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Writing Worth Reading

Tyler Cowen On Inequality

Interview. “Income inequality consists of at least three separate issues: 1) the top one percent is earning more; 2) the relative return to education is rising; 3) economic growth is slow, and thus many lower- and middle-income groups are not seeing their incomes rise very much over time. Grouping these issues all together under the broad heading of ‘income inequality’, I view as a big mistake” (Metered) (1,350 words)

Post-Its, Push-Pins, Pencils

Discussion of Niki Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Sets out as a review, but turns into a rival history, as the reviewer, dissatisfied with Saval’s account, constructs her own; which starts on a lyrical note, with a two-paragraph hymn to the stationery cupboard, the “beating heart” of the pre-1990s office; but grows darker with the computer-assisted fall of the middle class and the rise of the temp (4,600 words)

The Children Of Silicon Valley

Tech companies always aspire to “change the world”. It’s a cliché. It’s also, in general, a bad way to proceed. The world has been through enough turmoil in the past century or so. “Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread” (1,480 words)

The Uses Of Adversity

All of the New Yorker’s content is temporarily available free on line while the web site is updated; browse and enjoy previously gated favourites. Here is a Malcolm Gladwell piece on a very Gladwellian theme: how an underdog can triumph. The case study is that of Sidney Weinberg, who rose through Goldman Sachs from janitor’s assistant at 16 to senior partner at 40, making his outsider status work in his favour (4,424 words)


Notes on a visit to the capital of Yemen, for tourism. “From the outside, the buildings look like confectionery. The icing is decorative white trim made from lime. Many houses have a sort of carved stone cage affixed at some of the windows that serves as a cooling station for meat or water. It’s set up so that the breeze will blow through and chill whatever’s inside. There is a lot of strategic draught management in Yemeni architecture” (6,700 words)

Beware Slippery Slopes

Rhetorically at least, the world of policy and ethics is full of “slippery slopes” — assisted suicide will lead to euthanasia, gay marriage will lead to bestiality, artificial life will lead biological warfare. But life isn’t like that. The metaphor is misleading as well as clichéd. Nobody takes an incremental change as a blank cheque for further sweeping changes. The arguments begin again, with more and better information (Hard) (1,070 words)

The New Baby Boom

Lifted by immigration, live births in Britain are up 22% since 2001. The new generation inherits Britain’s changing demographics. Half the babies born in London have a foreign mother. An east London singing class for one-year-olds attracts “one white Briton, two black Britons, four east Europeans, one west African and one Iraqi”. By the time these babies grow up, the notion of ethnic minorities may have disappeared (5,100 words)

Transformers 4 Is A Master Class In Economics

The lessons are in the making of the film, not in the content. First, the real money comes from owning the machines: Transformers made $300m in its opening weekend, the biggest film of 2014. Second: Humans are dispensable; the franchise has got rid of its human star Shia LeBoeuf, and nobody cares. Third: China is as big a market as America; this Transformers is full of scenes tailored to a Chinese audience (1,800 words)

Sixty-Nine Days: The Ordeal of The Chilean Miners

How 33 Chilean miners survived for two months, a mile below ground, after their mine collapsed around them. Their rations: One can of salmon, one can of peaches, one can of peas, eighteen cans of tuna, twenty-four litres of milk (eight of which turned out to be spoiled), ninety-three packages of cookies, and ten litres of bottled water. “In exchange for good wages, the men accepted the possibility of death” (13,600 words)

The Wells Of Memory

A walk through the Hejaz desert of Saudi Arabia – part of the author’s project to walk around the world. The writing is somewhat self-conscious, but the achievement is fantastic. Hejaz, and particularly the port city of Jeddah, are revealed as “a cosmopolitan and liberal corner of Saudi Arabia, a melting pot, an entrepôt”, with a culture and history quite distinct from that of the Bedouin strongholds of the centre (3,500 words)

The Entrepreneurs Who Saved Seattle

Forget the urbanism studies. The greatest city turnaround in modern American history followed from an accident of birth. In 1979 Seattle was a decaying outpost tied to a declining lumber industry. “The Economist” called it “a city of despair”. But then two homesick Seattle natives decided to move back back from Albuquerque. They were Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and they brought Microsoft with them (660 words)

The More Your Job Helps Others, The Less You Get Paid

Interview with David Graeber about work, wages, automation. “The ambivalence in the heart of the worker’s movement remains. On the one hand, there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and best avoided whenever possible. But it makes it very difficult to organize, as workers, against work” (5,000 words)

A Theory Of Jerks Pick of the day

“We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild”. And we need a theory, second, because it may help us to see when we are jerks ourselves. “As one climbs the social hierarchy it is easier to become a jerk. Thinking yourself important is a self-gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests of others” (3,600 words)

Abolish The Week

The sun gives us days. The moon gives us months. The earth gives us years. But where did the week come from? Seemingly from Babylon, where they started to slice the lunar month into four. It passed into Jewish culture and thus into Christian culture. But the Romans managed perfectly well without weeks — and so might we, if we want to experiment with more flexible and perhaps more efficient ways of living (1,780 words)

The Heartache And Pain Beyond London

UKIP’s poor showing in London is further evidence of the degree to which London has drifted apart from the rest of the country. The closest the average Briton can get to life in central London is to take a day trip there on the train, “wander the silent and shuttered streets of Belgravia and Holland Park, and admire the empty palaces where Russians or Arabs park their money but not their children” (1,330 words)

A Memorial To Personal Memory

The National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York powerfully evokes grief and loss. It collects and shares thousands of private tragedies. But there it stops. “Ideas and debates don’t interfere with the determined accumulation of sensations and memories”. The museum allows “little room for more elaborate and public considerations; it doesn’t even try to offer a rough first draft of history” (Metered paywall) (1,760 words)

The Case For Reparations Pick of the day

The exploitation of black Americans remained brutal well into the 20th century; the effects endure to the present day in wealth and income differentials and in widespread segregation of schools and housing. Whether or not you agree that reparations are the answer, Coates makes his argument well: “To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte” (15,800 words)

Competitiveness And Virtue

Inequality has been rising in Britain for decades; but has been seen as a serious social problem only since the crash of 2008, amid fears that the very rich — the 1% — have captured political power. How did we get to this? By accepting that “competition” was always virtuous — not only in business, but in all social relations. We demanded “winners”. But winners, once they have won, want to close down the game (1,500 words)

The Paradox Of Racism

Another review of Nicholas Wade’s book Troublesome Inheritance, about genetics and racial difference. The subject is a big one, there is much to be said, and this review punches Wade’s arguments square on the nose. There may be genetic differences between groups of people, but we have no grounds for claiming that those differences translate directly into cultural traits or social outcomes (2,518 words)

Billionaires’ Fantasia

The visions of libertarian tycoons such as Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page come straight out of science fiction: Space travel, eternal life, floating cities. “These ambitious, mogul-driven projects all mimic one of science fiction’s raisons d’être: World-building — imagining self-contained planets, space colonies, social relations that operate on radically different principles from the ones we know” (6,000 words)

Short Men, Unite

Objectively speaking, there are disadvantages to being short. Tall people tend to have better life chances. But short men make life harder for themselves by allowing society to divide and demoralise them. They lie about their height. They yearn secretly to be taller. It’s time for a show of short pride: “When presented with the opportunity to seamlessly blend in with average-sized or tall people, reject it” (1,550 words)

Fixing Privacy Needs Politics, Not Engineering

“The most depressing thing I’ve discovered over the years is that it’s very hard to get people interested in what’s happening to their data behind closed doors. As long as it’s not causing them problems, nobody’s bothered … Physical and intellectual property laws work because they build on an existing intuitive feeling of ownership. If nobody cares about ownership of their data, we’ll never pass or enforce legislation around the concept” (1,500 words)

Darwin’s Unexploded Bomb

Human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional”, with groups diverging strongly from one another in the past 50,000 years, and especially in the past 10,000. Late-20C science tended to view race as a cultural construct without biological substance; but as we learn more about genetics, we may come to see that races and civilisations are distinguished not only by culture, but also by genes (1,220 words)

Unmasking Japan’s Beethoven

Mamoru Samuragochi was celebrated in Japan as a second Beethoven — deaf, brooding, brilliant. His Symphony No. 1: Hiroshima, became “a kind of theme song of national survival” after the 2011 tsunami. Then the story took an unexpected turn: he was neither deaf, nor even a musician. His works were ghosted by an adjunct professor at a Tokyo college — who decided, after two decades, that he wanted the credit for himself (1,280 words)

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