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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

I Wanted Change. I Didn’t Want This

The Central African Republic has descended into civil war within the past year; a war pitting — literally, in this story — brother against brother. Despite being one of the poorest and worst-run countries in the world, CAR was, until 2013, relatively peaceable. Then a Muslim militia called Seleka seized power; a Christian militia called Anti-Bamaka mobilised against them. You can guess the rest. Read and weep (10,300 words)

Confessions Of A Fat Bastard

The barbecue editor of Texas Monthly — a full-time staff position, and rightly so — on the ups and down of his work; in each case, it’s the food. “My job requires that I travel from one end of the state to the other eating smoked brisket, one of the fattiest cuts on the steer. And I can’t forget to order the pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs. Of course my diet is going to raise eyebrows. Including those of my doctor” (3,400 words)

Game Theory And Team Reasoning In Sport

Teams are “curious things, more than the sum of their individual members”. They “add to the range of things that people care about, in a way that puts pressure on standard definitions of altruism”. Decision theory assumes that choices are made by individuals; but if you are part of a team, you address your problems differently. “Team reasoning can find solutions that individual decisions cannot reach” (1,838 words)

The World Is Squared: Switzerland

Notes on Switzerland. Informative and entertaining. “Switzerland has always been a country where the law is malleable and changeable rather than an absolute standard, simply because of the importance of referenda in the constitution, and the history of federal government. The national character has always been based on a kind of pragmatism and compromise which is easy for an outsider to mistake for relativism” (3,900 words)

Inside Google’s Drone Programme

Google unveils a drone-delivery project, after two years’ secret development. The technology is now proven; the question is whether the service can be made to work at scale, and whether Google or Amazon gets there first. Google’s original priority was for drones to deliver defibrillators to heart-attack victims; that has been far overtaken by plans for a general service that can deliver small packages anywhere (6,217 words)

My Own Personal Nothingness

Reflection on the part played by nothingness in science and philosophy. Physics tells us there is no nothingness in the material world. All space is filled with electrical and gravitational and magnetic fields. Philosophically, we are not so sure. “Our minds are a collection of atoms, fated to disassemble and dissolve. And in that sense, we and our institutions are always approaching Nothingness” (3,200 words)

Does It Help To Know History?

Yes. Not for specific lessons; the same year never comes around twice; but for more philosophical truths. “What history actually shows is that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war — sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it” (1,230 words)

What Happened To Motorola?

Motorola was one of the great tech companies of the 20th century. It invented the mobile phone. It launched a private satellite network. And now it’s a dog, bought for peanuts by Google and sold on to Lenovo. What went wrong? Lots, including the satellites, but probably Motorola’s worst move ever was to build a phone jointly with Apple in 2005. Motorola learned nothing much. Apple learned how to make phones (6,400 words)

If You Want To Be A Millionaire …

… Go to Belarus, where the methods and institutions of the Soviet Union survive under President Aleksandr Lukashenka. A kilo of sausages costs 100,000 Roubles (about $10) and you will need a million roubles to buy a winter coat. Vodka is cheap and plentiful, making Belarusians the world’s heaviest drinkers. The KGB punishes dissenters. Farm workers earn $100-$200 a month. The young dream of moving to Poland (2,528 words)

The Menace Of Beatlism

The New Statesman reaches into its archives and pulls out a plum from 1964, which should serve as a caution to cultural critics for all time. Paul Johnson, later the NS editor, denounces The Beatles: “At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on The Beatles”. This was apparently, the “most complained-about piece” in the paper’s history (940 words)

E-Cigarettes — The Lingering Questions

Electronic cigarettes are “perhaps the most disruptive devices that public-health researchers working on tobacco control have ever faced”. Millions of smokers are defecting to them. Are they a way to stop smoking, or to perpetuate it? Long-term consumption of nicotine divorced from tobacco is thought to be “relatively safe”; much less is known about the effects of inhaling propylene glycol, which provides the vapour (2,500 words)

Walking Wounded

How World War One gutted the British economy. Direct spending on the war cost 25% of GDP. Ten per cent of domestic assets and 24% of overseas assets were destroyed. National debt rose ten-fold to 130% of GDP. But the greatest damage came from the collapse of world trade, which accounted for 54% of Britain’s pre-war GDP; and from restoration of the gold standard in 1919, which choked off recovery (1,700 words)

Young Blood

Experiments with mouse blood at Stanford and Harvard “suggest” that something in the blood – “possibly the protein GDF11, which is also present in humans” – has the capability to reverse many of the effects of ageing. Score one to the vampires. Will the news spark a repugnant market in babies’ blood? Perhaps, but if the research holds up, mainstream pharma will work with synthetic proteins (2,700 words)

Did Tony Die At The End Of The Sopranos?

David Chase is tired of being asked the question. So he has decided, finally, to answer it. The answer is … On reflection, I won’t spoil it for you; and the revelation forms a very brief part of a long and excellent interview-based profile of Chase, his art, his influences, and his invention of “auteur television”. Luis Bunuel features prominently among the influences; as do Carlos Castaneda, Orson Welles, and Edgar Allen Poe (5,021 words)

Iraq And Syria Follow Lebanon’s Precedent

The speed with which the Middle East is unravelling follows from the arbitrary way in which the nation-states there were created by Britain and France a century ago. “It is time to stop thinking about stabilizing Syria and Iraq and start thinking of a new dynamic outside of the artificial states that no longer function”. The future may lie with clan-based equilibriums holding power, as in Lebanon (1,930 words)

Obituary: Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux

“Tall, elegant, and with a theatrically silky voice, Charles-Roux wore buckled shoes and medallions commemorating martyred sovereigns”. He brought “the mystical aura of French royalism to London as a Roman Catholic priest of the Rosminian order”. He celebrated the Latin Mass for 40 years at Ely Place. In retirement he served as chaplain to Mel Gibson during the making of The Passion of The Christ. (1,218 words)

China’s Future

Big backgrounder. The first half, pace the headline, is about China’s past, and skippable. The second half, on the domestic and foreign outlook, is much better. China is “a civilisation pretending to be a state”. It hesitates to claim openly a global role. But “lack of engagement is not unusual in a rising power. It took a world war to draw America irrevocably on to the world stage”. One hopes China will settle for less (6,200 words)

The Troll Slayer

Profile of Mary Beard, classics professor at the University of Cambridge, media personality, and “role model for women of all ages who want an intellectually satisfying life”. She has written a dozen books; broadcasts regularly; and “produces scholarly papers and book reviews by the pound”. Her public stance against sexist abuse in mainstream and social media has brought her wider fame as a British “feminist heroine” (6,694 words)

Endgame For Putin

Vladimir Putin is over-extended in Ukraine. But he won’t give back Crimea. So the West will pile on the sanctions until domestic discontent topples Putin. There’s no appetite now for a diplomatic compromise blurring the status of Crimea, because Western leaders have decided that Putin’s word is not worth having. Merkel’s patience snapped when Putin blamed MH17 on Ukraine. “The West no longer believes anything he says” (920 words)

The Invisible Nation: Utilitarianism And Contractualism

Entertaining philosophical essay which follows Plato in proposing rules for an ideal republic, called here the Economists’ Paradise. “In the Economists’ Paradise all transactions are voluntary and honest. All game-theoretic problems are solved. All Pareto improvements get made. Everyone agrees to share the commons according to some reasonable plan. Multipolar traps turn to gardens, Moloch is defeated for all time” (6,000 words)

Tesla And GM Race For The Mass Market

Tesla and General Motors compete head-on to launch a $35,000 all-electric mass-market car that can travel 200 miles on a single charge; implying a halving of current production costs and a big leap forward in battery technology. Both companies talk as though they can have their cars ready for 2017-2018. Investors seem to believe in Tesla’s story; they aren’t so sure that GM has the nimbleness needed to innovate on this scale (2,000 words)

The Aftershocks

Gripping tale of the Italian scientists who in 2009 reassured the town of L’Aquila that a major earthquake was “improbable”. A quake followed a week later killing 297. The scientists were tried and convicted of manslaughter (they are now appealing). As Wolman explains, the prosecution was wrong but not absurd. Scientists know that “improbable” things do happen; the inhabitants of L’Aquila thought it meant they were safe (5,360 words)

Seeds Of Doubt

The structure of this piece is quite demanding. It begins as an admiring profile of Vandana Shiva, absolutist campaigner against genetically-modified seeds and foods. But it goes on to show that her claims are unfounded, alarmist and potentially ruinous to world food supplies, especially in her native India. Finally, it dismantles Shiva herself, who exits the story looking a good deal less saintly than when she entered it (8,600 words)

Stop Obsessing About Global Warming

Not a game-changer, but still a broadside repaying attention. Sen argues that we need to know far more about the externalities — the social costs — of rival energy sources in order to formulate rational policies on climate change. If we did, we’d probably find that we are underestimating the potential for solar power, particularly in poorer countries; and also underestimating the dangers of nuclear power (4,366 words)

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