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 Pick of the day

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)

Roger Ailes: Troublemaker

Sizzling, scornful review of Gabriel Sherman’s “dour and grudging ” biography of Fox News founder Ailes. The Loudest Voice in the Room is “standard magazine journalism” conducted “without access to any of the principals in the story”. Sherman does not understand cable television, still less Ailes’s place within it. “Ailes hasn’t divided the country. He’s chipped off his own profitable piece of it” (1,800 words)

Virtual Reality Is Ready For Prime Time

Prepare for a life-changing gadget. Oculus Rift, a “consumer-focused virtual reality headset”, launched via Kickstarter, goes into mass production next year and will sell for about $300. “The Rift could let someone in a wheelchair run along a beach. Being bedridden doesn’t mean you can’t fly to unexplored planets in a spaceship of your own making. Being 90 doesn’t mean you can’t ride a roller-coaster” (1,180 words)

Lynda Taylor, Welfare Queen & American Villain

Amazing tale. The woman that Ronald Reagan denounced in 1976 as a “welfare queen” wasn’t a propaganda creation. She was real, and welfare fraud was the least of it. “In the 1970s alone, Taylor was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking. The detective who tried desperately to put her away believes she’s responsible for one of Chicago’s most legendary crimes, one that remains unsolved to this day” (17,000 words)

The Age Of The Product Manager

Marissa Mayer is a product manager at heart, not a CEO — and that’s good for Yahoo! She knows how things get done. Her skills come “from working in the trenches, not in the boardrooms”. It’s the Apple model, as opposed to the Microsoft model. “The big top-down visions extolled in the vertical corporate model are cheap. The devil is in the details, as the last ten years of Steve Ballmer’s mission statements should prove” (1,550 words)

It’s Simple: Fewer Guns, Fewer Suicides

Another strong argument for tightening gun controls in America: Fewer guns would mean fewer suicides. The suicide rate runs at triple the homicide rate, though suicides rarely make the headlines. Most suicides are by firearm. People without guns can find other ways to kill themselves, but suicides are often impulsive decisions, and guns require little or no forethought. They are also deadlier (1,600 words)

The Nazi Anatomists

Remarkable — and often repugnant — piece of writing and reporting on the legacies of Nazi medical research. Anatomists accepted the bodies of thousands killed by Hitler’s regime; German, Austrian, Polish universities still hold remains in their collections. Nazi theories recur even now in America’s abortion debate. Half of Germany’s doctors joined the Nazi Party; almost all continued practising after the war. (8,200 words)

Susan Sontag: The Intellectual

Review of Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview — the full 138-page verbatim of the 1978 interview conducted by Jonathan Cott which was cut by two-thirds for publication in Rolling Stone. “It’s Sontag the reader who gets most airtime here—which is to say the critic rather than the novelist. She seems to have read all of Western literature, and to have learned from it everything that might be worth knowing” (1,500 words)

Genetics: The Rite Of Passage

Rapid advances in genetics have been slow to produce practical applications. “Many thought sequencing the human genome would unlock the door and show us the genome’s machinery, with all the parts and controls conveniently marked. Instead, it showed us a genome that was mostly unmarked and ludicrously complicated—so complicated that even 13 years later, its workings remain mysterious” (1,700 words)

The High Seas

Meet Mauner Mahecha. Family man, single father of three daughters, and submarine builder to the South American cocaine cartels. “Mahecha’s Kevlar-coated submarines can submerge to 60 feet, go 10 days without refueling, and glide underwater for up to 18 hours at a clip. They were made by hand in the mangrove swamps of Colombia and Ecuador, in desolate outposts with no access to electricity” (1,400 words)

Government On The Brink

How American media would be reporting the government shutdown if it were happening somewhere else: “While the country’s most recent elections were generally considered to be free and fair, the current crisis has raised questions in the international community about the regime’s ability to govern this complex nation of 300 million people, not to mention its vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction” (500 words)

How We Invented Old People

Basic structure of populations has changed twice in human history: around 30,000 years ago when people started living beyond the age of 30, and in the 19C when the average lifespan doubled in much of the world. Longevity and human development form a virtuous circle. Older people accumulate skills, wisdom, knowledge, and pass them on to younger people. Thirty is a crucial threshold because it allows for living grandparents (1,900 words)

With A Name Like Xalkori

How drugs get their names. Most come from consulting firms, such as Interbrand, which lays claim to Xalkori, Zelboraf, Yondelis and Horizant — not to mention Prozac and Viagra. Some drug firms use algorithmic name generators: which may account for Zosyn, Ziac, Qnasl, Xeljanz and Isentress. The basic requirement is that the name should be distinctive, to minimise the risk of confusion. (Tell that to Zantac and Xanax) (1,430 words)

Corrections: Franzen vs Oprah

How The Corrections vaulted Jonathan Franzen into the top tier of American novelists; and why he snubbed Oprah Winfrey when she chose it for her book club: “She was surprised that I wasn’t moaning with shock and pleasure. She was an interloper, coming late, and with an expectation of slavish gratitude and devotion for the favor she was bestowing.” Extract from Hothouse, Boris Kachka’s history of publishing house Farrar, Straus, Giroux (2,050 words)

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