The Longest Wars

George Packer | Foreign Affairs | 16th April 2019

Vivid and intimate portrait of Richard Holbrooke, drawn from life. The sub-title is, “Richard Holbrooke and the Decline Of American Power”. It might as well be, “American Power and the Decline of Richard Holbrooke”. Holbrooke appears here as a brilliant grasper of political realities overseas, yet a clumsily ineffective operator at home. He alienates President Obama in their first conversation; the generals outflank him; he acquiesces to policies in Afghanistan that he privately thinks are doomed (8,570 words)

The Identical Skittles Problem

Eric Farmer | Possibly Wrong | 6th April 2019

How many packets of Skittles would you have to buy before you could reasonably expect to possess at least two packs each containing the same number of Skittles and the same distribution of colours? Test your intuitions against the real-life experiment described here. Conditions: There are always and only five colours per pack; the number of Skittles per pack varies between the mid-40s and the low 70s. Also addressed here, the vexed question of whether yellow Skittles are over-represented (1,650 words)

A Conversation With Hermione Hoby

Book Marks | Literary Hub | 17th April 2019

Short, action-packed interview about the art and craft of book-reviewing. Rare example of a piece that I wish had been three times as long. “The ideal subject [for review] is a book whose failures are interesting to me, and whose project speaks to something important, good or bad or both, happening in the wider culture. I like the idea that there’s a conversation happening between the critic and the work (not the author) — a respectful but rigorous conversation. The rigour, in fact, constitutes the respect” (715 words)

Huawei: A Risk Analysis

Nicholas Weaver | Lawfare | 17th April 2019

Admirably hard-nosed appraisal of the risks and benefits of allowing Huawei to dominate 5G telecom infrastructure. Top figures in business and politics around the world would have to expect their calls to be monitored by Chinese intelligence. “This may actually be a worthwhile trade-off. The damage done by Chinese spies would have to be weighed against the billions of dollars saved by purchasing Huawei equipment. That trade-off just needs to be acknowledged when making purchase decisions” (915 words)

Thérèse And The Man Problem

Harriet Baker | Apollo | 17th April 2019

Brave writing. What to do with art of pervy men? Balthus‘s portrait of Thérèse Dreaming should confuse anybody’s moral compass. “Her figure is taut, riveted, her limbs brimming with the energy of adolescence; her puckered expression is both dreamy and absent. In this murky room, with its red-striped wallpaper and crumpled sheet, she’s alone with a man, who watches her with his paint brush. At her feet, a cat licks from a shallow dish, a visual substitute for his desire, and as moving as it is horrifying” (1,050 words)

Video: Cabin Pressure. Warm, wonderful and very funny guide to behaving badly in aeroplanes. Think of it as the opposite to those pre-flight safety videos (3m 13s)

Audio: How Spotify Saved The Music Industry | Freakonomics Radio. Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, talks about the impact of Spotify’s streaming model on musicians, record companies, and listeners (73m 30s)

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not”
— Flannery O’Connor

Murder On The Allotment

Jenny Kleeman | Guardian | 13th April 2019

Classic fait divers worthy of Simenon. The gradual piecing together of additional information transforms a crime scene from a seemingly random killing into an almost inevitable tragedy. An elderly woman is strangled in a vegetable garden; the murder weapon is a starter-cord from a lawn-mower; probably, therefore, we are looking for a fellow-gardener with access to the communal tool shed; which proves to be the case. But what could possibly be the motive? This is where the real story begins ( 4,100 words)

The Most Modern Of Modern Sports

Jennifer Noonan | Damn Interesting | 15th April 2019

You might expect a calendar of races pitting cheetahs against greyhounds to be a sell-out anywhere. But when British investors tried this in the 1930s, with cheetahs from Kenya, the cheetahs were too fast. Nobody would bet on the greyhounds. So the promoters tried a new scheme: Cheetahs against motorbikes. The bikes could reliably reach 90mph; enough to outrun the cheetahs; with a twist: “There was always the chance that a stalled motor could bring its deliciously meaty operator to a halt mid-race” (4,900 words)

The Metrics Of Backpacks

Victoria Gannon | Art Practical | 3rd April 2019

Elegant memoir of San Francisco office life in the lower reaches of the internet industry, writing copy for a hotel booking agency while your colleagues pretend to be part of the tech overclass. “We do not do much work here. We start projects and tend to them, like low-yielding crops, and then, mercifully, let them die. A film of pseudoscience sticks to everything we touch. We are not changing the world here, except in the sense that everyone is always changing the world, just by moving through it” (4,100 words)

The Invention Of A Leonardo

Matthew Shaer | Vulture | 14th April 2019

Gripping — at times breathtaking — backstory of how Salvator Mundi, a painting on wood attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, sold for £45 at Sotheby’s in 1958, and then for $450 million at Christie’s in 2017, after very heavy restoration. It has since vanished from view. Its current owner is said to be the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has parked the painting in a Swiss warehouse while he decides whether to give it to a museum, or hang it on one of his many walls (7,600 words)

Philosophy Fight Club

Agnes Callard | The Point | 12th April 2019

In praise of argument. “Fighting is something we resort to when negotiations break down. This is a good critique of fighting. But it doesn’t extend to the case where a resource is sought-after precisely because it provides an occasion for fighting. Sometimes I want what you want, because you want it, and the reason I want to fight you is to know which one of us is stronger. I reject a 50-50 division, not because I know I can get better, but because I don’t know, and finding out whether I can is my true goal” (1,550 words)

Video: Paris In Motion. Hyperlapse of Paris scenes. On most days this short film would be merely dazzling; in the wake of the Notre Dame fire it risks provoking the shedding of tears (2m 16s)

Audio: An Instrumental Case | Curious Cases. Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry investigate how different musical instruments produce different tones and timbres (39m 14s)

“Never commit yourself to something until you are amazed at your luck”
— Iris Murdoch

The Godfather

Martin Filler | New York Review Of Books | 4th April 2019

Mark Lamster’s “searing yet judicious” biography of Philip Johnson, The Man In The Glass House, tells how Johnson defanged his critics and dominated America’s architectural establishment despite having spent his youth as an “unpaid spy for the Nazi regime” and his later years churning out quirky but cost-efficient office blocks for faceless corporations. A very few great buildings aside, Johnson was an “aesthetic vampire” who “drained meaning from architecture by reducing it to a consumable style” (4,007 words)

Minding Your Brain

Tyler Cowen | Mercatus Center | 10th April 2019

Jaw-dropping conversation with neuroscientist Ed Boyden about scientific efforts to model and emulate the workings of the human brain. Topics include: treating dementia with implants and flashing lights; using ketamine as a fast-acting cure for depression; meditation as placebo medicine; how microbes in the gut affect social behaviour; whether the brain stores memories physically, in proteins; the shareability of mental states; and whether a person with a split brain counts as one person or two people (13,400 words)

Could A Woman Walk Around The World?

Camille Bromley | National Geographic | 5th April 2019

Five years ago National Geographic commissioned Paul Salopek to walk around the world and report on his travels. He is now half-way through that trek. Did it have to be a man? Could a woman walk around the world with the same facility? Physically, yes. Culturally, there would be more variables. “Women can’t move freely without being subject to stares, comments, questions, catcalls, solicitations, threats. Everywhere, they are seen. The male body, on the other hand, is simply neutral — an assumed state of being” (3,300 words)

The Dementia Side Of Birmingham

Wendy Mitchell | Which Me | 6th December 2016

Writer with early-onset Alzheimer’s explains how she copes with a train journey to Birmingham. “I have to have a taxi. If the time approaches and there’s no sign, I ring them. They know I’ll ring them and they don’t get annoyed as they know I have dementia. The train arrives and there’s someone in my seat, they’re nice on this occasion and move. I set an alarm to remind me where to get off. I set another to remember my suitcase, because by the time I get to Birmingham I’ll have forgotten I have one with me” (1,200 words)

The Art Of Poetry: T.S. Eliot

Donald Hall | Paris Review | 10th April 1959

A treasure from the archives. Eliot talks about his writing, and about poetics more generally. “After a period of getting away from the traditional forms comes a period of curiosity in making new experiments with traditional forms. This can produce very good work if what has happened in between has made a difference; when it’s not merely going back, but taking up an old form, which has been out of use for a time, and making something new with it. That is not counterrevolution nor mere regression” (6,820 words)

Video: Meyer Lansky. Interview with probably the greatest mind in twentieth-century organised crime, conducted in Israel in 1971 when Lansky was briefly fleeing US prosecutors (4m 58s)

Audio: Public Enemy Number One | TBD With Tina Brown. American financier Bill Browder talks about his decade-long crusade to hold Russian president Vladimir Putin accountable for murder (38m 18s)

“In politics, obedience and support are the same.”
― Hannah Arendt

A note to subscribers in London: If you would like to join The Browser’s audio editor, Caroline Crampton, for a very informal discussion of podcasting and its possibilities, at 6.30pm on Wednesday April 17th in London N1, please email to reserve a place — Uri Bram, publisher

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