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Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan

Sasha Sagan on the life lessons given to her by her father, astronomer and author Carl Sagan:

After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on skeptical thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner table conversation at a time. My parents would patiently entertain an endless series of "why?" questions, never meeting a single one with a “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is.” Each query was met with a thoughtful, and honest, response — even the ones for which there are no answers.

PUBLISHED: April 15, 2014
LENGTH: 5 minutes (1475 words)

The Color of His Presidency

On race and Obama's presidency:

This has been Obama’s M.O.: focus on “the more important things.” He’s had to deal explicitly with race in a few excruciating instances, like the 2009 “beer summit” with the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a friend of Obama’s, and James Crowley, the police sergeant responsible for Gates’s controversial arrest. (Obama’s response to the incident was telling: He positioned himself not as an ally of Gates but as a mediator between the two, as equally capable of relating to the white man’s perspective as the black man’s.) After the Zimmerman shooting, he observed that if he had had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. In almost every instance when his blackness has come to the center of public events, however, he has refused to impute racism to his critics.

This has not made an impression upon the critics. In fact, many conservatives believe he accuses them of racism all the time, even when he is doing the opposite. When asked recently if racism explained his sagging approval ratings, Obama replied, “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.” Conservatives exploded in indignation, quoting the first sentence without mentioning the second. Here was yet another case of Obama playing the race card, his most cruel and most unanswerable weapon.

PUBLISHED: April 6, 2014
LENGTH: 23 minutes (5946 words)

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Our story picks of the week, featuring Texas Monthly, The Walrus, New York Times Magazine, 5280 and New York magazine.
PUBLISHED: April 4, 2014

The Boy Who Ran: The Life and Death of Avonte Oquendo

Last October a 14-year-old autistic boy went missing after running out of his school and disappearing. His body was found months later:

NBC and ABC sent reporters right away. They searched the neighborhood all night, along the waterfront, in garbage cans, in parks, under cars, and found nothing. The family kept searching. Avonte’s father came up from Florida to help, bringing Avonte’s half-brother, Daniel Oquendo Jr., with him. Good Samaritans set up tents outside the school to serve as the command station for a search. They handed out leaflets and organized volunteers. When it got colder, a New Jersey man donated a trailer that was kept parked nearby. Donations raised the award for Avonte’s discovery to $89,500. A growing number of volunteers offered to help. The police kept them at a distance, especially when some of their theories on the case started trickling into the news coverage.

PUBLISHED: March 30, 2014
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4399 words)

The Life and Career of Nile Rodgers, In His Own Words

Nile Rodgers reflects on how he ended up in the music business, producing hits for his own band Chic and artists including David Bowie and Daft Punk:

We took Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and Joey D and the Starliters’ “ Peppermint Twist” and made it be about the “Freak.” To make it sound like it was ours, we called it “Le Freak.” But we didn’t tell people how to do the dance because we didn’t really know how to do it. It became better to speak of it in this euphoric way, and talk about the experience of doing it. We say, “Have you heard about the new dance craze.” We assume you haven’t. “We’ll show you the way.” But we don’t! The dance never became “the Twist” or even “the Hustle.” But the song is a triple-platinum single. And when we were on American Bandstand, Dick Clark introduced us in a really wonderful way. He said, “This is the biggest song by a band nobody knows about a dance that nobody knows how to do. Ladies and gentlemen, Chic! ‘Le Freak’!” It was so right on the money.

PUBLISHED: March 30, 2014
LENGTH: 7 minutes (1930 words)

Watching Team Upworthy Work Is Enough to Make You a Cynic. Or Lose Your Cynicism. Or Both. Or Neither.

Abebe goes inside the viral site Upworthy to discover their motivations and their formula for reaching a huge audience:

Its choices are the ones you’d normally associate with a race to the bottom—the manipulative techniques of ads, tabloids, direct-mail fund-raising, local TV news (“Think This Common Household Object Won’t Kill Your Children? You’d Be Wrong”). It’s just that Upworthy assumes the existence of a “lowest common denominator” that consists of a human craving for righteousness, or at least the satisfaction that comes from watching someone we disagree with get their rhetorical comeuppance. They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals—“evergreen standards like ‘Human rights are a good thing’ and ‘Children should be taken care of’ ”—on the logic that “good” things deserve ads as potent as the “bad” ones have. “I think marketing in a traditional sense, for commercialism—marketing to get you to buy ­McDonald’s or something—is crass,” says Sara Critchfield, the site’s editorial director. “But marketing to get people’s attention onto really important topics is a noble pursuit. So you take something that in one context is very crass and you put it in another. People will say, ‘That’s very crass,’ but in the service of doing something good for humanity, I think it’s pretty great.”

PUBLISHED: March 24, 2014
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4081 words)

Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Our favorite stories of the week, featuring the London Review of Books, New York magazine, Medium, Texas Monthly, and the Morning News.
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2014

The Plot From Solitary

Four men from rival gangs launch a hunger strike protesting the conditions of solitary confinement:

The severity of his isolation meant that as the strike began, Ashker had little idea of what effect it was having or how many other prisoners had decided to join him. It turned out to be the largest coordinated hunger strike in American history. On the first day, 30,000 prisoners across the state refused their meals. Three days in, more than 11,000 still had not eaten. “We had expected hundreds, even thousands,” says Dr. Ricki Barnett, a senior official in the state’s correctional health-care system. “We did not expect tens of thousands.”

From the beginning, even the most basic matters about the strike—what Ashker and the others were after, why so many people joined them, what the strike ­demonstrated—were opaque, and profoundly disputed. To the prisoners and their supporters, this was a protest against barbaric treatment, and the SHU was both an outrage in itself and a symbol of the arbitrariness and brutality of the prison system across the nation.

PUBLISHED: Feb. 26, 2014
LENGTH: 28 minutes (7106 words)

1% Jokes and Plutocrats In Drag: What I Saw When I Crashed a Wall Street Secret Society

While reporting for The New York Times, Kevin Roose went undercover and snuck into an exclusive annual dinner party for Kappa Beta Phi, Wall Street's Secret Society. [Excerpted from Roose's book, Young Money]:

Bill Mulrow, a top executive at the Blackstone Group (who was later appointed chairman of the New York State Housing Finance Agency), and Emil Henry, a hedge fund manager with Tiger Infrastructure Partners and former assistant secretary of the Treasury, performed a bizarre two-man comedy skit. Mulrow was dressed in raggedy, tie-dye clothes to play the part of a liberal radical, and Henry was playing the part of a wealthy baron. They exchanged lines as if staging a debate between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. (“Bill, look at you! You’re pathetic, you liberal! You need a bath!” Henry shouted. “My God, you callow, insensitive Republican! Don’t you know what we need to do? We need to create jobs,” Mulrow shot back.)

PUBLISHED: Feb. 18, 2014
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2258 words)