Chat Wars

Alexis Madrigal calls this “one of the finest pieces I’ve read on what it feels like to code (abstraction, problem-solving, power)”. Insider’s tale of how Microsoft tried to get traction for its messaging app, MSN Messenger. MS developers spoofed the protocols used by America Online’s more popular AIM messaging app, so that Microsoft users could ping AOL users. AOL fought back. Everybody lost (6,670 words)

Ukraine, Putin And The West

If you have read nothing about Ukraine and Russia in the past six months, and would like to be brought up to date, this is a piece you should read. And if, per contra, you have read everything, but have trouble fitting the bits together, then again, this is a piece you should read. It argues, in brief, that America helped bring about the crisis in Ukraine by thoughtlessly caricaturing and humiliating Vladimir Putin (3,880 words)

Get Out, We Have No Customs

On the banning and pulping in India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, praised by Western scholars but denounced by some Hindu groups. “The success of Doniger’s opponents is the product of the slow accrual of power to an emigrant intelligentsia with its fact-checkers and open letters on the one hand, and an Indian vanguard with its legal notices and hurt sentiments on the other” (3,100 words)

MFA Versus NYC

“There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 1,269. The University now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic centre of the literary fiction world. This balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures : one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns. Each has its own canonical works and heroic figures” (6,000 words)

Red Noise

Solomon Nikritin’s philosophy of Projectionism — “the doctrine that art could, by prefiguring the ideal culture, push society into the future” — animated an anarchic school of early Soviet art in which existing forms were dismissed because they belonged to the present. Musician Arseny Avramov asked the government to burn all pianos. A “play” might be a gymnastics display; a “symphony” the sound of factory hooters. (3,340 words)

Scandinavian Style

Interesting review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiography My Struggle, which focuses on Knausgaard’s material circumstances. “My Struggle’s relentless catalogue of the occurrences of everyday life does not include any complaints about boring, horrible jobs. This is probably because none of the people in My Struggle have day jobs. We never see Knausgaard engaging in any kind of income-generating activity” (2,250 words)

Arthur Danto: Miracle And Commonplace

Arthur Danto, the art critic for the Nation who died last month in New York, was a man with a big idea. “Art, he believed, had ended.” Not that there would be no more art, but that art had lost its narrative. There would be no more Art, only works of art. His epiphany came in 1964 when he saw Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes: “If the Brillo Boxes can look just like Brillo boxes and still be art, then anything can be art. Art isn’t special anymore” (1,929 words)

Kirill Medvedev, Russia’s First Post-Soviet Writer

Introduction to It’s No Good, a collection of Medvedev’s poems and essays. “What is an author for? asks Medvedev. Is he a private citizen who tries to produce masterpieces of literature — whereupon his responsibilities end? The answer, especially in contemporary Russia, must be no. The author must be willing to answer for his texts. The only justification for an essentially unproductive life is that it be lived without compromise” (3,670 words)

Why I Am Going on Hunger Strike

Pussy Riot protester tells of conditions in her Russian prison camp. “Sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, the convicts are always on the verge of breaking down, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw” (3,200 words)

Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy

Republished from 2004, and still compelling reading. American special forces soldiers as the Homeric heroes of modern warfare. “They fight with powerful, almost preternatural weapons, in episodes of virtuosic slaughter, until they withdraw to safety. Eyes circle overhead to guide them, superiors to whom they can appeal in times of trouble. Medicine makes wounds insignificant, as long as they are not instantly fatal” (1,500 words)

Egypt Notebooks

Writer’s diary from travels in Egypt researching a novel. “Overwhelming impression of Cairo is not its antiquity, its Easternness, or the heat. It’s the traffic. To cross the street I position myself on the other side of an Egyptian, preferably a woman who looks like somebody’s mother, and I cross when she does, hoping she’ll block for me. In my walks I find a single pedestrian crossing signal; when it turns green, the little man-figure runs for his life” (3,689 words)

Boris Berezovsky, 1946-2013

An appreciation — if that is the right word — of the dead Russian oligarch. Berezovsky was “a man who had been given a magnificent mind, and limitless energy, and who devoted these, primarily, to destruction, speculation, and manipulation”. He was, in his way, enthralling. But he profited from, and encouraged, a lawlessness that ruined his country (2,745 words)

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