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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

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)

The Tale Of The North Pond Hermit

Christopher Thomas Knight disappeared into the woods of New England in 1986 and never came out, until police caught him stealing food from a holiday home last year and took him to jail. “He was an uncontacted tribe of one”. For 27 years he never made a telephone call, held a conversation, drove a car or spent money. “When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: dilettante(7,500 words)

Martin Amis’s Holocaust

Conversation with Amis about the disenchantments of living in America — “It’s the penal system, the guns, the capital punishment” — and his new novel, The Zone Of Interest, which Appleyard calls “a technical and aesthetic tour de force that takes us inside the minds of the Germans who managed Auschwitz.” Next up for Amis, “an explicitly autobiographical novel”; and then, perhaps, “his big American novel” (1,970 words)

Saving Horatio Alger

Wide-ranging discussion of social mobility and wealth distribution in America. Strong historical perspective. Lots of helpful graphics. Inequality was as great a century ago as it is now; but social mobility was much greater too, which made the inequality more defensible as an incentive to the poor as well as a reward to the rich. “For the first time ever, most parents in the US think their children will be worse off than themselves” (7,000 words)

The World’s Weirdest Chef

Profile of Hervé This, French pioneer of molecular gastronomy. Having shown how science can transform cookery, now he wants to synthesise food itself. “What if you could make dishes only using pure chemical compounds? What if you used only the building blocks of proteins and triglycerides and amino acids and starches and polysaccharides and odorant compounds instead of meat and vegetables?” (4,000 words)

Theory And Practice Of Jihad

On the fighting style of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State. “He appears to be a keen student of American tactics as they were passed on to the Iraqi Army, as well as the military practices of his Syrian Baathist opponents. Whether he is a military prodigy or merely a very talented student and practitioner of military art is irrelevant. To date, he has shown himself to be a very effective commander” (3,230 words)

Robot Cars With Adjustable Ethics Settings

An approach (though not a solution) to the problem of ethics for driverless cars, and potentially quite a useful intermediate step: Allow the user to select from a range of “ethics settings”. One person could instruct the car to value his life over all others; another might prefer the the car to value all lives the same and minimize harm overall; a third might want to minimize legal liability and costs for herself. (1,280 words)

America In Decay

Magisterial essay on the failure of public administration in America. In brief: The American people do not greatly trust their government; so they hamstring its operations with rules and red tape; which leads to poor performance and easy capture; which reinforces public distrust. There is no easy route to reform. The entrenched actors are too powerful. Major change may require an external shock to the whole system (10,300 words)

Syria In Revolt

Intelligent, informed, measured account of the Syrian conflict, explaining from the ground up in social and political terms why the revolt happened when it did against a seemingly all-powerful state; and arguing that the closest historical analogy would be the Hungarian anti-communist uprising of 1956: “No one said that the country was in the throes of a civil war because Hungarian was killing Hungarian” (4,880 words)

Attending James Joyce’s Birthday Party

Another gem from the archives of the New Republic. “It is tea time at the Joyces’. Mrs. Joyce gives us the best tea and the nicest cakes that are to be had in any house in Paris”. James Joyce is re-reading Madame Bovary, and going often to the opera. He considers modern Irish writing over-rated: “If we lift up the back-skirts of English literature we will find there everything we have been trying to do” (2,800 words)

Ferguson: What’s The Crime?

To obtain a federal civil rights conviction against the police officer who shot Michael Brown, prosecutors would have to prove mens rea — that the officer acted with a “bad purpose or evil motive”. Negligence or recklessness alone would not be enough, and would result in an acquittal. A criminal case under state law for murder or manslaughter would be safer, if prosecutors find a prima facie case (1,124 words)

The Anaesthetized Queen

On the first use of anaesthetics in childbirth. A Scottish doctor called James Simpson experimented with ether in 1847 but found it too smelly and explosive. He switched to chloroform, which seemed to do the job pretty well; the first child born to a mother under chloroform was christened “Anaesthesia”. Widespread acceptance came after Queen Victoria took chloroform for her seventh delivery in 1853 (1,120 words)

A Reader’s Guide To Strategy

Review and discussion of Strategy, Lawrence Freedman’s “monumental” study of theory and practice in war, politics and management. The section on management sits awkwardly; the historical influence of the Boston Consulting Group is scarcely comparable with that of Clausewitz. But still, this is “one the most significant works in the fields of international relations, strategic studies, and history to appear in recent years” (2,960 words)

Can A Robot Be Too Nice?

Should we try to give robots human-like personalities? Arguably not, on the grounds that too much anthropomorphism might make us over-respectful of robots, too reluctant to pull the plug. But in practice, robots with human traits will tend to be easier for us to understand and use. The issue is rather that personalities are hard to construct; and our notions of where robots belong in society are still taking shape (2,160 words)

Thelonious Monk: High Priest Of Jazz

Classic profile from the archives. Thelonious Monk “may be the dominant jazz musician of his time”. His compositions “combine the driving force of traditional jazz with the oblique ironies of modern jazz”. He went to jail and lost his way in the early 1950s; he’s a star again now, if a deeply eccentric one, who lives in a “junkyard apartment … wholly inappropriate to his reputation as a weird and enigmatic genius” (3,400 words)

Britain’s Role In Europe Is To Be A Pain

Probably, Scotland should secede from Britain. “The advantages of self-government outweigh the drawbacks of being a small state”. But Britain should not leave the EU, because it has an effective strategy there: Be a pain. Block integration. When integration can’t be blocked, get an opt-out, as with the euro. Eventually other countries may tire of this and bribe Britain to leave; that’s fine too (960 words)

Regulating Infinity

Longer lifespans, more rapid technological change and greater plasticity of values point us towards a world in which inter-generational conflict becomes much fiercer as older people co-exist with younger people who are very, very different. An interesting and plausible problem, though the possible solution debated here — that the world should be regulated by a super-intelligence — is more of a thought experiment (1,630 words)

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