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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

What Happened To Motorola?

Motorola was one of the great tech companies of the 20th century. It invented the mobile phone. It launched a private satellite network. And now it’s a dog, bought for peanuts by Google and sold on to Lenovo. What went wrong? Lots, but probably Motorola’s worst move ever was to build a phone jointly with Apple in 2005. Motorola learned nothing much. Apple learned how to make phones (6,400 words)

If You Want To Be A Millionaire …

… Go to Belarus, where the methods and institutions of the Soviet Union survive under President Aleksandr Lukashenka. A kilo of sausages costs 100,000 Roubles (about $10) and you will need a million roubles to buy a winter coat. Vodka is cheap and plentiful, making Belarusians the world’s heaviest drinkers. The KGB punishes dissenters. Farm workers earn $100-$200 a month. The young dream of moving to Poland (2,528 words)

E-Cigarettes — The Lingering Questions

Electronic cigarettes are “perhaps the most disruptive devices that public-health researchers working on tobacco control have ever faced”. Millions of smokers are defecting to them. Are they a way to stop smoking, or to perpetuate it? Long-term consumption of nicotine divorced from tobacco is thought to be “relatively safe”; much less is known about the effects of inhaling propylene glycol, which provides the vapour (2,500 words)

Walking Wounded

How World War One gutted the British economy. Direct spending on the war cost 25% of GDP. Ten per cent of domestic assets and 24% of overseas assets were destroyed. National debt rose ten-fold to 130% of GDP. But the greatest damage came from the collapse of world trade, which accounted for 54% of Britain’s pre-war GDP; and from restoration of the gold standard in 1919, which choked off recovery (1,700 words)

Young Blood

Experiments with mouse blood at Stanford and Harvard “suggest” that something in the blood – “possibly the protein GDF11, which is also present in humans” – has the capability to reverse many of the effects of ageing. Score one to the vampires. Will the news spark a repugnant market in babies’ blood? Perhaps, but if the research holds up, mainstream pharma will work with synthetic proteins (2,700 words)

Did Tony Die At The End Of The Sopranos?

David Chase is tired of being asked the question. So he has decided, finally, to answer it. The answer is … On reflection, I won’t spoil it for you; and the revelation forms a very brief part of a long and excellent interview-based profile of Chase, his art, his influences, and his invention of “auteur television”. Luis Bunuel features prominently among the influences; as do Carlos Castaneda, Orson Welles, and Edgar Allen Poe (5,021 words)

Iraq And Syria Follow Lebanon’s Precedent

The speed with which the Middle East is unravelling follows from the arbitrary way in which the nation-states there were created by Britain and France a century ago. “It is time to stop thinking about stabilizing Syria and Iraq and start thinking of a new dynamic outside of the artificial states that no longer function”. The future may lie with clan-based equilibriums holding power, as in Lebanon (1,930 words)

Obituary: Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux

“Tall, elegant, and with a theatrically silky voice, Charles-Roux wore buckled shoes and medallions commemorating martyred sovereigns”. He brought “the mystical aura of French royalism to London as a Roman Catholic priest of the Rosminian order”. He celebrated the Latin Mass for 40 years at Ely Place. In retirement he served as chaplain to Mel Gibson during the making of The Passion of The Christ. (1,218 words)

China’s Future

Big backgrounder. The first half, pace the headline, is about China’s past, and skippable. The second half, on the domestic and foreign outlook, is much better. China is “a civilisation pretending to be a state”. It hesitates to claim openly a global role. But “lack of engagement is not unusual in a rising power. It took a world war to draw America irrevocably on to the world stage”. One hopes China will settle for less (6,200 words)

The Troll Slayer

Profile of Mary Beard, classics professor at the University of Cambridge, media personality, and “role model for women of all ages who want an intellectually satisfying life”. She has written a dozen books; broadcasts regularly; and “produces scholarly papers and book reviews by the pound”. Her public stance against sexist abuse in mainstream and social media has brought her wider fame as a British “feminist heroine” (6,694 words)

Endgame For Putin

Vladimir Putin is over-extended in Ukraine. But he won’t give back Crimea. So the West will pile on the sanctions until domestic discontent topples Putin. There’s no appetite now for a diplomatic compromise blurring the status of Crimea, because Western leaders have decided that Putin’s word is not worth having. Merkel’s patience snapped when Putin blamed MH17 on Ukraine. “The West no longer believes anything he says” (920 words)

The Invisible Nation: Utilitarianism And Contractualism

Entertaining philosophical essay which follows Plato in proposing rules for an ideal republic, called here the Economists’ Paradise. “In the Economists’ Paradise all transactions are voluntary and honest. All game-theoretic problems are solved. All Pareto improvements get made. Everyone agrees to share the commons according to some reasonable plan. Multipolar traps turn to gardens, Moloch is defeated for all time” (6,000 words)

Tesla And GM Race For The Mass Market

Tesla and General Motors compete head-on to launch a $35,000 all-electric mass-market car that can travel 200 miles on a single charge; implying a halving of current production costs and a big leap forward in battery technology. Both companies talk as though they can have their cars ready for 2017-2018. Investors seem to believe in Tesla’s story; they aren’t so sure that GM has the nimbleness needed to innovate on this scale (2,000 words)

The Aftershocks

Gripping tale of the Italian scientists who in 2009 reassured the town of L’Aquila that a major earthquake was “improbable”. A quake followed a week later killing 297. The scientists were tried and convicted of manslaughter (they are now appealing). As Wolman explains, the prosecution was wrong but not absurd. Scientists know that “improbable” things do happen; the inhabitants of L’Aquila thought it meant they were safe (5,360 words)

Seeds Of Doubt

The structure of this piece is quite demanding. It begins as an admiring profile of Vandana Shiva, absolutist campaigner against genetically-modified seeds and foods. But it goes on to show that her claims are unfounded, alarmist and potentially ruinous to world food supplies, especially in her native India. Finally, it dismantles Shiva herself, who exits the story looking a good deal less saintly than when she entered it (8,600 words)

Stop Obsessing About Global Warming

Not a game-changer, but still a broadside repaying attention. Sen argues that we need to know far more about the externalities — the social costs — of rival energy sources in order to formulate rational policies on climate change. If we did, we’d probably find that we are underestimating the potential for solar power, particularly in poorer countries; and also underestimating the dangers of nuclear power (4,366 words)

Under The Knife

A despairing patient in a Chinese hospital attacks his doctors with a knife, killing one and maiming others, then tries to kill himself. A tragedy, but one of many. “Violence against doctors in China has become a familiar occurrence”. China’s rudimentary post-communist system of medical insurance pits helpless patients against badly-paid doctors in scarcely-regulated hospitals where bribery is almost mandatory (5,420 words)

New Emperor Of Chinese Gastronomy

Profile of Chengdu chef Lan Guijun and his restaurant, Yu Zhi Lan, which aims for “luxury, intimacy and culinary perfection”, modelled on Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. The cuisine is “a virtuoso display of Sichuanese cooking skills with echoes of Japanese aesthetics”. Lan’s achievement makes Michelin’s failure to award stars to restaurants in China, beyond Hong Kong and Macau, look more and more anomalous (2,460 words)

Covering The Cops

Classic profile of Edna Buchanan, later a celebrated crime novelist, in her days as crime reporter for the Miami Herald. She “dresses every morning to the sound of the police scanner”. When she started in 1973 “a murder was an occasion”. Now Miami has America’s highest murder rate. “A police reporter could drive to work in the morning knowing that there would almost certainly be at least one murder to write about” (7,830 words)

The World’s Most Dangerous Room

Three years after the tsunami hit, the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima is barely contained. “So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction.” What lessons has Japan learned? Not enough. “No one has gone to jail, and no one wants to take responsibility. Everyone still wants to look the other way” (3,200 words)

What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?

Survey of lands around Stonehenge produces “astonishing” results. The stone circle is surrounded by at least 15 previously unknown or poorly understood late Neolithic monuments: henges, barrows, segmented ditches, pits. These “suggest a scale of activity around Stonehenge far beyond what was previously suspected”. They reinforce the theory that the site was designed for rites associated with the sun (3,175 words)

Why It’s So Hard To Catch Your Own Typos

The logic is simple, obvious and comforting. “When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads”. The remedy: Read it again, backwards (920 words)

The Making Of Vladimir Putin

Putin rose in the 1990s as Boris Yeltsin’s protegé, which gave him a certain acceptance in the West. But his true power-base was always the Soviet military and intelligence establishment that attempted the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and reasserted itself during the Kosovo war of 1999. As president, Putin has been smart but not wise. His Russia is “a paranoid state that makes its own enemies” (5,560 words)

On Cans

Ageing canned food often improves the flavour, as with wine. Twenty-year-old canned sardines are “fragile to the point of falling apart, soft and rich in the mouth, and fishier in a good way”. Three-year-old Cougar Gold cheese has “a touch of caramel and crunchy crystals”. If you don’t have that much time to spare, put the can in a warm place. At 120 degrees you can induce a year’s worth of ageing in six weeks (1,830 words)

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