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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

I Wanted Change. I Didn’t Want This

The Central African Republic has descended into civil war within the past year; a war pitting — literally, in this story — brother against brother. Despite being one of the poorest and worst-run countries in the world, CAR was, until 2013, relatively peaceable. Then a Muslim militia called Seleka seized power; a Christian militia called Anti-Bamaka mobilised against them. You can guess the rest. Read and weep (10,300 words)

We’re Not Leaving

In praise of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, every baby-boomer’s favourite film. It “offers an unusually perceptive and detail-oriented depiction of the way empty time is spent among friends.” Its focus on ambitious and dissatisfied 20-somethings going through “quarter-life crisis” makes it an heir to The Graduate and a forerunner of Lena Dunham’s Girls. “It doesn’t speak for everybody, but isn’t that the point?” (1,435 words)

The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment Of All Time

Roko’s Basilisk. I admit right away that I don’t understand this. But I want to understand it, I’m reasonably sure that it ought to make sense, and I’m going to read it a couple more times in the hope that it does. It seems to involve a variant of the Monty Hall decision-making problem, crossed with the time-travel possibilities of Looper, within a computer-simulated world reminiscent of The Matrix (2,210 words)

The Right To Bear Denial-Of-Service Attacks

How far should private companies be allowed to go in protecting their computers and networks? Passive defence — firewalls, anti-virus programmes — is commonplace. But how about active defence, counterstrikes? “Permitting companies to undertake more active counterstrikes, either for mitigative or retributive purposes, could more effectively deter attacks than traditional, passive forms of defense” (1,140 words)

Good Times, Bad Times

Appreciation of Led Zeppelin pegged to the re-release of the first three albums. “These are three of the most perfect sounding rock albums ever made”. These remastered sets include the rough mixes of II and III, which are “a revelation, casting light on Jimmy Page’s immense talents as a producer”. To say nothing of Page’s guitar-work: His solos may be over-rated, but he was the heir to Hendrix as a technical innovator (3,600 words)

Abolish The Week

The sun gives us days. The moon gives us months. The earth gives us years. But where did the week come from? Seemingly from Babylon, where they started to slice the lunar month into four. It passed into Jewish culture and thus into Christian culture. But the Romans managed perfectly well without weeks — and so might we, if we want to experiment with more flexible and perhaps more efficient ways of living (1,780 words)

Lessons Of The Power Loom

Developers of new technologies tend to seek patent protection only once the field gets relatively crowded. While the technology is relatively new and the market is big enough for everybody, open-source development works to general advantage. This was true of spinning and weaving machines during the industrial revolution; it has been true of computing technology during the digital revolution (1,090 words)

Forget The Dos Equis Guy

An American life. Profile of Judge William Sheffield, who worked with Steven Spielberg on a film project; sued Pope Paul VI over a St. Bernard puppy that was never delivered to him from a monastery in Switzerland; and served as legal counsel for embattled Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “But none of this would compare to an invention he created in hopes of truly changing the world: the banana slicer” (1,260 words)

The Paradox Of Racism

Another review of Nicholas Wade’s book Troublesome Inheritance, about genetics and racial difference. The subject is a big one, there is much to be said, and this review punches Wade’s arguments square on the nose. There may be genetic differences between groups of people, but we have no grounds for claiming that those differences translate directly into cultural traits or social outcomes (2,518 words)

Short Men, Unite

Objectively speaking, there are disadvantages to being short. Tall people tend to have better life chances. But short men make life harder for themselves by allowing society to divide and demoralise them. They lie about their height. They yearn secretly to be taller. It’s time for a show of short pride: “When presented with the opportunity to seamlessly blend in with average-sized or tall people, reject it” (1,550 words)

Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient

The medical detail here turned me a faint shade of green; proceed with care. Gage suffered a horrific brain injury in 1848, and survived. His case stands at the origin of modern neuroscience. But wait: “Recent historical work suggests that much of the canonical Gage story is hogwash, a mélange of scientific prejudice, artistic license, and outright fabrication. Each generation seems to remake Gage in its own image” (6,000 words)

The US Constitution Is Impossible To Amend

The Founders blundered. They made passing a constitutional amendment too hard. The rules require a two-thirds majority of Congress to propose an amendment, and a three-quarters majority of states to ratify it — two supermajorities. “The pig must pass through two pythons”. The Framers didn’t foresee that the country would become so populous and diverse as to make the required degree of consensus impossible (1,250 words)

Have I Ever Left It?

Exploring the Dublin of James Joyce. First stop: 15 Usher’s Island, home of Stephen Dedalus’s aunts in Ulysses and setting for The Dead, greatest of Joyce’s short stories. “In order for him to write about Dublin, he needed to stay well away from it, but he understood the paradoxical nature of that distance and that need. The relationship between this city and its most famously wayward son was one of frustrated love” (6,300 words)

Tax The Childless

Slash taxes on parents. “As a childless professional in my mid-30s I often reflect on the sacrifices working parents make to better the lives of their children. I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I ought to pay much higher taxes so that working parents can pay much lower taxes. The willingness of parents to bear and nurture children saves us from becoming an economically moribund nation” (1,140 words)

The Humour Code: Polish Jokes

Every country has a Polish joke, or equivalent. The Tajiks have Uzbek jokes, the English have Irish jokes, the Finns have Karelian jokes. The urge to make fun of supposed stupidity appears to span all time and space. The world’s oldest-known joke book, the 4C Philogelos, contains 265 jokes, of which one-quarter concern “people from cities renowned for their idiocy”. But only Americans make fun of lawyers (750 words)

The Long Journey Of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Review of The Broken Road, the posthumous final volume of Leigh Fermor’s account of his pre-war walk across Europe. “He meets a girl, stomps grapes, smokes hash, witnesses a celebratory riot in a Bulgarian café when it’s announced that someone’s murdered the Yugoslavian king, investigates the Hasidim, theorizes on the breeding of mermaids, and sings German songs backwards to entertain a Bulgarian maid” (2,670 words)

My Dementia

Teacher describes losing her mind to dementia, as her mother did before her. One small miracle: Her ability to write stays with her. “Persons having spent a lifetime mastering particular knowledge structures may retain access to this expertise even after becoming utterly dependent on others in living their lives”. But there is no ducking “the statistically meaningful downward migration of my IQ on the bell curve” (10,600 words)

Let Crimea Go

The Russian-sponsored referendum on sovereignty over Crimea is “underhanded, dishonest, absurd — and completely legitimate”. If Crimeans “vote overwhelmingly to join Russia”, then any Western effort to stop them will be seen as “a violation of their right to self-determination”. The West can “sympathize with Ukraine”; but Ukraine’s title to Crimea is recent, whereas Crimea’s ties to Russia “go back centuries” (1,200 words)

Language Barriers

Stephen Wolfram’s new computing language is getting a lot of attention “on the basis of Wolfram’s outsize reputation” as builder of Mathematic software. But his claim that Wolfram Language is fundamentally new because it “knows about the world” is “rehashed snake oil”. Yes, it connects to a lot of data sets, and has rules to manipulate them. No, it doesn’t have any artificial intelligence baked in (1,400 words)

Project Flame

College freshman has brainwave: Start a computer dating service. But it is 1966, four decades before OKCupid, and computers are hard to come by. “I had borrowed the IBM cards from the registrar’s office, and I had no intention of finding a computer to feed them into. Instead, I took the cards belonging to men and those belonging to women, shuffled them all up together, and made matches by chance”. It did not go well (1,160 words)

Putin’s War

America warns that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will trigger ‘consequences’. Russia’s reply: So what? Nobody expects America to go to war. And, short of world war, “Putin would incur almost any risk to avoid losing Ukraine. To put it another way: There are no consequences — none that the United States could credibly threaten — that would keep Putin from doing whatever it takes to hang on to Ukraine” (1,500 words)

China And Japan Inch Towards War

International law favours Japan in its dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The five islands were terra nullius (‘land belonging to no one’) when Japan took them in 1895. The seizure was lawful. But China disagrees, and shows no interest in submitting the dispute to an international court. “Even though no one uses the islands currently for anything, if World War III takes place anytime soon, this is where it will start” (1,220 words)

The Lego Movie

It surprises on the upside. A lot. “Clever, vividly imagined, consistently funny, eye-poppingly pretty and oddly profound”, it pits “the perfection-obsessed, freedom-stifling President Business” on the one hand, against “a sort of Goth biker-chick minifig voiced by Elizabeth Banks” on the other, with “naively psyched” construction worked Emmet Brickowski in the middle. The last 20 minutes contain “a big conceptual twist” (940 words)

A Long Account Of Calamities

Review of A Place in the Country, essays by W.G. Sebald. “In Sebald’s writing, everything is connected by the unseen threads of history, or chance, or fate, or death. The scholarly craft of gathering scattered sources and weaving them into a coherent whole is transformed here into something beautiful and unsettling, elevated into an art of the uncanny — an art that was Sebald’s strange and inscrutable gift” (2,150 words)

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