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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Writers Or Missionaries?

It’s hard to write well about the Middle East without knowing its problems at first hand; and you can hardly know those problems without being drawn into them. You start by wanting to describe things; you soon want to change them. Orientalism is a constant temptation: “The Palestinians are important to the West because, through their oppression by Israeli Jews, they have become characters in a Western narrative” (8,400 words)

Off My Table, Damn Carnivore

On vegetarian activism in India. “In Mumbai, vegetarians have set up residential enclaves in various parts of the city and tweaked their housing complex bylaws to forbid the selling and renting of properties to non-vegetarians.” In Gujarat, Jain monks are trying to enforce vegetarianism on the town of Palitana; they propose to “rehabilitate” the town’s 68 butchers by retraining then for new occupations (2,150 words)

The Uses Of Adversity

All of the New Yorker’s content is temporarily available free on line while the web site is updated; browse and enjoy previously gated favourites. Here is a Malcolm Gladwell piece on a very Gladwellian theme: how an underdog can triumph. The case study is that of Sidney Weinberg, who rose through Goldman Sachs from janitor’s assistant at 16 to senior partner at 40, making his outsider status work in his favour (4,424 words)

What Happened To Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

If you were living in Russia, you’d get your news from state-controlled television and radio, and here’s what it would tell you: That MH17 is actually MH370, the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared in the Indian Ocean; it was secretly held at an American military base on Diego-Garcia for re-use. The plane was filled with corpses, not passengers, when it left Amsterdam; and flown on autopilot. Russia was framed (1,540 words)

Musical Gold

Portrait of three thirty-ish New York siblings, the Carpenters, who deal in rare stringed instruments. They can find you a good Stradivarius “in the low millions”. They seem pretty accomplished at selling themselves, too: “The combined effect of their personalities can feel overwhelming, like an elixir that is more potent than anticipated”. Their aim is to create “the Gagosian gallery of the fine-instrument business” (6,960 words)

Getting By Without Russia Pick of the day

Russia has a big history. It has gas and nukes. It looks big on the map, but its size is exaggerated by Mercator projections, and it doesn’t have a lot to offer in any other respect. Its neighbours are not mere “props and brackets for its weight”. Could the world manage without Russia? Yes, and so it should while Russia is in the hands of Vladimir Putin — “the privatisation of a beautiful old prison by one of its former jailers” (777 words)

The Secret Of Minecraft

To know how to play Minecraft, you have to know how to play Minecraft. It isn’t intuitive; there is no in-game tutorial. The knowledge passes between players, and gets codified in third-party books and websites. The purpose of acquiring this arcane knowledge is not to beat the game, but to continue the game, to build new things. Minecraft is telling us something encouraging about our cultural needs (1,300 words)

Sana’a

Notes on a visit to the capital of Yemen, for tourism. “From the outside, the buildings look like confectionery. The icing is decorative white trim made from lime. Many houses have a sort of carved stone cage affixed at some of the windows that serves as a cooling station for meat or water. It’s set up so that the breeze will blow through and chill whatever’s inside. There is a lot of strategic draught management in Yemeni architecture” (6,700 words)

Are Liberals Rescuing Marriage?

The conventional wisdom of 1960s and 1970s America was that liberal values undermined marriage. But now the reverse seems to be true: educated liberals are the ones who get married, stay married, and care for their children; whereas “uneducated Americans” are “abandoning marriage and two-parent child-rearing”. Perhaps liberal morality is “better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world” (850 words)

The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment Of All Time

Roko’s Basilisk. I admit right away that I don’t understand this. But I want to understand it, I’m reasonably sure that it ought to make sense, and I’m going to read it a couple more times in the hope that it does. It seems to involve a variant of the Monty Hall decision-making problem, crossed with the time-travel possibilities of Looper, within a computer-simulated world reminiscent of The Matrix (2,210 words)

How To Talk Like An Estate Agent

“If in doubt, add -ed. Call something a ‘two-bedroom flat’ and it seems plain, but a ‘two-bedroomed flat’ sounds more made-to-measure; that flat has been thoroughly bedroomed, twice. Turning ‘open-plan’ into ‘open-planned’ emphasises the ratiocination of the flipper at the very moment he rammed a sofa up one end of the kitchen, in order to bedroom the place up and add £50,000 to the asking price” (780 words)

After The Crash

Commentary on the crisis in Ukraine, with remarks from former Kremlin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, who thinks Putin has gone too far: “The audience is warmed up and ready to go. It is waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down’. It’s a dangerous moment. Forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn’t want war with Ukraine. Putin needs to lower the temperature” (1,110 words)

Choosing A Driving Plan Pick of the day

The recommendation goes to the whole collection of articles on this site, which tells the story of the coming hundred years by describing the products and services which will be invented during that time. Driving plans are just like mobile phone plans, but for driverless car networks. Do you want fixed pricing or dynamic pricing? Miles or minutes? Low minimum and expensive overage, or high minimum? (1,070 words)

Movies Are Not A Growth Business

First in a four-part series (all good) on the American film and video-gaming industry. Cinema no longer a growth business despite appearances. Total theatre revenues have been rising, but attendance is falling and marketing costs have tripled. Theatres have responded by pushing up ticket prices, but they cannot go on doing so indefinitely when other forms of entertainment are cheap and plentiful (710 words)

Why Did Nobody Resurrect The Caliphate Before Isis?

Asked and answered, succinctly. Because earlier Islamist groups — Hamas, Hezbollah, FIS, Taliban — were products of national struggles, with national objectives; they were focused on defeating the infidels, not the Shia; and not many people want to live back in the middle ages, where the caliphate belongs. “The extremism and brutality of da’ash is really off-putting to your average guy on the street” (300 words)

Bertrand Russell’s Lofty Pacifism

Rather lovely portrait of Bertrand Russell; his birth into the highest reaches of wealth and privilege; his collisions with Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence; his transitions between philosophy and political activism; his not unwelcome stays in jail. In Brixton in 1918 he was allowed to “wear his own clothes, rent a private room equipped with his own books and furniture, eat his own food and employ other prisoners as servants” (3,200 words)

The Lost World Of Stefan Zweig

Renewed enthusiasm for Zweig’s writing, stirred in part by Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, is carrying his reputation to greater heights than it reached in his lifetime. He was complacent about Nazism until it was too late, while easily panicked by smaller dangers. Contemporaries found something “contorted and unresolved” in his character. But we can empathise now with his circumstances and his sensibility (2,530 words)

Meat Without The Murder

Interview with Professor Mark Post, whose lab produced the first in vitro hamburger last year with funding from Sergey Brin. Interesting throughout. Commercial production of synthetic beef may come in seven years; cost about £15 per kilo. Could whale meat be made likewise? Yes, but that probably wouldn’t stop whaling. And human flesh? Yes, but “are you sure you want to go there? Let’s do this one weird step at a time” (1,500 words)

Psychological Therapy Would Cost Nothing

Mental illness, especially depression, is the main sickness of the working age population in Britain. Cognitive-behavioural therapy costs, on average, £650 per person, and has a 50% success rate. The cost to the state of an unemployed person living on benefits is £650 a month. Depressed people also consume physical health-care at twice the average rate. So treating the depressed would probably pay for itself several times over (1,110 words)

The Elephant In The Discotheque Pick of the day

Can you have genius, yet no taste? Consider the Bee Gees. They were prodigies; hit-makers for 34 years, rivalled only by The Beatles. In 1978 the songs from Saturday Night Fever accounted for 2% of worldwide music industry revenues. But they were never chic, often ridiculed, not without reason. “Forgive them. They wrote a dozen of the finest songs of the twentieth century. The Bee Gees were children of the world” (2,840 words)

The State Of The American Dog

In defence — yea, in praise — of pit bull terriers. They are widely hated, feared, demonised. Yet there is nothing in their DNA to distinguish them from other dogs. Any dog can behave badly if it has been neglected or exploited. If you have a fondness for pit bulls, prepare to be enthralled. If not, then this may come across as an outrageous piece of special pleading. Either way, it will stir you in the way that good writing should (6,500 words)

The Good Tsar Bias

19C Russians proverbially believed that the Tsar was good but his underlings let him down. Many Germans felt similarly about Hitler. This delusion seems to be common in, and peculiar to, authoritarian regimes. Why so? Perhaps because, when a leader successfully captures the sense of national identity, to blame him for bad outcomes undermines one’s own identity; more comfortable to scapegoat underlings (1,870 words)

What’s So Funny?

Is laughter a biological phenomenon or a cultural one? Does all laughter have something in common, or are there distinct kinds? Science acknowledges three main theories of laughter: It preserves the ancient triumphalism of bare-teethed hunters; it is a modern response to the illogical or unexpected; it is the release of nervous energy or suppressed emotion. But where does tickling come in? (3,100 words)

No Church in The State Of Nature

Jay-Z and Kanye West, in No Church In The Wild, relate Hobbes’s state of nature to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. “They seem to think that without a belief in a God that creates rules there would be no morality. So for them the state of nature is like a world in which there is no God to create or enforce moral rules. This leads us to the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God loves it? Or, does God love it because it’s good?” (950 words)

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