It’s a fact: plastics have both improved human life and eroded the earth’s ecosystems. Huge gyres of plastic trash swirl in the oceans. Plastic bits end up inside marine life and in those of us who eat fish, and plastic bags wash up on beaches the way seaweed used to. Some American cities have banned disposable plastic bags and water bottles. Now some are restricting plastic straws. Many conservatives call such efforts a restriction of personal freedom, and disability groups have rightly pointed out the benefits of straws for people with physical challenges.
For The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal examines the advantages and ecological problems with disposable plastic straws and recent efforts to curb them. Interestingly, by taking what he calls “a straw-eyed view,” Madrigal shows us how this hollow little tube is a reflection of American economics, history, and the concerns of different eras. The story begins with convenience and sanitation.
By 1911, an industry book proclaimed the soda fountain the very height of democratic propriety. “Today everybody, men, women and children, natives and foreigners, patronize the fountain” said The Practical Soda Fountain Guide.
Temperance and public health grew up together in the disease-ridden cities of America, where despite the modern conveniences and excitements, mortality rates were higher than in the countryside. Straws became a key part of maintaining good hygiene and public health. They became, specifically, part of the answer to the scourge of unclean drinking glasses. Cities begin requiring the use of straws in the late 1890s. A Wisconsin paper noted in 1896 that already in many cities “ordinances have been issued making the use of wrapped drinking straws essential in public eating places.”
Is the app that ate email eating into a whole lot more—like privacy, productivity, and personal time? In The Baffler, Jacob Silverman explores the darker side of Slack, the app that became so ubiquitous so fast, that there’s already a literature of Slack-detox—which puts the burden of mitigating the app’s downsides entirely on the user, and not on the app or the work culture in which it’s used.
It’s worth noting that at some Slack-using companies, these mini detoxes are enthusiastically endorsed by the higher-ups. Alexis Madrigal, then editor in chief of Fusion, offered his advice to other bosses: “If I could give one piece of advice to other media companies, it’s that they should be cool with people deleting the app,” he told Nieman Lab last year. “If someone’s going on vacation or their anniversary, or if they’re going to be away on a long weekend, we tell them to delete Slack from their phone because otherwise the temptation to check it is too great. Deleting the app really helps people disconnect, because it’s that addictive as a social experience.”
The boss is allowed to seem magnanimous—you’re on vacation, delete the app!—as he encourages his employees to take steps to temporarily manage their addictions. Meanwhile, the onus of change falls back on each individual employee. The slacklash may be growing, but it is splintered into a thousand isolated quests, each featuring a lone worker facing off against the snarling beast of Information Overload. The recurring lament of the slacklash is, roughly, “I wish I could change, have more self-control”—a refrain that could not be more different from, say, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The emerging popularity of testosterone has opened up whole new business models for entrepreneurial doctors. Chains of shops that provide the hormone have exploded all over the United States, especially across the South. How many millions more men might be willing to try testosterone if it was easy to acquire, and a clinic happened to implant itself in an adjacent office building or a local strip mall, next to an abandoned video store and the Starbucks?
We don’t need to look ahead at human genetic engineering, brain implants, or crazy designer drugs to see the real future of our relationship with our bodies. The rise of testosterone use isn’t a drill for future body hacking—it is body hacking playing out right now across the American heartland, with a substance that was first synthesized in 1935. And in the coming years, the battles over T’s use are going to be repeated for future drugs that give people—anyone with money, at least—the power to transform the body beyond its innate abilities and configurations.
The crux of the medical ethics issue is this: are people taking testosterone to cure a disease, or are they taking it to transcend the limitations normally imposed on an aging human body?
–Alexis Madrigal, in Fusion, on testosterone’s rise in popularity and its future implications.
It took Blue Bottle a year and a half to get to the point where they could regularly produce iced coffee at this scale. The seed of the idea was a can of cold cappuccino that James Freeman had on a plane to New York in late 2011. “I got this canned cappucino for, like, six dollars or something. And I opened it and I was like, ‘This is so horrible. This is so horrible,’” he said. He started trying every ready-to-drink cold coffee on the market. “The range of tastes is somewhere between terrible and horrible.” (He makes two exceptions to this general rule: products from Portland’s Stumptown and Oakland’s Black Medicine.)
He tried to figure out how these beverages had gone so bad. “You think about the psychology. Nobody is like, OK, let’s have a meeting and let’s invest millions of dollars because we want to develop this horrible product. Nobody does that,” he said. “It’s always with the best intentions.”
So what was going on? Freeman found a source who had worked with big beverage companies, who could explain the problems. First, making a shelf-stable product is hard, and it is hard in ways that are particularly bad for coffees.
“It was sort of a spooky story around a campfire, like, ‘Gather around kids, I’m gonna tell you how a frappuccino is made. No, no! That’s too scary!” Freeman said. He learned about a machine called a retort, a supercharged, industrial-scale pressure cooker, into which bottled coffee is inserted, pressurized, and heated to 240 degrees.
“Basically what survives that…” Freeman’s voice trails off. “It’s the same way that canned chili is made, you know?”
— In the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal profiles James Freeman, the CEO of Blue Bottle, an Oakland and Brooklyn-based specialty coffee roaster that is trying to mass-produce coffee drinks that even coffee snobs would buy. Writes Madrigal after sipping a Blue Bottle iced coffee drink from a carton: “This coffee was the real deal.”
Let’s be honest: Humans never should have been allowed behind the wheel in the first place. There’s so much that can go wrong, so much room for negligence—it’s incredible to think that we managed human-controlled cars for as long as we did.
Here’s a reading list covering the past, present and future of transportation. Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle and Readmill users, you can also save them as a Readlist.
Nicholas Jackson is the digital editorial director for Outside magazine. A former associate editor at The Atlantic, he has also worked for Slate,Texas Monthly, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and other publications.
I was going to give this two-parter from the always-great Pamela Colloff (seriously, go back through her 15-year archive at Texas Monthly for compelling narratives on everything from quinceañeras to school prayer to a piece on David Koresh and the 1993 Branch Davidian raid that should serve as a model for all future oral history projects) the award for best crime story, but it’s so much more than that. The tale of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years wrongfully imprisoned for brutally murdering his wife, has been told before, in newspapers and on television. But it has never been told like this. Over two installments across two issues—who does that anymore?—Colloff slowly reveals the cold details and intimate vignettes that only months of hard reporting can uncover, keeping the reader hanging on to each sentence. You already know how this story ends; you’ve read it before. And that might make you wonder—but only for a split second—why it was assigned and pursued. For the handful of big magazines left, this is as compelling an argument you can make for continued existence: only with hundreds of interviews, weeks of travel, and many late nights can you craft something this complete and this strong. It’s a space most publications can’t play in; it’s prohibitively expensive—and a gamble—to invest the necessary resources. You may be able to tell Morton’s story in book form, but you wouldn’t have the tightness and intensity (just try putting this one down) that Colloff’s story has, even at something like 30,000 words. And you wouldn’t want to lose her for a year or two anyway; we’re all anxiously awaiting her next piece.
Best Crime Story of the Year
”The Truck Stop Killer” (Vanessa Veselka, GQ)
Who is Vanessa Veselka? A self-described “teenage runaway, expatriate, union organizer, and student of paleontology,” she’s relatively new to the magazine world. (Her first novel, Zazen, came out just last year—and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction.) But she’s spent years building up a lifetime of experiences that, while many of us may not be able to directly relate to (and would never hope to), we all want to hear about. This, her first piece for GQ, takes you back to the summer of 1985, when Veselka hitched a ride with a stranger who may have been Robert Ben Rhoades, the sadistic killer who has admitted to killing three people, including a 14-year-old girl in Illinois, and is currently serving life sentences.
Best Profile of the Year
”The Honor System” (Chris Jones, Esquire)
Chris Jones, who made a stink on Twitter (he’s infamous for making stinks of all kinds on Twitter) when his excellent profile of Roger Ebert wasn’t named a finalist for a National Magazine Award a couple of years ago, must really be bummed to learn that the American Society of Magazine Editors, the awards’ governing body, has killed the category entirely this year. I’ve had some public clashes with the guy—he can turn your mood cloudy with 140 characters or less—but on this I do commiserate, because “The Honor System,” his profile of Teller (you know him as the silent one from Vegas superstar magic duo Penn & Teller), would have finally brought home that statue of which he was robbed. And rightfully so. This story, which revolves around Teller’s attempts—legal and otherwise—to put an end to trick theft, a commonplace practice (who knew?) in that community, will leave you believing in magic.
Best Reason to Never Skip a Service Package Again
”Daddy: My Father’s Last Words” (Mark Warren, Esquire)
Magazines are filled with service content: How to do this, when to do that. Readers love it, no matter what they tell you. That’s why every single month Cosmopolitan is able to convince its readers that there are 100 new things you must know about how to please your man. And why Men’s Health‘s website isn’t really much about health at all, but about lists and checklists and charts (most of them having to do with sex). Esquire‘s Father’s Day package was packed with similarly light content: how to plan for a visit from your now-adult kids, what to get dad on that special day, etc. But tucked between those graphics and croutons (the term some of the lady mags use to refer to those bite-size bits of content) was a knock-you-on-your-ass piece from the magazine’s long-time executive editor, Mark Warren, on the long and trying relationship he had (we all have) with dad.
Best Technology Story of the Year
”When the Nerds Go Marching In” (Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic)
He’s been called the first social media president and he’s even done an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. You know all about Barack Obama’s Internet prowess from the 2008 campaign: his ability to get young people to follow his every word on Twitter and donate in small amounts—but by the millions—to his election fund. The presence of Chris Hughes, a former Mark Zuckerberg roommate and a founder of Facebook, during that first cycle solidified this position for Obama. (That he was running against a 72-year-old white dude from Arizona didn’t hurt). But there’s a whole lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. In “When the Nerds Go Marching In,” Madrigal, a senior editor and lead technology writer for The Atlantic, pulls back the curtain, introducing you to Harper Reed, Dylan Richard, and Mark Trammell, Obama’s dream team of engineers, and makes you wish you would have sat at the smart table every once in a while in high school.
Best Story About Child Development of the Year
”What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” (Ruth Padawer, The New York Times Magazine)
Best Story I Thought I Would Never Like
”What Does a Conductor Do?” (Justin Davidson, New York)
If, like me, you’ve never really appreciated classical music (and statistics show that you are, in fact, like me—at least when it comes to Mozart), you’ll probably never feel compelled to click on that little link up there. But I have an obsession with Adam Moss’ New York magazine, which is certainly the best weekly currently being produced today, and I dogear my way through a stack that slowly grows as new issues arrive until I’ve read every story and every page. That’s how I came to read classical music and architecture critic Justin Davidson’s first-person feature story on stepping up to the podium to lead an orchestra on his own. You may not have the same compulsions I do—this is where we differ—but trust me on this one.
Best Adventure Story of the Year
”Four Confirmed Dead in Two Days on Everest” (Grayson Schaffer, Outside)
Earlier this year, we sent senior editor Grayson Schaffer to Everest Base Camp for a climbing season that turned out to be one of the deadliest in history. For six weeks, he reported from 17,000 feet while body after body fell (10, by the time the season came to a close) as a record number of climbers attempted to summit the world’s tallest peak. Everest, over the years, has become something of a sideshow, with sham outfitters promising to take anyone with a fat checkbook to the top, regardless of experience or ability. But it remains a powerful symbol, and as long as we desire a challenge (or just an escape from day to day drudgery), it’ll continue to lure people in.
Best New Writer Discovery of the Year
”Riccardo Tisci: Designer of the Year” (Molly Young, GQ)
A little bit of post-read Googling (and messages from a couple of Twitter followers) quickly alerted me to the fact that Molly Young, with past pieces in New York, Elle, and The Believer, among others, isn’t all that new to the game. But I had somehow never recognized her byline before. After reading her profile of Riccardo Tisci, the Italian fashion designer who currently serves as the creative director of Givenchy (“Across from me a nucleus of attendants has formed around Amar’e Stoudemire, thanks less to his fame (there are better celebrities here) than to his height, which gives him a reassuring lighthouse quality.”), I’ll make sure to never miss it again.
Best Trainwreck of the Year
”In Conversation: Tina Brown” (Michael Kinsley, New York)
I was going to select a piece from Newsweek for this honor, given that this is the last year the publication will technically qualify (it’ll morph into a new product, Newsweek Global, when it transitions to online-only next year), but it hasn’t published anything this year that could crack my top 10. What does, though, is the interview between Newsweek‘s top editor, Tina Brown, and Michael Kinsley that ran in New York. It’s not great in any traditional sense—after every page you’re left wondering when Kinsley will ask this question or that question, and he never does—but it’s compelling from the first question to the last because of the oversize roles both subjects have played in our modern media.
Inside Google’s secretive Ground Truth program—and why it suddenly makes sense that they are working on a self-driving car:
Let’s step back a tiny bit to recall with wonderment the idea that a single company decided to drive cars with custom cameras over every road they could access. Google is up to five million miles driven now. Each drive generates two kinds of really useful data for mapping. One is the actual tracks the cars have taken; these are proof-positive that certain routes can be taken. The other are all the photos. And what’s significant about the photographs in Street View is that Google can run algorithms that extract the traffic signs and can even paste them onto the deep map within their Atlas tool.
The quest for the perfect dairy cow—starting with Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie, a bull who has 50,000 markers on his genome that make him the best sire at the moment:
While breeders used to select for greater milk production, that’s no longer considered the most important trait. For example, the number three bull in America is named Ensenada Taboo Planet-Et. His predicted transmitting ability for milk production is +2323, more than 1100 pounds greater than Freddie. His offspring’s milk will likely containmore protein and fat as well. But his daughters’ productive life would be shorter and their pregnancy rate is lower. And these factors, as well as some traits related to the hypothetical daughters’ size and udder quality, trump Planet’s impressive production stats.
One reason for the change in breeding emphasis is that our cows already produce tremendous amounts of milk relative to their forbears. In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk.