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The Team of Scientists Behind Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Photo by RADEK MICA/AFP via Getty Images

As David Heath and Gus Garcia-Roberts report in their gripping story at USA Today, credit for the swift development of the COVID-19 vaccine goes to an unheralded team of scientists and a series of pivotal discoveries in the last 15 years, all of which paved the way for the Moderna vaccine. Barney Graham is the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. He’s dedicated his career to studying viruses and developing vaccine candidates, most recently for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which reached the U.S. in 2016, and later Nipah, the virus spread by bats that broke out in India in 2018 (and inspired the movie Contagion). It’s Graham’s years-long effort  — and the work of “a constellation of unsung scientists” including Jason McLellan and Kizzmekia Corbett — that put the pieces in place for Moderna’s rapid turnaround.

Not only is Heath and Garcia-Roberts’ piece a compelling read, it’s very accessible in its explanations and illustrations on how SARS-CoV-2 attacks and infects the human body, and how the Moderna vaccine actually works.

As Graham got word through back channels that the new virus in China was probably a coronavirus, he reached out to Moderna’s CEO, who was vacationing in France. We should scratch the Nipah plan, he urged Stephane Bancel in a Jan. 6 email, in favor of a different proof of concept related to the Wuhan outbreak.

“If it’s a SARS-like coronavirus, we know what to do,” Graham wrote. “This would be a great time to run the drill for how quickly can you have a scalable vaccine.”

Graham later laid out the idea for Fauci, his boss’s boss, in a conference room at NIH. Fauci is no micromanager; he hadn’t even been aware until then how confident Graham was in his ability to make a coronavirus vaccine.

There had been two other novel coronaviruses since 2003, although neither SARS nor MERS were terribly contagious and neither became pandemics. In early January, there was no reason to assume COVID-19 would be any different. Yet Graham already had his team diving into how to defeat the new coronavirus just to prove it could be done. Fauci was sold.

“Let’s go full-blown,” he said. “Let’s make a vaccine.”

Fauci had already set aside $5 million for the small Nipah demonstration project. Graham asked if there would there be millions more available.

“Barney, let me worry about the money,” Fauci replied.

If everything went perfectly, Graham said a vaccine could be ready within 12 to 18 months – the prediction Fauci would soon make public.

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‘Plant-Based Eating Is Probably One of the Blackest Things I Could Do’

August de Richelieu/Pexels

“Plant-based eating has a long, radical history in Black American culture, preserved by institutions and individuals who have understood the power of food and nutrition in the fight against oppression,” writes Amirah Mercer in “A Homecoming.” The piece, published at Eater, explores Mercer’s path to veganism and the plant-based diets of the Black diaspora. While Mercer’s journey to a plant-centered diet initially brought up feelings of loss — “my veganism initially seemed like a rebuke of the rituals I had always known” — Mercer finds immense power in what she learns. Exploring veganism isn’t actually straying from her roots, and the shift is a way — as singer Prince once expressed — to liberate oneself and the world from injustice. “As a Black woman in America,” Mercer writes, “my veganism is, in fact, a homecoming.”

Just as I began to plateau on plants, my grandmother gave me a copy of Bryant Terry’s 2014 cookbook, Afro-Vegan. Seeing the words “Afro” and “Vegan” together on the book’s cover disrupted everything the mainstream had ever shown me about veganism. Terry, who is the chef in residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, uses the foodways of our ancestors as a historical guide for plant-based eating, combining classic Southern, Caribbean, and African dishes into a uniquely Black vegan cuisine: There were recipes for stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas, grits with slow-cooked collard greens, and a mango-habanero hot sauce. I felt overwhelming power in the sudden and profound realization that I didn’t have to stray from my roots in order to explore my veganism.

Food is political, and that is especially true for Black Americans. A lack of access to healthy food is a problem that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities — a condition that the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally describes as a “food desert,” though the food justice activist Karen Washington prefers the more apt term “food apartheid” — which are defined in large part by the nearly century-long legacy of redlining.

Decades of U.S. agricultural policies that overwhelmingly favor meat, dairy, and corn have caused many Americans to load up on a diet rich in fatty, processed, and refined foods, but the ill effects of the standard American diet (appropriately also called the SAD diet) are heightened for racial and ethnic minorities. Systemic racism within the dietetics industry has kept Black dietitians out of the field — their number has fallen by nearly 20 percent over the last two decades — while the resulting Eurocentric view of diet and nutrition has severely constrained its approach to non-Western cuisines and cultures. Not only is there a lack of knowledge about the nutritional foundation of many traditional diets, but people from non-Western cultures are pushed toward Westernized views of health and wellness even though, for instance, people of color are generally less able to process dairy products.

Both health care and food policies are greatly affected by who is voted into office. Unfortunately, African Americans have historically been and continue to be victims of voter suppression, which takes away our ability to advocate for health care policies that nourish our families. And so for many in the Black vegan community, plant-based eating can be an act of protest against this disenfranchisement.

Even as Africans in America adapted to their new environment, they retained their Indigenous knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Those forced into slavery on smaller, poorer farms, or in areas where the plantation economy was not dominant, such as New Orleans and the Gulf, kept their own gardens, a practice described by Twitty in The Cooking Gene as “little landscapes of resistance: Resistance against a culture of dehumanizing poverty and want, resistance against the erasure of African culture practices.” In Hog and Hominy, Opie quotes a Scottish-born visitor to North Carolina who remarked that Black people were “the only people that seem[ed] to pay any attention to the various uses that wild vegetables may be put to.”

Chattel slavery, the influence of European foodways, and the interests of a capitalist economy disrupted the plant-centered African diet. That disruption was never repaired, as the government failed to deliver on its promise of “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War, despite the 1865 special field order to reallocate 400,000 acres of Confederate land to the Black farmers who had tilled it for 250 years. Andrew Johnson — Abraham Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South — overturned the order and returned the land to the plantation owners. Denied the right to land ownership, African Americans who stayed in the South after the Civil War had little control over the food they grew to feed their families. (Of the Black farmers who have managed to acquire their own land between then and now, some 98 percent have had it taken from them.)

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This Visionary Chef Has Unlocked the Secrets of the Sea Floor. Can He Change the Way We Eat?

Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Chef Ángel León’s expeimental dishes at Aponiente, his three Michelin starred-restaurant in the Spanish port town of El Puerto de Santa María, across the bay from Cádiz, showcase his culinary innovation and commitment to sustainability. Consider unexpected ingredients like “discarded fish parts to make mortadella and blood sausage and chorizo,” the “parts of a tuna’s head to create a towering, gelatinous, fall-apart osso buco,” and varied underwater flora presented on plates as sea pears, tomatoes, and artichokes. “He built his menu around pesca de descarte, trash fish: pandora, krill, sea bream, mackerel, moray eel,” writes Matt Goulding in a profile of the chef at Time magazine. “But in León’s mind, these are some of the most noble and delicious creatures in the sea.”

Known in Spain as “the Chef del Mar,” León has big plans: harvesting seagrass off different stretches of the coast and transplanting it to the Bay of Cádiz, near his restaurant, with the long-term aim of domesticating eelgrass and growing a vast “underwater garden for human beings.” Scientists have known that seagrasses are “one of the most vital ecosystems in the fight against climate change,” writes Goulding, but what’s lesser-known is that seagrass contains “clusters of small, edible grains with massive potential” — and it’s León who is exploring its possibilities.

He sees the region’s vast network of estuaries overflowing with flora and fauna—tiny, candy-sweet white shrimp, edible seaweeds like marine mesclun mix, sea bream and mackerel in dense silver schools. He sees a series of mills, stone-built and sea-powered, grinding through grains for the region’s daily bread. A wind-swept, sun-kissed saltwater economy, like the one that once made Cádiz a center of the world.

Zostera grains look more like amaranth or a chia seed than rice—a short, pellet-like grain with a dark complexion. León boiled it like pasta, passed me a spoonful, then watched me closely as I processed. The first thing you notice is the texture: taut-skinned and compact, each grain pops on your tongue like an orb of caviar. It tasted like the love child of rice and quinoa with a gentle saline undertow.

But there is something extraordinary about seagrasses: they are the only plants that flower fully submerged in salt water. They have all the equipment of a terrestrial plant—roots, stems, rhizomes, leaves, flowers, seeds—but they thrive in under-water environments. Seagrasses like Zostera marina are eco-system engineers: the meadows they form along coastlines represent some of the most biodiverse areas in the ocean, playing host to fauna (like seahorses, bay scallops and sea turtles) that would struggle to survive without seagrass.

But anthropogenic forces—climate change, pollution, coastal development—have threatened eelgrass meadows across the world. As León and team refine the conditions for large-scale cultivation, they hope to facilitate its growth along coastlines around the world—Asia, North America and, above all, across the Straits of Gibraltar in Africa—turning millions of hectares into a source of food, protection against erosion and a weapon against climate change.

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‘We Told You So’: Revisiting the Bleak, Pandemic-Filled World of 12 Monkeys, 25 Years Later

Bruce Willis as Cole, the time-traveling protagonist in 12 Monkeys. Universal Pictures.

Director Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science-fiction film, 12 Monkeys, presented a desolate future in which a virus exterminates most of the world’s population and forces survivors to live underground. James Cole, the movie’s protagonist and a prisoner in this subterranean civilization in 2035, is sent back in time — to the 1990s — to find the original virus and bring it back to scientists in the future to develop a cure.

In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people stuck at home during lockdown turned to movies about fictional pandemics, including Gilliam’s surreal, chilling vision, which was brought to life by its three big stars — Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe. And 25 years on, as producer Charles Roven tells Eric Ducker in The Ringer, the movie “holds up really well.”

In this complete history of the making of 12 Monkeys, Ducker talks with Gilliam, its screenwriters David and Janet Peoples, and others who worked on the film.

The movie Outbreak came out several months before 12 Monkeys, and journalist Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone about lethal filoviruses was a national bestseller. Still, for most of the world’s population, a massive pandemic had not been a pressing concern since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Now there is a rising feeling that the next one won’t come a century from now. It could arrive much sooner and could be far worse. “I think the very first spoken words that aren’t voice-over in our show are, ‘It’s never been about if. It’s always been when,’” Matalas says. “When you start to really dissect that data, it’s terrifying. Right now we’re on the precipice of a vaccine, but are we truly ready for the next [pandemic]? I don’t think so.”

In 12 Monkeys, Railly has written a book called The Doomsday Syndrome and gives a lecture at a museum about madness and apocalyptic visions. She discusses the Cassandra complex, the idea taken from Greek legend about figures who know the future but whose warnings aren’t heeded, leading to what Railly describes as, “[T]he agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” In the 25 years since its release, 12 Monkeys is increasingly seen as a Cassandra of its own kind.

“We told you so,” Gilliam says.

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What Happened to Cruise Ship Workers Once the Passengers Were Gone?

Photo of the Carnival Breeze by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines via Getty Images

CW: suicide

Last year’s investigations into the COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships at the start of the pandemic, including Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess and Holland America’s MS Zaandam, revealed horrific vacations gone wrong for passengers from around the world. But what happened to the tens of thousands of crew members who remained trapped on ships even after all the guests had disembarked and found their way home?

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Austin Carr tells the devastating stories of cruise line employees found dead — in apparent suicides — aboard Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships, including Jozsef Szaller, a shore excursion manager from Hungary on the Carnival Breeze, and Mariah Jocson, a waitress from the Philippines on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.

Interviews with affected crew members and their families suggest that despite assurances from cruise operators that crew were well cared for, their mental health was at times an afterthought. An October 2019 study on the mental well-being of crew, commissioned by a group affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the big maritime trade union, found that even before the pandemic about a fifth of mariners surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts. High levels of depression stem from the jobs’ long contract lengths and stressful demands.

On April 29, an electrical engineer from Poland on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas disappeared while the ship was anchored in the Saronic Gulf, south of Athens. Ship security cameras captured him leaping into the water that morning, according to Greek authorities. Two weeks later, on May 10, Evgenia Pankrushyna, a waitress from Ukraine, died after jumping overboard from Carnival’s Regal Princess near Rotterdam. Around this time a Chinese contractor was found dead on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. A crew member aboard the ship says many believed it was another suicide, though the company said he’d died of natural causes. Next was a Filipino cook, Kennex Bundaon, who was found dead in his cabin on Carnival’s AIDAblu. Four days later, another worker from the Philippines died in an apparent suicide on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady.

The details of the deaths of Szaller and Jocson are still not clear, even to their families, who are “desperate for closure.” In Szaller’s case, Carnival has refused to discuss the specific circumstances of his death with his parents, while the father of Jocson, the Royal Caribbean employee, says that his daughter had never shown signs of depression and kept telling him that she wanted to go home. He just wants to know the truth about her death.

It wasn’t just the claustrophobic environment that was distressing. Workers say cruise companies constantly changed repatriation schedules, offering only vague guidance on when or how they’d return home. Without customers on board, Carnival moved many contractors off duty, meaning they could sort of enjoy the amenities of the ocean liners. But that also meant their salaries were eventually cut off—a scary situation for those supporting families on land. The weeks dragged on with limited entertainment options. Internet access was complimentary on some boats, but it could be painfully slow or strong enough only for social media and texting.

Vilmos says communications with Carnival broke down soon after. As the Szallers tried to organize the retrieval of their son’s body, including figuring out which jurisdiction would have to declare him legally deceased, they began to see the cruise company as having had a role in their son’s death. Its labyrinthine corporate structure—a web of international entities designed to lower Carnival’s tax liability—compounded their grief.

Even now, the Szallers have been unable to have Jozsef declared legally deceased. Vilmos says the coroner’s report should move things forward, but it’s been frustrating enough coordinating with U.K. authorities on behalf of his son, a Hungarian citizen. And that’s not even half the headache. As Vilmos frames it, how do you officially process a death that occurred in international waters, on a ship registered in Panama, that’s owned by a company operating in the U.S.?

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‘Almost Home’: On Place, Legacy, Growing Up in Atlanta, and Symbols of White Supremacy

The largest confederate memorial in America is carved out of rock in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The site is linked to many Klu Klux Klan gatherings and the state of Georgia's resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the '50s and '60s. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In “Almost Home,” an essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pete Candler reflects on growing up in Atlanta, and the symbols of white supremacy in his hometown.

It certainly never occurred to me then that the Ku Klux Klan — during its second wind from 1915 to the mid-1920s — was reborn not in the hinterlands of Atlanta but at its posh and manicured heart: not in Stone Mountain but in Buckhead. My neighborhood.

Even if I had become aware at a younger age of Stone Mountain’s entanglements with the Klan, it would still have been easy to think of white supremacy at a comfortable distance. Stone Mountain was way the hell out there, in another county, not yet absorbed into the amnesic Atlanta that was swallowing us all.

The piece nicely complements Candler’s March 2019 essay, “A Deeper South,” in which he revisits monuments in the South with a new perspective and uncovers truths about his ancestry. Like this previous essay, “Almost Home” is moving and meditative, and Candler writes beautifully on place, memory, and legacy.

I listened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on cassette tapes countless times in my adolescence, and felt myself moved by the idealism of King’s vision — but moved in an abstract way, perhaps, since I never made the connection then between the lofty Christian nobility of King’s soul-jarring calls for justice and the material realities of where I lived. Unaware then of the resonances of Stone Mountain as a holy site for white supremacists and Lost Causers, I didn’t think to notice the deliberate power of King’s decision to mention it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963, didn’t consider how the power of that moment connected to a specific place I was probably then blithely enjoying seeing lit up with laser beams. But being moved by King’s speeches and sermons is no great achievement; anyone can do it. King’s greatest moments in the pulpit or on the dais had the power to effect in me a movement of the heart, maybe, but not yet a personal turning of memory. That would come later.

Black Atlantans probably are far more likely to know this history than I am. White privilege means there are stories you do not have to be burdened by, neighborhoods of the imagination you think you can casually avoid without damage to your soul. My life as a white person could have turned out differently if I had learned to inhabit a different narrative geography, to be shaped by the practice of alienating mental spaces. But I didn’t have to.

Later in the piece, Candler describes a trip he takes with one of his sons from Asheville, where he now lives, to Atlanta; he introduces Charlie to some of the places he loves, in the hope that he will love them, and — perhaps — sow a connection to them, too.

It is worth asking why any of this stuff matters, if at all. Maybe I am interested in family history; maybe I am seeking some place to anchor my own memories, some small plot of earth to which to bind my own wayfaring self. It could be that I am simply trying to manufacture a history I do not really possess, a surrogate past that I might lean on, that might hold steady for just a while longer. The house I grew up in is all gone now, and I have little to return to in the way of a site that still holds a memory of self should I forget. Maybe that’s what I am looking for on Ponce. I don’t know.

There is something nonsensical in all this, in my desire to give my children a sense of connection to a place where they have never lived, to cultivate in them an attachment to a space inhabited by their forebears they would never have heard about were it not for a random set of coincidences in my own life. It risks being an artificial, enforced attachment and not a real, organic one. But at bottom I just want them to be less naïve than I was, less ignorant than I am. To have a history we can grow up with together. To give them some sign that boundless curiosity will always be met with an ever-greater mystery, that as much as you think you know there is always an infinitely greater knowledge that you do not possess. That as long as you search the grounds of the world for some hint of yourself, you will never fully find it. That you will ever remain a mystery to yourself. That every seeking and finding only prompts more seeking; and that you may often find what you did not seek, and that may be the thing you needed the most.

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‘No Single Machine Should Be Able to Control So Many People’

Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Adrienne LaFrance has come to realize that Facebook is not a media company — it’s a doomsday machine, one operating above ground, in plain sight, just east of Highway 101 in Menlo Park, California. At the Atlantic, LaFrance traces the history and growth of the web giant, whose early mission was focused on making the world more open and connected. In its quest, it built “community” at an unprecedented global scale, but along the way stripped away all the good. As we’ve seen, Facebook is a government propaganda machine; a place for hate and terrorist groups to organize; a space for harassment, manipulation, and social experiments; and so much more. Today, its highly personalized, algorithmically powered informational environment is increasingly challenging to moderate — thus incredibly dangerous — and “no one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can control the product he made,” La France writes.

I recalled Clinton’s warning a few weeks ago, when Zuckerberg defended the decision not to suspend Steve Bannon from Facebook after he argued, in essence, for the beheading of two senior U.S. officials, the infectious-disease doctor Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The episode got me thinking about a question that’s unanswerable but that I keep asking people anyway: How much real-world violence would never have happened if Facebook didn’t exist? One of the people I’ve asked is Joshua Geltzer, a former White House counterterrorism official who is now teaching at Georgetown Law. In counterterrorism circles, he told me, people are fond of pointing out how good the United States has been at keeping terrorists out since 9/11. That’s wrong, he said. In fact, “terrorists are entering every single day, every single hour, every single minute” through Facebook.

In previous eras, U.S. officials could at least study, say, Nazi propaganda during World War II, and fully grasp what the Nazis wanted people to believe. Today, “it’s not a filter bubble; it’s a filter shroud,” Geltzer said. “I don’t even know what others with personalized experiences are seeing.” Another expert in this realm, Mary McCord, the legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, told me that she thinks 8kun may be more blatant in terms of promoting violence but that Facebook is “in some ways way worse” because of its reach. “There’s no barrier to entry with Facebook,” she said. “In every situation of extremist violence we’ve looked into, we’ve found Facebook postings. And that reaches tons of people. The broad reach is what brings people into the fold and normalizes extremism and makes it mainstream.” In other words, it’s the megascale that makes Facebook so dangerous.

In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Zuckerberg authorized a tweak to the Facebook algorithm so that high-accuracy news sources such as NPR would receive preferential visibility in people’s feeds, and hyper-partisan pages such as Breitbart News’s and Occupy Democrats’ would be buried, according to The New York Times, offering proof that Facebook could, if it wanted to, turn a dial to reduce disinformation—and offering a reminder that Facebook has the power to flip a switch and change what billions of people see online.

The decision to touch the dial was highly unusual for Facebook. Think about it this way: The Doomsday Machine’s sensors detected something harmful in the environment and chose not to let its algorithms automatically blow it up across the web as usual. This time a human intervened to mitigate harm. The only problem is that reducing the prevalence of content that Facebook calls “bad for the world” also reduces people’s engagement with the site. In its experiments with human intervention, the Times reported, Facebook calibrated the dial so that just enough harmful content stayed in users’ news feeds to keep them coming back for more.

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The Case of the Disappearing Bucatini

Bucatini pasta photographed by Amy Brothers/The Denver Post/Getty Images.

The year that was 2020 is officially over, and even though we already shared our picks for the year’s best investigative reporting, Rachel Handler’s absolutely delightful dive into the mysterious shortage of bucatini squeaked through last week and deserves a special, honorary slot on that list.

Handler’s Grub Street investigation into the disappearance of this thicker, luxurious noodle with a hole from shelves in New York and beyond is the end-of-year/new year read you didn’t know you needed.

Being educated noodle consumers, we knew that there was, more generally, a pasta shortage due to the pandemic, but we were still able to find spaghetti and penne and orecchiette — shapes which, again, insult me even in concept. The missing bucatini felt different. It was specific. Frightening. Why bucatini? Why now? Why us?

I’d like to go a step further and praise its innate bounciness and personality. If you boil bucatini for 50 percent of the time the box tells you to, cooking it perfectly al dente, you will experience a textural experience like nothing else you have encountered in your natural life. When cooked correctly, bucatini bites back. It is a responsive noodle. It is a self-aware noodle. In these times, when human social interaction carries with it the possible price of illness, bucatini offers an alternative: a social interaction with a pasta.

But the problem, I would learn, was not limited to New York. In the fall, I was speaking with my mother, a longtime resident of suburban Chicago, and, as it often does, the conversation quickly turned to pasta. “Rachel,” my mother said gravely. “I haven’t been able to find bucatini anywhere at home. Do you have any in New York?”

My heart stopped.

When Handler discovers the bucatini shortage is a much wider problem, she becomes determined to solve the mystery, first reaching out to De Cecco — her mother’s favorite bucatini brand — then going down a rabbit hole of email inquiries and phone calls with organizations like the FDA (which, as you can imagine, was a bit busy with vaccine- and pandemic-related issues), the National Pasta Association (yes, this indeed exists), and other noodle manufacturers, like Barilla. While digging deep into the history and inner workings of Big Pasta, Handler does find some answers, but she’s ultimately left with more questions.

But I sensed something more sinister was afoot, specifically regarding De Cecco–brand bucatini and its alleged skirmish with the FDA. Rosario expressed surprise at this, telling me he hadn’t heard anything about any kind of situazione with the FDA. “Maybe we’ll find some conspiracy, some worldwide thing,” he said, delighted. “That would be phenomenal. You would be remembered as the whistle-blower of the bucatini world crisis.” When I told him that De Cecco’s rep had been ignoring me, he gasped. “Maybe he’s been silenced!” he said. Rosario said he’d get back to me when he’d done his own internal investigating — and he did, mere moments later.

Carl didn’t say it, but I was pretty sure he thought about calling me “the Bernstein of Bucatini” and that my work will now help to fix the standards-of-identity issue that has long plagued our fair continents. I had confirmed that the bucatini shortage was real and understood that the bucatini shortage was a combination of factors: the pandemic’s pasta demand, how hard it is to make bucatini because of its hole, De Cecco’s strange and untimely barring from the U.S. border. But these victories felt lacking.

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Quarantine Brain: How ‘the Internet Became More Internet’ in 2020

Photo by cottonbro / Pexels

I spent most of December buried in this year’s editors’ picks, working with the team to compile our Best of 2020 lists. As you can imagine, most of that reading was heavy, emotional, and mentally exhausting. The first essay I read after wrapping up my final list on investigative reporting was Alexandra Tanner’s hilarious deep-dive into the bizarre world of Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram which, somehow and strangely, was a breath of fresh air. But what is fresh air in 2020, in a year of masks and poorly ventilated spaces and smoky skies and air filters?

While lighter than most anything I’d read in weeks, Tanner’s Jewish Currents essay on mad Mommy bloggers is still dark, yet it encapsulates 2020 in one entertaining dose, just like E. Alex Jung‘s Vulture piece on quarantine culture, published earlier this month. For those of us who have had the privilege of isolating and staying home with Wi-Fi, we’ve been online all the time: “hotboxing off bad weed,” writes Jung, “our brains smoothed into little pearls.” At first, there were attempts to return to normal, Jung explains, but in the end, nothing has made sense. Driven by a new and exciting generation of content creators on TikTok and the spirit of the Dadaists, the most memorable moments of the year were the most spontaneous, and the most resonant art “channeled the hive mind of the internet”: created, shaped, and owned by everyone and no one.

It was TikTok, the app Cooper made her name on, that became the most fertile storytelling medium of the pandemic — accomplishing what Quibi could not, which was to create bite-size entertainment people actually watched. In place of top-down decision-making, a more horizontal body — collaborative in an accidental and serendipitous way — appeared.

Formally, the Dadaists embraced chaos and nonsense. They favored collage and montage, whether through photography, typography, or sculpture; the collision of dissonant ideas and images was a way to jolt viewers out of their stupor. A common refrain was “Everybody can Dada.” In many ways, the internet has allowed for a realization of Dada without a centralized authority (which is so Dada). Just as it emerged from the bowels of World War I (and the 1918 influenza pandemic), you could see glimmers of a similarly absurdist sensibility reflecting the times — a Gen-Z/millennial cusp brand of disillusionment and anger. The coronavirus is the accelerant thrown on a fire that has long been burning: a for-profit news media, the erosion of our public institutions, a two-party political system made up of a white-supremacist death cult and corporate nostalgists.

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The Mormon Mommy Bloggers of Instagram

One of Alexandra Tanner‘s internet activities this year, during lockdown? Obsessively following Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram. Spending her quarantine days closely observing these women’s lives, perhaps she’d learn something about America, she thought. In an essay at Jewish Currents that’s at once hilarious and terrifying, Tanner explores this bizarre, mad world: one of mass delusion and conspiracy theories.

The mommies started wearing t-shirts sunnily screen-printed with the phrase FREEDOM KEEPER and attending anti-mask rallies. They posted videos implying they were foregoing chickenpox vaccines in favor of exposing their children to the virus via mysterious, black-market-looking envelopes labeled VARICELLA. They posted that they were approaching new vibrational energies, that they were moving into a fourth dimension of consciousness, that they were becoming a part of the Great Awakening.

NOW IT’S JUNE. There’s an amazing new steam mop out and all the mommies have it. Cops are beating protesters unconscious with their riot shields and the mommies are all posting the same graphic, which reads i understand that i will never understand above a line of fist emojis: one black, one brown, one white. The steam mop is made by Bissell. Soros is paying Antifa to usher in the New World Order, which will persecute Christians and Republicans so Jews and socialists can finally rule the globe. The infrared thermometers that now take our temperatures outside grocery stores or doctors’ offices are acclimating us to the idea of having guns aimed at our heads. Marina Abramovic has taught Jay-Z and Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton and Rihanna to cook and eat the spirits of small white children. The Bissell steam mop is only $79.99 on Amazon and I have to try it. The West Coast wildfires were started by left-wing arsonists. Yoga is Satanic. Tarot is Satanic. When a celebrity wears a Band-Aid on their left hand they’re telling you they eat children. When a celebrity wears a flower crown they’re telling you they eat children. When a celebrity wears dark eye makeup they’re telling you they eat children. If I swipe up the Bissell steam mop will be automatically added to my Amazon cart.

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