Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Top Longform of 2012

Last year I listed out my five favorite pieces of longform writing and it seemed to go over pretty well, so I figured I’d do the same again this year. It was harder to compile the list this year, as my reading took me outside just Instapaper (especially to the fantastic Longform app for iPad), but I’ve done my best to pull these together based on what I most enjoyed/found most interesting/struck me the most.

One additional note before I start my list: To make this process slightly more simple next year I’ve decided to start a Twitter feed that pulls from my Instapaper and Readability favorites. You can find it at @HeyItsInstafavs. Okay, onto the list.

  1. The Yankee Comandante (New Yorker): Last year David Grann took my top spot with A Murder Foretold and this year he again takes it with an incredible piece on William Morgan, an American soldier in the Cuban revolution. The article was impressive enough that George Clooney bought up the rights and is apparently planning to direct a film about the story. The thing about David Grann is that beyond being an incredible reporter and storyteller, he’s also just an amazing writer. I’m not really a reader who sits there and examines sentences, I read for story and ideas. But a few sentences, and even paragraphs, in this piece made me take notice. While we’re on David Grann, I also read his excellent book of essays this year (most of which come from the New Yorker), The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. He is, without a doubt, my favorite non-fiction writer working right now.
  2. Raise the Crime Rate (n+1): This article couldn’t be more different than the first. Rather than narrative non-fiction, this is an interesting, and well-presented, arguments towards abolishing the prison system. The basic thesis of the piece is that we’ve made a terrible ethical decision in the US to offload crime from our cities to our prisions, where we let people get raped and stabbed with little-to-no recourse. The solution presented is to abolish the prison system (while also increasing capital punishment). Rare is an article that you don’t necessarily agree with, but walk away talking and thinking about. That’s why this piece made my list. I read it again last week and still don’t know where I stand, but I know it’s worthy of reading and thinking about. (While I was trying to get through my Instapaper backlog I also came across this Atul Gawande piece from 2009 on solitary confinement and its effects on humans.)
  3. Open Your Mouth & You’re Dead (Outside): A look at the totally insane “sport” of freediving, where athletes swim hundreds of feet underwater on a single breath (and often come back to the surface passed out). This is scary and crazy and exciting and that’s reason enough to read something, right?
  4. Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up (New York Times): I’ve been meaning to write about this but haven’t had a chance yet. Last year HBO had this amazing special called Talking Funny in which Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld sit around and chat about what it’s like to be the four funniest men in the world. The format was amazing: Take the four people who are at the top of their profession and see what happens. But what was especially interesting, to me at least, was the deference the other three showed to Seinfeld. I knew he was accomplished, but I didn’t know that he commanded the sort of respect amongst his peers that he does. Well, this Times article expands on that special and explains what makes Seinfeld such a unique comedian and such a careful crafter of jokes. (For more Seinfeld stuff make sure to check out his new online video series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is just that.)
  5. The Malice at the Palace (Grantland): I would say as a publication Grantland outperformed just about every other site on the web this year and so this pick is part acknowledgement of that and part praise for a pretty amazing piece of reporting (I guess you could call an oral history that, right?). Anyway, this particular oral history is about the giant fight that broke out in Detroit at a Pacers v. Pistons game that spilled into a fight between the Pistons and the Detroit fans. It was an ugly mark for basketball and an incredibly memorable (and insane) TV event. As a sort of aside on this, I’ve been casually reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and in it he obviously talks about this game/fight. In fact, he calls it one of his six biggest TV moments, which he judges using the following criteria: “How you know an event qualifies: Will you always remember where you watched it? (Check.) Did you know history was being made? (Check.) Would you have fought anyone who tried to change the channel? (Check.) Did your head start to ache after a while? (Check.) Did your stomach feel funny? (Check.) Did you end up watching about four hours too long? (Check.) Were there a few ‘can you believe this’–type phone calls along the way? (Check.) Did you say ‘I can’t believe this’ at least fifty times?” I agree with that.

And, like last year, there are a few that were great but didn’t make the cut. Here’s two more:

  • Snow Fall (New York Times): Everyone is going crazy about this because of the crazy multimedia experience that went along with it, but I actually bought the Kindle single and read it in plain old black and white and it was still pretty amazing. Also, John Branch deserves to be on this list because he wrote something that would have made my list last year had it not come out in December: Punched Out is the amazing and sad story of Derek Boogaard and what it’s like to be a hockey enforcer.
  • Marathon Man (New Yorker): A very odd, but intriguing, “expose” on a dentist who liked to chat at marathons.

That’s it. I’ve made a Readlist with these seven selections which makes it easy to send them all to your Kindle or Readability. Good reading.

January 4, 2013 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Top Longform of 2011

Last week James asked me for my top 5 articles of last year (he posted his) and so I spent an hour or so going through as much as I could find from last year (Instapaper archive is helpful) to come up with my list (which includes a few extra that didn’t make the top 5 cut, but were great). Here it is (I’m not necessarily sure the order is right, but it’s close):

  1. A Murder Foretold (New Yorker) – Here’s what I wrote about this when I first read it: “Clocking in at just under 15,000 words, the New Yorker article on the murder of a Guatemalan named Rodrigo Rosenberg is long even by their standards. It’s so worth it though. I don’t even want to say anything about it so that you can go and enjoy it yourself. Let’s just say if I could get my hands on the movie rights I definitely would.”
  2. The Shame of College Sports (The Atlantic) – I’ve read a few things that said this is the best piece of sportswriting in history. I haven’t read enough to say whether I agree or not, but this epic look at the NCAA was amazing. To cover something we’re all so aware of, but know so little about was a brilliant move and added a ton of nuance to the conversation around whether college athletes should be paid.
  3. The Information (New Yorker) – A good way to judge writing (for me at least) is how much it sticks in my head. Adam Gopnik’s discussion around the current state of internet discourse was probably the idea I talked about most. His breakdown of never-betters, better-nevers and ever-wassers gave a framework for understanding how people view the web (and technology generally).
  4. When Irish Eyes are Crying (Vanity Fair) – I almost didn’t include this because I’m sure it’s on everyone’s list. Michael Lewis breaking down what went wrong in Ireland. You read it already.
  5. The Shot That Nearly Killed Me (Guardian) – I debated back-and-forth (with myself) about whether this should make the list or not. It’s not a classic piece of journalism in that it’s not written by a single person about a single topic. However, the idea of getting the best conflict photojournalists in the world and asking them to talk about the most dangerous shot they ever took was breathtaking.

Okay, so those are my five. The last two I’m not totally comfortable with, but a list is a list …

Here are a few others that could/should be on there:

  • Getting Bin Laden (New Yorker) – Somebody was going to get this story and it went to the New Yorker. There was some controversy around the amount of truth in it, but no matter what reading a blow-by-blow account of the capturing of the most wanted fugitive in the world is a pretty compelling read.
  • A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage (The Awl) – This is the only non-mainstream publication on my list and I so wanted to put it in the top five. I’m not sure there was another article this year that I enjoyed reading more. This crazy look/theory about why McDonald’s runs the McRib promotion in the way it does was totally insane.
  • The Assassin in the Vineyard (Vanity Fair) – Again, part of how I judge what I read is how much I repeat it. I must have told a dozen people about this story this year. Some crazy dude holds a vineyard hostage and poisons some of the most expensive wine vines in the world. (I won’t give away the ending.)

Awesome, hope you enjoy.

January 4, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Best Links of 2007 (Volume 2)

[Editor’s Note: This is volume 2 in my year end link wrap up. Volume 1 was published on December 22nd.]

Alrighty, let’s jump right in . . .

  • Good Magazine published a fascinating piece on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, an NYU professor who uses game theory to predict future events. His methods for prediction are best described this way, “In the foreboding world view of rational choice, everyone is a raging dirtbag.”
  • Turns out Wine Critics are not nearly as objective as you would be lead to believe: “What these experiments neatly demonstrate is that the taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of our inputs, and cannot be solved in a bottom-up fashion. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our simplest sensations and extrapolating upwards. When we taste a wine, we aren’t simply tasting the wine.”
  • All year, Seamus McCauley’s Virtual Economics was one of my favorite blogs. Of everything he wrote, though, I most enjoyed his entry on the value of satirical news. To quote him: “To overcome rational ignorance we need more Onions, more Daily Shows, more Sunday Sports – diverse cultural forms that treat the news as entertainment, reach every section of society and reward individuals for taking the trouble to keep themselves informed.”
  • Below you’ll see the Moby Quotient, which is an equation that “determines the degree to which artists besmirch their reputations when they lend their music to hawk products or companies.” A brilliant piece of link bait from the Washington Post.


  • Since we’re onto visuals, here’s one of the most oddly beautiful things I saw this year (via Kottke):

  • Everyone always uses Apple as an example of a good brand, but few explain how they got there. Basement.org does a great job with 10 things we can learn from Apple.
  • I would be amiss if I left Terry Heaton, one of my favorite bloggers, off the list. His essay on Postmodernism’s Greatest Gift, is a fantastic explanation of postmodernism. To put it simply, “Postmodernism’s great gift to humankind is this challenging of assumptions, and this is an important matter for our new century. Why? Because in every walk of life, our failed institutions are rooted in assumptions that need challenging, if we are to progress as a culture.”
  • The Wall Street Journal had a great peice Daniel Henninger that uses packet switching as a metaphor for our current culture: “Packet-switching could hardly be more different [than the a to b connections of switchboards]. Information departs point A but then breaks into pieces, or packets, and bounces around a shared network almost randomly, then somehow arrives together at point B. The packet is a bundle of electrons, but “packet” is an apt metaphor for how the technology has changed us. Rather than sit still to fully absorb a copper-wire’s stiff stream of information, we flip through screens, sorting fragments of data into a final thought or solution.”
  • Finally, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite blog sources from the year past: Fimoculous, Virtual Economics, Bubblegeneration, swissmiss and this blog sits at the.

Think that’s it for now. Happy new year. Hope everyone is safe and happy. Here’s to a great 2008.

December 31, 2007 // This post is about:

Best Links of 2007 (Volume 1)

[Editor’s Note: Volume 2 was published on December 31st, 2007.]

This is one of my very favorite things of the year. It’s my annual links roundup (2006 volume 1 & volume 2). Basically it’s my chance to point to some of the amazing stuff I read this year . . . [Editor’s Note: Halfway through this sentence I looked back at last years entry and realized I had written almost the same thing: “This is one of my very favorite entries to write. I get to pull all the great stuff I read all year and throw it into one post for your reading enjoyment. Hopefully this will be a fun way to fill some of that extra holiday time.” . . . I’ll go with that.]

  • Since they’re top of mind, here’s my favorite flash game of the year: Chain Factor. (For the record I managed to get 268,511 points, a feat I haven’t come close to since.)
  • Though I don’t know exactly what the lesson is, I love this story of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing in a Washington DC subway station to little fanfare.
  • Network theory and power laws were a big theme for me this year, which made this Duncan Watts article on Justin Timberlake’s success especially interesting. The crux of Watts’ thesis is “when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,â€? or the “rich get richerâ€? effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still.”
  • The “What Does Marsellus Wallace Look Like?” scene from Pulp Fiction is given the typographic treatment.
  • I don’t know much about Christianity (or religion generally really), but I found this to be a very interesting take on what Jesus would believe in were he alive today: “I believe that if Jesus lived today, he would be a secular humanist and would reject Christianity, just as he “rejected” Judaism and inspired Christianity. Christianity was once the vehicle for the boldest and most honest thinking about reality, the brotherhood of man, and the human condition. I think in light of the advances in science and our exposure to other religious traditions, it is time again to humanize further our understanding of “God” (or the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty) and come to a more universal understanding of religion.”
  • The always brilliant Grant McCracken wrote about the importance of noticing: “Notice everything and pay attention to things that puzzle. Pay attention to things that demand your attention and then refuse your understanding. Pay attention to the failure of attention.”
  • Sorry to be super geeky, but another power law article made the cut this year. This one comes from John Hagel and is called The Power of Power Laws. It’s fairly dense and super geeky, but it’s as good a peak at how this stuff works in the real world as you’ll get. (If it’s not obvious enough, power laws were my shape of the year. For a little more explanation, here’s a presentation I gave on them which I swear I will record a voiceover for soon.)
  • My three favorite web apps this year: Twitter, SlideShare (for sharing presentations), Tumblr (which I’ve played with a bit and inspired this redesign) and Google Reader, which became my full time RSS reader and I haven’t looked back since. (Flickr, del.icio.us and Gmail were retired from competition.)
  • Anyone who works in marketing has likely said they need to “own” something (as in a color or event). Well, my coworker Jared gave the idea a nice smack-down over at the Naked blog. In it he writes: “Overstock.com doesn’t own the letter O – though I appreciate the way they not-so-subtly link shopping to female orgasms. Verizon doesn’t own the color red (nor does Target) – though using visual cues to aid your brand is important. And despite one former client’s dreams, their snack could never own July 4th, no matter how much they spent (budget was roughly $2 million). Because only one thing owns July 4th, and that’s fireworks.” It’s something everyone who works in the industry has though about saying but hasn’t had it in them to actually come out with.
  • This is more about an idea than an article. Wired wrote about how science should release it’s “dark data”, or the stuff from the experiments that weren’t successful. The justification: “In this data-intensive age, those apparent dead ends could be more important than the breakthroughs. After all, some of today’s most compelling research efforts aren’t one-off studies that eke out statistically significant results, they’re meta-studies — studies of studies — that crunch data from dozens of sources, producing results that are much more likely to be true.”
  • And the last link for Volume 1 . . . The coolest presentation, Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoing photosynth. And since you’re probably tired of clicking, here’s the video:

Thanks for reading and look out for Volume 2 . . . Have a great holiday.

December 22, 2007 // This post is about:

Best Links of 2006 (vol. 2)

[Editor’s Note: This is volume two of my favorite links of 2006. Volume one can be found here.]

Well folks, it’s time for round two of the best links of 2006. For those that missed the first half, go read volume one.

Now onto the links . . .

Best Links of 2006 (vol. 2)

  • The Marketplace of Perceptions: This may be the article I quoted most this year. Behavioral economics is rocking my world and this is a perfect primer.
  • Good News Day: Continuing on the inspiring tip is this story of Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams beating a seemingly cureless disease with perseverance and rhymes.
  • ‘Baby, Give Me a Kiss’: This one’s certainly not inspiring and I hope it doesn’t offend anyone. The LA Times sent a female reporter to interview Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild fame. In the process she witnessed a date-rape and was attacked by Francis. Girls Gone Wild is an undeniable phenomena and Claire Hoffman, the writer, contemplates why. The article is a look at the dark side of the digital explosion. “This is so much bigger than Francis,” Hoffman explains. “In a culture where cheap and portable video technology lets everyone play at stardom, and where America’s voyeuristic appetite for reality television seems insatiable, teenagers, like the ones in this club, see cameras as validation. ‘Most guys want to have sex with me and maybe I could meet one new guy, but if I get filmed everyone could see me,’ Bultema says. ‘If you do this, you might get noticed by somebody—to be an actress or a model.'”
  • Architecture and interaction design, via adaptation and hackability: Dan Hill of cityofsound is brilliant. He’s got an amazing ability to pull together all sorts of different disciplines and spit out a coherent idea. This is actually the full text of an interview he did with Dan Saffer for his book Designing for Interaction. These were the questions posed: “Can products be made hackable, or are all products hackable? What types of things can be designed into products to make them more hackable? What are the qualities of adaptive designs? You’ve spoken on putting “creative power in the hands of non-designers.” How do interaction designers go about doing that? What can interaction designers learn about adaptability from architecture?”
  • Video Explains the World’s Most Important 6-Sec Drum Loop: It’s long, and somewhat dry at times, but this 18-minute video explains the incredible history of the amen break which is the probably the most ubiquitous sample in history.
  • Banksy Punks Paris: Banksy’s most famous move was putting his own art in New York City museums. In this installment Banksy droplifts a bunch of specially made Paris Hilton CDs with music by Danger Mouse and a custom-made booklet.
  • Dove Evolution Commerical: Rounding out the YouTube trio is an ad of sorts. As part of the Campaign for Real Beauty Dove shows the world how our idea of beauty became so distorted. The video depicts a ‘regular’ woman going through the process of becoming a billboard model. After much makeup, stretching and shrinking the person we see at the beginning of the video is completely different than the product at the end.
  • Getting Customers to Love You: This was the year of the ‘ordinary Joe’ and nowhere was this more apparent than marketing. All over the industry people are finally realizing that we’d forgotten about customers. In this article Jeanne Bliss, from Land’s End, gives 10 tips for getting customers to love you. They’re simple, but they’re great reminders to put customers first.
  • The Confession of an American Jew: I can’t say I ever really considered it, but there are a whole lot of Jewish comedians. Look at the list: “he Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, George Burns, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Andy Kaufman, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman.” Luckily, Wayne Gladstone over at The Morning News was kind enough to think about it and offer up some amazingly amusing thoughts on the subject.
  • Rethinking Every Rule of Reinvention: Who better to speak to reinventing a brand than a man who has helped both Nike and Starbucks reinvent theirs. I’m not sure there’s any single revolutionary point in here, but taken together it’s an incredible roadmap to thinking about marketing the right way.

I’ve also got two special bonus links for you . . .

  • BONUS: Professional Radicals: This entry is really just a vehicle to post a 1994 book (in PDF form) from ‘iconoclastic British ad agency of the 1990s’ Howell Henry. The PDF is fantastic and I’m forever in debt to Gareth for posting.
  • BONUS: I Saw NY: Last but not least is the Renegade holiday/New Year site. It’s a guide to New York City written by Renegade and friends. You can even register to contribute yourself. I’ve been unbelievably pleased with the quality of what people have added, there are about 20 places I’ve discovered on there that I want to visit. I Saw NY. For FTC purposes I do work for Renegade, however, I was not compensated for posting this link. :)

Well, that’s it. Hope everyone is having a great holiday. Just in case you missed it, go check out volume one.

December 26, 2006 // This post is about: