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Mike Dang
Editor in chief, Longreads | Editorial, Automattic | WordPress.com | Co-founder, The Billfold

Instagram Wants to Make the Internet a Nicer Place to Be

Is it possible to make the internet a kinder place? Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom thinks so. In Wired, Nick Thompson reports on how Instagram has been working to clean up its photo sharing platform, creating tools for users to close comments on certain posts and ban offensive words—or, in one notable case, offensive emojis:

In mid July 2016, just after VidCon, Systrom was faced with just such an ophiological scourge. Somehow, in the course of one week, Taylor Swift had lost internet fights with Calvin Harris, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian. Swift was accused of treacherous perfidy, and her feed quickly began to look like the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo. Her posts were followed almost entirely by snake emoji: snakes piled on snakes, snakes arranged numerically, snakes alternating with pigs. And then, suddenly, the snakes started to vanish. Soon Swift’s feed was back to the way she preferred it: filled with images of her and her beautiful friends in beautiful swimsuits, with commenters telling her how beautiful they all looked.

But Instagram can’t build that world with simple technical fixes like automated snake emoji deletion.

This was no accident. Over the previous weeks, Systrom and his team at Instagram had quietly built a filter that would automatically delete specific words and emoji from users’ feeds. Swift’s snakes became the first live test case. In September, Systrom announced the feature to the world. Users could click a button to “hide inappropriate comments,” which would block a list of words the company had selected, including racial slurs and words like whore. They could also add custom keywords or even custom emoji, like, say, snakes.

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An Ode to Dishwashers, the Unsung Heroes of the Restaurant Kitchen

In the Washington Post, food critic Tom Sietsema signed up for a dishwashing shift at Caracol, a 250-seat Mexican restaurant in Houston to experience the job Anthony Bourdain said taught him “every important lesson of my life.”

Dishwashers get paid a median annual wage of $20,000 a year in the U.S. and are a critical component of the restaurant industry. As Emeril Lagasse puts it, “You can’t have a successful service in a restaurant without a great dishwasher.” More restaurants are finding ways to recognize and reward their dishwashers:

After years of performing tasks no one else wants to do — cleaning nasty messes, taking out trash, polishing Japanese wine glasses priced at $66 a stem (at Quince in San Francisco) — the unsung heroes of the kitchen might be finally getting their due.

This spring, chef Rene Redzepi of the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen made headlines when he made his dishwasher, Ali Sonko, a partner in his business. The Gambian native helped Redzepi open the landmark restaurant in 2003. And in July, workers at the esteemed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., one of master chef Thomas Keller’s 12 U.S. restaurants and bakeries, voted to give their most prestigious company honor, the Core Award, to a dishwasher: Jaimie Portillo, who says he has never missed a day of work in seven years.

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The Uncomfortable Discoveries That Come with Home DNA Testing Kits

In the Washington Post, Libby Copeland follows the story of Alice Collins Plebuch, a 69-year-old woman who believed she was the daughter of Irish Americans until she took a “just-for-fun DNA test” that upended everything she thought she knew about her family history.

Genetic testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have made it much easier for consumers to learn more about their genealogy and health risks. But home testing kits have also led people to unexpected discoveries:

For adoptees, many of whom can’t access information about their birthparents because of closed adoption laws, DNA testing can let them bypass years, even decades, of conventional research to find “DNA cousins” who may very well lead them to their families.

But DNA testing can also yield uncomfortable surprises. Some testers, looking for a little more information about a grandparent’s origins, or to confirm a family legend about Native American heritage, may not be prepared for results that disrupt their sense of identity. Often, that means finding out their dad is not actually their dad, or discovering a relative that they never knew existed — perhaps a baby conceived out of wedlock or given up for adoption.

In 2014, 23andMe estimated that 7,000 users of its service had discovered unexpected paternity or previously-unknown siblings — a relatively small fraction of overall users. The company no longer provides data on surprise results. However, its customer base has more than doubled since 2014, and now contains more than 2 million people — and as more people get involved with recreational genomics, bloodline surprises are certain to become a more common experience. The 2020s may turn out to be the decade that killed family secrets, for better and for worse.

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A Son’s Ambitious Plans to Give His Father Everlasting, Artificial Life

When James Vlahos learned that his father, John, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, he set out to save his dad’s memories by programming them into a chatbot that he could pull up from his phone. The chatbot, nicknamed “Dadbot,” could emulate John in text conversations, bringing up various stories from John’s life. Vlahos wrote about his experience in Wired, and recounts the first time his mother interacted with “Dadbot”:

The Dadbot gives my mom a few other pointers, then writes, “Finally, it is critical that you remember one final thing. Can you guess what it is?”

“Not a clue.”

“I will tell you then. The verb ‘to be’ takes the predicate nominative.”

My mom laughs as she reads this stock grammar lecture of my father’s. “Oh, I’ve heard that a million times,” she writes.

“That’s the spirit.” The Dadbot then asks my mom what she would like to talk about.

“How about your parents’ lives in Greece?” she writes.

I hold my breath, then exhale when the Dadbot successfully transitions. “My mother was born Eleni, or Helen, Katsulakis. She was born in 1904 and orphaned at three years old.”

“Oh, the poor child. Who took care of her?”

“She did have other relatives in the area besides her parents.”

I watch the unfolding conversation with a mixture of nervousness and pride. After a few minutes, the discussion ­segues to my grandfather’s life in Greece. The Dadbot, knowing that it is talking to my mom and not to someone else, reminds her of a trip that she and my dad took to see my grandfather’s village. “Remember that big barbecue dinner they hosted for us at the taverna?” the Dadbot says.

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Roger Federer Isn’t Stopping Any Time Soon

Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon singles title this weekend, and is the oldest man to do so in the Open Era. Federer won the tournament without losing a single set, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at an age when most professional players retire (also: a special shoutout to Venus Williams, who at 37, was the oldest woman since Martina Navratilova to reach a Wimbledon singles final).

Federer was recently profiled in ESPN Magazine, and discussed how he’s been methodically choosing which tournaments to play to avoid exacerbating old injuries and play his best as long as he can:

The run seems to be helping him ignore expectations — and retirement chatter — as he picks and chooses the tournaments he plays while his younger rivals push through the ATP tour schedule. Thinking about saving energy, going easy on his surgically repaired left knee and extending his playing days as long as he can, Federer recently opted out of the upcoming French Open; clay courts often mean long, grinding matches, and the surface doesn’t favor Federer’s quick game.

“I can just play the tournaments I want to play and enjoy the process,” he says. “If I do show up and play, I love it. When I’m in training, I enjoy being in training. When I’m not in training, if I’m on vacation, I can enjoy that. I’m not in a rush. So I can take a step back and just actually enjoy.”

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Unsportsmanlike Conduct! The Cathartic (and Expensive) Act of Racket Abuse

With Wimbledon well under way, it’s the perfect time to talk about one of the more shameful aspects of the sport of tennis: unsportsmanlike conduct in the form of racket abuse. Earlier this year at the tournament in Indian Wells, American Ryan Harrison, ranked 41 in the world on the men’s tour, destroyed a total of five tennis rackets after losing to a competitor.

In the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas has a profile of 22-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, ranked 20th in the world, and a reluctant rising star who has beat the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios has been known to sour when matches don’t go well, and joins a long list of players who take out their frustrations on their rackets.

Racquet smashing is the most common means of catharsis. Goran Ivanisevic had to default a 2000 match because he had broken all his racquets. In 2008, Mikhail Youzhny hit himself in the forehead with his racquet so hard that it left a bloody gash. Marat Safin, a two-time slam winner, who was as tormented as he was gifted, has estimated that he smashed seven hundred racquets in his career. He’s said to have played with shards of graphite embedded in his arm.

Almost every player smashes racquets, and all of them rant and mutter. “Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “Open.” “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.” And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach.

The cathartic act comes with consequences: Players are often fined several thousand dollars for racket abuse. At last year’s Wimbledon tournament, Serena Williams was fined $10,000 for repeatedly smashing her racket out of frustration.

Read the New Yorker profile

A Celebration of Rafael Nadal, the ‘King of Clay’

They don’t call him the “King of Clay” for nothing. Rafael Nadal claimed his 10th French Open title on Sunday at the age of 31. To celebrate, here are four profiles of Rafa looking back at his career.

“Barely 19, He’s Got Game, Looks and Remarkably Good Manners” (Christopher Clarey, New York Times, June 2005)

Carey on 19-year-old Nadal, freshly off his first French Open win.

“I hope all this won’t change me,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “I would like to stay the same as I’ve always been. I hope that I will pull it off, and I believe I will be able to pull it off. I want to continue being a 19-year-old youngster and play my tennis.”

“Ripped. (Or Torn Up?)” (Cynthia Gorney, New York Times Magazine, June 2009)

Nadal, at 23 and the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world.

Yandell chuckled. “Federer is hitting with an amazing amount of spin, too, right? Twenty-seven hundred revolutions per minute. Well, we measured one forehand Nadal hit at 4,900. His average was 3,200. Think about that for a second. It’s a little frightening to contemplate. It takes a ball about a second to travel between the players’ rackets, O.K.?” He grabbed a calculator and punched in numbers. “So a Nadal forehand would have turned over 80 times in the second it took to get to Federer’s racket. I don’t know about you, but that’s almost impossible for me to visualize.”

“‘You Don’t Have to Be Mad to Be Intense'” (L. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated, January 2011)

Roger Federer has been Nadal’s greatest rival. They are practically equals on the court (though one clearly dominates on grass; the other on clay). But Wertheim tells us that Federer earns three times as much in endorsements, and Nadal’s playing style is frequently compared to Federer’s:

Roger Federer is such a graceful tennis stylist that Nadal has been cast in the role of the grinder, Hephaestus to Federer’s Apollo. The contrast is entirely too facile. There’s artistry in Nadal’s capacity to go from defense to offense in a single stroke, and in his ability to generate ungodly spin on shots whose angles defy the laws of geometry. “The nuances aren’t past him,” says Andy Roddick. John McEnroe calls Nadal the most skilled net player this side of Federer.

“Who’s the Greatest Clay-Courter of Them All — Chris Evert or Rafa Nadal?” (Steve Tignor, Tennis magazine, May 2017)

It’s difficult to compare the women’s game with the men’s game, but we like to do it anyway. While Rafa continues to dominate on clay on the men’s tour, Tignor reminds us that Chris Evert also dominated on dirt.

At 30, Nadal is still going strong. He could be on tour for another five years and end up winning a dozen French Opens. Even so, it won’t be easy for him to leave Evert behind. The American won seven French Open titles, the women’s record. But that still isn’t indicative of what she did on the surface.

He Doesn’t Know What It’s Like to Feel Pain. She Feels It All the Time

In the 2000 film Unbreakable, we’re introduced to two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum: an extremely frail man with a brittle bone disease played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a man with superhuman levels of strength and invulnerability played by Bruce Willis.

“However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I,” Jackson’s character tells Willis’. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.”

In a recent issue of Wired reporter Erika Hayasaki introduced us to another set of people on the opposite ends of a spectrum.

Steven Pete has a rare neurological condition that makes him unable to feel pain.

Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. “We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You’re supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head.” Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. “The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, ‘Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?’ ”

“I haven’t done either,” Pete replied.

The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. “You’ve got three fractured vertebrae.” Pete had broken his back.

Pam Costa has the opposite neurological condition — she feels pain constantly, as if her body is on fire.

Because the inflammation is exacerbated by physical contact, stress, and even the smallest elevation in surrounding temperature, Costa lives her life with great care. She wears loose-fitting clothes because fabric feels like a blowtorch against her skin. She sleeps with chilled pillows because the slightest heat makes her limbs feel like they are crackling. “Have you ever been out in the bitter, bitter cold, where your feet were ice?” she asks me. “Almost frostbite? Then you warm them up and it burns? That burning sensation: That is what it feels like all the time.”

Pete and Costa are also connected, sharing a genetic link that has helped scientists understand why we experience pain and how to treat it.

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Millennial to Millionaire: Stop Blaming Avocado Toast for Why We’re Not Buying Houses

Millennials rarely get a fair shake when it comes to, well, anything written about them, which is why it isn’t surprising to see a misguided post from TIME magazine today blaming the low rate of home ownership among millennials on their apparently voracious appetite for avocado toast.

“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” millionaire Tim Gurner says, also blaming millennials’ annual trips to Europe every year as the reason why they can’t afford to buy homes.

He continues, “The people that own homes today worked very, very hard for it, saved every dollar, did everything they could to get up the property investment ladder,” conveniently failing to mention the housing bubble and subsequent crash that occurred in the last decade due to poorly regulated banks that approved mortgages for millions of people who they knew could not afford to pay them back. For Gurner, it’s easier to blame rampant spending on avocados and lattes for today’s low home ownership rates than on post-recession regulation of predatory lending practices that have prevented banks from handing out mortgages like candy.

Guess what, Gurner: According to the New York Times, Federal Reserve data shows that the percentage of Americans under 35 who hold credit card debt has fallen to its lowest level since 1989, the year Taylor Swift was born into this world. If millennials are having trouble controlling their spending, the data does not show it. Read more…

The Surgeon Who Helped Revolutionize Hand Transplants

Dr. Kodi Azari has traveled the U.S. as a lead surgeon in five hand transplants. Hand transplant recipients have usually lost their hands before surgery, but Azari laid the groundwork for a new kind of procedure:

The doctor had some hypotheses he wanted to test, provided he could find a patient with the ideal requirements: excellent health, enormous self-discipline, a positive attitude, and—rarest of all—a limb that needed to be replaced but had not yet been amputated.

Azari knew he was hoping for a long shot. Most hand transplant candidates have been injured in accidents or in battle, when a catastrophic event forces an emergency amputation. These procedures are aimed at minimizing suffering and are usually carried out to facilitate future prosthetic use. Generally that means the arm is severed closer to the elbow than the wrist, and the nerves and tendons are trimmed back and tucked inward to lessen discomfort. That creates challenges, however, if a transplant is attempted later. All those tucked-in nerves and tendons tend to merge over time into a jumble of tissues that is difficult to connect to a new hand with precision.

Wouldn’t it be great, Azari thought, if a transplant recipient’s arm could be amputated in a way that prepped it specifically to receive a new limb? How much more quickly would a patient recover if each tendon, nerve, artery, and vein were left in place and marked—labeled, like so many colored speaker wires, to be hooked up to a matching apparatus? How much more functionality would the patient gain, and how rapidly would he or she gain it? Azari believed this fantasy patient would awaken post-op, look at the new hand, and be able to move the fingers right away.

Azari found the ideal patient in Jonathan Koch, a television executive who experienced full-blown septic shock and needed several limbs amputated. Amy Wallace tells his story in Los Angeles Magazine.

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