The Stories I Enjoyed Most in Last Week’s Sunday New York Times

I used to read two print newspapers every morning. Now, I get most of my news online, but I still treasure my Sunday New York Times in print. This week, due to travel, I didn’t get a chance to catch up with it till a plane flight on Friday. The news was dated, and I’d seen some of it online, but there was still so much of interest that I would otherwise have missed. The Sunday Times is a gathering of fascinating minds reflecting on the issues of the moment; it’s a conversation well worth being a part of.

Normally, you see a flood of tweets from me on Sunday as I share my favorite articles. This week, on a plane without wifi and nearly a week late, I still have the impulse to share, but this time, I’m going to gang up the list of my favorite articles into a single post.

Here are some of the things from last week’s Sunday Times that I think you too might enjoy reading. (Note that the titles online don’t necessarily match the titles from the print edition, which I use below.)

The Joy of Old Age. This is a lovely reflection by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks on life as he looks toward his eightieth birthday. The last paragraphs are particularly moving. I’m 59, not 79, but even now I can see many of the changes – both positive and negative – that Sacks talks about so eloquently.

A Hidden Consensus on Health Care. Ross Douthat makes the case that there are two types of consensus on health care reform – the political consensus, which resulted in Obamacare’s preservation of the broken system of employer-provided healthcare, and the policy consensus, that “the status quo is actually the problem.” While I think there is a lot to like in Obamacare, I totally agree that we could do way better if we scrapped the current system in favor of more profound change. Too bad politicians are so lacking in courage, and have such a hard time actually enacting sensible policies! But what I found most useful in this article is the very notion of the “political consensus” vs. the “policy consensus” as a way to understand what is most broken about Washington.

35 Big Steps to Accountability. I have a big interest in reforming corporate governance. There is a myth that public corporations are managed for the benefit of their shareholders; the reality is that they are most often managed for the benefit of insiders. I wasn’t aware of the Harvard Law School’s Shareholder Rights project, which is tacking this issue. One of their projects, as Gretchen Morgenstern explains, is to get rid of staggered board elections, which tend to insulate companies from shareholder-driven accountability.

In Cargo Delivery, The Three-Wheelers That Could. Claire Martin takes us into the world of Portland’s electric bicycle-powered delivery vans. This is an idea (and a business) worth spreading to other cities. We need fresh approaches to making our world more livable.

Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning?  I had no idea where the term “Caucasian” came from. It’s bizarre origin will quickly convince you that this euphemism for “white” exists to make racism a little less obvious. The article is thought provoking – the kind of piece that stretches your mind in the way that physical exercises can stretch and strengthen your body. And it’s accompanied by a fascinating photo montage showing the many different shades of “white” skin.

Why I Donated My Stool. We’re increasingly understanding the role of the microbiome (the ecology of the bacteria in our gut, on our skin, and in other parts of our body) in human health, leading to powerful treatments that once would have seemed utterly beyond the pale. Apart from the pioneering researchers who first proposed the idea as early as 1958, who would have thought a decade ago that transplanting material (yes, that material!) from the bowels of one individual to another could cure seemingly intractable diseases?

Letting Go of Our Nukes.  The case for the US to unilaterally reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal. It makes a lot of sense to me. As they used to say, “How many times do we have to make the rubble bounce?”

Austerity Won’t Work if the Roof is Leaking. Robert Frank makes a powerful case for investing in infrastructure, pointing out that Germany, the champion of austerity, is driving down its unemployment rate by making massive investment in repairing and upgrading its infrastructure. As for the US, “No one in Congress seriously proposes that we just abandon our crumbling roads and bridges, and everyone agrees that the repair cost will grow sharply the longer we wait.” So why aren’t we doing anything? (See note above about the difference between policy consensus and political consensus.) I found the arguments for acting now, while the economy isn’t at full capacity, to be particularly compelling. Costs will be lower, in addition to the stimulus effect.

Ireland, North by North-Westeros. Lovely photographs of sites from Northern Ireland used in Game of Thrones, and an account of how to find them (as well as many other sites in Northern Ireland.) I love Ireland, and encourage all of you to visit, both the North and the South. (My own family is from Killarney, and it too has been the evocative, romantic backdrop for many an movie scene.)

Hans Hass, 94, Early Explorer of the World Beneath the Sea. A great reminder of why it’s good to read the Obituaries section (and a perfect bookend to the Oliver Sacks piece.) I had never heard of Hans Hasse and his wife Lotte, who pioneered undersea photography and published books and films of the undersea world a few years before Jacques Cousteau appeared on the scene. He made a lovely comment when asked if he was bitter about Cousteau’s greater renown: “No, why should I be bitter? The sea is so big.” (Though Hass couldn’t help remarking on Cousteau’s self-promotion and lack of recognition for others in the field.)

Hans and Lotte Hasse

I particularly loved the photo of Hans and Lotte in scuba gear on the deck of a boat. The picture could have been shot this year, instead of the 50 or 60 years ago it must have been taken. There’s something about portraits that offer a unique window through time, showing us other lives so like our own but so unreachable. (This is why portraits, from Fayum sarcophagi and Roman busts through European masterworks of painting, through photography (Alfred Steiglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keefe!), are my favorite type of art. My gosh, we can look into the eyes of people from centuries, even millennia ago, share in their humanity, imagine their lives, so different yet with so many common threads!)

While Twitter and Facebook and Google+ can also introduce you to unexpected ideas and accounts of other lives, there is something special about the curation of a great newspaper, the very constraint that assembles such dissimilar content into a single frame.

  • Tiomoid of Angle

    Tim O’Reilly is not a Voice of the Crust but he plays one on the Internet.

    The Crustian clichés I enjoyed most in this article:

    ‘The
    Sunday Times is a gathering of fascinating minds reflecting on the
    issues of the moment; it’s a conversation well worth being a part of.’
    (In fact, the Sunday Times is a gathering of politically-correct
    chattering-class locksteppery that is well worth ignoring; you won’t
    miss anything important.)

    ‘While I think
    there is a lot to like in Obamacare, I totally agree that we could do
    way better if we scrapped the current system in favor of more profound
    change.’ (In fact, there is nothing to like in Obamacare, being a
    hideous amalgam of semi-socialist bureaucratic jobbery bolted onto the
    existing dysfunctional system that in turn arose in response to fascist
    price controls instituted during Roosevelt’s war. The profound change we
    need is for everybody to pay for his own health care/health insurance
    and make the cost tax-deductible, as now happens with employers. But
    they’ll never do that, because it allows people their own choice,
    instead of making them dependent on the choices of government employees
    and vote-purchasing megacompanies.)

    ‘Too
    bad politicians are so lacking in courage, and have such a hard time
    actually enacting sensible policies!’ (In fact, our political system is
    set up neither to reward politicians for courage nor to encourage them
    to actually enact sensible policies, but to keep them in power as they
    walk the high wire of voting block politics.)

    ‘I
    have a big interest in reforming corporate governance.’ (Of course,
    ‘reforming corporate governance’ means saying to a corporation ‘do it my
    way rather than your way’ and making ‘corporate governance’ even more
    divorced from economics and under the thumb of politics than it already
    is.)

    ‘There is a myth that public
    corporations are managed for the benefit of their shareholders; the
    reality is that they are most often managed for the benefit of
    insiders.’ (The ‘progressive’ problem with that is that the wrong
    insiders are in control; they’d be much happier if it were their insiders. AlGore is the poster child here, with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama carrying his train.)

    ‘We
    need fresh approaches to making our world more livable.’ (In fact, we
    need a return to the old approaches that worked; the fresh approaches
    that have been made since Teddy Roosevelt have invariably made things
    worse.)

    ‘Has “Caucasian” lost its meaning?’
    (In fact, it never had a meaning; like ‘Aryan’ and ‘capitalist’, it was
    created by people with a political agenda who wanted to sound
    scientific.)

    ‘It’s bizarre origin will
    quickly convince you that this euphemism for “white” exists to make
    racism a little less obvious.’ (More politically-correct
    I’m-white-but-I-hate-white-people-please-don’t-beat-me-uppery from
    someone who, given the choice, still wouldn’t choose to be non-white,
    but will forevermore wring his hands until they bleed about it
    nevertheless. ‘White’ doesn’t need a ‘euphemism’ except for people who
    regard being ‘white’ as sinful per se; the technical term for such people is ‘racist’.)

    ‘As
    they used to say, “How many times do we have to make the rubble
    bounce?”’ (Until it stops moving on its own. One of the flaws of
    democracy is that it give people with slogans for brains as much input
    into the political process as rational adults who bother to inform
    themselves on a subject. The reason we have ‘overkill’ on nuclear
    weapons is the undoubted truth that [a] nothing every works
    first-time-every-time and [b] this isn’t an area in which we can afford
    to skimp.)

    • http://radar.oreilly.com timoreilly

      Tiomoid of Angle – what a wonderful demonstration of systematic bias you provide! Given the range of articles I pointed to, the fact that you coud find something for your grindstone in most of them while finding nothing of value (apparently without actually reading the articles themselves) says something about how you approach your intellectual culture. For example, your recommendation about health care would be one option for “the more profound change” I was suggesting, and might even be consistent with the “policy consensus” Douthat referred to. But you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t actually read the article.

      That is not a conversation I particularly want to be part of.

      • dan

        “What a wonderful display” of a non-response. “Systematic bias”? What does that mean?

        If you had understood his first point, then you would have understood that, from his viewpoint, ALL the articles were consistent with a certain, well-defined point of view (other than the one from Oliver Sacks). Thus it follows that it is easily possible to disagree with all of them.

        I’m sure its a conversation you don’t “particularly want to be part of.” That attitude, of course, has its results:

        “Pauline Kael famously commented, after the 1972 Presidential election [in which Nixon won with the fourth largest popular vote margin per Wikipedia], ‘I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.’” http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2011/02/27/the-actual-pauline-kael-quote%E2%80%94not-as-bad-and-worse/

      • Tiomoid of Angle

        Then you ought not to have started it.

  • DougHill25

    Totally agree with about the Sunday Times (and the Times in general). In an age of ever-increasing triviality, a beacon of thoughtful journalism.

  • Jim S

    It’s a wonderful world we live in. Nothing is free of political thuggery.

  • Rob J

    FWIW, I appreciated this post. Twitter’s too fleeting, IMO, and I didn’t realize you were aggregating/curating what you were looking at. These were all good pointers. Tim, would you consider doing this on a regular basis? That way, it would get picked up by my rss reader, which is how I found this post.

    Thanks much,
    Rob Jaworski
    San Jose, California

  • jorgeborges

    That infrastructure thing has already been tried.

    http://reason.com/blog/2013/07/30/a-partial-timeline-of-president-obama-cl