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Writing Worth Reading

The Menace Of Beatlism

The New Statesman reaches into its archives and pulls out a plum from 1964, which should serve as a caution to cultural critics for all time. Paul Johnson, later the NS editor, denounces The Beatles: “At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on The Beatles”. This was apparently, the “most complained-about piece” in the paper’s history (940 words)

Antisemitism Was Not An Issue. Now It Is

On the rise of antisemitism in Britain since 9/11. “It would be unthinkable to organise a Jewish event of any kind without really quite strict security. My son goes to a Jewish primary school, as his brothers did before him. We have proper security there. My child goes to school behind several sets of very high, electronically controlled gates and bars, and a guard. None of the parents regards that as unnecessary” (Hard) (1,560 words)

Saving Horatio Alger

Wide-ranging discussion of social mobility and wealth distribution in America. Strong historical perspective. Lots of helpful graphics. Inequality was as great a century ago as it is now; but social mobility was much greater too, which made the inequality more defensible as an incentive to the poor as well as a reward to the rich. “For the first time ever, most parents in the US think their children will be worse off than themselves” (7,000 words)

Regulating Infinity

Longer lifespans, more rapid technological change and greater plasticity of values point us towards a world in which inter-generational conflict becomes much fiercer as older people co-exist with younger people who are very, very different. An interesting and plausible problem, though the possible solution debated here — that the world should be regulated by a super-intelligence — is more of a thought experiment (1,630 words)

Pussy Riot In Translation

Review of Masha Gessen’s book, Words Will Break Cement, discussing Pussy Riot’s place in the traditions of Russian protest, “For all their popularity in the international media, Pussy Riot attracted relatively little sympathy in Russia; in fact, by making it seem that the political opposition is full of anarchist feminist blasphemers, Pussy Riot may have done Putin a favour, strengthening his support from his conservative core constituency” (3,460 words)

The Economics Of Pricelessness

How we put a price on our values and virtues, which we might claim as “priceless”, in market transactions. An excursion deep into Michael Sandel territory. Be sure to bring your thinking cap. “If the people in the transaction share the same set of guardian values, every transaction strengthens those values, and the dollar amount is treated as casually as possible, even if it matters a lot” (6,400 words)

19 Things I Learned In Nigeria

Despatch from the world’s happiest nation. “Half of all Nigerians are kids 17 and under, which means that if Nigeria’s kids decided they were over it one day and formed their own country, it would be the biggest country in Africa, and the most annoying”. Electric power goes out ten times a day on average. The film industry puts out 200 films a week. Gay men get imprisoned, but all men hold hands in public (4,390 words)

The Origin Of Laughter, Smiles, And Tears

Exciting amalgam of neuroscience and speculative anthropology. On crying: “My best guess, strange as it might sound, is that our ancestors were in the habit of punching each other on the nose.” Crying would mimic the effects of that injury, inviting comfort. On laughter: “Tickling is only the beginning of the story of laughter. If the touché theory is correct, then laughter can function as a kind of social reward” (5,100 words)

Dead Can Dance

Interview with historian Thomas Laqueur about his research into rituals surrounding death and burial. “Caring for the dead is like the incest taboo: It’s this moment, in which we move from nature into culture. We care for the dead for all sorts of reasons, and each culture has made up many different reasons why it’s important. The ultimate fact is that we care for the dead, and then we make up a bunch of reasons to justify that” (3,115 words)

Why Pretend To Be Native American?

Iron Eyes Cody became America’s “most recognisable Indian” thanks to film and TV work and a 1982 autobiography. Later it turned out that he was born Espera Oscar de Corti to an Italian immigrant family in Louisiana. Bill Clinton, Johnny Cash, Miley Cyrus and Elizabeth Warren have all claimed Cherokee blood. Why this widespread desire to identify as Native American? Is it guilt, gain, romanticism, or something else? (3,900 words)

China’s One Per Cent

Inequalities of wealth and income have increased sharply in China during the past two decades of economic liberalisation. The Gini coefficient rose from 0.45 in 1995 to 0.73 in 2013. The top one per cent of households are estimated to own one-third of the nation’s wealth. A researcher claim that this is acceptable: “The public is still tolerant of growing wealth inequality, as long as wealth is amassed legitimately” (935 words)

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)

Sana’a

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

“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)

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