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Writing Worth Reading

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)

Up And Then Down

How elevators work, and how they make buildings work. Wrapped around the tale of a New Yorker for whom elevators, one horrible night in October 1999, did not work. Nicholas White, an editor at Business Week, got into a lift at Rockefeller Centre at 11pm. It jammed at the 13th floor. He emerged 41 hours later with his nerves shattered. He sued the company and lost his job. To this day, he doesn’t know what the problem was (8,000 words)


Sketch of Isadora Duncan at 50, nine months before her death, dancing in Nice with Jean Cocteau accompanying. “She stands almost immobile or in slow splendid steps with slow splendid arms moves to music. Posing through the works of Wagner, through tales of Dante, Isadora is still great. As if the movements of dancing had become too redundant for her spirit, she has saved from dancing only its shape” (1,970 words)

No Theatricks

Discussion of Edmund Burke’s thought, drawing mainly on The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich. Burke “foreshadows the 19th century in seeing everything – law, morality, solidarity – as historically evolved, the outcome of experience rather than design”. Hence his opposition to the French Revolution: He saw that “this brutal rupture with the past would not easily settle down into a new normality” (5,100 words)

Science And Ethics Of Ebola Treatment

How to administer a very few doses of untested medicine in an epidemic. Don’t worry about side effects: “If there were ever a disease for which this is not a big deal, it is Ebola. It seems unlikely that the drug could make matters any worse”. Do have a control group, however small: Toss a coin to see which of the two American patients gets ZMapp and which a placebo; next do the same for two African patients (2,090 words)

Why We Love To Hate Martin Amis

Fair-minded discussion of Martin Amis, his life and work, on the eve of publication of his latest novel, The Zone of Interest, described as “an office comedy set in Auschwitz”. He is “the possessor of a staggering – by which I mean both impressive and lopsided – talent”. His prose is superb and distinctive; his sensibility can be a problem. We still approach his books in the hope that he will “light up the sky” (3,400 words)

Lunch With Raghuram Rajan

Governor of India’s central bank talks about bureaucracy, business, banking. “Central bankers have had enormous responsibilities thrust on them to compensate, essentially, for the failings of the political system. And my worry is we don’t have sufficient tools to do that, but we’re not willing to say it. And, as a result, we push as hard as we can on the existing tools, and they may create more risk in the system.” (2,490 words)

How The Zebra Got Its Stripes

After developing new models of computing, and running a code-breaking team that helped save Britain from Hitler, Alan Turing went to Manchester and invented a mathematical theory of embryology showing that complex structures could evolve from two interacting components. Now, 60 years later, geneticists are finding that Turing was right. His systems explain much about the development of organisms (4,930 words)

Hearing Music In Noise

Profile of Martin Hairer, winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics. His sideline, writing music-editing software, familiarised him with the algorithms used to compress jpeg and mp3 files; these inspired his “fantastic” solution for stochastic partial differential equations, which are used to model highly complicated patterns of growth, such as a drop of water spreading through a paper napkin (3,260 words)

Suicide: A Crime Of Loneliness

Suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in America. Half a million Americans are hospitalised each year after failed suicide attempts. People with depression are especially prone to kill themselves. The rate of suicide is going up. “Suicide is a crime of loneliness, and adulated people can be frighteningly alone. Intelligence does not help in these circumstances; brilliance is almost always profoundly isolating” (1,240 words)

James Wood On Hysterical Realism

New Republic republishes James Wood’s classic literary essay from 2000, as part of a series recalling the 100 best TNR pieces of the past 100 years. Wood argues that modern novelists — Rushdie, De Lillo, Pynchon, Smith, Foster Wallace — are animating their books with gimmicky plot devices at the expense of character development. They are heirs to Dickens but without his gift for “strong feeling” (5,400 words)

How To Be Polite

Politeness pays off over time. It’s not difficult to master, there are plenty of books to teach you the basics, and it makes life more productive. You learn how to make conversation, usually by showing sympathy; and how to deal with difficult situations, usually by exercising restraint. “A whole class of problems goes away from my life because I see people as having around them a two or three foot invisible buffer” (2,260 words)

Shakespeare In The Bush

American anthropologist, doing fieldwork among the Tiv in West Africa, is cut off by rain in a small village with only a copy of Hamlet for entertainment. She discusses it with her hosts, and finds them well-equipped to understand it and critique it. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives” (4,630 words)

Menu Speak

Entertaining short review of The Language Of Food, in which Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford linguistics professor, dissects the language of restaurant menus. “Every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish”. Expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants” (570 words)

King Of The Islands Of Refreshment

Action-packed history of Tristan d’Acunha, where an American sailor declared himself king in 1811. With a digression on modern micro-nations, including the Dominion of Melchizedek, “created almost entirely to facilitate international crime”, which occupies a handful of uninhabited islands in Antarctica, claims a “mysterious Filipino-American businesswoman” as its president, and is recognised only by the Central African Republic (2,400 words)

America Is Not For Black People

There’s a lot being written, and rightly so, about the confrontation between heavily-armed police and protesting citizens in Ferguson, Missouri. This is a good discussion of the underlying issues: First, that if police forces are equipped with military arsenals, then policemen will tend to behave like soldiers; and, second, that fear of black Americans is widespread among white Americans (2,030 words)

Edward Snowden: Most Wanted

The tone is a touch breathless; but the story of Snowden’s work for CIA and NSA, and his disillusion there, are worth the price of admission. He snapped after hearing James Clapper, director of national intelligence, testify that the NSA did “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. “I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?” (7,500 words)

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