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Writing Worth Reading

The Life Of A Prodigal Son

A new biography seeks to rescue Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, from obscurity. “As a child he listened as his father conversed with Emerson, Thoreau and Melville”. He was a lifelong friend of Mark Twain. William Randolph Hearst hired him as a roving reporter. He scripted silent films for Hollywood. He “met every major literary and public figure of his time”. A great life. The writing, not so much (1,150 words)

The End Of Russia’s Fairy Tale

The MH-17 tragedy was the product of bad and reckless government in Russia, much as the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 was the product of a bad and reckless government in Libya. After Lockerbie the West joined ranks, isolated the Libyan regime, and forced change upon it. Does the West have the resolve to do the same to Russia? Or will we go on pretending, even now, that Ukraine is a local problem? (Metered) (819 words)

Bailing Out Banks

Excellent interview, clear and intelligent, with Cornelia Woll, author of The Power of Inaction, comparing how different countries bailed out their banks in the 2008 financial crisis. The American policy of cheap money for everyone was better for stabilising the industry right away. The British policy of expensive money for those in dire need was better for changing future behaviour, and so improving future stability (1,970 words)

Interview: Marc Andreessen

Interesting throughout. Topics include Bitcoin and net neutrality. On surveillance: “These technologies escalate the power of government, but they also escalate the power of business, and they also escalate the power of individuals. So everyone’s been upgraded. And it’s a recalibration of who can do what, and everybody can do new things, so everybody’s uneasy about it” (Metered paywall) (2,000 words)

Philip Welsh’s Simple Life

Model of writing and reporting. Blameless suburban resident with no known enemies nor secrets works days for a taxi firm, writes poetry on a typewriter, lives alone, leaves his front door unlocked — and gets beaten to death one evening while cooking his dinner. No clues, no leads, no evidence of robbery. No email or Facebook pages to search, because he didn’t use internet. Police are stumped (Metered Paywall) (1,945 words)

A Fearful New World

Russia’s exploits in Ukraine amount to war by other means: Not with tanks and soldiers, but with volunteers and thugs led by plainclothes intelligence operatives. The immediate aim is not victory, but confusion and disruption. Russia used similar tactics to destabilise and gain control of Eastern European countries after World War Two. Nato should respond in kind, by strengthening police forces in countries bordering Russia (Metered) (920 words)

Google, Master Of Washington Influence

Google used to disdain Washington lobbyists. Nine years ago it opened a one-man office. Now it is one of the biggest lobbyists in corporate America, with 100 lobbyists and a Capitol Hill office the size of the White House. Its main aims are to preserve its legal rights to collect data, and to fend off anti-trust actions, which means building friendships with Republicans as much as Democrats (Metered paywall) (3,170 words)

The Recovery Puzzle

Truly excellent piece of real-world reporting, looking over the shoulder of a project manager in Ohio who is setting up a food-processing plant and looking for people to run it. He expects to be deluged by quality applicants, given the state of the economy. In practice he gets a succession of no-shows and don’t-cares. Lessons for prospective interviewees: Be young, be keen and be early (Metered) (3,300 words)

Sinkhole Of Bureaucracy

Meticulous, surreal, spectacular examination of government dysfunction. Six hundred US civil servants labour underground in a disused Pennsylvania mine doing 21st century work by 19th century methods. They process retirement papers for other civil servants, surrounded by 28,000 filing cabinets. Two attempts to computerise have failed; a third is under way. Each retirement takes three months to process by hand (3,100 words)

How The Ukraine Crisis Ends

“Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years. Its leaders have not learned the art of compromise, even less of historical perspective. The root of the problem lies in efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country, first by one faction, then by the other. A wise US policy would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction” (1,030 words)

Russia And Ukraine: A Clash Of Brothers

Countries with “shared identities” but radically different political institutions are prone to conflict, because “elites in repressive regimes are threatened by a culturally-similar country where citizens are becoming empowered”. A more democratic Ukraine “may serve as an example to Russian citizens of how similar people can be alternatively governed. As history shows, a dictator with an army does not wait for this to happen” (630 words)

100 Americans Die Of Drug Overdoses Each Day

Shocking interview with Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, conducted in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by overdose. “Overdosing is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, accounting for more deaths than traffic fatalities or gun homicides and suicides.” The death toll from overdosing is comparable to that of the AIDS epidemic at its peak (Metered paywall) (6,100 words)

The Value Of Hate Speech

“The idea that hate speech always harms minorities is false. Its toleration is to their great collective benefit. In a climate of free intellectual exchange hateful and bigoted ideas are refuted and discredited, not merely suppressed. The open society harnesses the whole range of public criticism in a decentralised knowledge-making process that has no rival at the job minorities most care about: finding truth and debunking bigotry” (817 words)

Quantify Your Inner Self

The evolving market for sensors that can detect and communicate hidden emotions — stress, anger, fear. For the moment they are wearables; soon they will be embeds. “An autistic child might be lying on the floor looking lethargic, but the signal from his wrist sensor shows that he’s very tense. He’s probably lying on the floor to ease the tension. The signal allows the child to be better understood” (1,700 words)

Conflict In The East China Sea: Home Board Game Edition

Simple instructions for modelling the likelihood of war in the East China Sea, in the form of what Thomas Schelling called a “competition in risk-taking”. You need two people and a spinner. “This game is a weird type of auction — the players bid for the prize in probabilities of the bad outcome, and the prize goes to the highest bidder, but both players pay the loser’s bid (the risk of disaster)” (1,250 words) Political Fear Trumped Technical Needs

Damning investigation into disastrous implementation of American healthcare reform, focused on failure to get a working Internet platform in place. President Obama ignored repeated warnings that the project was going off the rails; didn’t find the right specialists to do the work; feared even to publicise and market the project adequately, for fear of giving ammunition to Republican critics (Metered paywall) (2,900 words)

The Blood Telegram

Review of The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary Bass, “a profoundly disturbing account of the hitherto hidden role of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of East Bengal during Pakistan’s civil war in 1971″. Nixon and Kissinger could probably have pressured Pakistan to halt the carnage. But “they simply did not give a damn” (Metered paywall) (1,200 words)

The Forces That Shaped The Washington Post Sale

Backgrounder on the Graham family’s sale of the Post to Jeff Bezos for $250m. Much new detail. Before sealing the deal with Bezos, the Post‘s bankers had shopped the paper round other tycoons including Michael Bloomberg, Eric Schmidt, Robert Allbritton (of Politico) and David Rubinstein (of the Carlyle Group), with an asking price of $600m. The Grahams had in mind the awful precedent of Newsweek, which they sold in 2010 for $1 (6,400 words)

Hiding In N. Virginia, A Daughter Of Auschwitz

Interview with Brigitte Höss, daughter of Auschwitz commandant, now 80, and living in America. Jaw-dropping throughout. “Brigitte tells me she has never visited the National Holocaust Museum. And while she understands the value of a museum to remind us of the horrors of the past, she says it should be in Auschwitz or Israel, not Washington. ‘They always make things worse than it is,’ she says” (34,500 words)

Nine Questions About Britain You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask

Teju Cole builds minor masterpieces out of Twitter tweets. Here is his latest, followed by an interview in which he discusses America, Syria, and drones: “The idea that the US would launch missiles into London in 2013 is beyond absurd. But the tragedy is that it’s all too easy to imagine the US launching missiles into other cities in other places in the world. I wanted to bridge that gap, in the little drive-by way of troublemaking that Twitter allows” (2,000 words)

Nine Questions About Syria

New readers begin here. If you’ve been following events, you know it all already. But it’s a useful crib-sheet, and the answers aren’t encouraging: “The killing will continue, probably for years. There’s no one to sign a peace treaty on the rebel side, even if the regime side were interested, and there’s no foreseeable victory for either. Probably the best model is Lebanon, which fought a brutal civil war that lasted 15 years from 1975 to 1990″ (2,800 words)

Bill Gates: ‘Death Is Something We Really Understand’

Interview. Health care in the developing world. “When you’re running a poor country health-care system, you can’t treat a year of life as being worth more than, say, $200, or else you’ll bankrupt your health system immediately. But here’s the good news: If you spend less than 2 percent of what rich countries spend, but you spend it on vaccinations and antibiotics, you get over half of all that healthcare does to extend life” (2,884 words)

The Language Of Cavemen

Linguists speculate that seven modern language families — Indo-European, Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Dravidian, Inuit-Yupik, Kartvelian, Uralic — all descend from a “proto-Eurasiatic” language spoken 15,000 years ago. Of which some two dozen “ultra-conserved” words have survived, more or less intact: “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!” (1,056 words)

How Van Halen Explains Obamacare

Critics of government, take care: things that sound stupid may be things you just don’t understand. Here’s an analogy: Van Halen’s touring contracts required promoters to provide bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones taken out. Which sounded like prima-donna behaviour, but was really a litmus test of whether everything was in order. If the band arrived and found brown M&Ms on the table, the promoter had not read the contract. (1,180 words)

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