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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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I Entered the World’s Longest, Loneliest Horse Race on a Whim, and I Won

A horse flicks its tail for temporary relief from the persistently pestering flies on the Mongolian steppe. cookedphotos / iStock / Getty

Lara Prior-Palmer | an excerpt adapted from Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race | Catapult | May 2019 | 19 minutes (5,344 words)

It was May 2013 when I was cooped up in an attic in Austria, au pairing for a family with six Ferraris. They lived in a converted hotel in the jaws of an Alpine valley.

“Lara? Larah!”

Every morning the mother shrieked my name up the endless floors. “Time to feed the baby!”

I had taken the role to practice my German, but she only spoke in English. My jobs varied from sitting with the toddler to vacuuming up the dead skin that snowed from his father’s bottom.

The family never left their house except to get in their cars, which they kept tucked up in the garage. They viewed their valley through window frames as you would a photograph. So sedentary a lifestyle in such physical surroundings made me itch. At night I hatched plans to creep up the mountain and slide down the other side into Switzerland, yet the mother looked appalled when I so much as suggested running to the church and back.

By the time she sacked me a month later, my body was rusty and yearning for usage. I returned to the silent butterflies of an England on the brink of summer, seeking an experience unlike any I’d had before. In theory, this ought not to have been difficult. The most exciting moment in my eighteen years had been collecting chickens from Dorset on the train and wrapping them up in wine crates for Christmas presents. Read more…

Editors Roundtable: Alma Matters, Raisin Hell, and Upstairs Cocaine (Podcast)

Raisins drying. (George Lepp / Getty Images)

On the May 3, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Fact-checker Ethan Chiel, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Head of Fact-checking Matt Giles, 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 Cut, Vulture, The New York Times, Topic, and The Atavist.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

1:47 The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence
(Ezra Marcus and James D. Walsh, April 28, 2019, The Cut)

“…that is sometimes how life is. Stories are incomplete, crazy things happen to non-famous people in ways that are very difficult for us to get the full story on. Sometimes life delivers stories that are hard to tell to completion.”

New York magazine’s wild story about a man named Larry Ray, who moved in with his daughter Talia at Sarah Lawrence College, positioned himself as a mentor to her friends, and basically started a cult.

The team discusses the need for contextual disclosures of reporter-subject relationships, the pleasure of discussing magazine journalism with friends, and reporting as a finished product versus a tool for further intellectual property sales.

9:35 In Conversation: Anjelica Huston
(Andrew Goldman, May 1, 2019, Vulture)

“Sometimes I think that interviews can be sort of boring or sometimes celebrity profiles can be sort of boring but this one was great. At one point she’s asked what makes good cocaine.”

The Longreads team discusses Huston’s relationships with, and current takes on Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Jeffrey Tambor in light of the #MeToo movement and whether it’s difficult for women to be frank about the misbehaviour of men. They also muse about Huston’s relationships with Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson and her father, as well as her evocative description of the 70s. Finally, they touch on the behind-the-scenes craft of celebrity interviews and how they come together.

Huston’s two memoirs are A Story Lately Told and Watch Me: A Memoir.

16:26 The Raisin Situation (Jonah Engel Bromwich, April 27, 2019, The New York Times)

A look at Harry Overly, the CEO of Sun-Maid Raisins, and his attempts to grow the raisin industry, including getting millennials to eat raisins. The piece examines how the industry works and the relationships between growers in and around Fresno and the California Central Valley and raisin companies. Overly is the central character and hero of the story, perhaps at the expense of some other possible directions.

18:50 The Big Business of Spring Water (Katy Kelleher, April 2019, Topic)

The team discusses specialty water, theories of labour, value and property, and how things that are good enough for everybody, like public water, vary in their quality. They also discuss the raw water movement and reference Nellie Bowles’ New York Times piece, “Unfiltered Fervor: The Rush to get off the Water Grid.

27:33 The Heart Still Stands (Elizabeth Flock, April 2019, The Atavist)

“It’s a story about love, it’s a story about distrust, and about broken promises, which are very sort of historic, inherent to the relationship between Native Americans, indigenous people, and governments.”

On the third anniversary of Standing Rock, The Atavist shares the story of Red Fawn Fallis, an Oglala Lakota Sioux woman arrested while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and charged with attempted murder for allegedly firing a handgun at officers who had tackled her. The gun belonged to her boyfriend at the time who turned out to be working as an FBI informant. Reporter Elizabeth Flock gives context to this relationship and the history of the FBI use of informants going back to the 1960s and 70s with the American Indian Movement.

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

California raisins. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jonah Engel Bromwich, Ryan Goldberg, Meghan Daum, Alison Osius, and Joel Mowdy.

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Prince of the Midwest

AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

Michael Perry | Under Purple Skies | Belt Publishing | May 2019 | 10 minutes (1,861 words)


You’d never dream it looking at me, all doughy, bald, and crumpling in my 50s, but I owe the sublimated bulk of my aesthetic construct to Prince Rogers Nelson, circa Purple Rain. The film and album were released the summer after my fresh-off-the farm freshman year in college. I sat solo through the movie a minimum of four times, wore the hubs off the soundtrack cassette, draped my bedroom with purple scarves, stocked the dresser top with fat candles, and Scotch-taped fishnet to the drywall above the bed. Intended to create seductive shadows of mystery, it wound up a pointless cobweb.

Read more…

A Dispatch From the Fast-Paced, Makeshift World of High-End Catering

Chris Hondros / Getty

Matt Lee & Ted Lee | An excerpt adapted from Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business | Henry Holt and Co. | April 2019 | 19 minutes (5,059 words)


I have one job — building the Pepper-Crusted Beef on Brioche with Celery Root Salad, an elegant little bite to be passed during cocktail hour at the Park Avenue Armory Gala, a black-tie dinner for 760 people. In theory, it’s an easy hors d’oeuvre, a thin coin of rosy beef on bread with a tuft of salad on top. It’s 4:50 now and the doors open at 6:30, so I’ve got some time to assemble this thing. The ingredients can be served at room temperature — any temperature, really — and they were prepared earlier today by a separate team of cooks at the caterer’s kitchen on the far West Side of town, then packaged on sheet pans and in plastic deli containers for a truck ride to the venue. All I have to do is locate the ingredients in the boxes and coolers, find some space to work — my “station” — and begin marshaling a small army of beef-on-toasts so I’ve got enough of a quorum, 240 pieces or so, that when serve-out begins I’ll be able to keep pace with replenishment demand through a forty-five-minute cocktail hour.

Jhovany León Salazar, the kitchen assistant leading the hors d’oeuvre (“H.D.”) kitchen, shows me the photo the executive chef supplied that reveals the precise architecture of this bite: a slice of seared beef tenderloin, rare in the center and the size of a Kennedy half-dollar, resting on a slightly larger round of toasted brioche.[1] On top of the beef is a tangle of rich celeriac slaw — superfine threads of shredded celery root slicked with mayo, with a sprinkling of fresh chives showered over the whole. This is New York–caliber catering intelligence at work: take a throwback classic — the beef tenderloin carving station — to a higher, more knowing plane in a single bite. Here, the colors are lively, the scale is humane, the meat perfectly rosy-rare and tender, its edge seared black with ground pepper and char, the celeriac bringing novelty, though its flavor is familiar enough. It’s a pro design that satisfies the meat-’n’-potatoes crowd without talking down to the epicures.

The kitchen tonight — like every night, no matter the venue — is as makeshift as a school bake sale, a series of folding tables covered with white tablecloths and fashioned into a fort-like U. Since there are two warm hors d’oeuvres on the menu, our crew has a hotbox standing by — the tall, aluminum cabinet on wheels that both serves as transport vehicle for food and, once it’s on-site and loaded with a few flaming cans of jellied fuel (the odor-free version of Sterno is favored), becomes the oven. Imagine the most flame-averse venues — the New York Public Library, City Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — even there, the ghostly blue flames in the hotbox pass muster with the fire marshal. In fact, this one fudge, this unspoken exception to the no-open-flames rule, is the secret to restaurant-quality catering in New York City. Read more…