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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

America Is Not For Black People

There’s a lot being written, and rightly so, about the confrontation between heavily-armed police and protesting citizens in Ferguson, Missouri. This is a good discussion of the underlying issues: First, that if police forces are equipped with military arsenals, then policemen will tend to behave like soldiers; and, second, that fear of black Americans is widespread among white Americans (2,030 words)

Edward Snowden: Most Wanted

The tone is a touch breathless; but the story of Snowden’s work for CIA and NSA, and his disillusion there, are worth the price of admission. He snapped after hearing James Clapper, director of national intelligence, testify that the NSA did “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. “I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?” (7,500 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)

Staying Power — How To Prevent Coups

Why do some countries have coups and revolutions while others don’t? It may be a function of military training and military values. It may be a function of the complexity of the country: Centralised states are easier to capture. But the closest correlation is with effective rule of law, which raises the price of treason: “Merely mentioning such a plot is far too risky, so the notion effectively disappears from national political life” (2,337 words)

Obituary: Lauren Bacall

Born Bette Perske, “a nice Jewish girl”, in New York. Spotted by Diana Vreeland, who put her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar; where her face caught the eye of Nancy “Slim” Hawks, wife of film director Howard Hawks; who shipped her out to Hollywood and matched her with Humphrey Bogart for her first film, at 19, To Have And Have Not. “It was a hell of a way for a girl to sashay into movies” (2,350 words)

Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History

Pierre Ryckmans, writing as Simon Leys, was one of the great China-watchers of the later Communist era. He died on August 11th. This extract comes from his 1977 book Chinese Shadows, which he wrote after serving at the Belgian embassy in Beijing. Leys blamed the Ming dynasty for plunging China into despotism, and the “barbarians” of the Qing dynasty for making it worse. Mao continued the tradition (9,500 words)

Celebrating Greenspan’s Legacy Of Failure

Alan Greenspan enjoyed “one of the most interesting and, to be blunt, weirdest tenures ever for a Fed chairman.” At the time he was treated as a genius. With hindsight he seems to have got all his most important decisions wrong. “He was a free marketer who loved to intervene in the markets, a chief bank regulator who seemingly failed to understand even the most basic premise of bank regulations” (780 words)

BuzzFeed’s Business Model

BuzzFeed is worth at least its latest $850 million valuation, and probably much more. It’s a media company, but it’s not (primarily) a content company; its core competence is the technology of marketing. BuzzFeed proves with its content that it knows how to reach huge, young, mobile audiences. Then “it can then sell that secret sauce to advertisers, and help them reach the same audience, using the same tools” (1,320 words)

A Brit in Gaza

Reporter’s notebook. “It’s all your fault”, say older Palestinians — and, in a way, they are right. In 1917 the Britain government pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, while promising that “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” would be protected. It defaulted on that promise. “That’s why my British face and accent do not go down universally well here, among those who know their history” (803 words)

Isis Consolidates

The Isis Caliphate is bigger than Great Britain and encompasses at least six million people. This “new and terrifying state” constitutes “the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War”. America and Britain confront an enemy “a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden” (3,240 words)

David Ben-Gurion: Prophet In The Wilderness

From the archives. A 1955 profile of David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel and, with Chaim Weizmann, the country’s founding father. “If it had not been for Ben-Gurion’s obsession with the Negev, the Jewish armies might have cleared the hills of Samaria and removed that bulge which nearly divides Israel. Instead he insisted on pushing south to conquer a desert which never figured in pre-Israel maps of Palestine” (1,590 words)

A Cure Worse Than The Disease

An investment banker explains why, if you really want to sell your company, it is worth hiring an investment banker to do the job, even at two per cent of transaction value. “It is our job and embedded in the way you pay us to do everything in our power to close your transaction, including beating you up if you’re backsliding, procrastinating, or otherwise doing anything unreasonable and likely to derail a potential sale” (2,600 words)

Putin’s War And The Hitler Thing

It’s a good rule never to draw analogies with Hitler. But for Putin the comparison is instructive. “In both cases, you’ve got a kinda-elected dictator who has successfully stoked powerful ethno-nationalism to remain popular, while bringing the economy back from the dead after a huge national defeat, and focusing attention on the fate of your co-nationals who have been cruelly left outside your borders by the last war” (2,270 words)

Withdrawing With Style From The Chaos

And, while the archive remains open, another classic from the New Yorker. Kenneth Tynan delivers a sparkling profile of the still-quite-young Tom Stoppard, “one of the two or three most prosperous and ubiquitously adulated playwrights at present bearing a British passport”. With a guest appearance by Harold Pinter. Stoppard scintillates throughout: “What I like to do is take a stereotype and betray it” (26,000 words)

The Mask Is Off

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban declares his preference for an “illiberal state”. He holds up China and Russia as models. He excites nationalists by dog-whistling support for the restoration of “Greater Hungary”, including territories lost after the First World War. He treats the European Union as an opponent. The EU must respond; but a showdown with Brussels would boost Orban’s popularity still further (2,750 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)

Looting Ukraine

Thorough — and thoroughly depressing — account of corruption in Ukraine. Bad under Yushchenko, worse under Yanukovich. The gas industry is one big racket. Any company that refuses to pay bribes gets shut down. Two-thirds of the economy is outside the tax system. Of the taxes that government does collect, at least one-third are embezzled. Proceeds laundered offshore by British banks and lawyers (PDF) (11,600 words)

Inside The Mortuary

Snapshot of Professor Sue Black, who transformed an “old and dilapidated” mortuary at Dundee University into Britain’s most advance centre of forensic anatomy. Her team is almost all women. “Whether it’s because it’s a new science and doesn’t have the ceilings that other sciences have, or maybe it’s more poorly paid, or maybe it’s sexier. But, for whatever reason, it ticks the boxes for women’s brains” (2,016 words)

Academic Horror, Ivy League Edition

Discussion of recent books decrying Ivy League education as “a moribund institution, a triumph of marketing”. In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz despairs that the main concern of students is less to get a general education and more to get a job in investment banking. But is it all the students’ fault? “If the Ivy League is turning out imperfect citizens, then its imperfect teachers are to blame” (3,700 words)

Neutralizing Ukraine

A solution to the Ukraine crisis: Let Ukraine add a clause to its constitution requiring that accession to any military alliance — Nato, or a Russian-led counterpart — must be ratified by two-thirds of voters or regions. The effect would be to grant veto power to Ukraine’s two camps — pro-Russian and pro-Western. The general outcome, to keep Ukraine unaligned, would reflect the will of the Ukrainian population as a whole (775 words)

Slot-Machine Science

How casinos get you to spend more money. Slot machines are the key. Once marginal attractions, now they contribute 85% of US gaming industry profits. Computerisation has made them more involving, more responsive, more addictive. Multi-line machines deliver partial wins which provide the excitement of a win while still costing you money; they’ll hand you a win if they reckon you’re about to walk away (1,970 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)

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