In our last Top Five of the year, we are bringing you some fantastic stories from a broad range of publications. We begin with a powerful piece on gun violence, written by a reporter who embeds herself for a year in a high school. We then go back in time to the heady days of Silicon Valley in the 90s, before taking a look at the increasingly disturbing abilities of AI. A delve into the world of audiophiles follows before we finish on a seasonal note, with a lovely essay on the Christmas tree trade. Enjoy reading and happy holidays!

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

The Safest Place

Noelle Crombie | The Oregonian | December 11, 2022 | 3,274 words

If you need a reminder of why we need strong local newsrooms, look no further than this powerful project. Reporter Noelle Crombie spent a year at Rosemary Anderson, an alternative high school in Rockwood, a neighborhood in Gresham, Oregon, buffeted by racism, poverty, and COVID-19. Her goal: to document the impact of skyrocketing gun violence on the students, teachers, and support staff. The result is a four-part series, of which this article, about the death of student Dante McFallo, is the first entry. “Five students, including Dante, have died in shootings in the past 2½ years,” Crombie writes. “Another student died in a stabbing and two died in car wrecks. All were young men of color, just 18 or 19. Gunfire wounded at least two other Rosemary Anderson students; both survived.” Make sure to spend time with the photos and videos that accompany the story. —SD

Aristocrat Inc.

Natalie So | The Believer | December 9, 2022 | 12,558 words

Computer chips were “the dope of the ’90s.” And during those years, Silicon Valley, changing dramatically from the personal computing boom, was the Wild West. In this splendid piece for The Believer, Natalie So takes us back to a dark, frenzied time in the Bay Area’s history: when computer-related crime was on the rise, and a new generation of organized crime, run by Asian gangs as part of a large-scale heroin operation, targeted businesses for hardware, especially microchips. But what makes this story special is So’s exploration of her family’s — and particularly her mother’s — place within ’90s Silicon Valley. She traces her parents’ trajectories as immigrants working in technology in the Bay Area before the dot-com boom. As she unearths the past, she is in awe of her mother: street-smart, fearless, and an anomaly in a culture that portrayed Asian American women as docile and passive. In a story that has it all — from true crime to history to memoir — So uncovers a chapter of the computer industry’s past that’s been largely forgotten. “Who writes the Silicon Valley story?” asks So. “And who is excluded from it?” This brings to life a seminal period in the Bay Area’s tech industry, but even more, it’s an epic piece of family history. —CLR

Can AI Write Authentic Poetry?

Keith Holyoak | MIT Press Reader | December 2, 2022 | 3,335 words

Artificial intelligence has fascinated me ever since 2017, when someone told me (in all seriousness!) that I’d be replaced by it within the decade, my editorial experience and skill first duplicated then surpassed by a machine that eats knowledge for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 24/7, 365. Happily, this hasn’t happened — yet — but as Keith Holyoak says in this piece adapted from his book The Spider’s Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry, computers have long surpassed our ability to do math calculations. Could artificial intelligence eventually eclipse our creative abilities when it comes to language? Holyoak suggests perhaps not: “Though I remain officially agnostic, for the purpose of the specific question that presently concerns us — can AI write authentic poetry? — the preponderance of evidence leads me to answer “no.” AI has no apparent path to inner experience, which I (and many others) take to be the ultimate source of authentic poetry. A major corollary of this conclusion deserves to be stated: Inner experience can’t be defined as a computational process.” —KS

Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon

Sasha Frere-Jones | Harper’s | November 9, 2022 | 5,206 words

Perfection is a lie, but try telling that to someone with a newfound hobby. The apparatus of want — single-topic Instagram accounts, subreddits, fan forums — can turn a passing interest into an all-consuming obsession with the “endgame,” a nirvana in which all dreams are realized. For some, it’s mechanical keyboards. For others, it’s quilting. For the community that Sasha Frere-Jones explores in this fascinating piece, it’s audiophiles. (Or the “triode horn mafia,” as a subset of them is known.) But while there’s plenty of subculture gawking to be done here, what with the six-figure speaker prices and jargon-laden schisms, Frere-Jones threads the piece with an emotional honesty that turns it into something special. He entered this world because he loves music, and he wanted to hear the music he loves as truly as he could. Those moments where he manages to do just that, and to render the experience with the clarity that’s given him a long career as a music critic, are the ones that turn this piece into something else entirely. Discount the audiophiles all you want. But if this piece doesn’t make you want to throw your favorite piece of vinyl on a turntable and throw your smartphone into the sea, then I don’t know what to tell you. —PR

Secrets of the Christmas Tree Trade

Owen Long | Curbed in partnership with Epic Magazine | December 7, 2022 | 6,374 words

Who knew the business of Christmas trees could be completely wild? Just read Owen Long’s entertaining story about the Christmas tree industry in New York City. Here, there are no quaint family tree farms or small neighborhood pop-ups — this ruthless industry is run by a few eccentric businessmen, called “tree men,” who spend most of the year preparing for the holiday season. There’s George Nash, an old hippie who sells trees to much of Harlem; Kevin Hammer, known as the “Keyser Söze of Christmas” and the man responsible for shaping NYC’s industry into what it is today; and Greg Walsh, who is Long’s boss (and looks exactly like Santa Claus). I don’t want to say too much — just sit down with a hot drink and dive into this festive and fascinating piece. There are some pretty hilarious lines, so be careful not to spit out your eggnog. —CLR