An egg farm in Arizona making money off incarcerated women. An excerpt of David Grann’s new book about a disastrous 18th-century British naval expedition. A look into why people ski. And two reads on AI, a topic that none of us can currently escape.

1. What Happened to the Women Prisoners at Hickman’s Farms

Elizabeth Whitman | Cosmopolitan | February 15, 2023 | 3,897 words

Even during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that, as so often happens in America, the toll of the historic event would prove heaviest for the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly, disabled individuals, and essential workers. And the incarcerated. The virus tore through the country’s overcrowded prisons and cut their populations off from the outside world more than they were to begin with. Arizona decided to take these horrors a step further by agreeing to set up a prison labor camp — yes, you read that right — at Hickman’s Family Farms, a large egg producer. Hickman’s had long paid for incarcerated individuals to work in its facilities; the workers only got paid after the state took a huge chunk out of their wages. “This is groundbreaking,” a driver told a female prisoner as he transferred her to the camp, the first of its kind in Arizona and possibly the country, where she would live and work alongside other incarcerated women while COVID exploded. “You guys are gonna be a part of history.” Apparently, history included illness, injury, and indignity, as this investigation by Elizabeth Whitman shows — the women whose voices the story elevates were told they were necessary, and treated as if they were disposable. —SD

2. A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder

David Grann | The New Yorker | February 28, 2023 | 6,800 words

“The only impartial witness was the sun.” So much depends on these seven short words, and they do such a terrific job foreshadowing the mayhem to come. (I’m a sucker for survival/adventure stories. Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, published in 1959, was among my favorite books last year.) David Grann recounts the backstory of the Wager, a British man-o-war with a crew of over 250 that left Portsmouth, England, in 1740 as part of a squadron. Their mission: to find and loot a Spanish galleon, whose treasure was “known as ‘the prize of all the oceans.’” By the time a ship — in tatters — limps into an inlet off the southeastern coast of Brazil, only 30 men remain, “their bodies wasted almost to the bone. Their clothes had largely disintegrated. Their faces were enveloped in hair, tangled and salted like seaweed.” So, what the hell went wrong? Allow an excerpt of the prologue and first chapter of Grann’s forthcoming book, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, to whet your appetite for this story of disaster and intrigue on the high seas. —KS

3. Give the Drummer Some

Jack Stilgoe | Aeon | February 28, 2023 | 5,576 words

With all the manic profiteering surrounding recent AI advances in art and writing, it’s hard not to think that someone’s cooking up a plan to make musicians obsolete. As technologist Jack Stilgoe points out, though, drumming has long resisted the creep of automation. That’s not to say we’re still pummeling calfskin with nothing but our own two hands: From the bass pedal to the Roland TR-808, we’ve sought to augment or even replace the rhythmic spine of popular music. But in genre after genre, from jazz to funk to samba, “swing” and its infinite interpretations reign supreme — and mechanization has yet to emulate soul. Stilgoe takes us through an engaging cultural history, punctuating his argument with clips of seminal moments from Clyde Stubblefield, Donna Summer, and others; it’s a paean to percussion that only a self-described “part-time mediocre drummer” could pull off. Yes, bedroom producers have all the (simulated) instruments of the world at their fingertips. And yes, in the near future we’ll probably see some horribly named AI startup that promises an improvisational predictive model that can out-Dilla Dilla. Whether any of that can move you — or make you move — remains another question. —PR

4. I Spent 7 Straight Hours on a Chairlift. Here’s What I Learned About Why We Still Ski.

Gloria Liu | Outside | February 27, 2023 | 3,851 words

Last Sunday, I went skiing — by which I mean I largely stood in lift lines. Having forgotten my headphones, I was at the mercy of the conversations around me for entertainment. It ranged from people complaining about the traffic getting to the mountain to others ostentatiously using walkie-talkies — perhaps forgetting they were not in the military — to convey to those further afield that they were, in fact, still queuing. This piece from Gloria Liu about why people struggle through crowds for hours to pay exorbitant amounts for this limb-risking activity was, therefore, immediate catnip for me. As I devoured it, I chuckled at the characters conjured up by her vibrant prose, particularly the awkward Pit Viper-wearing couple on their first Tinder date. It’s a fun concept: Sit on a chairlift all day and see who you meet. There are no profound revelations here (besides that Jim Bob stashed some White Claws at the top of the lift), but each group is reveling in the time spent outdoors with their friends or family; the crippling amount of time and money spent worth it for these precious endorphins. When I eventually met up with friends and skied some runs, it felt worth it, too. —CW

5. Can AI Perfect the IPA?

Tony Rehagen | Experience Magazine | February 15, 2023 | 1,267 words

Is AI fatigue a thing? Because I’ve felt it for some time. Yes, there are noteworthy AI stories worth reading right now, like Ted Chiang on blurry JPEGs or the piece on drumming that Peter recommends above. But there are only so many stories about ChatGPT and artificial intelligence that I can absorb, so I’ve started to tune out. But when I came upon this story’s headline earlier this week, I couldn’t help but laugh — and decided to dive in and just surrender to it all: A data-driven IPA brewed in Australia, fine-tuned using consumer feedback collected through QR codes on cans. Genetically modified hops in the drought-plagued U.S. Pacific Northwest. An AI company ridiculously (perfectly?) called Deep Liquid. In this ultimately fun and timely read, Tony Rehagen reports on the trend of craft breweries harnessing technology, data, and research to refine their recipes. Let’s raise a glass to hops and bots. —CLR

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