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Writing Worth Reading

Are Liberals Rescuing Marriage?

The conventional wisdom of 1960s and 1970s America was that liberal values undermined marriage. But now the reverse seems to be true: educated liberals are the ones who get married, stay married, and care for their children; whereas “uneducated Americans” are “abandoning marriage and two-parent child-rearing”. Perhaps liberal morality is “better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world” (850 words)

Psychological Therapy Would Cost Nothing

Mental illness, especially depression, is the main sickness of the working age population in Britain. Cognitive-behavioural therapy costs, on average, £650 per person, and has a 50% success rate. The cost to the state of an unemployed person living on benefits is £650 a month. Depressed people also consume physical health-care at twice the average rate. So treating the depressed would probably pay for itself several times over (1,110 words)

Why Do We Have Blood Types?

Blood types were recognised by medical science in 1900. Types A and B go back at least 20 million years to a common ancestor of humans and gibbons. A few people have no blood type at all. But even now it’s a matter of debate what useful function is served by having various incompatible types of blood. It doesn’t seem to affect our physiology. Perhaps the diversity helps defend us against disease (3,760 words)

I Love All Your Teeth Equally

A dental hygienist talks about her work. Warning: grisly photos. “Today I received some brand-new, shiny instruments. Their smooth metal and aluminum surfaces seem to sparkle when the sun hits them just right. The power behind their modern technology makes me blush. It’s like receiving very expensive, razor sharp, pointy, water-squirty toys that I get to have fun with while having to act professionally” (2,935 words)

Gay, Jewish, Mentally Ill, And A Sponsor Of Gypsies

The author returns to Romania, whence his grandparents fled pogroms and poverty. “I looked at the local peasants and thought that, if their forefathers had not burned down the houses of mine, mine wouldn’t have left. And I looked at what had happened to us in two generations, and looked at what hadn’t happened to them in two or three, and instead of feeling outraged by their history of aggression I felt privileged by it” (2,370 words)

The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress

The notion of stress as a danger to health was invented in 1936 by a Canadian scientist with funding from the cigarette industry. Tobacco makers also funded research into the “Type A personality” — the person “so full of stress and pressure” as to be at high risk of a heart attack. The industry’s aim was to advance stress as the cause of cancer and heart attacks, with smoking as the antidote (1,300 words)

Nature’s Perfect Killing Machine

The ebola virus announced itself to the modern world with two outbreaks in 1976. It carries a fatality rate of 50-90% — “the platonic ideal of a doomsday slate-wiper”. In almost 40 years science has found no predictable pattern to epidemics, no standard treatment, no vaccine. The best that doctors can do is to assuage panic, persuade sufferers to stay in bed, scatter bleach, and warn strangers away (3,690 words)

Classical Music’s Dark Secret

Stage fright strikes even the greatest performers, and for classical musicians the fear is especially acute. “Make a mistake in a jazz break and few will notice; make one in a string quartet and everybody will”. Many use Valium and beta-blockers. Cognitive therapies are gaining ground: “You retrain the performer to accept that there will inevitably be a few mistakes, and the audience is on their side” (Metered paywall) (1,260 words)

Life At 60

“I’ve always read the anniversary roll and over the years I’ve watched people my age go from rarely mentioned as sportsmen and pop stars to more commonly as leading actors and television presenters and now ubiquitously I find myself in the thick of captains of industry, ennobled politicians, retired sportsmen and character actors. You only notice the accumulating years in relation to other people” (2,650 words)

Why Are All The Cartoon Mothers Dead?

“Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock.” It’s getting hard to find a mother in an animated film who survives until the closing credits. In fairy tales of old, the mother-substitute was the wicked stepmother. For Disney and Dreamworks, it is the super-dad (4,100 words)

I Drive A Cryonics Ambulance

Tim Gibson runs a British cryonics emergency team which prepares bodies for long-term storage in America. The body is chilled, the blood replaced with anti-freeze. “As soon as we’re alerted, we start calling the patient’s doctor, coroner, mortuary shipping service, embalmer, airline, US Embassy and Homeland Security to smooth the way. These days, no one blinks an eyelid. Not long ago, they saw us as cranks” (760 words)

Freezing My Eggs Would Solve Everything

Memoir. “I told my therapist that I was considering freezing my eggs, and she said she thought it was a good idea if it would alleviate some of the anxiety I felt about dating. I said it would cause me a different kind of anxiety because it was so expensive in New York City. I would be looking at close to $15,000 to buy myself a few years of reduced anxiety, plus $2,000 or so each year to keep them frozen” (2,620 words)

The End Of Sleep Pick of the day

Imagine a disease that cuts your conscious life by one-third. You would clamour for a cure. There is no cure yet for sleep, but the palliatives are getting better. Take 400mg of modafinil every eight hours and you can sleep just one night in three. Mild electroshock therapy cuts optimal nightly sleep from eight to four hours. Winner of the 2014 Best Feature Award from the Association of British Science Writers (3,900 words)

Life Begins With Genome Revealed

Californian genetics researcher Razib Khan sequences his baby’s genome before birth — a first for a healthy human. It’s not illegal, but the average person would probably not find a lab or a doctor willing to take on the job, for ethical reasons. The great fear: “Discovery of a bad mutation could lead parents to an abortion”. Mr Khan did the job himself using free online software, and says: “The future is here, deal with it” (1,580 words)

The Obliteration Of A Person Pick of the day

A wife’s diary, as a brain tumour consumes her husband, artist and critic Tom Lubbock. “Tom is speaking to me less. The way his intellect is made manifest through language is being destroyed. Great chunks of speech are collapsing. Holes are appearing. Avenues crumble and sudden roadblocks halt the journey from one part of consciousness to the other. He strings words together like ropes across voids” (3,800 words)

The Blessings Of Being An Older Dad

They are many; and many anxieties too. “I’m involved in their lives in a way I never could have been when I was younger. I’m there to give advice, to listen, to entertain, to explain, to hug, to place a reassuring hand on head or shoulder whenever and wherever they need it. The plan is to make myself so present in their thoughts and feelings that my immortality will be guaranteed — life cycles be damned” (1,117 words)

Life, After

How life changes when you lose an arm. “Your center of gravity changes dramatically when you are suddenly eight pounds lighter on one side of your body. And while my arm may be missing physically, it is there in my mind’s eye. When I tripped, I reached reflexively to break my very real fall with my completely imaginary left hand. My fall was instead broken by my nose, and my nose was broken by my fall” (2,600 words)

My State Of Emergency

Doctor’s notebook from Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. “Patching bullet and stab wounds and dealing with drug-crazed patients is a tiny fraction of what I do. Patients everywhere suffer from pretty much the same ailments. The poor get just as many heart attacks and broken arms as the wealthy do. The difference is that at Highland, we may be the only doctors our patients ever see” (2,200 words)

How Mistakes Can Save Lives

What surgeons can learn from pilots. Pilots are surrounded by rules and systems designed to contain their mistakes; their fallibility is assumed. Surgeons are trusted to be the best judges of their situation, whatever the situation might be. So when Martin Bromiley, a pilot, lost his wife to a doctor’s elementary misjudgement, he decided it was high time to export some of aviation’s safety culture to medicine (6,580 words)

You’re Right, I Didn’t Eat That

On the costs and benefits of staying thin. “There are a number of euphemisms for female thinness that do not require a man to make the impolite admission of his exclusive attraction to women with very little body fat. Though ‘active’ and ‘full of energy’ make respectable showings, they are a distance second and third from ‘a woman who takes care of herself’. When he says ‘herself’, he means, ‘her body’” (2,175 words)

US Man Finds Lost Mother In Amazon Tribe Pick of the day

The story has been told before, in the measured tones of the BBC; but here it is in the harsher register of the New York Post, and the added raw detail makes it well worth a second pass. An American anthropologist fathers a son with a teenage Amazonian tribal woman, leaving grief and disruption in his wake; the mother tries and fails to adapt to America; years later, the son moves to join her in the jungle (2,300 words)

For Hire: Dedicated Young Man With Down Syndrome

A father tells of his son’s search for employment. “What is Jamie capable of doing for a living? Our first checklist filled us with despair: factory work, nope; food service, nope (not fast enough); hotel maid service, nope; machine and auto repair, nope. At the supermarket he had trouble with the U-boat, the device that carts dozens of boxes out into the aisles — and besides, they were only hiring graveyard shift” (3,370 words)

Waiting For The Revolution

Psychiatry still awaits its scientific revolution, like genetics before Mendel. Freud was a false dawn. Medication helps manage symptoms. But we still don’t know the rules, the principles, of mental illness. Epigenetics holds promise; it argues for behaviour as the product of complex and idiosyncratic interactions between genes and environment. But for that very reason it is less likely to yield general therapeutic breakthroughs (2,070 words)

Big Pharma

Doctor’s notebook: The drug marketing industry. “The reps all look the same: very pretty women wearing suits, great-looking guys who belong to weekend triathlon clubs, twinkling their ten-years-younger-than-me eyes. It’s a seduction. One by one they try to touch us with their food and their flattery and the name of their drug till it’s as familiar as family, till we trust it and them, till we choose X over Y” (Metered paywall) (1,200 words)

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