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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

How to Be Good Pick of the day

Another superb profile from the New Yorker’s archive, de-paywalled for the summer. Derek Parfit is perhaps the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He believes there are true answers to moral questions, as there are to mathematical ones; and that “there is nothing more urgent for him to do in his brief time on earth than discover what these truths are and persuade others of their reality” (10,670 words)

How To Get Paid To Drop Out Of Races

Conversation with Matt Scherer, professional track pacer — or “rabbit” — whose job is to help other people run fast. He leads a race through the first lap or so at a precise speed, set by the race director, before stepping quietly off the track. “Once I established myself, runners were excited when I showed up because then they felt like they didn’t have to think about the first 500 or 600 meters. I got satisfaction from that” (2,139 words)

Blacklisted

Account of America’s rules for adding names to its terrorist database, according to the newly leaked March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance. The basic standard is “reasonable suspicion” on the part of a government official. “Concrete facts are not necessary”. Names can be added on the basis of “uncorroborated” social media posts. Family and “associates” of a suspect can be added without further formality. Dead suspects stay on the list (3,488 words)

Indonesia Etc

Entertaining and informative review of Elizabeth Pisani’s book, Indonesia Etc. How can a country of 13,500 to 17,000 islands — counts vary — possibly hold together as a state? Not easily, is the answer, especially since Indonesia’s 260 million people are also divided by five religions, dozens of ethnicities and hundreds of languages. But somehow, the process of national and democratic consolidation continues (1,350 words)

Medical Research: Treat Ageing

Does getting old have to mean getting sick? Not if medicine raises its game and learns to stall the “incremental cellular damage and changes” associated with old age. This would be more efficient and more effective that treating diseases of old age on a case by case basis as we do now. Progress in this direction would be much faster if we broke down the divide between human testing and animal testing (1,970 words)

The EU And An Independent Scotland

Claims that an independent Scotland could remain in the EU are “driven more by advocacy than analysis”. There is “neither precedent nor treaty provision” for a member-state to split and for both parts to stay in. In any event, the question would take time to resolve. The priority for Edinburgh should be agreeing transitional arrangements to maintain EU status for Scottish citizens in any hiatus between leaving the UK and joining the EU (1,850 words)

Behind The Scenes In Putin’s Court Pick of the day

Engrossing, intimate, stylised portrait of the Russian president — daily routine, entourage, travel, meetings, protocol. “There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The President has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders, and after a long separation, there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia” (3,060 words)

How To Win A Tour De France Sprint

It’s teamwork. You need a ‘leadout train’ of several riders. “The team’s designated sprinter is at the back of this train and is sheltered by the efforts of those riding in front to save his energy. With four cyclists riding in a line, a rider positioned four men back only has to produce 64 per cent of the power of the rider at the very front”. The front runners peel off one by one, leaving the sprinter to win (1,100 words)

Obsessing About Gaza, Ignoring Syria

Far more people are being killed, day by day, in the Syrian civil war, than in the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Yet the attention of the West is focused massively on Israel and Palestine, scarcely at all on Syria. “What happens in Syria should be of first-order interest to the US media. But it is clearly not.” The answer may be that “Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs” (1,520 words)

What Is Wrong With The Grand Nation?

Spiegel travels the route of the Tour de France, talks to locals, and asks, de haut en bas: Why is France doing so much worse than Germany in every way? One common rationale: It’s the foreigners. “We still have values here in the village”. “Why don’t the football players sing the national anthem?” Le Point says: “France under François Hollande is like Cuba, only without the sun but with the extreme right.” (4,900 words)

Let’s Fly

How to survive air travel. In brief: Get there early, bring a face-mask and ear-plugs. “Authorities recommend arriving two hours before international flights. I say four. Get there four hours before your flight. Your friends laugh at you. Have patience. You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport” (1,280 words)

Secrets Of The Magus

I’ll continue to throw in recommendations for classic New Yorker articles as long as the online archive remains open. This profile of magician Ricky Jay, “the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive” is a joy throughout — for the glimpses of his performing skills, the portraits of the great magicians who inspired him, and the excursions into magical history and scholarship which are Jay’s ruling passion (14,800 words)

Fasinatng History of Autocorrect

The early Microsoft Word had a feature called ‘glossary’ which allowed a writer to insert stock phrases using short-cuts. Soon a Microsoft scientist twigged that ‘glossary’ could also remedy common spelling mistakes, and that the space bar could trigger substitutions automatically. Autocorrect was born. Not everyone was happy: “Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs(3,030 words)

The Demented Kingdom Of William T. Vollmann Pick of the day

Vollmann’s latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, his twenty-second since 1987, is a “680-page short-story collection about death, putrefaction, ghosts, and cancer”. He works 16 hours a day with no internet, and inhabits the persona of Dolores, a transgender woman. He could probably use an editor. At 55 he has “mellowed as a man”, but “his subject matter has, if anything, grown even more confrontational” (7,440 words)

Dallas Killers’ Club

Sprawling discussion of books on the John F. Kennedy assassination. In brief: Strong case against Mafia don Carlos Marcello; weaker case against CIA; Oswald the scapegoat, either way. “Ask yourself two questions. If there had been a CIA, but no Mafia, would the president have lived through the motorcade? I think the answer is yes. If there had been a Mafia, but no CIA, would the president have lived? I think the answer is no” (6,250 words)

The Uses Of Adversity

All of the New Yorker’s content is temporarily available free on line while the web site is updated; browse and enjoy previously gated favourites. Here is a Malcolm Gladwell piece on a very Gladwellian theme: how an underdog can triumph. The case study is that of Sidney Weinberg, who rose through Goldman Sachs from janitor’s assistant at 16 to senior partner at 40, making his outsider status work in his favour (4,424 words)

Why Do Palestinians Support Hamas?

“The demand that the people of Gaza protest against Hamas, often heard in Israel today, is absurd. Israelis themselves hate protests in times of war. They expect the Palestinians to conduct a civil uprising under fire. The people of Gaza support Hamas in its war against Israel because they perceive it to be part of their war of independence. Many would gladly see Hamas fall, but not at this moment” (1,250 words)

Off My Table, Damn Carnivore

On vegetarian activism in India. “In Mumbai, vegetarians have set up residential enclaves in various parts of the city and tweaked their housing complex bylaws to forbid the selling and renting of properties to non-vegetarians.” In Gujarat, Jain monks are trying to enforce vegetarianism on the town of Palitana; they propose to “rehabilitate” the town’s 68 butchers by retraining them for new occupations (2,150 words)

What Happened To Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

If you were living in Russia, you’d get your news from state-controlled television and radio, and here’s what it would tell you: That MH17 is actually MH370, the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared in the Indian Ocean; it was secretly held at an American military base on Diego-Garcia for re-use. The plane was filled with corpses, not passengers, when it left Amsterdam; and flown on autopilot. Russia was framed (1,540 words)

Writers Or Missionaries?

On reporting the Middle East. Journalists are quick to advocate solutions, before they are even close to understanding the problems. They should watch, learn, describe — not preach. But any writer is limited by her own conceptual framework and that of her readers: “The Palestinians are important to the West because, through their oppression by Israeli Jews, they have become characters in a Western narrative” (8,400 words)

Musical Gold

Portrait of three thirty-ish New York siblings, the Carpenters, who deal in rare stringed instruments. They can find you a good Stradivarius “in the low millions”. They seem pretty accomplished at selling themselves, too: “The combined effect of their personalities can feel overwhelming, like an elixir that is more potent than anticipated”. Their aim is to create “the Gagosian gallery of the fine-instrument business” (6,960 words)

Getting By Without Russia Pick of the day

Russia has a big history. It has gas and nukes. It looks big on the map, but its size is exaggerated by Mercator projections, and it doesn’t have a lot to offer in any other respect. Its neighbours are not mere “props and brackets for its weight”. Could the world manage without Russia? Yes, and so it should while Russia is in the hands of Vladimir Putin — “the privatisation of a beautiful old prison by one of its former jailers” (777 words)

The Secret Of Minecraft

To know how to play Minecraft, you have to know how to play Minecraft. It isn’t intuitive; there is no in-game tutorial. The knowledge passes between players, and gets codified in third-party books and websites. The purpose of acquiring this arcane knowledge is not to beat the game, but to continue the game, to build new things. Minecraft is telling us something encouraging about our cultural needs (1,300 words)

Sana’a

Notes on a visit to the capital of Yemen, for tourism. “From the outside, the buildings look like confectionery. The icing is decorative white trim made from lime. Many houses have a sort of carved stone cage affixed at some of the windows that serves as a cooling station for meat or water. It’s set up so that the breeze will blow through and chill whatever’s inside. There is a lot of strategic draught management in Yemeni architecture” (6,700 words)

Are Liberals Rescuing Marriage?

The conventional wisdom of 1960s and 1970s America was that liberal values undermined marriage. But now the reverse seems to be true: educated liberals are the ones who get married, stay married, and care for their children; whereas “uneducated Americans” are “abandoning marriage and two-parent child-rearing”. Perhaps liberal morality is “better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world” (850 words)

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