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Editor’s Roundtable: Cities, And How They Used to be Good (Podcast)

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On our May 24, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Fact-checker Ethan Chiel, Editor-in-chief Mike Dang, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, 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 New York Times, The Washington Post, The CT Mirror, and Engadget.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

00:49 “They Were Conned: How Reckless Loans Devastated a Generation of Taxi Drivers” (Brian M. Rosenthal, May 19, 2019, The New York Times

“There was absolutely no one who was there looking on the side of these low-income drivers.” – Mike Dang

To drive a cab in New York City, you need a taxi medallion. The medallions are valued at over a million dollars, are marketed by lenders as a better investment than the stock market, and represent financial freedom to drivers who want to own their own business. This two-part investigation from Pulitzer-nominated Rosenthal looks at the predatory lenders who entrapped low-income taxi drivers into shady loans.

The team discusses the ethics of loans that overlook how much drivers earn, the complicity of regulators and politicians, and the idea of American greed versus the American dream.  

9:38 “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart” (Karen Heller, May 21, 2019, The Washington Post)

“I’m really homesick for San Francisco… I feel like it doesn’t exist anymore.” – Kelly Stout

The Post offers another look at the untenable cost of real estate and rising inequality in San Francisco, inspiring the team to discuss whether these stories function to unmask the status quo and inspire readers to question capitalism, or are merely elegies for a way of living that no longer exists.

They talk about the microcosms of late-stage capitalism, the rise of socialist sentiment, and a desire for more regulation, even among some tech capitalists. They also draw a parallel between responses to climate change stories that cause concern without successfully spurring us to change the way we go about our daily lives.

17:00Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, May 22, 2019, The CT Mirror)

“If you make racism really expensive, it’s one way to help force people’s hands.” – Aaron Gilbreath

It’s basically impossible to get affordable housing built in Westport, Connecticut — home to the highest wealth disparities between rich and poor in the entire country. Co-published with ProPublica, this investigation looks at the dynamics between the residents, developers, lawyers, and law-makers that maintain a system built around keeping black and Hispanic people out of these extremely wealthy white towns.

24:04Impossible Foods’ Rising Empire of Almost-Meat” (Chris Ip, May 19, 2019, Engadget)

“The problem is on such a different scale.” – Ethan Chiel

Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown and his wife, both long-time vegans, have created Impossible Foods, a tech company looking to disrupt the food system by targeting carnivores and eliminating the meat industry.

The team rates Impossible’s flagship burger, which, according to some, tastes just like the real thing. They touch on the role the meat industry plays in greenhouse gas emissions (it’s responsible for 14.5% of the world’s total) and debate the impact of such a product. They weigh the burger’s health benefits in relation to its environmental benefits, and the strategy of a vegan product that appeals not to morality, but gluttony.


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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Brian M. Rosenthal, Katelyn Burns, Chris Ip, Wendy S. Walters, and Nathaniel Penn.

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How Refugees Die

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John Psaropoulos | The Sewanee Review | Spring 2019 | 17 minutes (3.361 words)


This essay first appeared in The Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, which you can subscribe to here. Our thanks to the author and The Sewanee Review staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads

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I met Doa Shukrizan at the harbormaster’s office in the port of Chania, in western Crete. She sat with her back to a balcony overlooking the street, and the strong morning light enveloped her delicate figure, so that there appeared to be even less of her than there was after her ordeal with the sea. Doa’s face had peeled from extreme sunburn; she spoke softly. Between the cavernous ceiling and polished concrete floor, the only furnishings were tables, chairs, and ring binders, so that voices, however slender, resounded. There were no secrets in this room. During the hour that we spoke, three coast guard officers sat at their desks not doing any work, transfixed by what she said.

Doa and her fiancé had been among some five hundred people who boarded a fishing trawler at the port of Damietta in the Nile Delta on September 6, 2014. Many, like Doa, were Syrian. Others were Palestinian or Sudanese. All were fleeing war and had paid smugglers to ferry them, illegally, to Italy.

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Total Depravity: The Origins of the Drug Epidemic in Appalachia Laid Bare

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Richard Cooke | Excerpt from Tired of Winning: A Chronicle of American Decline | Black Inc. Books | May 2019 | 21 minutes (5,527 words)

They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Mark 16:18

One night John Stephen Toler dreamed that the Lord had placed him high on a cliff, overlooking a forest-filled valley. He had this vision while living in Man, West Virginia, where some of the townsfolk thought he was a hell-bound abomination; he countered that God works in different ways. The mountains were where he sought sanctuary, so he felt no fear; but as he watched, all the trees he could see were consumed by wildfire. It was incredible, he said, to see ‘how quick it was devoured’, and the meaning of the parable was clear. The forest was Man and the fire was drugs, and when the drugs came to Man, that was exactly how it happened – it was devoured ‘so fast, that you didn’t even see it coming’, he said. We were in Huntington, West Virginia, and by now John Stephen Toler was in recovery.

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Odetta Holmes’ Album One Grain of Sand

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Matthew Frye Jacobson | One Grain of Sand| Bloomsbury Academic | April 2019 | 19 minutes (3,117 words)


When twenty-year-old Odetta Felious Holmes — classically trained as a vocalist and poised to become “the next Marian Anderson” — veered away from both opera and musical theater in favor of performing politically charged field hollers, prison songs, work songs, and spirituals before mixed-race audiences in 1950s’ coffeehouses, she was making a portentous decision for both American music and Civil Rights culture. Released the same year as her famous rendition of “I’m on My Way” at the March on Washington, One Grain of Sand captures the social justice project that was Odetta’s voice. “There was no way I could say the things I was thinking, but I could sing them,” she later remarked. In pieces like “Midnight Special,” “Moses, Moses,” “Ain’t No Grave,” and “Ramblin’ Round Your City,” One Grain of Sand embodies Odetta’s approach to the folk repertoire as both an archive of black history and a vehicle for radical expression. For many among her audience, a song like “Cotton Fields” represented a first introduction to black history at a time when there was as yet no academic discipline going by this name, and when history books themselves still peddled convenient fictions of a fundamentally “happy” plantation past. And for many among her audience, black and white, this young woman’s pride in black artistry and resolve, and her open rage and her challenge to whites to recognize who they were and who they had been, too, modeled the very honesty and courage that the movement now called for.

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Editors Roundtable: 170 Million Pieces of Trash Orbiting the Earth and No One Knows How to Use an Apostrophe (Podcast)

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On our May 17, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Essays Editor Sari Botton, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, and Senior Editor Krista Stevens share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in Outside Magazine, Wired’s Backchannel, The New York Times Styles, and Longreads.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

00:20 “This Gen X Mess” (May 14, 2019, The New York Times

“We were in the digital stone age.” – Krista Stevens

This week’s New York Times Styles package on Generation X in 1994 inspired a wave of nostalgia.

Our editors discuss Alex Williams‘ piece on the impossibility of summing up an entire generation’s experiences in one label. (Caity Weaver‘s attempt at spending a week living with technology available in 1994 sends Sari down a memory lane of modems, payphones, and calling in her notes to the New York Times tape room.) They laugh at “The Rules,”a dating guide that looks to your grandma for advice, and discuss two more sections in the Gen X Styles package on John Singleton and Evan Dando.

12:30 “He Trots the Air” (Pam Houston, May 13, 2019, Outside Magazine)

“The first thing that I would caution about this piece is that you should not read it in a public space.” – Krista Stevens

The team discusses Pam Houston’s beautiful style in this personal essay about Houston’s 39-year-old horse, Roany, their quarter-century long bond, and having to say goodbye. We think we know family animals well — and that we have the power to delay when their time will come — but life makes its own decisions.

15:51The Curious History of Crap—From Space Junk to Actual Poop” (Ziya Tong, May 14, 2019, Wired)

This excerpt from Tong’s book The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World, examines what, despite our propensity to record everything, we still don’t see: where our food comes from, where our energy comes from, and where our waste is going.

The team discusses some of the excerpt’s truth bombs, like how one person’s poop is enough to fertilize 200 kilograms of cereals per year, and how orbiting space garbage as small as a lens cap can hit a spacecraft like a grenade. Luckily, the piece also explores how we can repurpose some of humanity’s trash to our advantage.

22:24The Omen of the Wasps’ Nest” (Marlene Adelstein, May 2019, Longreads)

A collector of nests, Adelstein becomes fixated on a wasp nest as an omen, while her relationship and family nests deteriorate around her. 

24:10 Editor Q&A: Are you a reader or an editor first?

“If my internal editor doesn’t pipe in, is that a sign that something is good?”- Sari Botton

A behind-the-scenes look at whether the editor brain ever turns off, how editorial sensibilities are forever evolving, and a recommendation for Jenny Zhang’s Annotations newsletter, which deconstructs what works in popular articles.

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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 Drew Magary, Amy Wallace, Leif Reigstad, Pam Houston, and Ziya Tong.

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Technology Is as Biased as Its Makers

"Patty Ramge appears dejected as she looks at her Ford Pinto." Bettmann / Getty

Lizzie O’Shea | an excerpt adapted from Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Teach Us about Digital Technology | Verso | May 2019 | 30 minutes (8,211 words)

In the late spring of 1972, Lily Gray was driving her new Ford Pinto on a freeway in Los Angeles, and her thirteen-year-old neighbor, Richard Grimshaw, was in the passenger seat. The car stalled and was struck from behind at around 30 mph. The Pinto burst into flames, killing Gray and seriously injuring Grimshaw. He suffered permanent and disfiguring burns to his face and body, lost several fingers and required multiple surgeries.

Six years later, in Indiana, three teenaged girls died in a Ford Pinto that had been rammed from behind by a van. The body of the car reportedly collapsed “like an accordion,” trapping them inside. The fuel tank ruptured and ignited into a fireball.

Both incidents were the subject of legal proceedings, which now bookend the history of one of the greatest scandals in American consumer history. The claim, made in these cases and most famously in an exposé in Mother Jones by Mike Dowie in 1977, was that Ford had shown a callous recklessness for the lives of its customers. The weakness in the design of the Pinto — which made it susceptible to fuel leaks and hence fires — was known to the company. So too were the potential solutions to the problem. This included a number of possible design alterations, one of which was the insertion of a plastic buffer between the bumper and the fuel tank that would have cost around a dollar. For a variety of reasons, related to costs and the absence of rigorous safety regulations, Ford mass-produced the Pinto without the buffer.

Most galling, Dowie documented through internal memos how at one point the company prepared a cost-benefit analysis of the design process. Burn injuries and burn deaths were assigned a price ($67,000 and $200,000 respectively), and these prices were measured against the costs of implementing various options that could have improved the safety of the Pinto. It turned out to be a monumental miscalculation, but, that aside, the morality of this approach was what captured the public’s attention. “Ford knows the Pinto is a firetrap,” Dowie wrote, “yet it has paid out millions to settle damage suits out of court, and it is prepared to spend millions more lobbying against safety standards.” Read more…

Editors Roundtable: Violence of Men, Money, and Space (Podcast)

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On our May 10, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Fact-checker Ethan Chiel, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, 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 New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and The New Yorker.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

00:26 My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.
(Wil S. Hylton, May 8, 2019, The New York Times Magazine

“These are often snapshots or frames in the film of your life, and they don’t often take into account the frames that come after…something like this that is both personal and societal, you certainly should get applause for stepping forward and saying I did these things, I am responsible in this way, but the work continues forever and I agree that the applause can sound like absolution and it should not be.” –Aaron Gilbreath

In his essay, Hylton recounts being physically beaten by his cousin in an unprovoked attack. The piece also weaves in the deterioration, over a decade, of Hilton’s marriage, and examines how masculinity and the ideas around masculinity were a factor in both events.

The team discusses why these types of intimate family violence stories elicit a different reaction when written by women versus men and the tension surrounding the question of whom toxic masculinity hurts more: men or women?

11:06 “Going Under at the Playboy Club
(Josephine Livingstone, May 8, 2019, The New Republic)

“I think the thing we’re struggling over is intentional. Whether it was in 1963 or now, the idea that these women, these waiters, might sleep with you, is a big part of the business that is being sold.” –Kelly Stout

A follow-up to Gloria Steinem’s “A Bunny’s Tale” written in 1963, Livingstone’s piece is in explicit conversation with Steinem’s while grappling with gender performance at a place like The Playboy Club. The piece looks at how both writers examine how the playboy culture and the public conversation around it have changed in the ensuing years.

The team touches on the economic dynamics at play in the piece and “the strange thorny mix of labor and gender representation issues.” They talk about performances of gender and interrogating our reactions to these performances. Finally they look at Livingstone’s and Steinem’s roles as both participants and observers and the inherent reductionist problem of journalism’s assumption that a particular glimpse into a world is more full than it is.

23:20How America’s Oldest Gun Maker Went Bankrupt: A Financial Engineering Mystery”
(Jesse Barron, May 1, 2019, The New York Times Magazine)

“A story nominally about guns that really isn’t about guns at all.” –Ethan Chiel

Gun manufacturer Remington was bought by a private equity firm who moved manufacturing to Alabama and, in the process, pushed the company to bankruptcy. It’s a story about debt and finance and municipal government that looks at how when debt transfer is dressed up as job creation, responsibility is lost.

The team discusses the complex machinations of American finance and how the actual functioning of a company doesn’t always have to do with whether they live or die. Meanwhile, people’s belief that these things are happening in the free market, that meritocracy and supply and demand are the only things dictating whether companies survive, obscures what is really happening while allowing us to feel protected.

33:10The Race to Develop the Moon
(Rivka Galchen, April 29, 2019, The New Yorker)

“For fresh starts we used to have California, go west. Now we go up to the moon.” –Aaron Gilbreath

Galchen explores a renewed interest in the moon by China, Japan, Isreal, India, the EU, and the US. Not as a place to stake a claim for political reasons, as it was in the 60s and 70s, but as a place to exploit and monetize resources and start businesses.

The team discusses what might happen if we take our capitalist, resource-exploiting culture beyond our planet and whether we can bring our ability to observe and reflect on the human experience with us as well.

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Close-up of an ampoule that contains a medium for stem cell storage at the UK Stem Cell Bank, north London, England, May 19, 2004. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Caroline Chen, Keri Bertino, Ann Friedman, Allison Williams, and Brian Payton.

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