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Linear B: How an ancient code was cracked

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

The week’s best arts and culture reads – including ciphers from ancient Greece, the biography that took 30 years to write and what computers can teach chess champions.

Review: Pietr The Latvian by Georges Simenon
Nicholas Lezard | The Guardian | 26 November 2013
Reissue of Simenon’s first Inspector Maigret novel, from 1930. “The writing is terrible, bearing all the signs of hackery and haste. I suppose it is a matter of honesty: the books are not trying to be anything other than themselves. There hangs about them a suggestion of something dark and disturbing, profound almost, as if Simenon had, through a technique not very far from automatic writing, discovered something fundamental about the soul”.     

David Zwirner: The dealer’s hand
Nick Paumgarten | New Yorker | 25 November 2013
New York gallerist and dealer David Zwirner is ranked by Art Review as the second-most powerful figure in the art world (after the head of the Qatar Museums Authority). He is talked of as the new Larry Gagosian – but without the latter’s mystique. “Zwirner, by design and by temperament, strives to quell drama. He has set out to systematize art dealing, to give the endeavor a measure of efficiency, transparency, and order”.

Confessions of a long-distance biographer
Robert Skidelsky | 23 November 2013
Delightful essay about writing the biography of John Maynard Keynes. The intention was a single volume within two years. The outcome was three volumes over 30 years, and much delicate negotiating with Keynes’s circle, notable his brother Geoffrey: “What purpose did I have, he once asked me, other than to tell the world his brother was a bugger? I replied that it was too late to suppress this, even were it desirable to do so.”

Rethinking chess
Christopher Chabris | Wall Street Journal | 22 November 2013
Chess champions have discovered new skills by playing against computers. “When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces, they are often seeing more deeply into the game. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas. The top human players are now those who most often play the moves that would be chosen by the best engines”.

Neil Gaiman, fantasy writer
Laurie Penny | New Republic | 21 November 2013
A profile: lively and perceptive. “Gaiman is a master storyteller and the story he is paid to tell half the time right now is the story of being Neil Gaiman. Quite a lot of writers imagine themselves as a global brand with armies of publicists and fans to appease, but few of them actually expect to get there”. Bonus fact: “His parents were important members of the Church of Scientology in Britain, although he himself is no longer a member.”

Linear B: Geeks and Greek
Mary Beard | New York Review of Books | 21 November 2013
Review of Margalit Fox’s Riddle of the Labyrinth, an account of the deciphering of Linear B, the hieroglyphic script found on tablets from prehistoric Crete. Alice Kober, an unheralded American classics teacher, did the necessary groundwork of cataloguing the script; but British architect Michael Ventris made the intuitive leap of identifying Linear B as a form of Greek, and took the credit for himself.

Storybook plutocracy
Thomas Frank | Public Books | 21 November 2013
George Packer’s The Unwinding is a “masterpiece of the social-disintegration genre”, cataloguing the “slow-rolling economic transformation” of the past 30 years that has made a few Americans astonishingly rich and reduced the rest to commodities in the labour market. But a thousand such books have been written in the past decade, to no effect. Have words and arguments lost their power to bring about social change?

Interview: George Scialabba
Lindsey Gilbert | Boston Review | 20 November 2013
Essayist and critic talks about radicalism, Jonathan Franzen, feminism, Saul Bellow, the hive mind, Chomsky, and much else. Including the New Republic: “They’re really very smart, all of them, and the whole young generation of people they’ve spawned − Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, Jonathan Chait − they’re all very smart. But their focus is rather narrow. And their moral imagination is really on leave”.

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