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How two incarcerated men bonded over Dungeons & Dragons. The wonders of parasitic fungus. Greenwashing egg yolks, the Arctic search for Sir John Franklin’s tomb, and the hunks of hip-hop.

1. When Wizards and Orcs Came to Death Row

Keri Blakinger | The Marshall Project | August 31, 2023 | 4,584 words

A great longread educates, and in doing so, offers an unexpected poignancy. Keri Blakinger’s profile of Tony Ford and Billy Wardlow, two men who bonded over games of Dungeons & Dragons while incarcerated in Texas, does just that. She gives us a glimpse into death row, where there are no educational or social programs because the men will never return to society, where the isolation is so extreme that the United Nations has condemned these conditions as torture. For Ford and Wardlow, Dungeons & Dragons gave them purpose. The men were incarcerated as teens, well before they had to earn a paycheck or pay rent, and D&D helped them learn to manage money. But most of all, as Blakinger so deftly reveals, Dungeons & Dragons gave them something to look forward to, a simple yet necessary form of hope. Ford and Wardlow built not just a friendship, but a deep connection in a place where the only human contact comes when the guards handcuff you. In a stroke of journalistic brilliance, Blakinger uses details from Wardlow’s D&D character Arthaxx d’Cannith, a magical prodigy, to deepen our understanding of Wardlow and his true character. “Every day, Arthaxx used his gifts to help the higher-ups of House Cannith perfect the invention they hoped would end a century of war. At night, he came home to his wife, his childhood sweetheart,” she writes. If only this Dungeons & Dragons dream could have come true. —KS

2. The Last of the Fungus

Zhengyang Wang | Nautilus | August 30, 2023 | 4,497 words

Molecular phylogenies and caterpillar fungus are not topics I expected to find riveting until I read Zhengyang Wang’s essay. His story bounces along like a thriller: Mountaintop expeditions, dodgy deals, and even death are part of this fungal world. However, the most gripping thread is Wang’s PhD. Yes, that’s right: He makes his PhD research project on parasitic fungus sound fascinating. The parasite in question is reminiscent of Alien, invading ghost moth caterpillars and taking over their brains until stroma blasts out of their heads and sticks up from the soil. (Wang describes this much more eerily and beautifully.) In China, this stroma is celebrated for helping with a different kind of protrusion and is known as “Himalayan Viagra.” The attributed medical and aphrodisiacal powers (by no means proven) mean the sale of this fungus equates to a massive tenth of Tibet’s gross domestic product. Inevitably, people are attempting industrial farming, and mountain vistas are being devastated as caterpillars are collected to sell to fungus breeders. But it isn’t working. Spraying caterpillars with spores of the parasite O. sinensis does not infect them. Wang’s PhD explains why these centers are failing: The complicated, intricate ecosystems where these hosts and parasites evolve together are impossible to replicate. His research proves the decimation of delicate montane habitats is pointless, but not enough people are reading it. You can. —CW

3. Orange Is the New Yolk

Marian Bull | Eater | August 17, 2023 | 5,025 words

Free-range! Cage-free! Pasture-raised! Certified humane! I’ve felt a slight sense of relief in buying eggs with any of these promises stamped on the carton. But what do these terms really mean when it comes to living conditions for laying hens? For Eater, Marian Bull examines our current food fetish, an ongoing quest for “shockingly orange yolks” that denote hen health and somehow help us to feel better about the food we’re eating. Bull isn’t chicken about pecking into the truth, scratching well beyond the surface to help us lay readers understand what these terms mean and how our love-and-sometimes-hate relationship with egg yolks has brought us to this quest for the perfect egg, both in color and cooked consistency. What’s more, Bull does it with style and a sharp wit. “We want it over easy, its yolk sploojing across the plate,” she writes. “And we want its color to convince us that it was not hatched in some animal welfare hellscape.” You didn’t know you needed 5,000-plus words on the state of egg farming in America, but with Bull, you get a much-needed education, and that’s no yolk. —KS

4. Seeking To Solve The Arctic’s Biggest Mystery, They Ended Up Trapped In Ice At The Top Of The World

Mark Synnott | National Geographic | July 25, 2023 | 5,835 words

Do you love stories about historical mysteries, extreme adventures, or scientific expeditions? Or do you, like me, love all those things as well as season one of the AMC show The Terror? If you answered yes—and honestly, even if you didn’t—this feature is for you. In 1847, Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men disappeared while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. In the decades since, there have been rumors and ghost stories but no conclusive evidence about their fate. Recently, a National Geographic team sought to find that evidence, namely Franklin’s tomb. But as the headline of this story states, “the Arctic doesn’t give up its secrets easily.” That isn’t merely a reference to the terrain, which at one point threatens to lock the team’s sailboat in winter ice—which, as it happens, is the last thing that we know for sure happened to Franklin’s ships. Superstition also hangs heavy in this compelling narrative. “I’m convinced that the Inuit may have once known where Franklin’s tomb is located,” one of the story’s main subjects says, “but they didn’t want it to be found because it was cursed.” —SD

5. The Evolution of the Hip-Hop Hunk

Clover Hope | Pitchfork | September 6, 2023 | 2,781 words

My wife’s in love with Method Man. Why shouldn’t she be? Dude is … very attractive. I mean, that’s just science. Besides, we’re all afforded celebrity crushes, especially those that took root in our younger years. Clover Hope was in love with Method Man too, but she was also in love with LL Cool J, DMX, Ja Rule, and Nelly, just to name a few—and in plotting her own life of crushes against the arc of hip-hop’s evolution, she elucidates how sexuality became an indispensable marketing ploy for male artists. Sometimes that entered problematic waters, as when Tupac grew into sex symbol. But times change, and when Hope surveys the present landscape, she sees little that gets her heart racing. Some of that is age, maybe, but much of it is archetype: When you’re the dominant cultural aesthetic on Planet Earth, the commercial behemoths need to flatten and trope-ify you any way possible. So we don’t have Andre 3000s anymore; instead, we have Drakes and Jack Harlows. Besides, female artists have come along and cornered the market on sexual fantasy, and queer artists have spun and subverted the the gaze as well. (“A single second of a Megan Thee Stallion Instagram workout video is worth a million and one Drake gym mirror selfies,” she writes.) This piece trades on looking backward, but Hope’s genius is in nudging our expectations—and our appetites—forward. —PR

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Death On The Savage Mountain: What Really Happened On K2, And Why 100 Climbers Stepped Over A Dying Man On Their Way To The Summit

Matthew Loh | Insider | August 21, 2023 | 6,472 words

What price would you pay to summit K2, a mountain far more technical and challenging than Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain? Could you literally walk past a dying man in order to get there? This past July 27th, 100 people bypassed Pakistani porter Mohammed Hassan on their way to the summit as he lay dying after a fall. For Insider, Matthew Loh tries to understand. —KS