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Senior editor, Longreads. Chief Semicolon Advocate, WordPress.com. Professional writer, editor, napper, and dog-snorgler. Knows you are, but what is she?

I Want to Say One Word to You. Just One Word.

An older white man in a black leather jacket and black hat sits on a chair in front of a purple wall. On the floor next to him is a white plastic bag that says "thank you" and has a smiley face on it.
Photo by Derriel Street Photography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Plastic bags: they are our immediate past, our present, and thanks to how difficult it is to actually get rid of them, our future. At Topic, Rebecca Altman muses on the now-ubiquitous crinkly forms we see stuck in our trees and floating down our streets.

“The Plastic Grocery Sack Council says plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986, “including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger’s wind breaker or a beach bag.” By 1988, about 40 percent of US grocery bags were plastic. By 2003, the American Plastics Council estimated plastic’s market share was close to 80 percent. Estimates made over a decade ago suggest somewhere between 500 billion and 1.5 trillion plastic bags are consumed globally each year at a rate of more than a million a minute.

Though the bags are created to be thrown away, the combination of the bags’ long-lasting plastic and our inability to dispose of them properly makes them even hardier than they already are.

Technically, plastic bags don’t need to be tossed. They are recyclable, though few are recycled. They’re collected separately from other recyclables, typically at supermarkets, and are incompatible with comingled, curbside recycling, which rely on automated sorting machines. Bags are in fact the bane of the sorting process. They jam and clog the works. And so wish-cycled bags—those tossed into the recycling in hopes they’ll be recovered—often wind up in the waste stream, and in trucks bound for transfer stations and landfills. All it takes is a swift breeze to lift and liberate bags from dumpsters and dumps. In this way, they dodge all human designs for their discard.

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This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

The seashore is covered by green algae in Shandong province, China. Researchers have attributed the phenomenon in part to climate change. (Imaginechina via AP Images)

The Nathaniel Rich New York Times Magazine story on climate change research and policy — and how close we came to actually doing something in the 1980s to try and mitigate the looming disaster — clocks in at 30,000 words. All 30,000 of them are worth reading, although at the end of the day, the denouement requires just over 100.

The meeting began in the morning and continued into the night, much longer than expected; most of the delegates had come to the conference ready to sign the Dutch proposal. Each time the doors opened and a minister headed to the bathroom at the other end of the hall, the activists leapt up, asking for an update. The ministers maintained a studied silence, but as the negotiations went past midnight, their aggravation was recorded in their stricken faces and opened collars.

“What’s happening?” Becker shouted, for the hundredth time, as the Swedish minister surfaced.

“Your government,” the minister said, “is fucking this thing up!”

The decade-long lead in to the final fuckup is equal parts fascinating and infuriating, and makes the ongoing “debate” about whether climate change is really happening all the more ludicrous.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Getting In Line at 5AM

Photo by Yoshikazu Takada via Flickr (CC -BY-2.0)

Helen Rosner traveled to Tokyo on short notice and with no dinner reservations — and that means the best food requires waiting in lines. A lot of lines. Long ones. In an essay for AFAR, the die-hard line-avoider describes her gradual acclimatization to a country whose language includes the phrase gyouretsu no dekiru mise: “restaurants that have very long lines.” In the end, she found herself calmly waiting for more than a great bowl of ramen.

I was in Tokyo for the very end of actual sakura season, when the city’s abundant cherry trees bedeck the streets with a riot of pink. In anticipation, I’d packed a Canon A-1, a petite brick of a camera from the late ’70s that shoots 35mm film and runs about 50 bucks at a used camera store. I hadn’t photographed that way in years, and as I committed myself ever more deeply to my new practice of patience, shooting on film became a pleasing part of it. A 40-year-old camera has no LCD screen with instant preview—I couldn’t know which vignettes of Tokyo I was successfully capturing, and which would be preserved only in memory. Unlike enjoying the seemingly infinite capacity of a DSLR with a 128-gigabyte memory card, when you shoot film, you can only shoot so much. Each frame is precious, which means you need to make it worth it. You need to wait for the shot.

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Sh*t or Get Off the Composter

A small wooden shed sits in the middle of a grassy field. A sign over the door says "outhouse."
Everything old is new again! (Photo by Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0.)

We all poop, every day (hopefully!). That’s a lot of poop to deal with, and more and more people are asking whether there’s something useful we can do with it, or, at the very least, if we can dispose of it in a more sensible way. At Wired UK, Phoebe Braithwaite talks with some of the folks trying to figure out how to teach the world saner ways to deal with poop — or as they’d prefer to call it, shit.

“Defecating in drinking water is a kind of insane thing that the Romans taught us,” Klehm says. George agrees: “I don’t think that the fundamental principle of mixing shit with drinking water and then paying a lot of money and using a lot of energy to remove the shit from drinking water is necessarily the best idea,” says George. “But it’s too late, it’s not going to be retrofitted.”

The UK is, George says, a faecalphobic culture: we don’t like talking or thinking about faeces and the flaws in our sewage system go broadly unacknowledged. “We have an aversion to coming into close contact with faeces, we want it to be flushed away and we want it to not smell and we want to not think about it,” she says. One of the measures of our failure to get to grips with it is in the language we use. None of our tools, she says, quite work: poop and poo are pretty childish; faeces and excrement are too medical; waste is wrong. The only appropriately direct term, thinks Rose George, is shit.

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So Long, and Thanks for All the Value Meals

A cardboard soda cup from McDonald's sits on top of a black garbage can, surrounded by cigarette butts
Photo by Gwenael Piaser via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

All that time you spent trying to find a Boardwalk game piece on your McDonald’s fries was a waste: between 1989 and 2001, “Uncle Jerry” diverted over $24 million in cash and prizes from McDonald’s super-popular “Monopoly” promotion. The loot went to friends and family members, drug traffickers and strip-club owners, psychics and convicts and Mormons — all in exchange for a portion of the winnings. Jeff Maysh unravels the entire massive conspiracy in a piece at The Daily Beast.

Inside Hoover’s home, Amy Murray, a loyal McDonald’s spokesperson, encouraged him to tell the camera about the luckiest moment of his life. Nervously clutching his massive check, Hoover said he’d fallen asleep on the beach. When he bent over to wash off the sand, his People magazine fell into the sea. He bought another copy from a grocery store, he said, and inside was an advertising insert with the “Instant Win” game piece. The camera crew listened patiently to his rambling story, silently recognizing the inconsequential details found in stories told by liars. They suspected that Hoover was not a lucky winner, but part of a major criminal conspiracy to defraud the fast-food chain of millions of dollars. The two men behind the camera were not from McDonald’s. They were undercover agents from the FBI.

This was a McSting.

Who was Uncle Jerry? The man responsible for the security of the highest-value game pieces.

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The Unbearable Blandness of Water

a woman with shoulder-length brown hair and a red jack holds a goblet of water in front of her face
Water Judge Karen Cara at the 2011 Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. (AP Photo/The Journal, Chris Jackson)

Dave Stroup didn’t just attend the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, aka the Academy Awards of Water, he became a certified water-taster and judge. At Eater, he tells us all about the experience of trying to judge a substance whose main characteristics are colorlessness, odorlessness, and tastelessness — and about the lengths water companies go to in the effort to distinguish their tasteless product from their competitors’.

There are no big brands at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting — no Dasani, FIJI, Evian, or Deer Park. The waters that compete tend to be local, niche, or super-high-end (think small-batch or mail-order only). There are four different categories, three of which are bottled — non-carbonated, purified, and sparkling — and municipal water. The bottled waters include all sorts, from ancient springs to waters that make claims of being specially pH-balanced or oxygen-rich. Alongside more typical fare, such as Hope Natural Spring Water from Virginia and even Berkeley Springs’ own purified drinking water, there’s Frequency H2O, from Australia, which is described by its manufacturer as “a synthesis of wisdom and evolution” that is “alive with the pulsations of the Universe” after being “put through a 2-stage kinetic energy process and infused at 528Hz, the Solfeggio frequency of LOVE.” Svalbarði’s Polar Iceberg water costs about $80 for a 750-milliliter bottle and literally comes from a melting iceberg off the Norwegian island of Svalbard.

Of course, it’s not all pontificating about the mouthfeel subtleties of expensive glacier water. There’s also space to discuss global water challenges. Well… sort of.

It’s probably not surprising that the seminar portion of the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is so lightly attended. No one wants to be told the grim truth that much of the world, even here in the United States, lacks access to clean water, or of a Mad Max future with nations fighting wars over it. At least, no one wants to hear it in a hotel ballroom, next to an elaborate display of thousands of dollars of fancy bottles evoking the image of pure, flowing water.

Next year I’ll be entering water bottled from my very own kitchen sink; it’s municipal Roman water, and if you close your eyes you can just pick up a whiff of imperial ambition in the nose.

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She’ll Be Everything He Isn’t

Photo by Andryusha Romanov via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Larry Nassar molested hundreds of young athletes as the doctor for the U.S. gymnastics national team. One of those young athletes was Selena Brennan, who started seeing him for back pain at age 12 and saw him not just as a healer, but as a career role model.

Finally, here was a doctor with whom she shared a vocabulary, someone who did not need to be taught what a front walkover was. Here was a doctor who understood what was expected of her in the gym and who could treat her injury in a way that catered to that. It was through that lens that she started to see a future in sports medicine for herself.

“Just being able to be with a doctor who understood the sport made it a lot easier. It was like I could take a deep breath, and I didn’t have to explain how [I do] what I do. Sometimes primary care doctors give you some type of way to cope with the pain. But when you’re practicing that much in a gym, you’re constantly putting pressure on your back,” Selena said. “Those things don’t necessarily work, because there’s a ton more pressure on your body than the average person. It was nice to have reasonable tools be given and be like, ‘OK, this is something I can actually do, this might actually make a difference.’ After my [first] visit I was like, ‘I’m doing this.’ I ended up telling him, ‘I want to do what you do.’”

Alexanrdria Neason tells Brennan’s story at Bleacher Report — the abuse, the aftermath for Selena and her family, the shadow it cast over her dreams, and how she’s reclaiming her ambition.

Amid the campus activism—marches and protests, teal ribbons tied around trees, therapeutic fitness classes exclusive to survivors—Selena worked hard to untangle her love of sports medicine from Nassar. He was at once an example of what she wanted to be and exactly the type of person whom she did not want to become. She questioned her ambitions and worried she had been misled.

What if he was leading me down the wrong path, career-wise? She thought. What if he wasn’t giving me real advice, or what if he was setting me up to fail in my education because I was listening to what he was saying? I’ve based years off of this, so what am I going to do now?

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Sliding Toward Disaster

The Verrückt slide. Photo by Adele Chen (CC BY-SA 2.0).

On August 7, 2016, 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was decapitated on a water slide at Schlitterbahn, a water park in Kansas City, Kansas. Not just any slide: the world’s tallest water slide.

At 168 feet 7 inches tall, Verrückt, which means “insane” in German, was taller than Niagara Falls. Three riders inside a rubber raft would plummet down a nearly vertical seventeen-story drop at speeds reaching up to 68 miles per hour. The moment they reached the bottom, they would shoot up a 55-foot-tall incline—the equivalent of a five-story building—before racing down one last steep slope, finally coming to a stop in a long, water-filled runout.

Shouldn’t someone have been making sure Verrückt was safe? Sure: the park itself. In his Texas Monthly investigation into the incident and the slide’s creator –who’s since been indicted on second-degree murder charges — Skip Hollandsworth learns that water parks are something of a safety no-man’s land.

Although the federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to set safety standards for such products as baby cribs and bicycles, it has no authority to regulate water parks. That responsibility lies entirely with the states. Some states have agencies that inspect water parks; others rely on the parks’ own insurance companies to do inspections. Texas law, for instance, says that a park must obtain a $1 million liability policy for each of its rides and must have all rides inspected once a year by an inspector hired by the insurance company. But there is nothing in the law that requires the inspector to have any particular certifications. Nor does the law require an inspector to evaluate the safety of such factors as the ride’s speed or the geometric angle of its slide path. According to Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins, the inspector is charged only with making sure that the ride is in sound condition and meets the “manufacturer’s specifications.” In other words, a water park is allowed to police itself.

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His Name Was Otto, and He Just Wanted a Little Adventure

Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin, File)

In GQ, Doug Bock Clark digs deep into the story of Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old American college student who was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, and was eventually sent back to the U.S. with severe brain damage. How he sustained the damage remains an unknown, but the Trump administration has a vested political interest in claiming it was a result of torture — even if the medical evidence doesn’t back that up.

Instead, in the vacuum of fact, North Korea and the U.S. competed to provide a story. North Korea blamed Otto’s condition on a combination of botulism and an unexpected reaction to a sleeping pill, an explanation that many American doctors said was unlikely. A senior American official asserted that, according to intelligence reports, Otto had been repeatedly beaten. Fred and Cindy declared on TV that their son had been physically tortured, in order to spotlight the dictatorship’s evil. The president pushed this narrative. Meanwhile, the American military made preparations for a possible conflict. Otto became a symbol used to build “a case for war on emotional grounds,” the New York Times editorial board wrote.

As the Trump administration and North Korea spun Otto’s story for their own ends, I spent six months reporting—from Washington, D.C., to Seoul—trying to figure out what had actually happened to him. What made an American college student go to Pyongyang? What kind of nightmare did he endure while in captivity? How did his brain damage occur? And how did his eventual death help push America closer toward war with North Korea and then, in a surprising reversal, help lead to Trump’s peace summit with Kim Jong-un? The story I uncovered was stranger and sadder than anyone had known. In fact, I discovered that the manner of Otto’s injury was not as black-and-white as people were encouraged to believe. But before he became a rallying cry in the administration’s campaign against North Korea, he was just a kid. His name was Otto Warmbier.

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Powerful On the Beam or Off

Aly Raisman gives her victim impact statement during the fourth day of sentencing for former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who pled guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via AP, File)

Aly Raisman is a world-class gymnast with six medals from two different Olympic Games. She’s also a survivor of abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the now-disgraced Michigan State doctor who assaulted hundreds of young athletes. In a profile for ESPN, Mina Kimes looks at Aly the athlete, and Aly the newfound activist.

When she speaks at colleges, men and women come up to her and share their stories of assault, sometimes for the first time. Afterward, she often wakes up in the middle of the night, restless and despondent. “A lot of people, a lot of survivors, come to me for advice on what to do,” she says. “I’m very honest with them, because I’m not an authority, I’m not somebody that can hold their abuser accountable. I wish I was.”

Raisman is quick to assert that while she never expected to be an activist, she’s grateful that people are listening — but admits the burden weighs on her. Often, when she speaks, she’ll stop and edit herself; at one point in our conversation, she grabs paper and starts furiously taking notes. She’s deeply fearful of getting something wrong, of committing the rhetorical equivalent of a slip off the balance beam. “There are so many people out there that are survivors, but there are few that have a voice,” she says. “I know that I’m one of the few that are being heard, so I just want to do right by people.”

When we’re done talking, I ask if I can see her notes, and she gives them to me before she leaves. Feel pressure to help everyone, she had written, but it’s so hard since I’m still processing myself.

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