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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

The Man Who Went Looking For Freedom

Romanian émigré tells of the heroism of her father, who denounced Ceausescu and suffered horribly for it. The story is pieced together mainly from the thousands of files that the Romanian secret police compiled on the family. “The transcriber knew us so well, he or she was able to read and duly note our moods. Some even took sides in family arguments, noting on the margins of the transcripts who they thought was right” (3,300 words)

The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary

Heroic tale of an unschooled Indian entrepreneur who has “revolutionised menstrual health for rural women” by “inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads”. He tested prototypes using goat’s blood from a friendly butcher; “everyone thought he’d gone mad”; family and friends shunned him; even his wife left him, for a time. The secret of his resilience: “Being uneducated, you have no fear of the future” (2,800 words)

Why Do We Value Gold?

Take the periodic table of the elements. Discard the gases, liquids, explosives and poisons, all of which would be highly impractical for use as currencies. Discard the metals with very high melting points, the rare earths which are hard to distinguish from one another, the metals which rust and corrode, and you are left with two elements — gold and silver; and even silver tarnishes, making gold the optimal store of value (1,350 words)

Coffee Or Smoothies: Which Is Better For You?

Two to five cups of coffee a day help you live longer, think more clearly, feel happier. Smoothies are sugary drinks that make you fat and increase your chances of getting some kinds of cancer. So it’s coffee by a mile. If you want fruit, go for fruit, not smoothies. The reason that coffee got a bad reputation in the first place was that coffee-drinkers tended to have other bad habits, and the causation got confused (1,300 words)

Iceland’s Flood Of Books

One in ten Icelanders will publish a book. Almost all are dedicated book-readers. “Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit.” “Crime novel sales figures are staggering.” “About now every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents – hardback and shrink-wrapped” (1,000 words)

The Probability Puzzle That Makes Your Head Melt

On the Monty Hall problem. I recommend this piece, for all the many written on the subject, because it explains the problem in a way that I can understand. “If you stick with your first choice, you will end up with the Caddy if and only if you initially picked the door concealing the car. If you switch, you will win that beautiful automobile if and only if you initially picked one of the two doors with goats behind them” (1,200 words)

Should Countries Be More Like Families?

Nationalism is the foundation of well-functioning democracy, because the sense of shared interests makes compromise possible. “A nation state is the by-product of human neighbourliness, shaped by an invisible hand from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side.” Thus the United States works as a political unit, but the European Union doesn’t. (Good comments, too) (1,600 words)

Return To The Amazon

Amazing tale. A young American goes in search of his mother — a Yanomami woman living in the Amazonian jungle. His father, an anthropologist, had lived with the tribe for 11 years and married the village headman’s daughter. “When he set off for the Amazon in July 2011, David knew only two Yanomami phrases, remembered from childhood. One was ya ohi – I’m hungry. They other was ya bos si shiti – my bum itches” (5,400 words)

Why Finnish Babies Sleep In Cardboard Boxes

Because the government gives each expectant mother a cardboard box full of essentials for the newborn: mattress, baby clothes, cold-weather clothes, nappies. Box doubles as first crib. Thanks to this and other interventions Finland’s infant mortality rate is one of the world’s lowest. Egalitarian aspect is popular, too. Families that could well afford to buy these things appreciate the sentiment and the time saved (1,290 words)

The Pain When Children Fly The Nest

Thoughts on love, and especially parental love, provoked by the departure of an 18-year-old son for college: “What I wonder about is why we love our children so asymmetrically, so entirely, knowing that the very best we can hope for is that they will feel about us as we feel about our own parents: that slightly aggrieved mixture of affection, pity, tolerance and forgiveness, with a final soupcon – if we live long enough – of sorrow” (1,557 words)

Science, Magic And Madness

Nobody likes to be told that they are wrong. But that’s how science advances: through proof and disproof, the experimental method. Galileo learned more from throwing things off towers than John Dee learned from sacred books. “The glory of modern science is that, while only a very few can understand its particular theories, anyone can understand its peculiar approach – it is simply the perpetual assertion of experience over authority, and of debate over dogma” (1,724 words)

Chess And 18th-Century Artificial Intelligence

Reflections on The Mechanical Turk, an eighteenth-century device which purported to be a chess-playing machine, but which worked by means of a human chess-player concealed inside the cabinet. The inventor, Johann Maelzel, “picked up chess players on the run, wherever he happened to be, as Chuck Berry used to hire back-up bands on the road” (1,551 words)

Chess And 18th-Century Artificial Intelligence

Reflections on The Mechanical Turk, an eighteenth-century device which purported to be a chess-playing machine, but which worked by means of a human chess-player concealed inside the cabinet. The inventor, Johann Maelzel, “picked up chess players on the run, wherever he happened to be, as Chuck Berry used to hire back-up bands on the road”

Al Qaeda In Africa: Paradiabolical

“The West is worried about the rise of Islamism in Africa. But behind these fears is an incredibly simplified — almost fictional — vision of the world. At its heart is a filter that wipes away anything complex about power and the struggles for power in African countries. It’s blind and arrogant. And it’s terribly dangerous”

Quantum Biology: Do Weird Physics Effects Abound In Nature?

Biologists find that quantum effects help to explain phenomena in the plant and animal world. Among them: photosynthesis, the navigation systems of birds — and sense of smell. “Electrons in the receptors in our noses disappear on one side of a smell molecule and reappear on the other, leaving a little bit of energy behind in the process”

Amid Scars Of Past Conflict Spanish Far Right Grows

“If you get down to Cabanyal, the tough working class area at what used to be Valencia’s dockside, you can see the threat to the status quo.” Young, working class men without work and calls for a revolution from the right

Equatorial Guinea: Obiang’s Future Capital, Oyala

Deep in the rainforest, construction proceeds on one of the most grandiose and expensive building projects in Africa. Oyala will be the country’s new capital, a multi-billion-dollar plaything for Africa’s longest-serving dictator

Save Your Kisses For Me

Gripping, provocative slice of political history, illustrated with archive video. This one is subtitled, How the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Israeli right became co-dependents in an abusive relationship

While The Band Played On

A bit of video and music fun. Curtis has cut together some arresting footage from the BBC archives of people dancing; and put the footage to two different soundtracks to show how music affects your perception of what you’re seeing

The Media Mix-Up That Ruined My Life

“In 2009, a woman was shot dead in a demonstration in Tehran. Neda Agha-Soltan became the face of the Iranian protest movement – except that it was not her face to begin with, but the face of university teacher Neda Soltani”

A Jewish Childhood On Hitler’s Street

Edgar Feuchtwanger grew up in the street in Munich where Hitler had a weekend home. He remembers the unsmiling fuehrer and the large milk deliveries that meant others had to go without. After a scare, his family got out just in time

He’s Behind You

Subtitle: How Colonel Gaddafi and the Western establishment together created a pantomime world. Gaddafi was both baddie and goodie at different times, and he was happy to play along, as Curtis, in his inimitable style, explains

Why Do We Behave So Oddly In Lifts?

“The way we behave in lifts, or elevators as they are known in the US, reveals a hidden anxiety. It has been observed that lift-travellers unthinkingly go through a set pattern of movements, as predetermined as a square dance”

Unrest Drags Spain Towards Buried Unpleasant Truths

Spain dealt with the aftermath of civil war and Franco’s rule with a “pact of silence”. But now that pact is falling apart. Signifiers of crisis are mounting: Acute class divisions, street violence, outright civil disobedience

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