Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Lindy West isn’t a social justice warrior, she’s a social justice apocalypse. Unsurprisingly, she’s already taking heat for her new weekly column in the New York Times — the Internet’s creepiest denizens have very little sense of irony. Keep publishing petty insults in Reddit forums with unprintable names, trolls; Lindy’s in the NYT.
What we could really use, my guys, is some loud, unequivocal backup. And not just in public, when the tide of opinion has already turned and a little “woke”-ness might benefit you — but in private, when it can hurt.
One of my podcasting friends told me that he does stick up for women in challenging situations, like testosterone-soaked comedy green rooms, for instance, but complained, “I get mocked for it!”
Yes, I know you do. Welcome.
In the wake of the debate over David Wallace-Wells’ New York magazine piece, which describes a catastrophically uninhabitable planet within a matter of decades, revisit this quiet, lyrical essay from last month’s Oxford American. It’s a telescope-to-microscope shift: Wallace-Wells imagines a worst-case outcome on a global scale; Molly McArdle brings it back to the coast of North Carolina and a family with generations of investment in, almost literally, a castle built on sand.
These days — as the weather everywhere grows steadily stranger, storms stronger, seas higher — I worry about the Outer Banks, surrounded by water and just barely above the waves. What does it mean to be from, and of, one of the most vulnerable places on Earth? The Midgetts felt like a key. Six years after I first took note of them, I started the nine-hour drive down the coast to find what I could unlock with it.
Is it utopian or dystopian to posit a world in which humanity’s unique value proposition — against a growing force of AI workers — is providing a compassionate interface while machines do the real thinking? AI researcher Kai-Fu Lee’s experience with lymphoma gave him a new perspective on his life’s work.
The answer I propose would never have come to me when I was myself somewhat of an automaton, living to work rather than the other way around. It was only my cancer diagnosis, and the sudden realization of what my own stupidity had made me miss, that led me to my suggestion. Our coexistence with artificial intelligence hinges on combining what is humanly unattainable—the hugely scaled narrow AI intelligence that will only get better at any given domain—with what we humans can uniquely offer to one another. And that is love. What makes us human is that we can love.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Dawson, MN, welcomed Dr. Ayaz Virji — its first Muslim resident — with open arms when he and his family arrived three years ago. Then his town joined the majority in Minnesota that voted to put Donald Trump into office. Ayaz became a reluctant spokesperson for his religion, and an increasingly reluctant resident of the community that used to feel like home.
“Hey there,” Ayaz said, snapping out of his thoughts to greet his neighbor.
“Hiya,” said the neighbor, who worked in security.
He had heard from his wife about the talk in Granite Falls and, wanting to be helpful, had offered to lend Ayaz his bulletproof vest for the evening, and here it was, in the duffle bag he was slinging through the ornate front door. He set it down on a chair in the doctor’s study and pulled out the vest. Ayaz looked at it. He began taking off his suit jacket and tie to try it on.
What’s it like to be on the other side of the airport security experience, especially right now? To work in job where ideological decisions come down to eye contact between a tired traveler and the agent calling you over for a pat-down? Edward Schwarzschild, for reasons barely known even to himself, took a break from his university job and career as a writer to find out.
The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie.
In a highly amusing essay (hopefully not only to this fellow worrier), Irish novelist Donal Ryan traces the bloodlines of worry in his family and finds a quantum solution, only to be defeated by a faulty sensor on a plane from New York to Shannon.
A brilliant idea occurred to me, a way of allowing me to worry in an infinitely efficient manner. Instead of worrying in a haphazard and time-eating way about whatever happened to present itself to my consciousness at any given moment, and unless I had a specific and urgent worry to contend with, I’d restrict myself to worrying about gluons, the tiniest of the known particles of matter.
We are turning the stories of our lives over to our devices, and especially to the social media channels — Facebook, Instagram — where our memories are preserved, ostensibly for the consumption of others, but ultimately for our own. Molly Sauter asks about the consequences of moving our memories into crisp digital vaults where they remain ageless while we wither.
[P]hysical evocations age, and their value and veracity as objects of testimony ages with them and us. They date, they fade, they display their distance from the events they are connected to and their distance from us. Digital memory objects, on the other hand, although they might abruptly obsolesce, do not age in the same way. They remain flatly, shinily omni-accessible, represented to us cleanly both in the everlasting ret-conned context of their creation and consumption. The user interface of Facebook doesn’t time-machine itself to the design it had when you composed whatever memory it is showing you from 10 years ago.
In a love letter to the German language, John Le Carre suggests how clarity and simplicity can help lead us through the treacherous linguistic waters of international (and our own national) politics in 2017.
Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.
And that’s what language means to a linguist. Those who teach language, those who cherish its accuracy and meaning and beauty, are the custodians of truth in a dangerous age.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s description of the invisible landmarks used to map the sky is two years old, but we plead special dispensation — this is the time of year when Seattle’s skies are gloriously clear and bright, and the entire city’s in a dream of summer. How can we resist an article by and about the lucky few who spend their days navigating those (almost) cloudless fields of blue?
Word lovers will particularly enjoy the conventions that name Sonoma’s waypoint SNUPY, honoring Charles M. Schulz and his pilot pup, and Hannibal’s TWAIN, among many other suprisingly quirky choices.
From a plane, even a wide modern road can look as slow and old-fashioned as an ancient bridleway. The plane slides like an eye over the page, like a finger across a map, over everything the road and the drivers on it must turn to avoid — towns, mountains, lakes — features so low they appear nearly smooth from above. Waypoints, though invisible, remind us that while pilots are not nearly as constrained by the sky as drivers are by roads, neither is our path always as free as it appears.
What if everything in the world were captured on camera, all the time, and one photographer pored through endless reels of film and pulled out the most evocative shots to share with the rest of us?
Jacqui Kenny more or less fits that description, and Andrea DenHoed’s profile includes a gorgeous selection of images from Kenny’s Instagram portfolio. Shaped by Kenny’s agoraphobia, the images are spare, and somehow at once wide open and controlled. A short read but one worth a long look.
Sometimes, she has difficulty going to aisles of the grocery store that are too far from the exit, and getting on a plane is a huge ordeal. To go to her sister’s wedding, in New Zealand, she told me, required months of therapy beforehand. The Street View project has become a way for Kenny to visit places that she could never go to herself—the more remote, the better, she said. It’s also a practice that involves a tension between control and surrender: she has the ability to parachute into anywhere in the world, but her views and angles and lighting are in Google’s hands.
#amediting is a-Twitter this week over the New York Times’ decision to eliminate its copydesk and adjust the balance between people-who-write-copy and people-who-edit-it. The letters by the copydesk editors and the Times’ executive and managing editors, published by Poynter.org, are excruciating to read.
The Times is a stronghold for those who believe passionately in editorial standards, and this is another crack in the foundation — making similar shifts more likely across the industry and threatening the livelihoods of an entire class of professionals. It may not be wrong (may not), but it hurts, badly.
We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe are suddenly matters of public discourse. As those in power declare war against the news media, as deliberately false or lackadaisical reportage finds its way into social media feeds, readers are flocking to our defense. They are sending us pizza. And they are signing up for Times subscriptions in record numbers because they understand that we go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.
As SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) becomes METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence), the twenty-first century is making its first serious addition to a long line of attempts to talk with aliens. Steven Johnson’s examination of the challenges and ethics associated with contacting other life is characteristically precise. But it’s hard to think your way around the romance and terror associated with the subject, as displayed in this stellar quote from the first attempt — 1974’s Arecibo message.
Not just “malevolent,” note, but “malevolent or hungry.” Yikes.
Within days, the Royal Astronomer of England, Martin Ryle, released a thunderous condemnation of Drake’s stunt. By alerting the cosmos of our existence, Ryle wrote, we were risking catastrophe. Arguing that ‘‘any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry,’’ Ryle demanded that the International Astronomical Union denounce Drake’s message and explicitly forbid any further communications. It was irresponsible, Ryle fumed, to tinker with interstellar outreach when such gestures, however noble their intentions, might lead to the destruction of all life on earth.
Just a boy, his guitar, and 30+ years of rock history. A “making of” story by arts critic Geoff Edgers that captures the nostalgia and geeky glory of a high school kid’s fascination with the guitars of the greats.
You can do a lot with an abandoned Supro, especially if you’re a chubby 14-year-old with a gap between your front teeth and a very questionable collection of Jams. Buy a cheap amplifier and go to Pete Woodward’s. He’s got the drum set in the basement. Learn three chords — G, C and D — and bash out a simple version of “Wild Thing.” Then record it on a Maxell tape, slap it into your Walkman and listen to all 43 minutes of instrumental glop over and over again. Suddenly, you’re a band.
This one’s already causing a little online consternation (what doesn’t, these days?): Jon Ronson investigates whether a rash of fires in San Francisco’s Mission District could be arson, intended to drive out lower-income residents and make way for SF’s version of the epically sky-blocking tech towers that are springing up all over Seattle. Regardless of whether the fires are intentional or just ancient wiring and insulation, it’s a sign of the times that we’re ready to think this might be true. Average joe vs. rich developer is a longstanding David-and-Goliath trope — but has it ever been as widespread and divisive as it is right now?
For five days, Gideon was going to be an arsonist: “Five days between me meeting the guy and, bam, the cops knocking on my door.”
To his credit, The Mountain View was supposed to be empty on the day of the planned fire. His insurance company had been paying his tenants “to get the fuck out of the building.” And they were relocating. “They were taking off like roaches,” he says.
Half an hour ago, Gideon referred to his residents as pigeons. Now they’re roaches.
Periodically the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock, reflecting a shift in world currents that brings us closer to (or farther from — wouldn’t that be nice?) “destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making.” It’s a powerful visual metaphor to express that we’re nearer now to self-destruction than at almost any point in past 70 years. Oliver Pickup tracks the clock’s history and the reasons behind the recent 30-second jump toward midnight.
At this precise moment we are the closest to the apocalypse since the 1950s, a twitchy period when Cold War combatants, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, were doggedly pursuing the hydrogen bomb. At least that’s according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ symbolic Doomsday Clock, which sparked global alarm when it ticked forward to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight in January.
More worrying still, the 2017 time setting was determined before North Korea’s recent spate of nuclear missile tests, and climate-change denier Donald Trump’s erratic presidency, which has re-chilled Russian-American relations, had begun in earnest.
The original design of the clock, featured on the cover of the Bulletin in 1947, was revised a few years ago by Michael Beirut, who also designed the iconic logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. That story in more detail here.
It’s a little sad to see the renascence of letterpress printing credited to Martha Stewart — at least, for those who love not just the output, but the messy, painstaking process, the geekery of platen vs. cylinder, the mind-bending complexity of thinking about language through a mirror and in three dimensions. If you can forgive Glenn Fleishman the sin of attribution, here’s a good piece on Seattle’s still-growing letterpress scene and how digital technologies are changing the throwback industry.
Though letterpress might seem like yet another expression of a society hankering for artisanal, one-of-a-kind goods in an era of endless, identical reproduction, this return to the past is different. Beneath the old-timey patina of letterpress goods is a full-scale digital reinvention that drags Gutenberg’s great creation into the full embrace of modern technology.
Doomsday, arson, gentrification, and the tech industry in everything … In case this week’s post is too much like your Twitter feed, here’s something thoughtful, solitary, and just a little bit quixotic: Amy Liptrot spent a summer on Orkney Island, trying to heal her life and counting a rare, endangered bird she never saw. After dark, the world transforms itself, and she has just the right voice to help us hear it.
I am the night listener. My woolly hat pushes my ears forward. I chew no gum, wear no rustling clothes. The work is repetitive — driving to the next stop, pulling in if possible, turning off the ignition, winding down the windows, consulting the map and noting down the grid reference. Then I wait for the noise of the car engine and my head to subside, and the sounds of the night to reveal themselves.
Most of the writers interviewed for Danny Funt’s article on the necessity of serious reading to good journalism have appeared in the Sunday Post at one point or another. The perfect mashup for Seattle Review of Books readers, as well as a strong argument in favor of reading as as a practical way to interact with the world. Probably not a discussion we need to keep having, but this is an interesting version of it.
I spoke with a dozen accomplished journalists of various specialties who manage to do their work while reading a phenomenal number of books, about and beyond their latest project. With journalists so fiercely resented after last year’s election for their perceived elitist detachment, it might seem like a bizarre response to double down on something as hermetic as reading — unless you see books as the only way to fully see the world.
Friend of SRoB Rahawa Haile returns to the Appalachian Trail, this time on a road trip with her father. Speeding from BBQ to buffet, they take the first small steps toward knowing each other after a ten-year hiatus and map the distance that remains between.
Now, driving instead of hiking down these mountains, I learn that my father loves taking sharp turns too fast, something I never noticed growing up in the road-dull broadsheet that is Florida. I do not share his enthusiasm. I’ll take sore knees from 4,000-foot descents over feeling my inertia any day. I recognize for the first time just how much of him comes from the highlands of Eritrea. He's been courting death in this way since before I was born.
Also fascinating: the backstory of how the original article came to be, via an interview with Haile in the Columbia Journalism Review.
People think it’s a rather gloomy job, but it’s very seldom a sad job. Usually, the people you’re dealing with have lived for ages and have done really interesting things. It’s only when people die young that I think it becomes sad. I think of death as going into another place where you are as alive there as you are here. It doesn’t bother me at all.
If you were born at a certain point in history, your childhood shelves included odd books about stunt-flying seagulls, sky-climbing caterpillars, and this gem: Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ. I was lucky enough to read it (likely while sitting in the middle of the street with a handful of firecrackers) before the “adult only” flag was added to the cover. Kevin Litman-Navarro celebrates Uncle Shelby and the consternation of several generations of unsuspecting parents.
Given all of the thinly veiled adult humor throughout the book, it seems quite clear that Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not intended for children. But some distracted adults, it seems, neglected to actually read it before passing it to their sweet, impressionable young ones — today’s parental equivalent of giving a child unprotected internet access. One scandalized reader on the book review site Goodreads didn’t realize her mistake until she had already begun a family reading. “The truly shocking page,” she wrote, “was where he was joking about going with kidnappers and eating the lollipops they offer.”
In its exclusive on Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb (no ropes, no company) of the massive El Capitan, National Geographic says Honnold’s “tolerance for scary situations is so remarkable” that he’s been a lab subject for neuroscientists fascinated by his ability to chill. Honnold’s take? “I just set [fear] aside and leave it be.” Philippe Petit, the man on the wire, has a somewhat more detailed and poetic anatomy of the deadly emotion.
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad.
Meehan Crist was skating in the wrong direction and missed the moment her mother fell, slamming her head against the ice and sending shockwaves through her brain. Crist’s essay about the slow discovery of the depth of the injury — and the gradual disintegration of her mother’s personality — travels loss, neuroscience, and the history of our understanding of the mind, the heart, and the self. (H/t Ed Yong for this one; see also jumping spiders, below.)
I have been wondering when the silence began. Maybe it started when I was trying so hard to stay quiet so she could get better.
Or maybe it came later, when I had tired of getting “I don’t know” as an answer and stopped asking questions.
Then again, maybe I didn’t ask much in the first place. Perhaps I was too shy to intrude on the adult world of illness and recovery, or too wrapped up in my own world to notice the silence stealing around me and settling into place.
The inimitable David Sedaris on the ten stages of grieving Trump’s election. Spoiler: none of them are “acceptance.”
Back in the room, I turn on the radio and look at the electoral map online. I go to bed, reach for my iPad. Shut my eyes, reach for my iPad. When the election is called for Trump, I lie there, unable to sleep. In the middle of the night, I go to the fitness center and watch the little TV embedded in my elliptical machine. The news had been telling me for months that Clinton was a shoo-in. Now they want me to listen as they soul search and determine how they got it so wrong. “Fuck you,” I say to the little screen.
If you describe your job as “a day job” (instead of just “my job”), you’ve probably spent at least one long dark night trying to figure out how to connect it with the real person you really are. Then, of course, you got up the next day, regained your sense of irony, and went to work. Here’s Rumaan Alam making sense of his day job in advertising and the virtue of bad ideas.
When I worked in advertising, one of my clients, one of this country’s largest retailers, used the language of storytelling, which further helped me take solace in my work (the money was quite good, too). They told stories and then sold things, and the story changed every so often, so that the months of the year were like the installments in a collection of short stories. You can guess how some of those stories went: the story was Christmas or the story was Summer or the story was cleaning and organizing or the story was Father’s Day or the story was Mother’s Day and the moral of the story was buy stuff.
It would be very responsible of you to read The Atlantic’s fascinating, in-depth profile of white supremacist Richard Spencer, written by his eighth-grade lab partner. (Is there any fate worse than to be famous enough to be profiled by someone who knew you in high school? Especially if that someone is Graeme Wood?)
Meanwhile, fellow astronomer Alex Parker had read Lomax’s tweets. “Have you tried lasers?” he replied. “Seriously though, some jumping spiders will chase laser pointers like cats do.”
There are, indeed, many Youtube videos of them doing exactly that. But Emily Levesque — Lomax’s colleague, with an office two doors down — wanted to see it for herself.
Speaking of antiheroes (someone must be, somewhere): Jesse Barron follows the story of Andrew Left, a short-seller who makes a ton of cash by exposing corporate fraud to manipulate stock prices. Left helped bring down Valeant Pharmaceutials, a company that made its own money by buying drug patents and yanking up the prices to impossible heights. You’d hire this guy to protect your town against the corrupt sheriff — then be glad to see him ride away again.
I met Left for the first time last May. After leaving my job as a fact-checker at a magazine — the pay was terrible, but the business cards said “Assistant Editor” — I was padding out my freelance income with some part-time work for finance types, editing letters and writing reports. The door creaked ajar into a totally different world. I started reading short-seller blogs at night, obsessed with the feeling that invisible forces controlling my life were flashing into visibility. That’s why my wife’s prescription cost $300 a month. That’s why the world was how it was. I wrote Left in April and asked if we could meet. In May, he sent a text: He had dirt on an online postage seller. Did I want to come to Los Angeles?
E. B. White said despots should fear drunken poets more than eloquent writers preaching freedom, but I don’t know; I’d be scared of the eloquent Rebecca Solnit if I were Donald Trump. And who knows: maybe she was drunk when she wrote this piercing essay — brilliantly, dazzlingly lit with the power of words to deflate our hot air balloon of a president.
A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not.
The US discussion of health insurance gets heated over the ACA vs. the AHCA and hopes for/dread of a single-payer system (cf. California, June 2017). Laura Turner takes a look at an alternate system: faith-based sharing ministries, in many ways similar to standard insurance but with less family planning, more uncertainty, and the potential to destabilize health care for all of us.
Luckily, Zain was healthy. But Bet and Erik took him to the doctor for a general checkup when they arrived home, and as a precaution the pediatrician ordered a panel of blood tests recommended for international adoptees by the University of Minnesota. The tests cost around $6,000, a sizeable portion of their annual income, and Erik and Bet set about submitting their need to Samaritan. “God blessed our family by giving us a beautiful boy from Ethiopia!” they wrote on their need processing form to Samaritan. “We had to have some medical testing done. All recommended international adoption medical testing came back normal and healthy. Praise God!”
Samaritan declined to share their need.
Did Stephen Booth (swoon) invent modern cognitive science as a byway of close Shakespearean study? We tend to think we’re in the driver’s seat when we read, but maybe, Jillian Hinchliffe and and Seth Frey say, it’s language that’s behind the wheel. This one’s for people care a lot about literary style or care a lot how the brain works — or both, of course. (Also enjoy, or not, the classically academic trolling in the comments.)
A cognitive scientist looking at Booth’s explanation of Shakespearean effects would spot many concepts from her own discipline. Those include priming—when, after hearing a word, we tend more readily to recognize words that are related to it; expectation—the influence of higher-level reasoning on word recognition; and depth of processing—how varying levels of attention affect the extent of our engagement with a statement. (Shallow processing explains our predisposition to miss the problem of whether a man should be allowed to marry his widow’s sister.)
The consonances are surprising, considering that when Booth established his method of criticism, the prevailing school of linguistics had no room for such ideas.
Why not. But good cognac is key.
One topic they do take (somewhat) seriously is the artistic nature of their book burnings. At their sole incineration outside Iceland — in Basel, Switzerland — they had a difficult time persuading the locals that this was “a poetic act, not a political one”.
They assure me that they burn books “with a lot of care and respect, using only first-grade French cognac to help to fuel the flames”.
Withholding maintenance as a power play, hardcore debt collection, and public shaming for late rent — sounds like a classic slumlord. Or, maybe, Jared Kushner. Here’s Alex MacGillis on what it’s like to live in a property owned by the president’s son-in-law.
The worst troubles may have been those described in a 2013 court case involving Jasmine Cox’s unit at Cove Village. They began with the bedroom ceiling, which started leaking one day. Then maggots started coming out of the living room carpet. Then raw sewage started flowing out of the kitchen sink. “It sounded like someone turned a pool upside down,” Cox told me. “I heard the water hitting the floor and I panicked. I got out of bed and the sink is black and gray, it’s pooling out of the sink and the house smells terrible.”
Cox stopped cooking for herself and her son, not wanting food near the sink. A judge allowed her reduced rent for one month. When she moved out soon afterward, Westminster Management sent her a $600 invoice for a new carpet and other repairs. Cox, who is now working as a battery-test engineer and about to buy her first home, was unaware who was behind the company that had put her through such an ordeal. When I told her of Kushner’s involvement, there was a silence as she took it in.
“Get that [expletive] out of here,” she said.
On the same day that The Washington Post praised Melanie and Ivanka Trump for being pretty, stylish, and silent, Jess Zimmerman posted a call for women to embrace ugliness. It’s hard to pull off without sounding like sour grapes, but she threads the needle brilliantly — not anti-beauty, just pointing out that there’s more than one game in town. Naming Medusa the patron saint of not-lovely women doesn’t hurt.
There is no male-controlled culture that by default sees women, that allows women to be seen. In my country the government doesn’t (yet) require us to cover our faces, but don’t confuse that for visibility: We’re obscured not by cloth but by disregard, by the way men are taught to devalue us and we are taught to devalue ourselves. It’s beauty — and specifically femininity, and even more specifically, sexual attractiveness to men — that burns through the veil.
People look through your face, or past it, when beauty doesn’t focus them, when there’s nothing there they want. They’re not afraid to meet your eyes—they just don’t see the point.
Better for them to be afraid. Better for them to think they’ll turn to stone.
See also Mary Beard, more scholarly but no less righteously pissed off, on monsters, myths, and women in power.
If you missed the reading by Seattle’s Nicole Dieker last Tuesday (or even if you didn’t), you can catch up with her at The Awl, where she’s chronicled the journey toward self-publishing her first novel with great wit and self-effacing charm.
Whether your novel will be a success is still to be determined — though you can guess already that it might not, five-star reviews and Ferrante comparisons aside. It is successful because you did it. It is financially successful because you have not yet spent more, to publish and promote the novel, than you earned from the Patreon project. You can say all of these things but you know there is another marker of success out there — well, multiple markers, because you know that the trad publishing world counts a “successful” literary fiction novel as one that sells 3,000–5,000 copies, and you also know that there’s the type of success that derives from momentum; from being good and having everyone talk about you at the same time.
You do not think you will have that kind of momentum, for the same reasons you weren’t ever popular in high school.
There’s a numbing volume of subculture reportage on the internet, rapidly catching up with the ubiquitous personal essay. Simon Akam’s piece on the British legal system — specifically, the political, financial, and class-haunted relationship between the barrister and the clerk — stands out. Informative, bemusing, and vital background reading for fans of Sarah Caudwell and many others.
At a chambers that had expanded and was bringing in more money, three silks decided their chief clerk’s compensation, at 10 percent, had gotten out of hand. They summoned him for a meeting and told him so. In a tactical response that highlights all the class baggage of the clerk-barrister relationship, as well as the acute British phobia of discussing money, the clerk surprised the barristers by agreeing with them. “I’m not going to take a penny more from you,” he concluded. The barristers, gobsmacked and paralyzed by manners, never raised the pay issue again, and the clerk remained on at 10 percent until retirement.
Halfway down, Joseph Bernstein’s article on “He will not divide us,” a public art piece fronted by Shia LaBeouf, goes batshit crazy. Launched on January 20 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the installation was simple and in theory (although: really?) nonpartisan: a sidewalk-facing camera and a line of text for passersby to read aloud. Within a week it was a mosh pit of alt-right trolling, trash, and violence. Then the real fight started: between the artists, the museum, and the community.
By the third and fourth days of the installation, as young men in MAGA hats started showing up to the museum in larger numbers, "He Will Not Divide Us" began to resemble nothing so much as a social network made flesh. There were civil discussions. There were shouting matches. There were visitors squawking about Trump, about “the Jewish word for division, Soros,” about the revolution not being televised, about their mixtapes, about how Bitcoin would save the world, about WeSearchr, about yo, follow my Instagram. There were doxxes. There were well-intentioned founders with institutional backing and idealistic words about free expression; there were early celebrity adopters; there was an initial period of great hope; there was a worsening signal-to-noise ratio; and there were trolls and racists determined to test the boundaries of the new space with provocations and hate speech.
And then, there was chaos.
Rebecca Mead profiles Gerhard Steidl, considered the best printer of photography books in the world — a craftsman so confident he was disappointed by the Gutenberg Bible. Fascinating look at the practicalities of printing (the fine details of ink, paper, and press) and the philosophy of books as beautiful and meaningful objects. As well as the book as more than an object:
Steidl’s family was poor, and his parents had received no formal education. There were few books at home, and it was momentous for Steidl when he received one — Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” — as a Christmas gift. Steidl begged his sister to read it aloud to him immediately, and afterward he told his father how much he had loved it. Steidl’s father, angered that the children had finished the book so quickly, struck the sister. Years later, Steidl’s father explained that he had believed the book, having been read through, was now useless; before buying the gift, he’d never been in a bookstore.
See also Craig Mod this week on the maturing debate about print vs. digital reading: “Containers matter.”
In 1843, a jealous James Hooker started a twenty-year evolutionary hack, shipping the first of hundreds of trees to barren, equatorial Ascension Island. Today the island’s “Green Mountain” is lush and abundant — and a new ecosystem is pushing out the old. This is what terraforming a new world might look like: the transformation of a Mars-like wasteland; a slow, painful struggle between native and alien species; and constant vigilance to prevent an epic system crash.
I visit Ascension’s famous Dew Pond. By the 1880s, Hooker’s “mist-catching trees” had formed a small pond at the mountain’s summit, the island’s first freshwater water body. Today, bamboo trunks form a 40-foot tall wall around the pond, knocking together harmoniously in the breeze.
A life-sized, plastic crocodile waits half-submerged in the pond with teeth showing. The faux reptile appeared there in the 1990s as a gag. It quickly developed its own mythology among the military residents. Should they remove the item? Or leave it? No one can agree what to do with it now. The same can be said about the artificial ecosystem all around.
This week Masha Gessen and Michael Errard both take a close listen to what's coming out of Donald Trump's mouth — not what he says, but how he says it.
Errard's piece is a quick read on Trump in transcription, validating (unfortunately) that our country's chief executive is just as batty as he sounds, and may be making us a little crazy, too, simply by the structure of his speech. That feeling of being gaslit every time you hear our president? This is how he does it.
Gessen's article is longer, more serious, and sort of terrifying if you have any interest and/or faith in language. Trump is overwriting the meaning of our language until, like an overused palimpsest, it no longer holds meaning at all. Here's a battle that writers are uniquely suited to fight.
Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static. This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality. This is what language is for: to enable you to name “secateurs,” buy them, and use them. To make it possible for a surgeon to name “scalpel” and have it placed in her open palm. To make sure that a mother can understand the story her child tells her when she comes home from school, or a judge can evaluate a case being made. None of this is possible when words mean nothing.
Start with the premise that if treatment for a particular disease exists, then people deserve access to it, especially if treatment is relatively simple and affordable to the US health system. Now throw in racism, poverty, and national politics, and you get the infuriating situation in Marion, Alabama, where tuberculosis — utterly curable and manageable — has moved in to stay.
In October 2014, a nurse practitioner tore into [Shane Lee's] office with a fresh medical mask over her mouth, frantically waving an X-ray film. The mask, a tight-fitting turquoise respirator, was unusual. And then he looked at the radiography, which showed that the patient’s lungs were nearly completely whited out. It was the worst case of tuberculosis that he had ever seen.
Since then, Marion, a town of 3,500 and the seat of Perry County, has been grappling with a historic outbreak of a disease that has vanished from worry in much of the United States. Thirty-four active cases have been found; if that doesn’t seem like a lot, consider that the rate of infection — what the World Health Organization uses to determine severity — is almost a hundred times the national average, and higher than the rates in India, Kenya, and Haiti.
Rafe Bartholomew’s father tended bar at the famous McSorley’s Old Ale House for decades, then transformed himself by self-publishing The McSorley Poems. Great piece on pride, resilience, and the false romance of the writing/drinking life.
In the end, it took two years of course work and arriving right at the edge of a decision to leave McSorley’s for my father to realize he wanted to stay at the bar. He didn’t need to change careers to find satisfaction. He just had to find a way to inject the bartender’s life with a greater sense of purpose. The solution was obvious: He had to write again.
Most of us experience surgery from the sharp side of the knife, with all the attendant glory of hospital gowns, IVs, and iconic fluorescent lights. Scottish novelist William Boyd charts a recent increase in memoirs by the women and men who do the cutting — a reader’s guide to a professon in which the gruesome reality of flesh opens big questions of life, death, and trust in another human’s skill.
For the non-surgeon, I would claim, the sight of a dead human being, supine, spatchcocked, heart removed, would be a life-changing horror. The fact is that for surgeons the interior of the human body – its glossy organs, its swelling fluids, its lurid blood – becomes a very normal, unremarkable sight, an everyday arena of activity, very quickly losing its freight of torrid emotion and associated gag reflex. I put this to Moran and he admits to never having felt squeamish. Maybe this is the crucial first requirement.
Apropos of nothing, except a stray thought that the blaring noise coming from social media is just the opposite of what Joan Didion described in 1961 as self-respect — in a Twitter-like assignment to fill a gap in Vogue, left by another writer, exactly to the character.
The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions ... The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough.
In case you missed the link in our warm-up to Free Comic Book Day, Jia Tolentino profiled Seattle’s G. Willow Wilson in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Wilson, author of the much-awarded Ms. Marvel reboot, is as likeable as her breakout superhero: gentle, direct, and taking absolutely no shit from anybody.
At the coffee shop, as a barista cleared our plates, we talked about how the stakes of every identity-politics debate feel heightened since November — and also about new alliances that seem to be forming in the election’s wake. Wilson spoke with some astonishment about the fact that she could include a gay secondary character in “Ms. Marvel” — the blond, popular Zoe — and still have mothers and daughters show up to her readings in hijabs. “It’s funny. Those right-wing bloggers who said my work was part of some socialist-Muslim-homosexual attack on American values, they really created the thing they feared. There wasn’t a socialist-Muslim-homosexual alliance before, but there sure as fuck is one now, and I love it."
This week “Believe,” by Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, is making the rounds with a characteristically cutting and charming assessment of why it’s so hard to change anyone’s mind. Over at The Intercept, Sharon Lerner interviewed Jerry Taylor, a one-time climate change denier, about his conversion to climate activist and how he’s working to shift others the same way. (Bret Stephens take note.)
If you talk about the need to transform civilization and to engage in the functional equivalent of World War III, you may as well just forget it. To most conservatives, that’s just nails on a chalkboard. Or if you say, you’re corrupted and a shill and ignorant. That’s no way to convince anybody of anything. What are the chances they’re going to say, Gee, you’re right? All that does is entrench someone in their own position.
Speaking of Seattle and superpowers … The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a huge influence on global health, and their enormous philanthropic buying power put them on par with, and maybe above, international players like the World Health Organization. How does an 800-pound gorilla learn to throw its weight gently — and help prepare for its own exit?
Over the past decade, the world’s richest man has become the World Health Organization’s second biggest donor, second only to the United States and just above the United Kingdom. This largesse gives him outsized influence over its agenda, one that could grow as the U.S. and the U.K. threaten to cut funding if the agency doesn’t make a better investment case.
A very short collection of tweets we wish Warren Ellis had posted.
Very excited about America these days. Really enjoyed the MAD MAX films, looking forward to the theme park
This is a scathing take on that most beloved institution of the MFA — the writing workshop — by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer. Hard to say what’s most terrifying here: the thought that this set of attitudes and assumptions is readily accepted (and celebrated) throughout American literary culture … or that it’s becoming an infectious export globally. I’m going to shut up now and let Nguyen carry it:
We, the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban, the ones who have no choice but to speak in the language we have — we come bearing the experiences and ideas the workshop suppresses. We come from the Communist countries America bombed during the Cold War, or where it sponsored counter-Communist efforts. We come from the lands America occupied, invaded or colonized. We come as refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented. We come from the ghettos, barrios, reservations and borders of America where there are no workshops. We come from the bedrooms and the kitchens of the American home, where we were supposed to stay, and stay silent. We come speaking languages other than English. We come from the margins, where English is broken. We come with financial aid and loans and families that do not understand what “creative writing” is. We come from communities we do not wish to renounce in the name of our individualism. We come wanting to do more than just sell our stories to white audiences.
Making every book in the universe searchable and instantly available online? Yes, please. Stealing income from authors and holding libraries hostage to skyrocketing access fees? No, thanks. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Google’s “Project Ocean,” a moonshot to scan every book on the planet.
James Somers threads the massive legal labyrinth of copyright and class action suits that’s holding the world’s largest digital library hostage — and demonstrates just how urgently we need a new model that mediates between artists and audiences in a sane and sensible way.
Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages — to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time — and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.
eBooks can be polarizing: friends and families set at odds, lovers torn apart over paper vs. Paperwhite. In a bit of good news for those holding up the side for physical books, headlines that once read “print is dead” are suddenly posting obits for electronic editions. Paula Cocozza argues that digital books are simply finding their level, but that won’t stop us from enjoying the public re-investment in the beauty of a well-made book.
Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are — not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.
It’s deeply satisfying, from a narrative perspective, that the Trump presidency has invigorated both the transformation of Teen Vogue and a comeback by discredited elder statesman Dan Rather. Sort of like Don Quixote saddling up to ride with Furiosa … or not, if you’re not that kind of nerd. Ahem. Regardless: In this profile of Rather, Ben Baker describes a journalist who is passionate, articulate, and determined to win the last battle of his career.
For decades, Rather was fodder for critics who considered him too emotional, too liberal, too ambitious, too self-serious. He didn’t smile a lot; his folksy sayings could come off as downright weird. But the exact eccentricities that made at times for an awkward fit for network television, and his talent for thoughtful but unambiguous pronouncements of outrage, have been pitch-perfect for this new medium and moment. One of the leading voices of the Trump resistance is not some black-masked radical or a marching young woman with a pink knit hat but a man with gray hair, a name you know and a neatly knotted tie.
In a complete change of pace (no pun intended), here’s an engrossing article by Sara Estes about a batshit crazy footrace called the Barkley Marathons that may or may not be run by a man named Lazarus Lake.
Since 1986, the Barkley has been operating entirely under the radar, rising from a casual underground affair to a cult obsession. Few even figure out how to enter the Barkley, fewer still come close to finishing it. Today, people come from all over the world for the chance to annihilate their minds and bodies in a 60-hour, 100-mile, sleepless, nearly impossible gauntlet through the merciless mountains. Lost and alone, they struggle through hallucinations, extreme cold, heat, thunderstorms, sleet, and rock-bottom exhaustion while they navigate vast stretches of sinister, unmarked woodland with only a compass and their prayers.
Steven Pete feels no pain. Even broken bones bring only a slight discomfort. For Pam Costa, any warmth burns like fire; she takes morphine every morning and sleeps on ice-cold pillows. Although the two Washingtonians live just over an hour apart, they’ve never met — but their cases are helping identify a gene that could be used to control chronic physical suffering. Erika Hayasaki documents this classic scientific detective story.
As a child, Costa would dawdle in the deep gutters lining the streets near her home, the cool, mucky water providing her momentary pain relief. In classrooms she would wrap her hands and feet around the poles of a desk, like a koala, to feel the coolness. And she’d sneak off to water fountains to wipe down her limbs with cold water.
Doctors didn’t know how to diagnose her. Some adults thought she had behavioral issues or depression. One physician said her symptoms were psychosomatic. The plum color was the only visible evidence that she might have any medical disorder at all. Then, in 1977, when Costa was 11, a letter arrived from the Mayo Clinic.
Ex-Evangelical Meghan O’Gieblyn is really, really good at describing what it’s like to lose your faith — to be dislocated in time, even to lose your sense of your own body as you lose your sense of God. That makes it easier to understand how a new, outlandish set of beliefs, the transhumanism favorited by tech elitists like Elon Musk, could slip unconsidered into the gap.
The deeper I got into the articles, the more unhinged my thinking became. One day, it occurred to me: perhaps God was the designer and Christ his digital avatar, and the incarnation his way of entering the simulation to share tips about our collective survival as a species. Or maybe the creation of our world was a competition, a kind of video game in which each participating programmer invented one of the world religions, sent down his own prophet-avatar and received points for every new convert.
By this point I’d passed beyond idle speculation. A new, more pernicious thought had come to dominate my mind: transhumanist ideas were not merely similar to theological concepts but could in fact be the events described in the Bible.
Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on Rachel Dolezal for The Stranger went viral this week, and rightfully so. Oluo perfectly expresses the frustration of trying to engage Dolezal, who is endlessly slippery and self-protective — just reading their exchanges is maddening. Then she neatly pivots out of the game of “she said, she said”: out of the pseudo-academic arguments, out of the crocodile tears, and back onto terra firma. Here’s hoping this can be her final word.
When the story first broke in June 2015, I was approached by more editors in a week than I had heard from in two months. They were all looking for "fresh takes" on the Dolezal scandal from the very people whose identity had now been put up for debate—black women. I wrote two pieces on Dolezal for two different websites, mostly focused not on her, but on the lack of understanding of black women's identity that was causing the conversation about Dolezal to become more and more painful for so many black women.
After a few weeks of media obsession, I—and most of the other black women I knew—was completely done with Rachel Dolezal.
Or, at least I hoped to be.
I don’t know, Kevin Nguyen; this is all fine practical advice, but doesn’t it boil down to — if you want to read more, read more? We don’t need a listicle for that, or a Fitbit so we can track page counts against our friends. However, in case you do want some highly amusing guidance on how to read in the absence of a comfy chair, a few hours, and glass of scotch, here it is.
Before you tell me how much you “enjoy the smell of print books” like some kind of psycho, let me try to sell you on the convenience of reading in the Kindle or iBooks app: you’ll always have your books with you, and most importantly, you can always get through a little reading in those lost minutes of the day — waiting in line for coffee, for the 4-train running behind schedule, and for the bathroom because you drank too much coffee. Those pages add up fast.
I-walked–2,000-miles-and-lived-to-tell-the-tale is a genre full of clichés. Crushing physical discomfort? Check. Naïve decisions that lead to near-disaster? Check. Ultimate success and personal transformation? Check. Check check check.
Friend of SRoB Rahawa Haile’s story is different. Haile — black, Eritrean, queer — hiked the Appalachian Trail alone in 2016, covering thousands of miles of wilderness dotted with pro-Trump signs and Confederate flags. Those oases of “civilization” were more terrifying than rattlesnakes and switchbacks. So was her return to an urban world in which Donald Trump had been elected president.
Every day I eat the mountains, and the mountains, they eat me. “Less to carry,” I tell the others: this skin, America, the weight of that past self. My hiking partners are concerned and unconvinced. There is a weight to you still, they tell me. They are not wrong. My footing has been off for days. There were things I had braced for at the beginning of this journey that have finally started to undo me.
Also read: Haile’s incandescent short essay on carrying books by black authors and the weight of the present moment across all 2,000 miles.
Did you love S-Town? I did. Like Maaza Mengiste, I listened “with my own childhood experiences in mind” — a wealth of stories and memories from Jackson, Gulfport, Meridian, some beloved, some angry, some sad. That’s what S-Town is meant to do, Mengiste says: make us think about how we’re living, who we are.
What if who you are is a gaping absence in the story, though? What if who you are is black? Here’s what S-Town sounds like to that set of ears.
This podcast is supposed to be about all those things we do not know of a person, all those things that we cannot imagine that make up their totality. In producing this podcast, however, the creators made an assumption that rings false, that frankly, rings white: that it is possible to move through this land and simply tuck race into a corner until it's convenient.
Eula Biss lives in one of Chicago’s “most diverse neighborhoods,” which means she and her husband, both academics, are able to afford an apartment with a view of Lake Michigan. They are the leading edge of gentrification, and they dread the cultural and social losses that come with it. This will feel familiar to many Seattleites …
“Gentrification” is a word that agitates my husband. It bothers him because he thinks that the people who tend to use the word negatively, white artists and academics, people like me, are exactly the people who benefit from the process of gentrification. “I think you should define the word ‘gentrification,’” my husband tells me now.
I ask him what he would say it means, and he pauses for a long moment. “It means that an area is generally improved,” he says finally, “but in such a way that everything worthwhile about it is destroyed.”
Yonatan Zunger has been reflecting on the definitions of “right” and “wrong” for several decades. He has some good, practical advice for determining which is which, or at least thinking more carefully about the question. And some very clear views on the real-world consequences of muddy ethical thinking.
I’ve been regularly surprised at the depth of people’s urge not to discuss things like institutional racism or sexism, or generational poverty, or how power imbalances in society mean that seemingly “identical” behaviors are in no way identical. But if you fail to understand this, then you will routinely engage in “identical” behaviors which are anything but — for example, expecting that someone move in with their family until they can get back on their feet, when not everyone has a family they can do that with. The harm you cause this way may be entirely surprising and unclear to you, because you never learned about the things which cause your actions to lead to it. But if you had the chance to learn it and didn’t, then the moral bill is on you.
This piece by Sam Tanenhaus is a vivid history of Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, with direct lines via Pat Buchanan to Donald Trump’s victory last year. Judging by this retelling, politics has become considerably less witty — though no less petty. Time for the Twitterverse to up its game.
For [Garry] Wills, "Nixon's main problem, I think, was his nose," Buchanan recalls. He's serious. Nixon's ski-jump nose, beloved by caricaturists, was a staple of the period's cornball humor. Even Nixon worked up good-sport one-liners. ("Bob Hope and I would make a great ad for Sun Valley.") Wills, crammed beside him in a DC-3, under the dim overhead spotlight, was transfixed—not by the nose's fabled length but by "its distressing width, accentuated by the depth of the ravine running down its center, and by its general fuzziness . . . the nose swings far out; then, underneath, it does not rejoin his face in a straight line, but curves far up again, leaving a large but partially screened space between nose and lip" ...
For non-fans, sports are a blur of frantic movement punctuated by long, dull waits and nerve-shattering cheers and boos from true believers. It’s not easy to sell us on the storyline, but Kevin Alexander manages it in this piece on “Hard Men” — the bruisers and bullies who’ve held folkloric status on English soccer teams for decades and are now fading into history.
You can get a sense of their skill sets by looking at the nicknames of the Hard Men of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Chelsea’s Ron “Chopper” Harris and Liverpool’s Tommy “the Anfield Iron” Smith. (“Tommy Smith wasn’t born,” Bill Shankly once said, “he was quarried.”) My personal favorite is Leeds United’s Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter. Another Leeds Hard Man, Joe Jordan, was nicknamed “Jaws” because he refused to wear dentures after losing four teeth to a kick in the mouth.
In a short piece packed with literary gossip and impeccable research, Levi Stahl puts a forgotten tale of Vladmir Nabokov, butterflies, and a dying prospector under the microscope.
After more than four hours of hiking, the two were descending a steep slope covered by ice-crusted snow when they lost their footing and began to slide toward the edge. Nabokov managed to snag a rock with his butterfly net, and Laughlin was able to grab Nabokov’s shoe while rushing past him. The net held, and the men survived.
That was not the only time death came near Nabokov that summer.
One strategy for interacting with beloved authors is to avoid eye contact at all costs and leave the room if possible. Jonathan Carroll favors a different approach.
Like so many people, I happened onto one of Bukowski’s collections of poetry in a university used book shop. I stood there a long time, drinking down his poems for the first time like they were cold Coca Cola on a hot day. I’d never read anything like them and it was a thrilling experience. In my 20 year old college boy “I want to be a writer too someday” voice I wrote all of that to him. A few weeks later I received an envelope from the Sunshine Inn Motel in San Pedro, California.
Lake Powell, Lake Mead — we created these outsized watering holes by replacing natural wonders like Glen Canyon with human wonders like the Glen Canyon Dam. Now America’s manmade lakes are going dry. Rebecca Solnit (with Edward Abbey looking closely over her shoulder) asks what might reappear as the desert reclaims itself.
When the Sierra Club pronounced Glen Canyon dead in 1963, the organization’s leaders expected it to stay dead under Lake Powell. But this old world is re-emerging, and its fate is being debated again. The future we foresee is often not the one we get, and Lake Powell is shriveling, thanks to more water consumption and less water supply than anyone anticipated. Beneath it lies not just canyons but spires, crests, labyrinths of sandstone, Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and burial sites, an intricate complexity hidden by water, depth lost in surface.
Dionne Searcey and photographer Adam Ferguson bring National Route 1 — the desert highway outside Diffa, Niger, where thousands have gathered to take shelter from the Boko Haram — vividly to life. Cheers to The New York Times for continuing its impressive experiments with digital, and especially for bending the medium to the story, rather than the other way around.
Construction stopped two years ago after attacks by Boko Haram spiked. [The road's] intended destination — oil fields near the border with Chad — is far away, about 80 miles beyond the choppy lip where the pavement suddenly cuts off, like an interrupted thought.
The Chinese are gone. Now, desperation spans the horizon instead: tens of thousands of ragged huts made from millet stalks, scraps of fabric, torn flour bags and sheets of tarp. From the air, they look like scattered piles of hay.
Many have been living here for more than two years.
Neil Gaiman reads in Seattle tonight, to a sold-out house. Here’s Ursula Le Guin with a charmingly curmudgeonly critique of Gaiman’s new and already beloved retelling of the Norse myths.
Gaiman plays down the extreme strangeness of some of the material and defuses its bleakness by a degree of self-satire. There is a good deal of humour in the stories, the kind most children like — seeing a braggart take a pratfall, watching the cunning little fellow outwit the big dumb bully. Gaiman handles this splendidly. Yet I wonder if he tries too hard to tame something intractably feral, to domesticate a troll.
Mike Monteiro, the acerbic conscience of the design industry, is perpetually pissed off, but that doesn’t make him wrong. On the role design plays in shaping history and the slippery self-deception of “creating change from the inside”:
I get that you like making things. But making things at the expense of someone else’s freedom is fucked. Not putting what you’re designing through an ethical test is not only just lazy, it’s dangerous. Feigning ignorance that ethics is not part of your job as a designer is no longer valid. Knowing that it’s part of the job and ignoring it is criminal.
Olivia Nuzzi published a long and detailed profile of Kellyanne Conway this week. It’s a can’t-look-away article, somewhere between trainwreck and victory march. (Side note: Like a lot of other people, I’m pretty sure I could manage to dislike Conway in person. Her particular brand of fact-bending makes my teeth itch.)
You should read the profile, which is crazy fascinating, but then follow up with this awesomely sardonic essay by Matt Taibbi on how neatly we’ve been suckered into co-creating, with Trump, a “WWE future where government is a for-profit television program.” Ahem.
Trump leans over and pauses to soak in the love, his trademark red tie hanging like the tongue of a sled dog. Finally he turns and flashes a triumphant thumbs-up. A chant breaks out:
"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
Reporters stare at one another in shock. They were mute bystanders seconds ago; now they're the 1980 Soviet hockey team. One turns to a colleague and silently mouths: "U-S-A? What the f ... "
A friendship forged in the kitchen — superstar chef Mario Batali on eating and cooking with superstar writer Jim Harrison. Would love to have been at a quiet corner table to observe these giants at dinner.
We once shared a slightly overlong supper at the Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park, in New York, where he fidgeted through most of the complex meal, announcing early on in his loud baritone to the entire dining room, “Maaaario, you know I am much more of a trattoria kind of guy,” and finally sending his chicken back to the kitchen, because the chef had somehow denied him “THE FUCKING LEGS . . . where are THE FUCKING LEGS . . . ?”
Game designer/developer Ed Fries went searching for the ultimate Easter egg: an inside joke hidden so deeply in a vintage game that even its creator had forgotten how to trigger it. Fries scoured code, jury-built an emulator, and rebuilt a classic arcade machine to find it. (via Ars Technica)
I was kind of stunned. If this was true it would certainly predate the earliest video game Easter egg that I knew of and the one that is most often cited as being the first: “Adventure” for the Atari 2600 from 1979. I did a little searching online and found that there was an even earlier Easter egg in the game “Video Whizball” which was released in 1978 for the Fairchild Channel F game console.
But there was a problem. Ron didn’t remember exactly how to bring up the Easter egg. He remembered showing it off to some buddies at a county fair when the game first came out, but that was 40 years ago!
Malware is sort of like an Easter egg — if you cracked open the pastel treat and found a rotting yolk that emptied your bank account electronically. Or, in this case, helped tilt an election and change the shape of a country.
Garrett Graff traces the hunt for Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, or “Slavik,” the malware artist who designed the “the Microsoft Office of online fraud.” Great story of a breathtaking cat-and-mouse battle between Slavik and the investigators that tracked the elusive hacker from petty online theft to potentially influencing the US presidential outcome.
[Tillman] Werner, as it happened, knew quite a bit about Evgeniy Bogachev. He knew in precise, technical detail how Bogachev had managed to loot and terrorize the world’s financial systems with impunity for years. He knew what it was like to do battle with him.
But Werner had no idea what role Bogachev might have played in the US election hack. Bogachev wasn’t like the other targets—he was a bank robber. Maybe the most prolific bank robber in the world.
This one’s close to home. Arts culture and reviews are on the decline as news publications go digital-first — criticism just doesn’t drive the clicks and pageviews that are the darlings of the modern editorial office. Some publications are finding creative workarounds, like this Dallas bookstore and this book review site. But if we think the critic’s voice matters, we need to get smart about using data with intuition and experience, not instead of.
The drive to revamp cultural coverage has overtaken major newspapers, including the New York Times, just as the wider public has been rediscovering the virtue of traditional reporting. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential campaign, with its catastrophic feedback loop of fake news and clickbait, people have subscribed in surging numbers to so-called legacy publications. Do these chastened content-consumers really want culture pages dominated by trending topics? Or do they expect papers to decide for themselves what merits attention? One lesson to be learned from the rise of Donald Trump is that the media should not bind themselves blindly to whatever moves the needle.
Carvell Wallace covered the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, walking alone through a sea of ten-gallon hats, exploring the complex cultural roots of cowboy music, and asking what it means to put America first. He’s nailed the tone in this one: straightforward, generous, even a bit sentimental — but not letting anyone off the hook.
To hear Steiger talk about it, ranching — "cowboying," as he called it — is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. Simple and spiritual. Honest and pure. This view explains why so many people make their pilgrimage to Elko every year, carrying guitars and banjos, fiddles and musical saws, dressed in white hats and turquoise, boots and fringe. They are in love with a lovely thing. It gives them a sense of place, a sense of belonging. It is a celebration of culture. It is, in many ways, a family reunion.
And for me, as always, I just see ghosts.
Print is a conversation; digital is a crowd. Now that we’re past the delirious early days of our fling with social media, it’s easier to see what the printed page is uniquely good for.
The love affair between print, politics, and protest is no new romance. Shuffle down the mag pile marked “protest” and you’ll find the underground press of the 60s and 70s, and feminist titles like Spare Rib. Reach further back and you’ll find the clandestine press of the French Resistance, British political pamphlets of the 18th century, and much more. But now that digital and social media provide so many other means for political protest and debate, why does print remain an essential part of the political media diet?
Why? For a multitude of reasons — unconscious bias, a clubby educational system, assumptions about where genius comes from — that boil down to “because they can be, and they make a lot of money while they’re doing it.” Thanks to Susan J. Fowler and other women who are speaking up, that’s changing. Liza Mundy interviewed dozens of women who’ve survived and succeeded in the tech industry for this story.
“Until we see changes in the way we work, I don’t think we’re going to crack this nut,” Correll says. “I worked with one company that insisted that the best way for good ideas to emerge was to have people on teams screaming their ideas at each other. When you watch these teams work, they literally scream at each other and call each other names. They believe this dynamic is essential to scientific discovery—absolutely essential. I said, ‘Could you at least say you disagree with someone without saying you think they are an idiot?’ ”
Muira McCammon spends hours daily reading about, looking at, and listening to the documented record of humanity at its worst. She turned her researcher’s eye on the survival strategies of her profession.
I kept asking Seccombe how he handled the psychological taxation of performing document analysis on so many pages of trial evidence about Nazi experiments in human freezing, oxygen deprivation (high-altitude), poison gas, and chemical sterilization. How did he endure the onslaught of details about the removal of bones for anatomical research, Jewish skeleton collections, forced sterilization programs, and the mass murder of civilians? I needed to know what he did to relax at the end of the day. “I try to leave the work behind,” he said, “but sometimes I still get nightmares.”
Nearly a year later, I still write to Seccombe almost weekly. When we really need a break, we tend to discuss our latest “canine-friendly moments.” Neither of us owns dogs. We just like to talk about them.
Isabella Rotman’s short comic about what it’s like to faint at the sight of blood is a stellar mix of styles — existential, autobiographical, and educational all at once.
Hat tip to Jason Kottke, whose personal take on a similar phobia is equally worth reading.
The New York Times’ “Insider” series is shamelessly geeky about how reporting happens. Here’s the behind-the-scenes on David Sanger and William Broad’s investigation of how the US is using electronc tools to sabotage North Korea’s missile program. A flash of insight based on two journalists’ unique expertise, hours in the stacks and stacks of drafts, and the thorniest possible negotiation.
Then came the sensitive part of these investigations: telling the government what we had, trying to get official comment (there has been none) and assessing whether any of our revelations could affect continuing operations. In the last weeks of the Obama administration, we traveled out to the director of national intelligence’s offices: a huge complex in an unmarked office park a few miles beyond the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Fairfax County, Va.
Another inside peek, this one into the colorful and sprawling sketchbooks where Oliver Sacks recorded, created, and refined. Maria Popova won privileged access to Sacks’s papers, not yet available in a public archive, and highlights a selection that’s delightful both for its variety and for its reflection of the constant, frenetic effort required to track Sacks’s agile and demanding mind.
Using whatever paper and writing instrument he had on hand, Dr. Sacks jotted down ideas as they occurred to him — unedited, un-self-censored flights of fancy, captured before they flew away and later domesticated into the thoughtful, exquisitely structured, immensely insightful formal writings for which he is so beloved.
To kill or not to kill — and how much to care along the way? The question is driving dissent through what you’d think (if you thought of it at all) would be the most quiet of professions: traditional mole-catching.
For a mole-catcher to be successful today, he or she must engage the client with the most romantic notions of his profession. This, at least, is the theory of Duncan Emmett, a mole-catcher in his 60s who has the long beard of a wizard. “If you take that magic away, if you take that showmanship away, then all you are left with is the killing,” Emmett told me at a dimly lit pub near his home in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. “Because you have to kill the mole, haven’t you? That isn’t an easy thing for a lot of people to bear.”
Donald Trump is definitely a Big Bad. So where’s our Buffy?
It’s probably no coincidence that most of the super-villains that succeed the Master don’t look like super-villains at all. After all, fangs and demony-red eyes aren’t nearly as terrifying as the qualities that define the Big Bads, who embody the ugliest of human traits—cruelty, obsession with loyalty, vengefulness, blazing conviction in their own superiority, an out-of-control temper. They want to remake reality to suit these whims.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat.
Wyatt Mason’s humility lifts this interview with Kendrick Lamar, Beck, and Tom Waits beyond its style-magazine setting. Maybe because Mason asks “some stupid questions,” each of the three musicians responds directly and unpretentiously, offering up their take on songwriting and the relationship between music and the world in times of crisis. E.g., this anecdote from Tom Waits’ days as a firefighter in Jacumba, California:
The captain says: ‘WAITS!!! Take that hose and start putting out some of these chickens.’ So there I am aiming at these flying, screaming, burning chickens, and I had never seen a chicken fly before, but boy can they fly. ... There had to be a hundred or so of them and the blast of water would douse the fire and they would come crashing to the ground — and then another and another. There was no time to think or prepare.”
Here it was, as Waits closed out his story, here it was again, here was where songs come from: “It was an emergency,” he wrote, “and when dealing with emergent behavior there is nothing to do but respond. I was in the moment. And it was not the fire I imagined or dreamed of. It was the fire I got.”
After the deaths of her daughter and husband, Katherine Keith re-taught herself to live on a thousand-mile dogsled race through the Alaskan wilderness.
Her parka finally zipped over her four other coats and two Smartwool shirts, she starts putting Velcro-strapped booties on her Alaskan huskies, a tedious task even in ideal conditions. It's like putting Velcro boots on a baby, only instead of two feet there are four and instead of one baby there are 11, and instead of being inside a warm nursery, she is outside in Alaska in February. She's barehanded, with fingers that have been wrecked by the cold for days already.
The danger of this cold is very real and goes beyond frostbitten finger tips. With more than 200 miles left in her first Yukon Quest, Katherine, 38, can't afford mistakes.
I’m not sure I agree with Jared Spool’s description of “design thinking” here. The term’s power, at IDEO and elsewhere, is less about changing perceptions of design, more about using design strategies to solve other kinds of problems — in transportation and education, for example. Still, it’s good to see someone call it out for what it is: useful jargon, but no magic bullet.
For the longest time, I didn’t get it. It seemed like we just added a new name to an old thing. Nothing was different. I thought it wouldn’t last.
But it did. Everywhere I’d go, there would be presentations where folks would talk about how they’ve introduced design thinking into their organization. (My wife and I would play this game. If we hear someone say “design thinking” in a presentation, we’d each try to be the first to say “I’M DESIGNING WITH MY THOUGHTS!”)
The British educational experience has a host of familiar touchpoints for readers: coming of age, empire building, and quidditch, to name just a few. Here’s a more current and less innocent lens from Andy Beckett. The PPE — a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics — has birthed generations of British political leaders. How did a single Oxford degree become so influential? And where is it leading England?
Oxford PPE remains opaque to outsiders. It is often mentioned in the media but rarely explained. Even to know what PPE stands for is to be unusually well-informed about British education and power – often, to be part of the same Oxford milieu as the PPEists. When I asked one former party leader what he got from the degree, he said with studied insouciance: “Why would you want to write about PPE?” As the establishment often says when scrutinised: nothing to see here.