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Bowen Yang is Simply Awesome

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 14: Bowen Yang (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Viacom )

Bowen Yang joined Saturday Night Live in 2018 as a writer and quickly became a beloved part of the cast in the 2019-2020 season. (My personal favorite Bowen Yang character: “bitchy” Kim Jong-un.) In this all-too-brief profile at GQ, Bowen talks to Chris Gayomali about how the elder Yang’s insistence on conversion therapy ended up as bonding opportunities for father and son.

At one point during lunch, Bowen tells a story about how his parents found an “open chat window” on the family computer, which is how they learned that Bowen was gay. “I had never seen my dad cry before up until that point,” says Bowen. “And I was coming home from school every day to him sobbing.”

Soon, Dad pitches Bowen on the idea of conversion therapy to “fix” his queerness. It wasn’t that the family was religious or anything. It was more: “We solve problems in this house, and this feels like a solution,” explains Bowen. “We’re not really going to look into how it’s destructive or bad or terrible.” So a 17-year-old Bowen, perhaps implicitly understanding that his parents may be operating from a place of fear, opens up a little bit of space in his heart and goes, “Okay, if it means you’ll stop being this sad…then sure.”

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An Unenviable Week of Firsts in Seattle Under COVID-19

KIRKLAND, WASHINGTON - MARCH 12: A cleaning crew wearing protective clothing (PPE) to protect them from coronavirus prepares to enter the Life Care Center on March 12, 2020 in Kirkland, Washington. The nursing home in the Seattle suburbs has had the most deaths due to COVID-19 of anywhere in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

At The New Yorker, James Ross Gardner reflects on the past week of life and the first deaths in Seattle — the first city to feel the effects of Covid-19 in America. The city suffered the first death in the United States on Saturday, February 29th when a man in his 50s succumbed to the virus. As of now, Covid-19 has since taken the lives of 26 people in Seattle.

We stopped touching each other on a Wednesday. Or was it Tuesday? Information came at us so fast—confirmed cases, public-health warnings, deaths—you could swear the days of the week had transposed, their order jumbled like everything else. Certainly by Wednesday the handshakes stopped. Hugs weren’t far behind. Even among longtime friends and family. This would soon happen elsewhere in the country, to a degree, but here in the Seattle area, where by week’s end covid-19 would kill nearly twenty of us, evading physical contact carried extra urgency. Every avoidance felt like an act of heroism. You told yourself you were saving lives, and you were probably right.

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Did the United States Booby-Trap a Vital Soviet Gas Pipeline?

The flags of the USSR and USA hang over chairs on stage at the 1985 Geneva Summit. (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Is it a tale too far-fetched to be true, or too bizarre not to be? Allegedly, a disgruntled KBG agent code-named “Farewell” gave away Soviet secrets to the French, who then promptly shared them with the US — giving the American government a veritable shopping list of the US technology most coveted by the Soviets. Enter Gus Weiss, an eccentric and brilliant insider in the US intelligence community. According to Alex French at Wired, Weiss devised the perfect plan to thwart the Russians: sell them what they want, but first make sure that technology is programmed to self-destruct, taking down a natural gas pipeline vital to the cash-strapped Russians.

Weiss proposed using the Farewell shopping lists to supply the Soviets with the products they sought.

But Weiss wanted the gadgets altered, pre-improved so that they would eventually fail. “The scheme was so goober-pea simple that nobody had come upon it,” Weiss wrote of his solution. Even if the Soviets sniffed out the American trickery, Weiss wrote, “the stratagem would still work as the Agency’s Red Star clientele would be forced to test and retest each recalcitrant unit, provoking delays and finger pointing in the Center, its puffed up potentates sniffing a Gulag behind their next performance appraisal … Real fake devices, false fake devices … The Soviets had set themselves up in exquisite fashion.”

That alternative plan is at the core of the legend of Gus Weiss. The best-known version of the tale goes like this: High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

The pipeline explosion is said to have cost Moscow tens millions of dollars it could ill-afford to waste.

You be the judge

Curation: The Best Reading, Hand-Picked, For You

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As a word, curation flirted with disaster in the ’90s, tarnished by overuse. But here at Longreads — before we started to work with journalists and writers to publish deeply reported pieces, fun satire, and thoughtful essays and criticism — our founder Mark Armstrong started a movement, nay a community, with a Twitter hashtag geared to sharing the best writing online. Eleven years later, curation remains our labor of love.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider what reading a great piece of writing does and more importantly, how it makes us feel. I remember when I first fell in love with longform writing. “Nureyev Dancing In His Own Shadow” appeared in the March 1991 edition of Esquire. I was a young adult. I had little exposure to culture. I had zero figs to give about ballet. (My mom tried to put me in ballet at age 5 and as soon as I figured out you had to wear not just a dress (ugh) but a pink dress, I was out.) But I started to read Elizabeth Kaye’s profile and I was rapt. I slowed down to savor it. I re-read it. I discovered a world I knew nothing of, a world far away from my modest upbringing. I hung on every word. For me, this is the feeling I get when my horizon expands, that spark of learning something new, that keen sense of optimism where the rest of the day is filthy with potential.

Since Longreads got started with a tweet in 2009, we’ve highlighted nearly 11,000 pieces from 6500 authors at over 1,000 publications. And, almost every week for the past six years, we’ve shared the pieces we loved best in the Weekly Top 5 Newsletter — available for free — to anyone who’d like to subscribe. Sharing great writing is our raison d’être and we’re asking for your help to keep Longreads free for as many readers as possible.

Great writing teaches. Great writing moves us. It makes us feel good. It fills us with potential. Doesn’t everyone want to feel good and optimistic? Is this a mission you can get behind? We’d love it if you would consider a contribution to our member drive. Thank you for reading.

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Life Advice from Jazz Genius Sonny Rollins

Close-up of American jazz musician Sonny Rollins playing the tenor saxophone mid 1950s. (Photo by Bob Parent/Getty Images)

At age 89, after 70 years as a jazz saxophonist who played with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker (to name just a few), Sonny Rollins quietly gave up playing in 2014 due to pulmonary fibrosis. At The New York Times Magazine, David Marchese talks to Rollins about why he decided not to publish his ideas on saxophone technique and harmony, and his distinct lack of nostalgia for jazz days gone by.

When I had to stop playing it was quite traumatic. But I realized that instead of lamenting and crying, I should be grateful for the fact that I was able to do music all of my life. So I had that realization, plus my spiritual beliefs, which I’ve been cultivating for many years. All that work went into my accepting the fact that I couldn’t play my horn.

Does believing in the transience of life mean you’re not nostalgic for jazz’s past? Or your own life in jazz? Wayne Shorter’s still here, but Miles is not here. Max Roach is not here. Trane is not here. Monk is not here. Do I feel nostalgic about that? No. These guys are alive to me. I hear their music. OK, Charlie Parker is not in his body, but everything about Charlie Parker is here to me in spirit. Any time of day, any time of night, I might think of Miles, and the spirit is there. Occasionally I go, Gee, I can’t hang out with Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown after a gig. I think about that, but it’s receding. Those guys — I don’t worry about them not being here in the flesh. I’m not going to be in the flesh, either. You’re not going to be in the flesh, either, David. So what? It’s OK.

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Mowing the Lawn to Map the Ocean Floor, One Long, Slow Pass at a Time

A scuba diver explores an old, wooden shipwreck in Lake Michigan. The waters of the Great Lakes are so cold that they preserve the many wrecks on bottom.

Related underwater reading: Gene and Sandy Ralston use specialized sonar on their boat to locate bodies under water.

As Matthew Braga reports at The Verge, we’re flithy rich with land maps, ones that show us “how the planet has changed, and how we’ve changed the planet,” over time, but that’s not the case where land is covered by water. The treasure trove of information to be gleaned from mapping the world’s oceans could help scientists understand climate change. Enter BEN, an automated map-making boat Braga met while it plotted Lake Huron. According to Braga, “we’ve mapped just 9 percent of the world’s oceans to modern standards,” which is “why BEN and vehicles like it hold so much promise.” (Note, the fantastic illustrations in this piece were done by the incomparable Zoë van Dijk. Check out some of her illustrations for Longreads.)

It was just past midnight when the Ironton punched a 200-square-foot hole in the side of the Ohio. It was dark, the waters were rough, and the Ohio, a wooden bulk freighter loaded with flour and feed, was no match for the Ironton, a schooner heavy with coal. The Ohio sank within half an hour, and the Ironton soon followed, taking five of its crew down too.

Their ghostly hulls have sat largely undisturbed at the bottom of Lake Huron since colliding in late September 1894 — just two of the many wrecks that lie in a treacherous stretch of water called Thunder Bay off Michigan’s northeastern coast. Some are so well preserved by the lake’s frigid freshwater that their unbroken masts point definitely towards the surface, rigging still intact. Others have dishes in the cupboards, a century late for dinner. A few years ago, local media reported that divers found a 1927 Chevrolet Coupe amid the wreckage of a steamship, covered with algae and barnacles, but nonetheless pristine. You can thank the rocky shoals, frequent fog, and sudden gales of Thunder Bay for turning what was once the bustling marine interstate of America’s early industrial age into a modern-day museum of Great Lakes maritime history. Locals called it “Shipwreck Alley.”

Divers flock from all over the world to see the wrecks for themselves each year — and last spring, they were joined by an unusual interloper: an autonomous boat named BEN. BEN is a self-driving boat that’s been tasked with making maps, and it was brought to Thunder Bay to help lay bare the long-lost secrets of the lakebed.

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The Man Who Lived in a Hole in Hampstead Heath

A man walks across snow-covered Hampstead Heath, London, United Kingdom (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

He was a local handyman with a bone disease which ended his work as a stage hand. He was a regular at The Garden Gate pub who enjoyed an ale in the evenings. At the end of those pub evenings Dominic Van Allen went home — to a bunker he’d dug and fortified, well hidden in the brambly section of Hampstead Heath. It was warm, safe place to sleep and enjoy a bowl of soup re-heated on his stove.

As Tom Lamont reports in this fascinating piece at The Guardian, Van Allen wasn’t destitute. He earned a little money doing odd jobs, but there was no way he could earn enough to pay notoriously high rents in London. He wasn’t an addict or mentally ill, and because so many Londoners are far worse off, Van Allen ‘”never quite reached the top of anybody’s list, and was eventually told: “It’s unlikely you’ll get housed.”'”

Still: it came as a surprise, one ranger told me, when they came across a patch where steam was rising out of what ought to have been solid ground.

He would never plausibly make London rent. Social housing was just out of reach. A mortgage purest fantasy. Van Allen had taught himself, instead, how to borrow a piece of this expensive city, night by night, on unarranged loan.

Halfway along the footpath, he turned off again, this time stepping directly into dense bramble. He found a narrow gulley that had been cut between the thorns and followed it through a zigzag turn to a small clearing, where he bent in the dark and patted the earthy floor. There – a concealed hatch. Van Allen tugged it open with his fingers and descended into the ground, closing the hatch behind. Below, he flicked on lights at a switch. He hung up his coat.

There was space in the bunker for two camp beds, pushed against opposite walls. In the 4ft gulley between the beds, Van Allen could stand, comfortably enough, without his head scraping the trussed timber roof. The floor underneath him was poured concrete. He’d put up hooks for his coat, his bag and his cooking utensils, and there were shelves by the bed for odds and ends. Push-button LED lights were stuck to the walls using tape. There was a portable gas stove down here, and now that Van Allen was in for the night, he lit it and emptied a can of soup into a pan. After eating, he washed up with wet wipes. Litter was tied inside plastic bags, to be spirited away to a distant bin, early tomorrow, before the heath’s park rangers came on duty.

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“Follow Along,” or How to Learn Flamenco Guitar with a Tocaora

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For more from Lavinia Spalding, read her Longreads essay, The Cabin.

I’ve been studying guitar for three years now and electric bass for nine months. There’s something special about the happy hours of focus I spend to earn any proficiency, whether it’s to learn a new concept or chord voicing, improvise a jazz phrase, or glean a bass line from an old blues tune.

As a child guitar prodigy, Lavinia Spalding knows this love, devotion, and satisfaction well. She studied with her father — one of the few students of the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time, Paco de Lucía — until she became a teen and the need for friendship overshadowed her love of guitar. Spalding’s father had infused her not only with musical acumen but also possibility; he had wanted her to become the rarest of flamenco musicians, a tocaora — a female flamenco guitarist.

In this beautiful essay at AFAR about family, relationships, commitment, and above all, the love of studying and playing music, Spalding recounts how she travelled to Spain to study flamenco in person with three of the country’s most celebrated tocaoras.

Tell people in the United States that your dad studied with Paco de Lucía, and they’ll smile. Here in Andalusia, they’ll gasp. Their eyes will bug out. They’ll want to hug you. Pilar is no exception. When I show her my dad’s transcription, I might as well have unveiled a sacred relic. “It’s glorious,” she says, poring over it. “Magnífico.”

Leafing through my folder of sheet music, however, she acts like I’ve thrust rotten chicken under her nose. She’ll happily instruct me in the ways of soleares, but this?! No. When she demonstrates a compás, the rhythm she intends to teach me, her hands become birds—darting and fluttering, dipping and swooping, graceful, furious.

“OK,” she says. “Now follow along.”

To be clear, there is no chance I can do this.

And as I struggle, regret creeps in. How could I have quit—twice—such an important part of my life?

But during our second lesson, something happens. While showing me how to connect a compás to a falseta, Pilar suddenly begins playing a melody my father taught me 15 years ago. A delicate, lively string of single notes, it’s as familiar as a lullaby. “That!” I shout. Tears blur my eyes, and then my fingers are plucking along as fast as hers. It’s as if a spirit has been summoned to return me to guitar. It’s as if a missing piece of me is back.

But I do remember, finally, what it means to be musical. To concentrate deeply, practicing until something beautiful emerges. To live for the moment when it all connects and you are elevated. And mostly, to share that magic with someone else.

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In Hot Pursuit of STS-50, High Seas Scofflaw

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The high seas begin 370 km from a nation’s shore and because it’s difficult for governments and organizations to patrol and police these waters, it’s the perfect place for pilfering the best the ocean has to offer while damaging fish stocks and marine ecosystems. At Hakai Magazine, Sarah Tory reports on the hunt for STS-50 — alias Andrey Dolgov, alias Sea Breeze, alias Ayda — a notorious longliner whose captain and crew had evaded and escaped capture to loot the seas of $50 million in fish over a ten year period.

The STS-50 was a 452-tonne, 1980s-era former longliner originally from Japan. It was well known in maritime circles…for poaching Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish (also called Chilean sea bass), two lucrative cod species from the Southern Ocean. Authorities believe the STS-50 operated illegally for 10 years or so and looted up to $50-million worth of the fish, which can grow to 120 kilograms and live for 60 years. Interpol had issued a purple notice for the vessel—an international request for information about the STS-50’s criminal activity. But the vessel’s owners and captain had been evading authorities for years with a typical bag of tricks: registering the boat to nations with lax rules; using shell companies to obscure ownership; forging documents; and spoofing the most advanced satellite surveillance.

Vessels that fish illegally are often involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling while contributing to plummeting fish stocks and degraded marine ecosystems. Experts estimate that up to 20 percent of the world’s total catch (fish and other marine fauna) falls under illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. That’s more than 23 million tonnes of seafood stolen from the seas annually—or one out of every five wild-caught fish sold on the market—worth $23.5-billion.

Selling the illegally caught fish is relatively easy to get away with if port inspectors do a poor job of investigating the vessel, explains Peter Horn, the project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing program. All the captain has to do is misreport the catch, claiming for instance that the crew caught one type of fish when in fact it caught another; lie about the quantity of fish caught; or pretend to have fished in a different area. The end result is a market with so many illegally caught fish that “there’s a reasonable chance that you have inadvertently bought some,” Horn says.

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How a Mom Penetrated the Pen to Hack the Warden’s Computer

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John Strand didn’t think it was a great idea to allow his mom to attempt to break in to a South Dakota prison as part of a “penetration” or “pen” test of their security systems. But as Lily Hay Newman reports at Wired, Rita Strand, age 58, insisted. Armed only with a fake badge and some confidence, she posed as a health inspector doing a surprise inspection and managed to gain access — unaccompanied! — throughout the facility where she planted “rubber duckies” (USB sticks with code used to compromise computer security systems) on several computers, including the one belonging to the warden.

“She takes off, and I’m thinking in the back of my head that this is a really bad idea,” Strand says. “She has no pen testing experience. No IT hacking experience. I had said, ‘Mom, if this gets bad you need to pick up the phone and call me immediately.'”

Pen testers usually try to get in and out of a facility as quickly as possible to avoid arousing suspicion. But after 45 minutes of waiting, there was no sign of Rita.

“It gets to be about an hour, and I’m panicking,” he says. “And I’m thinking I should have thought it through, because we all went in the same car so I’m out in the middle of nowhere at a pie shop with no way to get to her.”

Suddenly, the Black Hills laptops began blinking with activity. Rita had done it. The USB drives she had planted were creating so-called web shells, which gave the team at the café access to various computers and servers inside the prison. Strand remembers one colleague yelling out: “Your mom’s OK!”

In fact, Rita had encountered no resistance at all inside the prison. She told the guards at the entrance that she was conducting a surprise health inspection and they not only allowed her in, but let her keep her cell phone, with which she recorded the entire operation. In the facility’s kitchen, she checked the temperatures in refrigerators and freezers, pretended to swab for bacteria on the floors and counters, looked for expired food, and took photos.

But Rita also asked to see employee work areas and break areas, the prison’s network operations center, and even the server room—all allegedly to check for insect infestations, humidity levels, and mold. No one said no. She was even allowed to roam the prison alone, giving her ample time to take photos and plant her Rubber Duckies.

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