Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Remainders: From gold mining to data mining

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 4.

There’s lots of stuff I read that I either haven’t gotten a chance to write up yet or don’t warrant their own post. This is meant to be my space for all that.

On the one hand, the most popular use of the word mining isn’t really mining at all (“Bitcoin mining, involving pure information rather than raw materials, is just a sexier term (is mining sexy?) for a process that is more like Sudoku puzzles for computers than digging holes in the ground.”), on the other hand it’s 13x cheaper to extract metals like copper and gold from discarded electronics than to actually mine them. (As an aside, go subscribe to Kneeling Bus, it’s great.)

I’ve got to write something bigger about this, but I don’t think people understand just how little we can glean from what’s inside a deep learning neural network. This isn’t about Uber or Tesla specifically, but articulates the problem well:

Getting a car to drive this way was an impressive feat. But it’s also a bit unsettling, since it isn’t completely clear how the car makes its decisions. Information from the vehicle’s sensors goes straight into a huge network of artificial neurons that process the data and then deliver the commands required to operate the steering wheel, the brakes, and other systems. The result seems to match the responses you’d expect from a human driver. But what if one day it did something unexpected—crashed into a tree, or sat at a green light? As things stand now, it might be difficult to find out why. The system is so complicated that even the engineers who designed it may struggle to isolate the reason for any single action. And you can’t ask it: there is no obvious way to design such a system so that it could always explain why it did what it did.

With that said, there are lots of people trying to get a peek inside.

Speaking of self-driving cars, can we stop talking about the trolley problem … please?!?!?

And one last thing on self-driving cars and machine learning:

https://twitter.com/wirehead2501/status/981333720450781185

At the end of last year I ran across this fun excerpt of life on the road as a long-haul mover. I just ripped through the book in a few days. It’s a nice break from biographies of Claude Shannon and parables about bottlenecks in IT.

Here’s a simple sounding question that has a lot more to it: Why did we evolve the ability to reason? “Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.”

A few weeks ago I had a long conversation about the relationship between technology and democracy, the core question being whether or not the two were at odds. I haven’t been able to get it out of my brain since. This piece on weaponized narrative is an interesting addition to the conversation as was this Long Now talk asking “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” (You can find this on their podcast as well.)

Speaking of unintended consequences, Waze keeps sending people down the steepest hill in LA and they keep crashing into things.

Speaking of podcasts, I’ve been really enjoying Felix Salmon’s Slate Money podcast and the latest episodes on the new economics of Hollywood is a great primer on how things have changed.

There’s an especially fascinating bit in this Tim Harford column from last week:

A voter thinking of popping to the polls and then trying out a new pizzeria would be perfectly rational in checking out TripAdvisor, rather than the party manifestos. This is because her vote will almost certainly not make any difference to her life, but her choice of restaurant almost certainly will. We vote because we see it as a civic duty, or a way of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Few people go to the polls under the illusion that they will be casting the deciding vote.

The full explanation for why MIT broke ties with Nectome, a company that promises to store your brain for you (by killing you), is pretty amazing. Here’s a bit to whet your appetite: “Regarding the second point: currently, we cannot directly measure or create consciousness. Given that limitation, how can one say if, for example, a computer or a simulation is conscious?”

While Netcome can legally kill you to store your brain, Starbucks has to warn you about the cancer risks of coffee in California. Statistician David Spiegelhalter presents a pretty good argument for why this is ridiculous.

Just today ran into this interesting essay on the end of authenticity. I particularly enjoyed this bit about Brooklyn (where I happen to live):

At the same time “Brooklyn” has become America’s most significant cultural export. It’s not only 3rd and 4th-tier American cities that adopted the aesthetic. Among many other major international cities, the Shoreditch area of London developed its own version of Contemporary Conformism, as did Daikanyama in Tokyo (where the “Brooklyn” brand possesses cultural cachet as an update to the Americana aesthetic Japanese subcultures have fetishized for 70 years). Of course, America’s other main export during this time was Silicon Valley startup culture and the two found a perfect union and perfect distribution channel in AirBnB and WeWork.

And, last but not least, I wrote three blog posts:

  1. Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years Video Style
  2. The Fermi Paradox
  3. Why Videogames Tend Towards Post-Apocalyptic

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your weekend.

 

April 6, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , ,

Why Videogames Tend Towards Post-Apocalyptic

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 3.

On Wednesday night I had the honor of presenting some very cool work as part of Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab’s Digital Dozen event. One of the pieces I presented was the video game What Remains of Edith Finch, which tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who returns to an inherited home and finds out the stories of her dead family.

In preparing to present I was reminded of a super interesting article by writer, game designer, professor, and all around smart guy Ian Bogost about Edith Finch and the general art of videogames and their obsession with out-filming film. The whole article is worth a read, but the bit about why first person shooters tend towards the post-apocalyptic is my favorite nugget:

In retrospect, it’s easy easy to blame old games like Doom and Duke Nukem for stimulating the fantasy of male adolescent power. But that choice was made less deliberately at the time. Real-time 3-D worlds are harder to create than it seems, especially on the relatively low-powered computers that first ran games like Doom in the early 1990s. It helped to empty them out as much as possible, with surfaces detailed by simple textures and objects kept to a minimum. In other words, the first 3-D games were designed to be empty so that they would run.

An empty space is most easily interpreted as one in which something went terribly wrong. Add a few monsters that a powerful player-dude can vanquish, and the first-person shooter is born. The lone, soldier-hero against the Nazis, or the hell spawn, or the aliens.

A perfect case of the medium being the message.

PS – If you’re receiving this as an email and wondering why everything is looking so much fancier, I moved it over to MailChimp. If you’re not already subscribed, you can sign up here.

April 5, 2018 // This post is about: , ,

The Fermi Paradox

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 2.

I’ve been enjoying Julia Galef‘s Rationally Speaking podcast a lot recently. The cybersecurity episode was great, just listening to the episode on whether ideas are becoming harder to find, and I can’t resist a good Fermi Paradox conversation.

If you’re not familiar with the Fermi Paradox I would start with the excellent Wait But Why explainer. The gist of it, though, isn’t really a paradox so much as a question: “Where is everybody?” Specifically, why haven’t we encountered aliens yet? One of the more popular explanations is called the Great Filter and basically posits that either it’s incredibly rare to reach mass intelligence like humans have, we’re just the first to do it, or that we’re all about to kill each other any day now and that explains why we haven’t heard from any other space civilization. As usual, Wait But Why has a handy graphic.

In the Fermi episode of Rationally Speaking Julia Galef makes a really interesting point I hadn’t read/considered before:

Doesn’t it seem like human-level intelligence probably isn’t mindbogglingly rare if we got several part-way successes just on Earth? Wouldn’t it be a weird world in which it was pretty easy to — pretty easy in the sense that evolution did it multiple times on Earth — to create “part-way to human level”intelligence, but there was only one actual human-level intelligence in the whole universe?

Stephen Webb, who she’s interviewing, responds with this:

Well, I’m not arguing necessarily that the barrier is there, but if you look at Earth, of the 50 billion species or however many there have been, there’s only one species that is remotely capable of delivering a starfaring civilization, and that would be us. I think that’s because we have a very, very specific set of attributes that happened to enable us to do this.

It actually kind of reminds me of one of my favorite books of the last few years, The Most Human Human. The book tackles the AI question in reverse. Rather than trying to understand how to make computers more like humans it wonders how to differentiate what we do as humans from what computers can already do. (The context for the whole book is that the author, Brian Christian, is getting ready to compete as a human in the Loebner Prize, the famous competition where computers compete to see who can pass the Turing Test and fool a human into thinking they’re another human.) By flipping the perspective on the question you get very different kinds of answers.

Finally, since we’re talking about the Fermi Paradox, The Atlantic had a good piece about “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous” which although it doesn’t mention Fermi, basically tackles the same questions. For instance, is it a good sign or a bad sign that we haven’t already destroyed ourselves?

So now you can imagine a world where the probability per year of nuclear war is actually 50 percent. So then the first year, the first half of worlds get nuked. Then the next year half of those survivor worlds get nuked. And so on. So in this very scary scenario—still after 70 years—if you have a big enough universe or many parallel universes, you’re still going to have some observers [left over] who say ‘Hey! It looks like we’re pretty safe!’ And again they will get a very nasty surprise when the nukes start flying.

Fun stuff!

April 3, 2018 // This post is about: , ,

Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years Video Style

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 1.

One of my favorite Planet Money episodes (and maybe favorite podcast episodes period) is about why, despite everything we know about economics, Coke stayed five cents for 70 years. I wrote about it back in 2012 and just a few years ago Planet Money did a 3:45 video version of the episode.

April 2, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , ,

What Tide Was Doing at the Super Bowl

Tide’s Super Bowl ads were too good not to spend a few minutes writing about. To help set the table for what’s going on with it, I’m going to crib the intro of a post I wrote in December:

One of my favorite marketing stories to tell is about how when I was working at an agency early in my career we were doing research for one of the big consumer electronics companies. Specifically, we were testing a new commercial another agency had put together. The commercial was “edgy” (it had snowboarders!) and got high marks by all the random consumers who got pulled into a room in the mall to watch it. That is, until they were asked the last question: “What brand was it for?” To which they all replied with the company’s biggest competitor. The moral is simple, after all that time and money, a commercial had effectively been made for another company. (One of the most well-known stories of this is the famous ad with a gorilla tossing around soft-sided luggage which was for … American Tourister.)

In Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow he talks a lot about ownable brand assets. These are the colors, iconography, and, increasingly, aesthetics that consumers associate with a single brand. The examples are endless: Tiffany’s has blue, Hermès orange, and UPS brown. Starbucks has the mermaid, Pepsi’s yin-yang, and McDonald’s golden arches. Coca-Cola has red, Spencerian script, polar bears, and Santa Claus (seriously, click through on that last one, it’s pretty amazing). There’s some evidence that the more unique assets a brand owns, the more valuable it is.

Sharp has made it pretty deep into the marketing world, particularly with consumer packaged goods companies like Procter & Gamble. Lots of them have taken his advice (and consulting hours) and applied it to how they approach building their brands, particularly media buying (MOAR REACH). But what I found especially interesting about the Tide Super Bowl takeover is that they took things one step further, finding a way to apply Sharp’s principles to both the media and creative execution.

The media part is simple: According to Sharp (and lots of research AND COMMON SENSE), big brands need to be bought by lots of people and, for that to happen, they need to reach lots of casual buyers who may or may not be in the market to buy them. For all the talk about the death of TV advertising (which is hugely overstated), the Super Bowl is an incredibly unique media opportunity. Not only is it a gigantic audience, but it’s also the only time and place they’re actually excited to see ads.

On the creative side what Tide did was pretty obvious (they did explain it after all), but definitely not simple to pull off (imagine convincing a client you’re going to spend $16 million worth of airtime doing nothing original). They used the visual language of advertising, especially Super Bowl advertising, and found a way to link it all back to the brand. The value wasn’t really in the ad itself, but that you were watching every other ad looking for the tropes (and clean shirts of course). If the main goal of advertising is to create and own “brand assets”, Tide went above and beyond by reinforcing their own and finding a way to effectively hijack everyone else’s. What’s more, by splitting things up across the game in the way they did, they made it so you could never watch too many commercials without being reminded that they might be a Tide ad.

Outside of Tide, every other commercial felt pretty unremarkable to me (other than the Dodge/MLK thing, of course). That’s partially because it’s very hard to be unexpected when another company has already predicted your behavior, and partially because most of the themes brands are experimenting with around are the same ones they were playing with last year. For all the talk about the speed of change, brands, especially the big ones, are moving slow as they try to find a safe space in our ever-more polarized world. I suspect the transition will continue to take time.

Until then, we’ll almost definitely get more ads like the one from Toyota, which put a Jew, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist in a car together with the tag line “We’re all one team.”

Your strategy’s showing.

February 5, 2018 // This post is about: , , , ,

Best Longform of 2017

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 …

Trump

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]

Technology

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]

Artificial Intelligence

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]

Opioids

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

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]

Nuclear War

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]

#MeToo

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]

The Rest

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):

And here are all 47 favorites from 2017 in chronological order:

  1. “Intellectuals for Trump” – Kalefa Sanneh – New Yorker – January 9, 2017
  2. “In Trump, Tech Finds a Troll it Can’t Ignore” – Jason Tanz – Wired – February 1, 2017
  3. “Trump’s Radical Anti-Americanism” – Adam Gopnik – New Yorker – February 13, 2017
  4. “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” – Dale Beran – Medium – February 14, 2017
  5. Michael Flynn, General Chaos – Nicholas Schmidle – New Yorker – February 27, 2017
  6. “The Bind of Historically Black Schools in the Age of Trump” – Jelani Cobb – New Yorker – March 4, 2017
  7. “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap” – Masha Gessen – March 6, 2017 – New York Review of Books
  8. “‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” – Sam Knight – The Guardian – March 17, 2017
  9. “Going it Alone” – Rahawa Haile – Outside – April 11, 2017
  10. “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria” – James Somers – The Atlantic – April 20, 2017
  11. “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles” – Dion Waiters – The Player’s Tribune – April 25, 2017
  12. “What Makes a Parent” – Ian Parker – New Yorker – May 22, 2017
  13. “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” – Rebecca Sonit – Literary Hub – May 30, 2017
  14. “A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick” – Finn Murphy – Longreads – June, 2017
  15. “The Addicts Next Door” – Margaret Talbot – New Yorker – June 5, 2017
  16. “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” – Luke Savage – Current Affairs – June 7, 2017
  17. “Eternal Champions” – Sam Borden – ESPN FC – June 8, 2017
  18. “A Good Walk Spoiled” – Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History – June 15, 2017
  19. “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” – Masha Gessen – New Yorker – July 3, 2017
  20. “What if Trump Had Won as a Democrat” – Matt Latimer – Politico – July 8, 2017
  21. “What We Get Wrong About Technology” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – July 8, 2017
  22. Selena Gomez: Bad Liar, Psycho Songwriter – Switched on Pop – July 14, 2017
  23. “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
  24. “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” – Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History – August 10, 2017
  25. “Why we fell for clean eating” – Bee Wilson – The Guardian – August 11, 2017
  26. “Goodbye, Pepe” – Angela Nagle – The Baffler – August 15, 2017
  27. Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington – Patrick Radden Keefe – August 28, 2017
  28. “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
  29. “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” – Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair – September, 2017
  30. “A Tragedy of Manners” – Angela Nagle – The Baffler – September 4, 2017
  31. “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – September 18, 2017
  32. “The Mind of John McPhee” – Sam Anderson – New York Times Magazine – September 28, 2017
  33. “We should have seen Trump coming” Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Guardian – September 29, 2017
  34. “The First White President” – Ta-Nehisi Coates – Atlantic – October, 2017
  35. “The Raid” – Uncivil – October 4, 2017
  36. Universal Paperclip (iOS Version) – Frank Lantz – October 9, 2017
  37. “The Gun Show” – Radiolab Presents More Perfect – October 12, 2017
  38. The Judge’s Code – Sarah Jeong – October 19, 2017
  39. “The War Against Pope Francis” – Andrew Brown – The Guardian – October 27, 2017
  40. “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” – Patrick Radden Keefe – New Yorker – October 30, 2017
  41. “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – November 6, 2017
  42. “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” – Claire Dederer – The Paris Review – November 20, 2017
  43. “In The Maze” – Dayna Tortorici – n+1 – December, 2018
  44. This Game About Paperclips Says A Lot About Human Desire – John Brindle – Waypoint – December 6, 2017
  45. “Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation” – Maggie Haberman – New York Times – December 9, 2017
  46. “The Silence Breakers” – Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards – Time – December 18, 2017
  47. “Jordan Peele’s X-Ray Vision” – Wesley Morris – New York Times Magazine – December 20, 2017

January 1, 2018

Best Articles of 2016

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):

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 twopart 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]

On immigration

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]

On politics

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]

On parenting

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.

Perfect.

[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]

On genitals

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]

On sports

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]

On crime(ish)

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]

The rest

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: , ,

Making a Place “Great Again”

As everyone now knows the UK voted to leave the European Union today. I happen to be in London this week and so have been paying close attention to the vote and having many conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about how it came to this and what it means for the future. I’m no economist or pundit, so I’ll leave those takes to the professionals, but I wanted to take a minute to share a few thoughts on the obvious parallels between what’s happening here in the UK and with Trump in the US.

The two most enlightening things I’ve read about Trump happen to come from FiveThirtyEight. The first, published at the end of April, spells out the difference between what we think of as “normal America” and what the reality actually is:

We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America. But the large metros that today come closest to looking like 1950 America are Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Ogden and Provo, in Utah; and several in the Midwest and South.

Normal America, the article explains, is actually best represented (by similarity to American population across “age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity”) in cities like New Haven, Connecticut or Tampa, Florida. That means when people say that politicians or elites are out of touch with normal America, it may be true, but that’s not because normal America is still small-town America. We are a more diverse, older, and more educated country than we were 50 years ago.

The second bit, also from FiveThirtyEight, is about why Hispanics and other minority groups are more optimistic about America than average Americans:

But for many non-whites, the pattern [not very concerned about the present, pessimistic about the future] is the opposite: They are concerned about the present but optimistic about the future. In the Pew poll, Hispanics were sober about their immediate financial circumstances — 40 percent said their finances were in good shape, compared with 43 percent for the public at large — but they see brighter days ahead. More than 70 percent expect their children to be better off than they are. Previous polls have found similar results for other minority groups: According to 2014 data from the General Social Survey, three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics expect their children to enjoy a higher standard of living than they do, compared to just half of whites. A poll commissioned by The Atlantic last fall found that blacks, Hispanics and Asians were far more likely than whites to report that “the American Dream is alive and well.”

Put those things together and what you get is clear: “Make America Great Again” actually means make America look more like it did in 1960. The problem, of course, is that America was a pretty bad place for a lot of Americans at that point (women, minorities, and LGBT to name a few). But most people don’t remember that, because nostalgia is broken and doesn’t work that way. From a 2013 New York Times article on nostalgia:

Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.

But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.

Put it all together and you have a confluence of circumstances that tells a pretty good story for how both the US and the UK have gotten to now and what it really means to make a country great again. Of course, like others, I don’t have answers of how to combat this, but understanding what we’re up against is the first step.

June 24, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Climbing Rocks

Really enjoyed this New Yorker profile of 14-year-old climbing extraordinaire Ashima Shiraishi.

On what makes great climbers (and specifically Ashima so amazing):

In terms of pure talent—climbers speak of “strength”—she is near the top, but she is not too keen on taking risks. Anyway, her parents won’t allow it. She has small, powerful fingers, a light but sinewy frame, and a seemingly effortless yet peerlessly precise technique. All this enables her to find holds in nearly imperceptible chinks in the rock. A rock climber’s key attribute is a high strength-to-weight ratio, but the ability to create leverage, with subtle geometric variations in body positioning, is the force multiplier. A civilian might think crudely of climbing as something like ascending a ladder—all reach and pull—but watching Ashima adjust the attitude of her hips, shoulders, or heels as she tries to move from one improbable hold to another gives the impression that the human body can arrange itself in an infinite number of forms, each of slightly different utility.

On how you rate different climbing routes:

Another standard is the rating regimen. Sport and trad climbs are given a degree of difficulty, according to the Yosemite Decimal System: 1 is a walk on flat land, and 5 is a vertical climb, or close to it. So actual climbs are rated 5.0 through 5.15, with additional subcategories of “a” through “d.” The hardest routes at the moment are 5.15c—there are just two. (The system is open-ended, so it’s only a matter of time before someone pioneers a 5.16a.) In northeast Spain, last March, when Ashima was thirteen, she became the first woman, and the youngest person of either sex, ever to “send” (complete) a 5.15. It is a route called Open Your Mind Direct, which was recently upgraded from a 5.14d to a 5.15a, owing to a handhold’s having broken off. She spent just four days “projecting” the route—that is, studying and solving all the problems on it by trial and error. The men who had done it before had spent weeks, if not months. Obviously, the rating system is also subjective, but for Ashima this feat was an annunciation. If she could send a 5.15 during spring break from eighth grade, what more could she do?

Related, I read this piece a few weeks ago on the history of indoor climbing and how bouldering problems get designed:

If you think about a climb as a sentence and each move as a word, the holds are individual letters. The most commonly used holds provide a horizontal edge that you can hang from. When the hold is extremely positive, which means it has a large lip or is otherwise easy to grab, climbers call it a jug. A crimp, by contrast, has an edge that’s so thin, you can fit only your fingertips on it. When that edge is oriented vertically and off to the side, it serves as a side pull. Closer in it’s a Gaston, which the climber pulls on with elbow bent, as if prying the lid off a coffee can. If the edge points toward the ground, then it’s an undercling, and the climber must pull up and out to stay on the wall.

January 13, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

Normalization of Deviance & The Growing Organization

A really interesting concept from this blog post on the recent very-avoidable crash of a private jet:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety. People grow more accustomed to the deviant behavior the more it occurs. To people outside of the organization, the activities seem deviant; however, people within the organization do not recognize the deviance because it is seen as a normal occurrence. In hindsight, people within the organization realize that their seemingly normal behavior was deviant.

This is a pretty good explanation for what happens inside organizations. At the small and relatively harmless end, you have the slow growth of meetings that happens in every organization (hence Percolate’s meeting rules) and in the large and dangerous end you have something like Enron or VW. The phenomena is essentially about feedback loops: The deviant behavior slowly slips in and over time becomes more and more acceptable, meaning that the intensity can also increase. In the case of meetings what starts as a one-off meeting to discuss something, becomes a weekly meeting for 15 minutes, eventually with more people involved, and eventually you have 15 people spending an hour together without any real sense for what they’re talking about or why.

This is a pretty good picture of what makes it so tough to scale organizations: It’s hardly ever the big stuff you’re watching out for, it’s almost always the small stuff that is built up over time. (As an aside, although I’m not crazy about him, this is also why Clayton Christensen’s boiling frog analogy is such a good one. It’s a perfect way to understand that it’s the slow rolling boil that kills you, not the big explosion.)

January 11, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,