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Senior editor and story wrangler, and Longreads. Not to be fed after midnight.

With Your Support, We Can Continue to Be a Space for First-Person Storytelling

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I’ve felt very grateful over the past six years to be able to work with such a varied mix of writers at Longreads, from seasoned journalists to previously unpublished writers to artists who have expanded into longform storytelling.

Many of my favorite pieces published here are personal essays — stories chronicling moments of discovery, unanticipated journeys, inner explorations made accessible, and more. Essays editor Sari Botton has built a rich archive, and I’m not even sure where to begin to highlight the breadth of this work and the diversity of voices. Among these stories, you’ll find the Fine Lines series — a collection of writing about age, like Laura Lippman’s “The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People” — and other recent popular essays, like Michael Musto’s “The Danger of Befriending Celebrities.”

I’m particularly drawn to unexpected and beautifully braided essays: I think of Kimi Eisele’s “Duet for a Small Porpoise’s Extinction,” a lyrical essay on nature, dance, language, and a world of disappearing things; and also Alison Kinney’s “The Man in the Mirror,” which begins by examining one of my favorite paintings — The Arnolfini Portrait — and then explores trust, vulnerability, intimacy, and the aftermath of rape. An essay published last fall on the anniversary of Northern California’s Camp Fire, “California Burning” by Tessa Love, also comes to mind, as it weaves meditations on California and fire, Berlin and foxes, and destruction and regrowth.

Above all, it’s important to give writers the space to explore and go in unique directions, telling stories only they can, and Longreads has been able to provide that wide, blank canvas for them to do so.

As an editor, I’ve also loved bringing illustrated personal narratives to life. In the delightful “Cut From the Same Cloth,” Myfanwy Tristram explores aging, maternal envy, and the extreme fashions of her teenage daughter. In “Home Is a Cup of Tea,” sketch artist Candace Rose Rardon combines watercolor sketches and travel writing in a piece exploring her evolving definition of home. And in “Unleashed in Paris,” Kate Gavino shares how she became comfortable speaking French while walking Parisian dogs in a longform comic that, at its heart, is about belonging. The ability to explore different approaches to first-person stories, like these, is made possible through Longreads member support.

Whatever the format, contributors are given the space to experiment, which is what has kept me excited about working at Longreads to this day. With your contribution during our Winter Member Drive, you can help us publish more stories and expand the roster of writers and artists we’d love to work with.

Please consider donating during our Winter Member Drive — every dollar helps, and every recurring contribution helps even more. Click the button below if you’re ready to become a member and support writers, journalists, and illustrators who have unique and resonant stories to tell.

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🗺️ Emoji Day: A 📖 List

👋 July 17 is 🗺️ Emoji Day! To 🎉 this ever-changing visual language that we use on our 📱 and 💻 and across social media, here are five 📖 recommendations — including a delightful post series on a blog about punctuation — on the history and evolution of the emoji. 😘

1. A Series on Emoji (Keith Houston, August 2018-June 2019, Shady Characters)

Don’t have time to read nine posts? 😛 Adam Sternbergh’s 2014 New York magazine piece, “😊, You’re Speaking Emoji,” covers the emoji’s evolution.

On his blog Shady Characters, Houston tells the histories of our favorite punctuation marks, from the ⁉️ to the #️⃣. In a nine-part series on the emoji, he chronicles the beginning; its ancestor, the emoticon; its adoption outside of 🗾; the gatekeepers; its presence in the 📰; the challenges in making the character set more inclusive and representative; its future; and its nature (“What are emoji?”). Don’t overlook the reference 📜 at the bottom of each post, which include even more recommended stories and articles.

It was into this text-only world that emoji’s first true an­cestor was born. Com­pris­ing only a colon, a hy­phen and a clos­ing par­en­thesis, the emoticon, or :-), was per­fectly de­signed to pierce the dis­in­ter­ested blank­ness of a crt mon­itor. Gran­ted, so-called emoticons have been dis­covered in many pre-di­gital sources, such as sev­en­teenth cen­tury poems:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ru­ins, (smil­ing yet:)
Tear me to tat­ters, yet I’ll be
Pa­tient in my ne­ces­sity.

and tran­scrip­tions of Ab­ra­ham Lin­col­n’s speeches:

…there is no pre­ced­ent for your be­ing here yourselves, (ap­plause and laughter;) and I of­fer, in jus­ti­fic­a­tion of my­self and you, that I have found noth­ing in the Con­sti­tu­tion against.

“Emoticon, Emoji, Text: Pt. 1, I Second That Emoticon” by Tom McCormack in Rhizome covers this joke gone wrong in more detail.

but these are al­most cer­tainly ty­po­graphic mis­steps rather than in­ten­tional smi­leys. The con­sensus is that emoticons proper ar­rived in 1982 in re­sponse to a joke gone wrong on an elec­tronic bul­letin board at Carne­gie Mel­lon Uni­versity.

2. How Emoji Conquered the 🌎 (Jeff Blagdon, March 2013, The Verge)

Blagdon tracks the beginnings of this digital communication through the 👀 of Shigetaka Kurita, the 💡👨🏻 of emoji.

Windows 95 had just launched, and email was taking off in Japan alongside the pager boom. But Kurita says people had a hard time getting used to the new methods of communication. In Japanese, personal letters are long and verbose, full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions that convey the sender’s goodwill to the recipient. The shorter, more casual nature of email lead to a breakdown in communication. “If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling,” says Kurita. “You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.”

Face to face conversation, and even the telephone, let you gauge the other person’s mood from vocal cues, and more familiar, longer letters gave people important contextual information. Their absence from these new mediums meant that the promise of digital communication — being able to stay in closer touch with people — was being offset by this accompanying increase in miscommunication.

“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces. We already had the experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.” ASCII art kaomoji were already around at the time, but they were a pain to enter on a cellphone since they were composed with multiple characters. Kurita was looking for a simpler solution.

3. Everybody 😊💩 (Mary Mann, August 2014, Matter)

Mann discusses her conflicted feelings around her use of emojis: she’s fascinated by their ability to encapsulate our emotions so succinctly, and that they are understood across 🇺🇸🇯🇵🇫🇷🇨🇳🇧🇷 and 👶🏻🧒🏻👩🏻👵🏻, but also 🤦🏻‍♀️ to rely so heavily on them.

And of course emojis are inherently silly, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Silliness is not necessarily an indication of shallowness. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: A capacity for real silliness is usually born out of pain. We’re attracted to silliness because we need it. We need it because life isn’t easy.

Your mom is sick.

Your grandfather died.

You got laid off.

Your company folded.

Your rent went up.

Your husband left.

He didn’t call.

She didn’t call.

They never call.

All these things happen every day, to billions of people all over the world. And if a stupid cartoon of smiling poop makes you feel better, well, that’s:

😜 + 💡

4. The 👄 History Of The 💩 Emoji (Or, How Google Brought 💩 To 🇺🇸) (Lauren Schwartzberg, November 2014, Fast Company)

Schwartzberg compiles an 👄 history on the origin and evolution of the beloved 💩 emoji, created in 🇯🇵 and brought to the 🇺🇸 by a team at Google.

Darick [Tong, Google 👨🏻‍💻 and 🇺🇸lead of its emoji project]: It struck me as a particularly flexible and effective emoji. It provides a way to say shit or crap in an email without explicitly typing the words, and it catches the reader’s attention in a way that smiley faces don’t. Most importantly, it always elicits a smile from the reader and the writer, which is ultimately the purest purpose of emoji: to add emotional expressiveness to written communication.

5. Emoji Don’t Mean What They Used To (Ian Bogost, February 2019, The Atlantic)

While it makes sense for emoji to cover the range of the human experience, Bogost ✍🏻 that “more specificity means less flexibility,” and that this visual language has shifted away from the abstract. More choices at our 📱fingertips changes the way we select and use emoji, viewing them more as 🖼️ rather than 💡. “Counterintuitively, all these emoji are less applicable because they contain more information.”

A skull (💀) almost never means that the speaker has a braincase in hand, Hamlet-like, but rather offers an ashen reaction or a lol, I’m dead sentiment. An emoji originally designed to signify an Eastern bow of greeting or politesse (🙇‍♂️) takes on the more abstract meaning of mild subjugation or psychic deflation in the West. Fire (🔥) could mean a campfire or house fire, but more often it suggests enthusiasm, ferocity, or even spice. Eggplant (🍆) could denote a nightshade, but more likely it suggests, well, something else. These and other meanings are possible because the emoji function primarily as ideograms.

But as emoji have become more specific in both their appearance and their meaning, their ideographic flexibility has eroded.

Recalling the Making of ‘Go,’ 20 Years Later

Katie Holmes and Sarah Polley in Go (Columbia Pictures)

In April 1999, Go was a fresh, different kind of movie: a story, starting at a Los Angeles supermarket on Christmas Eve, told from multiple perspectives. Toss in an ecstasy deal, a rave, a car chase on the Las Vegas strip, a bit of Tarantino-esque flavor, and a bunch of young adults in over their heads. And with not much money, director Doug Liman, then hot from Swingers, and screenwriter John August, who had yet to write something that actually made it to the screen, scrambled to make a film that was a bit scrappy and unpredictable, but — 20 years later — is something they’re proud of. At The Ringer, Eric Ducker writes about Go’s wild, unlikely production.

Liman has made other films that have grossed far more money, like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity. Some of his work is more beloved by film devotees, like Swingers and Edge of Tomorrow. Still, Liman considers Go his best film. …

There’s a scrappiness to Go that could only have been generated by a group of people who, much like the movie’s characters, often found themselves in situations where they were in over their heads. As the film’s editor, Stephen Mirrione, says, “One of the things I like about [Go] is it’s a movie about idiots that’s made by a bunch of goofballs, a bunch of knuckleheads.”

He employed many of the cost-saving techniques he’d developed on Swingers. He shot it on an Aaton 35-millimeter, a camera usually reserved for making documentaries in the days before everything went digital. He could reload the Aaton with film in a matter of seconds, while for traditional cameras it took at least four minutes and caused delays in shooting as everyone used those opportunities to relight the scene or take breaks. The only problem with the Aaton was that it isn’t constructed for recording dialogue and makes as much noise as a sewing machine, so Liman would wrap it in a down jacket as he filmed. “Jon Favreau used to describe acting in Swingers like acting for a big fluffy snowball,” says Liman.

While making Swingers, instead of trying to manufacture settings, Liman would just film scenes that took place in parties or at bars in actual parties or bars, using unassuming bystanders as extras. Before anyone got too upset or the police came, he’d be gone. For Go he adopted a similarly frenetic pace.

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‘Intelligent Education’ and China’s Grand AI Experiment

Imagine a world where cameras capture bird’s-eye-view footage of thousands of classrooms, in which every student is recognized, recorded, and assigned scores simply based on their positions and facial expressions. While it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, this type of surveillance is happening now in China, in pilot programs at seven schools serving a total of 28,000 students. At The Disconnect, an offline-only magazine, Yujie Xue takes a look at the facial recognition technology and “intelligent education” initiative that China’s government hopes will boost the country’s education system.

Zhang takes out his phone and logs into a user account on CCS’s mobile app. The account belongs to a teacher at Chifeng No. 4 Middle School in the city of Chifeng in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The interface allows teachers to view scores for every student in class. A green down arrow appears next to the student’s score when it decreases, and a red up arrow when it increases. A bar graph shows how many minutes the student spent concentrating, sleeping, or talking in class.

“The parents can see it, too,” Zhang says, tapping on a student’s name. “For example, this student’s report shows that he rarely volunteers to answer the teacher’s questions in class. So his participation in English class is marked as low. Number of questions answered: one,” Zhang reads from the AI-generated report. “This week, the student spent 94.08 percent of class time focusing. His grade average is 84.64 percent. He spent 4.65 percent of the time writing, which was 10.57 percent lower than the grade average.”

Hangzhou No. 11 uses the “smart classroom behavioral management system” developed by Hangzhou-based Hikvision, the world’s largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment. Like CCS, Hikvision’s facial recognition technology also monitors students using cameras installed above each classroom’s blackboard. In addition to in-class behaviors, which are divided into six categories—reading, writing, listening, standing up, raising hands, and lying on the desk—Hikvision also identifies seven different facial expressions: neutral, happy, sad, disappointed, angry, scared, and surprised. The data is used to generate a student’s score, which is displayed on a screen installed on the wall of each classroom. Each class’s overall attention level also displays on a huge screen in the hallway for the whole school to compare and rank.

One anonymous Hangzhou No. 11 student I found on the internet tells me she felt shocked and scared when the teacher demonstrated the system in front of the whole class. “The camera can magnify 25 times of what it captures,” she says, adding “It can see not only your face, but the characters on your notebook. After all, it’s from Hikvision.” Another student tells me his classmates were totally “crushed” after the installation of the system. Because the system gives students a public score, he and his classmates don’t dare nap or even yawn in class for fear of being penalized, an incentive that doesn’t necessarily increase focus on learning. In fact, the students spend their time focusing on staying awake until class ends. “Nobody leaves the classroom during the class break,” he says. “We all collapse on the desks, sleeping.”

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100: A Reading List

Lawrence Ferlinghetti on Monday, Jan. 15, 1988, in front of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (AP Photo)

March 24, 2019, is American poet, activist, and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday. This week’s release of Little Boy, his new autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel, is also a reason for Ferlinghetti fans to celebrate. In San Francisco, where his bookstore and literary landmark, City Lights, still stands strong, the city prepares for “Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100” events around town.

To mark this milestone, here’s a reading list of interviews and features from the past several years about Ferlinghetti’s poetry and painting; his relationships with Allen Ginsberg and others of the Beat Generation (a label, writes Barry Miles at Poetry Foundation, that Ferlinghetti rejected); his observations on a dramatically changing San Francisco; and a bonus piece — a meditation on poetry, which Ferlinghetti delivered upon receiving the Frost Medal in 2003.

1. “What Is Poetry?: A Non-Lecture,” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 2003, Poetry Society of America)

As the 2003 Frost Medalist, Ferlinghetti delivered an ars poetica, a draft of which is published at Poetry Society of America.

Poems are emails from the unknown, beyond cyberspace.

Poetry as a first language preceded writing and still sounds in us, a mute music, an inchoate music.

Poems like moths press against the window trying to reach the light.

Poetry is white writing on black, black writing on white.

It is a Madeleine dipped in Proust’s tea.

It is a player-piano in an abandoned seaside casino, still playing.

All the world is one poem, all poetry one world, give or take a bomb or two.

Poetry is what we would cry out upon coming to ourselves in a dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life.

2. “Driving the Beat Road,” (Jeff Weiss, June 2017, The Washington Post)

Weiss drove up the California coast in search of surviving members of the Beat Generation and caught up with Ferlinghetti, along with poets Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and novelist Herbert Gold, in this 12,000-word, multi-profile odyssey.

“It’s all going to be underwater in 100 years or maybe even 50,” he says when asked what he sees for San Francisco, the beloved adopted city that partially betrayed him. “The Embarcadero is one of the greatest esplanades in the world. On the weekends, thousands of people strut up and down like it’s the Ramblas in Barcelona. But it’ll all be underwater.”

That repetition of “underwater” lingers for a second, as though it’s an anchor that he can’t stop from sinking. At that moment, it’s not hard to imagine this cafe as an Atlantean ruin, filled with drowned corpses tethered to their laptops and iPhones until the soggy finish. He half-smiles again and shrugs, unapologetic for what he sees, as though to say one last time, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

In another read at Poetry Foundation from March 2013, David Meltzer chats with the poet on his book Time of Useful Consciousness.

3. “The Beat Goes On,” (Barry Miles, March 2019, Poetry Foundation)

Miles, a Beat scholar and friend of Ferlinghetti, pays tribute to the centenarian, exploring his important work as a poet and publisher and his close connections with the other Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg.

The night we arrived, both Ferlinghetti and Shig slept outside on the terrace. It was idyllic. Before we returned to the city we visited the Esalen Institute. At the gates from the highway, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti debated which of them was a member. In the end, they decided they were both honorary members, and it’s true, they were welcomed as honored guests. We were fed, given wine, and invited to take part in the naked group photograph, although we had to leave before that occurred. It was interesting to see the reaction to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti there. Both were respected as part of the California alternative body politic as expressed by Shelley’s line “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

4. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the old San Francisco, his new novel, and his first 100 years,” (Ira Silverberg, December 2018, Document Journal)

Ferlinghetti talks with Ira Silverberg, then an editor at Simon & Schuster, on visionary poets, Little Boy, and the unattractive transformation of San Francisco.

I think the San Francisco that we’ve known all these years is disappearing very fast. In another 20 years, we won’t even recognize this city. In the time of James Joyce—say, in 1902—Dublin was of such a size that you could walk down the main street, like Sackville Street, and meet everybody important in the literary world. I’m sure Dublin isn’t like that anymore, either, and in San Francisco in 1902, probably you could meet everybody important in the literary world. That’s all gone now.

5. “In Conversation: Lawrence Ferlinghetti with John Held, Jr.,” (John Held, Jr., December 2014, SFAQ)

In this conversation, which took place over four sessions in 2014, Ferlinghetti focuses the discussion on his painting, the reception of his art in Italy, art publishing, and the Bay Area art scene.

Yeah, but let’s stick to the painting subject. In the 1950s, I got Hassel Smith’s painting studio at 9 Mission Street. It’s the Audiffred Building. It’s at the foot of Market Street and the Embarcadero, and there was no electricity over the ground floor. On the ground floor was the Bank of America. On the second floor we shared the floor with the Alcoholics Anonymous club. On the same floor was Frank Lobdell—his studio was there and in the back of the floor was Marty Snipper, who was an art teacher. There was no heat over the first floor and no electricity. I had a small pot bellied stove for heat. So, it was just like a Paris studio. It was really studio size, like in Paris. In North Beach today, there are no studios. People have one room, and they call it a studio.

6. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Enduring San Francisco,” (Dwight Garner, March 2019, The New York Times)

Garners visits the City by the Bay to write about — and remember — Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco; his itinerary includes North Beach Beat-era hangouts like Caffe Trieste and Vesuvio Cafe, and a tour of bookstores around the city, from City Lights, which Ferlinghetti opened in 1953, to Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, both in the Mission.

At 99, Mr. Ferlinghetti is largely blind. He was not, I was told, quite up to receiving visitors. But we had two lively telephone conversations. In advance, I’d told both his publisher and his assistant that I planned to ask about his favorite places in the “cool, grey city of love,” as the poet George Sterling called it.

Yet when I rang, Mr. Ferlinghetti barked at me. “This is just the kind of interview I don’t like to do,” he said. “These sort of questions just leave me blank.” He condemned “travel section stuff.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was writing this article for the Travel section.

A Rare Toy Heist, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Original Star Wars action figures at the Monroe County Local History Room in Sparta, Wis. (Peter Thomson/La Crosse Tribune via AP)

In the world of Star Wars memorabilia and toy collecting, one of the rarest collectibles is said to be a 1979 prototype action figure: a Boba “Rockett” Fett that came with a spring-loaded backpack that fired a plastic missile. But it was never released. After a child choked on another toy with a similar missile, toy company Kenner scrapped the design — but not before several of these original figures had already been made.

Today, an enthusiastic Star Wars fan community buys, sells, and collects “Lucasian memorabilia,” often going to great lengths to track down rare items. When Zach Tann got a text in 2017 from a fellow collector, Carl Cunningham, about purchasing this coveted Rocket Fett, things began to get fishy.

At Popular Mechanics, Alexander Huls recounts one of the biggest scandals in Star Wars collecting history.

Tann was one purchase away from a unicorn. The offer was too good to pass up, and Tann paid Cunningham the asking price. “I’d been working my butt off for four years, and I felt like, finally, I found my guy that’s going to hook me up with a lot of great stuff,” Tann says. “This is what every collector dreams of.”

Cunningham was away in California at the time but promised he’d get Tann his collectible once he returned home. But a little over a week later, Tann’s phone vibrated with another notification, this time a Facebook message from a friend.

The message contained a screenshot of a post on the forum, a popular Star Wars collector website. Titled “My Proto Rocket Fett was Stolen,” the post received over 26,000 views and shocked the community. “Man this is horrible. I could just imagine the gut wrenching feeling, the pitfall in your stomach. Wow. That is messed up,” said one typical reply.

The Rebelscum post was written by prominent Star Wars collector Philip Wise, whose 20,000-item collection is a place of pilgrimage for many Star Wars collectors. Wise detailed how his Rocket Fett prototype had been taken sometime in the last two weeks from his private Star Wars museum, where it was prominently on display. He made a plea: “If anybody should hear anything about a Fett like this floating around, please contact me.”

Wise’s words punched Tann in the stomach. Cunningham couldn’t be the thief, right? It wasn’t his Rocket Fett, was it?

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‘The South Is Different Now. So Are We.’

In two road trips taken two decades apart, Pete Candler and his friend John toured the backroads of the South, searching for vestiges of a history they weren’t taught as “private-school white boys” and uncovering truths about Candler’s ancestors never passed down through family lore (“My family name is front-and-center in the history of lynching of African Americans in the United States. How am I only just now hearing about it?”).

Candler writes of his hometown, Atlanta, as a place of amnesia: detached from history, allergic to preservation. “It is as if even the city’s buildings themselves desire oblivion,” he writes. “Truth has not been especially well remembered in a city that has made forgetfulness a marketing strategy.”

In his personal essay at the LA Review of Books, Candler recounts both road trips — the first one in the 1990s, when the men were in their mid-20s, armed with rolls of black-and-white film and a basic knowledge of Flannery O’Connor; and their more recent journey in 2018, as they retraced their steps and revisited monuments with wide eyes and a different perspective.

Revisiting takes work. A first experience of a place is primarily an act of reception, of taking in what you had never seen before. But going back a second time requires the additional work of reckoning the fact that you are not the same person you were the first time, and neither is the place itself. The South is different now. So are we.

Twenty years ago, I wasn’t wise to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee, how monuments to Confederate soldiers were put up in public places like the town square here as reminders to African Americans of their place in an overtly racist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it. I might have been able to believe then that the monuments were pretty banal, just part of the landscape, but exceptions to America’s story of itself. I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.

I read Du Bois now under the shadow of my distant cousin. I am not especially surprised that my family has never mentioned Allen Candler. Nor am I surprised to learn that he was a racist. What is surprising is that, even in my own tight-lipped family, an event of such local and national significance should have been so completely passed over in silence.

O’Connor’s work helped introduce me to a South I had little experience with. But she also introduced me to the idea that hope — for oneself, for one’s city, for one’s nation — is only to be found in an honest, and often violent, confrontation with the past — one’s own, one’s city’s, and one’s nation’s. Mythologies may be soothing, and even good for tourism, but they cannot save us. O’Connor showed me that there is no future for any of us without a clear-eyed and unsentimental reckoning with our own complicity in the suffering of others. That there is nothing more terrifying, exciting, and liberating than the unlearning of untruths, the dethroning of the self and its enabling illusions, the freedom of spaces newly opened up where lies once were.

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‘We All Live in the Great Database in the Sky’: On Silicon Valley and UFO Culture

In a review of D.W. Pasulka’s new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology at The Baffler, Emily Harnett offers her take on Silicon Valley’s appropriation of UFO culture.

This might explain why Vallee’s suggestion that aliens are just like Google is so powerfully soul-killing. His theory suggests that the feeling of being digitally surveilled is one of almost mystical possibility. But when Google’s advertising software intuits, for instance, my desire for an Instant Pot, it doesn’t feel to me like a revelatory encounter with a celestial being. It feels like I’ve been psychically violated by an algorithm, which is to say it feels like everything else on the internet. Yet it’s true that both UFOs and data-mined advertisements are marked by “synchronicities,” or “powerful, meaning-filled coincidences.” UFO experiencers will often observe, for instance, mysterious pulsing lights in the sky for days after an initial sighting. Similarly, I need only contemplate the ugly ubiquity of sneaker startup Allbirds before flocks of them alight menacingly on my browser. In the former case, UFO experiencers may begin to suspect that a cosmic intelligence is tracking their movements. In the latter, I begin to suspect that my thoughts are being tracked by hideous sneakers, or at least the people who want to sell them to me.

The sublime—whether a feature of the natural world, or of UFOs, or of religious experience—is a sense of our own vanishing smallness before something impossibly vast: a mountain range, a churning ocean, the universe, God. What we get in return for being so existentially demeaned is freedom from the tyranny of our own personalities, a sort of liberating oblivion. But data-extracting platforms don’t sublimate our personalities; they multiply and magnify them. And the Data Sublime, far from making the internet feel thrillingly big, has conspired to make it feel smaller, claustrophobic, and profoundly boring. As Facebook and Google metastasize, the more interesting destinations on the internet are dying off; recent sweeping media layoffs were also largely the result of Facebook, Google, and Amazon’s stranglehold on advertising revenue. The sublime promises a sort of redemptive immensity, but Silicon Valley strives to compress all of digital experience into a single, monotonous feed, mainlining capital into the pockets of billionaires.

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The Problem of Too Many Hotels, Too Many Parties, and Too Many Tourists In Tulum

Photo of Tulum in its more idyllic state by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Unceasing development. The constant hum of diesel generators on the beach. Out-of-control EDM festivals. Contaminated cenotes. The problems continue to pile up in Tulum, a five-mile strip of white-sand beach on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. At The Cut, Reeves Wiedeman takes a look at how a mix of poor infrastructure, unsustainable hotel practices, drugs, too many DJs, and tourists of all flavors over the years — backpackers, hippies, wealthy hippies, pseudo-spiritual partiers, influencers, celebrities — has ruined a once-chill getaway destination.

The activists have been most successful in decreasing the use of plastic — many restaurants now serve agave straws and cutlery made from avocado seed — but the more serious ecological problems don’t have agave solutions. Tulum is built on highly permeable limestone, the geologic equivalent of Swiss cheese, below which flows one of the world’s largest underground river systems. Some of Tulum’s biggest non-beach attractions are its cenotes, where the ground has collapsed to reveal open-air pools with highly Instagrammable turquoise water. The trouble is that less than 10 percent of the town is connected to the municipal sewer system. The beach, and many of the newer developments, aren’t connected at all. Most businesses depend, instead, on septic tanks, but, whether by accident, neglect, or ignorance — willful or otherwise — a significant amount of Tulum’s waste ends up in the ground, where it eventually leaches through the limestone into the water. In January, a documentary called The Dark Side of Tulum was released with footage shot by cave divers of feces floating in the rivers. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, 80 percent of the cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula have some level of contamination, and researchers have found traces of the entire Tulum consumption cycle: skin-care products, cocaine, Viagra, and ibuprofen.

Hotels in Tulum like to describe themselves as “eco-chic,” a term Melissa Perlman claims to have coined — she had recently considered sending cease-and-desist orders for its unauthorized use — but Olmo Torres-Talamante, a local biologist who runs an environmental NGO, said that, while a few places are trying harder than others, none of the hotels in Tulum operates sustainably. The do-what-you-want ethos of Tulum’s early days has produced fresh consequences now that people show up to party as much as they do to commune with nature, and the sacrifices being asked of tourists are comically small. (The first rule posted on a government sign instructing visitors on how to interact with sea turtles is a request not to sit on them.) One of the new EDM festivals encouraged attendees to use “biodegradable glitter,” but no one seemed eager to grapple with the inherent unsustainability of clearing a spot in the jungle to put in a giant speaker system.

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Health Care Sponcon: Where Big Pharma Meets Instagram Influencer

Photo via Pexels

I’ve been reading about Instagram influencers of all flavors recently, from kid stars to travel bloggers. Enter the latest type of influencer marketing: health care sponcon. That’s right: pharmaceutical companies and Silicon Valley health startups are teaming up with social influencers to sell new drugs and medical devices.

“There is no doubt that this type of health care advertising-cum-storytelling is effective, and is frequently compliant with federal regulations,” writes Suzanne Zuppello. But is it ethical? For Vox‘s The Goods, Zuppello digs into influencer pharma marketing and investigates how the FDA and FTC are attempting to regulate this type of sponsored content.

Lesley Murphy, a former contestant on The Bachelor and current travel blogger, uses her platform to disseminate information that benefits people like her who are affected by a BRCA genetic mutation, which increases a person’s risk of breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. Murphy, who did not respond to requests for comment, documented her experience of undergoing a preventive double mastectomy on Instagram. Now she advertises ReSensation, a surgical technique launched in October 2018 that may help women undergoing breast reconstruction to retain some or all sensation in their breasts, to her 422K followers. Although ads for most surgical procedures are under the FTC’s purview, ReSensation’s use of human nerves also gives the FDA jurisdiction over Murphy’s Instagram and blog posts.

When asked how the influencer program was developed, Annette Ruzicka, a spokesperson for AxoGen, the company that developed ReSensation, said, “The only request of contributors was to write openly about their breast reconstruction process, and to also share factual information with their followers about the ReSensation technique. We shared publicly available information about the ReSensation technique to ensure that all content shared with the public was accurate. We provided no other content requirements for contributors.”

Murphy, who is not the only ReSensation influencer, has not undergone the procedure herself. But her followers may not realize this detail until they reach the end of her Instagram caption, where she directs readers to a blog post where, at the very end, she discloses her personal inexperience with the technique. Though this does not violate federal guidelines, nor those put forth by AxoGen, it does speak to the ethical obligation an influencer has to their followers.

The reality star’s Instagram post about the technique received almost 11,500 likes, giving ReSensation considerable exposure, yet Murphy omits disclosures required by both the FTC and FDA. She uses the term #partner to disclose that she is a compensated influencer, but the term is considered too vague, even for the FTC, for a user to clearly understand the relationship. She also fails to offer any information about the technique, disregarding federal guidelines to disclose risks and benefits that may impact patient decision-making. Instead, she directs followers to her blog where she discusses “a new technique designed to restore sensation in breasts after surgery,” lamenting the numbness in her breasts since her mastectomy and reconstruction.

Her blog post is where we finally learn the technique was not used on Murphy and cannot be used in conjunction with implant reconstruction, the most common and least complicated form of breast reconstruction, and the type of reconstruction Murphy underwent. Neither Murphy’s posts nor the ReSensation website discloses the success rate of the technique, instead focusing on an insecurity that has plagued mastectomy patients for decades: numb breasts.

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