Search Results for: wired

The Household Covid Budget

Full length of young female friends using smart phones while relaxing on bed at home during slumber party

Since the arrival of Covid-19 even popping to the shop for some milk has become a risk — and if you live with people, it is also a risk for them. In a shared housing situation figuring out what is acceptable behavior has become harder, and even the clearest advice “doesn’t address many of the subtle situations in which we find ourselves.” Gregory Barber asks in Wired what to do if you are a group of six people, including polyamorous members, living together in a house share? For such a group in San Francisco, the answer lay in maths — they came up with a calculator to work out risk, giving each other a points budget to use each week. 

Some activities were trickier to translate into points. First dates, in particular, would trigger a reversion to what Olsson calls a “one-off person-risk estimate.” The fact-finding missions these estimates required were a little strange and intrusive. The housemates wanted to know how often a new person shopped for groceries, who they lived with. Were they a gym rat? An ER doctor? Bachar found these interrogations uncomfortable. It felt as if she was implying that her friends were behaving badly. But others felt the questions were a reasonable concession to the pandemic. Dobro says that polyamory had prepared her for these awkward conversations around trade-offs. “We’re used to having conversations that are linked to risk,” she says. If you choose to be indoors with someone, the roommates agreed, make it count. Make it a deep conversation. Make it sex.

This was a house share better suited to calculating risk than most — Olsson works for a Silicon Valley foundation on projects that seek to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of advanced AI — and the other residents, to various degrees, are adherents to “rationalist modes of thinking.” The calculator this particular house came up with has now been used around the world — including by Bob Wachter, the chair of internal medicine at UC San Francisco and a frequent public commentator on all matters Covid-19.

Olsson called their risk points microcovids, in a tip of the hat to Howard, and one microcovid equaled a one-in-a-million chance of catching the virus. They pulled epidemiology papers from Google Scholar and gathered around the table in the hearth to go through the data. The first step was to impose a top-line risk budget that would anchor all of their calculations. They debated this question at length. Olsson floated the idea of 10,000 microcovids per person per year—the equivalent of a 1 percent chance of catching Covid. But what was the actual cost of 10,000 microcovids? By their estimations, for people their age, a 1 percent chance of getting sick was about as risky as driving, which was something they did without thinking. And besides, they figured, if other people who could stay home kept to a similar budget, the hospitals would not overflow. The virus might even disappear.

To some extent, governments around the world are using their version of Covid point calculators. It may seem strange that in some areas regulations mean we cannot meet friends while children are still going to school, but it is how risk has been allocated across a community to keep it at an acceptable level. 

This was the initial premise of shutdowns and social distancing and sheltering in place. Our common infection budget was tied to hospital capacity—the number of ICU beds and respirators and medical staff able to respond. For those who could work from home, the task was to contribute as little as possible to the overall sum. This left more points for those who couldn’t. Then, as the first infection curve began to flatten, the foundation of the societal budget seemed to shift. Yes, we still had to worry about public health, but that concern was being stretched by other considerations: business closures, job losses, some ideal of liberty, the desire to eat burritos.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Arts and Culture

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. In an unprecedented, strange, and chaotic year, we’ve leaned on writers’ reflections and commentaries on the world around us to help us make sense of moments, of our lives. We revisited a wide range of arts and culture stories featured by the team this year and selected eight favorites that resonated with us.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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I’ve always loved how Teju Cole observes and moves through our world: a flâneur of modern life, always with a notebook or a camera in hand. Here, we follow Cole on a pilgrimage to Italy as he chases the life of Caravaggio, an artist (and fugitive and murderer) whose emotionally charged, often violent scenes and chiaroscuro technique I studied closely in my AP Art History class. In Rome and Milan, Cole revisits Caravaggio’s paintings “to learn the truth about doom” — to sit with unease, and to experience the artist’s pain and turmoil (“I would find in him the reprieve certain artists can offer us in dark times”).

Cole then travels south, to Naples and along the coast of Sicily, and later to Malta, to the places where the painter spent his exile; he captures both the mundanity and intimacy of encounters with guides and strangers, like his meeting in Syracuse with D., a young migrant who arrived by boat from Libya eight months earlier. (They share a silent, beautiful moment with “The Burial of St. Lucy.”) Part-travelogue, part-profile, part-art criticism, and part-commentary on the ills and horrors of our world, it’s a stunning piece with masterful scope, but also turns inward — a read you’ll likely sit with quietly long after you’ve finished.

I sat on a bench in the middle of the room, the two paintings set at a right angle to each other. I was awe-struck, out of breath, caught between these two immensities. The very act of looking at an old painting can be so strange. It is an activity that is often bound up with class identity or social aspiration. It can sometimes feel like a diverting, or irritating, stroll among white people’s ancestors. It can also often be wonderful, giving the viewer a chance to be blessed by a stranger’s ingenuity or insight. But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you — to call you — to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.

He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: He meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are his victims. What remains is the work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Writing on COVID-19

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors featured many COVID-19 stories from across the web, and below, we’ve narrowed down 11 picks that really resonated with us. This roundup is focused on reported features; we initially included a few pandemic essays in this category, but those will instead appear in the upcoming Best of Essays list. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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How the Pandemic Defeated America (Ed Yong, The Atlantic)

The Atlantic‘s coverage of COVID-19 was exceptional this year, and Yong’s deep, thoughtful September feature lays it all out. How did the U.S. get here? Everything that went wrong was predictable and preventable, and despite all of its resources and scientific expertise, America’s leaders failed monumentally to control the virus at every turn.

The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.

Inside the Nightmare Voyage of the Diamond Princess (Doug Bock Clark, GQ)

Another devastating read, “The Pariah Ship” by Michael Smith, Drake Bennett, and K. Oanh Haat, recounts the nightmare journey of Holland America’s MS Zaandam.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws of tourism, and cruise ships are a symbol of the disastrous effects that COVID-19 has had on the travel industry as a whole. Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess, which departed on January 20 this year from Japan’s Port of Yokohama, was the first ship to suffer a major outbreak. Clark’s account of the voyage and subsequent quarantine of the ship’s 3,711 passengers and crew is riveting yet terrifying. He weaves stories of numerous people on board, from the more-privileged (a pair of traveling couples called the “Four Amigos”) to the overworked and underprotected (like security crewmember Sonali Thakkar). His reporting of the U.S. government’s response is superb, especially from the perspective of Dr. James Lawler, the infectious-disease expert called in to lead the evacuation of American passengers back to the U.S. We also get a glimpse of what the experience is like for the ship’s captain, Gennaro Arma, who was eventually the last person to disembark.

The Amigos, reduced now to three, along with the 325 other American evacuees, were still waiting on the buses. They had spent three hours idling on the pier and then, once they drove to the airport, sat on the tarmac for two more hours. Now, as the delay extended into a sixth hour, the passengers were nearing revolt. They were exhausted. And more problematically for the largely elderly passengers: The buses had no bathrooms.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where it was still Sunday afternoon, the fate of the waylaid evacuees was being decided. Around the time the passengers were exiting the Diamond Princess, Japanese officials had blindsided their American counterparts with the news that some of the passengers boarding the buses had actually tested positive several days before. Soon many of the highest-level members of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were arguing about what to do. Representatives from the CDC continued to fear spreading the virus. William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for the State Department, wanted to bring everyone home anyway. Those urging the evacuation noted that the planes had been prepared with isolation units to contain the sick.

As the debate raged, the evacuees were demanding to be let off the buses, quarantine be damned, to find a bathroom. Carl was breathing so hard his masked breath fogged his glasses as he strained to control his bladder. Some seniors were crying. Finally, a few were allowed to relieve themselves in bottles beside the bus or were brought to a nearby terminal.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Sports and Games

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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Twelve Minutes and a Life (Mitchell S. Jackson, Runner’s World)

Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery was a passionate young football fan and player, whose only crime was to attempt to jog while being Black in Brunswick, Georgia. At Runner’s World, Mitchell S. Jackson recounts Arbery’s murder in cold blood and interrogates a sport where participation is really only sanctioned and safe for privileged white people.

And though the demographics of runners have become more diverse over the last 50 years, jogging, by and large, remains a sport and pastime pitched to privileged whites.

Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner? What’s their so-called race? Their gender? Their class? Ask yourself where do they live, where do they run? Where can’t they live and run? Ask what are the sanctions for asserting their right to live and run—shit—to exist in the world. Ask why? Ask why? Ask why?

Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.

The buckshot blast hits Maud in the chest, puncturing his right lung, ribs, and sternum. And yet somehow, he wrestles with Travis McMichael for the shotgun, and yet somehow, he manages to punch at him. Gregory watches for a moment from his roost. Meanwhile, Bryan continues to film. Travis fires his shotgun again, a blast that occurs outside the view of Bryan’s phone, but sends a spray of dust billowing into the frame. Maud, an island of blood now staining his white t-shirt, continues to tussle with Travis McMichael, fighting now for what he must know is his life. In the midst of the scuffle, Travis McMichael blasts Maud again point blank, piercing him in his upper chest. Maud whiffs a weak swing, staggers a couple of steps, and falls face down near the traffic stripes. Travis, shotgun in hand, backs away, watches Maud collapse, and makes not the slightest effort to tend him. His father, still clutching his revolver, runs to where Maud lies facedown, blood leaking out of his wounds.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was more than a viral video. He was more than a hashtag or a name on a list of tragic victims. He was more than an article or an essay or posthumous profile. He was more than a headline or an op-ed or a news package or the news cycle. He was more than a retweet or shared post. He, doubtless, was more than our likes or emoji tears or hearts or praying hands. He was more than an R.I.P. t-shirt or placard. He was more than an autopsy or a transcript or a police report or a live-streamed hearing. He, for damn sure, was more than the latest reason for your liberal white friend’s ephemeral outrage. He was more than a rally or a march. He was more than a symbol, more than a movement, more than a cause. He. Was. Loved.

USC’s Dying Linebackers (Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated)

There is no question that American football is a punishing physical sport, one in which players can sustain permanent injury. Science is just beginning to understand the damage that occurs to the brain after repeated blows to the head on the field. A study mentioned in the New York Times in 2017 found that in a single game, one lineman took 62 hits, with G-forces similar to crashing a car into a wall at 30 miles per hour.

At Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg brings the consequences into sharp focus, starting his story on May 12, 2012, the day that famed linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, ostensibly after suffering long-term brain damage playing football for the USC Trojans and over 19 NFL seasons. Rosenberg reports on a horrific pattern that has emerged among former members of the 1989 USC Trojans football team, where five of 12 linebackers have died before the age of 50.

May 2, 2012
Matt Gee always says that “Junior does what Junior wants,” and what Junior Seau wants on this day is to die. Matt is out for breakfast when he gets the news, in the staccato notes of a breaking national story: Junior Seau . . . dead . . . gunshot wound to the chest . . . possible suicide.

Matt is shocked. At 42, he is not yet used to watching his teammates die.

Twelve names. Twelve dreams.

Twelve linebackers on the Trojans’ depth chart in the fall of 1989, each with the strength of a man and the exuberance of a boy, swimming in everything USC has to offer: joy and higher education and adulation, endless adrenaline surges, alcohol, cocaine if they want it, steroids if they need them. Anything to feel fearless and reckless, wild and free.

In 1989, tacklers are taught to lead with their heads. Drug tests are easy to beat. Pain is for the weak. Complaints are for the weaker. This is how the game is played.

The linebackers form a team within a team, each player with his own role. Seau is the most talented. Alan Wilson is the quietest. Craig Hartsuyker is the heady technician. Scott Ross and Delmar Chesley serve as mentors to Matt, who will become a starter after they leave. David Webb is the team’s resident surfer dude

The Trojans go 9-2-1 and then win the Rose Bowl that season, but football fools them. The linebackers think they are paying the game’s price in real time. Michael Williams takes a shot to the head tackling a running back in one game and he is slow to get up, but he stays on the field, even as his brain fogs up for the next few plays. Chesley collides with a teammate and feels the L.A. Coliseum spinning around him; he tries to stay in but falls to a knee and gets pulled. Ross, who says he would run through a brick wall for Rogge, breaks a hand and keeps playing. After several games he meets his parents outside the home locker room and can’t remember whether his team won or lost. Hartsuyker breaks a foot and stays on the field. Another time, he gets concussed on a kickoff, tells trainers he is fine, finishes the game and later shows up on fraternity row with no recollection of playing that day. Somebody sets him on the floor in front of a television, like a toddler.

The Cheating Scandal That Ripped the Poker World Apart (Brendan I. Koerner, Wired)

As Brendan I. Koerner reports in this fun story at Wired, when it comes to poker, “it’s sacrilege to accuse a peer of cheating without airtight proof.” When Texas Hold ‘Em player and “self-described analytics geek” Veronica Brill publicly aired her misgivings about Mike Postle’s unconventional yet highly successful poker play, the blowback landed on her, not him. At first. But was Brill right? Did Postle cheat? Read the story and decide for yourself.

LIKE MANY OTHERS who spent huge chunks of time at Stones, Brill had long considered Postle a friend. A generous soul who exuded a puckish charm, Postle was the sort who’d pay for everyone’s drinks while regaling the bar with bawdy tales. (He was particularly fond of a story about getting banned from Caesars Palace over a misunderstanding involving a sex worker.) But up until the summer of 2018, few of the pro players at Stones thought much of his poker prowess. “He was playing well enough to support himself, it seemed,” says Jake Rosenstiel, a Sacramento pro. “But none of us thought Mike was this great poker player.”

Everyone was thus surprised when Postle began to dominate the casino’s livestreamed Texas Hold ‘Em games starting in July 2018. The once middling Postle suddenly turned formidable, even taking thousands of dollars off some big-time players during their swings through Northern California

Brill, a self-described analytics geek whose day job is building medical software, was among those who got clobbered by Postle at the table, and she served as a livestream commentator during much of his streak too. By early 2019, she had seen enough to surmise that Postle’s success didn’t make mathematical sense. She thought he was winning far too often, particularly for a player whose strategy didn’t jibe with game theory optimal, or GTO, the prevailing strategy in Texas Hold ‘Em today.

Tremendous effort is required to develop the ability to know which single move to make in the millions of possible betting situations. There are 2,598,960 possible hands in five-card poker, a figure that vastly understates the game’s intricacy. Players must also have a feel for how their opponents are likely to react to each gambit.

Shades of Grey (Ashley Stimpson, Longreads)

In 2018, the state of Florida voted to ban greyhound racing because it was considered “archaic and inhumane.” But, what if they got it wrong? In this deeply reported Longreads feature, Ashley Stimpson introduces us to the sport of kings through Vesper, her retired racing greyhound. Tracing Vesper’s life from its start in liquid nitrogen, Stimpson learns that her beloved pet was conceived when “pellets of semen the size of a lentil” were collected from her brindle dad Lonesome Cry and implanted in her mom, a dam named Jossalyn. Stimpson discovers a world of breeders, veterinarians, and trainers dedicated not only to the sport but to the health and well-being of the dogs in their care.

It’s been nearly a decade since the numbers were tattooed in her ears, but they remain remarkably legible. In the right one, dots of green ink spell out 129B: Vesper was born in the twelfth month of the decade’s ninth year and was the second in her litter. The National Greyhound Association (NGA) gave that litter a unique registration number (52507), which was stamped into her moss-soft left ear. If I type these figures into the online database for retired racing greyhounds, I can learn about her life before she was ours, before she was even Vesper.

Smokin’ Josy was born to a breeder in Texas, trained in West Virginia, and raced in Florida. Over three years, she ran 70 races. She won four of them. In Naples on May 12, 2012, she “resisted late challenge inside,” to clinch victory, according to her stat sheet. In Daytona Beach on April 17, 2013, she “stumbled, fell early.” Five days later, after a fourth-place showing, she was retired.

I don’t mourn for greyhound racing and its long-delayed reckoning. I do sympathize with working-class people who genuinely love their dogs and who feel overlooked and overpowered by the currents of political change. And selfishly I feel sad that I’ll probably never have another dog like Vesper; I so love the bony ridge of her spine, the way her teeth chatter when she gets excited, the skin that clings to the cartilage between her eyes, softened by so many hands like an ancient piece of pottery. I don’t know if she was happier in the starting block at the track or tucked into her monogrammed bed here with me, but I’m open to the possibility that it was the former.

The Casino That Time Forgot (David Hill, The Ringer)

When you think of gambling in America, you don’t immediately think of Hot Springs, Arkansas, but at one time, “when Las Vegas was still a dusty smudge on the horizon,” Hot Springs was the place to be, where musicians, sports stars, and mobsters gathered to soothe their ills in the healing bubbly waters that emerged from deep inside the earth. In fact, “Some of the more popular ailments that patients came to treat were venereal diseases. Al Capone would ‘take the waters’ in the 1920s to treat his syphilis.”

An excerpt from David Hill’s book The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, the piece is a rich profile of a sting operation at the Vapors Casino in the 1960s. What’s super fun about this story, one that is told in rich detail, is that one of the casino workers running the sting is the author’s grandmother.

Hazel Hill was another good country person who loved to gamble. She was 42, an attractive brunette, and looking like high society that night in her party dress and shawl. Only she wasn’t high society, not by a long shot. On her own dime, Hazel wouldn’t ordinarily be in a place like the Vapors. She’d likely be at the Tower Club, with the other down-on-their-luck locals. Or, if it were a special occasion, she might be at the Pines Supper Club, or any number of the more proletarian establishments around town, where the low rollers and hustlers could gamble cheap and drink even cheaper. Hazel worked for the Vapors as a shill player, gambling with house money to keep the tourists interested and the games going. It wasn’t a great job as far as the money went, but it was the best job Hazel had ever had, playing with the house’s money and blowing on doctors’ dice for them. Whatever the pay, it was worth something to her to just be in the Vapors. It put Hazel right at the center of the whole world.

Hazel was a street-smart high school dropout. She had become a wife and a mother in Hot Springs, earning her living on her wits and the skills she had picked up in the casinos—how to calculate odds, how to place and take bets, how to deal cards.

Now, though, it was Dr. Rowe who was pocketing chips. The shills had their eyes on him. One of Hazel’s fellow shill players, a buddy of the club owner named Richard Dooley, watched Rowe like a hawk. One of the craps dealers was paying Dr. Rowe more money on each of his winning bets than he actually won. It could have been a simple error, but the fact that Rowe was putting the extra chips in his pocket, rather than in his stack of chips along the rail of the table, told Dooley all he needed to know.

Out There: On Not Finishing (Devin Kelly, Longreads)

So much of sport involves accomplishment. It involves besting someone or something — be it an opponent, a distance, a time, or even yourself. Sometimes, people create and nurture their own identities based on their athletic achievements. But what happens — as Devin Kelly asks so thoughtfully in his Longreads essay — when the stories we tell ourselves about what achievement is turn out to be false? That the true reward is simply in the doing?

For a long time, I thought I ran, and competed in sport, as a way to use the metaphor of sport to understand life. Life is a marathon, I was often told. I remember watching and re-watching Chariots of Fire, particularly that moment in the rain when Eric Liddell, just minutes after winning a race, states: “I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires energy of will.” I loved that moment as a child, especially as someone who had, at one point, a deep amount of faith. But I always paused the clip before he stated what later became to me more obvious: “So who am I to say believe, have faith, in the face of life’s realities…I have no formula for winning a race. Everyone runs in their own way.” It’s true, that everyone runs in their own way, which is a fact I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve grown older. Patience, both with my own peculiar movements through life and with those of others, is a skill I actively try to cultivate and maintain. And yet, even Liddell’s quote has to do with winning. And that — the idea of winning, or finishing, or accomplishing — has become its own universal signifier. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you have done.

What happens if what you once used to make sense of things no longer helps you make sense of things? What happens if the patterns and habits and metaphors we lean on do not serve us in the moments we need them? What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning? What then?

I grappled with these questions for hours on that farm in Georgia. Under the stars and all alone, I did not know what I was doing. Each lap, I shuffled past the bonfire, past my friends singing karaoke, past the laughter of strangers, and each lap I shuffled away from them, until they became the soft patchwork of voices traversing a distance, the kind of sound that hollows you to your core and fills you with a deep sense of missingness, a longing to be there and not wherever you are. At that point, the race had ceased to be a race for so many people, but it hadn’t for me.

The thing about horizons is that, upon reaching one, you always encounter another. It’s the in-between where life lives. In another poem, “On Duration,” the poet Suzanne Buffam writes: “To cross an ocean / You must love the ocean / Before you love the far shore.” This is a beautiful explanation of what it means, as so many endurance runners say, to be “out there.” Out there is a place, but it is also a feeling. It is a series of moments stretched out across hours, or even days, that feel like one long moment. It is the act of building the bridge between two points and being the bridge at the same time. Out there is distance turned into feeling. It is metaphor actualized.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: Business Writing

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting hundreds of business stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these nine reads, including coverage of the wildest startup collapses and in-depth explorations of pandemic insurance, TikTok content houses, 5G, and the state of the fossil fuel industry.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani (Aaron Gell, Marker)

Carolyn Rafaelian spent 15 years building a jewelry empire, making her company, famous for its $30 expandable wire bracelets, one of the fastest-growing fashion brands ever. But what led to Alex and Ani’s fall? Aaron Gell’s piece has it all: an odd alliance between a spiritual “earth mother” founder and an Army major-turned-CEO, business decisions influenced by astrology and New Age practices, a $1.1 billion gender discrimination lawsuit against Bank of America, and even a spinoff into a “university”that was meant to share the company’s life lessons with the world.

Buzzwords aside, the curriculum mostly aimed to impart an essential truth behind Alex and Ani’s appeal: Its products were not just glittery trinkets but spiritual armor designed to protect, inspire, and ennoble the bearer as she made her way through the world. Retail employees at the company’s “bangle bars” were known internally as “bar tenders” for their patience and empathy. They’d draw out customers’ personal stories — what AAU president Dennis Rebelo called “story birthing” — prescribing just the right stones and talismans (the Eye of Horus for protection, light, and reason; the dragonfly for grace, change, and power) for each unique journey.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Crime Reporting

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After taking a plunge into the murky world of crime, we narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these Best of Crime reads, showcasing gripping tales and insights into the human psyche. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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I Hope Our Daughters Will Not Be Punished (Justine van der Leun, Dissent Magazine)

Van der Leun’s piece details the plight of Kwaneta Yatrice Harris — who, incarcerated for killing an abusive partner, wrote her letters from solitary confinement in a Texas prison. 

This year a lot of us have spent vast expanses of time isolated from family and friends — and so for many, this story will strike a chord. When van de Leun discusses pandemic lockdowns, she states, “Those who were alone began to physically throb for human connection.” This is a powerful concept — if we, with all the distractions of Zoom and Netflix and pets, can still ache for human connection when isolating, consider what it must feel like for those locked in solitary for months, with their senses so deprived of stimulation they magnify to “smell the guard’s perfume, hear the click of shoes echoing from far away.” 

By talking to Harris, van de Leun gives us an inkling of what it is like to live in a condition that is “classified as torture by the United Nations, serves no rehabilitative purpose, and causes mental health to deteriorate in as few as ten days.” A registered nurse, Harris is terrified of COVID-19, and the unsanitary conditions she finds herself in — her unit is rarely cleaned, and she showers in one of three showers shared by forty-two women. 

This essay also echoes another horrific event of 2020 — the death of George Floyd, killed during his arrest in Minneapolis. The racism that Black people experience at the hands of the police can extend to prison wardens. In Texas in 2015, a Black man named Mark Sabbie was feeling unwell — he was given a disciplinary ticket for “creating a disturbance” by “feining [sic] illness and difficulty breathing.” He was cuffed in his cells and left alone — and found dead the next morning. 

An emotional read: but an important look at how the challenges wider society has faced in 2020 are magnified inside the microcosm of a Texas prison.

Pleas of Insanity: The Mysterious Case of Anthony Montwheeler (Rob Fischer, Rolling Stone Magazine)

What does it mean to be “criminally insane”? The official answer sounds simple — to have a mental illness that impairs you from telling the difference between right and wrong. But mental illness is a nuanced spectrum — and, to many, it seems impossible to decipher someone’s state of mind during a crime. This story is a fascinating exploration into the complexities of the insanity plea in the United States — which, even though there are “lots of tests and things you can do to kind of back up your intuition … in the end, it’s kind of this gut feeling.” 

Using the case study of Anthony Montwheeler,  Fischer explores what can happen when a gut feeling isn’t enough. Montwheeler apparently played the system. Charged in 1996 with kidnapping his wife and son at gunpoint he was found “guilty except for insanity.” Twenty years later, he claimed he faked mental illness by studying a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and mimicking behavioral traits — to avoid incarceration in favor of a state psychiatric hospital — and now wanted to be discharged. After he spoke at a hearing for a total of eight-and-a-half minutes, a review board decided Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” and the state was legally required to discharge him. Had Montwheeler been pretending all those years? It seems no one really knows for sure, but what we do know is that after his release he went on to murder his third ex-wife, Annita Harmon. 

This case is a rarity — the insanity defense is pursued in fewer than one percent of all criminal trials. But, however hard to define, mental health is still an obvious factor in crime: “37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional at some point in their lives that they suffer from a mental disorder.” Fischer shows that while the insanity defense may be flawed,  there is still a clear link between mental health and criminality — with a lack of mental health care, and the resulting issues, apparent.

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet (Andy Greenberg, Wired)

Greenberg is meticulous in his detailed analysis of Marcus Hutchins’ character, a hacker who some view as a criminal, and others as the savior of the internet. It’s a thrilling story, with many twists and turns, but also an exploration into people’s moral complexities.

Hutchins stopped the worst malware attack the world had ever seen — christened WannaCry. In the space of an afternoon, it destroyed, by some estimates, nearly a quarter of a million computers’ data — before Hutchins found the kill switch. He was celebrated as a hero, but Hutchins himself knew “what it was like to sit behind a keyboard, detached from the pain inflicted on innocents far across the internet.” Three years earlier he had been the chief author of Kronos — a type of malware focused on stealing banking login credentials. 

After disabling WannaCry, Hutchins’ previous work with Kronos was discovered and he was arrested. The hacker world rallied in support — which left Hutchins ravaged by guilt for what he had done, but even the judge in his trial concluded that “one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero.” This is a thought-provoking insight into the gradual descent into a criminal world, the climb back out again, and the layers of gray in between.

The Wind Delivered the Story (Josina Guess, The Bitter Southerner)

It feels jarring to put the terms “beautiful” and “lynching” in the same sentence — but this personal essay about the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle is beautifully written. Guess’ writing is almost lyrical — as she explains how the wind blew “history into my path” in wonderfully descriptive language.

When Guess moved into her farmhouse in Georgia she found a box of old newspapers from the mid-1940s through the early 50s. She stored them in the woodshed until a blustery autumn storm disturbed them and scattered them about the property. One headline that appeared, like “a bird I had been expecting in this landscape that carries memories of racialized violence,” read “State Seeks Death Sentence For All 31 Lynchers.” Not ready for the emotional toll of exploring this incident further, Guess tucked the paper away, but the story wanted to be told, and a few weeks later the wind blew the conclusion across the garden: “28 White Men Get Blanket Acquittal in South Carolina Mass Lynch Trial.” It was Willie Earle who was killed, to avenge the fatal stabbing of a cab driver named Thomas Brown. Arrested, then almost immediately kidnapped from jail, Earle had no opportunity to stand trial — his guilt or innocence was never proven. His murderers were given that chance, but despite ample evidence and confessions, were found innocent.

Guess’ work focuses on dismantling racism in Georgia, so it seemed fate that this story, literally, landed at her feet. She went on to research the history of the Willie Earle murder, discovering it was considered the last lynching in South Carolina, and, although the trial was a miscarriage of justice, it marked the end of mob violence and the beginning of a rumbling that eventually became the Civil Rights Movement.

The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People (Rachel Nuwer, Longreads)

Amongst one or two other things, 2020 was the year people learned the names Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The Netflix series Tiger King landed on our screens at the same time that many of us were in lockdown due to COVID-19, and was binge-watched by millions. This story by Rachel Nuwer was written before we met these characters on Netflix while clutching our loo rolls and hand sanitizer, and her piece sheds a brighter light on their complicated personalities.

Nuwer’s piece explores the murder-for-hire plots that Exotic instigated against Baskin, but her focus also remains firmly on the animals around which the story revolves. Exotic was not only convicted of murder-for-hire — but of 17 wildlife crimes, including illegally killing five tigers and trafficking them across state lines — a significant conviction when there is still no oversight over big cat ownership by the federal government. This investigation goes beyond the larger than life characters and the human drama, and actually shows us the lives of the animals that are owned by America’s big cat people.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday. Read more…

The Mysterious Case of a Nameless Hiker

Big Cypress National Preserve, Naples, Florida. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

He was known on the trail as “Mostly Harmless.” He started his journey in a state park north of New York City and simply went south — down to Virginia, then to northern Georgia, and finally to Florida — his route pieced together through accounts from fellow hikers and others he encountered. At Wired, Nicholas Thompson recounts the story of this friendly nameless hiker, eventually found dead in a tent at Nobles Camp in Big Cypress National Preserve on July 2018, 600 miles south of where he started.

Since the discovery of this man’s body, no one has been able to figure out who he is. But now, with advanced DNA testing technology and cutting-edge genomics from a company called Othram, the mystery may soon be solved.

She told him everything she knew. And she shared the original post, and her photo, all over Facebook. Soon there were dozens of people jumping in. They had seen the hiker too. They had journeyed with him for a few hours or a few days. They had sat at a campfire with him. There was a GoPro video in which he appeared. People remembered him talking about a sister in either Sarasota or Saratoga. They thought he had said he was from near Baton Rouge. One person remembered that he ate a lot of sticky buns; another said that he loved ketchup. But no one knew his name. When the body of Chris McCandless was found in the wilds of Alaska in the summer of 1992 without any identification, it took authorities only two weeks to figure out his identity. A friend in South Dakota, who’d known McCandless as “Alex,” heard a discussion of the story on AM radio and called the authorities. Clues followed quickly, and McCandless’ family was soon found.

Now it’s 2020, and we have the internet. Facebook knows you’re pregnant almost before you do. Amazon knows your light bulb is going to go out right before it does. Put details on Twitter about a stolen laptop and people will track down the thief in a Manhattan bar. The internet can decode family mysteries, identify long-forgotten songs, solve murders, and, as this magazine showed a decade ago, track down almost anyone who tries to shed their digital skin. This case seemed easy.

Read the story

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Along with the Top 5 Longreads of the week, we’re proud to bring you “Shades of Grey” by Ashley Stimpson.

In 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to end greyhound racing, a sport they were told was archaic and inhumane. What if they were wrong? Ashley’s deeply reported feature starts with the story of Vesper, her retired racing greyhound, and explores the arguments for and against the controversial sport. This is her first piece for us here at Longreads. Be sure to check out more of her work.

It’s been nearly a decade since the numbers were tattooed in her ears, but they remain remarkably legible. In the right one, dots of green ink spell out 129B: Vesper was born in the twelfth month of the decade’s ninth year and was the second in her litter. The National Greyhound Association (NGA) gave that litter a unique registration number (52507), which was stamped into her moss-soft left ear. If I type these figures into the online database for retired racing greyhounds, I can learn about her life before she was ours, before she was even Vesper.

Smokin’ Josy was born to a breeder in Texas, trained in West Virginia, and raced in Florida. Over three years, she ran 70 races. She won four of them. In Naples on May 12, 2012, she “resisted late challenge inside,” to clinch victory, according to her stat sheet. In Daytona Beach on April 17, 2013, she “stumbled, fell early.” Five days later, after a fourth-place showing, she was retired.

Read Shades of Grey

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, Nicholas Thompson, Gabriel Winant, Rachel Lord Elizondo, and Pamela Petro.

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1. Why Trump Can’t Afford to Lose

Jane Mayer | The New Yorker | November 1, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,220 words)

“The President has survived one impeachment, twenty-six accusations of sexual misconduct, and an estimated four thousand lawsuits. That run of good luck may well end, perhaps brutally, if Joe Biden wins.”

2. A Nameless Hiker and the Case the Internet Can’t Crack

Nicholas Thompson | Wired | November 2, 2020 | 13 minutes (3,323 words)

A friendly and charming hiker was known on the trail as “Mostly Harmless.” After his body was discovered in a tent in Florida, no one could figure out who he was.

3. “What’s Actually Going on in Our Nursing Homes”: An Interview with Shantonia Jackson

Gabriel Winant | Dissent | October 05, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,222 words)

Gabriel Winant, a professor at the University of Chicago interviews Shantonia Jackson, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) who works at City View Multicare Center, a nursing home that experienced a major COVID-19 outbreak.

4. The Wounds That Do Not Heal

Rachel Lord Elizondo | The Bitter Southerner | November 2, 2020 | 13 minutes (3,443 words)

“Rachel Lord Elizondo shares something terrible in common with celebrated poet, professor, and author Natasha Trethewey — both of their mothers were murdered in Georgia by their former partners. Elizondo talks with Trethewey about her new book Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir — and the journey toward healing, education, and advocacy to end partner violence in Georgia and in every home.”

5. Shedding Light

Pamela Petro | Guernica Magazine | November 2, 2020 | 10 minutes (2,748 words)

“Darkness obscures and sunlight reveals, but dusk—that liminal moment in between—murmurs suggestions.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Lauren Smiley, Reid Forgrave, Susan Casey, Michael Rosenberg, and Lucy Jones.

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1. The True Story of the Antifa Invasion of Forks, Washington

Lauren Smiley | Wired | October 8, 2020 | 36 minutes (9,000 words)

A false report on Twitter about violent leftist activists traveling by bus exploded into a call to arms. Then a bus, carrying a family and two dogs, rolled into a remote Northwestern town best known as the setting for the Twilight series. Chaos ensued.

2. Lives, on the Line

Reid Forgrave | Star Tribune | October 2, 2020 | 43 minutes (10,816 words)

Six lives changed forever, as COVID-19 swept across Minnesota.

3. How Iceman Wim Hof Uncovered the Secrets to Our Health

Susan Casey | Outside | October 12, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,900 words)

“In a world addicted to comfort, it isn’t easy to convince a vast audience that what they really need is to take teeth-chattering swims and ice baths—but Hof has managed to do this.”

4. USC’s Dying Linebackers

Michael Rosenberg | Sports Illustrated | October 7, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)

In 1989, USC had a depth chart of a dozen linebackers. Five have died, each before age 50. Football was inextricably tied to their mortality. These are their stories.

5. Pathways in the Urban Wild

Lucy Jones | Emergence Magazine | July 27, 2020 | 8 minutes (2,120 words)

“As Lucy Jones and her daughter encounter wildflowers in a housing development, Lucy considers the healing benefits of an attentive relationship with the living world and the complex barriers to that relationship within urban areas.”