Fragile States, Beijing Pollution, Auden On Freud, Uber, Russia, Kitsch

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The Calm Before The Storm

Gregory Treverton & Nassim Nicholas Taleb | Foreign Affairs | 15th December 2014

Robust countries are ones that have learned from experience how to absorb shocks. Their economic and political systems are diversified and decentralised. Centralised regimes may appear more stable, but shatter when hit hard enough. Thus Assad's Syria shattered in 2011, while Lebanon held steady. "The best indicator of a country’s future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past" (3,300 words)

Inside Beijing’s Airpocalypse

Oliver Wainwright | Guardian | 16th December 2014

Schools erect air-locked domes over their playing fields. Hotels provide gas masks to guests. "It’s as if the 21-million-strong population of the Chinese capital is engaged in a mass city-wide rehearsal for life on an inhospitable planet. Only it’s not a rehearsal: the poisonous atmosphere is already here. Buildings and spaces are being reconfigured and daily routines modified to allow normal life to go on beneath the toxic shroud" (2,800 words)

W.H. Auden on Sigmund Freud

W.H. Auden | New Republic | 16th December 2014

A New Republic classic from 1952. "The Master may sometimes write as if he thought that saying a three-year-old child wishes to commit incest with his mother were the same kind of statement as saying he wishes to go to the bathroom, but we are not deceived". Freud's genius was to uncouple psychology from neurology. The neurologist deals with natural events, the psychoanalyst with historical ones (2,100 words)

The Uber Economy Is Built On Inequality

Leo Mirani | Quartz | 16th December 2014

"There is no denying the seductive nature of convenience. But the notion that brilliant young programmers are forging a new economy is a falsehood. It is a rerun of the oldest sort of business: Middlemen insinuating themselves between buyers and sellers. All that modern technology has done is make it easier, through smartphones, to amass a fleet of increasingly desperate jobseekers eager to take whatever work they can get" (919 words)

Russia’s Economy Is Doomed

Matt O'Brien | Washington Post | 15th December 2014 | Metered paywall

Falling oil prices mean that Russian oil exporters earn fewer dollars to exchange for rubles. The ruble collapses. What next? "Russia is stuck in an economic catch-22. Its economy needs lower interest rates to push up growth, but its companies need higher interest rates to push up the ruble and make all the dollars they borrowed not worth so much. So, to use a technical term, they're screwed no matter what they do" (650 words)

The Power Of Kitsch

Roger Scruton | BBC | 12th December 2014

Modernism in the arts began as a reaction against sentimentality. Anything that gave easy pleasure was deemed "kitsch". True art became, almost by definition, difficult and unpopular. So another reaction followed. Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons found they could sell kitsch as fine art by wrapping it in irony. Koons's Balloon Dog recently fetched "the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist — except, of course, that he isn't one" (1,620 words)

Video of the day: Celebrating Crystallography

What to expect: Animated talk explaining the principles and uses of X-ray crystallography (3')

Thought for the day

Autobiography is an unrivalled vehicle for telling the truth about other people
Philip Guedalla (

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