Seven of the week's best reads
- 3 August 2012
- From the section Magazine
Seven articles published elsewhere on the web this week, as selected by Bob Trevelyan, editor of The Browser.
1. Plasenzuela's dirty secrets
Inside Spain's most corrupt village. European, state and regional funding all disappeared without trace. There were projects that never existed, workers that never worked and taxes imposed on salaries that were never passed on to the state. And when the Labour Ministry inspectors came calling, "everyone who had been signed up as employed in any of the bogus companies created by the town hall would have to turn out and pretend that they were gainfully engaged in their respective activity". It could almost be fiction, but it isn't.
2. The narco tunnels of Nogales
"If everyone had kept quiet, it could have been the most valuable parking spot on earth." So begins a gripping account about uncovering the smuggling tunnels of Nogales, Arizona. Some have lifts, hydraulic doors, even electric railways. They can run as deep as 100ft underground and many are built with the assistance of architects and engineers. All have one purpose: Bringing in drugs from Mexico.
3. Desperation, greed and the global organ trade
Vera was a poor Russian immigrant struggling to get by in Israel. Walter was a wealthy German businessman who urgently needed a new kidney. Their unsettling story sheds light on the thriving black market for human organs, the criminal gangs involved and the huge profits that can accrue. "The organ mafia thrives because people fear that their time will run out before they become eligible for a transplant. As they face the prospect of death, they are willing to ignore moral qualms and the law, and to brutally exploit another human being to extend their own lives."
4. The brain set free
We all know that young children's brains are like sponges, soaking up information about the world and allowing quick learning of language. As we grow older our brain connections harden, giving us the advantages of speed and strength and enabling us to make short work of commonplace tasks. This fascinating piece suggests the change in our brains may be reversible and there could be a way to capture this youthful flexibility. The possible medical applications are intriguing.
5. A crass and consequential error
This slice of Iranian history, framed around a book review, helps explain why we are where we are today and how, possibly, things could have been different. The case made is that the Anglo-American coup to oust Mohammed Mossadegh as prime minister of Iran in 1953 was a colossal own goal. Yes, he had nationalised the oil industry. But he was a prickly democrat, not an anti-Western extremist. Far better, says Cohen, than the "feckless Shah" or the ayatollahs.
6. Face the music
Tim Falconer loves music, but he doesn't play any instruments and is a terrible singer. A familiar story? Perhaps. But then he stumbles across the surprisingly complex science of tone deafness. It turns out he is genuinely amusic. The cognitive neuropsychologist he visits confesses: "I am stunned. And I've seen many amusic cases. I would love to be in your brain." This piece explains why. (Think you may be tone deaf? Take BBC Lab UK's How Musical Are You test.)
7. The body Olympic
And finally, there had to be something from the Olympics. Anthony Lane marvels at the way different athletic disciplines seem to demand different body shapes, from "whippet with sideburns" Bradley Wiggins - who "appears to have dispensed with the standard human need for fat" - to the weightlifters, almost as broad as they are tall. His spin around some of the events is written with a delightfully light touch. (Which Olympic athlete are you most like? Use the BBC app to find out.)