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Writing Worth Reading

Obituary: Mike Parker

As of director of type development at the Linotype typesetting company from 1959 to 1981, Parker turned Helvetica into “the public typeface of the modern world”, the font of choice for McDonald’s, Microsoft, Apple, Lufthansa, the IRS and the New York subway. “Type gave flavour to words: and this was a typeface that gave people confidence to navigate through swiftly changing times” (Metered paywall) (900 words)

Satoshi Nakamoto Is (Probably) Nick Szabo

Speculative attempt to identify Bitcoin founding mastermind using textual analysis and (very) circumstantial evidence. “The idea of a decentralized digital currency was a central project of Nick’s, that only a handful of people were interested in around the time of publication of the [Bitcoin] white paper. Who was on the 2008 list of academics passionate about crypto-currencies and who wrote like Nick Szabo? Nick Szabo” (1,500 words)

Obituary: Anca Petrescu

Arguably the world’s worst architect. Her one great project was Nicolae Ceausescu’s People’s Place in Bucharest, for which three historic districts of the city were destroyed and 40,000 people uprooted. Two mountains were levelled for marble. One million Romanians worked on the building site. The project consumed one-third of Romania’s national budget for five years. The result: “One of the world’s worst eyesores” (Metered paywall) (1,400 words)

The Devil And The Details

How quantum entanglement may open the way to unhackable cryptography. “If Alice and Bob’s measurements agree more often three-quarters of the time, it suggests their photons are entangled. That means they cannot have been intercepted, since any attempt by Eve to do so would inevitably cause them to untangle. If Alice and Bob each add a third, identical polarisation angle, they can use this extra bit to encode the cryptographic key” (1,370 words)

The Shape Of Rome

As Rome grew from a hamlet on the Capitoline into a sprawling city, the new was piled on top of the old — and our Rome is the chaotic sum of those piles. “Freud had a fear of Rome’s layers. He was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible. He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right” (7,200 words)

Obituary: Lo Hsing Han

Drug kingpin, pillar of the Burmese economy. Sold China white heroin under the brand-name ‘Double UO Globe’ Made a first fortune trafficking drugs to American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Fought with the Shan State Army. Friend and financier of the junta. “His wealth was so vast, by repute, that no one could guess it. Small wonder, when exports of his main product equalled all Myanmar’s legitimate exports put together”. (929 words)

Interview: Walter Laqueur

On the decline of Europe. Laqueur at 92, is sunk in pessimism. “Freedom, human rights, social justice are all wonderful, and I don’t want to minimize the achievements of European societies. But a role model? Europe is much too weak to play a civilizing or moral role in world politics. Nice speeches and well-intentioned admonitions carry little weight when made from a position of weakness” (2,300 words)

Obituary: HRH Princess Shirley Of Hutt

Born Shirley Casley, she became “HRH Princess Shirley of Hutt” after her husband, Len, seceded from Australia. “Having studied the Treason Act of 1495, he had concluded that it was illegal to hinder a de facto prince; he had therefore declared himself Prince of what he called Hutt River Province”, a tract of land he owned near Perth. Australia didn’t recognise Prince Len or his consort, but the tax authorities did agree to treat them as non-resident (860 words)

Astana: Laying The Golden Egg

Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, celebrates its 15th anniversary this month, a monument to the hubris of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. “Astana has all the weirdness of Pyongyang and little of the human scale of Canberra. It is a collection of monuments and boulevards on a scale that screams L’état, c’est moi. The president surveys his city from his marble-clad, blue-and-gold-domed palace” (780 words)

The Other Mile-High Club

Finnish liftmaker Kone has announced a super-strong, super-light cable made of carbon-fiber, 90% lighter than steel, which can raise an elevator a kilometre or more — twice the existing limit. Since the effectiveness of lifts is one of the main constraints on the height of buildings, this breakthrough could allow for a new generation of skyscrapers twice the height of existing ones. The mile-high tower-block is coming. And maybe space elevators too (1,060 words)

Obituary: Oliver Bernard

“Oliver Bernard, who has died aged 87, was a Communist book-packer, an RAF pilot, a gasworks fireman, a tramlines repairer, a kitchen porter, a male prostitute, a rider of freight cars in Canada, a prize-winning advertising copywriter, a drama teacher, a CND campaigner, a prisoner, a patient on the analyst’s couch and a convert to Roman Catholicism. He was, though, better known as a poet and translator of Apollinaire and Rimbaud” (1,633 words)


“China was driving demand for the gill plates of manta rays and was stealing West Africa’s fish, and Philippine authorities detained a Chinese crew after their ship ran aground on a protected coral reef while carrying eleven tons of illegal pangolin meat. A seal boarded the Royal Navy’s HMS Bulwark, and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied reports that three military dolphins had deserted in search of sex” (680 words)

Obituary: Iain Banks

Author dies at 59. “His principal childhood interest were television, reading science fiction, and producing homemade explosives”. First book, The Wasp Factory, brought him immediate notoriety. “Even before its appearance, one publisher claimed that the book had made him vomit into his waste paper basket”. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he proposed to his partner, asking her to “do me the honour of being my widow” (2,000 words)

Obituary: Bill O’Hagan, Sausage-Maker

By night an editor at the Daily Telegraph. By day an amateur butcher, and the moving spirit of a British sausage renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. His masterpiece: “A succulent tongue-teasing blend of minced lean pork, rolled oats, fresh eggs, sea-salt, chervil and winter savoury, generously dosed with real ale.” Went full-time into the sausage business in 1988; by 1991 was selling 2m sausages a year, Didn’t get rich, did get happy (930 words)

The Bomb That Almost Killed Hitler

From newly-released British Government WW2 papers (PDF). Transcript of conversation between two Nazi officers, one of whom interrogated Georg Elser, author of a 1939 Munich bombing meant to kill Hitler. “For six months the man spent every night in the beer cellar. I’ve never seen such an ingeniously constructed infernal machine. The man was a genius. That the Fuehrer got away with his life is nothing short of a miracle” (2,500 words)

The Humble Hero

Shipping containers delivered a huge boost to globalisation by cutting the time taken to load and unload cargo. “In 1965 dock labour could move only 1.7 tonnes per hour on to a cargo ship; five years later a container crew could load 30 tonnes per hour. This allowed freight lines to use bigger ships and still slash the time spent in port.” Journey times halved, cargo was secure from pilferage, dock workers lost their bargaining power (994 words)

Obituary: Giulio Andreotti

An amazing life. The incarnation of Italian politics at its most cynical and inscrutable. “A man of ascetic tastes and sphinxlike demeanour, but known also for his astringent remarks and sardonic sense of humour, Andreotti was a consummate politician, a masterly survivor in the chaotic and treacherous world of Italian politics. ‘Aside from the Punic Wars, for which I was too young, I have been blamed for everything else,’ he said” (3,500 words)

Chasing The Chinese Dream

Backgrounder on what China’s leader, Xi Jinping, means when he talks about pursuing the “Chinese Dream”. He probably adapted the phrase from a Tom Friedman column. He’s keeping the content flexible. The words have a populist touch. But the echo of “American dream” is presumably intended to reassure the new — and potentially disruptive — middle class that private wealth is now seen as part of China’s strength (3,000 words)

Obituary: Fred “Nosher” Powell

Sparring partner for Joe Louis, market porter, film extra, stunt double for Roger Moore as James Bond, minder for Sammy Davis Jr, friend of the Great Train Robbers, chauffeur to J Paul Getty, bouncer in Soho nightclubs where “he once had to apologise to customers affronted by Orson Welles’s malodorous farts after the great director had gorged himself on the house speciality, potato soup” (Metered paywall) (1,215 words)

The Debt To Pleasure

Discussion of a paper from Nobel-prize-winning economist Daniel McFadden, arguing that, to understand consumer choice, we need a “new science of pleasure” incorporating psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. Economics has taken too narrow a view: Human decision-making isn’t all about self-interest and revealed preferences. It is shaped by memory, experience, mood, trust, and brain chemistry (946 words)

Obituary: Victor Carranza

King of Colombia’s emerald industry. A life of great risk, great reward, great violence. “His notorious private army known as the Black Serpent was reputed to have killed hundreds of Left-wing insurgents and to have driven peasants off their land”. Brokered a truce between emerald miners and drug cartels. Survived two assassination attempts, served three years in jail for kidnapping, died of cancer (882 words)

Climate Science: A Sensitive Matter

Analysis. Why has global warming paused? Average global temperature has been flat for the past decade, despite soaring greenhouse-gas emissions. “The mismatch might mean there has been a temporary lag between more carbon dioxide and higher temperatures. Or it might be that the 1990s, when temperatures were rising fast, was the anomalous period. Or it may be that the climate is responding to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in ways that had not been properly understood before” (Metered paywall) (2,842 words)

India As A Great Power

Briefing. “India exhibits a striking lack of what might be called a strategic culture. It has fought a number of limited wars — one with China, which it lost, and several with Pakistan, which it mostly won, if not always convincingly — and it faces a range of threats, including jihadist terrorism and a persistent Maoist insurgency. Yet its political class shows little sign of knowing or caring how the country’s military clout should be deployed.” That has to change, if India wants to protect and advance its interests in the world, in the teeth of Chinese rivalry (2,651 words)

Obituary: Allan Calhamer

Inventor of Diplomacy board game. Harvard scholar. Contemporary of Kissinger. Later park ranger at the Statue of Liberty, postman in Illinois, “an amiably eccentric man who enjoyed working out the prime factors of car number plates he passed on his rounds”. Never much good at his own game, because he was “too nice”

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