You have arrived at the web home of Noah Brier. This is mostly an archive of over a decade of blogging and other writing. You can read more about me or get in touch. If you want more recent writing of mine, most of that is at my BrXnd marketing x AI newsletter and Why Is This Interesting?, a daily email for the intellectually omnivorous.
Welcome to my absurdly long review of my favorite reads of 2019.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to tackle my best articles of the year piece for 2019. On one hand, I feel like I’ve done a lot less reading over the last twelve months as I made a commitment to much more regular writing at Why is this interesting? But more than that, it being the end of the decade has made me think a lot about the impact of time on lists like this (and creative work generally). When it comes to books I’ve moved almost exclusively to reading stuff that wasn’t published this year with the idea that time is the best critic. But alas, I still read lots of amazing stuff this year and it felt like it was worth highlighting some of my favorites.
With that said, I’ve made an important change to the way I’m thinking about the list as compared to previous years. Whereas I was trying to catalog longform in the past, I’m much more interested in that which has stuck with me most over the last twelve months. A better description of this list, then, is my most memorable or interesting pieces of writing (I decided to leave podcasts out as I’ve put together a separate page for cataloging those). To that end, I’m calling this Favorite Reads of 2019 for simplicity’s sake.
I also have a few more caveats:
Finally, if you get through this whole list and want more, here are my past versions:
Alright. Let’s do this. I’ve broken things down into categories. Here’s a table of contents if you want to skip around (or go straight to the top picks list):
Three business stories stand out as most memorable for me this year, though none of thee three that stuck most in my brain are my favorite. The first was memorable because it was infuriating. The Wall Street Journal’s story on how colleges are buying SAT-takers’ names wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t for the kicker: They were advertising to students they knew didn’t have the SAT-scores needed in an effort to raise their rejection rate, and thus their ranking. Disgusting.
The second was memorable because it sounds like it would make a great plot for a heist movie. “The Fate of the World’s Largest ETF Is Tied to 11 Random Millennials” explains how the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, with $250 billion invested, is reliant on eleven kids born in the early-90s:
It all harks back to the arcane structure used to create SPY, the first U.S. ETF, in 1993. At the time, setting up the fund as a unit investment trust solved a practical problem. Not only was it an established legal structure, it allowed the issuer to create fund units that resembled a company’s shares. But as a consequence, it required a specified termination date. So like many trusts, the fund was initially structured to expire in 25 years -- in January 2018. It was subsequently amended to peg the fund to the lives of individuals, which extended its own life. … SPY as we know it will cease to be on Jan. 22, 2118, or 20 years “after the death of the last survivor of the eleven persons” -- whichever occurs first.
Finally, the New York Times piece “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office” was memorable mostly because it said a bunch of stuff I had thought for a long time (mainly that office personality tests are bullshit).
Personality assessments short-circuit the messiness of building what is now referred to as a “culture.” They deliver on all the complexities of interpersonal office dynamics, but without the intimate, and expensive, process of actually speaking with employees to determine their quirks and preferences. … They appeal also, perhaps, for the same reason astrology, numerology and other hocus-pocus systems do: because it’s fun to divide people into categories.
While those three were fun and interesting, my favorite business article of the year was this long piece from The Correspondent on the sham that is much of digital advertising. (Rick Webb wrote a great WITI on it back in November.) It digs into lots of the shady stuff that exists around the digital advertising industry, but also explains that the problems are equally rooted inside the brands themselves.
It might sound crazy, but companies are not equipped to assess whether their ad spending actually makes money. It is in the best interest of a firm like eBay to know whether its campaigns are profitable, but not so for eBay’s marketing department. Its own interest is in securing the largest possible budget, which is much easier if you can demonstrate that what you do actually works. Within the marketing department, TV, print and digital compete with each other to show who’s more important, a dynamic that hardly promotes honest reporting.
*** Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn. “The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising” The Correspondent. November 6, 2019. ***
Culture is a little bit of a hodge-podge category for stuff I wasn’t sure where else to put. There was an excellent JSTOR Daily piece on the real meaning of “carpe diem” (the phrase “is a horticultural metaphor that, particularly seen in the context of the poem, is more accurately translated as ‘plucking the day,’”) and a perfect email/post from Robin Sloan about the pastoral look of the new Fortnite season.
But topping the list easily was Jia Tolentino’s “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston”. Here’s what I said about it in WITI: “I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story quite like this in The New Yorker. It tells of Tolentino’s personal experience growing up in Houston, spending a lot of time at church, experimenting with drugs, and the linkages she sees between all of them. It’s an impressive piece and feels all the more amazing to sit in the pages of a magazine that otherwise doesn’t publish stories like this.”
And here’s a taste of the piece:
Ecstasy’s magic is strongest at the beginning; it dissipates through repetition. I’ve become careful about using it—I’m afraid that the high will blunt my tilt toward unprovoked happiness, which might already be disappearing. I’m afraid that the low that sometimes comes after will leave a permanent trace. But, still, each time, it can feel like divinity. Your world realigns in a juddering oceanic shimmer. You understand that you can give the best of yourself to everyone you love without feeling depleted. This is what it feels like to be a child of Jesus, in a dark chapel, with stained-glass diamonds floating on the skin of all the people kneeling around you. This is what it feels like to be twenty-two, nearly naked, your hair blowing in the wind as the pink twilight expands into permanence, your body still holding the warmth of the day. You were made to be here. The nature of a revelation is that you don’t have to reëxperience it. In the seventies, researchers believed that MDMA treatment could be discrete and limited—that once you got the message, as they put it, you could hang up the phone. You would be better for having listened. You would be changed.
Until I was putting this list together I had completely forgotten that her book, Trick Mirror, came out over the summer. I’ll rectify that as soon as I finish the books I’m reading now.
*** Jia Tolentino. “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston” New Yorker. May 20, 2019. ***
I don’t read enough about the rest of the world. It’s something I’d like to rectify in the coming year. With that said, there were two pieces about geopolitics/world events that stood out for me in 2019. One is set in India and the other in Turkey/Saudi Arabia.
The India story is the unbelievable New York Times account of royal family of Oudh. The matriarch of the family took up residence/strike in a New Delhi train station in the early 1970s and demanded the government recognize her lineage and offer her housing deserving of a royal. “In 1984, her efforts paid off. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi accepted their claim, granting them use of a 14th century hunting lodge known as Malcha Mahal. They left the train station roughly a decade after they first appeared there. Wilayat never appeared in public again.” The article and arresting media (and accompanying three-part podcast) tell the story of the family through Cyrus, its only surviving member.
Because of the combination of Turkey and Saudi Arabia it’s surely no surprise that my top pick for this category is about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The October Insider piece from Evan Ratliff is a step-by-step account of exactly went down in 2018 when “Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and never walked out.” The level of detail in the piece is amazing and harrowing.
The morning of October 2, just an hour before Khashoggi himself passed through the airport, nine other Saudis from Riyadh with diplomatic clearance spilled out of a private plane. Among them was Mutreb, who would serve as the ground commander for the mission. Joining him were four Saudi security and intelligence officers, two of them previous members of MBS's security team, and a brigadier general named Mustafa Mohammed al-Madani, who bore a passing resemblance to Khashoggi. The strangest figure among them was Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, a forensic doctor at the Ministry of the Interior. He was known for conducting rapid autopsies.
*** Evan Ratliff. “The story of Jamal Khashoggi's murder and how the world looked the other way” Insider. October 1, 2019. ***
Two shorter pieces that made the list before I get into the longer stuff. “They Want It to Be Secret: How a Common Blood Test Can Cost $11 or Almost $1,000” comes from The Upshot and covers the massive range of prices something as simple as a blood test can cost. It’s hard to think of anything else that works this way:
If you’re a patient seeking a metabolic blood panel, good luck finding out what it will cost. Although hospitals are now required to publish a list of the prices they would like patients to pay for their services, the amounts that medical providers actually agree to accept from insurance companies tend to remain closely held secrets. Some insurance companies provide consumers with tools to help steer them away from the $450 test, but in many cases you won’t know the price your insurance company agreed to until you get the bill.
Speaking of things we don’t understand very well, “Project Placenta A little-studied organ gets its scientific due.” outlines the latest attempts to better understand the placenta.
The Human Placenta Project is working to change that. This $80 million research initiative at the National Institutes of Health is using MRI and other technologies to study how the placenta functions in real-time. The placenta is known for making life, for supplying a fetus with oxygen, water, nutrition, and a waste-removal system. It also acts like a gatekeeper, filtering out pathogens and other harmful substances to protect the fetus. But for all its wonders, the placenta can take life, even the mother’s, when it doesn’t perform as it should. It’s critically important to human health and yet the least understood and least studied of all human organs.
My pick in this category is also about pregnancy. The Logic piece “What Not to Expect” from Hesper Desloovere Dixon walks through where a pregnant woman turns when a pregnancy doesn’t go according to plan. It’s a story about miscarriage, but also about the relationship between health and technology and the strange incentives that exist for the businesses who operate the places we turn when we need it most. Here’s an excerpt:
When I reached out to one such site, The Bump, to find out more about its community, a representative was keen to steer me toward their social media content instead. She explained that while their forums “originally served our users by fostering a sense of community for new and expectant parents,” they have “taken note of the shift away from forums and towards social media” and shifted their own attention accordingly. I had a hard time squaring this supposed migration with the numbers: The Bump’s Facebook page has fewer than 300,000 followers, while over at the message boards, the “Trying To Get Pregnant” section alone has 223,500 discussions and nearly three million comments. A single thread titled “what does a positive pregnancy test really look like??” has over 500,000 views.
Finally, this Atlantic piece felt like it said all the things I always kind of believed about dentistry. While it’s mostly about a particularly unethical dentist, it’s also about the whole profession:
The uneasy relationship between dentist and patient is further complicated by an unfortunate reality: Common dental procedures are not always as safe, effective, or durable as we are meant to believe. As a profession, dentistry has not yet applied the same level of self-scrutiny as medicine, or embraced as sweeping an emphasis on scientific evidence. “We are isolated from the larger health-care system. So when evidence-based policies are being made, dentistry is often left out of the equation,” says Jane Gillette, a dentist in Bozeman, Montana, who works closely with the American Dental Association’s Center for Evidence-Based Dentistry, which was established in 2007. “We’re kind of behind the times, but increasingly we are trying to move the needle forward.”
*** Hesper Desloovere Dixon. “What Not to Expect” Logic. August 3, 2019. ***
I’m not sure it’s fair to the first two of these articles to combine media and entertainment, but this is my list and I’ll do with it what I want. First up is the recent Adam Sandler profile for the New York Times Magazine by Jamie Lauren Keiles. It’s light and easy and includes fascinating tidbits like this:
Sandler is wildly popular in Latin America. In the early 2010s, as his gigantic run of hits came to an end, his new comedies, largely domestic flops, continued to rake in profits overseas. “Blended,” his third rom-com with Barrymore, did more than 60 percent of its ticket sales internationally, with major returns in Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela. “Jack and Jill,” a 2011 gender-swap flick with a 3 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, earned nearly a tenth of its overall gross in Brazilian theaters.
Next up is another New York Times piece. This one from Wesley Morris, who appeared on my 2016 list with “The Last Taboo.” In “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?” he writes about Green Book, The Upside, Driving Miss Daisy, and Hollywood’s infatuation with interracial friendship movies. As Morris explains:
They symbolize a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart. All the optimism of racial progress — from desegregation to integration to equality to something like true companionship — is stipulated by terms of service. Thirty years separate “Driving Miss Daisy” from these two new films, but how much time has passed, really? The bond in all three is conditionally transactional, possible only if it’s mediated by money. “The Upside” has the rich, quadriplegic author Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) hire an ex-con named Dell Scott (Hart) to be his “life auxiliary.” “Green Book” reverses the races so that some white muscle (Mortensen) drives the black pianist Don Shirley (Ali) to gigs throughout the Deep South in the 1960s. It’s “The Upside Down.”
Finally, my pick for this category is a very different topic (hence my comment about it being a bit unfair). Jane Mayer’s absolutely amazing New Yorker piece on “The Making of the Fox News White House” is about politics, but it’s mostly about a media company. (As an aside, Mayer’s profile of Al Franken also made my long list in the politics category.) Here’s a nugget on Murdoch’s foresight:
Murdoch could not have foreseen that Trump would become President, but he was a visionary about the niche audience that became Trump’s base. In 1994, Murdoch laid out an audacious plan to Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Bill Clinton. Murdoch, who had been a U.S. citizen for less than a decade, invited Hundt to his Benedict Canyon estate for dinner. After the meal, Murdoch led him outside to take in the glittering view of the Los Angeles Basin, and confided that he planned to launch a radical new television network. Unlike the three established networks, which vied for the same centrist viewers, his creation would follow the unapologetically lowbrow model of the tabloids that he published in Australia and England, and appeal to a narrow audience that would be entirely his. His core viewers, he said, would be football fans; with this aim in mind, he had just bought the rights to broadcast N.F.L. games. Hundt told me, “What he was really saying was that he was going after a working-class audience. He was going to carve out a base—what would become the Trump base.”
*** Jane Mayer. “The Making of the Fox News White House” New Yorker. March 4, 2019. ***
Although her story happened well before hashtags, it feels very appropriate to include this New York Times piece on Lorena Bobbitt by Amy Chozick in this category. The article is ostensibly about the four-part docuseries Lorena, but is mostly about how much different a story can look today than it did in the mid-90s. As the article explains:
Lorena is correct, of course, that most people forget that before she was tried for what she did, John was charged with marital sexual assault. (He was acquitted.) At the time, marital rape only recently had been made a crime in all 50 states and was nearly impossible to prove in Virginia. Many in the media, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Gay Talese on assignment for The New Yorker, questioned whether it was an oxymoron. (“Wife Rape? Who Really Gets Screwed?” an earlier column in Penthouse read.) Al Franken, as the character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, implored Lorena to apologize to John’s penis. And, she is correct, that people forget that a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. We forget about the string of witnesses at her trial who testified that they had seen bruises on her arms and neck and that she had called 911 repeatedly and that John had bragged to friends about forcing his wife to have sex. In the years since the trial, he was arrested several times and served jail time for violence against two different women. (He denied the allegations.) “This is about a victim and a survivor and this is about what’s happening in our world today,” Lorena told me.
The next two stories are squarely in this era. The first is the long New York Times piece on the attempts by lawyers David Boies and John Stanley Pottinger to buy footage that had supposedly come from Jeffrey Epstein of “some of the world’s richest, most powerful men in compromising sexual situations — even in the act of rape.” It’s a story about Espstein and the rich men he spent time with, but also about how lawyers work to protect powerful people.
Mr. Boies and Mr. Pottinger discussed a plan. They could use the supposed footage in litigation or to try to reach deals with men who appeared in it, with money flowing into a charitable foundation. In encrypted chats with Kessler, Mr. Pottinger referred to a roster of potential targets as the “hot list.” He described hypothetical plans in which the lawyers would pocket up to 40 percent of the settlements and could extract money from wealthy men by flipping from representing victims to representing their alleged abusers.
Finally, my pick in this category is the Guardian piece by Meghan Daum about how “older feminists” should feel about #MeToo. When I wrote about nuance for WITI earlier this year, Jay Owens pointed to the Daum piece in a fascinating thread. While the title is about nuance, the piece is more about the relationship between feminists of past (like her) and present. As Daum writes, “As I watched all of this whiz past me on my computer screen, sharpened by the reading glasses I’d lately been forced to wear, I wondered if my real problem with young feminists was how little they seemed to need us older ones. As far as I could see, they didn’t even want to know us.”
*** Meghan Daum. “Team older feminist: am I allowed nuanced feelings about #MeToo?” The Guardian. October 16, 2019. ***
One of my favorite new finds this year has been Agnes Callard, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who started a monthly column for The Point. I discovered it when she wrote a piece arguing against advice, something close to my heart. The issue, as she explains it:
It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions. In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact, and so it is not surprising that one finds so much advice exchanged on social media. When people are not fighting on Twitter, they are cheerfully and helpfully telling one another how to live. In that context, advice functions as a kind of small talk or social glue: it helps people feel they are getting along in a space not bound together by any kind of shared weather.
Then in November, she wrote this great piece asking what’s wrong with plagiarism? “But aren’t citations useful for the reader?” she asks. “Sometimes. But let’s not pretend that the reader’s needs play a substantial role in the mandate of the plagiarism police: outrage against plagiarists is about protecting idea-creators, not readers. If we were primarily worried about informing readers rather than protecting the pseudo-rights of writers, the reaction to a failure to cite would have a very different emotional valence.” The piece is a bit of a gimmick, but like much of Callard’s writing, it made me ask questions of beliefs that didn’t seem questionable. That’s notable and makes me want to read everything she writes.
Two other pieces I stuck in this category: Jessica Riskin’s scorching review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. It’s nowhere near as good as last year’s review of the book by Alison Gopnik (which I called out in the 2018 edition of this list), but it was still interesting enough to bear mention (I wrote about the book/philosophy for Why is this interesting? in December). The other was this excellent Atlantic piece about how a famous scientific argument against free will turned out to be a bit of poor experimental design. In the end, though, it’s Callard’s arguments against advice that stuck with me the most.
*** Agnes Callard. “Against Advice” The Point. May 9, 2019. ***
I did my best to stay away from politics stories this year as a) I didn’t find they were making me any better at understanding what was happening and b) we specifically set a no domestic politics rule for Why is this interesting?. To that end, my picks here are a little more at the edges of politics. “The Fed’s bad predictions are hurting us” from Dylan Matthews, for instance, is more a collection of statements from the Fed with commentary than a piece in and of itself (as a reminder, the criteria for selection is that it had an impact on me, not that it was “best”). Another politics pick, “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives” from Robert Caro is about a president and politics, but it’s mostly about research. What particularly stuck out for me in the piece was the way Caro described the feeling you get when you’re deep in a rabbit hole and the picture starts to come into view:
Going back over my notes, I put them in chronological order, and when I did it was easy to see that there had indeed been such a time: a single month, October, 1940. Before that month, Lyndon Johnson had been invariably, in his correspondence, the junior to the senior. After that month—and, it became clearer and clearer as I put more and more documents into order, after a single date, November 5, 1940, Election Day—the tone was frequently the opposite. And it wasn’t just with powerful congressmen. After that date, Johnson’s files also contained letters written to him by mid-level congressmen, and by other congressmen as junior as he, in a supplicating tone, whereas there had been no such letters—not a single one that I could find—before that date. Obviously, the change had had something to do with the election. But what?
I’ve had a few research moments like that in my life and the satisfaction is what drives me to keep finding things holes to dig around.
With all that said, my politics choice is squarely about our politics today. The anti-liberal moment by Zack Beauchamp for Vox is about the roots of liberalism and its current critics. It’s about what the word means, how neoliberalism was born, and why there’s so much pushback today. It doesn’t have answers, but it articulates a lot of what I think many of us have been feeling:
Many modern liberals, including some brilliant and well-regarded thinkers, do not seem up to the task of defending liberalism from its newest wave of critics. They lean on old arguments persuasive largely to other liberals, doing little to counteract the narrative of crisis from which the new illiberalism gets its force. It feels like the liberalism we have is musty, grown soft from its Cold War victory and unwilling to grapple with an opposition very different from what came before it.
*** Zack Beauchamp. “The anti-liberal moment” Vox. September 9, 2019. ***
This is maybe the easiest choice of the whole list. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project lead was unquestionably the best thing I read on race this year (as an aside Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote another of my absolute favorite reads of the year, 2016’s “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City”). Though it’s recently come under fire for some of its reporting, the piece did an extraordinary job framing the huge role slavery played in nearly every major moment in the country’s history. It reframes familiar moments with stories seldom told.
Many white Americans saw black men in the uniforms of America’s armed services not as patriotic but as exhibiting a dangerous pride. Hundreds of black veterans were beaten, maimed, shot and lynched. We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens. During the height of racial terror in this country, black Americans were not merely killed but castrated, burned alive and dismembered with their body parts displayed in storefronts. This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin. To answer the question of how they could prize liberty abroad while simultaneously denying liberty to an entire race back home, white Americans resorted to the same racist ideology that Jefferson and the framers had used at the nation’s founding.
Even more than many of these other pieces, pulling a paragraph doesn’t do it justice. Go read the whole thing.
*** Nikole Hannah-Jones. “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” New York Times Magazine. August 14, 2019. ***
Ed Yong is easily one of my favorite science writers working today. His writing is excellent and the topics he uncovers, which mostly revolve around strange biology, are always fascinating (and usually a little gross). His piece on hagfish slime provided me weeks of conversational material. For those unfamiliar here’s a little taste of what Yong uncovers:
The proteins threads that give the slime cohesion are incredible in their own right. Each is one-100th the width of a human hair, but can stretch for four to six inches. And within the slime glands, each thread is coiled like a ball of yarn within its own tiny cell—a feat akin to stuffing a kilometer of Christmas lights into a shoebox without a single knot or tangle. No one knows how the hagfish achieves this miracle of packaging, but Fudge just got a grant to test one idea. He thinks that the thread cells use their nuclei—the DNA-containing structures at their core—like a spindle, turning them to wind the growing protein threads into a single continuous loop.
While that’s easily one of the most memorable pieces I read this year, my science pick is “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” by Douglas Preston. It tells the story of graduate student/archaeologist Robert DePalma and the site he discovered at the KT boundary, “the dividing line between the Cretaceous period and the Tertiary period.” Almost nothing has been found in or around this area, which confounds scientists. “In a century and a half of assiduous searching,” Preston writes, “almost no dinosaur remains have been found in the layers three metres, or about nine feet, below the KT boundary, a depth representing many thousands of years. Consequently, numerous paleontologists have argued that the dinosaurs were on the way to extinction long before the asteroid struck, owing perhaps to the volcanic eruptions and climate change.” Not only did DePalma find a site at the KT boundary, but he also seems to have found one that marks the exact moment of extinction:
Richards had previously estimated that the worldwide earthquake generated by the KT impact could have been a thousand times stronger than the biggest earthquake ever experienced in human history. Using that gauge, he calculated that potent seismic waves would have arrived at Tanis six minutes, ten minutes, and thirteen minutes after the impact. (Different types of seismic waves travel at different speeds.) The brutal shaking would have been enough to trigger a large seiche, and the first blobs of glass would have started to rain down seconds or minutes afterward. They would have continued to fall as the seiche waves rolled in and out, depositing layer upon layer of sediment and each time sealing the tektites in place. The Tanis site, in short, did not span the first day of the impact: it probably recorded the first hour or so. This fact, if true, renders the site even more fabulous than previously thought. It is almost beyond credibility that a precise geological transcript of the most important sixty minutes of Earth’s history could still exist millions of years later—a sort of high-speed, high-resolution video of the event recorded in fine layers of stone. DePalma said, “It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa, sitting on top of the Lost Ark.” If Tanis had been closer to or farther from the impact point, this beautiful coincidence of timing could not have happened. “There’s nothing in the world that’s ever been seen like this,” Richards told me.
*** Douglas Preston. “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” New Yorker. March 29, 2019. ***
My first pick for this category is easily the most memorable sports story from ESPN this year. I must have been sent “The grandmaster diet: How to lose weight while barely moving” by seven people who thought I’d enjoy it. And I did. It hits all the points: Take a group of people that you think you know something about—in this case, chess players—and explain how a) you don’t know anything about them, but b) now that you know about them you can’t believe it didn’t occur to you. As the title suggests, the piece is about the toll chess plays on the body.
Grandmasters in competition are subjected to a constant torrent of mental stress. That stress, in turn, causes their heart rates to increase, which, in turn, forces their bodies to produce more energy to, in turn, produce more oxygen. It is, according to Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and Philip Cryer, a metabolism expert at the school, a vicious, destructive cycle.
Meanwhile, players also eat less during tournaments, simply because they don't have the time or the appetite. "The simple explanation is when they're thinking about chess, they're not thinking about food," says Ewan C. McNay, assistant professor of psychology in the behavioral neuroscience program at the University of Albany.
With all that said, my favorite sports article of the year was Nick Paumgarten’s deep dive into Augusta National, the very strange home of The Masters golf tournament. I’m not really a golf fan, but pay enough attention to know that Augusta is unique. The reverence everyone has for it is impressive and they have unique rules like no cell phones on the course. With that said, I wasn’t really prepared for just how weird it was:
It is by now hardly scandalous to note that Augusta National—called the National by its members and devotees, and Augusta by everyone else—is an environment of extreme artifice, an elaborate television soundstage, a fantasia of the fifties, a Disneyclub in the Georgia pines. Some of the components of the illusion are a matter of speculation, as the club is notoriously stingy with information about itself. It has been accepted as fact that recalcitrant patches of grass are painted green and that the ponds used to be dyed blue. Because the azaleas seem always to bloom right on time, skeptics have propagated the myth that the club’s horticulturists freeze the blossoms, in advance of the tournament, or swap out early bloomers for more coöperative specimens. Pine straw is imported. Pinecones are deported. There is a curious absence of fauna. One hardly ever sees a squirrel or a bird. I’d been told that birdsong—a lot of it, at any rate—is piped in through speakers hidden in the greenery. (In 2000, CBS got caught doing some overdubbing of its own, after a birder noticed that the trills and chirps on a golf broadcast belonged to non-indigenous species.)
And that’s just a start. It’s a perfect Paumgarten deep dive. He’s the only writer who made my list three times this year, all in the sports category. My other two favorites from him: “My Year of Concussions” (which maybe should have been health) and “The Wild Carnival at the Heart of Skiing’s Most Dangerous Race” about the Hahnenkamm downhill ski race.
*** Nick Paumgarten. “Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National” New Yorker. June 24, 2019. ***
This was another very tight race for me that I ultimately decided on a technicality. Before I get into the finalists, two tech pieces that stood out: This conversation about YouTube from Charlie Warzel and Sarah Jeong was excellent and made me wish more journalists used this format and Raffi Khatchadourian’s deep dive into a cybersecurity firm who broke the law was a great tech/crime read. Also, although I’ve left podcasts out of this list (you can find my favorites on my new favorite podcasts page), many of my favorites this year were tech-related, so I figured I’d shout a few out: Reply All’s The Roman Mars Mazda Virus was an amazing tech-support episode, Postlight’s Track Changes episode on what happens when you open up inspect element is a fun look at how bloated the web has become, and, unexpectedly, Mark Zuckerberg’s conversation with Harvard Law Professor was a fascinating conversation about what we should do about data and social media.
But now for the two contenders. First is this excerpt from James Bridle’s book New Dark Age. It’s an amazing explanation for how culture is changing as a result of technology, weaving together a whole bunch of themes that we’re all grappling with today through the lens of turbulence:
Clear-air turbulence is so named because it comes literally out of the blue. It occurs when bodies of air moving at wildly different speeds meet: as the winds shear against each other, vortices and chaotic movements are produced. While much studied, particularly in the high troposphere where long-haul aircraft operate, it remains almost impossible to detect or to predict. For this reason, it is much more dangerous than the predictable forms of turbulence that occur on the edges of storms and large weather systems, because pilots are unable to prepare, or route around it. And incidences of clear-air turbulence are increasing every year.
But what really got me is this bit about hyperobjects, which comes near the end of the piece:
The philosopher Timothy Morton calls global warming a ‘hyperobject’: a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is literally too big to see in its entirety. Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things – a melting ice sheet, a dying sea, the buffeting of a transatlantic flight. Hyperobjects happen everywhere at once, but we can only experience them in the local environment. We may perceive hyperobjects as personal because they affect us directly, or imagine them as the products of scientific theory; in fact, they stand outside both our perception and our measurement. They exist without us. Because they are so close and yet so hard to see, they defy our ability to describe them rationally, and to master or overcome them in any traditional sense. Climate change is a hyperobject, but so is nuclear radiation, evolution, and the internet.
That seems like a concept worth filing away.
With all that said, I decided to disqualify Bridle’s piece since officially it’s just a bit of his book. (For what it’s worth, I believe Tolentino’s is as well, but why make rules if not to break them?) I also can’t imagine anyone else would include this Politico piece about the botched rollout of Epic’s hospital management system in Denmark. I work in software, specifically building stuff for companies, and so I’ve seen this story play out from the inside. It’s seldom told, and certainly not on a scale like this. The gist is that Epic won a contract to replace all the hospital systems in Copenhagen and a surrounding region. They spent three years doing the implementation before they turned the switch …
The system was turned on first at Herlev Hospital, a 28-floor tower overlooking Copenhagen’s northern suburbs — and created what Galster called “indescribable, total chaos.” Many who were there are still traumatized by having seen battle-hardened doctors and nurses weeping openly for days.
“There were no pilots, no tests, just go-live,” said Galster. “I’ve worked on health IT for 20 years and never seen anything like it. This was worse than amateurish.”
“Doctors and nurses couldn’t document their work, they couldn’t understand what was going on. They were being exposed in real life to a system they hadn’t seen before.”
As I said, you just don’t get to see inside things like this very often, particularly when the stakes are this high. It also highlights some of the challenges with building and implementing systems like this on a global basis, where certain ideas can be hard-coded into the application without even thinking about it. “In Denmark, for example,” the article explains, “while the IT separated activities for doctors and nurses, it did not freeze one out of the other’s jurisdiction. A nurse could prescribe medicine in an emergency and explain later. In Epic, any attempt to take a forbidden role caused a ‘full stop.’”
*** Arthur Allen. “Lost in translation: Epic goes to Denmark” Politico. June 6, 2019. ***
My true crime picks for this year were surprisingly light (maybe it’s because David Grann took the year off). But one article stood out for me here and it was Kera Bolonik’s amazing piece for The Cut on “The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge”. It’s the story of Harvard Law Professor Bruce Hay who teaches a class on “Judgment and Decision-Making” and yet managed to find himself deep in a fantastically bad situation. I don’t want to give much away on this one, since that’s the fun of reading true crime, but it’s gripping and bizarre.
*** Kera Bolonik. “The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge: A Harvard Law professor who teaches a class on judgment wouldn’t seem like an obvious mark, would he?” The CUT. July 23, 2019. ***