arrangements of the past and what came of them. In the old adage of Dr. Johnson, humankind is far more often in need of being reminded than of being instructed.

Fraud, American Style

Poor Buncombe County, North Carolina: home to Asheville, mountainous scenery, Vanderbilt’s robber-baron Biltmore mansion—and along the way, the origin of words for chicanery, flim-flam, and deception. Bunkum, bunk, debunk, the Bunco Squads that police forces used to have: We needed a word for the patter, the polished spiel, of confidence swindlers, and the old British cozenage and French fourberie just didn’t seem to have the oomph that Americans wanted. And so (by a strange path that begins with a bit of 19th-century political bombast), we borrowed Buncombe’s name.

Um, Tell Me What You Mean

It’s like, you know, hard to speak quickly and fluently. To patter on without fillers and pauses. Without ums and ahhs. The testimony of practiced speakers—from political orators to the folks who get up at meetings of Toastmasters International—is that these dribbled bits of linguistic grouting can be scrubbed from speech, if we put in the work to teach ourselves to avoid them.

Which Algorithm Watches the Watchmen?

Cameras, connected to facial recognition software, watch every corner in lower Manhattan. A “heat list” helps police pick out Chicago citizens who may be involved in a future shooting so they can pay a preemptive visit. Information culled from social media, shopping habits, and phone calls is used to build a precise profile of you, and to pinpoint your involvement in any crime.

Seeing and Understanding

It is, at this point, a tired trope: the relative, usually an uncle, of at least embarrassing if not quite unsettling political opinions, a specimen of another time and place with thoughts on everything he’s eager to share but you’d rather he didn’t, at least while we’re eating, please. I have one, and you probably do, too—not so bad as the guides springing up online assume, telling you how to handle him as holiday feasts approach, but a character who keeps family meals interesting.

An Imperfect Portrait

John Banville is a very good writer. Henry James is an even better one. So what’s not to like about Banville’s latest effort—as he picks up where the Victorian novelist left off at the close of Portrait of a Lady, imagining the further adventures of James’s heroine, Isabel Archer?

Historical Inaccuracies Belie the Latest Take on a Zionist Leader’s Legacy

Jabotinsky’s Children is a hatchet job, cloaked in a tone of historical objectivity. The “children” are Betar, the youth movement founded by Zionist leader Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, which boasted some 65,000 members in the 1930s, most of them in Poland. The book’s thesis is that Betar youth, whom the author says Jabotinsky originally viewed with “a mix of pity, disdain and suspicion,” ultimately shaped his world view, making him open to fascist ideas. The author, Daniel Kupfert Heller, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University, further asserts that Jabotinsky deliberately wrote “provocative and ambiguous prose” to allow “Betar activists to interpret their leader’s writings as they saw fit,” in line with what the author views as their own authoritarian and violence-prone ideology.

Bringing Back Virtue

Scene at the signing of the Constitution

America, writes George Mason law professor F.H. Buckley, is rife with corruption. His analysis finds the United States notably more corrupt than similar parliamentary countries. This is quite to the contrary of the framers’ original design of the constitution, which, Buckley argues, was meant to check British corruption. How their vision worked, where it went wrong, and how we could update it for the 21st century is the focus of Buckley’s latest book, The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It.