A disturbing child psychiatric facility. The changing city of Cairo. An optimistic take on AI supremacy. The mystery of a cookie disappearance. And a joyful 51 years in the Smithsonian Zoo Panda House.
Margaret Talbot | The New Yorker | September 25, 2023 | 14,695 words
Margaret Talbot’s story about Evy Mages, a woman who was held as a child at a mysterious psychiatric facility in Innsbruck from 1973-74, was the first piece I dove into at the start of the week—and I’m still thinking about it. For the past few years, Talbot has helped Mages investigate her own family history and recall the memories from this cruel place, where children were observed, humiliated, abused, and even given shots of epiphysan—a veterinary drug derived from cattle—to try and suppress sexual urges. This “villa” was as horrific as it sounds, run by a Nazi-trained psychologist named Maria Nowak-Vogl whose sole purpose was to destroy children and extinguish their inner light. This is a devastating story and a hard one to read. But I’ve thought a lot about the long journey Mages has made since that awful experience, and how incredible it is that she’s come out the other side—now a loving mother to her own grown children, and helping other survivors report the abuse they experienced. Talbot deftly writes a moving story of one woman’s resilience and the harrowing child psychiatry of postwar Austria. —CLR
2. Cairo Song
Wiam El-Tamami | Granta | July 20, 2023 | 5,860 words
Wiam El-Tamami was raised in the “the hushed, air-conditioned sterility” of Kuwait after her parents left Cairo, Egypt, for better job opportunities. Her beautiful Granta essay is a sensory study as she recalls the vibrancy of Cairo on her visits and compares it to the city she knows now, more than a decade after she and her mother protested Hosni Mubarak’s regime in the Egyptian Revolution. She recounts air tinged with smoke, car horns blaring, dogs snarling in the streets, and the shouts of protest: “Bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity! The people demand the downfall of the regime!” She juxtaposes this political unrest against memories of her father’s homemade flatbread, “dusted with bran, the top layer thin and speckled with dark spots, the bottom layer soft and moreish,” and the aubergines, tomatoes, and onions she “anoints with oil and spices” to make tagine with a friend. There are no scales of nostalgia covering El-Tamami’s eyes as she gazes at modern Cairo expanding outward in gated communities that delineate the ever-expanding gulf between rich and poor as inflation skyrockets and the value of the Egyptian pound plummets. In this lyrical essay, El-Tamami interrogates the pervasive undercurrent of her conflicting emotions. “There is such an inherent precarity woven into every day here, a sense of tenuousness, of the unknowability of even the most immediate future, of life always being lived on a knife-edge,” she writes. “I ate the things I had missed. I ate mahshi kromb, stuffed cabbage rolls. I ate my father’s fuul. I ate molokhiyya. I ate black-eyed peas with rice: Egyptian white rice, starchy and soft and buttery-sweet, cooked with little tendrils of vermicelli.” Even as she delights in memories of flavor, El-Tamami still hungers for a better Cairo, now a city in chaos that feels impossible to stomach. —KS
Virginia Heffernan | Wired | September 26, 2023 | 3,874 words
By now, most people have read Ted Chiang’s brilliant work about artificial intelligence in The New Yorker, and the metaphors he’s introduced have entered common parlance: it’s a JPEG of the web, it’s the new McKinsey. But Virginia Heffernan’s delightful feature about Cicero, an AI model that plays the strategy game Diplomacy, is the most surprising, most optimistic, and most enjoyable piece I’ve read about the technology since ChatGPT turned the tech world on its head last November. AI has already conquered Go, the strategy game once considered the last bastion of human ingenuity (at least after Deep Blue mopped Kasparov on the chessboard). Diplomacy is a very different beast, however; gameplay and negotiation are one and the same, and the world’s best human player, Andrew Goff, dominates by being kind rather than cutthroat. Yet, somehow, the bot quickly became more than competitive through similar tactics. Is it perfect? Not even close. It says “awesome!” too much for anyone’s liking, and it still struggles with hallucinations. Still, as Heffernan writes, its approach raises the prospect of a very different AI future than the brutal takeover doomsdayers imagine (or the utopia that tech bros evangelize). What truly recommends this piece, though, is how Heffernan suffuses an intrinsically inhuman story with a beating heart. Opening the piece at a Smiths cover band concert arms her with the perfect anti-Chiangian metaphor; relating her pre-teen son’s weekend-long Diplomacy parties grounds you in the game’s earnest DNA; interrogating her own kneejerk reactions on the page rather than in the editing makes you trust her even more. I don’t share her professed outlook on what this means for tomorrow—”[w]e really liked working with you, robots, and are happy you are winning”—but it’s also a vintage Heffernan provocation, the kind of thing that tells you you’re being challenged and indulged at the same time. Some people are great critics; others are deep thinkers; still others are memorable stylists. Heffernan is fortunate enough to be all three, and this story finds her at the height of her sneaky-smart prowess. —PR
Dave Denison | The Baffler | September 21, 2023 | 5,180 words
In the 1970s, baker Ted Odell created and sold the guerrilla cookie, “a dense, moist granola cookie,” through small stores and cooperatives in Madison, Wisconsin. The cookies were famous and beloved locally until they suddenly disappeared from store shelves around 1990. “I think they contained rolled wheat flakes, but others say cracked wheat,” writes Dave Denison for The Baffler. “I remember raisins, and shredded coconut, and a mixture of honey and molasses. They were sweet enough to be addictive, but not in the way commercial cookies are, where you eat one and then another and another.” Denison—who worked for Odell as a baker’s assistant one summer—became determined to solve the mystery. Why did the cookies disappear? Why did Odell refuse to share his recipe with the world? Denison’s piece is a chewy, satisfying blend of detective work and food nostalgia. As he learns more about Odell, Denison comes to understand the baker’s wholesome ambition: to educate children about good food and the honest work that goes into it, deftly revealing that guerrilla cookies were far more than sweet confections; they were but a small sample of one man’s deeply held convictions. —KS
Meilan Solly | Smithsonian Magazine | September 22, 2023 | 3,700 words
There’s something about pandas: these bumbling teddy bears entrance us humans, First Lady Pat Nixon included. Sitting at a dinner in Beijing with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Nixon commented on a cute panda picture she saw on a cigarette tin. Zhou responded, “I’ll give you some.” “Cigarettes?” she asked. “No. Pandas.” And so our story begins, with the two promised pandas arriving at the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1972. The next 51 years at the Smithsonian Panda House are carefully documented by Meilan Solly in this enchanting piece. Our original pandas—Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing—struggled with fertility issues, which were, rather harshly, reported at the time as being “largely because of ineptness by the male.” (Hsing-Hsing chose some bizarre positions.) But despite their lack of progeny, this pair were adored until their passing. Next into the Big Brother Panda House were Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, with Tian Tian proving a bit more competent in the bedroom department. However, artificial insemination was still necessary for the appearance of cubs—three surviving—including Xiao Qi Ji, a miracle baby born to Mei Xiang at 22. A whopping 639,000 people tuned in live to watch this birth via live Panda Cam. (No pressure, Mei Xiang.) Panda Cam remained hugely popular, with baby Xiao Qi Ji providing some much-needed endorphins to people stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Solly includes some Panda Cam footage (don’t get me started on the pandas sliding in the snow), heartwarming photos, interesting facts, and fun anecdotes. You cannot help but smile. Under an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the current pandas will return to China on December 7, 2023. Smithsonian Magazine has written about the Panda House for over half a century. This essay is a worthy addition as the pandas’ time in America draws to a close. —CW
Now for the big one. The piece our readers most enjoyed this week.
Rob Price | Business Insider | September 25, 2023 | 2,937 words
Blame the pandemic’s deprivations and our collective need for personal connection. Or maybe blame Gen Z as generational oversharers, but LinkedIn has evolved from a place where people not only post promotions and business and industry-focused content to a platform for revealing the overly personal, leading to—of course—public mockery, because some cannot resist the chance to be funny on the internet.—KS