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Writing Worth Reading

How We Behave In Restaurants

New York City restaurant analyses customer behaviour. Out of 45 customers seated, 18 asked to be seated elsewhere, 7 complained about wi-fi coverage, 26 took photographs of the food, 14 took pictures of friends eating, 9 then sent food back to reheat, 27 asked their waiter to take a group photo. Largely thanks to smartphone usage, customers spend twice as long at table as they did a decade ago (h/t Tyler Cowen) (990 words)

The Man Who Saved The Dinosaurs

Yale paleontologist Robert Ostrom transformed our understanding of dinosaurs. Before his work in the 1970s they were seen as “plodding, thunderous monsters, cold-blooded and stupid”. He showed them to “have been fleet-footed, highly predaceous, extremely agile”, covered in feathers and related to birds. His view of birds as living dinosaurs, revolutionary when first presented, has become mainstream (2,385 words)

Man Versus Machine

Reflections on Germany’s victory over Brazil. Even recollected in tranquility, emotions run high: “It’s at least not crazy to argue that it was the worst defeat in the history of sports. Here’s what Germany did to Brazil. They produced something so staggering that it still feels irreducible. They left the soccer world functionally speechless. They broke metaphor. They stunned hundreds of millions of people” (2,000 words)

The New Baby Boom

Lifted by immigration, live births in Britain are up 22% since 2001. The new generation inherits Britain’s changing demographics. Half the babies born in London have a foreign mother. An east London singing class for one-year-olds attracts “one white Briton, two black Britons, four east Europeans, one west African and one Iraqi”. By the time these babies grow up, the notion of ethnic minorities may have disappeared (5,100 words)

Complexity, Prediction, And Politics

An odd piece of writing somewhere between a fugue and a rant. The first three-quarters is a collage of observations and anecdotes about probability, mathematical logic and chaos theory. The final quarter is a cry of despair that politicians, charged with making a country’s most momentous decisions, typically have no knowledge of these fields and little experience of well-managed complex organisations (3,930 words)

Art In The Future

The fine-art industry today is roughly where the music industry was in the 19C, serving an elite audience. 20C music transcended limitations of class and scale by exploiting technology and developing new genres. 21C fine art will do the same. The market will expand massively; digital technologies will be co-opted; a new tier of “upper-middle-brow” art — think HBO in television — will refine popular taste (980 words)

The Long Shadow Of Hillsborough

Excerpt from Buford’s classic soccer book, Among The Thugs, recounting the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in Sheffield where 96 fans were crushed. “I have mentioned that the experience of standing in the terraces is a herd experience, but I had not known, until watching this police video, that the accepted language used to describe the supporters’ arrangements — pen, pit — is borrowed from livestock farming” (3,300 words)

The Great Philosophers: Epicurus

Epicurus, born in 341BC, was famed for his “skilful and relentless focus” on one subject: happiness. “Previously, philosophers had wanted to know how to be good; Epicurus insisted he wanted to focus on how to be happy”. His advice: Don’t worry about pursuing love, status and luxury. Better to have a community of good friends, work for yourself, and spend part of each day thinking (1,200 words)

Rise Of The Sea Urchin

At work with Norway’s only full-time sea-urchin diver — an émigré Scot called Roderick Sloan who lives 88 miles north of the Arctic Circle where “Summer is everyone’s favourite day of the year”. He sells to Europe’s grandest restaurants, including Noma in Copenhagen which buys 100 pounds a week. “You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth for hours.” (3,030 words)

Life Beyond Earth

In the past 20 years astronomers have found two thousand planets orbiting sun-like stars outside our solar system. The question is not so much whether other life is out there, but what kind of life it might be. If it is not even carbon-based, for example, how can we hope to recognise it? Astrobiologists are studying the most extreme life-forms on Earth, from Antarctic ice sheets to Mexican caves, looking for clues (4,116 words)

Germany’s Choice: America Or Russia?

Germans divide evenly in their sympathies for Russia and America. After the Bush presidency and the Snowden revelations, America is “an erstwhile friend whom many now see as sinister”. German distrust of Russia has grown with the Ukraine crisis, but Germany is “grateful for unification”, cannot imagine ever going to war with Russia again, and sees Russia as a primary focus of German foreign policy (4,630 words)

Ukraine And Great-Power Rivalry

Useful backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis from a Russian (but not a Kremlin) perspective. Key points: Relations between Russia and the West have changed fundamentally for the worse. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are the “new battleground” for influence. Russia has pivoted towards China. Poland has pivoted against Russia. Russia’s defiance of America has won it new credibility in the Middle East (11,800 words)

The Man Who Groomed A Nation

Jimmy Savile “does not belong among the amoral heroes of Patricia Highsmith, disposing of people without remorse in a meaningless universe. Rather, he inhabits the driven world of Graham Greene, where the protagonist is in a lurid and sweaty argument with his maker, trying to pile up credit points to balance the final ledger against what he knows full well to be his sins”. Review of Dan Davies’s biography, In Plain Sight (2,000 words)

Football Is Unquantifiable

Why does data-based predictive analysis work so well in baseball and so badly in football? Because football has far more external variables, many of them related to environment and emotion. “Baseball players can only perform actions that have a limited range of outcomes, making it not too dissimilar to games like chess. Loving football requires an acceptance of devastation or ecstasy, without warning, with regularity” (1,450 words)

The Many Poses Of Marcel Marceau

Marceau was the first, and perhaps the last, master of mime as popular art. He infused formal traditions with the slapstick of Chaplin and Keaton. But when he died he left no heir. “He had performed the same sketches for sixty years. There was nothing for other mimes to build on. He inspires only poor imitations. Upon his death, the art of mime steps back out of the mainstream. It becomes a busker’s act—obscure, often mocked” (1,650 words)

Facebook: A Golden Age For Research

Internet platforms try to shape our moods and behaviour all the time. The difference was that Facebook told us about it — and was making a serious effort to understand how manipulation works. We need more of this, not less. “If anything, we should insist that companies like Facebook – and governments – perform and publish research on the effects of the decisions they’re already making on our behalf” (860 words)

Interview: Motoyuki Shibata

Japanese editor and translator discusses Japanese fiction, and portrayals of Japan in Western fiction. High praise for David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: “Usually if you’re Japanese, you feel kind of condescending towards Western writers trying to write from a Japanese point of view. But Mitchell is really thorough, and it reads like a wonderful English translation of a Japanese novel” (3,200 words)

The Real 10 Algorithms That Dominate Our World

An algorithm is a “well-defined computational procedure that takes some value, or set of values, as input and produces some value, or set of values, as output”. The first stage in data processing is usually to get the input values sorted — which is why Merge Sort, invented by John von Neumann in 1945, is probably the hardest-working algorithm in the world today, along with its close cousins Quick Sort and Heap Sort (1,900 words)

Gay, Jewish, Mentally Ill, And A Sponsor Of Gypsies

The author returns to Romania, whence his grandparents fled pogroms and poverty. “I looked at the local peasants and thought that, if their forefathers had not burned down the houses of mine, mine wouldn’t have left. And I looked at what had happened to us in two generations, and looked at what hadn’t happened to them in two or three, and instead of feeling outraged by their history of aggression I felt privileged by it” (2,370 words)

World Cup Boom And Bust

Notes from Manaus, Brazil, where one-quarter of houses have no running water and nine-tenths have no mains sewerage. When the river floods, residents “find alligators or snakes swimming in their living rooms”. The 19C opera house, product of a short-lived rubber boom, inspired a Herzog film; but it pales as a folly beside the $350 million, 40,000-seat football stadium built for the World Cup (1,350 words)

Are The Authoritarians Winning?

Authoritarian regimes, led by China and Russia, are “aglow with arrogant confidence”. Democracies are wracked by “envy and despondency”. But the authoritarian vision of prosperity without freedom is unsustainable. “The saving grace of democracy is its adaptability. It depends for its vitality on discontent. Discontent leads to peaceful regime change, and as regimes change, free societies can discard failed alternatives” (3,730 words)

The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress

The notion of stress as a danger to health was invented in 1936 by a Canadian scientist with funding from the cigarette industry. Tobacco makers also funded research into the “Type A personality” — the person “so full of stress and pressure” as to be at high risk of a heart attack. The industry’s aim was to advance stress as the cause of cancer and heart attacks, with smoking as the antidote (1,300 words)

Nature’s Perfect Killing Machine

The ebola virus announced itself to the modern world with two outbreaks in 1976. It carries a fatality rate of 50-90% — “the platonic ideal of a doomsday slate-wiper”. In almost 40 years science has found no predictable pattern to epidemics, no standard treatment, no vaccine. The best that doctors can do is to assuage panic, persuade sufferers to stay in bed, scatter bleach, and warn strangers away (3,690 words)

Transformers 4 Is A Master Class In Economics

The lessons are in the making of the film, not in the content. First, the real money comes from owning the machines: Transformers made $300m in its opening weekend, the biggest film of 2014. Second: Humans are dispensable; the franchise has got rid of its human star Shia LeBoeuf, and nobody cares. Third: China is as big a market as America; this Transformers is full of scenes tailored to a Chinese audience (1,800 words)

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