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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Ukraine And Great-Power Rivalry

Useful backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis from a Russian (but not a Kremlin) perspective. Key points: Relations between Russia and the West have changed fundamentally for the worse. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are the “new battleground” for influence. Russia has pivoted towards China. Poland has pivoted against Russia. Russia’s defiance of America has won it new credibility in the Middle East (11,800 words)

The Man Who Groomed A Nation

Jimmy Savile “does not belong among the amoral heroes of Patricia Highsmith, disposing of people without remorse in a meaningless universe. Rather, he inhabits the driven world of Graham Greene, where the protagonist is in a lurid and sweaty argument with his maker, trying to pile up credit points to balance the final ledger against what he knows full well to be his sins”. Review of Dan Davies’s biography, In Plain Sight (2,000 words)

Football Is Unquantifiable

Why does data-based predictive analysis work so well in baseball and so badly in football? Because football has far more external variables, many of them related to environment and emotion. “Baseball players can only perform actions that have a limited range of outcomes, making it not too dissimilar to games like chess. Loving football requires an acceptance of devastation or ecstasy, without warning, with regularity” (1,450 words)

The Many Poses Of Marcel Marceau

Marceau was the first, and perhaps the last, master of mime as popular art. He infused formal traditions with the slapstick of Chaplin and Keaton. But when he died he left no heir. “He had performed the same sketches for sixty years. There was nothing for other mimes to build on. He inspires only poor imitations. Upon his death, the art of mime steps back out of the mainstream. It becomes a busker’s act—obscure, often mocked” (1,650 words)

Facebook: A Golden Age For Research

Internet platforms try to shape our moods and behaviour all the time. The difference was that Facebook told us about it — and was making a serious effort to understand how manipulation works. We need more of this, not less. “If anything, we should insist that companies like Facebook – and governments – perform and publish research on the effects of the decisions they’re already making on our behalf” (860 words)

Interview: Motoyuki Shibata

Japanese editor and translator discusses Japanese fiction, and portrayals of Japan in Western fiction. High praise for David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: “Usually if you’re Japanese, you feel kind of condescending towards Western writers trying to write from a Japanese point of view. But Mitchell is really thorough, and it reads like a wonderful English translation of a Japanese novel” (3,200 words)

The Real 10 Algorithms That Dominate Our World

An algorithm is a “well-defined computational procedure that takes some value, or set of values, as input and produces some value, or set of values, as output”. The first stage in data processing is usually to get the input values sorted — which is why Merge Sort, invented by John von Neumann in 1945, is probably the hardest-working algorithm in the world today, along with its close cousins Quick Sort and Heap Sort (1,900 words)

Gay, Jewish, Mentally Ill, And A Sponsor Of Gypsies

The author returns to Romania, whence his grandparents fled pogroms and poverty. “I looked at the local peasants and thought that, if their forefathers had not burned down the houses of mine, mine wouldn’t have left. And I looked at what had happened to us in two generations, and looked at what hadn’t happened to them in two or three, and instead of feeling outraged by their history of aggression I felt privileged by it” (2,370 words)

World Cup Boom And Bust

Notes from Manaus, Brazil, where one-quarter of houses have no running water and nine-tenths have no mains sewerage. When the river floods, residents “find alligators or snakes swimming in their living rooms”. The 19C opera house, product of a short-lived rubber boom, inspired a Herzog film; but it pales as a folly beside the $350 million, 40,000-seat football stadium built for the World Cup (1,350 words)

Are The Authoritarians Winning?

Authoritarian regimes, led by China and Russia, are “aglow with arrogant confidence”. Democracies are wracked by “envy and despondency”. But the authoritarian vision of prosperity without freedom is unsustainable. “The saving grace of democracy is its adaptability. It depends for its vitality on discontent. Discontent leads to peaceful regime change, and as regimes change, free societies can discard failed alternatives” (3,730 words)

The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress

The notion of stress as a danger to health was invented in 1936 by a Canadian scientist with funding from the cigarette industry. Tobacco makers also funded research into the “Type A personality” — the person “so full of stress and pressure” as to be at high risk of a heart attack. The industry’s aim was to advance stress as the cause of cancer and heart attacks, with smoking as the antidote (1,300 words)

Nature’s Perfect Killing Machine

The ebola virus announced itself to the modern world with two outbreaks in 1976. It carries a fatality rate of 50-90% — “the platonic ideal of a doomsday slate-wiper”. In almost 40 years science has found no predictable pattern to epidemics, no standard treatment, no vaccine. The best that doctors can do is to assuage panic, persuade sufferers to stay in bed, scatter bleach, and warn strangers away (3,690 words)

Transformers 4 Is A Master Class In Economics

The lessons are in the making of the film, not in the content. First, the real money comes from owning the machines: Transformers made $300m in its opening weekend, the biggest film of 2014. Second: Humans are dispensable; the franchise has got rid of its human star Shia LeBoeuf, and nobody cares. Third: China is as big a market as America; this Transformers is full of scenes tailored to a Chinese audience (1,800 words)

Free Markets Killed Capitalism

Interview with Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation, on how monopolies and the reaction against them have shaped America since independence. The Boston Tea Party was not a revolt against taxation but against the East India Company, which Americans feared would monopolise their commerce. A basic problem of capitalism is the relative ease with which monopolists can capture free markets (8,220 words)

If Scotland Goes

Most English are “only just waking up” to the idea that the United Kingdom might “go poof” if Scotland votes for independence in September. Then what? “The Irish question would be reopened, as Northern Ireland’s status began to look increasingly anomalous”. England would need a new base for its nuclear submarines. But if Britain could absorb the loss of America in 1776, it can absorb the loss of Scotland in 2014 (2,880 words)

Has GDP Outgrown Its Use? Pick of the day

GDP gets far too much respect as an economic indicator, given its fuzzy and shifting nature. It’s pretty good for measuring production of raw materials and simple manufactured goods, but much less reliable with complex manufactured goods, and “atrocious” at capturing services — which account for two-thirds of rich-world output. “Our societies have been somehow hijacked by pursuit of a single data point” (3,300 words)

Abe’s Long March

Japan’s government plans to “reinterpret” the postwar constitution to allow Japan to intervene militarily on behalf of allies; a momentous change without even a parliamentary vote; in keeping with prime minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist agenda. It’s hard to say which prospect will please China less: A Japan defended by America, or a Japan with its own nuclear weapons and an independent foreign policy (900 words)

Twilight Of The Pizza Barons

Tom Monaghan founded Domino’s, which was all about delivery. Mike Ilitch founded Little Ceasar, which was all about value — his two-for-one deals “worked so well that he installed conveyor-belt ovens to keep pies coming”. Now they are a study in contrast. Monaghan, 77, has given his money away and prepares like a monk for death; across Detroit, where both men live, Ilitch is building an 18,000-seater hockey arena (2,630 words)

English, Loanword Champion Of The World!

English borrows words liberally from other languages, but lends plenty too, often with something gained in translation. “Japan’s Pokémon takes its name from English pocket monster. Japan’s puroresu is another abbreviated compound, from professional wrestling. Then there are loans where a word stays intact but the meaning shifts. A smoking is French for a tuxedo, and a dressman is a German male model” (1,090 words)

Jeff Koons Is Back

Sympathetic portrait of America’s emblematic modern artist. His reputation boomed in the 1980s, crashed in the 1990s, and has surged back to a new high in the past decade. His Balloon Dog sold for $58.4m, the highest price paid for a work by a living artist. He sees himself as the new Picasso. But probably he is more like Warhol; he nails the Zeitgeist. And he understands selling; he used to trade commodities (4,950 words)

First World War, The Battle Of Historians

We will get a more accurate picture of the First World War, now that the last participants are dead. While they lived, historians writing about the war paid “a natural deference” to their memories and sensibilities. But as history comes to be written entirely from documents, “there can be, paradoxically, far more rigour in the analysis, as sources are tested against each other, and the unreliability of active memory ceases to intrude” (3,600 words)

Gridlock Capital Of The World

Welcome to Dhaka in Bangladesh, the world’s fastest-growing and densest city, with 15 million people and only 60 traffic lights. There is no planned road network, no subway, and 60 separate bus networks. At peak times cars and buses move at twenty feet an hour. The overhead in terms of social and economic costs is crippling. “Alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time” (1,450 words)

New York’s Shadow Transit

Riding New York’s unofficial public-transport system — the “dollar vans” which go where subways and buses don’t; mostly out to low-income neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations. Vans from Chinatown link Chinese communities in Elmhurst, Flushing, and Sunset Park. Travel comes with all the comforts and discomforts of home: “It could easily be a ride on a bus in rural China” (2,900 words)

Lionel Messi Is Impossible Pick of the day

Statistical analysis of Messi’s play shows him to be the world’s best soccer player by an almost incredible margin. Only Ronaldo comes close: “When it comes to scoring, these two aren’t just on top of the pile, they’re hang-gliding way above it”. Messi is also “a crazy outlier” when it comes to assists: “No one else (aside from, yes, Ronaldo) even comes close to his combination of goals scored versus goals dished” (4,730 words)

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