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:
- If something’s missing it’s most likely that it’s because I didn’t read it. In years past I’ve made an effort to look at other lists and try to read all the consensus favorites, but I ran out of time and motivation this year. With that said, if there is something great you think I should check out, I would appreciate you sending it my way.
- Many of them are longform, but some of them aren’t. Per my comment above, I’m more interested in what stuck with me than length. If you’re looking for something that’s a little more focused on longform (and maybe more objective), I would suggest Longform’s Best of 2019. They do great work every year.
- You’ll notice a concentration of articles from the New York Times, New Yorker, and The Atlantic. That’s because I read more of those than anything else and these are my favorites.
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):
- True Crime
- Top Picks
- Full 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. ***
- Business: Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn. “The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising” The Correspondent. November 6, 2019.
- Culture: Jia Tolentino. “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston” New Yorker. May 20, 2019.
- Geopolitics/World: Evan Ratliff. “The story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and how the world looked the other way” Insider. October 1, 2019.
- Health: Hesper Desloovere Dixon. “What Not to Expect” Logic. August 3, 2019.
- Media & Entertainment: Jane Mayer. “The Making of the Fox News White House” New Yorker. March 4, 2019.
- MeToo: Meghan Daum. “Team older feminist: am I allowed nuanced feelings about #MeToo?” The Guardian. October 16, 2019.
- Philosophy & Psychology: Agnes Callard. “Against Advice” The Point. May 9, 2019.
- Politics: Zack Beauchamp. “The anti-liberal moment” Vox. September 9, 2019.
- Race: 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.
- Science: Douglas Preston. “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” New Yorker. March 29, 2019.
- Sports: Nick Paumgarten. “Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National” New Yorker. June 24, 2019.
- Technology: Arthur Allen. “Lost in translation: Epic goes to Denmark” Politico. June 6, 2019.
- True Crime: 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.
- Adam Sternbergh. “‘Watchmen’ Is Coming. (Actually, It Never Left.)” New York Times. October 21, 2019.
- Aishwarya Kumar. “The grandmaster diet: How to lose weight while barely moving” ESPN. September 13, 2019.
- Agnes Callard. “Against Advice” The Point. May 9, 2019.
- Agnes Callard. “Is Plagiarism Wrong?” The Point. November 20, 2019.
- Amy Chozick. “You Know the Lorena Bobbitt Story. But Not All of It.” New York Times. January 30, 2019.
- Andrea Long Chu. “Psycho Analysis: Bret Easton Ellis rages against the decline of American culture” Bookforum. April, 2019.
- Andrew Marantz. “The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism” New Yorker. September 23, 2019.
- Arthur Allen. “Lost in translation: Epic goes to Denmark” Politico. June 6, 2019.
- Bahar Gholipour. “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked” The Atlantic. September 10, 2019.
- Bethany McLean. “‘We Didn’t Cause The Crisis’: David Sackler Pleads His Case On The Opioid Epidemic” Vanity Fair. August, 2019.
- Charlie Warzel and Sarah Jeong. “YouTube Is a Very Bad Judge and Jury” New York Times. June 8, 2019.
- Chi Luu. “How ‘Carpe Diem’ Got Lost in Translation” JSTOR Daily. August 7, 2019.
- Connie Bruck. “Alan Dershowitz, Devil’s Advocate” New Yorker. July 29, 2019.
- Corey Kilgannon. “How a Band of Surfer Dudes Pulled Off the Biggest Jewel Heist in N.Y. History” New York Times. October 17, 2019.
- Daniela Blei. “Project Placenta A little-studied organ gets its scientific due.” The CUT. August 28, 2019.
- David Epstein. “The Peculiar Blindness of Experts” The Atlantic. June, 2019.
- Douglas Belkin. “For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity” Wall Street Journal. November 5, 2019.
- Douglas Preston. “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” New Yorker. March 29, 2019.
- Dylan Matthews. “The Fed’s bad predictions are hurting us” Future Perfect. May 24, 2019.
- Ed Yong. “No One Is Prepared for Hagfish Slime” The Atlantic. January 23, 2019.
- Ellen Barry. “The Jungle Prince of Delhi” New York Times. November 22, 2019.
- Emma Goldberg. “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office” New York Times. September 17, 2019.
- Evan Ratliff. “The story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and how the world looked the other way” Insider. October 1, 2019.
- Ferris Jabr. “The Truth About Dentistry” The Atlantic. May, 2019.
- Garrett M. Graff. “America’s Decades-Old Obsession With Nuking Hurricanes (and More)” Wired. August 26, 2019.
- Hesper Desloovere Dixon. “What Not to Expect” Logic. August 3, 2019.
- James Bridle. “The future will be bumpy” Verso. November 28, 2019.
- Jamie Lauren Keiles. “Adam Sandler’s Everlasting Shtick” New York Times Magazine. November 27, 2019.
- Jane Mayer. “The Case of Al Franken” New Yorker. July 29, 2019.
- Jane Mayer. “The Making of the Fox News White House” New Yorker. March 4, 2019.
- Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn. “The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising” The Correspondent. November 6, 2019.
- Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Emily Steel, Jacob Bernstein and David Enrich. “Jeffrey Epstein, Blackmail and a Lucrative ‘Hot List’” New York Times. November 30, 2019.
- Jessica Riskin. “Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics” Los Angeles Review of Books. December 15, 2019.
- Jerry Useem. “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor” The Atlantic. July, 2019.
- Jia Tolentino. “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston” New Yorker. May 20, 2019.
- Katya Cengal. “The Reality of Post-Chernobyl Life: Way More Complicated Than a TV Show” Literary Hub. September 20, 2019.
- 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.
- Malcolm Gladwell. “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” New Yorker. January 7, 2019.
- Margot Sanger-Katz. “They Want It to Be Secret: How a Common Blood Test Can Cost $11 or Almost $1,000” New York Times. April 30, 2019.
- Meghan Daum. “Team older feminist: am I allowed nuanced feelings about #MeToo?” The Guardian. October 16, 2019.
- Nick Paumgarten. “Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National” New Yorker. June 24, 2019.
- Nick Paumgarten. “My Year of Concussions” New Yorker. November 4, 2019.
- Nick Paumgarten. “The Wild Carnival at the Heart of Skiing’s Most Dangerous Race” New Yorker. April 22, 2019.
- 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.
- Philip Ball. “How I changed my mind about the biology of race” The Guardian. December 26, 2019.
- Rachel Donadio. “A Journalist Was Killed in an EU Country. Why Has No One Been Caught?” The Atlantic. May 29, 2019.
- Rachel Evans, Vildana Hajric, and Tracy Alloway. “The Fate of the World’s Largest ETF Is Tied to 11 Random Millennials” Bloomberg. August 9, 2019.
- Raffi Khatchadourian. “A Cybersecurity Firm’s Sharp Rise and Stunning Collapse” New Yorker. October 28, 2019.
- Robert A. Caro. “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives” New Yorker. January 21, 2019.
- Robin Sloan. “Fortnite pastoral” Year of the Meteor. October, 2019.
- Ross Tucker. “On Transgender athletes and performance advantages” The Science of Sport. March 24, 2019.
- Sam Kestenbaum. “Keano Is N.Y.’s Most Famous and Mysterious Subway Psychic. I Found Her.” New York Times. November 8, 2019.
- Sam Knight. “How Football Leaks Is Exposing Corruption in European Soccer” New Yorker. May 27, 2019.
- Tina Jordan. “When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished” New York Times. June 11, 2019.
- Wesley Morris. “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?” New York Times. January 23, 2019.
- Zack Beauchamp. “The anti-liberal moment” Vox. September 9, 2019.
January 1, 2020 // This post is about: bestlongform, bestof, longform
If you’re not a regular reader of my site, please do me a favor and subscribe to the email (it comes infrequently — whenever I add a post here). I write about business, technology, history, mental models (a lot of those), and all the random interesting stuff I’m reading about. It’s a hodge-podge and I hope you’ll enjoy.
Update: Most of my writing now happens on my daily newsletter Why is this interesting? If you enjoy this, every email includes lots of interesting stuff to read.
At the beginning of last year I decided I was going to spend more time reading books in 2018. I set myself a goal of 30 on Goodreads and blew past that by year end. While it felt good and something I’m looking to reproduce in 2019, it left me wondering whether I’d actually read enough articles to put together my favorite longform list.
As I was wondering this, a series of plagues befell my house and knocked me off my feet (and computer) for just about two full weeks (it was not fun). When I was finally feeling better this week I thought I’d at least see how many articles I favorited in Instapaper and try to figure out whether a list was feasible. Sixty-something links later I realized I read enough to put it together, so here it is. Some usual caveats apply:
- This is a list of my favorites. It’s not meant to be conclusive and I know I missed lots of great stuff (especially this year with my focus on books).
- You’ll notice a concentration of articles from The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. That’s because I get both of those delivered. Again, this isn’t meant to be the definitive list of best articles of the year (if you want that I’d head over to longform.org).
- The way I put this together is first I just list out all the articles I favorited in Instapaper. You can find those at the bottom of this post and also follow them (and favorites from YouTube) at my @heyitsinstafavs automated Twitter account. After I list them all out I just look over the list again and pull out all the ones I specifically remember with the thought that those were the ones that had the biggest impact on me.
- Everything is categorized and my picks are in bold throughout. The full list of favorites is at the bottom.
Finally, if you get through this whole list and want more, here are my past versions:
Okay, onto the list:
If you’ve ever read one of these lists before you’ll know that I love David Grann. Basically anything he writes automatically makes the cut. In 2012 that was his story about an American who fought in the Cuban revolution titled “The Yankee Comandante” and in 2011 it was “A Murder Foretold”. After a few years off to publish his excellent book Killers of the Flower Moon, he was back in the New Yorker in February with “White Darkness”, an amazing story of a solitary journey across Antarctica. (It’s also out as a book now, though I think it’s just the article with some more pictures.) What’s amazing about Grann’s writing obviously starts with the stories he finds, but as you read you realize it’s more about the characters that make up those stories. Somehow he always seems to discover people who both live amazing adventures and are also poets, or something close to it. (As an aside, if you haven’t read Grann’s book of essays The Devil and Sherlock Holmes do yourself a favor and get on that or at least pick a few from his New Yorker profile page.)
[“The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018]
This is another category where there was really only one entry for me. It comes from the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, who will show up again when we get to favorite podcasts. Callimachi’s work is pure effort and for her huge feature on the Isis she found and sifted through thousands of internal documents and receipts to piece together the story of how the terror organization actually governed in Iraq. The work in and of itself makes the piece worthy for this list, but what makes the article so memorable for me is how it exposed the banality of Isis’s approach in Iraq. “ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage,” she writes. “[T]he group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” If you had to sum the piece up in one sentence it would probably be this one: “The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.” (If you’re interested in learning more about how the documents were collected or what’s happening with them, there’s a Q&A on the Times’ site. You should also check out Callimachi on the longform podcast for an inside look on how she approaches her work.)
[“The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018]
Health & Parenting
I’ve got three entrants for this one and they’re all pretty different.
The first is all about parenting. I would have sworn “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” came out last year, but apparently it was from the beginning of this one. It makes sense I wouldn’t have much sense of time, though, since it came out right around when my second daughter was born. The article plainly spells out how big of an industry parenting advice is and how much its foundation is built on bullshit. The bit I remember best is this aside about how statistically insignificant most baby advice really is:
“(Parenting experts who are childless, such as the “queen of routine” Gina Ford, author of the unavoidable Contented Little Baby series, attract a lot of sharp words for it, but this seems unfair. Where Ford has direct experience of parenting none of the 130 million babies born on Earth each year, most gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn’t much better as a sample size. The assumption that whatever worked for you will probably work for everyone, which is endemic in the self-help world, reaches an extreme in the pages of baby books.)”
The other two are a lot more serious. First is an amazing piece from Guardian writer Hannah Jane Parkinson about her own struggle with mental illness (and specifically bipolar disorder). Parkinson is a very good writer and there’s something about reading an accomplished journalist using her work to explain why her work is so hard that’s particularly impactful. The article’s title “It’s nothing like a broken leg” comes from this passage:
In the last few years I have lost count of the times mental illness has been compared to a broken leg. Mental illness is nothing like a broken leg.
In fairness, I have never broken my leg. Maybe having a broken leg does cause you to lash out at friends, undergo a sudden, terrifying shift in politics and personality, or lead to time slipping away like a Dali clock. Maybe a broken leg makes you doubt what you see in the mirror, or makes you high enough to mistake car bonnets for stepping stones (difficult, with a broken leg) and a thousand other things.
I would also highly recommend this short piece from Parkinson published at the end of December about her riding buses around London in the middle of the night when things get particularly bad.
Finally, my pick for this category comes from a New York Times Magazine story titled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” The article shocked and saddened me as it spelled out just how inadequate the care pregnant black mothers receive. Education and income, as the article explains, don’t explain it. “In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.” Most shocking to me was this story about how the institutional racism embedded in the system manifests itself in obviously bad science amongst doctors:
In 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia examined why African-American patients receive inadequate treatment for pain not only compared with white patients but also relative to World Health Organization guidelines. The study found that white medical students and residents often believed incorrect and sometimes “fantastical” biological fallacies about racial differences in patients. For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white. For these assumptions, researchers blamed not individual prejudice but deeply ingrained unconscious stereotypes about people of color, as well as physicians’ difficulty in empathizing with patients whose experiences differ from their own. In specific research regarding childbirth, the Listening to Mothers Survey III found that one in five black and Hispanic women reported poor treatment from hospital staff because of race, ethnicity, cultural background or language, compared with 8 percent of white mothers.
Go read the whole thing and when you’re done please donate to the Birthmark Doula Collective who are trying to help change the care black mothers receive.
[“Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018]
As you may or may not know I’m a big NBA fan. The league is as good as its ever been and has been fundamentally transforming the way the game is played for the last ten years or so. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to explain this to friends and now, thanks to Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton, I can just send them the article “How the NBA got its groove back.” In the piece, the Kevins spell out how much faster the league got over the last decade, starting with the D’Antoni/Nash. In fact, as the article explains, those 2004-05 Suns wouldn’t even be considered a fast team by today’s standards. “Back then, Phoenix’s 98.6 pace was more than a possession per game faster than that of any other NBA team. In 2017-18, the average team had 99.6 possessions per 48 minutes, and the Suns’ 2004-05 pace would have ranked 19th in the league.” It’s a fun time to be an NBA fan. (Honorable mention sports story has to go to The Ringer’s insane “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account”.)
[“How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018]
Society isn’t a perfect title for this category, but it gets at it. I’ve got two pieces here. The first comes from psychology professor Alison Gopnik (who shows up in the podcast list as well). Although not terribly wrong, I thought her review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now offered a really interesting rebuttal to the macro “everything is getting better” story. Gopnik opens the piece by stating her credentials: She’s a scientist, professor, and “card-carrying true believer in liberal Enlightenment values.” But she doesn’t think we can, or should, push aside local needs and values for the global:
The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.
In some ways there’s a similar theme in my pick for this category. “Pay the Homeless” is all about the local realities. It’s an argument against the idea that giving money to someone asking for it is somehow not good for the system as a whole or that individual specifically:
Yet on the whole, all the evidence, from the statistical to the spiritual, points in one direction: if you can give, you should give. It won’t solve the problems of mass homelessness or impoverishment. But it will improve someone’s life ever so slightly and briefly. “People are in dire straits and raising money for bare necessities,” Jerry Jones, policy director at the Inner City Law Center, told me. They might be trying to collect enough to pay for a room for the night. They might need bus fare or gas to get to an appointment.
[“Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018]
I try to read just about anything Tim Harford writes. His ability to take complicated topics and simplify them are impressive and inspiring. Last year’s piece on Arrow’s impossibility theorem is something I still think about and his BBC Pop-Up Ideas series was absolutely amazing, particularly this episode on the idea of feral cities. This year his FT feature “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” introduced me to the idea of architectural innovation, which I wrote about in some length in my Framework of the Day piece on Conway’s Law. If you enjoy the piece I would also suggest checking out the reading list, which includes links to all the source material.
[“Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018]
There aren’t that many pieces that stood out in the world of politics for me this year. I suspect that’s because I actively avoided them (as opposed to last year). With that said, one writer and two pieces stood out for me this year.
First, the writer. I don’t know of anyone I turned to more this year to get the pulse of the country than the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She doesn’t have a piece on the list because her writing is more ephemeral. In a world where the President is a TV star, it seems appropriate that the most important columnist is someone who has a deep understanding of how the media functions. A few of her pieces that stood out: “Publishing that anonymous New York Times article wasn’t ‘gutless.’ But writing it probably was.”, “It’s high time for media to enter the No Kellyanne Zone — and stay there”, “Don’t forget how the movement that changed Hollywood started: With great reporting”, and “Enough, already, with anything Steve Bannon has to say. We got it the first time.”. She’s who I turned to when I wanted to understand the importance of a moment.
Okay, back to the longform. First up is Jane Mayer’s masterful profile of Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous Trump Dossier. The piece didn’t necessarily break new ground (after all, Buzzfeed had already published the whole thing), but it did paint an interesting picture for the man who wrote it, his credibility, and the accuracy, or lack thereof, that his methods may have led to.
My pick for politics goes to Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine profile of House leader Nancy Pelosi. We’re about to hear A LOT about Pelosi as she battles Trump and the Republicans over the next two years and, for me at least, my knowledge and understanding of her was surface at best. The profile is pretty unvarnished and paints Pelosi as a pure politician who knows how to operate as well or better than anyone out there. I suspect we’re going to see a lot of stereotypical framing of Pelosi because she’s a woman and this felt like a good foundation to build understanding. I thought this bit about how much of her perception, even amongst Democrats I’d argue, has been shaped by the Republicans was particularly interesting:
Still, Pelosi’s foremost liability is the effectiveness of the attacks against her. In 2010, Republicans spent $65 million attacking Pelosi in ads; the Republican National Committee hung a banner from its headquarters that read FIRE PELOSI. The attacks have often borne more than a tinge of sexism; in 2012, when Pelosi, as minority leader, wielded less power than the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, Republicans’ negative television ads were seven times as likely to mention Pelosi as Reid, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. The 2010 onslaught took its toll on Pelosi’s public standing — her favorable rating dropped into the 20s — but otherwise did not faze her. She made clear to her caucus members that they should do whatever it took to win, even if it meant publicly distancing themselves from her. “I don’t know anyone in the world with thicker skin, or anyone about whom more callous things have been said, and she just truly doesn’t care,” a former Pelosi staff member told me. “There’s a small constituency she cares about: her members.”
[“Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018]
I listened to fewer podcasts this year thanks to the introduction of audiobooks into my media diet. With that said, there were a few that stood out. Rather than specific episodes, though, this year my favorites felt more like shows in their entirety. This might be because I explored fewer new podcasts this year or just because there were a few exceptional short series that came out in 2018.
First off is Reply All. As far as week-after-week quality goes, it’s hard to beat these guys. Two (really three) episodes in particular stood our for me:
- “Invcel”: “How a shy, queer Canadian woman accidentally invented one of the internet’s most toxic male communities.”
- “The Crime Machine, Part 1” & “The Crime Machine, Part 2”: “New York City cops are in a fight against their own police department. They say it’s under the control of a broken computer system that punishes cops who refuse to engage in racist, corrupt policing. The story of their fight, and the story of the grouchy idealist who originally built the machine they’re fighting.”
Next up is American Fiasco, Roger Bennet’s ten-part series on the disaster that was America’s 1998 World Cup.
Finally, and my real pick, is Rukmini Callimachi’s ten-part series Caliphate. The podcast follows Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul. It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting with the kinds of twists and turns that we’ve come to expect in great podcasts these days. Again, I can’t say enough about Callimachi’s work this year between Caliphate and The Isis Files.
[Calpihate – April, 2018]
Not This Year
Finally, because I can’t resist, I read a bunch of longform that was amazing and didn’t come out this year. Although it doesn’t officially fit my rules, I’m going to include a few picks as a way to wrap things up.
I already talked about David Grann at length, so I won’t spend too much time introducing the amazing 2008 New Yorker story I reread titled “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery.” It’s insane. Go read it.
I think I read “Promthea Unbound” just after I put together last year’s list otherwise I have to assume it would have made the cut. It’s the extraordinary (sorry, I’m running out of superlatives) story of a child genius and her mom and how they got through life together.
Finally, my pick for “Not This Year” maybe shouldn’t officially even count as longform, but I’m making the rules and I say short stories are allowed. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story by Ursula Le Guin that feels as appropriate today (if not more) than it must have when it was published in 1973. It’s about the costs were willing to take on to live happily. I’ll leave it at that so you can enjoy.
[“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973]
Alright, that’s it, thanks for reading. Here are the picks all wrapped up:
The Full Lists
Articles (in chronological order):
- “Parking for Gold” – Geoff Manaugh – The Atlantic – January 2, 2018
- “The Case for the Subway” – Jonathan Mahler – New York Times Magazine – January 3, 2018
- “Making China Great Again” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – January 8, 2018
- “My Father’s Body, at Rest and in Motion” – Siddhartha Mukherjee – New Yorker – January 8, 2018
- “The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed” – Alexis C. Madrigal – The Atlantic – January 10, 2018
- “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” – Oliver Burkeman – The Guardian – January 16, 2018
- “The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash” – Jia Tolentino – New Yorker – January 24, 2018
- “To Be, or Not to Be” – Masha Gessen – New York Review of Books – Feburary 8, 2018
- “Has Anyone Seen the President?” – Michael Lewis – Bloomberg – February 9, 2018
- “Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook—And The World” – Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein – Wired – February 12, 2018
- “The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018
- “What has really been going on with Markelle Fultz?” – Kyle Neubeck – Philly Voice – February 12, 2018
- “Jerry and Marge Go Large” – Jason Fagone – Highline – February 28, 2018
- “I Got a Story to Tell” – Steve Francis – Player’s Tribune – March 8, 2018
- “Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier” – Jane Mayer – New Yorker – March 12, 2018
- “A $1.6 Billion Spotify Lawsuit Is Based On A Law Made For Player Pianos” – Sarah Jeong – The Verge – March 14, 2018
- “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous” – Peter Brannan – The Atlantic – March 15, 2018
- “Tragically Lost in Joshua Tree’s Wild Interior” – Geoff Manaugh – New York Times Magazine – March 22, 2018
- “When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough” – Allison Gopnik – The Atlantic – April, 2018
- “The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018
- “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018
- “The Young and the Reckless” – Brendan Koerner – Wired – April 17, 2018
- “Whose Story (and Country) Is This?” – Rebecca Solnit – Literary Hub – April 18, 2018
- “How American Racism Influenced Hitler” – Alex Ross – New Yorker – April 30, 2018
- “Bad TV” – Andrea Long Chu – n+1 – Spring, 2018
- “The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code” – Kit Chellel – Bloomberg Businessweek – May 3, 2018
- “The Man Who Cracked the Lottery” – Reid Forgrave – New York Times Magazine – May 3, 2018
- “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” – Ta-Nehesi Coates – May 7, 2018
- “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul” – Jia Tolentino – New Yorker – May 14, 2018
- “How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds” – Nick Paumgarten – New Yorker – May 21, 2018
- “Trump vs. the ‘Deep State'” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – May 21, 2018
- “How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018
- “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It Somebody had to foot the bill for Anna Delvey’s fabulous new life. The city was full of marks.” – Jessica Pressler – New York Magazine – May 28, 2018
- “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account” – Ben Detrick – The Ringer – May 29, 2018
- “The Ultimate Humiliation” – Sarah Nicole Prickett – n+1 – May 30, 2018
- “Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018
- “Stephen A. Smith Won’t Stop Talking” – Vinson Cunningham – New Yorker – June 25, 2018
- “‘It’s nothing like a broken leg’: why I’m done with the mental health conversation” – Hannah Jane Parkinson – The Guardian – June 30, 2018
- “How a Notorious Gangster Was Exposed by His Own Sister” – Patrick Radden Keefe – New Yorker – August 6, 2018
- “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018
- “What Termites Can Teach Us” – Amia Srinivasan – New Yorker – September 17, 2018
- “The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care” – Larissa MacFarquhar – New Yorker – October 8, 2018
- “This Melissa McCarthy Story Just Might (Maybe? Possibly?) Cheer You Up” – Taffy Brodesser-Akner – New York Times Magazine – October 17, 2018
- “What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick?” – Gary Greenberg – New York Times Magazine – November 7, 2018
- “Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018
- “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome” – Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson – New Yorker – November 19, 2018
- “Carmelo Anthony is the last great American ball hog” – Kirk Goldsberry – ESPN – December 6, 2018
Podcasts (in chronological order):
- “The Hollywood Edition” – Slate Money – March 31, 2018
- Calpihate – April, 2018
- “Jason Alexander” – WTF with Marc Maron – April 5, 2018
- “Alison Gopnik on ‘The wrong way to think about parenting, plus the downsides of modernity'” – Rationally Speaking – April 29, 2018
- “Invcel” – Reply All – May 10, 2018
- “Data, Decisions, and Basketball with Sam Hinkie” – Invest Like the Best – May 22, 2018
- American Fiasco – June, 2018
- “Charles Oakley Talks MJ Stories, LeBron, and His Favorite Fights” – The Bill Simmons Podcast – June 8, 2018
- “General Chapman’s Last Stand” – Revisionist History – June 13, 2018
- “The Crime Machine, Part 1” & “The Crime Machine, Part 2” – Reply All – October 11, 2018
- “Negative Mount Pleasant” – Reply All – December 6, 2018
Articles [Not 2018] (in chronological order):
- “The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov – November, 1956
- “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973
- “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 11, 2008
- “The Last Days of Stealhead Joe” – Ian Frazier – Outside – August 21, 2013
- “After decades of defeat, Caltech finds formula for winning in conference” – Chris Ballard – Sports Illustrated – November 23, 2015
- “The Falling Man: An Unforgettable Story” – Tom Junod – September 9, 2016
- “Promethea Unbound” – Mike Mariani – Atavist Magaqzine – October 27, 2017
- “Downward Spiral” – David Roth – The Baffler – December 4, 2017
January 2, 2019 // This post is about: bestlongform, bestof, longform, longreads
It’s been a year since I last updated this site. Appropriately enough, that update was last year’s best articles of the year list. In the interim I’ve written a few things over on Medium, most notably a long piece about the future of marketing. I’ve also been sending out some stuff via a small email list (if you’d like to subscribe, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to add you).
With that said, I’ve been doing plenty of reading and have compiled a pretty extensive list of favorite longform from 2017. To be clear on the format: I’ve broken the list down by a few big themes. My picks are based on my own preferences, meaning it’s not always the best piece of pure writing, but often the things that stayed rattling around in my head the longest. I’ve tried to contextualize things as much as possible (hence the length). This is one of my favorite things to write every year and I hope you enjoy (and let me know what articles I missed).
For those not ready to commit to my 7,000+ words of context, I’ve included all the picks at the bottom in chronological order (obviously I’d prefer you read all the way through).
Finally, in case you somehow get through all 50+ articles linked here and want more to read, here’s my lists from 2005, 2006 (part 1 & part 2), 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2016. Not quite sure what happened in those missing years …
I assume for many of us the year started out the same way: Trying to figure out what happened on November 8, 2016. I read everything I could find to help me wrap my head around Trump and the state of America, I searched for new voices that had insight into what was happening, and I tried to come to my own conclusion about questions like Russia. I kept an Evernote note titled “Trump Theory” where I copied quotes and links to articles that I felt said something genuinely different, interesting, or useful for understanding the moment.
In that search there were a few voices that felt like they separated themselves from the pack: Masha Gessen writing for the New Yorker and the New York Review of books, Maggie Haberman for The New York Times, as well as Adam Gopnik and Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker. Each offered lots of material for that Evernote note in the early days of 2017. Here’s a pick from each from those first three months (except for Haberman, who put together an insane article in December that was too good not to mention):
The question at the front of my mind was why didn’t I (and lots of others) see Trump coming, take him more seriously when I did, and, having missed it, how should I think about him and interpret his actions?
Ta-Nehisi Coates did an admirable job trying to answer those questions in two pieces this year: “We should have seen Trump coming” in the Guardian (September 29, 2017) and “The First White President” in the Atlantic (October, 2017). (A small aside on Coates: If his December Longform interview came out this year, it probably would have been my favorite podcast episode of the year. After listening I went back and read all his Atlantic pieces and his book Between the World and Me, which completely blew me away. Also, just missing the cut from him was his excellent December piece in the Atlantic, “My President was Black”, which was in the January issue, but came out in December of 2016.)
One place lots of people looked for answers was around Russia, trolling, and the overall role of technology in the election and culture. The first of my favorites in this realm came from Jason Tanz at Wired who wrote “In Trump, Tech Finds a Troll it Can’t Ignore” (February 1, 2017) before all the hand-wringing about tech, Trump, and trolls was in full swing. The second was independent, from Dale Beran who wrote “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” (February 14, 2017), which dug deeper into 4chan than anything I read from more mainstream sources. (I also went back and read Adrian Chen’s 2015 New York Times Magazine piece on Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which is definitely worth it.) Finally, just this week I was turned on to Angela Nagle whose book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right came out this year. Nagle wrote a bunch of essays for The Baffler, my favorite of which – “The New Man of 4chan” – came out last year. Two of her 2017 essays that are definitely worth a read are “Goodbye, Pepe” (August 15, 2017) and “A Tragedy of Manners” (September 4, 2017). She’s a voice I’m looking forward to tracking more closely in the coming year.
Then, of course, there were the digs into Trump’s team and associates. My two favorites of this lot were both from the New Yorker: One a profile of Carl Icahn and his on-again-off-again advising of President Trump from Patrick Radden Keefe (August 28, 2017) and the other a long profile of Michael Flynn from Nicholas Schmidle that came out just as Flynn was stepping down (February 27, 2017).
Of everything, though, the pieces that stuck with me the most were the ones that took interesting approaches to answering the same questions I was trying to answer. In this category I’ve got four articles: Rebecca Solnit’s “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” (May 30, 2017), Matt Latimer’s “What if Trump Had Won as a Democrat” (July 8, 2017), Luke Savage’s “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” (June 7, 2017), and Kelefa Saneh’s “Intellectuals for Trump” (January 9, 2017). The Saneh piece particularly stuck with me as it poses the question of how one would outline a Trump doctrine.
In the end my favorite Trump piece is probably “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” from Current Affairs Magazine. Partly because I like the article, and partly because Current Affairs represents a triumph in my search for new voices. At the beginning of the year I was madly searching for commentary on the left that wasn’t Pod Save America and its ilk (I just couldn’t do it after the collective October victory lap). My search yielded a bunch of stuff that was new to me but ultimately didn’t feel quite right for one reason or another. I started listening to Chapo Trap House (interesting, but way too bro-y), I tried Jacobin Magazine (good, but too socialist), and I got a subscription to n+1 (excellent, but too academic for a regular read). I also started reading Current Affairs, a magazine started in 2015 by Nathan Robinson, who was then a PHD student in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard. Of everything new I discovered it felt most right to me: It was left of the left, but not so far left that I couldn’t see how the ideas could be implemented. It was also funny, which helped. I’m not sure the West Wing article is the best piece of writing I found in Current Affairs in 2017 (I’m guessing it’s not), but it felt like it perfectly nailed a feeling about the current state of liberalism, turned the focus from Russia and external influences to the left’s role, and ultimately burrowed an idea in my brain that I couldn’t extract. Here’s one of many bits that stuck:
It’s a smugness born of the view that politics is less a terrain of clashing values and interests than a perpetual pitting of the clever against the ignorant and obtuse. The clever wield facts and reason, while the foolish cling to effortlessly-exposed fictions and the braying prejudices of provincial rubes. In emphasizing intelligence over ideology, what follows is a fetishization of “elevated discourse” regardless of its actual outcomes or conclusions. The greatest political victories involve semantically dismantling an opponent’s argument or exposing its hypocrisy, usually by way of some grand rhetorical gesture. Categories like left and right become less significant, provided that the competing interlocutors are deemed respectably smart and practice the designated etiquette. The Discourse becomes a category of its own, to be protected and nourished by Serious People conversing respectfully while shutting down the stupid with heavy-handed moral sanctimony.
(For the record, I liked the West Wing, a lot. But I also can very much see how it helped to shape an idea about how politics works – or should work – that is far from the reality of what happens in Washington.)
[“How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” – Luke Savage – Current Affairs – June 7, 2017]
Phew, glad we got Trump and politics (mostly) out of the way. I promise not every section of this is going to be that long. I’ve only got four articles in the tech category and none are about fake news, Uber, or Amazon. Before my pick, here are a few of my favorites that didn’t make the final cut:
Tim Harford had an excellent piece that ran in the Financial Times titled “What We Get Wrong About Technology” (July 8, 2017). Harford is one of my favorite writers and thinkers and he was covering one of my favorite subjects: How to understand the future of technology.
Sarah Jeong at The Verge had a fun piece on the techno-literate judge presiding over some of the biggest technology lawsuits in the world (October 19, 2017). (I also read an amazing article from 2016 by Kyle Chayka at The Verge on what he calls “airspace”, the modern aesthetic that is spreading like a virus thanks to Airbnb and the like. I wrote a short take on the airspace trend at the beginning of December: “Santa Claus, Airspace, & The Modern Aesthetic”.)
James Somers told the story of Google’s audacious attempt to digitize and make available all the world’s books in “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria” (April 20, 2017), which includes wonderful little details like this:
The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.
In the end, though, my favorite article about technology was a profile of Claude Shannon by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni for Aeon (August 30, 2017). The piece dives into Shannon’s history and the invention of information theory, which still plays an incredibly important role in computing today. The article is well-told, covers a fascinating subject (both the person and his studies), and manages to explain very complex ideas simply (one of my favorite things). Here’s an excerpt:
Shannon’s ‘mathematical theory’ sets out two big ideas. The first is that information is probabilistic. We should begin by grasping that information is a measure of the uncertainty we overcome, Shannon said – which we might also call surprise. What determines this uncertainty is not just the size of the symbol vocabulary, as Nyquist and Hartley thought. It’s also about the odds that any given symbol will be chosen. Take the example of a coin-toss, the simplest thing Shannon could come up with as a ‘source’ of information. A fair coin carries two choices with equal odds; we could say that such a coin, or any ‘device with two stable positions’, stores one binary digit of information. Or, using an abbreviation suggested by one of Shannon’s co-workers, we could say that it stores one bit.
[“The Bit Bomb: It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return” – Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni – Aeon – August 30, 2017]
I did a fair amount of reading on AI this year, though I don’t know that much of it actually came from 2017. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s experiments with using a character-based recurrent neural network to generate sci-fi text, I spent some time playing with machine learning myself (I generated some pretty realistic sounding McLuhan for what it’s worth). One piece I ran into that stood out is Andrej Karpathy’s 2015 essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Recurrent Neural Networks”, which offers a good place to start on the specifics of recurrent neural networks and how they work.
But it wasn’t an article that made me think the most about AI in 2017, it was a game. Specifically, a game about paperclips.
Frank Lantz’s Universal Paperclip (iOS version) is an amazing exploration of the role of technology as told through a simple clicker game. The game is based on a thought experiment from AI philosopher Nick Bostrom (explanation via The Economist):
Imagine an artificial intelligence, [Bostrom] says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”. This apparently silly scenario is intended to make the serious point that AIs need not have human-like motives or psyches. They might be able to avoid some kinds of human error or bias while making other kinds of mistake, such as fixating on paperclips. And although their goals might seem innocuous to start with, they could prove dangerous if AIs were able to design their own successors and thus repeatedly improve themselves. Even a “fettered superintelligence”, running on an isolated computer, might persuade its human handlers to set it free. Advanced AI is not just another technology, Mr Bostrom argues, but poses an existential threat to humanity.
Universal Paperclips goes beyond imagining it and puts you in the drivers seat as the paperclip maximizer. It’s amazing, and interesting, and teaches you a lot about how the world works (one tiny non-spoiler-spoiler: all companies eventually become finance companies). As John Brindle explains in his excellent writeup (December 6, 2017) of the game:
When we play a game like Universal Paperclips, we do become something like its AI protagonist. We make ourselves blind to most of the world so we can focus on one tiny corner of it. We take pleasure in exercising control, marshalling our resources towards maximum efficiency in the pursuit of one single goal. We appropriate whatever we can as fuel for that mission: food, energy, emotional resources, time. And we don’t always notice when our goal drifts away from what we really want.
All of this sounds pretty highfalutin for a game about paperclips, but somehow it makes sense when you play.
[Universal Paperlips (iOS Version) – Frank Lantz – October 9, 2017]
If there were three or four big stories in 2017, one of them was definitely opioids. There were a ton of worthwhile pieces on the subject this year, but two stood out for me: A story about the family behind oxycontin and another about how a community in West Virginia, one of the hardest hit states, is fighting to save the lives of those addicted.
Patrick Radden Keefe’s “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” (October 30, 2017) tells the anger-inducing story of the Sackler family and their knowing exploitation of people’s addiction to their company’s drug, OxyContin. See if this makes you sick:
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Quinones’s investigation is the similarities he finds between the tactics of the unassuming, business-minded Mexican heroin peddlers, the so-called Xalisco boys, and the slick corporate sales force of Purdue. When the Xalisco boys arrived in a new town, they identified their market by seeking out the local methadone clinic. Purdue, using I.M.S. data, similarly targeted populations that were susceptible to its product. Mitchel Denham, the Kentucky lawyer, told me that Purdue pinpointed “communities where there is a lot of poverty and a lack of education and opportunity,” adding, “They were looking at numbers that showed these people have work-related injuries, they go to the doctor more often, they get treatment for pain.” The Xalisco boys offered potential customers free samples of their product. So did Purdue. When it first introduced OxyContin, the company created a program that encouraged doctors to issue coupons for a free initial prescription. By the time Purdue discontinued the program, four years later, thirty-four thousand coupons had been redeemed.
The other shows the depth to which OxyContin, and the opioid addiction it brought with it, has devastated a place like West Virginia. In “The Addicts Next Door” (June 5, 2017), Margaret Talbot lays out the tragic tale of Berkeley County as a view into what’s happening throughout the rest of the state; “West Virginia has an overdose death rate of 41.5 per hundred thousand people. (New Hampshire has the second-highest rate: 34.3 per hundred thousand.) This year, for the sixth straight year, West Virginia’s indigent burial fund, which helps families who can’t afford a funeral pay for one, ran out of money.”
She describes the damage to West Virginia’s children – “One of the biggest collateral effects of the opioid crisis is the growing number of children being raised by people other than their parents, or being placed in foster care. In West Virginia, the number of children removed from parental care because of drug abuse rose from nine hundred and seventy in 2006 to two thousand one hundred and seventy-one in 2016.” – and how some doctors are teaching regular citizens to use Narcan, a drug that can immediately counteract the effects of an overdose: “[Dr.] Aldis taught his first class on administering Narcan on September 3, 2015, at the New Life Clinic. Nine days later, a woman who’d attended the class used Narcan to revive a pregnant woman who had overdosed at a motel where they were both staying. During the next few weeks, Aldis heard of five more lives saved by people who’d attended the class.”
I know there were many other portraits like this throughout the year, but this is the one I found most affecting.
[“The Addicts Next Door” – Margaret Talbot – New Yorker – June 5, 2017]
Podcasts were a new addition to the list last year. Like many of you, I’m sure, I spend much of my commuting and dog-walking time listening to them. Much of my listening is pretty mindless sports stuff (I’m a big fan of tuning out to the NBA banality of Dunc’d on Basketball), but there’s plenty of really amazing writing, reporting, and interviewing in the 20 or so podcasts that I subscribe to and try to listen regularly.
With that said, a few weeks ago I realized that I didn’t have a good list of favorites and sent out a call on Twitter and Facebook asking for recommendations. What came back was amazing and a bunch of episodes that ended up in my own favorites came from those suggestions. Here’s a few picks:
- Say what you will about Malcolm Gladwell, but the guy knows how to tell a story. Season 2 of his Revisionist History podcast was excellent and included two stand-out episodes for me: “A Good Walk Spoiled” (June 15, 2017) tells the story of how golf courses exploit tax loopholes to create giant private parks and “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” (August 10, 2017) tells the story of why Micky D’s changed the oil they use for their french fries.
- When I sent my podcast request out, Felix Salmon insisted I listen to Switched on Pop’s episode about Selena Gomez’s Bad Liar (July 14, 2017) which was amazingly (shockingly?) fascinating. There’s a lot more to that song than you ever imagined.
- Uncivil, a new Civil War podcast from Gimlet, offers the untold stories of race and the War. The show opened with an amazing episode, “The Raid” (October 4, 2017), telling the story of a covert operation you never learned about in your US History class.
- Last, but not least, was More Perfect’s “The Gun Show” (October 12, 2017), which explains just how recently we came to interpret the Second Amendment in the way we do today. Here’s a little taste from the description: “For nearly 200 years of our nation’s history, the Second Amendment was an all-but-forgotten rule about the importance of militias. But in the 1960s and 70s, a movement emerged — led by Black Panthers and a recently-repositioned NRA — that insisted owning a firearm was the right of each and every American. So began a constitutional debate that only the Supreme Court could solve. That didn’t happen until 2008, when a Washington, D.C. security guard named Dick Heller made a compelling case.”
I know I’m pretty light here. Still making it through a bunch of recommendations. But that last episode, “The Gun Show”, is an angle on the gun debate I had never heard before and definitely stood out to me as the best I heard this year.
[“The Gun Show” – Radiolab Presents More Perfect – October 12, 2017]
It’s pretty sad that this year requires a special category for the best article about the increased possibility of nuclear annihilation … but that’s where we’re at. I read two pieces that pretty clearly separated themselves from the competition in this regard. The first was Evan Osnos’s amazing (and very long, even for this list) piece “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” (September 18, 2017). This pretty well sums up the vibe of the story (and situation):
Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.
The second piece, which was my favorite of the bunch, came from Michael Lewis with his Vanity Fair deep dive into the Department of Energy, “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” (September, 2017). The details are astonishing and describe the governmental organization responsible for our nuclear capabilities as in complete disarray. This bit, about why you don’t want people who dreamed of working on nuclear weapons actually working on nuclear weapons, stuck with me the most:
The Trump people didn’t seem to grasp, according to a former D.O.E. employee, how much more than just energy the Department of Energy was about. They weren’t totally oblivious to the nuclear arsenal, but even the nuclear arsenal didn’t provoke in them much curiosity. “They were just looking for dirt, basically,” said one of the people who briefed the Beachhead Team on national-security issues. “ ‘What is the Obama administration not letting you do to keep the country safe?’ ” The briefers were at pains to explain an especially sensitive aspect of national security: the United States no longer tests its nuclear weapons. Instead, it relies on physicists at three of the national labs—Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia—to simulate explosions, using old and decaying nuclear materials.
This is not a trivial exercise, and to do it we rely entirely on scientists who go to work at the national labs because the national labs are exciting places to work. They then wind up getting interested in the weapons program. That is, because maintaining the nuclear arsenal was just a by-product of the world’s biggest science project, which also did things like investigating the origins of the universe. “Our weapons scientists didn’t start out as weapons scientists,” says Madelyn Creedon, who was second-in-command of the nuclear-weapons wing of the D.O.E., and who briefed the incoming administration, briefly. “They didn’t understand that. The one question they asked was ‘Wouldn’t you want the guy who grew up wanting to be a weapons scientist?’ Well, actually, no.”
[“Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” – Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair – September, 2017]
Race, Gender, and Sexuality
(Quick note: I’ve separated this section from #MeToo as best as I can, though obviously there’s a lot of overlaps in the themes.)
In April, Rahawa Haile wrote “Going it Alone” (April 11, 2017), which describes her experience hiking the Appalachian trail during a moment of political chaos as a queer black woman. Here’s an excerpt:
The rule is you don’t talk about politics on the trail. The truth is you can’t talk about diversity in the outdoors without talking about politics, since politics is a big reason why the outdoors look the way they do. From the park system’s inception, Jim Crow laws and Native American removal campaigns limited access to recreation by race. From the mountains to the beaches, outdoor leisure was often accompanied by the words whites only. The repercussions for disobedience were grave.
In May, Ian Parker wrote “What Makes a Parent” (May 22, 2017) for the New Yorker, the story of a custody battle for an adopted son between a lesbian couple. The question at the heart of the case is what is a parent:
New York’s statutes describe the obligations and entitlements of a parent, but they don’t define what a parent is. That definition derives from case law. In 1991, in a ruling in Alison D. v. Virginia M., a case involving an estranged lesbian couple and a child, the Court of Appeals opted for a definition with “bright line” clarity. A parent was either a biological parent or an adoptive parent; there were no other kinds. Lawyers in this field warn of “opening the floodgates”—an uncontrolled flow of dubious, would-be parents. Alison D. kept the gates shut, so that a biological mother wouldn’t find, say, that she had accidentally given away partial custody of her child to a worthless ex-boyfriend. But many saw the decision as discriminatory against same-sex couples, who can choose to raise a child together but can’t share the act of producing one. Judge Judith Kaye, in a dissent that has since been celebrated, noted that millions of American children had been born into families with a gay or lesbian parent; the court’s decision would restrict the ability of these children to “maintain bonds that may be crucial to their development.”
In July, Masha Gessen wrote “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” (July 3, 2017) for the New Yorker. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking story at every moment.
In August, Jay Caspian Kang wrote about the hazing death of Michael Deng at the hands of an Asian-American fraternity in “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” (August 9, 2017). As the title suggests, Kang turns it into something even bigger than the tragic story of another fraternity hazing death:
“Asian-American” is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.
In December, Wesley Morris (who wrote one of my favorites from last year, “Last Taboo”) profiled the director of this year’s breakout movie Get Out in “Jordan Peele’s X-Ray Vision” (December 20, 2017). I’m sure there’s a bit of recency bias with this pick, but I finally got around to watching Get Out this month and, despite my assumption it could never live up to all the hype, it was so interesting and weird that it definitely reached the bar. Then I read this article and Morris writes about race as well as anyone out there and Peele made a movie that tackles questions of race as interestingly as any in recent memory and when you put the two of them together you get stuff like this:
Peele had been talking about the restricted ways bigotry is discussed. “We’re never going to fix this problem of racism if the idea is you have to be in a K.K.K. hood to be part of the problem,” he said. The culture still tends to think of American racism as a disease of the Confederacy rather than as a national pastime with particular regional traditions, like barbecue. “Get Out” is set in the Northeast, where the racial attitude veers toward self-congratulatory tolerance. Mr. Armitage, for instance, gets chummy with Chris by telling him he’d have voted for Obama a third time. “Get Out” would have made one kind of sense under a post-Obama Hillary Clinton administration, slapping at the smugness of American liberals still singing: “Ding dong, race is dead.” Peele shows that other, more backhanded forms of racism exist — the presumptuous “can I touch your hair” icebreaker, Mr. Armitage’s “I voted for Obama, so I can’t be racist” sleeper hold are just two. But Clinton lost. Now the movie seems to amplify the racism that emanates from the Trump White House and smolders around the country.
As with all the other categories, each of these are deserving of a choice (and in the end I’m writing about them all because I think they’re all very worth reading), but I think if I had to pick one I’d go with Kang’s piece about a hazing death at an Asian-American fraternity. It tells a familiar story from a different perspective and draws a spectrum in a space we normally see as singular.
[“What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” – Jay Caspian Kang – August 9, 2017 – New York Times Magazine]
Outside of Trump (and depending on whether you include Russia part of the Trump story or not), this was the biggest news of the year. Time named their Person of the Year “The Silence Breakers” (December 18, 2017), the women who came forward throughout 2017 to name their abusers. Here’s how Time editor Edward Felsenthal explained the choice:
The year, at its outset, did not seem to be a particularly auspicious one for women. A man who had bragged on tape about sexual assault took the oath of the highest office in the land, having defeated the first woman of either party to be nominated for that office, as she sat beside a former President with his own troubling history of sexual misconduct. While polls from the 2016 campaign revealed the predictable divisions in American society, large majorities—including women who supported Donald Trump—said Trump had little respect for women. “I remember feeling powerless,” says Fowler, the former Uber engineer who called out the company’s toxic culture, “like even the government wasn’t looking out for us.”
Nor did 2017 appear to be especially promising for journalists, who—alongside the ongoing financial upheaval in the media business—feared a fallout from the President’s cries of “fake news” and verbal attacks on reporters. And yet it was a year of phenomenal reporting. Determined journalists—including Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Ronan Farrow, Brett Anderson, Oliver Darcy, and Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain, among many others—picked up where so many human-resources departments, government committees and district attorneys had clearly failed, proving the truth of rumors that had circulated across whisper networks for years.
While the reporting was clearly amazing (it’s worth reading or re-reading all the articles mentioned by Felsenthal), two essays on the movement, where it came from, and what it means stood out for me. The first, from November by Claire Dederer in the Paris Review, asks “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” (November 20, 2017).
The second, which I just read this week, opened the Winter issue of n+1 magaizine. “In The Maze” (December, 2018) by Dayna Tortorici covers #MeToo, but also finds a string that goes back before 2017’s women came forward, to a general shift that has left some white men to feel like victims. She makes a compelling case that #MeToo is part of a much broader change happening in the United States and was a big component of the resentment that fueled Trump’s rise over the last few years. It ties together the themes of 2017 as well as anything I read this year:
Must history have losers? The record suggests yes. Redistribution is a tricky business. Even simple metaphors for making the world more equitable — leveling a playing field, shifting the balance — can correspond to complex or labor-intensive processes. What freedoms might one have to surrender in order for others to be free? And how to figure it when those freedoms are not symmetrical? A little more power for you might mean a lot less power for me in practice, an exchange that will not feel fair in the short term even if it is in the long term. There is a reason, presumably, that we call it an ethical calculus and not an ethical algebra.
Some things are zero sum — perhaps more things than one cares to admit. To say that feminism is good for boys, that diversity makes a stronger team, or that collective liberation promises a greater, deeper freedom than the individual freedoms we know is comforting and true enough. But just as true, and significantly less consoling, is the guarantee that some will find the world less comfortable in the process of making it habitable for others. It would be easier to give up some privileges if it weren’t so traumatic to lose, as it is in our ruthlessly competitive and frequently undemocratic country. Changing the rules of the game might begin with revising what it means to win. I once heard a story about a friend who’d said, offhand at a book group, that he’d throw women under the bus if it meant achieving social democracy in the United States. The story was meant to be chilling — this from a friend? — but it made me laugh. As if you could do it without us, I thought, we who do all the work on the group project. I wondered what his idea of social democracy was.
[“In The Maze” – Dayna Tortorici – n+1 – December, 2017]
What’s left defies categorization or fell into a category of one. There’s an article about the Pope from October – “The War Against Pope Francis” (October 27, 2017) – and two from the world of sports: The terrible story of a Brazilian football team whose plane crashed – “Eternal Champions” (June 8, 2017) – and Dion Waiter’s delightful open letter to the rest of the NBA titled, appropriately, “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles” (April 25, 2017).
There was an excellent profile of the author, journalist, and writing teacher John McPhee from The New York Times Magazine – “The Mind of John McPhee” (September 28, 2017) – which got me obsessed with McPhee and his process and led me to read his new book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. There was also Longread’s excerpt from the book The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road titled “A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick” (June, 2017), which is the only article on this whole list that will leave you with a cheatsheet for trucker slang:
There’s a strict hierarchy of drivers, depending on what they haul and how they’re paid. The most common are the freighthaulers. They’re the guys who pull box trailers with any kind of commodity inside. We movers are called bedbuggers, and our trucks are called roach coaches. Other specialties are the car haulers (parking lot attendants), flatbedders (skateboarders), animal transporters (chicken chokers), refrigerated food haulers (reefers), chemical haulers (thermos bottle holders), and hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys). Bedbuggers are shunned by other truckers. We will generally not be included in conversations around the truckstop coffee counter or in the driver’s lounge. In fact, I pointedly avoid coffee counters, when there is one, mainly because I don’t have time to waste, but also because I don’t buy into the trucker myth that most drivers espouse. I don’t wear a cowboy hat, Tony Lama snakeskin boots, or a belt buckle doing free advertising for Peterbilt or Harley-Davidson. My driving uniform is a three-button company polo shirt, lightweight black cotton pants, black sneakers, black socks, and a cloth belt. My moving uniform is a black cotton jumpsuit.
There were two very different pieces from the Guardian. The first, “‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” (March 17, 2017), laid out in amazing detail what will happen when Queen Elizabeth dies. The second, “Why we fell for clean eating” (August 11, 2017), goes deep into the weeds of the clean eating craze and just how crazy much of it is. It also includes what may be the most transferable sentence of 2017: “But it quickly became clear that ‘clean eating’ was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure.” Replace the words “clean eating” and “diet” and you have a pretty good descriptor for everything that seems to be happening around us right now.
But in the end, my very favorite of this category came from the article very hardest to categorize: Kathryn Schulz’s “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” (November 6, 2017). I’m still not sure I can do this justice, but the basic premise is that our ability to rank the “realness” of imaginary beings like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or ghosts, is a critical part of our humanity. I love this article partly because I can’t imagine pitching it to a New Yorker editor, partly because it was a nice break from the onslaught of 2017, and partly because it was just super interesting.
Patterns of evidence, a grasp of biology, theories of physics: as it turns out, we need all of these to account for our intuitions about supernatural beings, just as we need all of them to explain any other complex cultural phenomenon, from a tennis match to a bar fight to a bluegrass band. That might seem like a lot of intellectual firepower for parsing the distinctions between fairies and mermaids, but the ability to think about nonexistent things isn’t just handy for playing parlor games on Halloween. It is utterly fundamental to who we are. Studying that ability helps us learn about ourselves; exercising it helps us learn about the world. A three-year-old talking about an imaginary friend can illuminate the workings of the human mind. A thirty-year-old conducting a thought experiment about twins, one of whom is launched into space at birth and one of whom remains behind, can illuminate the workings of the universe. As for those of us who are no longer toddlers and will never be Einstein: we use our ability to think about things that aren’t real all the time, in ways both everyday and momentous. It is what we are doing when we watch movies, write novels, weigh two different job offers, consider whether to have children.
Since there’s a lot here, I’ve got two choices:
[“Why we fell for clean eating” – Bee Wilson – The Guardian – August 11, 2017]
[“Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” – Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – November 6, 2017]
That’s it. Here’s my ten favorites in chronological order (you might sense a bit of recency bias here, which I’m not sure how to fix):
- “The Addicts Next Door” – Margaret Talbot – New Yorker – June 5, 2017
- “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” – Luke Savage – Current Affairs – June 7, 2017
- “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” – Jay Caspian Kang – August 9, 2017 – New York Times Magazine
- “Why we fell for clean eating” – Bee Wilson – The Guardian – August 11, 2017
- “The Bit Bomb: It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return” – Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni – Aeon – August 30, 2017
- “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” – Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair – September, 2017
- Universal Paperlips (iOS Version) – Frank Lantz – October 9, 2017
- “The Gun Show” – Radiolab Presents More Perfect – October 12, 2017
- “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” – Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – November 6, 2017
- “In The Maze” – Dayna Tortorici – n+1 – December, 2017
And here are all 47 favorites from 2017 in chronological order:
- “Intellectuals for Trump” – Kalefa Sanneh – New Yorker – January 9, 2017
- “In Trump, Tech Finds a Troll it Can’t Ignore” – Jason Tanz – Wired – February 1, 2017
- “Trump’s Radical Anti-Americanism” – Adam Gopnik – New Yorker – February 13, 2017
- “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” – Dale Beran – Medium – February 14, 2017
- Michael Flynn, General Chaos – Nicholas Schmidle – New Yorker – February 27, 2017
- “The Bind of Historically Black Schools in the Age of Trump” – Jelani Cobb – New Yorker – March 4, 2017
- “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap” – Masha Gessen – March 6, 2017 – New York Review of Books
- “‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” – Sam Knight – The Guardian – March 17, 2017
- “Going it Alone” – Rahawa Haile – Outside – April 11, 2017
- “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria” – James Somers – The Atlantic – April 20, 2017
- “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles” – Dion Waiters – The Player’s Tribune – April 25, 2017
- “What Makes a Parent” – Ian Parker – New Yorker – May 22, 2017
- “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” – Rebecca Sonit – Literary Hub – May 30, 2017
- “A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick” – Finn Murphy – Longreads – June, 2017
- “The Addicts Next Door” – Margaret Talbot – New Yorker – June 5, 2017
- “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” – Luke Savage – Current Affairs – June 7, 2017
- “Eternal Champions” – Sam Borden – ESPN FC – June 8, 2017
- “A Good Walk Spoiled” – Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History – June 15, 2017
- “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” – Masha Gessen – New Yorker – July 3, 2017
- “What if Trump Had Won as a Democrat” – Matt Latimer – Politico – July 8, 2017
- “What We Get Wrong About Technology” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – July 8, 2017
- Selena Gomez: Bad Liar, Psycho Songwriter – Switched on Pop – July 14, 2017
- “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” – Jay Caspian Kang – New York Times Magazine – August 9, 2017
- “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” – Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History – August 10, 2017
- “Why we fell for clean eating” – Bee Wilson – The Guardian – August 11, 2017
- “Goodbye, Pepe” – Angela Nagle – The Baffler – August 15, 2017
- Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington – Patrick Radden Keefe – August 28, 2017
- “The Bit Bomb: It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return” – Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni – Aeon – August 30, 2017
- “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” – Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair – September, 2017
- “A Tragedy of Manners” – Angela Nagle – The Baffler – September 4, 2017
- “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – September 18, 2017
- “The Mind of John McPhee” – Sam Anderson – New York Times Magazine – September 28, 2017
- “We should have seen Trump coming” Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Guardian – September 29, 2017
- “The First White President” – Ta-Nehisi Coates – Atlantic – October, 2017
- “The Raid” – Uncivil – October 4, 2017
- Universal Paperclip (iOS Version) – Frank Lantz – October 9, 2017
- “The Gun Show” – Radiolab Presents More Perfect – October 12, 2017
- The Judge’s Code – Sarah Jeong – October 19, 2017
- “The War Against Pope Francis” – Andrew Brown – The Guardian – October 27, 2017
- “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” – Patrick Radden Keefe – New Yorker – October 30, 2017
- “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – November 6, 2017
- “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” – Claire Dederer – The Paris Review – November 20, 2017
- “In The Maze” – Dayna Tortorici – n+1 – December, 2018
- This Game About Paperclips Says A Lot About Human Desire – John Brindle – Waypoint – December 6, 2017
- “Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation” – Maggie Haberman – New York Times – December 9, 2017
- “The Silence Breakers” – Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards – Time – December 18, 2017
- “Jordan Peele’s X-Ray Vision” – Wesley Morris – New York Times Magazine – December 20, 2017
January 1, 2018 // This post is about: bestlongform, bestof
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.)
[The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence Part 1 & Part 2 – Tim Urban – Wait But Why – January 22, 2015]
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).
[Are We There Yet? – This American Life – July 29, 2016] [Arthur Kroeber vs. The Conventional Wisdom – Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn – Sinica – June, 2016]
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]
January 1, 2017 // This post is about: bestlongform, bestof, longform, longreads
Did a quick dig through my Instapaper favorites (which also have their own Twitter account, by the way) and picked out a few of my favorite reads from last year. Many were written in 2015, but a few were just read by me for the first time last year. So, without any further ado and not in any particular order, a few of my favorites:
- I find snooker oddly satisfying to watch. Every time I’m in the UK and can’t sleep at 3am on the first night I seem to find it on TV and get entranced. Not sure what it is and can’t seem to get excited the same way about pool on TV here in the US. I tried to play once in Ireland with a friend and I was absolutely terrible. The table is about 6 miles long and the cue seems to be about 1/16th of an inch. All of that is just a long preamble to say that I really enjoyed this profile of snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan from the New Yorker. (Two asides here: First, if you’re interested here’s a bunch of YouTube videos of people having perfect snookers games and second, I just ran across this profile of a darts champion Phil Taylor, which while obviously not the same as snooker, seems like a cousin.)
- I’ve always wondered about the East India Company, but have never really dug in much (mostly because I’m intimidated by the size of the books on the subject). As a result, this little Guardian primer was a great introduction into one of the craziest corporations in history.
- In the tweets I broke these up, but I’ll file this all here under marketing writing. My favorite marketing writing of last year (and probably favorite marketing writer as well) was from Martin Weigel and was titled “Marketing Crack: Kicking the Habit”. I actually enjoyed it so much I asked Martin to come speak at Percolate’s Transition conference in September (where he did an edited version of the talk). While not an article, my favorite marketing book of the year (and maybe of ever) was How Brands Grow (which I talked about to whomever would listen — sorry about that). If you’re not sure you’re ready to dive in and read it, the FT had a great writeup that built on many of the ideas (though so does Martin’s “Marketing Crack” piece as well as this one from 2010). Oh, and I haven’t read it yet, but there’s an update to How Brands Grow out now that’s on my must read list.
- Silk Road has all the components to be a movie you’d never believe. There’s “the dark web” (which movies and TV shows now all seem to love to reference), faked murder scenes, and lots of drugs being delivered by UPS. This two parter from Wired did a fine job telling the whole story (which, if you don’t feel like reading the 20-something-thousand words you could probably wait for a movie version of).
- Okay, now for some basketball stuff, which I continued my obsession with. First, a look at how shot arc effects free throw shooting. Second, an oral history of the greatest dunk of all time: Vince Carter’s insane leap over French center Frederic Weis in the Olympics (to be honest, the article isn’t even that good, it’s just so fun to relive and reread about this thing). Third, though not from 2015, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this look at how the Houston Rockets are experimenting with their NBA D-League team.
- Following on the sports theme, I’m not sure what it is about tennis that lends itself to great writing, but this Serena Williams profile from the New York Times was really amazing (as is my all-time favorite piece of sports writing: David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer).
- Now for a New Yorker trio that have nothing to do with each other: First, a profile of Ken Dornstein, whose brother died in the Lockerbie bombing (he is also the author of the excellent book about his search for answers The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky). Second, a crazy story of a college couple who murdered their parents. Finally, a profile of Judy Clarke who defends the worst-of-the-worst in court, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
- Now a quick trip back to the Eighties for these two: First, it’s Steven Levy on the possibly effects of the introduction of the spreadsheet (1984) and second, Peter Drucker on the organization of the future (1988). Both are pretty spot on.
- This one’s a little different, but I really enjoyed this short Upshot piece on the two views of the economy. The challenge with writing about the economy is that while the factors that may drive it are simple, the outcome is incredibly complex. While this piece didn’t blow me away or teach me something new, I thought the debate between himself was a clever way to present a nuanced story.
- Finally, and purely for fun, The Good Bagel Manifesto is full of bagel snobbery like this (which I appreciate): “Having tasted bagels around the country and around the world, I understand why toasting is the default for most bagel shops: It’s because most bagel shops don’t serve good bagels. If there is one Golden Rule for good bagels, it is this: A Good Bagel Shall Not Require Toasting. All Else Follows.” (Emphasis theirs.)
There was lots else, but this was a few quick picks from my list. Hope you all had an excellent 2015 and I wish you an even better 2016.
January 1, 2016 // This post is about: 2015, bestlongform, bestof, instapaper, longreads
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