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Writing Worth Reading

Diary: Life In Aleppo

Bombs by night; four hours of electricity per day; danger on all sides. “I put on a hijab (not something I wore before the war) and a loose knee-length sweater. As well as being dressed conservatively, I have to make sure I have a male ‘guardian’ with me. This area of Aleppo has always been conservative, but before the war visitors could wear what they wanted. That is no longer the case now the social tradition is armed” (1,260 words)

If Scotland Votes “Yes”

Alex Salmond wants Scottish independence to take effect in March 2016, if the referendum goes his way; but 2018 would be more realistic, given the practical problems. Scotland’s scope to continue using Sterling will be one heated issue. Britain will want a ten-year transition to relocate its nuclear submarines. The British power grid will have to be divided. +424 is the likely Scottish dialling code (1,900 words)

The War Dividend

The economic benefits of war are overstated. In theory, the rise of nationalism in times of danger may help the policy process by encouraging coalitions — “reducing transaction costs” — among political parties, and by encouraging a general focus on the national interest rather than the individual interest. But it is much easier to find models of prosperity and innovation in times of peace than in times of war (Metered) (1,600 words)

Amazon At 20: Relentless Dot Com

Here’s the key point: “Though by far the biggest online retailer in America, [Amazon] is still growing faster than the 17% pace of e-commerce as a whole”. In other words, Amazon is already the best at what it does, and it is still getting better. As to its global virtue, the jury is still out. For every business partner that Amazon bankrupts or bullies, another finds itself “selling to places it never imagined” (Metered) (2,900 words)

Spreek Je Dutch?

On trying to learn Dutch. “If the first element of the compound ends in a tricky cluster and the second element also starts with another, you might get a monster like ‘slechtstschrijvend’, with nine consecutive consonants, representing seven consonant sounds. It’s tough even to see where the syllables are. It looks more like someone has fallen asleep on the keyboard” (Metered) (710 words)

The 3% Solution

Scientists investigating cognitive decline in old age have found a genetic variant that appears to raise intelligence by the equivalent of six IQ points. The variant, GL-KS, is based on a protein called klotho, which doubles the brain’s memory- and learning-circuits. Many claims about smart genes are flaky; this one seems robust. The finding was reproduced in three studies and tested on mice (Metered paywall) (777 words)

What Would America Fight For

America will not fight for Ukraine. It has tired of foreign wars. Will it fight for Japan against China, or the Baltic States against Russia? Friends and enemies are no longer sure, and must act accordingly. “Doubt feeds on itself. If next door is arming and the superpower may not send gunboats, then you had better arm, too. For every leader deploring Mr Putin’s tactics, another is studying how to copy them” (Metered) (1,020 words)

Global Ageing: A Billion Shades Of Grey

The world is adjusting to an ageing population. Older people with skills are working longer, putting off retirement. Which is good for them, good for society, and good for national budgets. Countries don’t have to worry quite so much about pension burdens. Governments should start spending less on the old, and more on education and training, so people of all ages have the skills to do useful work (Metered) (770 words)

How Speech-Recognition Software Got So Good

Short answer: statistical modelling, based on corpuses of digitised text. “Words do not appear in random order, so the computer does not have to guess from (say) a vocabulary of 20,000 words for each word you speak. Instead, the software guesses at the possibility of a given word based on the surrounding words, drawing on statistical models derived from digitised documents and the previous utterances of other users” (490 words)

India: We Are Connected

Snapshot of India’s voters as general election begins. Population — 1.2bn. Electorate — 815m, of which 40% under 35. Two national parties: secular left-leaning Congress, Hindu-dominated right-leaning BJP. Congress ought to have Muslim vote by default; but its policies geared to mitigating rural poverty don’t motivate Muslim voters. BJP promises of faster economic growth have Hindu voters “fired up”(Metered) (2,780 words)

Can Anyone Stop Narendra Modi?

The man most likely to become India’s next prime minister has a long shadow over his past. As chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 Modi, a “lifelong Hindu nationalist”, was accused of “allowing or even abetting” riots in which Hindus slaughtered more than 1,000 Muslims. He may have changed since then, as his more enlightened defenders claim. If elected, he may govern India well. But India deserves better (Metered) (1,070 words)

Rise Of The Robots

The robot revolution has been a mild disappointment — so far. Bomb disposal bots and free-range vacuum cleaners are useful, but not intelligent. The world is about to change, however: Robotics has hit the exponential part of the curve where it starts shooting almost vertically upwards towards machines that will hardly be machines any more — they will be our friends, enemies, equals, servants and superiors (1,006 words)

Obituary: Mike Parker

As of director of type development at the Linotype typesetting company from 1959 to 1981, Parker turned Helvetica into “the public typeface of the modern world”, the font of choice for McDonald’s, Microsoft, Apple, Lufthansa, the IRS and the New York subway. “Type gave flavour to words: and this was a typeface that gave people confidence to navigate through swiftly changing times” (Metered paywall) (900 words)

What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy

Democracies are richer, more peaceful, less corrupt. But “faith in democracy flares up in moments of triumph, such as the overthrow of unpopular regimes in Cairo or Kiev, only to sputter out once again. Outside the West, democracy often advances only to collapse”. Even within the West, democracies falter. Progress has stalled. Why? Two main reasons: The financial crisis of 2007-08, and the rise of China (6,100 words)

The Future Of Jobs

Automation has always led to more growth and more jobs — at least until now. But the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics promises huge disruption without the clear prospect of widely shared gains. “Society may find itself sorely tested if growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages” (Metered paywall) (3,800 words)

If I Ruled The World

As America has found in recent decades, when you have the most guns and money in the world, other attributes of leadership fall fairly naturally into place. “Primacy makes a state attractive. Other states want to win its favour and to benefit from its goodwill. Their support is a form of consent which gives the system legitimacy”. That systemic dependence makes it all the harder to dislodge the hegemon — but not impossible (1,693 words)

The Impossibility Of Being Literal

On the auto-antonymic properties of literally. We are taught that it means, ‘not metaphorically’. But hold on. “The word’s oldest meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘Of, relating to, or of the nature of a letter, or the letters, of the alphabet’. It is only by extension that ‘by the letter’ has come to mean ‘real things in the real world’. And that jump makes ‘literally’ — are you sitting down? — a metaphor” (Metered paywall) (750 words)

Against All Odds

How Oracle recovered from 1-8 down to retain the America’s Cup with a 9-8 victory over New Zealand — “the most spectacular match-sailing series ever and one of the greatest sporting comebacks in history”. They brought in a new tactician and re-engineered the boat with a shorter bowsprit to make it faster upwind. “Oracle never looked back, putting together its extraordinary run of winning eight races in a row” (Metered paywall) (1,200 words)

The Devil And The Details

How quantum entanglement may open the way to unhackable cryptography. “If Alice and Bob’s measurements agree more often three-quarters of the time, it suggests their photons are entangled. That means they cannot have been intercepted, since any attempt by Eve to do so would inevitably cause them to untangle. If Alice and Bob each add a third, identical polarisation angle, they can use this extra bit to encode the cryptographic key” (1,370 words)

Cockpit Automation

Why we’re not going to get pilotless planes, even when we get driverless cars. Because the pilot is needed, not so much to fly the plane, as to monitor the automated systems that do so, and, very occasionally, “pick up the slack” when a system malfunctions. Trouble is, the automation is getting so complicated that it’s almost impossible for a pilot to be on top of everything at the same time. It might be easier for him to fly the plane (1,380 words)

Father Of Fracking

Appreciation of George Mitchell, a “one-man refutation of the declinist hypothesis” in America. When the domestic energy industry was going into decline in the 1970s, he argued for the potential of immense reserves of oil and gas trapped deep within rock formations; spent decades perfecting techniques for unlocking them; and when he succeeded — with government help — he changed global energy fundamentals (970 words)

Obituary: Lo Hsing Han

Drug kingpin, pillar of the Burmese economy. Sold China white heroin under the brand-name ‘Double UO Globe’ Made a first fortune trafficking drugs to American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Fought with the Shan State Army. Friend and financier of the junta. “His wealth was so vast, by repute, that no one could guess it. Small wonder, when exports of his main product equalled all Myanmar’s legitimate exports put together”. (929 words)

What Divides Sunni And Shia Muslims?

An argument among believers over who should inherit Prophet Muhammad’s authority when he died in 632 forked into a doctrinal schism. “While Sunnis rely heavily on the practice of the Prophet and his teachings (the “sunna”), the Shia see their ayatollahs as reflections of God on earth. This has led Sunnis to accuse Shia of heresy, while Shia point out that Sunni dogmatism has led to extremist sects such as the puritanical Wahhabis” (570 words)

Explainer: The Law In Space

You loved Chris Hadfield’s Space Oddity. But should he have been arrested for intellectual piracy when he landed? How does the law work work in space? Low orbit is easy. But: “If an astronaut were to travel to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars on a privately funded spacecraft, the situation would become knottier still, because the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 applies to countries, not companies or private individuals” (873 words)

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