This hasn’t been my best year for blogging. My last post was June and, before that, January. Such is the life of an entrepreneur and new dad. However, while I haven’t found time to do the sort of writing I used to, I am happy to say I did a fair amount of reading this year and couldn’t let the holidays pass without sharing some of my favorite longform.
If you haven’t read one of these lists before (2011, 2012, and 2015), the basic gist is it’s a list of the stuff I read this year that I liked the most. Much of it is longform journalism written in 2016, though, as the internet is wont to do, there’s lots of older writing, podcasts, and who knows what else in the mix. (If you’re so inclined, I also have a Twitter account that just tweets out the articles I favorite in Instapaper.)
Without any further ado … (and in no specific order) … the list (lots more commentary below):
- The Fighter – C.J. Chivers – New York Times Magazine – December 28, 2016
- The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence Part 1 & Part 2 – Tim Urban – Wait But Why – January 22, 2015
- Citizen Khan – Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – June 6, 2016
- In the Heart of Trump Country – Larissa MacFarquhar – New Yorker – October 10, 2016
- Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization – Branko Milanovic – Harvard Business Review – May 13, 2016
- Are We There Yet? – This American Life – July 29, 2016
- Arthur Kroeber vs. The Conventional Wisdom – Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn – Sinica – June, 2016
- Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful – Gabriel Weinberg – Medium – July 5, 2016
- Learning Chess at 40 – Tom Vanderbilt – Nautilus – May 5, 2016
- Last Taboo – Wesley Morris – New York Times Magazine – October 27, 2016
- The Secret History of Tiger Woods – Wright Thompson – ESPN – April 21, 2016
- Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder – Luke Harding – The Guardian – January 19, 2016
- The empty brain – Robert Epstein – Aeon – May 18, 2016
- The white flight of Derek Black – Eli Saslow – The Washington Post – October 15, 2016
On the cost of war
A few years ago I got the chance to spend some time with CJ Chivers, the New York Times war correspondent. His book, The Gun, had just come out and Colin, Benjamin, and I were helping to get him set up on social media. We spent the day hanging out, discussing journalism, signing up for accounts, and talking about how extraordinary war photographers are. Since then CJ has returned home and given up his role as an on-the-ground war reporter (a great longread from 2015) and his latest feature is actually in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. The Fighter is a profile of former Marine Sam Siatta and his post-war struggles. What makes Chivers such an amazing person to cover war, beyond his ability to write and willingness to dig indefinitely for a story (he became the preeminent expert on ammunition serial numbers) is his profound respect for the military and the men and women who serve. Chivers served in the Marines in the 80s and 90s and brings that to every story he writes, but its intensified in a story about a person he clearly believes could have been nearly any Marine.
[The Fighter – C.J. Chivers – New York Times Magazine – December 28, 2016]
On artificial intelligence
The article that probably blew my mind the most was actually written in January 2015. I had heard about Wait But Why’s two–part primer on AI, but hadn’t gotten around to reading the 25,000 word tome quite yet. Once I did, I was not disappointed. I went from knowing basically nothing about artificial intelligence to being unable to carry a conversation without bringing it up. Tim Urban, the author of Wait But Why, read every book and article on the topic and ties it all together concisely (seriously) and with some excellent stick figure drawings. Warning: It’s heavy, like human extinction heavy. A snippet:
And while most scientists I’ve come across acknowledge that ASI [artificial superintelligence] would have the ability to send humans to extinction, many also believe that used beneficially, ASI’s abilities could be used to bring individual humans, and the species as a whole, to a second attractor state—species immortality. Bostrom believes species immortality is just as much of an attractor state as species extinction, i.e. if we manage to get there, we’ll be impervious to extinction forever—we’ll have conquered mortality and conquered chance. So even though all species so far have fallen off the balance beam and landed on extinction, Bostrom believes there are two sides to the beam and it’s just that nothing on Earth has been intelligent enough yet to figure out how to fall off on the other side.
Both James and I liked the article so much that we asked Tim to lead off our Transition conference this year. (If you like the AI article, I’d also highly recommend his article on the Fermi Paradox and just about anything else.)
In a year of lots of bombast about immigrants (especially ones with the last name Khan), this incredibly well-researched profile of Zarif Khan, an Afghani who immigrated to Wyoming in the early 1900s, was an intimate profile of the immigrant story of America. The conclusion has to be one of my favorites from the year:
Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those ‘many’ can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall. Back when the streets of Sheridan were still dirt and Zarif Khan was still young, the Muslim who made his living selling Mexican food in the Wild West would put up a tamale for stakes and race local cowboys barefoot down Main Street. History does not record who won.
[Citizen Khan – Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – June 6, 2016]
Like everyone else, I read a lot about politics this year. Most of it I would never care to subject anyone to again, but along the way there some pieces that stood out. To me, this New Yorker profile of Logan County, West Virginia was the best telling of America’s divide. It’s a story we all know at this point, but part of what makes this article work so well is it’s more than just about Donald Trump or income inequality or the rural/urban divide, it’s really the profile of a state and it’s unique culture.
Rounding out politics articles: The Case Against Democracy (New Yorker) provides context for why our system works the way it does and asks whether it could work better. This Election Was About the Issues (Slate) argues against the refrain that the election was about everything but the issues, suggesting that it was about the issues Americans actually care about:
I’m talking about issues that involve the fundamental arrangements of American life, issues of race and class and gender and sexual violence. These are the things we’ve argued about in the past year and change, sometimes coarsely, sometimes tediously, but very often illuminatingly. This has been, by all but the most fatuous measures, an issue-rich campaign.
Ezra Klein’s amazing profile of Hillary Clinton, Understanding Hillary (Vox), argued that the things that make her a great governor are the same things that make her a bad politician and gave me hope.
It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.
And, of course, the “Goodbye Obama” pieces: David Remnick’s Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency (New Yorker) and Barack Obama and Doris Kearns Goodwin: The Ultimate Exit Interview (Vanity Fair).
[In the Heart of Trump Country – Larissa MacFarquhar – New Yorker – October 10, 2016]
On income inequality
In that David Remnick profile of Obama I just mentioned is probably the best single quote I read this year about income inequality, one of the defining issues of 2016:
“The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work,” he went on. “If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas. All of those things accelerate growth, give you more of a runway. But at some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.”
With that said, my pick comes from economist Branko Milanovic, who wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization. Though the data has been questioned the conclusion of the article hasn’t: Globalization has spread wealth around the world in some incredible ways … and it has happened, at least to some extent, at the expense of the Western middle class.
[Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization – Branko Milanovic – Harvard Business Review – May 13, 2016]
On the rest of the world (and podcasts)
It just so happens that my two favorite podcast episodes this year were on foreign affairs. The first comes from the always amazing This American Life who spent time in refugee camps in Greece speaking to people about their lives. As always, This American Life gives the most accurate macro view by focusing on the micro. The second comes from a show I’d never heard of before on China called Sinica. In the episode they talk to Arthur Kroeber, author of China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, who basically argues that China is actually following America’s growth playbook (called the American System), which included lots of state-led development, high tariffs, and even tons of intellectual property theft (from Europe at that time). Basically he argues we should stop being so surprised by what’s happening there.
Beyond those two, I listened to a lot of Marc Maron’s WTF (always skip the first 10 minutes) and really enjoyed his interview with Louis Anderson, who I didn’t realize was a serious standup. (Part of why I really enjoy WTF is that it’s effectively a show about the creative process. When he goes deep with someone on how they do their craft I find it endless fascinating. While the Louis episode isn’t exactly that, it’s also just loads of fun to listen to anyone serious about anything talk to someone they so clearly respect.) Gladwell’s Revisionist History was pretty good (though sometimes a bit preachy). His episode on Generous Orthodoxy was just a very well told story (and when you’re done, go read the letter the show was based on).
As you may or may not know, I became a parent in 2015. Since my daughter was born I’ve been keeping a collection of parenting articles that don’t suck (a surprisingly hard thing to find actually). My favorite of 2016 was probably Tom Vanderbilt’s piece on learning chess with his daughter. It’s both a well-told story and some really good lessons on the differences in learning between adults and children. A snippet:
Here was my opening. I would counter her fluidity with my storehouses of crystallized intelligence. I was probably never going to be as speedily instinctual as she was. But I could, I thought, go deeper. I could get strategic. I began to watch Daniel King’s analysis of top-level matches on YouTube. She would sometimes wander in and try to follow along, but I noticed she would quickly get bored or lost (and, admittedly, I sometimes did as well) as he explained how some obscure variation had “put more tension in the position” or “contributed to an imbalance on the queen-side.” And I could simply put in more effort. My daughter was no more a young chess prodigy than I was a middle-aged one; if there was any inherited genius here, after all, it was partially inherited from me. Sheer effort would tilt the scales.
[Learning Chess at 40 – Tom Vanderbilt – Nautilus – May 5, 2016]
On mental models
While not a longread in quite the way the others are, the piece that has probably dug its way deepest into my brain is this list of mental models from Gabriel Weinberg, Founder & CEO of the search engine DuckDuckGo. He was inspired to write his mental models down because of something Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s business partner, said about them: “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly‑wise person.” I’ve been pretty obsessed with this idea myself because I think we (as in people who talk about business) often over-emphasize case studies and specific stories, while under-emphasizing the model that can help someone make a decision that can lead to a similar outcome. I’ve been keeping my own list of models since I read this and might share them some time down the road.
[Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful – Gabriel Weinberg – Medium – July 5, 2016]
What might be the best essay of the year comes from New York Times culture critic Wesley Morris and explores what he calls “the last taboo”: Black penises in popular culture. Part of what makes for great cultural criticism is exposing you to something that you hadn’t noticed before but can’t ever not notice again, and Morris does just that. Race was obviously a big issue in 2016 and the article explores just one of the many ways racism roots in popular culture and perpetuates itself.
[Last Taboo – Wesley Morris – New York Times Magazine – October 27, 2016]
Most of the year-end lists I looked at included ESPN’s Tiger Woods profile as their top sports story of the year and it’s pretty hard to deny it. It’s engaging and breaks one of the crazier stories of the year: That Tiger Woods undoing may have been, at least in part, a result of his obsession with the Navy SEALs.
While the Tiger story is the flashiest and probably my favorite, looking back at my list of favorites there are actually a nice collection from a wide variety of sports. Nick Paumgarten’s delightful profile of 14-year-old climbing sensation Ashima Shiraishi made me want to get my 1.5-year-old into the climbing gym. The New York Times profile of Yannis Pitsiladis, a scientist trying to break the puzzle of the two hour marathon, was probably the sports story I talked about the most. Though not strictly a sports story, Deadspin’s profile of the meteoric rise and fall of sportswriter Jennifer Frey was gripping and sad. Finally, though most definitely not from this year, I went back and read John McPhee’s 1965 profile of Princeton basketball sensation Bill Bradley.
[The Secret History of Tiger Woods – Wright Thompson – ESPN – April 21, 2016]
Luckily for everyone that writes true crime, David Grann is working on a book, which means he didn’t submit any competition this year. Easily my favorite this year was California Sunday’s article about “Somerton Man”, a nearly seventy year old mystery about a man who washed up dead on the beach in Australia with nothing to identify him but a bit of a poem. Unfortunately this was from last year and I just didn’t find it until January, so I’ll reserve the spot for something actually written in 2016. Also missing out by a year (though I just discovered it) was this excellent story from the New Yorker about what actually happens when pirates take your ship.
That then leaves two crime(ish) articles to chose from: The excellent Guardian piece about the poisoning of Russian enemy of the state Alexander Litvinenko and New Republic’s piece on a mystery man discovered in Georgia. Considering the role of Russia on the world stage in 2016 and the level of reporting in the piece, I’ve got to give the nod to the Guardian on this one.
[Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder – Luke Harding – The Guardian – January 19, 2016]
On the way we experience the world
One way I judge writing is to see how it lodges itself in my brain. I know something was particularly good when I find myself thinking and talking about it for weeks and months afterwords. Sometimes the best writing doesn’t hit you right away, it takes some time to percolate. This Aeon piece on how our brains process information happens to be one of those. It argues that our theory that the brain operates like a computer has led us down a path of research that has set back our understanding of the brain. We’ve got a long history of understanding our brains through the lens of the latest tech it turns out:
By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.
Speaking of brains, Blake Ross’s very personal essay of how he came to realize he has aphantasia, or no mind’s eye, is an exercise in trying to imagine the unimaginable (for most of us). Ross doesn’t picture things when he thinks about them and didn’t realize the rest of the world did until quite recently.
[The empty brain – Robert Epstein – Aeon – May 18, 2016]
I’ve got a few favorites left open in tabs that I figure I’ll chose one from. These didn’t quite fit into the previous categories and I’ll try to get through them quickly(ish).
The white flight of Derek Black is the amazing story of the son of a prominent white nationalist who found his views melting away as he exposed himself to the outside world of diversity.
State of the Species is Charles C. Mann’s 2013 essay on human plasticity and the possibility it holds to help us solve the world’s problems. (Charles gave a version of the essay in presentation form at Transition this year.)
Politico’s We’re the Only Plane in the Sky is an oral history of September 11th on Air Force One.
Finally, to end with a bit of inspiration, this Chuck Close profile from the Times Magazine included this amazing bit:
Three weeks earlier, Simon had released a new album, “Stranger to Stranger,” with its cover taken from a portrait that Close painted of the musician a few years back. Then, the day before I saw Close, Simon announced that the album would be his last. “I called him up, and I said, ‘Artists don’t retire,’ ” Close told me. “I think I talked him out of it. I said: ‘Don’t deny yourself this late stage, because the late stage can be very interesting. You know everybody hated late de Kooning, but it turned out to be great stuff. Late Picasso, nobody liked it, and it turned out to be great.’ ” Close reminded Simon that Matisse was unable to continue painting late in life. “Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was,” Close said. “Paul said, ‘I don’t have any ideas.’ I said: ‘Well, of course you don’t have any ideas. Sitting around waiting for an idea is the worst thing you can do. All ideas come out of the work itself.’ ”
He pointed out that Simon is 74, the same age he was early last summer. “I told him, ‘When you get to be my age, you’ll see,’ ” he said with a laugh.
[The white flight of Derek Black – Eli Saslow – The Washington Post – October 15, 2016]