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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Eccentric Genius Whose Time Has Come

Norbert Wiener is remembered as the father of cybernetics — the merging of mathematics and engineering into control systems for automation. But in many respects he was too far ahead of his time. His visions of a computerised and robotised future, implausible 50 years ago, are all too plausible now. He warned that smart machines would evolve beyond human control, and make their own decisions (1,400 words)

The Gigolo

Notes from an evening at home in which the writer and her friends, “the All-Too-Real Ex-Housewives of Pasadena, decked out in slinky partywear”, entertain a celebrity gigolo. “At precisely 6pm — $400-an-hour escorts are punctual — the doorbell chimes. Standing before us is Vin, a 195-pound, 6-foot-2-inch-tall glass of water, wearing tight jeans and a collared shirt. He enters the kitchen as if on oiled ball bearings” (1,948 words)

Against ‘Long-Form Journalism’

It sounds odd coming from the editor of The Atlantic, but he has a point: “I have had it with ‘long-form’ journalism. By which I mean — don’t get me wrong — I’m fed up with the term long-form itself, a label that the people who create and sell magazines now invariably, and rather solemnly, apply to their most ambitious work. Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long?” (1,900 words)

How The Brain Creates Personality: A New Theory

The upper and lower parts of the brain have differ­ent functions. The upper formulates and executes plans; the lower classifies and interprets incoming information. In some situations we can choose whether to rely on the upper or lower brain system. The four possible combinations — upper, lower, both, neither — give rise to four cognitive modes: Mover, Perceiver, Stimulator, Adaptor. The cognitive mode determines personality (3,360 words)

How China Profits From Our Junk

Adam Minter is the genius of junkyards. His latest from China has the power of the best film noir: “I saw a row of a half-dozen electrical transformers smoking into the night. When I realised what they were, I backed off: older transformers contain highly toxic PCBs. I didn’t like it, but there’s not much to be said when you’re standing in the middle of a scrapyard in a village you’ve never heard of as the guest of somebody you’ve just met” (5,950 words)

The Great Forgetting

On the dangers of automation. We learn by doing. When we stop doing, we start forgetting. “Whether it’s Serena Williams on a tennis court or Magnus Carlsen at a chessboard, an expert can spot patterns, evaluate signals, and react to changing circumstances with speed and precision that can seem uncanny. What looks like instinct is hard-won skill, skill that requires exactly the kind of struggle that modern software seeks to alleviate” (4,100 words)

The Case For Hate Speech

Don’t boycott the film Enders’ Game, despite the anti-gay views of Orson Scott Card, who wrote the book. Minorities do better to accept hate speech as part of the free speech environment which allows their own arguments to be heard. “Not long ago, gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. But in a society where free exchange is the rule, that was enough. We had the coercive power of truth” (1,400 words)

We’ve Learned Nothing From The Financial Crisis

Five years after the Lehman crash, America has gone back to believing that financial markets are best left unregulated, and that society can rely on the self-interest of bankers to act in the public good. The structural problem: Financial stability has no lobby. It does have some advocates, in academia and even in government. But that’s no match for the financial industry’s hold over both political parties (1,050 words)

A Passage To Flight

Microhistory. Reflections on the jet bridge, and how it has changed air travel. Gone the romance of walking across the tarmac to the waiting plane, like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca; now, the oblivion of a tunnel. “Like a nested Russian doll, the jet bridge is a smaller version of the more generic architectural features of terminals and concourses: it reproduces the long march before flight, in condensed form” (2,270 words)

If This Toaster Could Talk

Everyday life in the Internet of Things. “As more of our objects and environments become actuated, connected, and data-enabled, these enchanted objects are developing the capacity to contain their own stories. An object can remember its history, can understand how it is used, can talk to other objects around it to understand its environment. As these capabilities evolve, objects become active participants in our world” (1,900 words)

Killing Machines: How To Think About Drones

A much-discussed topic, but make room for this piece, which is thoroughly reported, well thought through, and filled with striking detail. “No American president will ever pay a political price for choosing national security over world opinion, but the right way to proceed is to make targeting decisions and strike outcomes fully public. In the long run, adherence to the law matters more than eliminating another bad actor” (10,600 words)

Urumqi: Central Asia’s Capital City

And it’s not even in Central Asia, as conventionally defined. It’s in China. Population 3 million, capital of Turkic-speaking Xinjiang region on China’s western edge. Transport and business hub. “You find pudgy Guangzhou businessmen next to nervous-looking Pakistani merchants from Peshawar, Farsi-speaking Tajiks, entrepreneurs from Mumbai and Bangkok. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Azeris mingle with Uighurs and Turks” (1,000 words)

Red Smith And Horse Racing

Anthology of columns by the late great sportswriter showcases his particular genius for the racetrack. On Sunshine Park, Florida: “It has a totalizer, a daily double, touts, a 37-percent average of winning favorites, forms, scratch sheets and handicappers’ cards for sale at the gate, seasoned, alert racing officials and—oh yes—horses of a sort. Which makes it as close an approximation of paradise as an honest man has a right to expect” (2,200 words)

Government Phone Surveillance For Dummies

If you’re not already immersed in the wire- and phone-tapping story, here’s a catch-up in the form of an FAQ. “The order itself directs that the records be provided to the NSA. Then again, there seems to be nothing in the document that would explicitly prohibit the NSA from sharing the data with other agencies. There’s also nothing in the order specifying limitations on who can access the data within the NSA itself” (2,000 words)

Pardon My French

New Yorker studies French on a home-stay in Switzerland. “Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land. I experienced my ignorance of words and grammar as a physical distance, as a longing for something that was mere inches away. In that gap, there was all the magic of childhood … The older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google” (860 words)

Jerry Brown’s Political Reboot

Big profile of Jerry Brown, and of the state of California. He comes out of it well — modest, inquiring, a fixer. The state is, as it were, another story. “What is weakest about America — the squabbling paralysis of the governing structures, the relentless pressure on the middle class, the steady decline of public schools, roads, parks and the simultaneous rise of the public-security state — is weaker and worse in California” (7,303 words)

Paul Otellini’s Intel: Can the Company That Built The Future Survive It?

Intel boss retires, looks back, he did OK, but missed the deal of his lifetime: the iPhone contract. “There was a chip that they were interested in that they wanted to pay a certain price for and not a nickel more and that price was below our forecasted cost. I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t one of these things you can make up on volume. And in hindsight, the forecasted cost was wrong and the volume was 100x what anyone thought” (5,671 words)

Chris Christie’s Lap-Band Surgery

New Jersey governor undergoes weight-loss surgery, probably as preparation for presidential campaign. Ambinder, who had a more drastic operation — a gastric bypass — to slim down from 235 to 145 pounds, offers advice and reflections. “Rapid weight loss changes mood, temper, and skin elasticity, will produce hair loss, may create vitamin imbalances, and even exacerbates other substance-abuse problems. It takes years to learn how to live as a skinny person” (962 words)

17th-Century Russians In 21st-Century Alaska

Life in a community of Old Believers whose ancestors left Russia in 1666, settled in China until 1949, moved to Brazil, gained asylum in America in 1960s, built a village to Alaska, and prospered from fishing but argued over religion, provoking a schism. Now there are two villages, still isolated, where 17C Russian is spoken at home, but old culture is eroding. The girls go to school, the young speak English by choice (3,233 words)

How Not To Die

Humbling, enlightening essay on end-of-life care. “Unwanted treatment is American medicine’s dark continent. No one knows its extent, and few people want to talk about it. The US medical system was built to treat anything that might be treatable, at any stage of life — even near the end, when there is no hope of a cure, and when the patient, if fully informed, might prefer quality time and relative normalcy to all-out intervention” (4,066 words)

What If We Never Run Out Of Oil?

Fracking and shale gas have transformed America’s energy balance. In another decade, led by Japan, we may well be recovering natural gas — methane hydrate — from beneath the oceans, tapping reserves perhaps twice as big as all other fossil fuels combined. In short, humanity may well have all the fossil fuels it can possibly use for lifetimes to come. Which would be great news — if not for climate change (11,110 words)

Sam Harris On Martial Arts And Atheism

Interview. The advocate of atheism is also an expert on self-defence — martial arts, knife-fighting, guns — and happy to share some tips: “A knife attack is always a disaster for an unarmed person. A person who is seriously intent upon killing you with a knife is not going to attack in the way you’ve learned to expect from martial-arts class. Getting cut with a knife of any size is physiologically horrible in a way that few people realize” (2,889 words)

Medical Emergencies At 40,000 Feet

Airlines are woefully underprepared for onboard medical emergencies, writes a doctor who has had to cope with several of them. “Common in-flight medical events include dizziness, fainting, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Sometimes things get more serious: Heart attacks, other cardiovascular problems, seizures, and strokes. I have attended to two passengers with low blood pressure, a passenger who didn’t feel well after taking Valium and drinking alcohol, a passenger who lost consciousness, and a flight attendant with chest pain” (2,952 words)

David Stockman: “We’re Going to Have a Crisis”

Interview. Alarming, or alarmist, according to taste. On Obama: “If you do an honest projection, the deficit over the next decade will be $15 to $20 trillion. He’s lost.” On Paul Ryan: “He’s all hat and no cattle. Beyond that, I think he’s intellectually dishonest. His budget plans are bogus.” On the Fed: “We’ve got a rogue central bank that’s violating the principle of sound money that mankind accumulated over centuries.” On Reagan: “He had a vision of trying to shrink government, but every time some real tough choices came along, he walked away from them” (3,522 words)

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