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Writing Worth Reading

Who Is Elena Ferrante?

Three writers rally to praise Ferrante, the pseudonymous but presumed Italian author whose semi-autobiographical Neapolitan trilogy is compared here favourably with the work of Knausgaard. As the headline suggests, Ferrante’s concealment of his or her identity becomes, perversely, the most conspicuous feature of the books. You read them to enjoy the story, but also to speculate on who might have written them (2,330 words)

A Unified Theory

Vikram Chandra, a computer programmer before he was a writer, produces “an unexpected tour de force”, Geek Sublime, which “looks deeply, and with great subtlety, into the connections and tensions between the worlds — the cultures — of technology and art”. You can write — but can you code? The book may be pigeon-holed as an update of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, but it is more and better than that (1,190 words)

Sophia Tolstoy Has Her Say

A century ago Leo Tolstoy wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, “a frenzied monologue delivered by a narrator who, in a fit of jealousy and disgust, murdered his wife”. Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, was less than thrilled. She wrote two novellas of her own rebutting her husband’s depiction of marriage; they disappeared into the archives of the Tolstoy Museum; now they have been translated and published (Metered paywall) (1,180 words)

Why We Fight Wars

In modern times, war doesn’t pay. You destroy what you are trying to save or possess. Yet countries keep fighting. Why? Perhaps political leaders truly can’t do the math; America grossly underestimated the costs of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But more likely the incentive is that governments expect to gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests (900 words)

Geopolitical Football Engulfs Top Teams In Russia

Rare glimpse of how Russia really works. Extracts from taped conversation in which soccer bosses discuss admitting teams from newly-annexed Crimea into the Russian league. Doing so may bring sanctions and loss of the 2018 World Cup. But doing otherwise means crossing Vladimir Putin, which would be unthinkable. As for FIFA rules requiring national soccer associations to be free from political influence … (Metered) (1,029 words)

Immortal Beloved

Concert pianist reviews Jan Swafford’s new biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. “Swafford repeatedly points out the way Beethoven cunningly derived pieces from a single, simple idea. This is not news — but it’s worth meditating on. Beethoven preferred musical ideas of almost unusable simplicity, things that seem pre-­musical, or ur-musical, like chords, or scales; not music, but the stuff music is made of” (Metered) (1,200 words)

When She Talks, Banks Shudder

Profile of Anat Admati, Stanford academic who argues that the best way to stabilise the banking system is to raise sharply the ratio of equity that banks must hold, to perhaps 30% of total assets. That need not constrain borrowing and lending; but it would transfer more of the costs and risks of banking from taxpayers to shareholders. Once a marginal voice, she is gaining influence, and has Obama’s ear (Metered) (2,070 words)

Obama On The World

Interview with American president. Russia “could invade” Ukraine at any time. Intervening in Libya was right, failing to prepare for the aftermath was wrong. Biggest threat to America is its own dysfunctional politics. Arming rebels in Syria would never have worked, and won’t work now. Kurds have built “an island of decency” that deserves protection. Internal pressure might change Israeli policy; external pressure will not (Metered) (2,900 words)

Winged Victories

Review of two books about birds, The Thing With Feathers, and The Homing Instinct, packed with entertaining detail. “Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses can shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 mph. Penguins are afraid of the dark” (Metered) (1,100 words)

Inequality Is A Drag

For decades economists have argued that inequality and economic growth went together. Rewarding the rich and neglecting the poor increased the incentive to make money. But we see now that inequality beyond a certain point constrains growth. Incentives aren’t the only thing. Opportunity is also crucial. Extreme inequality deprives many people of the opportunity to fulfill their potential (900 words)

What Would Krishna Do?

Philosophers discuss Hinduism. “Many Hindus believe in God, but not all in the same God. Some Hindu philosophers are atheists, arguing that no sacred religious text such as the Veda could be the word of God, since authorship, even divine authorship, implies the logical possibility of error. The removal of injustice, rather than the creation of a perfect or ideal society, is the target of political action” (Metered) (2,250 words)

Dear Guests

What the war in Gaza tells us about Israeli and Hamas/Hezbollah/Iran strategy. Israel wants to make clear that it will punish attacks by Hamas at whatever cost in civilian deaths, and with whatever reputational damage to Israel: “You will not outcrazy us out of this region”. Iran is determined to keep Israel in the West Bank, in order to delegitimise and isolate Israel in world affairs (Metered) (1,000 words)

Tyler Cowen On Inequality

Interview. “Income inequality consists of at least three separate issues: 1) the top one percent is earning more; 2) the relative return to education is rising; 3) economic growth is slow, and thus many lower- and middle-income groups are not seeing their incomes rise very much over time. Grouping these issues all together under the broad heading of ‘income inequality’, I view as a big mistake” (Metered) (1,350 words)

Middle East Conflicts Become One

The Arab-Israeli struggle is no longer a clash of civilisations between a Western democracy and Middle Eastern autocracy, as it was in 1979. It has become part of the new “Thirty Years War” between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas; Egypt and Saudi Arabia are surreptitiously backing Israel. Israel cannot escape this war, even by withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza (Metered) (925 words)

Marijuana: Repeal Prohibition

The US Federal Government should legalise marijuana. The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast and discriminatory; whereas the health problems associated with marijuana are “relatively minor”, especially when compared with those of alcohol and tobacco. National legalisation is necessary, because state-by-state legalisation can still be over-ridden by national enforcement (Metered) (510 words)

The Parent Trap

A conservative confronts the contradictions intrinsic to American public policy which encourages nuclear families; but does not restrain deserting parents; and expects single parents to work, or, at least, not draw benefits; yet puts them in jail if they let children play or roam unsupervised while they are working. “We have to find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of arresting them” (Metered) (775 words)

Staring At The Flame

Appreciation of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who stars in the film adaptation of Le Carré’s novel A Most Wanted Man. “He made his voice the only authentic one, the lonely one, the odd one out, the one you depended on amid all the others. And every time it left the stage, like the great man himself, you waited for its return with impatience and mounting unease” (Metered paywall) (1,800 words)

Dead Girls As Objects

William Vollmann “puts the ick in lovesick” with his new short-story collection, Last Stories And Other Stories. The book, “a sort of necrophiliac dreamscape”, is “harrowing in the boredom it delivers, except for the bits, mostly toward the end, in which his male characters have slushy sex with rotting female corpses, some of them ghosts or vampires or supernatural beings of some other sort” (Metered paywall) (1,060 words)

For Email Newsletters, A Death Greatly Exaggerated

Email is “the cockroach of the Internet”. It survives all disruptions. Email newsletters are even enjoying something of a boom “because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and having something finite and recognisable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos”. MailChimp, a big email newsletter platform, is adding 10,000 users a day (Metered paywall) (1,230 words)

The True Cost Of Hidden Money

Global balance sheets show more liabilities than assets. But the world cannot be in debt to itself. The missing assets are probably hidden in tax havens; and the supposedly deep indebtedness of the West is an exaggeration or an illusion. “If offshore assets were properly measured, Europe would be a net creditor, and American indebtedness would fall from 18 percent of gross domestic product to 9 percent” (Metered) (900 words)

Lack Of Major Wars May Hurt Economic Growth

The claim here is not that fighting wars improves economies; conflict brings destruction. Nor is it a Keynesian argument that preparing for war lifts government spending and puts people to work. It is that the fear of war focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right — on science and industry, for example. “Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects” (Metered) (1,250 words)

Throw FIFA Out Of The Game

Abolish FIFA. Replace it with two bodies: One to promote soccer, the other to keep the game and the industry clean. Having one body in charge of everything is a recipe for corruption and megalomania. The scandals in Brazil and Qatar expose FIFA as “a battering ram for world leaders who want to use the majesty of the World Cup to push through their development agendas at great human cost” (1,050 words)

The Biology Of Risk

Risk-seeking has a physiological, hormonal component at least as strong as its psychological one; and both push in the same direction. Too much calm encourages excessive risk-taking; too much volatility paralyses markets. “A small amount of uncertainty surrounding short-term interest rates may act much like a vaccine immunising the stock market against bubbles” (Metered) (2,300 words)

President Obama Was Right To Swap

“It doesn’t matter if Bergdahl deserted his post. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is based on citizenship and loyalty to the national community we all share. The prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay seem like terrible men. But their release may have been imminent. And the loss of national fraternity if we start abandoning Americans in the field would be a greater and more lasting harm” (Metered) (930 words)

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