Looking deeper into the catalysts for violent crime. How an Iraqi U.S. Army interpreter became an underground drug kingpin. What plants have to teach us about life, both real and artificial. Aging, but with vitality and grace. How one Iceland town comes together to help baby puffins take their first flight, and our first-ever audience award. Here are five + one stories to kickstart your weekend reading.
1. The Mercy Workers
Maurice Chammah | The Marshall Project | March 2, 2023 | 7,750 words
When we look at the face of a criminal in a mug shot or in a courtroom, what do we see? Many adults facing the death penalty have been shaped by childhood trauma or violence they experienced or witnessed in prison as juveniles. Mitigation specialists work to uncover traumas and dig into the personal and family histories of people on death row — not with the aim to excuse or justify their crimes, but to help paint more complete portraits of them as human beings. Maurice Chammah spends time with mitigation specialist Sara Baldwin as she works on the case of James Bernard Belcher, a man on death row for the 1996 murder of Jennifer Embry. It’s a complex story that Chammah reports and tells with great care and empathy, and highlights a little-known profession that helps to illuminate why people hurt one another and are led to violence. —CLR
2. On the Trail of the Fentanyl King
Benoît Morenne | Wired | March 9, 2023 | 5,403 words
There’s an old episode of Portlandia in which the city’s mayor goes on the dark web to buy fireworks, and of course winds up buying rocket launchers instead. Buffoonery and prosthetic noses aside, that was the impression most people have always had of the dark web: a place where you could buy absolutely anything with total anonymity. Alaa Allawi was one of the people making the first part of that impression come true. After becoming a U.S. Army interpreter at age 18, Allawi developed an impressive proficiency for low-level cybershenanigans — and when he ultimately left his native Iraq for the U.S., those cybershenanigans became his way out of poverty, courtesy of selling counterfeit Xanax online. But it turned out that “total anonymity” wasn’t quite right, and after the real fentanyl in his fake pills led to overdoses and a campus cop took notice, there wasn’t a prosthetic nose big enough to save him. With precision and a relentless chronological tick-tock, Benoît Morenne details Allawi’s rise and fall, as well as the federal investigation that slowly tightened around him. Sure, you’ll find bitcoin and giant champagne bottles and Lil Wayne cameos, but the kingpin stereotypes are few and far between. This story has no heroes, anti- or otherwise. That’s the point. —PR
3. What Plants are Saying About Us
Amanda Gefter | Nautilus | March 7, 2023 | 4,890 words
Professor Paco Calvo used to study artificial intelligence to try and understand cognition. However, he concluded that artificial neural networks were far removed from living intelligence, stating “what we can model with artificial systems is not genuine cognition. Biological systems are doing something entirely different.” The abilities of AI have been dominating many a headline of late, making Amanda Gefter’s essay on Calvo’s theories a refreshing read. Calvo claims we have much more to learn from plants than AI. Plants sense and experience their environment, learn from it, and actively engage with the world, which he sees as the key to consciousness. His theories may be a little out there (I am not convinced neurons are not necessary for thought), but this essay did make me consider the significance of our interactions with our external environment in the thinking process. Rather than leave you with these Big Thoughts, I will end with Calco’s joyful description of plants: “Upside-down, with their ‘heads’ plunged into the soil and their limbs and sex organs sticking up and flailing around.” You will never look at your roses in the same way. —CW
4. Desert Hours
Jane Miller | London Review of Books | March 16, 2023 | 1,999 words
What makes time meaningful? Is it time spent with a book? Learning something new? Maintaining your fitness routine? Doing things for others? What’s the relationship between meaningful time and being satisfied and happy? How does the definition of happiness and satisfaction change over your lifetime? If you’re anything like Jane Miller, age 90, you might ask yourself these and other questions, reflecting on the one resource we share on earth: time. At the London Review of Books, Miller ponders all this and more. “When I was 78, I wrote a book about being old. I don’t think I’d ever felt the need to swim more than twenty lengths at that time, let alone record my paltry daily achievements. Now I put letters and numbers in my diary (a sort of code) to remind me that I’ve walked at least five thousand Fitbit steps and swum a kilometre, which is forty lengths of the pool,” she writes. While I can’t relate to her need to swim a kilometer a day, I can empathize with owning a body much closer to its “best before” date than its birth and the constant need to evaluate how I spend my time. In sharing her boredom and anxieties, Miller’s given me much to think about. —KS
5. An Icelandic Town Goes All Out to Save Baby Puffins
Cheryl Katz | Smithsonian | February 14, 2023 | 3,125 words
Every year Bloomberg Businessweek publishes what it calls the Jealousy List, featuring articles that authors wish they’d written or that editors wish they’d assigned. If I were to have my own jealousy list for 2023, this piece by Cheryl Katz would be on it. I love it so much. Seriously, drop what you’re doing and read it. Katz’s story is about a village in Iceland where, every year, residents young and old work together to save baby puffins, also known as “pufflings.” The wee birds that look like they’re wearing tuxedos often get lost leaving their burrows and struggle to fly out to sea as they’re supposed to. Enter the Puffling Patrol, which cajoles the birds into boxes and carries them to a cliff where they can catch the wind they need to migrate.” Enter the Puffling Patrol, which cajoles the birds into boxes and carry them to a cliff where they can catch the wind they need to migrate. As climate change does its worst to the earth, ushering pufflings into the sky has never been more important. I’m jealous I didn’t get to write this story. Or maybe I’m just mad I’m not in the Puffling Patrol. They get to do good for the world by communing with adorable baby birds. How often is something so essential also so joyful? BRB, Googling flights to Iceland. —SD
Here’s the piece our audience loved most this week.
The Landlord & the Tenant
Raquel Rutledge and Ken Armstrong | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Pro Publica | November 16, 2022 | 13,808 words
This story starts with a house fire in 2013, then takes readers on a journey from the 1970s to the present, tracing the parallel yet wholly different existences of Todd Brunner, the landlord of the property, and Angelica Belen, the woman who lived there with her four young kids. Riveting and infuriating, Raquel Rutledge and Ken Armstrong’s work has been nominated for a 2023 National Magazine Award for feature writing. —SD
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