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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Wild Speculation On Hamas And Its Rocketry

Rockets are a very inefficient way of killing people, especially when they don’t have effective guidance mechanisms. But rockets can have a powerful disruptive effect: which is why Hamas uses them, and why it has concentrated, at least until now, on range rather than accuracy. “Siege is a fundamentally economic form of warfare; the Israelis are besieging Gaza, and the Gazans are trying to impose a counter-siege” (1,480 words)

Of Maggots And Brain Scans

Brain scans may seem to explain behaviour in biological terms. But what we see so far is loose correlation, not reproducible causation. There is “serious redundancy”. A small group of activated neurons can induce a given behaviour, “but thirty to forty different groups may elicit the same behaviour”. Second, “a given set of neurons may not always produce the same kind of behaviour, even in the same brain” (1,300 words)

If A Cat Could Talk

Dogs confirm us, cats confound us. Our relationship with cats is an “eruption of the wild into the domestic”. Cats blend in; their lethal instincts align with our interests; but they do not assimilate; they belong to the night. Cats are “vehicles for our projections, misrecognition, and primitive recollection”. They are part of our symbolic universe as much as our physical universe. Michel Foucault called his own cat ‘Insanity’ (2,400 words)

The Verbal Dance Around Killing People

“If you want others to avert their gaze while you get down to a bit of your own killing, or you want them to defend your right to kill, make sure they believe that you are ‘at war’. Your job is done. ‘War’ makes us see the violence as bipartisan, as a show put up by two equal protagonists. ‘War’ makes us see violence as purposeful. Naturally, the parties ‘at war’ are entitled to use force to pursue their goals” (1,000 words)

Russia Is Pregnant With Ukraine Pick of the day

Magnificent satire from Russia’s greatest modern novelist. Worthy of Blake or Gogol. “During that hot month, sitting in front of an overheated television set, Russia conceived. A new life stirred in her enormous womb: Free Ukraine. The authorities were horrified, the liberals were jealous, and the nationalists were filled with hatred. Neither the Kremlin nor the people had anticipated such a rapid development of events” (1,120 words)

Public Displays Of Transaction

Old hat to you, no doubt, but new to me: Venmo is a social media app which combines, more or less, the functions of PayPal and Twitter. Other people can watch you making payments. “A lot of people seem unaware of the stories they’re telling in their transactions. This will likely change once it becomes more mainstream, but for now, it’s the Wild West of uninhibited, relatively public commerce” (784 words)

Israel: What’s Different This Time

The assault on Gaza overshadows another event in Israel — Shimon Peres steps down as president. Peres shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin; but his vision then of “a Palestinian state next to an Israeli one, open borders and regional economic cooperation”, seems today “like a tasteless joke”. The Israeli centre is shifting towards “hyper-nationalism”. Peres’s liberalism is dead (1,600 words)

Guinea Worm Is Almost Eradicated

The guinea worm is a debilitating parasite which infected 3.5 million people in 1986. Last year there were just 148 cases. Eradication is in sight, achieved without a vaccine or a cure. The key was public education — teaching sufferers not to bathe in public water sources, which spread the worms’ larvae. Cost of campaign: $350 million. Huge win for ex-president Jimmy Carter, whose NGO led the effort (960 words)

How To Be Good Pick of the day

Another superb profile from the New Yorker’s archive, de-paywalled for the summer. Derek Parfit is perhaps the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He believes there are true answers to moral questions, as there are to mathematical ones; and that “there is nothing more urgent for him to do in his brief time on earth than discover what these truths are and persuade others of their reality” (10,670 words)

How To Get Paid To Drop Out Of Races

Conversation with Matt Scherer, professional track pacer — or “rabbit” — whose job is to help other people run fast. He leads a race through the first lap or so at a precise speed, set by the race director, before stepping quietly off the track. “Once I established myself, runners were excited when I showed up because then they felt like they didn’t have to think about the first 500 or 600 meters. I got satisfaction from that” (2,139 words)

Shivering In Tolkien’s Shadow

JRR Tolkien completed his prose translation of Beowulf in 1926 at the start of his writing career. He declined to publish it during his lifetime, perhaps fearing for its quality. He need not have worried. It is “a great work of translation”, faithful and deft. “The force of Tolkien’s passion for medieval art occasionally overwhelmed his scholarship, but its sheer strength also explains the lasting power of his work” (1,585 words)

Blacklisted

Account of America’s rules for adding names to its terrorist database, according to the newly leaked March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance. The basic standard is “reasonable suspicion” on the part of a government official. “Concrete facts are not necessary”. Names can be added on the basis of “uncorroborated” social media posts. Family and “associates” of a suspect can be added without further formality. Dead suspects stay on the list (3,488 words)

Indonesia Etc

Entertaining and informative review of Elizabeth Pisani’s book, Indonesia Etc. How can a country of 13,500 to 17,000 islands — counts vary — possibly hold together as a state? Not easily, is the answer, especially since Indonesia’s 260 million people are also divided by five religions, dozens of ethnicities and hundreds of languages. But somehow, the process of national and democratic consolidation continues (1,350 words)

Medical Research: Treat Ageing

Does getting old have to mean getting sick? Not if medicine raises its game and learns to stall the “incremental cellular damage and changes” associated with old age. This would be more efficient and more effective than treating diseases of old age on a case by case basis as we do now. Progress in this direction would be much faster if we broke down the divide between human testing and animal testing (1,970 words)

The EU And An Independent Scotland

Claims that an independent Scotland could remain in the EU are “driven more by advocacy than analysis”. There is “neither precedent nor treaty provision” for a member-state to split and for both parts to stay in. In any event, the question would take time to resolve. The priority for Edinburgh should be agreeing transitional arrangements to maintain EU status for Scottish citizens in any hiatus between leaving the UK and joining the EU (1,850 words)

Behind The Scenes In Putin’s Court Pick of the day

Engrossing, intimate, stylised portrait of the Russian president — daily routine, entourage, travel, meetings, protocol. “There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The President has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders, and after a long separation, there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia” (3,060 words)

How To Win A Tour De France Sprint

It’s teamwork. You need a ‘leadout train’ of several riders. “The team’s designated sprinter is at the back of this train and is sheltered by the efforts of those riding in front to save his energy. With four cyclists riding in a line, a rider positioned four men back only has to produce 64 per cent of the power of the rider at the very front”. The front runners peel off one by one, leaving the sprinter to win (1,100 words)

Obsessing About Gaza, Ignoring Syria

Far more people are being killed, day by day, in the Syrian civil war, than in the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Yet the attention of the West is focused massively on Israel and Palestine, scarcely at all on Syria. “What happens in Syria should be of first-order interest to the US media. But it is clearly not.” The answer may be that “Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs” (1,520 words)

What Is Wrong With The Grand Nation?

Spiegel travels the route of the Tour de France, talks to locals, and asks, de haut en bas: Why is France doing so much worse than Germany in every way? One common rationale: It’s the foreigners. “We still have values here in the village”. “Why don’t the football players sing the national anthem?” Le Point says: “France under François Hollande is like Cuba, only without the sun but with the extreme right.” (4,900 words)

Let’s Fly

How to survive air travel. In brief: Get there early, bring a face-mask and ear-plugs. “Authorities recommend arriving two hours before international flights. I say four. Get there four hours before your flight. Your friends laugh at you. Have patience. You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport” (1,280 words)

Secrets Of The Magus

I’ll continue to throw in recommendations for classic New Yorker articles as long as the online archive remains open. This profile of magician Ricky Jay, “the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive” is a joy throughout — for the glimpses of his performing skills, the portraits of the great magicians who inspired him, and the excursions into magical history and scholarship which are Jay’s ruling passion (14,800 words)

Fasinatng History of Autocorrect

The early Microsoft Word had a feature called ‘glossary’ which allowed a writer to insert stock phrases using short-cuts. Soon a Microsoft scientist twigged that ‘glossary’ could also remedy common spelling mistakes, and that the space bar could trigger substitutions automatically. Autocorrect was born. Not everyone was happy: “Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs(3,030 words)

The Demented Kingdom Of William T. Vollmann Pick of the day

Vollmann’s latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, his twenty-second since 1987, is a “680-page short-story collection about death, putrefaction, ghosts, and cancer”. He works 16 hours a day with no internet, and inhabits the persona of Dolores, a transgender woman. He could probably use an editor. At 55 he has “mellowed as a man”, but “his subject matter has, if anything, grown even more confrontational” (7,440 words)

Dallas Killers’ Club

Sprawling discussion of books on the John F. Kennedy assassination. In brief: Strong case against Mafia don Carlos Marcello; weaker case against CIA; Oswald the scapegoat, either way. “Ask yourself two questions. If there had been a CIA, but no Mafia, would the president have lived through the motorcade? I think the answer is yes. If there had been a Mafia, but no CIA, would the president have lived? I think the answer is no” (6,250 words)

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