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Writing Worth Reading

Shenzhen Trip Report

A walk through China’s tech-manufacturing capital, Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of hardware. “They do quad-band GSM, bluetooth, SMS, etc. on a chip that costs about $2. The retail price of the cheapest full featured phone is about $9. This could not be designed in the US. This could only be designed by engineers with tooling grease under their fingernails who know the manufacturing equipment inside and out” (2,300 words)

How Hitler Invaded Poland

Moving recap of the events which began the Second World War 75 years ago. Modern parallels too obvious to need labouring. Hitler claimed to be protecting Germans in neighbouring countries whose sovereignty he disregarded. He made a deal with Stalin to divide Europe, and conquered Poland in a month while the West hesitated. The Nazis went on to kill 5.5 million Poles, half of them Jews (1,700 words)

Dutch Renaissance

Discussion of Richard Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge, a political history of America from 1972 to 1976. Perlstein argues that the Watergate scandal worked to the eventual benefit of the Republican right. “The American public recoiled in horror from what they had done and wrought punishment on the Democratic establishment, which they blamed for carrying it out. One instrument of that punishment was Ronald Reagan” (3,075 words)

Soul Cycle

Think of this as an update to Wood’s landmark essay on “hysterical realism”, which deplored the drift in literary fiction towards fanciful plotting and affected style. In David Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, the hysteria triumphs over the realism. The plotting has “the demented intricacy of science fiction”; all characters speak “the same bright, clever prose”. The result is clever but hollow: “The human case has disappeared” (3,600 words)

Personalization And Patriotism

Towards an understanding of Russian foreign policy. It isn’t driven by Vladimir Putin’s personal pathologies, but by a resurgent nationalism which is widely shared. “Any successor is likely to be at least as anti-Western as Putin is perceived to be. Given the strength of nationalist sentiment among the Russian population, any new leader is in fact likely to be more nationalistic and aggressive than the current incumbent” (1,100 words)

Where Danger Lurks

Lessons learned from the crash of 2008. New models needed. “We all knew that there were ‘dark corners’ — situations in which the economy could badly malfunction. But we thought we were far away from those corners, and could for the most part ignore them. The main lesson of the crisis is that we were much closer to those dark corners than we thought — and the corners were even darker than we had thought too” (2,642 words)

A Blagger’s Guide To Stained Glass

If you know anything about English church stained glass, you can probably risk skipping this piece, which is very much a brief introduction. If not, it’s a lively and informative read. There’s “no such thing as bad medieval glass”, because so little of it survives that every piece is intrinsically exciting. The great revival came at the close of the 19th century, when “more glass was made in England than any time since the Middle Ages” (1,700 words)

Fallen Angel

In praise of Walter Benjamin, “one of the twentieth century’s more unlikely Marxists”, rediscovered by modern critics after decades in relative obscurity. He had a post-modern sensibility before that term was invented — he was “a stroller around the boundaries between serious thought and everyday pleasures, high culture and low tastes”; he was also, for better or worse, a gambler, a sponger and a libertine (3,860 words)

Uneasy Neighbourhood

Think of Mongolia as China’s Ukraine, and this otherwise low-key backgrounder gains much more salience. Mongolia is a big, weak, mineral-rich country which “occupies one of the toughest strategic positions of any country in the world”, caught between powerful neighbours, China and Russia, both of which covet its resources. “Mongolia is like the filling of a sandwich. The last thing it wants is to be devoured” (1,030 words)

Are You Living The Life You Want To Lead?

The Brits have their Knausgaard. A middle-aged psychotherapist called Vincent Deary retreats for five years to write a book about his everyday life; puts it in a cupboard; takes it out five years later; the publishers are so excited that they pay him a fortune and commission two more volumes. “This is the small stuff of life. Do not go into this book expecting life-shattering events” (2,000 words)

Putin Ends The Interregnum

“What a mess Putin has gotten us all into! But let’s also give him his due: He has paved the way for the emergence of new trends. He has facilitated the formation of Ukrainian national identity. He has thus undermined his own dream of creating Eurasian Union. He has precipitated a crisis in his own country. He has reminded NATO of its mission and prompted the liberal democracies to reflect on their own principles” (2,400 words)

I’m Only 66

Conversation with Ian McEwan, on the eve of his latest novel, The Children Act. He is ageing well, and pulling ahead of his contemporaries. “McEwan’s prose keeps its cutting edge and his books are the ones the reading public still crave. The surge in his popularity possibly places him nearer Graham Greene than James Joyce on the Richter scale of literary vibration, but McEwan’s back-list is a staple of the school syllabus” (3,100 words)

The New World Order

In the second half of the 20th century we were presumptuous, or optimistic, enough to think that Western values would conquer the world. But “vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order. These reservations are now becoming explicit, for example, in the Ukraine crisis and the South China Sea. The order established and proclaimed by the West stands at a turning point” (1,300 words)

A Fleeting Chance Of Independence

Brief, emotional essay on voting ‘Yes’, for independence, in the Scottish referendum. “This is our moment and we may not pass this way again. This is our chance to hand a magnificent toolbox to our children and work with them to build the country we can become.” Better, surely, that the decision should be made romantically like this, than on marginal preferences for particular politicians or particular current policies (899 words)

Extinction: When Does Our Turn Come?

Interesting if true. Stanford scientists estimate the world is losing 11,000-58,000 species annually, out of a total of 5-9 million — about a thousand times the rate of species loss before mankind arrived. “We’ve already lost 40% of the Earth’s invertebrate species in the last 40 to 50 years … We are living in the midst of the planet’s 6th mass extinction event”. So far it’s mostly bugs. But mammals, including humans, beware (1,290 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)

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