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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Syria In Revolt

Intelligent, informed, measured account of the Syrian conflict, explaining from the ground up in social and political terms why the revolt happened when it did against a seemingly all-powerful state; and arguing that the closest historical analogy would be the Hungarian anti-communist uprising of 1956: “No one said that the country was in the throes of a civil war because Hungarian was killing Hungarian” (4,880 words)

Of Maggots And Brain Scans

Brain scans may seem to explain behaviour in biological terms. But what we see so far is loose correlation, not reproducible causation. There is “serious redundancy”. A small group of activated neurons can induce a given behaviour, “but thirty to forty different groups may elicit the same behaviour”. Second, “a given set of neurons may not always produce the same kind of behaviour, even in the same brain” (1,300 words)

Style Over Substance

Scott Moncrieff’s English translation of “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” is a masterpiece. But it takes liberties with Proust’s original that would not be forgiven today. Yale University Press errs by adopting Moncrieff’s English text for its new annotated edition, ignoring the contributions of later and more faithful translators; and the annotations in Yale’s first volume, “Swann’s Way”, are often problematic (4,820 words)

Baseball: Best Of All Games

From the archives. The philosopher John Rawls explains why baseball is the greatest of sports. “The physical layout of the game is perfectly adjusted to the human skills it is meant to display and to call into graceful exercise”. Baseball engages the whole body, and favours no particular physique. Time is not limited; however badly the losing side may be lagging, there is always the possibility of a comeback (1,086 words)

The Big Dig

Most critics recognise Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, written in 1605, as the first novel. Steven Moore disagrees. His “caustic, learned, witty” work in progress, The Novel: An Alternative History, begins with the Ancient Egyptians. “The novel has been around since at least the fourth century BCE (Xenophon’s Cyropaedia) and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages” (3,350 words)

Political Hatred In Argentina

Gripping interview with Uki Goñi, who covered the Dirty War of the 1970s for the Buenos Aires Herald. “Argentine historians use the French style to write about something. You lock yourself in your apartment with a bottle of wine and lots of coffee and you think about a subject and then you write whatever your opinion is about the subject. But you don’t do any research or get your hands dirty, except maybe with coffee” (8,760 words)

Notes On Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes seem “spooky” because they make us think of children who have disappeared — into time, into history, into death. “Reading through the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes I felt the echoing sounds of the children of history singing, half-singing, laughing or crying. I conjured up the image a little English village boy on a cold February morning in 1650, seven years old, throwing seeds to the birds” (990 words)

Schools And Citizens

Discussion of Diane Ravitch’s Reign Of Error, about American school reforms over the past 25 years. The advertised goals have been admirable: Higher test scores for all students; closing of gaps between black and white, rich and poor. But reformers are “refashioning education as a private commodity rather than a public good”. Their focus on measurable outcomes prepares pupils “not so much for citizenship, but for labor markets” (3,330 words)

Life As Ponzi Scheme

Philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues in Death and the Afterlife that we should care more about the survival of humanity than about our individual, inevitable deaths; if humanity is doomed — for example by climate change or infertility — then individual lives lose their value and meaning. Scheffler overstates his case; we are not merely hostages to the future; but his argument deserves hearing (5,170 words)

Interview: George Scialabba

Essayist and critic talks about radicalism, Jonathan Franzen, feminism, Saul Bellow, the hive mind, Chomsky, and much else. Including the New Republic: “They’re really very smart, all of them, and the whole young generation of people they’ve spawned — Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, Jonathan Chait — they’re all very smart. But their focus is rather narrow. And their moral imagination is really on leave” (3,750 words)

Rodolfo Walsh And The Struggle For Argentina

Amazing life of writer, journalist, activist, who fought with far-left Montoneros militia in 1970s Argentina; was machine-gunned after the military coup; his daughter died in the dirty war. In 1960s Cuba he co-founded Prensa Latina news agency with Gabriel García Márquez; used his “gift for puzzles and word games” to decode an intercepted CIA telex giving Castro advance notice of the Bay of Pigs invasion. “The typewriter is a weapon”, he said (4,900 words)

Censored By Google

How Google AdSense can blacklist your site content as pornographic, and why you can’t do anything to prevent that. “The algorithm scores every page in terms of risk. Some it ranks as perfect and others it wants absolutely no association with its advertisers; they’re clearly obscene. But there’s a problem. If Google let everyone know what exactly its algorithm looks for, people would be able to game the system” (2,770 words)

You Won’t See This On TV

Former public defender on how the American criminal justice system functions: “Given how overbroad most criminal statutes are, most Americans probably have, at some point, technically committed a misdemeanor-level crime, such as simple assault, theft, a driving offense, a trespass, an act of vandalism, or a more esoteric malfeasance such as unsworn falsification, hindering prosecution, or misconduct after a car accident” (4,000 words)

Bosnia And Syria: Intervention Then And Now

America intervened to stop civil war in Bosnia in 1995. Why will it not do the same in Syria now? Partly because there are no clear “good guys” in Syria, pulling America into the conflict, wielding the moral weight that the Bosniaks did in Sarajevo. Partly because the world has changed: America can no longer afford to defy China and Russia, and America is tired. Syria does matter. It just doesn’t matter enough (2,400 words)

The Republic Of Choosing

Review of Simpler, by Cass Sunstein. The behavioural toolkit is useful for addressing some policy issues, but not the biggest or the most difficult ones, where solutions have to go way beyond nudges. “Sunstein’s account of the future of government has nothing to say about unemployment, inequality, or national security, and its contribution to environmental protection is limited to consumer labeling of cars and appliances” (3,750 words)

Lives Of The Moral Saints

Writer Larissa McFarquhar talks about her current work on cases of extreme moral virtue — for example, a person who donates a kidney to a stranger; a Boston couple that give away almost all their money. “To me, the compelling question here was not extremity as such, but whether there is any limit to what can be morally required of us, and whether there’s anything wrong with a life that’s lived according to extreme moral principles” (3,489 words)

The Little That Hugo Chávez Got Right

Long-time critic assesses late Venezuelan president’s record, finds picture more nuanced than he previously allowed. “What cannot be denied, what gives me pause as I consider my own resistance to Chavismo, is that the regime did make a large segment of the population feel empowered and relevant for the first time in recent memory”

Happiness Policy

Intriguing field for social scientists. Useful addition to conventional economic metrics. But happiness is bound up with so many other big things in life — health, wealth, relationships, religion — that cause and effect intertwine

Sweet Forgiveness

How can the US escape its low-growth/high-unemployment trap? One theory is that the fundamental problem is the welter of households facing unpayable debts. If that’s so, debt relief would help. But it’s gone right out of fashion

The Execution Of Carlos DeLuna

How Texas murdered an innocent man. Pro-death penalty arguments sometimes run along the lines of there being no clear evidence that convicts have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Can that argument still be made?

Remarkable Facts

Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”. Physics and biology try to explain where things came from. They should ask where things are going, what they are for. The purpose of life is more important than the origins of it

White Correspondent’s Burden

Africa has 54 countries and a billion people, but the only stories of interest to the Western press involve famine, disease, poverty and civil war. Rape and genocide score double points. The news is broken. How to fix it?

The Checkpoint

Inside the mind of an Israeli soldier. A fantastically interesting (if dispiriting) account of the psychology of occupation. Israeli army has power without authority so it must make Palestinians think it is everywhere, and fear it

The New Religious Intolerance

Western views of Islam shaped by fear, says Martha Nussbaum. “Fear is a major source of the denial of equal respect to others. Its tendencies toward narrowness make it easily manipulable by false information and rhetorical hype”

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