Seven of the week's best reads
- 2 September 2012
- From the section Magazine
Seven articles published elsewhere on the web this week, as selected by Bob Trevelyan, editor of The Browser.
1. Revolt of the rich
Lofgren spent 28 years working in the US Congress, the last 16 of which he was on the Republican staff of the House and Senate budget committees. So this is no agitprop. What then of his thesis? He says the super-rich have disconnected from civic life and from any concern about its well-being, other than as a source from which gains can be extracted. In short, he says, the super-rich have seceded from the nation state "even as their grip on its control mechanisms has tightened". But how, he asks, did this evolve historically, what does it mean for the rest of us, and where is it likely to be going. His answers are with specific reference to the US, but there's much of wider relevance here.
2. Shattered genius
Forrest goes on the trail of Grigori Perelman, the brilliant Russian mathematician who solved the Poincare Conjecture - a maths problem that had tormented fine minds for decades. Perelman later disappeared from public view, having turned down a $1m reward for his work as well as the most prestigious prize in maths and offers of professorships at top US universities. After some amateur sleuthing, Forrest finds the reclusive genius living with his mother in a former communal flat in St Petersburg in what can only be called modest circumstances.
3. Talk like an Iranian
Bellaigue, an Englishman whose wife is Iranian, visits the Department of Alien Affairs in Tehran to apply for citizenship. He is told his case stands a good chance of success. What follows is a delightfully told lesson in Iranian manners and culture, and a close acquaintance with the concept of ta'arof. This word derives from an Arabic noun denoting the process of getting to know someone, but in its Iranian context it has come to refer to an altogether more complex set of interactions - not without relevance to the way Iran has conducted itself in negotiations over its nuclear programme.
4. Mining for stories
For many commentators, the recent killing by South African police of 34 striking miners at Marikana was an opportunity to wheel out broad brush morality tales about poverty and inequality. In this short article, the South African novelist, Imraan Coovadia, explains why, to his mind, the tragedy resists such interpretation in moral black and white. He says, however, that the protests, and township violence elsewhere, suggest "that the country has jettisoned its principles of fellowship and equality too rapidly and at far too low a price". It's also possible, he says, that workers' violence "endangers the country less than the unreal ways in which the super-rich take pleasure and show power". In such an unequal society, the hopes of the poor have become a problem to be managed and social justice is less an ideal than a form of pragmatism.
5. The facts behind the frack
Fracking. To some it's a dirty word; to others it's the key to answering our energy needs. But what is fracking, or to give it its unabbreviated name, hydraulic fracturing? And how damaging and/or useful can it be? Much of what passes for debate on the issue is hopelessly partial, so it's refreshing to read something as balanced, accessible and informative as this piece. In the end, says one of the geophysicists quoted, fracking, like many technologies, comes with promise and with risk. New technology and regulations may mitigate but won't eliminate those risks. Unless we are willing to cut back our energy use, it will be a question of weighing those risks against the risks that come with coal, nuclear and other major energy sources.
6. The village where people have dementia - and fun
Henley visits a Dutch project that takes an innovative, humane and affordable approach to dementia. It's a self-contained village with plenty of open space, where care aims at maximising quality of life. Residents are encouraged to focus on what they can still do, rather than everything they can't. Even those with extreme dementia can still be active and creative. The shared homes come in seven different styles including:
- gooise (think dark wood furniture, chandeliers and lace tablecloths)
- culturele, for those who enjoy art, music, theatre
- and indische, for residents from the former colony of Indonesia (rattan furniture, Indonesian stick puppets on the walls, heating two degrees higher in winter, and authentic cuisine).
7. Being a cheesemonger is better and worse than you think it is
To finish, here's a charming account of working as a cheesemonger in an up-market American grocery store. There are some amusing observations about shopping behaviour and it's crammed with anecdotes about dealing with disgruntled, indecisive or downright weird customers. Here's a taste of one exchange: "I'm looking for an entry-level goat cheese," the man says to me. He has some flour tortillas and a couple of chicken breasts in his shopping cart. He looks worried. I wonder what an "entry-level goat cheese" is. I feel like telling him that every entry level is also an exit level. That all hierarchy is an illusion. That he should follow his heart. Instead I recommend the Goat Gouda."