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The true price of nuclear power. The nation’s longest-imprisoned man. A man takes on a stealthy global scourge. Competitive eating’s colorful characters. A filmmaking legend’s younger years. All that and more in this week’s installment. Read on!

1. The Atomic Disease

Rachel Greenley | Orion Magazine | August 1, 2023 | 3,504 words

Despite medical science’s many advances, anyone who has ever supported a loved one through a catastrophic illness knows that science has much farther to go. Where you need answers, often there are only questions. For Orion, Rachel Greenley considers America’s love affair with nuclear bombs and nuclear power—a race for supremacy in the name of war and science that has killed countless, both directly and indirectly, as those who live downwind and downstream endure water and soil contaminated by toxic waste and the cancers that ensue. “It’s clear as thirst when life leaves a body,” she writes. “The heavy vessel left behind is void of the personality and warmth that brightly colored the world. My world…He was thirty-five years old.” It’s not that Greenley doesn’t believe in science; rather, as she so poignantly notes in this gripping essay, she cannot trust fallible officials in charge of managing nuclear projects and disasters, those who deflect concern and downplay the danger of a threat that cannot be seen with the naked eye, one that may have taken her husband and the father of her children. Is ignorance to blame, or ambivalence, or perhaps a combination of both? For Greenley and so many others, it’s a question that deserves to be answered. —KS

2. Frank Smith Was Locked Up for Eight Decades. At 98, What Would It Mean to Be Free?

Annalisa Quinn | Boston Globe Magazine | July 5, 2023 | 4,693 words

Sometimes a passage in a story hits me in the solar plexus. It hurts, but it’s also a gift, because the pain means that what I’m reading is very, very good. In the opening of Annalisa Quinn’s story, we meet a man named Frank Smith on the verge of his execution—the eighth time the state of Connecticut has tried to kill him, and the second time it came close enough to doing so that prison staff shaved his head, before the Board of Pardons and Paroles decided at the last minute to spare him. Then we learn that this all happened in 1954, and that Smith was only recently paroled; at 98 years old, he is likely America’s longest-serving prisoner. The passage in question comes later in the piece, when Quinn asks an administrator at the secure nursing home where Smith is now housed if talking about his life, including the eight times the government tried to end it, might upset him. The administrator assures her that it’s fine. “But in our conversations,” Quinn writes, “he would return again and again to the electric chair, still an object of primal, almost talismanic fear all this time later. ‘It cooks you,’ he would repeat, folding into himself. ‘It cooks you.’” I can’t wrap my head around what it means to carry that kind of fear for so long. But I know that no one should bear that burden. —SD

3. The World Is Going Blind. Taiwan Offers a Warning, and a Cure

Amit Katwala | Wired | August 22, 2023 | 4,403 words

Every year, the elementary schools in my area would take students on field trips to a preserved one-room schoolhouse; we’d drink from a well, substitute our usual classes with teachings from McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, and glumly play with the saddest collection of 19th-century toys you can imagine. It was on one of those trips when I realized I had no godly idea what the teacher was writing on the chalkboard. So: glasses at age seven, contact lenses at 13, and a life spent with high myopia. But I had no idea I was a trendsetter until I read Amit Katwala’s fascinating Wired feature. Nearsightedness has swept the globe, but it’s particularly endemic to East Asia. In China, South Korea, and Taiwan, 90% of young adults are myopic. It’s the leading cause of blindness in those countries, and represents a very real (if very slow) public health threat. Enter eye surgeon Pei-Chang Wu, whose journey of discovery serves as the spine of the piece. This is a mystery story, as all good science writing is, and Katwala gives Wu’s search the perfect balance of history and specificity so that lay readers like you and me can appreciate its evolution without being conversant in cyclopegic autorefraction. (By the way, I highly recommend saying that phrase out loud. It makes you feel very smart.) Wu’s ultimate solution, as so many do, has a healthy dose of common sense to it, but that’s kind of the point—and, as Katwala’s kicker makes clear, it’s also a bit of a panacea. Before you take his advice, though, read the piece. It’s worth the eyestrain. —PR

4. Everything You Never Knew About Competitive Eating

Jamie Loftus | The Takeout | July 14, 2023 | 3,483 words

I didn’t know I needed to consume 3,500 words on the world of competitive eating until I read Jamie Loftus’ piece in The Takeout. As a reader, you feel like Loftus has handed you a bib and after a few paragraphs, you’re ready to tie it on and take your seat at the table as she introduces us to the fascinating characters (with surprising causes) who inhabit the world of Big League Eating. You’ll get to meet “Megabyte” Ronnie Hartman, a.k.a. “The People’s Hot Dog,” a military veteran and indie pro wrestler who uses his plate—er, platform—to advance the cause of veterans’ rights. Then there’s Mary Bowers, a Korean American project manager for the Department of Homeland Security who hand-crafts food-themed outfits and uses her profile to highlight human trafficking. (Mary learned that she was kidnapped as a child and illegally trafficked out of South Korea.) What I loved most, though, is that in addition to the warmth and respect they have for each other, Hartman and Bowers both champion gender inclusivity at the competition. “It doesn’t matter what your pronouns are,” says Hartman. “Once you step on that stage, you’re an eater.” Come for the carnival atmosphere, stay for the camaraderie. —KS

5. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Werner Herzog | The New Yorker | August 21, 2023 | 3,482 words

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Every Man From Himself and God Against All, Werner Herzog reflects on his time spent in Pennsylvania’s westernmost city. I’ve watched Herzog’s films, but this was my first experience of him conjuring pictures from a page. Unsurprisingly, he is very good at it: a keen eye for detail, astute character observation, and the ability to tell a good yarn make this a riveting piece. His prose knocks up another notch when he meets the Franklins, a family that takes him in during his studies at Duquesne University. His love for them is apparent in the warm descriptions of the hustle and bustle of the busy household, complete with twins, grannies, a dog, and a failed rock musician named Billy, who would only emerge from bed in the afternoon, “stark naked, stretching pleasurably.” Throughout, Herzog notes inspiration for his films—fascinating tidbits that included the dancing chickens in Stroszek deriving from a hallucination while traveling from Mexico with hepatitis. He can’t resist a bit of name-dropping and grandiosity, as might be expected, but these well-crafted scenes more than compensate.  —CW

Audience Award

What was our readers’ favorite this week? The envelope, please.

What Happened to “Wirecutter”?

Charlie Warzel | The Atlantic | August 22, 2023 | 2,290 words

Those looking for unbiased, trustworthy product reviews once had an easy first step: Check Wirecutter. But as Charlie Warzel points out, it’s not so simple anymore. Between its parent company growth expectations, the increasing influence of product discussions on Reddit and other social platforms, and SEO chicanery, Wirecutter often feel a little bit … less. But with a pleasingly meta approach, Warzel tries to answer his own question. Is the result definitive? Impossible to say. But such is true of any product review these days. —PR