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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

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)

China’s iPhone Killer

Xiaomi makes the best Android phones bar none. The customised Android operating system is faster than the original and updated every week. The physical phones are as well-engineered as Apple’s. If you haven’t heard of Xiaomi, that’s because they don’t even try to sell in America. They’ve got a huge market in China; and no danger there of a slew of lawsuits from Apple for borrowing the iPhone’s look and feel (6,500 words)

Fever Pitch

Demo day at Y Combinator, “an influential firm that invests in startups and helps them to expand”, in the Silicon Valley History Museum. Seventy-five presenters have roughly two minutes each to pitch. “I met the Tinder for networking, the eTrade for bitcoin, the Uber for parking, and the Priceline for products”. The biggest applause goes to Fixed, which will fight your parking tickets for you — “justice as a service” (1,030 words)

The Tale Of The North Pond Hermit

Christopher Thomas Knight disappeared into the woods of New England in 1986 and never came out, until police caught him stealing food from a holiday home last year and took him to jail. “He was an uncontacted tribe of one”. For 27 years he never made a telephone call, held a conversation, drove a car or spent money. “When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: dilettante(7,500 words)

Can A Robot Be Too Nice?

Should we try to give robots human-like personalities? Arguably not, on the grounds that too much anthropomorphism might make us over-respectful of robots, too reluctant to pull the plug. But in practice, robots with human traits will tend to be easier for us to understand and use. The issue is rather that personalities are hard to construct; and our notions of where robots belong in society are still taking shape (2,160 words)

Up And Then Down

How elevators work, and how they make buildings work. Wrapped around the tale of a New Yorker for whom elevators, one horrible night in October 1999, did not work. Nicholas White, an editor at Business Week, got into a lift at Rockefeller Centre at 11pm. It jammed at the 13th floor. He emerged 41 hours later with his nerves shattered. He sued the company and lost his job. To this day, he doesn’t know what the problem was (8,000 words)

How To Be Polite

Politeness pays off over time. It’s not difficult to master, there are plenty of books to teach you the basics, and it makes life more productive. You learn how to make conversation, usually by showing sympathy; and how to deal with difficult situations, usually by exercising restraint. “A whole class of problems goes away from my life because I see people as having around them a two or three foot invisible buffer” (2,260 words)

Diary: Building A Nuclear Bomb

Notes on working at a nuclear weapons depot in Nevada. “Some time in the spring a new warhead for the Polaris arrived. I went through the manual and found a number of things that disturbed me. This warhead was designed for use against cities. It was very compact, a weapon with a small bang and a small cross-section, but its ablative shield was an alloy of uranium, and it produced very heavy alpha fallout downwind” (4,000 words)

How Times Square Works

Billboards plus property development have transformed Times Square from a Tenderloin thirty years ago to a Disneyland now; with, admittedly, a nudge from Mayor Giuliani. The billboards are programmable LED displays with the functionality of gigantic cinema screens; think of the Square as one great computer. The utility bills total $368m a year. But the neighbourhood provides 11% of New York City’s GDP (3,500 words)

We’re Not Leaving

In praise of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, every baby-boomer’s favourite film. It “offers an unusually perceptive and detail-oriented depiction of the way empty time is spent among friends.” Its focus on ambitious and dissatisfied 20-somethings going through “quarter-life crisis” makes it an heir to The Graduate and a forerunner of Lena Dunham’s Girls. “It doesn’t speak for everybody, but isn’t that the point?” (1,435 words)

Welcome To Dataland

Disneyland brings together the two contradictory tendencies that animated Walt Disney. He was a traditionalist, fond of railroads and small town main streets and folk tales. But he was also a futurist fascinated by experimental cities — a sort of mass-market Le Corbusier whose visions “might seem daft, but at least he had the modesty to contain them within the fantasy of entertainment rather than to unleash them on the world untested” (2,460 words)

Let’s Fly

How to survive air travel. In brief: Get there early, bring a face-mask and ear-plugs. “Authorities recommend arriving two hours before international flights. I say four. Get there four hours before your flight. Your friends laugh at you. Have patience. You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport” (1,280 words)

Choosing A Driving Plan

The recommendation goes to the whole collection of articles on this site, which tells the story of the coming hundred years by describing the products and services which will be invented during that time. Driving plans are just like mobile phone plans, but for driverless car networks. Do you want fixed pricing or dynamic pricing? Miles or minutes? Low minimum and expensive overage, or high minimum? (1,070 words)

The State Of The American Dog

In defence — yea, in praise — of pit bull terriers. They are widely hated, feared, demonised. Yet there is nothing in their DNA to distinguish them from other dogs. Any dog can behave badly if it has been neglected or exploited. If you have a fondness for pit bulls, prepare to be enthralled. If not, then this may come across as an outrageous piece of special pleading. Either way, it will stir you in the way that good writing should (6,500 words)

Smartwatches Make Google Glass Obsolete

“Google Glass is obsolete. Android Wear on a smartwatch does nearly everything Glass can do and then some, and it comes in a package that is significantly more ergonomic, convenient, cheap, and socially acceptable. Android Wear has almost all the positives of Google Glass and none of the negatives. You aren’t pointing a camera at people 24/7. You can normally go about your day while wearing a smartwatch” (1,790 words)

How You Will Get Organised

Experts speculate about the future of personal-information technology. Mitch Kapor, Lotus founder, sees the greatest opportunities lying with audio: “There has been a lot made of Google Glass, but they may be dealing with the wrong human sense. The ubiquitous device may be something that whispers in your ear, a kind of reading glass for the ear that tells you what you need to know” (1,400 words)

Slumdog Millionaire Architect

Profile of Hafeez Contractor, Mumbai-based superstar Indian architect, who specialises in huge luxury projects — campuses, new towns, shopping malls — where richer Indians can live and work insulated from the “chaos of their homeland”. Inside his high-rises, “several million dollars buys not only granite countertops and Arabian Sea views but also electricity that never goes out and water that always runs” (Metered) (5,440 words)

The Google Career Path

Part three of a series; this post on performance reviews and promotions. “Job levels reflect the impact you’re having, not the other way around. You get promoted based on what you have accomplished — you don’t get promoted and then take on some big task. If you want to get promoted, start acting like someone at the next level up. Eventually they’ll realise you’re not being paid enough and will promote you” (1,100 words)

Nightmare On Connected Home Street

Satire; or futurology; you decide. “I wake up at four to some old-timey dubstep spewing from my pillows. My house has a virus again. Technically it’s malware. But there’s no patch yet, and pretty much everyone’s got it. Thankfully this one is fairly benign. It sets off the alarm with music I blacklisted decades ago on Pandora. It takes a picture of me as I get out of the shower every morning and uploads it to Facebook. No big deal” (770 words)

Service With A Smile

Life as a San Francisco barista. “Whimsicality was the name of the coffee-making game. It disarmed angry or brusque customers. It endeared you to them by summing you up in a palatable way – you were dependably off-kilter and smiley; people looked forward to seeing you. They thought of you as their special barista, and the more charmingly odd you acted, the more you occupied this nook in their brain” (3,660 words)

Scout’s Honour

An Eagle Scout returns in adulthood to a Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, and comes away with divided feelings. “The children in scouting are wonderful children. The culture is inspiring and compelling. But what repels me is the harm and disgrace repeatedly committed by the elders who remain in charge. If the Boy Scouts don’t outgrow their governors, they may not grow at all” (9,824 words)

The Laid-Back Art Of Tubing

Summer in Louisiana feels like “being locked in a sauna for three months” wearing “a body stocking made of warm, honey-soaked cotton balls”. The only comfortable place to be outdoors is lazing in the river. Which makes tubing the perfect summer sport: “It is sloth ingeniously disguised as adventure. The only equipment you need is spiritual: respect for the river, an instinct for meditation, and a high regard for inaction” (1,725 words)

What I Learned By Being Outed

Former BP chief executive describes his experience of being outed as gay by the “Daily Mail”. His first response was to seek a high court injunction; when the story finally broke, he resigned; then he discovered that nobody really minded, and most had already guessed. “Thousands of supportive letters poured in from around the world … Had I known then what I know now, I would have come out sooner” (835 words)

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