Seven of the week's best reads

Narcotics users in an opium den Researching opium was dangerous for antiques collector Steven Martin

Seven articles published elsewhere on the web this week, as selected by Bob Trevelyan, editor of The Browser.

1. The drugs don't work: A modern medical scandal

Ben Goldacre | Guardian | 21 September 2012

How much do you and your doctor know about the drugs you take? This account suggests not enough. Says Goldacre: "Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don't like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug's true effects."

2. President Obama: The Democrats' Ronald Reagan

Andrew Sullivan | Newsweek | 24 September 2012

The US presidential election campaign is now in full swing, and much time and effort is being expended in second-guessing the intentions of voters. "But", says Sullivan, "one thing that has so far, in my view, been under-estimated is the potential impact of a solid Obama win, and perhaps a Democratic retention of the Senate and some progress in the House. This is now a perfectly plausible outcome. It would also be a transformational moment in modern American politics." Here is Sullivan's idea of what a second term for President Obama could mean.

3. Portrait of the artist as a postman

Jason Sheeler | Texas Monthly | 22 September 2012

Kermit Oliver is a painter, a mystic, a recluse. He lives in a modest house with his wife and works the night shift, sorting mail in a post office in Waco, Texas. He mourns his son, who was executed for murder. And he designs silk scarves for the Hermes fashion house in Paris. His style is so popular that the company has repeatedly commissioned new original designs from him. And he remains the only American artist ever to have designed scarves for Hermes.

4. Cutting the British Empire down to size

Map of the British Empire in 1897 More about trade than territory?

Bernard Porter | History Today | 27 September 2012

It looked big on the map. All those countries coloured red. But the British Empire was never administered or even loosely organised centrally. It was run by a small cadre of civil servants - 4,000 at its Victorian peak. It was more about trade than territory. Empire on the cheap. As Porter says in this fascinating reappraisal: "Most of the British Empire in the 19th and 20th Centuries was what we would now call 'privatised', for two of the reasons usually adduced for privatisation today: to save money and to shed responsibility. The other reason, that 'private' always works better, was not so much in evidence."

5. The myths of Muslim rage

Kenan Malik | Pandaemonium | 26 September 2012

Salman Rushdie's memoir of life under the fatwa has hit the bookshelves just as a new controversy over Islamic sensibilities has blown up around the world. It's an opportune moment to look back at the row over The Satanic Verses and see if we've learned anything. Malik says three myths about the Rushdie affair have shaped responses to every similar conflict since and that every one is being reproduced in the debate about the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims. These are: "The belief that violence is being driven by religious sensibilities, that all Muslims are incensed, and that Muslim anger is reason for new restrictions on free speech."

6. The man who built a 30-story building in 15 days

Lauren Hilgers | Wired | 25 September 2012

Early this year, a time-lapse video went viral on the internet. It showed a skyscraper being erected in little more than two weeks. The company behind the project, Broad Sustainable Building, was able to build so fast because most of the construction had taken place in a factory beforehand and the modules, plumbing and all had merely to be fitted together on site. It's a new way of constructing high-rise buildings and, says Broad, it's safer, less wasteful and cheaper as well as being faster than more traditional methods. Hubristic claims? We shall see. The firm's stated ambition is to build the world's tallest building in seven months, starting in November.

7. How collecting opium antiques turned me into an opium addict

Lisa Hix & Steven Martin | Collectors Weekly | 24 September 2012

Here's a cautionary tale from an unlikely source. Collectors Weekly meets Steven Martin who, while living in Thailand, became fascinated by the beauty of old opium pipes, lamps and other paraphernalia. He collected more than 1,000 pieces, researched the history of opium and wrote a book about opium antiques. But somewhere along the way, initially in the interests of research (so he told himself), Martin began smoking opium too. In this interview, he discusses the social and cultural history of opium, and how his hobby turned into a health-threatening obsession.

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