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Writing Worth Reading

Draft Number Four Pick of the day

Another classic from the New Yorker’s ungated archive, while it lasts. John McPhee on how to beat writer’s block. Always plan on four drafts. The first is the dark night of the soul. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye” (6,150 words)

Amazon, Price And Value

Publisher defends the virtues of traditional books. “Books are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess. By ‘thick’ description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature, or blog, or wikipedia entry, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Authors and publisher-curators are in the civilisation business” (1,230 words)

Smart And Smarter Drugs

We are still “in the amphetamine age” of smart drugs — which may not be such a bad place. Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin can make users more interested in their work and more focused on it; they cannot add new capacities such as perfect memory or genius IQ. They benefit lower performers more than high-fliers — so perhaps their natural constituency should not be ambitious students, but the poor and the unemployed (4,100 words)

Cloudy With a Chance of War

English physicist and mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson pioneered scientific weather forecasting in the 1920s by developing equations that captured atmospheric turbulence. His maths was too complex to be useful at the time, but now provides the basis of computerised weather forecasting. Richardson’s greater ambition was to develop a mathematics for forecasting war. That didn’t go so well (3,940 words)

Anti-War Art: Nearly Impossible

Literature is rich in war stories. Why is it not equally rich in anti-war stories? Perhaps because they are formally very difficult. You start telling a story that involves war, even to show its horrors, and the heroism starts creeping in — as happens with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The tension starts with the need for narrative — which is why anti-war poetry works so much better (1,260 words)

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

In praise of William Gibson, who coined the word “cyberspace” 30 years ago in his novel, Neuromancer, and imagined the internet more or less as we have it now — a “consensual hallucination created by millions of connected computers”. The Wachowskis based The Matrix on Gibson’s vision. “Every social network, online game or hacking scandal takes us a step closer to the universe Gibson imagined in 1984″ (950 words)

The Great Philosophers: Theodor Adorno

Adorno was preoccupied with the question of how we spend our leisure. He saw leisure as our prime opportunity to improve our lives by absorbing high culture and philosophy. He railed against radio and television as a threat to human flourishing. He believed that capitalism corrupted human nature by creating artificial wants which obscured our real wants. Luckily, he did not live to see the Internet (1,480 words)

Welcome To Dataland

Disneyland brings together the two contradictory tendencies that animated Walt Disney. He was a traditionalist, fond of railroads and small town main streets and folk tales. But he was also a futurist fascinated by experimental cities — a sort of mass-market Le Corbusier whose visions “might seem daft, but at least he had the modesty to contain them within the fantasy of entertainment rather than to unleash them on the world untested” (2,460 words)

Just How Likely Is Another World War? Pick of the day

Political scientist catalogues the similarities and differences between 1914 and 2014, seven of each, and finds they balance one another fairly evenly; which is not in itself particularly encouraging news. “This exercise in historical analysis leads me to conclude that the probability of war between the U.S. and China in the decade ahead is higher than I imagined before examining the analogy — but still unlikely” (3,000 words)

Ghosts In Sunlight

Commencement speech. New Yorker writer recalls student days at Columbia in the early 1980s. “New York felt, then, like a small exploding Gotham filled with extreme sunsets and light, an intense universe shaped as much by poverty as it was by hope and creativity. Columbia was part of that. The whole campus, in memory, feels as though it were lit by a thousand cigarettes in the dark” (2,330 words)

Mean Outcomes Are Often Meaningless

On the illusions of accounting. Your lottery ticket may win, or not. Your loan may be repaid, or not. You may have a portfolio of diversified loans, but in a crisis they all go down. What is the “fair value” today, when so much depends on tomorrow? “There is no right answer … Only a need to acknowledge that there is never such a thing as a single true and fair view, only a range of possible outcomes (730 words)

Painkiller Deathstreak Pick of the day

Another treasure from the ungated New Yorker archives. A novelist learns to play video games. “My son could have shot me many times, but he didn’t. ‘Go ahead!’ I said. ‘No, Dad,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to shoot you.’ We carried on this peculiar chivalry for fifteen minutes. Finally I wounded him, and he stabbed me, and we relaxed and began shooting and sniping and running and laughing, just as he did with his friends” (7,000 words)

Face Off: Photography And Painting

The story of painting from the late 19C onward is the story of painters adapting to the challenge of photography. “Painting had to express something about the visual world that went beyond recording how it looks.” The revolution went full circle from impressionism to abstraction to photo-realism. And somehow, painting has won. It still speaks to us in ways that photography has never learned to do (1,940 words)

The Internet Of Things Will Ruin Birthdays

The birthday messages from your apps are forms of advertising and market research disguised as friendship. It’s a day when “the data tracking and governing algorithms that are part of your everyday internet experience become more visible”. But imagine when every “smart” device in your house is flashing and hooting as well. “Perhaps it will become an annual tradition to shut off all devices on your birthday” (860 words)

The Great Forgetting

Adults generally remember little or nothing from their first three or four years of life. Freud thought such memories were repressed; perhaps they were never formed. Recent research shows that small children can indeed form memories; but the memories disappear within a couple of years. Why? Perhaps because they are not formed systematically enough to co-exist with the influx of new information; they are swept away (3,600 words)

We Experiment On Human Beings

Facebook caused a ruckus when it admitted manipulating users’ moods. But the whole internet is one big continuous psychology experiment, as a co-founder of OKCupid, a dating site, explains, with some striking examples. “OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long. Most ideas are bad. Experiments are how you sort all this out” (1,170 words)

The Hague Penalizes Russia For Yukos Confiscation

Notes on The Hague tribunal’s ruling that Russia must pay $51.6 billion to Yukos shareholders for expropriations a decade ago. “First, the size of the award is enormous, 2.5 percent of Russia’s GDP. Second, Russia is not likely to pay. Operations of Russian state companies will suffer major disruptions around the world. Third, Putin is likely to cancel Russia’s ratification of various international treaties and conventions” (1,470 words)

A Battle For Russia

Russian (but not Kremlin) view of the crisis. The needle is at red. “Expecting Putin to back off, or for the oligarchs to pressure the Kremlin into beating a retreat, betrays a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation. It is no longer the struggle for Ukraine, but a battle for Russia. If Vladimir Putin manages to keep the Russian people on his side, he will win it. If not, another geopolitical catastrophe might follow” (400 words)

The End Of The Experiment

Wide-ranging conversation with physicist and mathematician George Ellis about the future of science. Big experimental science is approaching its limits: We’re never going to build a bigger collider on Earth; astronomical observations are at their visual horizons; we’ve mapped the earth and we’ve almost mapped the oceans. The new challenges are all about complexity. “The brain will give us work to do for many centuries more” (2,780 words)

Anthony Bourdain On Travel, Food And War

Interview. Many interesting points. “You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first. Otherwise you’d spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing. Do I pipe up every time my Chinese host serves me some cute animal I may not approve of? Should I inquire of my Masai buddies if they still practice female genital mutilation?” (2,894 words)

Post-Its, Push-Pins, Pencils

Discussion of Niki Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Sets out as a review, but turns into a rival history, as the reviewer, dissatisfied with Saval’s account, constructs her own; which starts on a lyrical note, with a two-paragraph hymn to the stationery cupboard, the “beating heart” of the pre-1990s office; but grows darker with the computer-assisted fall of the middle class and the rise of the temp (4,600 words)

The Children Of Silicon Valley

Tech companies always aspire to “change the world”. It’s a cliché. It’s also, in general, a bad way to proceed. The world has been through enough turmoil in the past century or so. “Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread” (1,480 words)

The Raw Material Of Wealth

Poor countries that export raw materials may think their best way to riches lies with blocking the exports and processing the raw materials themselves, as South Africa has done. But that’s a very narrow view, and may be a trap. Finland didn’t get rich by processing its timber. It got rich by building machines to process the timber, then applying the machine-building skills in new fields of tech and engineering (1,050 words)

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