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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Sandra Sidi, Lena Solow, Aubrey Hirsch, Noelle Mateer, and Amanda Hess.

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My Love Affair with Chairs

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Keah Brown | An excerpt adapted from The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me | Atria Books | 2019 | 17 minutes (4,556 words)

 

My longest relationship has been with chairs. We are very happy together, committed and strong, in sickness and health till death do us part, etc. There are arguments and disagreements as in any other relationship, but we apologize and make up before nightfall so we don’t go to bed angry. The notion of love at first sight is a little cheesy but true. Chairs and I have traveled around the world and back again. We cuddled on the beach in Puerto Rico, shared stolen glances in the Virgin Islands, danced the night away in Grand Turk, and gave some major PDA in the Bahamas. My chairs are loyal, with vastly different personalities but an equal amount of appreciation for the butt of mine that sits in them. A few of them like to play it cool: they don’t want me to think that they care as much as they do, and I let them believe that it’s working. After all, sometimes you have to let your partner think they have the upper hand, to work toward the long game of the bigger thing you want later. However, you and I, dear reader, we know the truth. The chairs in my life love me, and I honestly can’t blame them. Read more…

Hot for Teacher

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Courtney Zoffness | Longreads | Excerpted from Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,795 words)

 

What did they want? More than anything? Violent things. Unattainable things.

More than anything, she wanted to taste blood, said one student.

More than anything, he wanted freedom, said another.

Your characters need to have desires, I’d explained in the previous class. Drama arises when people struggle to get what they want.

Their first writing assignment of the semester at this midsize East Coast college: compose a short fictional sketch that begins with wanting. Compelling, complex fiction, I’d said, grows out of desires great and small. Their opening sentences offered proof.

More than anything, she wanted a baby.

More than anything, he wanted things to return to the way they were.

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Editor’s Roundtable: Better Than Working for a Symphony Orchestra (Podcast)

An airborne skateboarder. (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)

On our September 6, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Editor-in-Chief Mike Dang, and Senior Editor Kelly Stout share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in The Baffler, The New York Times Magazine, and the Kenyon Review.


Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.


4:35 Strike with the Band (Kate Wagner, September 1, 2019, The Baffler)

13:40 King of Pop (Willy Staley, August 29, 2019, The New York Times Magazine)

20:58 Twelve Words (Brian Trapp, Sept/Oct, 2019, Kenyon Review)

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Brian Trapp, Alison Kinney, Kate Wagner, Willy Staley, and Suzannah Showler.

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How Google Discovered the Value of Surveillance

A close-up of a human eye on an IBM computer monitor, 1983. (Photo by Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images)

Shoshana Zuboff | An excerpt adapted from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power | PublicAffairs | 2019 | 23 minutes (6,281 words)

 

In 2000 a group of computer scientists and engineers at Georgia Tech collaborated on a project called the “Aware Home.” It was meant to be a “living laboratory” for the study of “ubiquitous computing.” They imagined a “human-home symbiosis” in which many animate and inanimate processes would be captured by an elaborate network of “context aware sensors” embedded in the house and by wearable computers worn by the home’s occupants. The design called for an “automated wireless collaboration” between the platform that hosted personal information from the occupants’ wearables and a second one that hosted the environmental information from the sensors.

There were three working assumptions: first, the scientists and engineers understood that the new data systems would produce an entirely new knowledge domain. Second, it was assumed that the rights to that new knowledge and the power to use it to improve one’s life would belong exclusively to the people who live in the house. Third, the team assumed that for all of its digital wizardry, the Aware Home would take its place as a modern incarnation of the ancient conventions that understand “home” as the private sanctuary of those who dwell within its walls.

All of this was expressed in the engineering plan. It emphasized trust, simplicity, the sovereignty of the individual, and the inviolability of the home as a private domain. The Aware Home information system was imagined as a simple “closed loop” with only two nodes and controlled entirely by the home’s occupants. Because the house would be “constantly monitoring the occupants’ whereabouts and activities…even tracing its inhabitants’ medical conditions,” the team concluded, “there is a clear need to give the occupants knowledge and control of the distribution of this information.” All the information was to be stored on the occupants’ wearable computers “to insure the privacy of an individual’s information.”

By 2018, the global “smart-home” market was valued at $36 billion and expected to reach $151 billion by 2023. The numbers betray an earthquake beneath their surface. Consider just one smart-home device: the Nest thermostat, which was made by a company that was owned by Alphabet, the Google holding company, and then merged with Google in 2018. The Nest thermostat does many things imagined in the Aware Home. It collects data about its uses and environment. It uses motion sensors and computation to “learn” the behaviors of a home’s inhabitants. Nest’s apps can gather data from other connected products such as cars, ovens, fitness trackers, and beds. Such systems can, for example, trigger lights if an anomalous motion is detected, signal video and audio recording, and even send notifications to homeowners or others. As a result of the merger with Google, the thermostat, like other Nest products, will be built with Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities, including its personal digital “assistant.” Like the Aware Home, the thermostat and its brethren devices create immense new stores of knowledge and therefore new power — but for whom? Read more…

Say Goodbye to Volleywood

Illustration by Joan Lemay

Rick Marin | Racquet and Longreads | September 2019 | 9 minutes (2,347 words)

This story is produced in partnership with Racquet magazine and appears in issue no. 11.

Twenty-five years ago, Vitas Gerulaitis was found dead in the pool house of a friend in Southampton, N.Y. Not from drugs, as many suspected after his well-publicized battles with addiction. Vitas was sober. The cause was shockingly random and banal: accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty propane heater.

He was 40 years old.

The funeral was so crowded they had to put speakers outside St. Dominic’s Church in Oyster Bay. On YouTube you can see raw AP footage of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg—the three biggest stars in men’s tennis of the ’70s—carrying the casket of their perennial No. 4, Connors wrapping his arms around Borg and McEnroe in sorrow.

Mary Carillo, a friend since they were New York juniors together, was there: “John could not stand Jimmy, Jimmy did not like John, and nobody got close to Bjorn,” Carillo said. “Only Vitas would be friends with all three of them.” They were all better tennis players than he was, but it was they who worshipped him. In her eulogy she said, “Our golden sun has set.”

Governor Mario Cuomo shut down the Long Island Expressway for the funeral procession to make its way from St. Dominic’s to the cemetery. Construction workers took off their helmets in respect. Did they know it was Vitas? Maybe not, but it was a fitting tribute for a blue-collar kid from Queens who made it big in a white-collar game.

A game that lost more than a tennis player when they buried Vitas. Grace that would be replaced by power. Fame that spilled over from the sports pages onto Page Six. A sense of fun that is just…gone.

A generation after his death—when tennis champions are meticulously calibrated überathletes inhabiting a curated world of kale water, “teams,” and corporate branding—it’s impossible to conceive the swath Vitas cut through the world he so vividly inhabited.

“There were few people I’ve ever met who were so damn alive,” Carillo said. “That it’s been 25 years is a little hard to take.” Read more…

The Geography of Risk

AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, Clem Murray

Gilbert M. Gaul The Geography of Risk | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | September 2019 | 24 minutes (4,833 words)

 

It is the peculiar nature of hurricanes that they are both uncommon and utterly predictable. Depending on an island’s geography, it may have a one-in-ten chance of being hit, or a one-in-a-thousand chance. Those are only odds, of course, but they are important because hurricanes are best understood as numbers and probabilities. Some areas are simply more vulnerable than others — Southeast Florida, Puerto Rico, the Florida Panhandle, and the Gulf states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. While you may reassure yourself that you have only a one-in-a-hundred chance of being leveled by a devastating storm in a given year, it’s highly likely that there will be a hurricane in one of these geographies, and someone’s house will be destroyed.

Moreover, the chances appear to be increasing, though not necessarily for the reasons you might imagine. Even accounting for years with lots of hurricanes, including 2004, 2005, 2017, and 2018, the number of hurricanes has held relatively steady for centuries, dating back to the founding of the nation. What has changed is the amount of property at the coast, which amplifies the opportunities for damage and the likelihood that federal taxpayers will spend ever-larger sums to help coastal towns rebuild after hurricanes.

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The Story of Country Music’s Great Songwriting Duo

Jared Brainerd, Faber & Faber Social

Dylan Jones | Wichita Lineman | Faber & Faber | September 2019 | 26 minutes (5,155 words)

 

In 1961, like most fourteen-year-old boys Jimmy Webb was obsessed with three things: music, cars, and girls. In an effort to curb these distractions, his Baptist minister father got his son a part-time job ploughing wheat fields near Laverne, Oklahoma. One day, while listening to music on the green plastic transistor radio that hung from the tractor’s wing mirror, the young Jimmy Webb heard a song called “Turn Around, Look at Me,” sung by a new artist called Glen Campbell.

Webb loved that record, not just because of the tune, but mainly for the voice, which he thought was sweet and true.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A view of the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as the ADX or "Supermax", in Florence, Colorado. (Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Keegan Hamilton, Mike Maciag, Brian Goldstone, Nick Heil, and Megan Reynolds.

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