Longreads Best of 2012: Wired's Mat Honan

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Mat Honan is a senior writer for Wired’s Gadget Lab.


Best story about a monkey that’s really about the role of government that’s really about nature’s place in the modern world that’s actually, maybe, really just about a monkey.

“What’s a Monkey to Do in Tampa?” (Jon Mooallem, New York Times Magazine)

This is the story I’ve linked and forward more than any other this year. I just loved this damn funny, poignant narrative about a renegade macaque monkey on the loose in Tampa, the people trying to catch him, and the others who want to let him remain wild and free, if lonely, among the billboards and greenways of Tampa. 

The citizenry of Tampa Bay was adamantly pro-monkey. People had long been abetting the animal, leaving fruit plates on their patios. A few people, one F.W.C. officer told me, called the agency’s monkey hot line to report that they’d seen the macaque several hours or even a couple of days earlier—offering totally useless intelligence, in other words, presumably just to stick their thumbs in the government’s eye. The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, as people called it, had very quickly become a celebrity. 



Best Adventure Story That Descends into Madness 

“The Last Stand of John McAfee” (Joshua Davis, Wired)

I continue to be fascinated by the John McAfee train wreck. I’ve known the McAfee antivirus founder casually online for several years, and wrote about him when his compound was raided by the Belize Gang Suppression Unit this past Spring. But that was just the carrot top. My colleague Josh Davis spent the five months this year interviewing McAfee to file this amazing report on a millionaire gone South. 

McAfee picks a bullet off the floor and fixes me with a wide-eyed, manic intensity, his light blue eyes sparkling. “This is a bullet, right?” he says in the congenial Southern accent that has stuck with him since his boyhood in Virginia. “Let’s put the gun down,” I tell him. I’d come here to investigate why the government of Belize was accusing him of assembling a private army and entering the drug trade. It seemed implausible that a wildly successful tech entrepreneur would disappear into the Central American jungle and become a narco-trafficker. Now I’m not so sure. But he explains that the accusations are a fabrication. “Maybe what happened didn’t actually happen,” he says, staring hard at me. “Can I do a demonstration?” He loads the bullet into the gleaming silver revolver and spins the cylinder. “This scares you, right?” he says. Then he puts the gun to his head. My heart rate kicks up; it takes me a second to respond. “Yeah, I’m scared,” I admit. “We don’t have to do this.” “I know we don’t,” he says, the muzzle pressed against his temple. And then he pulls the trigger. 



Best Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

“We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two” (David Remnick, The New Yorker)

I’m not sure what to say about this other than it’s a great read and BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!!!

Springsteen came to glory in the age of Letterman, but he is anti-ironical. Keith Richards works at seeming not to give a shit. He makes you wonder if it is harder to play the riffs for “Street Fighting Man” or to dangle a cigarette from his lips by a single thread of spit. Springsteen is the opposite. He is all about flagrant exertion. There always comes a moment in a Springsteen concert, as there always did with James Brown, when he plays out a dumb show of the conflict between exhaustion and the urge to go on. Brown enacted it by dropping to his knees, awash in sweat, unable to dance another step, yet shooing away his cape bearer, the aide who would enrobe him and hustle him offstage. Springsteen slumps against the mike stand, spent and still, then, regaining consciousness, shakes off the sweat—No! It can’t be!—and calls on the band for another verse, another song. He leaves the stage soaked, as if he had swum around the arena in his clothes while being chased by barracudas. “I want an extreme experience,” he says. He wants his audience to leave the arena, as he commands them, “with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated!


Best Story About Math

“The Man Who Broke Atlantic City.” (Mark Bowden, The Atlantic)

Everyone has a fantasy about beating the house at a casino. (No? Just me? Okay, then.) And that’s because it basically never happens. Except to this guy. Don Johnson. (No. Not that Don Johnson.) Johnson beat not just one house, but three—The Tropicana, Ceaser’s and Borgata in Atlantic City, taking home $15 million from the blackjack tables in the process. Mark Bowden has the story of how he pulled it off. 

But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. After all, one high But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. After all, one high roller who has a bad night can determine whether a casino’s table games finish a month in the red or in the black. Inside the casinos, this heightened the natural tension between the marketers, who are always pushing to sweeten the discounts, and the gaming managers, who want to maximize the house’s statistical edge. But month after month of declining revenues strengthened the marketers’ position. By late 2010, the discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent.


Best Story About Race in Modern America

“Fear of a Black President” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic)

I’m aware of the disconnect of a well-off, culturally elite, Left coast-dwelling, white guy picking a “best” story about race relations in modern America. So let me say, in a year when Trayvon Martin was needlessly shot dead and when race was an oft-used political poison during the election, this was the story (along with Kiese Laymon’s “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America”) that made me pause and think about race. “Fear of a Black President” is a brutal and depressing read and yet also a vital one. It’s also story that I think will stand the test of time. Ta-Nehisi Coates essay will be one that we look back on, in years to come, to understand where we were as a culture in 2012. And finally from a purely stylistic point, I found the deft touch with which he lands the closing paragraphs, after such a sprawling essay, both inspiring and intimidating. If only I could write so well.

In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.

Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012


(Photo: Jon Snyder)