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Mike Dang
Editor-in-chief, Longreads | Editorial, Automattic and WordPress.com

Remembering ‘Ally McBeal’s’ Creepy Dancing Baby

Twenty years ago, a quirky, hour-long dramedy about a young woman working at a law firm in Boston debuted and became a cultural phenomenon. The cast of that show, “Ally McBeal,” recently spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about how the show was developed, behind-the-scenes antics, and one very memorable dancing baby:

Gil Bellows (Billy Thomas): And then there was the Dancing Baby. I’m glad it brought attention to the show, but out of all the things that we explored, that was one of my least favorites.

Sandy Grushow (then-president, 20th Century Fox Television): I remember seeing a rough cut with the Dancing Baby when I was at home one night and I nearly fell out of bed. It was somewhere between creepy and charming.

David E. Kelley (executive producer/creator): The Dancing Baby scared and inspired us all! My assistant had come into my office one day and showed it to me on the computer. As soon as I saw it, I asked, “How do we get it into [the] show?” It may have been terrifying and hypnotic but it was also perfect for Ally. It tapped in to her internal war. She knew that on paper, a woman her age was supposed to be married with a child, but that wasn’t how she felt she wanted to be. The Dancing Baby represented that feeling.

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What Happens When You Dope Like Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova defeats Simona Halep in their women's singles match (6-4, 4-6, 6-3) on Day One of the 2017 US Open. (AP Images)

When Maria Sharapova won her first round U.S. Open match against the world’s No. 2 ranked female player, Simona Halep, she dropped her tennis racket and sunk to her knees in disbelief. Commentators Chris Evert and Mary Joe Fernández remarked that the match, which clocked in at two hours and 44 minutes, looked like it could have been the women’s final. When ESPN asked what Sharapova had learned from the match, she told them, “That behind this black dress with Swarovski crystals, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”

It was Sharapova’s first Grand Slam match in 19 months, the majority of which was spent serving a 15-month ban for violating anti-doping rules. The drug Sharapova tested positive for was meldonium, a heart drug that can assist in improving endurance and recovery. Caitlin Thompson was curious whether taking the drug could improve her tennis game while she competed in recreational tournaments, and she reported about the experience for Deadspin:

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Serena Williams on Returning to Tennis and Embracing ‘Power’

Serena Williams at the Met Gala on May 1, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images For Entertainment Weekly)

Serena Williams is planning on returning to the Australian Open next year to defend her grand slam title a mere three months after she gives birth. “It’s the most outrageous plan,” she told Vogue’s Rob Haskell from her home in Florida.

Williams has also learned to embrace what it means to be a powerful player on the tennis court:

Power—it’s a word that has clung with a sometimes unsavory vigor to Williams over the years, perhaps as a dismissal of her prodigious technical skill or, worse, as a proxy for her race. And it’s a word she has only recently come to embrace. “I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the idea of power,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles. In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win. Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty. So now on the court I want people to think that I’m powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different.”

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Instagram Wants to Make the Internet a Nicer Place to Be

Tourists taking selfies with the Oriental Pearl tower in Shanghai. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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

Dishwashers Esteban Soc, left, and Joselino Aguilar, right, at work in the kitchen of Mexican restaurant Caracol. (Photo by Scott Dalton for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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

Photo: Associated Press

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

Via Wired

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

Federer holding up the Wimbledon Championships trophy after winning each of his eight men's singles titles in Wimbledon (top L-R) 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, (bottom L-R) 2007, 2009, 2012, and July 16, 2017. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

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

Novak Djokovic holds up his racket after smashing it during the 2015 Miami Open. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

They don’t call him the “King of Clay” for nothing. Rafael Nadal claimed his 11th French Open title on Sunday — his 17th Grand Slam singles title. 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.