The Un-X-able Y-ness Of Z-ing Pick of the day

The English title of Milan Kundera’s sixth novel, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, yielded one of the great memes of the English language; it “dropped into the flow of culture like a spot of dye” when the novel was published in 1984. The original Czech phrase was Kundera’s own; the English translation was by Michael Heim. The only competition for phrases of comparable resonance comes from the Bible (4,670 words)

Time’s Arrow Traced To Quantum Source

Hot things cool, solid things crumble, fragile things break. The universe moves towards equilibrium only. But why? Quantum mechanics may have an answer: Entanglement. “Particles gradually lose their individual autonomy and became pawns of the collective state … What’s really going on is things are becoming more correlated with each other. The arrow of time is an arrow of increasing correlations” (2,326 words)

Speech: On The Middle East

“The region is in turmoil. At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilising communities and even nations. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively” (4,900 words)

Why Did Russia Give Away Crimea Sixty Years Ago?

Officially, Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 to celebrate historic ties between the two countries and because Crimea and Ukraine were becoming increasingly integrated. But Crimea’s population was 75% Russian at the time. More probably — and ironically, given recent events — the transfer was meant to further Russify Ukraine by adding 860,000 ethnic Russians to Ukraine’s already large Russian minority (2,248 words)

Revolt Of The Cities

American cities are “charting a new course for American liberalism” thanks to a new cohort of mayors elected with progressive and populist agendas — typically including universal pre-school, mandatory inner-city hiring for major projects, higher minimum wages, more public transport. Bill de Blasio in New York gets the national headlines, but there are similar stories in Pittsburgh, Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston (4,300 words)

American Broadcasting Companies vs Aereo

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court. Extraordinarily interesting to hear the justices discussing how to reconcile new technologies with old laws. In this case, the defendant Aereo argues that it can relay broadcast television over the internet, without violating copyright, so long as it has a “dime-sized antenna” for each user in its Brooklyn warehouse, giving each user a notionally private signal (PDF) (20,000 words)

Capital Punishment

A BROWSER BONUS: Thanks to our content partnership with Foreign Affairs magazine, we can offer Browser subscribers the full text of selected Foreign Affairs articles. In this article from the new May-June issue, Tyler Cowen argues that Thomas Piketty’s “important” book about inequality, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, is “brilliant” within its limits; but blinkered in the ideas it admits, and naive in the solutions it proposes (3,215 words)

The Pope In The Attic: Benedict In The Time Of Francis Pick of the day

Vivid, charming portrait of two Popes in one Vatican City. “It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church” (5,300 words)

Transcending Complacency On Superintelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence is “potentially the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity”. And yet very little serious scientific research is being devoted to the ways in which it will change our world. It is as though we humans were getting a message from a superior alien civilisation saying, “We’ll arrive in a few decades”, and we were replying, indifferently: “OK, call us when you get here — we’ll leave the lights on” (520 words)

When Hitler Was Curator

Reflections on the Neue Galerie’s exhibition of “degenerate art” banned by the Nazis. “The terrifying but necessary thing to do is to look into Hitler’s thoughts on art and to realise that there are places where we agree with him. Hitler’s abhorrence of Modernist art was a common reaction in his day. It takes much training to appreciate the work of the Expressionists, let alone see beauty in it” (1,900 words)

The Most Important Book Ever Is All Wrong

A sceptical view of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The scholarship is impressive, the data is “second to none”, the style is accessible. But the conclusions drawn are tendentious at best, and sometimes downright perverse. Piketty clearly feels a personal horror at rising inequality, which skews his own judgement — and which delights his many like-minded readers and critics (1,280 words)

Mind Readers

Faintly terrifying account of research indicating that coma patients in “persistent vegetative state” are often conscious — minds trapped within bodies, a modern form of being buried alive. Techniques described here rely on brain imaging, but persuasively so. Seemingly-comatose patients can be taught to respond to questions via fMRI: by thinking about particular subjects they activate particular parts of the brain (8,150 words)

Springtime Thoughts

Possibly the best short piece about racoons you will read today. “I have reviewed what other columnists and bloggers have written in the last few days on more frequent current political and economic personalities and subjects, and Henrietta and her cub are more interesting and more admirable. We would rather have them sheltering in or near our house than almost any contemporary political leader I can think of” (1,000 words)

Vinyl Is Great — But Not Better Than CDs

CDs and vinyl do sound different. That’s not because vinyl records are in some way more authentic; on the contrary; CDs transcribe more accurately, especially since compression algorithms have improved. The “warmth” that some listeners find in vinyl records is probably introduced by recording engineers who, in mastering for vinyl, routinely cut back on extreme high and low ends and filter out sibilance (1,820 words)

Life Sentences: The Grammar Of Clickbait

How Upworthy headlines work. “The titles introduce a fairly typical theme in the first sentence, then use a much shorter sentence to complicate or undermine it. The second sentence piques you to resolve the irritation it causes. We might call these couplets epodal, but I think the effect is more similar to catalexis in that the second line’s brevity emphasizes something unfinished or incomplete” (1,140 words)

The Art Of Antarctic Cooking

Review of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, by Jason C. Anthony; and The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, by Carol Devine. Explorers ate what they could carry and what nature provided — seals, penguins, and the dogs which carried the supplies until they became supplies themselves. At worst they ate hoosh, a stew which might contain anything from penguin flipper to old rope (2,690 words)

Interview: Stalin

Irresistible. The New Statesman reaches into the archives and pulls out a plum. H.G. Wells, in Moscow for a writers’ conference, interviews Stalin: “I am very much obliged to you, Mr Stalin, for agreeing to see me. I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt and tried to ascertain what his leading ideas were. Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world” (6,300 words)

Bonfire Of The Humanities

Good news from Mali. When jihadists lit a bonfire of manuscripts in Timbuktu’s library last year, they had found only a fraction of the treasures. Most had already been spirited out, first by donkeys to safe houses across Timbuktu, then up the Niger river in daily convoys of canoes organised by a lawyer from Seattle. They rest now in Bamako, “the secret history of a continent before Europeans arrived” (6,000 words)

Caught In An Avalanche Pick of the day

The snow churns like surf, sweeping downhill at 80mph and burying anyone caught up in it. For those who survive the fall, what follows is worse. “Enough air can diffuse through densely packed snow to keep a human alive, but warm breath causes the snow around the face to melt. Inevitably, that melting snow refreezes. This forms a capsule of ice around the climber’s head. The climber, buried alive, slowly asphyxiates” (1,300 words)


Rude and funny. Notes on taking up running, concluding with a brutal fisking of the advice offered to women by Runners’ World website. “In the changing rooms I discovered two things: 1) that most sports clothing manufacturers hate women and 2) that female runners know of a secret supplier, who fashions magic leggings that hold in your stomach, lift up your arse and make the outline of your knickers disappear” (1,600 words)

Let The Past Collapse On Time

Russia’s lurch towards democracy in 1991 was not so much a revolution as an interlude. With Putin, the Soviet mindset has returned. “The country automatically becomes hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader. All of his fears, passions, weaknesses, and complexes become state policy. If he is paranoid, the whole country must fear enemies and spies; if he has insomnia, all the ministries must work at night” (1,820 words)

The Immortal Horizon Pick of the day

On running the 100-mile Barkley Marathons in northern Tennessee. “What makes it so bad? No trail, for one. A cumulative elevation gain that’s nearly twice the height of Everest. Native flora called saw briars that can turn a man’s legs to raw meat in meters. The hills have names like Rat Jaw, Little Hell, Big Hell, Coffin Springs, Zip Line, and an uphill stretch, new this year, known simply as the Bad Thing” (6,880 words)

Being In Your Twenties Is Actually Great

I never suspected otherwise, but still, it is good to have this confirmed by people on the spot. “You can marry whomever you want, regardless of their gender. You can move anywhere in the EU and be in your twenties there instead. And when it doesn’t work out, you can come home crying and have a complete life rethink and no one will think you’re a failure; they’ll just think you made the most of your youth” (1,230 words)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art Of Fiction

In memory of Marquez, who died on April 17th, a classic interview from 1981, which begins with a discussion of the differences between literary writing and journalism. The main one, says Marquez, is the productivity: “On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day” (8,725 words)

Tricks Of The Food Trade

People are getting fatter because they are eating more, rather than because they are exercising less. They are eating more because human bodies require protein for development; cheap, industrialised food contains relatively little protein, but lots of sugars and fats engineered to taste like protein; such food, in effect, tricks the body into consuming more calories in order to maintain a target level of protein (790 words)

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