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Writing Worth Reading

Art In The Future

The fine-art industry today is roughly where the music industry was in the 19C, serving an elite audience. 20C music transcended limitations of class and scale by exploiting technology and developing new genres. 21C fine art will do the same. The market will expand massively; digital technologies will be co-opted; a new tier of “upper-middle-brow” art — think HBO in television — will refine popular taste (980 words)

Ukraine’s Secret Weapon: A Feisty Oligarch

Interview with dodgy-sounding Ukrainian banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, newly appointed as a provincial governor (though he lives mainly in Switzerland), who is spending $10 million a month of his own money to equip militias for suppressing pro-Russian separatists. His province, Dnipropetrovsk, boasts 2,000 “battle-ready” troops. He wants to build a 1,200 mile electrified fence between Ukraine and Russia (2,000 words)

The War That Changed Everything Pick of the day

Historian looks back at the outbreak of World War One a century ago. “The conflict changed all the countries that took part in it. Governments assumed greater control over society and have never entirely relinquished it.” It brutalised societies and leaders. Germany’s course was fatally inflected; so, too was that of Russia, which without the war and associated revolution might have joined an evolution towards liberal democracy (2,800 words)

The Blessings Of Being An Older Dad

They are many; and many anxieties too. “I’m involved in their lives in a way I never could have been when I was younger. I’m there to give advice, to listen, to entertain, to explain, to hug, to place a reassuring hand on head or shoulder whenever and wherever they need it. The plan is to make myself so present in their thoughts and feelings that my immortality will be guaranteed — life cycles be damned” (1,117 words)

What I Learned By Being Outed

Former BP chief executive describes his experience of being outed as gay by the “Daily Mail”. His first response was to seek a high court injunction; when the story finally broke, he resigned; then he discovered that nobody really minded, and most had already guessed. “Thousands of supportive letters poured in from around the world … Had I known then what I know now, I would have come out sooner” (835 words)

The Making Of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’

Jimmy Page tells the story, with help from engineers George Chkiantz and Eddie Kramer. “As soon as I developed the riff, I knew it was strong enough to drive the entire song, not just open it. When I played the riff for the band in my living room several weeks later during rehearsals for our first album, the excitement was immediate and collective. We felt the riff was addictive, like a forbidden thing” (1,860 words)

Can China Best The West At Statecraft?

Much as China set out to master capitalism in the 1990, so it seeks now to master government. Officials “hurtle around the world studying successful models from Chile to Sweden”. One place they are not studying: Washington, DC. They see the American model as broken — and rightly so. The lesson from America is that the more a state tries to do, the worse it performs, and the angrier its citizens become (1,070 words)

Bring Back the Girls—Quietly

An optimal scenario for American action against Boko Haram in Nigeria: Just do it, because it needs to be done, without any swaggering. “We go in, rescue the kids, get out, go home, and say nothing. What happened would, of course, get around. The world would know in time. But we would say nothing, like dignified people who use their might not for praise or power, but to achieve a measure of decency in the world” (1,230 words)

Trick The Guilty And Gullible Into Revealing Themselves Pick of the day

Extract from Think Like a Freak, the third book from the Freakonomics team. Four case studies: How Van Halen used brown M&Ms to catch out incompetent promoters; why trial by ordeal might have sort of worked in the Middle Ages; how Zappos maximises the quality of its staff by paying new hires to quit; and how Nigerian internet scammers reach the most gullible targets by sending out deliberately ridiculous emails (2,570 words)

Lichtenstein Gets Even Smaller

Notes from Lichtenstein, the tiny principality between Switzerland and Austria which just got even smaller thanks to more precise mapping technology which shaved a quarter-acre off the official territory, leaving 62 square miles for 37,000 residents. The Prince invites them all to his medieval castle for a beer once a year, and a “significant portion of the population” shows up. “Key exports include false teeth” (1,020 words)

A Radical’s Emancipation Of Color

Appreciation of Henri Matisse’s “exuberant painted-paper cutout”, The Snail. Matisse began using paper cutouts to test colour combinations when working on murals in the 1930s. He returned to them as his main medium when old age and surgery left him bedridden and scarcely able to paint. “Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it — the one modifying the other — I draw straight into the colour” (1,020 words)

The Keys To His Heart

British pianist Stephen Hough talks about the difference between playing and composing, and why composing is more satisfying: “It’s the difference, I suppose, between being a foster parent and having your own flesh and blood child. There is no less love — some foster parents are the most heroic and wonderful possible. But I imagine it is different for a woman to see the actual child coming out of her body. You can’t match that” (1,140 words)

Advice For A Happy Life

Marry young: “If you wait until your 30s, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your 20s, it is likely to be a startup.” Choose a mate with similar personal habits: the key variables are “punctuality, orderliness and thriftiness”. Get religion — any religion. Cultivate ambition in youth, but give it a rest when you hit 40. And watch Groundhog Day often: it’s the equal of Aristotle’s Ethics, but a lot more fun (2,240 words)

Review: Plato At The Googleplex

Rebecca Goldstein’s “piquant” book consists of “chapters of scholarly discussion” followed by “fictional accounts of Plato appearing in various contemporary venues” — at Google headquarters on a book tour; in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y; being interviewed on cable television. Plato is “brought marvellously to life” and “philosophy is vindicated” against the “jeerers” of the “scientific era” (1,850 words)

Manliness Manifesto

How modern living has diminished us — all of us, not only men. “If you hand a cashier a $20 bill for an item costing $13.47, both you and the cashier are going to look at the cash register to see how much you get back and both of you will unquestioningly accept the cash register’s decision”. Includes guides to the lost art of grilling a steak, and to jump-starting your car (“Obtain a working car from somewhere”) (2,460 words)

A Word Of Advice — On Advice

“The US is addicted to advice. Americans honestly believe that someone out there knows how to fix all our problems. Maybe Oprah. Maybe Dr. Phil. Don’t smoke. Don’t text on I-95. Don’t allow your teenage son to disappear into his bedroom for the next decade. Exercise 30 minutes a day. Why, then, are so many of us miserable, bankrupt, overweight chain smokers with horrible, illiterate kids?” (2,325 words)

Apple Quietly Builds New Networks

Apple is “stitching together a network of Internet infrastructure capable of delivering large amounts of content to customers”. iCloud, iTunes and the App Store are already big bandwidth users, but the trigger for the new capacity may be rumoured plans for an Apple TV platform. One outsider estimates that Apple has “bought enough bandwidth from Web carriers to move hundreds of gigabits of data each second” (860 words)

Top Products In Two Decades

After 22 years as WSJ’s lead tech reviewer, Mossberg signs off his last column with a list of the 12 products he thinks did most to change the world in that time. Five are from Apple. Most are fairly uncontentious — Netscape, Palm Pilot, Windows 95, Google search etc. But nice to see the Newton honoured. A more questionable inclusion is the MacBook Air, which was a stylistic innovation rather than a substantive one (1,270 words)

A Family Terror: The Boston Bombers

“A friend told me that his mother had rented an apartment to some Chechens. He drove me to a weather-beaten three-family home crammed between others in a tattered corner of Cambridge, Mass. I was led up a narrow stairway, littered with shoes and slippers, to their third-floor apartment — the start of a relationship that came full circle last April, when I encountered the Tsarnaevs again under very different circumstances” (2,700 words)

Rethinking Chess

Chess champions have discovered new skills by playing against computers. “When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces, they are often seeing more deeply into the game. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas. The top human players are now those who most often play the moves that would be chosen by the best engines” (1,200 words)

Ballmer On Ballmer

“I’m big, I’m bald and I’m loud”. Microsoft boss explains his departure. He wanted to refocus on mobile devices and services, but the company wasn’t responding fast enough “because of the very corporate culture he had helped instill … He had trained managers to see the trees, not the forest”. Time to give someone new a chance. But he isn’t losing touch entirely: “I still own a big chunk of Microsoft, and I’m going to keep it” (2,100 words)

Airlines Mine Personal Data In-Flight

Coming soon: Real-time passenger data for aeroplane cabin staff. “Attendants can know that the flier in seat 23B is a vegetarian and the couple behind him are on their honeymoon.” Airlines can stock in-flight trolleys with products that passengers have a history of buying. Cute or creepy? Qantas survey finds mixed reactions: “I do want you to know I like cappuccino but I don’t want you to know that my dog’s name is Sally.” (1,200 words)

Humans 1, Robots 0

Why human cashiers beat check-out machines at the supermarket. “The human is faster. The human has a more pleasing, less buggy interface. The human doesn’t expect me to remember or look up codes for produce, bags my groceries, and isn’t on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet paper. Best of all, the human does all the work while I’m allowed to stand there and stupidly stare at my phone” (990 words)

Design Defects Cripple Health-Care Website

Very sad story. Sign-up for Obamacare tanks in week one because the online architecture cannot cope. Doesn’t even seem to be a case of overloading, but of fundamentally sloppy design. “Basic Web-efficiency techniques weren’t used, such as saving parts of the website that change infrequently so they can be loaded more quickly”. Only a trickle of buyers have been getting through. There is a hot-line to call; but that doesn’t work either (1,170 words)

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