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Writing Worth Reading

The Good Tsar Bias

19C Russians proverbially believed that the Tsar was good but his underlings let him down. Many Germans felt similarly about Hitler. This delusion seems to be common in, and peculiar to, authoritarian regimes. Why so? Perhaps because, when a leader successfully captures the sense of national identity, to blame him for bad outcomes undermines one’s own identity; more comfortable to scapegoat underlings (1,870 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)

No Church in The State Of Nature

Jay-Z and Kanye West, in No Church In The Wild, relate Hobbes’s state of nature to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. “They seem to think that without a belief in a God that creates rules there would be no morality. So for them the state of nature is like a world in which there is no God to create or enforce moral rules. This leads us to the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God loves it? Or, does God love it because it’s good?” (950 words)

The Great Philosophers: Hegel

Admirably candid bluffer’s guide. “Hegel put his finger on a crucial feature of modern life: we long for progress and improvement yet we are continually confronted by conflict and evidence of setbacks. His insight is that growth requires the clash of divergent ideas and therefore will be painful and slow”. New readers beware: “He writes horribly. He is confusing and complicated when he should be clear and direct” (1,530 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)

Wrong Answer

Sad, moving, almost tragic tale. Principal and teachers of desperately struggling middle school in Atlanta start rigging pupils’ test scores to raise overall grades and save school from closure, with connivance of local education authorities. Everybody means well. The pupils have no part in it. The scheme works, but too well. The implausibly good scores are flagged by a local newspaper, and investigators move in (9,000 words)

Melissa Lane Discusses Plato

Interview with Princeton philosophy professor, discussing outstanding books about Plato. “What we find in Plato, explicitly, is tremendous anxiety about the nature of writing. Of course the great paradox is that he’s writing, he’s reflecting on the limits of writing, the challenges of writing, of this new technology, very much the way we now reflect on the Internet and social media, how is this going to change our culture?” (3,890 words)

Interview: Sir Norman Rosenthal

Gossipy conversation in which Rosenthal reminisces about his life in the art trade from librarian at Agnews to exhibitions director at the Royal Academy. “All art that we find interesting is both objectively and philosophically modern. If Poussin is good today, then he’s modern. Who knows whether Cézanne will be interesting in 200 years? It seems to me that if they’re good today, that’s all that matters” (13,300 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)

An Interview With Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Conversation about life and the Universe. “Future evolution is going to take place not on the Darwinian time scale, of natural selection, but on the technology time scale, because we’re obtaining the capacity to modify the genome. If there are communities a few centuries from now living on other planets, we’d surely wish them good luck in deploying all known science to adapt to an alien environment” (5,377 words)

Seven Reasons Not To Write Novels

Spain’s greatest living novelist explains why you shouldn’t follow in his footsteps. There are too many novels already; anybody can write one; even if you get published, the money is terrible and the fame minimal; posterity will forget you; writing is hard work. The only reason to write novels: You get to live, while you write, in a fictional world that, unlike the real world, is full of possibilities (1,600 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)

The New Jet Age

Portrait of Dubai International Airport and Emirates airline. Some froth on top, lots of interesting stuff underneath. Aviation accounts for 30% of Dubai’s GDP, up from nothing 20 years ago. DIA is busier than London Heathrow. Location and investment have allowed Emirates to capture fast-growing long-haul routes connecting Asia and Africa with Europe and the Americas, thanks in part to US airlines’ retrenchment (2,860 words)

The Man Who Saved The Dinosaurs

Yale paleontologist Robert Ostrom transformed our understanding of dinosaurs. Before his work in the 1970s they were seen as “plodding, thunderous monsters, cold-blooded and stupid”. He showed them to “have been fleet-footed, highly predaceous, extremely agile”, covered in feathers and related to birds. His view of birds as living dinosaurs, revolutionary when first presented, has become mainstream (2,385 words)

Man Versus Machine

Reflections on Germany’s victory over Brazil. Even recollected in tranquility, emotions run high: “It’s at least not crazy to argue that it was the worst defeat in the history of sports. Here’s what Germany did to Brazil. They produced something so staggering that it still feels irreducible. They left the soccer world functionally speechless. They broke metaphor. They stunned hundreds of millions of people” (2,000 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)

Complexity, Prediction, And Politics

An odd piece of writing somewhere between a fugue and a rant. The first three-quarters is a collage of observations and anecdotes about probability, mathematical logic and chaos theory. The final quarter is a cry of despair that politicians, charged with making a country’s most momentous decisions, typically have no knowledge of these fields and little experience of well-managed complex organisations (3,930 words)

Art In The Future

The fine-art industry today is roughly where the music industry was in the 19C, serving an elite audience. 20C music transcended limitations of class and scale by exploiting technology and developing new genres. 21C fine art will do the same. The market will expand massively; digital technologies will be co-opted; a new tier of “upper-middle-brow” art — think HBO in television — will refine popular taste (980 words)

The Long Shadow Of Hillsborough

Excerpt from Buford’s classic soccer book, Among The Thugs, recounting the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in Sheffield where 96 fans were crushed. “I have mentioned that the experience of standing in the terraces is a herd experience, but I had not known, until watching this police video, that the accepted language used to describe the supporters’ arrangements — pen, pit — is borrowed from livestock farming” (3,300 words)

The Great Philosophers: Epicurus

Epicurus, born in 341BC, was famed for his “skilful and relentless focus” on one subject: happiness. “Previously, philosophers had wanted to know how to be good; Epicurus insisted he wanted to focus on how to be happy”. His advice: Don’t worry about pursuing love, status and luxury. Better to have a community of good friends, work for yourself, and spend part of each day thinking (1,200 words)

Rise Of The Sea Urchin

At work with Norway’s only full-time sea-urchin diver — an émigré Scot called Roderick Sloan who lives 88 miles north of the Arctic Circle where “Summer is everyone’s favourite day of the year”. He sells to Europe’s grandest restaurants, including Noma in Copenhagen which buys 100 pounds a week. “You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth for hours.” (3,030 words)

Life Beyond Earth

In the past 20 years astronomers have found two thousand planets orbiting sun-like stars outside our solar system. The question is not so much whether other life is out there, but what kind of life it might be. If it is not even carbon-based, for example, how can we hope to recognise it? Astrobiologists are studying the most extreme life-forms on Earth, from Antarctic ice sheets to Mexican caves, looking for clues (4,116 words)

Germany’s Choice: America Or Russia?

Germans divide evenly in their sympathies for Russia and America. After the Bush presidency and the Snowden revelations, America is “an erstwhile friend whom many now see as sinister”. German distrust of Russia has grown with the Ukraine crisis, but Germany is “grateful for unification”, cannot imagine ever going to war with Russia again, and sees Russia as a primary focus of German foreign policy (4,630 words)

Ukraine And Great-Power Rivalry

Useful backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis from a Russian (but not a Kremlin) perspective. Key points: Relations between Russia and the West have changed fundamentally for the worse. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are the “new battleground” for influence. Russia has pivoted towards China. Poland has pivoted against Russia. Russia’s defiance of America has won it new credibility in the Middle East (11,800 words)

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