The Browser
Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

A Unified Theory

Vikram Chandra, a computer programmer before he was a writer, produces “an unexpected tour de force”, Geek Sublime, which “looks deeply, and with great subtlety, into the connections and tensions between the worlds — the cultures — of technology and art”. You can write — but can you code? The book may be pigeon-holed as an update of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, but it is more and better than that (1,190 words)

Why It’s So Hard To Catch Your Own Typos

The logic is simple, obvious and comforting. “When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads”. The remedy: Read it again, backwards (920 words)

What Does Brain Science Mean For Free Will?

Interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. “An important element of free will, not often publicly discussed, is that we keep our thinking to ourselves. If we wear our hearts on our sleeves all the time, then people will exploit that. They’ll charge us too much for everything we buy. If they know too much about what we’re thinking, if they can read our minds, then we are to some degree disabled as agents” (2,100 words)

Jacques Lacan On Psychoanalysis In 1974

In which Lacan insists upon his loyalty to the teachings of Freud, and pours scorn upon humanity. “Man is a good-for-nothing, not even capable of destroying himself. Personally, I would find the idea of an all-encompassing plague, produced by man, rather marvellous. It would be the proof that he had managed to do something with his own hands and head, without divine or natural intervention” (3,750 words)

The History Of ‘Scientist’

The word ‘scientist’ was coined by an academic in 1833 “in response to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s strongly expressed objection to men of science using the term ‘philosopher’ to describe themselves”. But the British scientific establishment rejected the term for a century. ‘Man of science’ remained the preferred usage, by analogy with ‘man of letters’. Nature allowed ‘scientist’ in 1924 — if contributors insisted (1,100 words)

The Great Forgetting

Adults generally remember little or nothing from their first three or four years of life. Freud thought such memories were repressed; perhaps they were never formed. Recent research shows that small children can indeed form memories; but the memories disappear within a couple of years. Why? Perhaps because they are not formed systematically enough to co-exist with the influx of new information; they are swept away (3,600 words)

The Verbal Dance Around Killing People

“If you want others to avert their gaze while you get down to a bit of your own killing, or you want them to defend your right to kill, make sure they believe that you are ‘at war’. Your job is done. ‘War’ makes us see the violence as bipartisan, as a show put up by two equal protagonists. ‘War’ makes us see violence as purposeful. Naturally, the parties ‘at war’ are entitled to use force to pursue their goals” (1,000 words)

Recalcitrant Language: An Interview With Ottilie Mulzet

Mulzet discusses translating László Krasznahorkai’s novel, Seiobo There Below, from Hungarian into English. A three-year job. “The unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian is like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know” (1,900 words)

The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment Of All Time

Roko’s Basilisk. I admit right away that I don’t understand this. But I want to understand it, I’m reasonably sure that it ought to make sense, and I’m going to read it a couple more times in the hope that it does. It seems to involve a variant of the Monty Hall decision-making problem, crossed with the time-travel possibilities of Looper, within a computer-simulated world reminiscent of The Matrix (2,210 words)

How To Talk Like An Estate Agent

“If in doubt, add -ed. Call something a ‘two-bedroom flat’ and it seems plain, but a ‘two-bedroomed flat’ sounds more made-to-measure; that flat has been thoroughly bedroomed, twice. Turning ‘open-plan’ into ‘open-planned’ emphasises the ratiocination of the flipper at the very moment he rammed a sofa up one end of the kitchen, in order to bedroom the place up and add £50,000 to the asking price” (780 words)

Oxt Can Simplify Your Life

We need a new word. And the word is oxt. It signifies “the one after the coming one”. Example: It’s a Wednesday, and you invite a friend over “next Saturday”. You mean, in three days’ time; but your friend thinks you mean, in ten days’ time; because if you had meant “this Saturday” you would have said “this Saturday”. Oxt removes the ambiguity. “See you oxt Saturday” means: “in ten days time” (530 words)

What’s So Funny?

Is laughter a biological phenomenon or a cultural one? Does all laughter have something in common, or are there distinct kinds? Science acknowledges three main theories of laughter: It preserves the ancient triumphalism of bare-teethed hunters; it is a modern response to the illogical or unexpected; it is the release of nervous energy or suppressed emotion. But where does tickling come in? (3,100 words)

Minding Our Minds

Bibliographical essay highlighting books and essays about the modern concern with attention and focus — whether we are losing our ability to concentrate on things that matter, owing to the accelerating pace of modern life and the distractions of new media. Ranges in time from George Simmel’s 1903 essay The Metropolis and Mental Life to Malcolm Crawford’s forthcoming book The World Beyond Your Head (3,200 words)

Interview: Motoyuki Shibata

Japanese editor and translator discusses Japanese fiction, and portrayals of Japan in Western fiction. High praise for David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: “Usually if you’re Japanese, you feel kind of condescending towards Western writers trying to write from a Japanese point of view. But Mitchell is really thorough, and it reads like a wonderful English translation of a Japanese novel” (3,200 words)

English, Loanword Champion Of The World!

English borrows words liberally from other languages, but lends plenty too, often with something gained in translation. “Japan’s Pokémon takes its name from English pocket monster. Japan’s puroresu is another abbreviated compound, from professional wrestling. Then there are loans where a word stays intact but the meaning shifts. A smoking is French for a tuxedo, and a dressman is a German male model” (1,090 words)

Dictionary Of Untranslatables

The Princeton Dictionary of Untranslatables seeks to “capture, chart, and explain shifts in the usage of philosophical terminology” from classical antiquity onward. Allowing that nothing is exactly the same in one language as in another, it anchors words such as abstraction, acedia, drive, disegno, Erscheinung, essence, melancholy, mimesis, praxis, pravda and others in their etymology and historical usage (1,260 words)

Sigmund Freud, Never-Ending Storyteller

Discussion of Adam Phillips’s book, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, an “effective breviary and defense” which captures Freud’s accomplishments but ignores his errors. “Freud’s real genius was not that he invented the conception of the human being as resolutely hidden from himself — ​literature got there first — ​but that he emphasized and systemized it in a storytelling we’d never be able to forget” (3,700 words)

Everything We Know About Facebook’s Mood Manipulation

Facebook skewed the news feeds of almost 700,000 users for one week in January 2012. Some saw more happy content, others more sad content. When the week was over, the manipulated users were more likely to post happier or sadder content themselves. The effect was small. No special permission was sought from the users involved, on the grounds that “Facebook manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time” (1,890 words)

The Twee Revolution

Notes on the aesthetics of Twee, the “strangely persistent modern sensibility that fructifies in the props departments of Wes Anderson movies, tapers into the waxed mustache-ends of young Brooklynites on bicycles, and detonates in a yeasty whiff every time someone pops open a microbrewed beer?” Twee is cute, nice, winsome, unthreatening — think Belle And Sebastian, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zooey Deschanel, even Kurt Cobain (1,370 words)

The Origins Of Yiddish

Is Yiddish a Jewish language, Germanified by its usage in the European diaspora? Or is it just another dialect of German? The debate continues, but you enter it at your own risk. “Threats of legal action are par for the course. So are character assassinations, pseudonymous academic hits, accusations of lunacy, and denials of the existence of the Jewish people”. Second in a series. The first article is here (6,145 words)

Instinct Can Beat Analytical Thinking

Interview with psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, defending intuition as our best decision-making tool despite its vulnerability to heuristics and biases. He argues that in conditions of uncertainty – which is to say, almost all of the time — we do not have the precise data we need for precise analytical evaluations; and the more we substitute estimates for data, the more error we introduce into our calculations (2,850 words)

Autism, Sociality, And Human Nature

Essay on the rise of autism as a field of psychological study and theory. Diagnoses of autism have risen 25-fold in 35 years. Diagnostic criteria have expanded such that “intellectual disability is not part of the broader autism phenotype”. People with autism are, statistically, the new 1%. Increasingly, a better understanding of autism is seen as a promising route towards a better understanding of human nature in general (2,150 words)

Partial Recall

Profile of Daniela Schiller, specialist in affective neuroscience, daughter of Holocaust survivor, researcher into connections between memory and fear. “She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories”. False memories can be created by suggestion. Can true but insupportable memories — of suffering, addiction — be physically removed? (6,627 words)

India After English

English is ceasing to be the language of power in India. The new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is more at ease in Hindi and Gujarati. Literacy rates are rising fast; but it is Bengali, Hindi and Marathi newspapers which are prospering, while English ones stagnate. “The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English” (1,820 words)

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