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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

The Federal Reserve On 9/11

Reads like a thriller. Somebody should film this. How the Fed rose to the crisis at a business level — keeping the American banking system functioning when the biggest clearers were crippled; and at a local level — securing and sharing its infrastructure in downtown Manhattan. Emergency procedures rehearsed for a potential Y2K disaster two years earlier provided “a windfall of emergency planning” (6,300 words)

Bangs And Whimpers

Wide-ranging interview about the Chinese and global economies, in which Pettis emphasises the importance of knowing some history. “For all the many cases of growth miracles, economists seem incapable of placing whichever is the latest example within a proper historical context. We are always surprised when an economic miracle stalls. We are always shocked by how painful adjustment turns out to be” (9,330 words)

Scotland: Wrong Turn

Extracts from a Deutsche Bank analytical note warning that a vote for Scottish independence would be a major political and economic mistake. “Scotland has been able to punch above its weight via the platform of the UK and associated global trade and economic relationships. Finally, Scots have benefited from the sharing of fiscal and monetary risk. To end this relationship is simply a wrong turn” (1,640 words)

The Law Versus Religious Belief

Writer discuses the real-life high-court cases which inspired his most recent novel, The Children Act, about Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Judgments in the family division tend to genuflect politely before the religious devotion of the parties, before arriving at decisions on non-religious grounds. Inevitably, there are differences in moral perspectives. Is this life less important than the afterlife? The law doesn’t think so” (3,350 words)

Ian Paisley: Turbulent Priest

Enjoyably waspish obituary. Paisley was the loudest of Northern Ireland’s Protestant hardliners. He rejected a British peace deal in 1985 “with what appeared to be a call for the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to be smote by lightning”. When Pope John Paul II visited the European Parliament, Paisley denounced him to his face as “the antichrist”. He was finally tamed by Tony Blair, and ended up in House Of Lords (950 words)

Power From The People

Reflections on the changes wrought upon Britain by the privatisation of public assets, begun by Margaret Thatcher. The sell-offs were the most visible part of a general repudiation by politicians of their duty to plan for the long term. “When you strip the state of its duty to make long-term plans, or denigrate the practice, you don’t liberate citizens from planning. You make them subject to the private plans of others” (2,050 words)

Competition Is For Losers

In praise of well-run monopolies, of which Google is the poster-child. Americans “mythologize competition” as the essence of capitalism. They fail to see that “capitalism and competition are opposites”. Capitalism is about making profits; whereas, under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. “Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits” (2,280 words)

How To Be A Conservative

Conversation with philosopher Roger Scruton about his ideas of conservatism. “Socialists, when they see a problem, they want a centralised answer to it. Whereas conservatives are more open to the thought that if a problem arises locally, it must be solved locally—to the extent that it can be solved at all. Also, conservatives are open to the thought that most [political] problems are not soluble” (1,830 words)

Hell In The Hot Zone

Gripping report on West Africa’s Ebola epidemic. It took Guinea by surprise. “Until its final stages, Ebola can easily be mistaken for cholera. It can also look a lot like malaria, another long-tenured killer in Guinea. If you’d told any of the investigators, as they considered the crisis developing in Meliandou, that they were looking at Ebola, they either would not have believed you or, just as likely, would have asked you what Ebola was” (5,100 words)

Destination Denmark

Francis Fukuyama seeks “an overall pattern in history that, while leaving room for human choice, normally eventuates in democratic government”. But his model assumes far too readily the universal appeal of bourgeois virtues such as prosperity and fairness. Other forces drive society, including “national myths, identities and enmities”. These forces can take precedence over democracy, and, indeed, anything else (1,350 words)

Amazon, Publishers And Readers

Amazon has handled its battle with Hachette badly. But readers should still be backing Amazon. First, because the instinct of traditional publishers is always to drive up prices. Second, because Amazon is a force for the democratisation of literature, whereas publishing is an elitist industry. “Bezos understands that running a great bookstore is more like running a great grocery store than running a great opera company” (3,400 words)

Be Terrified Of Superintelligent Machines

The arrival of high-functioning artificial intelligence will be like an alien invasion. “We have little reason to believe a superintelligence will necessarily share human values, and no reason to believe it would place intrinsic value on its own survival either. These arguments make the mistake of anthropomorphising artificial intelligence, projecting human emotions on to an entity that is fundamentally alien” (1,600 words)

Obama’s Speech On ISIS, In Plain English

“ISIS is a nasty collection of slavers, rapists, thieves, throat-slitters, and all-around psychopaths. The trouble is: so are the regimes in Tehran and Damascus that will reap the benefits of the war the president just announced. If anything, America’s new unspoken allies in the anti-ISIS war represent a more significant threat to America’s core interests than the vicious characters the United States will soon drop bombs on” (900 words)

Stalking Wild Cattle In Hawaii

Start by forgetting everything you think you know about cows. Hawaiian cows are wild and extremely dangerous, a unique feral breed. “Think about an enormously muscled 1,500 to 2,000-pound animal, with horns the size of a full-grown man, which hangs out in herds of bored and testosterone-driven bachelor males, and has no fear of humans and no qualms about charging. It makes a grizzly bear seem cuddly” (1,380 words)

Why Is Peter Thiel Pessimistic?

Digest of arguments made by venture capitalist Peter Thiel that America has entered an era of economic and technological stagnation. “You have as much computing power in your iPhone as was available at the time of the Apollo missions. But what is it being used for? It’s being used to throw angry birds at pigs; it’s being used to send pictures of your cat to people halfway around the world” (2,020 words)

The Azov Fighters

On patrol in eastern Ukraine with a far-right militia, the Azov battalion, whose members hunt down Russian separatists but also profess a spiritual kinship with them as fellow violent nationalists. A gripping read, and a glimpse of how the war in the east is rewilding society; the longer the fighting goes on, the greater will be the obstacles to peaceful democratic consolidation afterwards (1,790 words)

Deep Into Green

French mediaevalist Michel Pastoureau draws on superstition and legend, art and costume, industry, science, high and low culture to explain what colours mean to us and why. Green is his third book on colour, following Blue, and Black. He has also written a history of stripes. Further volumes are planned on yellow and red. Green is “stuffed with rarities and wonders, an attic of all the centuries, right up to Babar’s cheerful lime suit” (2,620 words)

China’s Smart Censorship

China has perfected censorship that makes the state smarter. Citizens can say what they like online, provided they make no attempt to support or incite protest action in the physical world. A dictatorship thus gets the benefits of honest public debate which used to be the prerogative of liberal democracy. “The information signalling part of a market economy is co-opted to the service of an authoritarian state” (760 words)

National Insecurity

Bleak but persuasive assessment of Obama’s record in foreign affairs. He inherited huge problems from his predecessor; he set about winding down the worst of them, and trying to avoid making new mistakes of his own; fair enough. But his caution has become a liability. He has not learned the craft of inspiring allies and deterring enemies. “It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office” (5,780 words)

Does Art Need Religion?

Artists aspire to individual immortality; religions to collective salvation. But each can instrumentalise the other. Artists can profit from the communal energy of religion; religion can profit from the expressive power of artists. Some modern artists have tried to use politics as a substitute for religion; but politics has nothing to say about immortality. With religion, you have Michelangelo; without it, Jeff Koons (840 words)

Questions For Scots

Succinct rehearsal of the main issues Scots should have in mind when deciding how to vote on independence. Among them: “Would an independent Scotland be economically viable? Not an issue. Scotland has income per head more or less the same as that of Britain as a whole, and is the richest UK region outside London and the southeast. At just over 5m, it has a population about the same size as Denmark or Finland” (903 words)

Apple’s Dumb Watch

The Apple Watch may get much better in its future iterations, as previous Apple products have done; but it’s off to a bad start; Apple has been surprisingly maladroit in the basic design. The watch is overloaded with features; which makes it too complicated to use intuitively; and creates big issues with battery life and charging. “Put it this way: no one who only has one wrist is going to be wearing an Apple Watch” (1,030 words)

Forgotten Sea: Falconers Of The Eastern Pontos

Magical account of falconry on the Turkish Black Sea coast, as practised mainly among the Laz, “an ethnic minority of some 50,000 or so people living to the east of Trabzon, who speak in their homes a language related to Georgian”. The tradition is almost mythical; its survival into modern times is a miracle; this must be one of the last threads of culture extending unbroken from our times to those of the ancient Greeks (11,400 words)

Last Works

How writers end their careers. Sometimes they seem to know a work will be their last: “Molière coughed up blood and wrote a farce about a hypochondriac. He died during the fourth performance.” Vladimir Nabokov’s last, unfinished, novel, The Original of Laura, was at first called Dying Is Fun. In his notes for The First Man, Albert Camus wrote: “The book must remain unfinished.” And it did, when he died in a car crash (2,540 words)

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