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Writing Worth Reading

Dude, Where Are My Socks? Pick of the day

All about Taobao, China’s super-efficient online marketplace where you can buy or sell just about anything from anywhere — live scorpions, moxibustion kits, a pony, Marmite, a fake Tom Cruise head, snail mucus cosmetics. Taobao picks up from sellers, delivers to buyers, settles payments and rates transactions. Here’s how it all works, through the prism of a single order for a pair of tie-dye socks (2,130 words)

The Family That Couldn’t Say Hippopotamus

Recent genetic research is challenging Chomsky’s conjecture that the human brain contains a specific organ configured for using language. The gene which appears to determine competence in language is “relevant to multiple mental abilities and is not strictly a language gene at all”. The language instinct is probably linked to a more general development of cognitive capacities, and dependent on culture (1,700 words)

Life In Timbuktu

Timbuktu, “city of gold and ancient centre of learning”, is returning to dust. The deserts are encroaching, the canals are drying up. There are sand dunes where mango trees once grew. Thousand fled when Islamic rebels occupied the city in 2012-13. Things are scarcely better with rebels gone. The Malian government is ineffective and corrupt. Smuggling and trafficking gangs dominate the local economy. “It’s like the Wild West here” (2,866 words)

Climate Change Is A People’s Shock

We would do more about climate change if we understood it as a political challenge rather than a scientific one. The rich will shield themselves; the poor will pay the human cost. “We know how the system will deal with serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on” (4,850 words)

Random Noise In Biology

Research into the relative importance of nature versus nurture in shaping human beings takes an unexpected turn. Genetics and environment do play a big part in making us who we are; but so does a third factor — “random noise”. Identical genes react to the same environment in different ways. If this variation is indeed random, as opposed to not-yet-understood, it may be an evolutionary strategy to promote diversity (1,017 words)

We Are A Camera

The Brownie of the YouTube era is a tiny, robust camera called GoPro, invented by a California surfer. “The short video synonymous with GoPro is a kind of post-literate diary, a stop on the way to a future in which everything will be filmed from every point of view. GoPro, like Google Glass, has the insidious effect of making the pervasiveness of cameras seem playful and benign when it may one day be anything but” (6,530 words)

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