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Writing Worth Reading

Rise Of The Sea Urchin

At work with Norway’s only full-time sea-urchin diver — an émigré Scot called Roderick Sloan who lives 88 miles north of the Arctic Circle where “Summer is everyone’s favourite day of the year”. He sells to Europe’s grandest restaurants, including Noma in Copenhagen which buys 100 pounds a week. “You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth for hours.” (3,030 words)

The Invention Of Iraq

For 400 years prior to World War One the territory which is now Iraq consisted of three autonomous provinces within the Ottoman Empire — one Sunni, one Shiite, one Kurdish. After WW1 the British forced the provinces together into a new country, which had the misfortune to strike oil, while the French delineated Syria and Lebanon. A century later, America strives to preserve Europe’s geopolitical errors (1,430 words)

What Really Happened To Michael Rockefeller

His catamaran overturned on a river in New Guinea in 1961. He made it to shore, where he met travellers from a nearby village. Descendants of the villagers tell what happened next, and they have the bones to prove it: “Pep speared him in the ribs. They rowed him to a hidden creek where they killed him and made a big fire”. The Dutch colonial government heard the story from missionaries, but hushed it up (8,400 words)

Richard Petty, King of Nascar

Hymn to the Pontiac Grand Prix driven by Richard Petty, Nascar’s seven-time champion, now in the collection of the American History Museum. “It is coarse and loud and ill-mannered. It is a red, white and blue insult to civility and aerodynamics. It is a 630-horsepower brick through America’s living-room window … Slow to anger and hard to turn, but capable of straight-line speeds well north of 200 miles per hour” (700 words)

Albert Camus Is A Stranger To Algeria

Camus was born in Algeria, spent much of his life there, and set two of his most famous novels there: The Plague and The Stranger. But, on the centenary of his birth, Algeria has all but forgotten him. He was on the wrong side of history. “Despite his revulsion toward French colonial prejudices and his sympathy toward Arabs, Camus believed until the end of his life that Algeria must remain part of France” (4,390 words)

Golden Arches Of McModernism

The McDonald’s aesthetic. “In the early 1950s Richard and Maurice McDonald hired architect Stanley Clark Meston to design a drive-in hamburger stand that carried on the traditions of roadside architecture established in the 1920s and 1930s. In an age before ubiquitous mass media advertisements, the building was the advertisement. Meston made the entire building a sign specifically designed to attract customers from the road” (1,360 words)

Gut-Wrenching Science

Report from pepper-eating contest in Nagaland, India, home of world’s hottest chillies. Here’s what happens to a man who eats five: “Zozam rolls onto his back, arms splayed and palms up. He’s making sounds that are hard to transcribe. Mostly vowels. After a minute he rolls back onto his side and raises his head to retch. A doctor prepares a hypodermic of dicyclomine”. The winner eats 14, and doesn’t feel too well either (2,517 words)

Life In The City Is One Giant Math Problem

The emerging study of quantitative urbanism contends that many aspects of modern cities can be modelled using mathematical formulas. For example: If the population of a city doubles, each inhabitant becomes on average 15% more productive. “Give me the size of a city in the US and I can tell you how many police it has, how many patents, how many AIDS cases, just as you can calculate the life span of a mammal from its body mass” (7,714 words)

Decoding The Range: The Secret Language Of Cattle Branding

One of those “I never knew that!” pieces, full of quotable facts. Branding dates back to ancient Egyptian times. In the American West, letters with added wings are called “flying”; those lying sideways are “lazy”. Same brand can be registered by different owners of the country so long as it is on different parts of the cow. Brand protection lapses if you don’t pay your taxes. One Texas rancher refused to brand: his name was Maverick (873 words)

A Cure For Bedbugs

New York’s long nightmare is over. “For years, people in Eastern Europe’s Balkan region have known that kidney bean leaves trap bedbugs, like a natural fly paper … In 1943, a group of researchers studied this phenomenon and attributed it to microscopic plant hairs that grow on the leaves’ surface, entangling bed bug legs.” Knowledge lost in World War II. The method works. Now scientists are developing synthetics with the same properties (1,000 words)

Ten Most Influential Travel Books

“What follows is a brazenly opinionated short-list of travel classics—some notorious, some barely remembered—that have inspired armchair travelers to venture out of their comfort zone and hit the road.” From Herodotus to Peter Mayall by way of Marco Polo, Mark Twain, Norman Douglas, Freya Stark, Jack Kerouac and Bruce Chatwin

The Lost Tribes Of The Amazon

In search of tribes that are not exactly lost, but are still resisting integration with the modern world. Big travel piece, lots of atmospherics: “The longhouse is deserted except for two napping children and a pair of scrawny dogs. We head back to the main road, trying to beat the advancing night, as vampire bats circle above our heads”

Russian Family Cut Off From Human Contact for 40 Years

Family flees Siberian village during Stalin’s terror in 1936, hikes into tundra, stays there more than 40 years. Found by geological survey in 1978 living in a burrow near the Mongolian border lined with potato peelings and pine cones. Parents had raised two more children in the wild, making four in all, and never seen another human being

Jesus In Japan

According to the residents of Shingo, in northern Japan, Jesus Christ settled there in AD37, fathered three children, died at 106. He escaped crucifixion in Judea by swapping places with his brother and returning to Japan, where he previously lived. He is buried nearby, close to Adam and Eve

What Turned Jaron Lanier Against The Web?

Silicon Valley visionary, pioneer of virtual reality, recants his faith in Web 2.0: “You can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments”

Crockford’s Club: How A Fishmonger Built A Gambling Hall And Bankrupted The British Aristocracy

Probably the London casino of choice for the 0.1%. Oozes wealth. Who knew it was founded by a cunning fishmonger, who specialised in relieving the aristocracy of their fortunes? He died the richest self-made man in England

Dr Nakamats, Man With 3300 Patents

He acts like a flake. He talks like a flake. “I am a cross between Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci.” But he did invent the floppy disc in 1950. To say nothing of the “self-defence wig”. And an aphrodisiac spray called Love Jet

Elon Musk, The Rocket Man With A Sweet Ride

Profile of the self-taught engineer, who’s revolutionising the electric car market and putting rockets into space on a schedule that’ll outdo Russia or China. “If this is a chess game,” he says, “they don’t have much of a chance”

Uncovering The Truth Behind The Myth Of Pancho Villa, Movie Star

How did newsmen get their pictures from the battlefield when cameras were bulky to carry around? “The best solution was to wait for the fighting to die down and then enlist any nearby soldiers to produce a sanitised reconstruction”

Lewis Lapham’s Antidote To The Age of BuzzFeed

Reverential profile of former Harper’s editor, now publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly. “His agenda is to inject the wisdom of the ages into the roiling controversies of the day through small doses that are irresistible reading”

A Halloween Massacre At The White House

On machinations at the White House under Gerald Ford. Interesting mainly for the appearances of a scheming Donald Rumsfeld and a young Dick Cheney, already chief of staff, aged 34

The Unsolved Mystery Of The Tunnels At Baiae

On the north shore of the Bay of Naples lies a tunnel complex leading to a hot, underground stream. Who built it? And for what purpose? It’s been estimated to date from 550 BC, and may have had a quite intriguing use

The Inside Story Of A Controversial New Text About Jesus

Harvard divinity professor unveils scrap of ancient papyrus containing the words: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”. Scholars believe it’s authentic (though one test is still to be done). But what does it mean?

The Unknown Story Of The Black Cyclone, The Cycling Champion Who Broke The Color Barrier

At the dawn of the 20th century, cycling was the most popular sport in America and Europe, and against all odds a young black man from Indianapolis named Marshall “Major” Taylor became world champion

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