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Saturday, November 23, 2013 - 12:01 am

The reading list

“American democracy is going through one of its periodic bouts of self-loathing. The public disapproves of the performance of all the branches of government, even the Supreme Court. Approval ratings for Congress are so low it is tempting to wonder about the sanity of the small number of people who still express confidence in it. The recent shutdown in Washington provoked a furious round of critical commentary from academics and pundits across the political spectrum. There is near unanimity: This is no way to run a government.

“These recent travails have also provided plenty of material for commentators who see in every setback evidence of a broader decline. The historian Niall Ferguson has been predicting the unwinding of American power and influence for more than a decade. In the last few years, his warnings have gathered pace: Every time America's politicians lumber into another hole, Ferguson says I told you so. Even onetime optimists like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times are undergoing a crisis of faith.

“Yet there is nothing new about this outburst of disgust with the workings of democracy. Nor is it distinctively American. Europeans (with the possible exception of Germans) are just as disenchanted with their elected politicians. Lamenting the failings of democracy is a permanent feature of democratic life, one that persists through governmental crises and successes alike.”

– From “Democracy's Dual Dangers” at chronicle.com

A quiz

How long does an average earthquake last?

Wisdom of the ages

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal

Current wisdom

“All governments gather information, and all governments know that every other government gathers information.” – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, as he refused to comment on media reports that an Australian security agency attempted to listen in on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yuhoyonon's cell phone in 2009.

Quiz answer

About a minute.

Snob words

omnium-gatherum (om-nee-uhm-GATH-er-uhm), n. – a miscellaneous collection, as in: “The editorial writer's office was an omnium-gatherum of reference materials he had collected for 30 years.” From the Latin omnium, “of all,” and the pseudo-Latin gatherum, “gathering.”

Today in history

On this date in 1863 a patent was granted for a process of making color photographs; this took place in a “darkroom,” boys and girls.

Now you know

Sigmund Freud recommended cocaine as a useful treatment for depression, alcoholism and morphine addiction.