Human Height, Henry Cowell, Garbage In Cairo, The Uncertainty Principle, Nelson Mandela, Donetsk Dia

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The Height Of Folly

Ken Weiss | The Mermaid's Tale | 8th October 2014

Our genes help to make us what we are. But the process by which they do so is far too complicated to allow for any serious talk of particular cause and effect. "You have 6 billion nucleotides, each potentially variable in one or any unspecified number of a trillion cells. Your genotype is the aggregate of these possible variants". The number of factors which make one person taller or shorter than another is "truly infinite" (2,350 words)

Part Concert, Part Séance

Charlie Haas | Threepenny Review | 8th October 2014

For a sex act with a teenage boy in 1936, the American composer Henry Cowell was sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin State Prison. He was paroled after four years during which he composed sixty pieces, taught music to his fellow inmates, wrote a book and played Wagner with the prison band. He described his time behind bars as "an experience which, if not too protracted, one would not wish to have missed” (1,975 words)

Tales Of The Trash

Peter Hessler | New Yorker | 8th October 2014

A neighbourhood garbage collector explains modern Egypt. “The beauty is that trash doesn’t cost anything. You just pick up the trash and you get paid for it!” The collector, Sayyid, lives on foraging and tips. He sub-lets his routes from middlemen whom he pays with recyclables. "The Fox allows Sayyid to handle seven buildings; the Beast grants him one". With an encroaching sub-plot in which Sayyid almost gets divorced (7,600 words)

The Moment Of Uncertainty

Philip Ball | Homunculus | 8th October 2014

Interview with Robert Crease, historian of science, about Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, formulated in 1926 while Heisenberg was visiting Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. The bewildering implications of the principle caught the public imagination. "Suddenly, quantum mechanics was not just another scientific theory – it showed that the quantum world works very differently from the everyday world" (1,430 words)

Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Mark Gevisser | Guardian | 9th October 2014

Nelson Mandela's personal secretary, Zelda la Grange, paints a "devastating and undignified" picture of the president and his family in her memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela. Mandela was "besotted with wealth, glamour and particularly royalty". He "declined into a lengthy dotage, in a way that has never really been admitted before now". La Grange "betrays" Mandela, "but does history the service of humanising him" (1,330 words)

Letter From Donetsk

Owen Matthews | Spectator | 9th October 2014 | Metered paywall

The war is adjourned, but the fighting continues. The Russian-backed rebels of the Donetsk People's Republic shell Donetsk airport every day, trying to prise it away from the Ukrainian army. The chairman of the rebel parliament, Boris Litvinov, used to be a double bass player in a jazz band: "He seems an honest and decent man, if a little overkeen on acts of summary field justice such as the execution of looters" (1,020 words)

Video of the day: God Only Knows

What to expect: Beach Boys classic re-recorded with Brian Wilson and an all-star cast

Thought for the day

Self-interest is the end, rationality is the means
Andrew Gelman (

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