Search Results for: Jason-Fagone

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jason Fagone, Stephanie Mencimer, Roberta Hill, Kaleb Horton, and Kelundra Smith.

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1. The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.

Jason Fagone | San Francisco Chronicle | July 23, 2021 | 10,801 words

“The death of the woman he loved was too much to bear. Could a mysterious website allow him to speak with her once more?”

2. Armed Standoffs With the Government, ‘Uber Militias,’ and Ammon Bundy’s Run to Be Idaho’s Next Governor

Stephanie Mencimer | Mother Jones | July 26, 2021 | 8,649

“Does running for office make him less dangerous—or more?”

3. Survivor

Roberta Hill | Toronto Life | July 27, 2021 | 3,917 words

“The discovery of hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains in the spring was particularly hard for me—because I knew I could have been one of them. How I made it through Canada’s residential school system.”

4. The Ballad of the Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping

Kaleb Horton | Vox | July 23, 2020 | 13,872 words

“If you told somebody 26 kids went missing, the most ever in America, that somebody would likely assume they were dead. But they’d survived! All of them! Many potlucks would ensue.”

5. On the Heels of Foot Soldiers

Kelundra Smith | The Bitter Southerner | July 27, 2021 | 1,912 words

“Fueled by the power of love, Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown wants the next generation of activists to learn from the music and wisdom of the past and to press on to protect voting rights in the rural South and beyond.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Close up of a deer antler
Pirmin Föllmi / EyeEm (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. The Man Who Paid for America’s Fear

Jason Fagone | The San Francisco Chronicle | March 2nd, 2022 | 14,500 words

This is the definitive story of Hamid Hayat, a man wrongfully convicted of terrorism, sentenced to prison on his 25th birthday, and finally set free after 14 years behind bars. It is a profile, yes, but it is also a deep, unflinching examination of just how ugly and far-reaching Islamophobia became in America after the 9/11 attacks. True to form, author Jason Fagone — whose work was featured in our Best of 2021 collection — offers readers a master class in structure. When I read the closing anecdote, I said aloud, to no one in particular, “Damn.” —SD

2. The Airport

Shannon Gormley | March 7th, 2022 | 15,807 words

“I say I’ll get them out. I mean this, too. But in Afghanistan whatever we meant turned to sand; what we did is the only trace we left behind. In time our actions, also, will be subsumed by the actions of others, like the wind moves tracks across a desert plain.” Shannon Gormley self-publishes a breathtaking narrative about her friend’s escape from Afghanistan as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Gormley weaves her own personal story of her time in the country, as well as the backstory of her friendship with Asghar, in this meditative piece. Through exquisite yet gripping writing, Gormley conveys the gravity of the situation on the ground as she calls on colleagues to help Asghar get his wife Zahra, his 4-month-old son Farhan, and himself to safety once they reach Kabul’s international airport. I read this slowly and steadily one evening, gasping at times. It’s a long read — even by Longreads standards! — but well worth the dive. —CLR

3. On Memory and Survival

Nickole Brown | Orion Magazine | February 9th, 2022 | 2,348 words

In this deeply moving essay at Orion Magazine, Nickole Brown relates how routine dissociation and an inability to form memories helped her cope with childhood trauma. While dissociation protected Brown from memories of childhood abuse, it also left her unable to recall moments of beauty. In one instance, she struggles to remember an aggregation of monarch butterflies seen from a New York City high-rise not long after 9/11, a kind of random yet all-encompassing beauty that helps fend off despair amid the ongoing horrors of climate change and worldwide human suffering. After encountering the body of a vulture that died entangled in fishing line and willing her brain to remember the bird, Brown discovers that remembering is more important to survival than forgetting: “So what is it I need to learn well enough to recite by heart? Why work so hard to verify a cloudburst of butterflies migrating so long ago through the busiest part of one of the busiest cities on Earth? Why struggle to memorize a vulture who likely starved upside down? Because survival has to do with remembering what you most do not want to face. It has to do with not turning away, in believing your own testimony, in writing it down. We must keep remembering in case one day another needs that memory to survive.” —KS

4. Of Course We’re Living in a Simulation

Jason Kehe | Wired | March 9th, 2022 | 3,518 words

True story: When I started working here, the very first thing someone asked me was “What do you think of simulation theory?” What I said to him then is what I’m saying again now: I’ve always thought of it in the same way as the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. In other words, the idea that our reality is in fact some gargantuan digital illusion may sound nuts, but it’s nearly impossible for it not to be the case, even if that truth never touches our lives in a perceptible way. That also happens to be the perspective of Wired‘s Kehe, though he unspools it in delightfully loopy fashion in this essay that’s part provocation, part book review (of David Chalmers’ recent Reality+), and part excuse to play with language like a young Stephen Fry. There’s an argument in here, and an interesting one, but there’s also a real joy — which is seldom the case in tech criticism, or technophilosophy, or whatever you want to call that realm of rhetoric concerned with teasing out the implications that we’re all actually inside a video game. This is unlike anything else you’ll read this week, and it may just be the thing you remember most. —PR

5. The Great American Antler Boom

Abe Streep | The New Yorker | March 7th, 2022 | 5,307 words

I found myself engrossed in Abe Streep’s account of a subculture I knew very little about — didn’t know existed, in fact — the world of the shed hunter. Initially, I suspected a shed hunter was someone who ambles into the woods to take a casual glance about to see if a deer antler catches their eye. I was wrong. Streep illuminates me with vivid descriptions of shedder social media stars, furious bidding wars, and the May hunt — which sounds more like an intense endurance race. At 6:00 a.m. on May 1st, public lands in Jackson are opened up to antler seekers, and Streep describes the ensuing mad scramble, where people “raced across the water and ascended into tawny meadows. One rider was bucked off his horse and injured himself. A teen-ager from Montana alleged that someone stole an antler he had spotted first.” This story made me consider both the foibles and ingenuity of the human race; it was fascinating to learn of the obsessions and livelihoods formed around a bone that another animal discards as waste. It is very human of us. —CW

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Dark Crystal costume designers Brian Froud and Wendy Froud stand in front of a gothic, creepy character on a dimly lit purple stage.
Creatures & Costume Designer Brian Froud and Assistant Costume Designer Wendy Froud attend the European Premiere of "The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance" at the BFI Southbank on August 22, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. What Bullets Do to Bodies

Jason Fagone | HuffPost Highline | April 26th, 2017 | 7,799 words

I’m breaking from tradition here and highlighting a story that’s already been in one of these newsletters, and as a top pick no less. The circumstances demand it. On Tuesday, a gunman armed with two legally purchased AR-style assault rifles slaughtered 19 children and two teachers in a single classroom at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. As authorities worked to identify the victims, they asked parents to provide DNA samples. What’s unspoken in this detail is that the dead children were unrecognizable, or so mangled that it would have been an unimaginable cruelty to ask their parents to look at them. I can’t get this fact out of my mind, and it prompted me to re-read one of the best pieces of explanatory journalism in recent memory. Almost exactly five years ago, Jason Fagone spent time with the head of trauma surgery at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia to understand the damage that bullets do to bodies. What Dr. Amy Goldberg had to say about the Sandy Hook massacre could be said today about the shooting in Uvalde: “As a country, we lost our teachable moment…. The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.” America is a country where the mass murder of children is followed by mourning and forgetting, but never action: Congress hasn’t passed a single piece of gun control legislation since Sandy Hook. Until that changes, Goldberg’s comment will be relevant again in another community, at another school. It’s only a matter of time. —SD

2. Man of Culture

Sukhada Tatke | Fifty Two | May 20th, 2022 | 4,280 words

Many scenes in Sukhada Tatke’s origin story about a bacterium found in the soil of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) feel plucked out of a movie: A ship full of Canadian scientists and doctors, landing on a mysterious island to collect samples from its inhabitants and the land. A Punjabi microbiologist who makes one last batch of this culture and stores it in his freezer after his lab deprioritizes his research. Then, some years later, fascinating experiments on mice confirming that this molecule — rapamycin — is a “life-saving wonder drug” that can save millions of lives, including organ transplant patients and people with cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Tatke tells the remarkable story of this scientist, Surendra Nath Sehgal, and a medical discovery that has brought hope to so many. —CLR

3. On Metaphors and Snow Boots

Annie Sand | Guernica | May 23rd, 2022 | 2,821 words

Have you ever felt pain that stabs, throbs, or tingles? Have you ever felt mentally stuck or scattered? At Guernica, Annie Sand suggests that the common metaphors we use to describe physical and mental pain and illness are reductive, in that they fail to truly describe what it’s like to endure a body and/or mind causing us trouble. “When we use metaphor to conceal the unknowable, we make symbols out of human beings and allegory out of experience. We reduce our own pain to a precursor, a line item, a weather report…There is a cost to romanticization, to needing metaphor too much. Things — people — are easier to destroy when they’re an abstraction.” She suggests that to truly convey our individual experiences, we need to create metaphors of our own. “I wonder instead if the answer is not to abstain from metaphor, but rather, each time society tries to wheat-paste an ill-fitting metaphor over our lives, to offer one of our own…I collect them: latitude of many storms, thaws that come and go, clouds that squeeze. In a strange way, thinking about anxiety as weather lets me slip past society’s questions of why, and how long, and are you seeing someone about this? It sets me loose from the terrible calculus of justifying my minute-by-minute expenditures. It leaves those unanswered questions of cause and cure off the table.” —KS

4. The Funk of Poverty

Starr Davis | Catapult | May 25th, 2022 | 3,088 words

To say I loved this essay feels wrong, because I despise so many of the things that informed this essay. A road out of hardship, splashed with the oil of bureaucracy. Get-by mechanisms that are only “coping” in the loosest, most fleeting sense of the word. Relationships that confine or harm; a world that tells you in no uncertain terms that it simply does not value you. But the love at the center of this piece — the love Starr Davis’ mother had for her, and that she in turn has for her infant daughter, that glows ember-like despite buffeting headwinds — turns it from a litany of pain into a catalog of perseverance. “I have never met a happy mother,” she writes. “All the mothers I know are crazed, tired, or selfishly dragging themselves away from their children. My biggest fear is becoming those types of mothers. The types of women who forget their dreams or, worse, stop dreaming altogether.”—PR

5. How The “Mother Of Yoda” Conquered Hollywood — And Why She Disappeared

Falene Nurse | Inverse | May 3rd 2022 | 2,767 words

Growing up, two of my favorite films were The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The worlds they created enthralled me — filled with magic, weirdness, and ethereal beauty. Iconic to this day, they were pulled from the impressive imagination of Jim Henson, but, behind the scenes, there were other magicians at work — the puppeteers. In this profile of Wendy Froud, Falene Nurse explains how she sculpted The Dark Crystal’s puppet leads, Kira and Jen (her first job out of art school, no less). In The Labyrinth, she lent not just her talent to the production; her baby, Toby Froud, played the child kidnapped by the Goblin King (a.k.a David Bowie in leggings so tight they came with a free anatomy lesson). Froud was even part of the force that created a certain little Jedi, earning her the nickname “the Mother of Yoda.” Yet, after this gluttony of ’80s icons, Froud seemingly disappeared for many years; Nurse reveals how CGI gradually destroyed the art of the puppet and Froud’s disdain for the Hollywood scene. Then in 2019, some new magic happened: Netflix commissioned a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. Froud was brought back on board to help recreate the elegance of that world — real puppets and all. And guess what? Baby Froud, now all grown-up and freed from David Bowie, worked with his parents on The Age of Resistance as the Design Supervisor. Now that’s a Hollywood ending. —CW

The Man Who Paid for America’s Fear

Longreads Pick

Jason Fagone unfurls the saga of Hamid Hayat, an American citizen who turned 19 the day before the September 11 attacks, was sentenced to prison on his 25th birthday after being wrongfully convicted of terrorism, and walked free a month before he turned 36.

Hamid barely reacted [to his guilty verdict], remaining calm, as he had throughout the two months of arguments. Sitting at the defense table, he had observed it all with detachment. He told me he had often felt an urge to laugh out loud in court: The government’s narrative about him seemed melodramatic, cheesy, like something “from a movie,” he said. He had become a spectator to his own life, a character in a story America was telling itself.


Published: Mar 2, 2022
Length: 70 minutes (17,500 words)

Best of 2021: Reported Essays

A graphic that says "Longreads Best of 2021: Reported Essays" with a typewriter in the right-side background.
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Staff curation is at the core of our work. All year long, we highlight the top longform stories on the web in our weekly Longreads Top 5, so our end-of-year series is always a busy yet delightful time to revisit and celebrate the pieces that resonated with us the most.

On Tuesday, we shared our favorite personal essays of the year; today, we continue with our picks for the best reported essays, featuring stories about love and loss in the age of AI, death and the environment, the George Floyd rebellion and a time of racial reckoning, and ecological disaster. Enjoy — and thanks so much for reading this year.

The Jessica Simulation, Jason Fagone, San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 2021

Back in 2013, I watched a haunting episode of the Charlie Brooker series Black Mirror called “Be Right Back,” in which a computer chat program uses a deceased person’s digital footprint to imitate them, allowing their loved ones to communicate with them after they die. Eight years on, and, terrifyingly, this is no longer science fiction — as Jason Fagone masterfully reports in this essay, introducing us to the bot version of the late Jessica Pereira. When she tragically died at just 23, Jessica left behind her fiance Joshua, who, struggling to manage his grief, eventually sought comfort in an artificial intelligence system that did “something they weren’t designed to do: conduct chat-like conversations with humans.” Fagone cleverly interweaves Joshua’s real transcripts with the Jessica bot into the story, as he details their love, her death, and Joshua’s eight years of grief. While I found this essay disturbing — it provides a glimpse into a future that I find uncomfortable — it is still fascinating. Fagone’s storytelling method also demonstrated something powerful: I got far closer to knowing the real Jessica through his reporting of the memories of her friends and family, rather than from the Jessica bot. As Jessica’s mother says, “I know it’s not her.” —Carolyn Wells Read more…

The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.

Longreads Pick
Published: Jul 23, 2021
Length: 43 minutes (10,801 words)

The ‘Race Realist’ on Campus

Longreads Pick

“Why was Professor Gregory Christainsen allowed to teach Black and Latino students at Cal State East Bay that they were inherently less smart?”

Published: Jun 24, 2021
Length: 33 minutes (8,471 words)

A New Leaf: A Post-Legalization Cannabis Reading List

neon marijuana symbol with the word "legal" below

By Peter Rubin

If you were a pot-smoking teenager in the ’90s, chances are you heard the same urban legend I did. Marlboro’s just waiting for weed to be legalized, man. They’ve got the tobacco fields ready to repurpose; they’ll even use their green menthol pack when they start selling joints. Someone’s sister knew a guy whose college professor had seen the mockups! What’s weird about this particular wish-fulfillment conversation isn’t how dumb it was; it’s that even a stoned 16-year-old could grok the conflict brewing in the fantasy. Sure, the idea of walking into a store to buy a spliff seemed so far-fetched that imagining it was akin to arguing about who would win a fight between Batman and Boba Fett. But if that day ever did come, we sensed, it would become a commercial battlefield.

Surprise: that’s exactly what happened. After California allowed medicinal use of marijuana in 1996 — and then truly after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use — a new industry sprouted. The “green rush,” as it immediately became known, wasn’t just a financial opportunity; it nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer. For every underdog, a huckster; for every scrappy botanist, a shadowy billion-dollar concern; for every newly minted entrepreneur, a stinging reminder that even legal cannabis has a way of perpetuating inequities. Whether or not the devil’s lettuce ever becomes legalized at a federal level (and Marlboro finally gets involved), the journalism compiled below makes clear that the stories of post-legalization America are in many ways the stories of the nation itself.

1) The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery (Amanda Chicago Lewis, GQ, August 2017)

Few journalists have been covering the weed beat longer or better than Lewis; she’s knowledgeable, well-sourced, and has reported on everything from how Black entrepreneurs have been shut out of the cannabis boom to how the company Weedmaps has cultivated a booming business with a selective attention to legality. But my favorite work of hers might just be this feverish jaunt down the rabbit hole of BioTech Institute, a company that reportedly struck fear into the heart of the industry by trying to issue utility patents on the cannabis plant itself. Sounds dry? Not when it feels like the plot of a noir movie, with Lewis as the dogged detective:

Outside of these patents, BioTech Institute barely exists. The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.

A source familiar with BioTech Institute’s patenting process estimated that the company had spent at least $250,000 in research and legal fees on each of its patents. I knew that if I could figure out who was paying for the patents, I might learn who held the keys to the future of the marijuana industry. But I hardly knew where to start.

There’s no definitive aha twist in this movie — no moment that the camera skews to a Dutch angle and the violins screech in the score — but its shagginess is kind of the point. Watching a reporter follow bum leads, spool out her own thinking, and otherwise externalize her shoeleather fact-finding turns this from a Shadowy Conspiracy saga to something somehow far more satisfying: a process story.

2) Half Baked: How a Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went up in Smoke (Michael Rubino, Julia Spalding & Derek Robertson, Indianapolis Monthly, August 2021)

In November 2020, Indianapolis Monthly ran a small item on Rebecca Raffle, a woman who had moved to town and opened two CBD bakeries in the city. A few fact-checking bumps aside, the piece was uneventful, the kind of local-business profile that pops up in two dozen city magazines every month of the year. But as 2020 turned into 2021, those fact-checking bumps turned out to be the first in a long saga of upheaval and deception, exhaustively recounted here by a team of journalists that would expose Raffle’s business talk for what it truly was: talk. 

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

Self-mythologizing is nothing new; people often believe what you tell them, and many a business owner has scraped through the lean times by acting as though their aspirations are already reality. But the meta-wrinkle in this particular story — the writers grappling throughout with the role they and their magazine played in elevating this particular mythologist — makes “Half Baked” much more than an exercise in grifter-gets-caught schadenfreude. Whether Raffle’s a Fyre Fest-level charlatan or just a woman whose ambitions outpaced her expertise, you won’t get to the end without a hefty sense of emotional conflict.

3) The Willy Wonka of Pot (Jason Fagone, Grantland, October 2013)

Once upon a time, weed strains were like broadcast TV networks: there weren’t many, and everyone knew all of them. But nothing Acapulco Gold can stay. These days, Maui Wowie and Panama Red have given way to Blueberry Kush, F-13, Azure Haze, and a seemingly infinite repository of other strains — and a great many of them, it turns out, originated with a press-shy breeder from Oregon named DJ Short. In this shining gem of a ridealong feature, Jason Fagone connects with Short at what might just be the apotheosis of his long and accomplished career: the first Seattle Hempfest held after Washington legalized recreational cannabis.

“DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,” Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”

The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”

It’s not all stoner sycophancy, though. Fagone portrays Short as a man who knows how much he’s contributed to the current state of the cannabis world — and yet finds himself unable to stop that world from roaring by, leaving him behind in its rush to monetize his lifelong passion. Whimsical headline aside, there’s a real melancholy lurking here, even as Short accepts his laurels. A portrait of the artist as a forgotten craftsman.

4) Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs? (Donnell Alexander, Capital & Main x Fast Company, April 2018)

A 2020 study by the ACLU found that in the U.S., Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. That same year, 94% of those arrested for cannabis offenses in New York City were people of color. Clearly, legalization has not alleviated the disproportionate burden that low-level drug enforcement has historically placed on the Black community, nor has it prevented Black entrepreneurs from getting shut out of the space. That’s why, in California, a number of cities have attempted to enact cannabis equity, reserving up to half of their marijuana business permits for those living under the median income line or who have a previous cannabis conviction — and in this piece, Alexander chronicles how Oakland’s equity program can set a model for others.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. 

Those forces culminated in a near-failure for Oakland’s program; while the city had set aside millions in no-interest funding for these startups, it was having a difficult time facilitating the necessary partnerships between white and Black applicants. The solutions — or people, as the best solutions tend to be — don’t provide much in the way of narrative tension, but they do offer a necessary perspective on what it’s really like trying to change the system in a fundamental way.

5)  Inside the Underground Weed Workforce (Lee Hawks, The Walrus, October 2018)

Legal or not, all the cannabis that enters the supply chain starts with the same thing: human labor. Trimmers, those who take scissors to plant to free the psychogenic flower, have long been the backbone of the industry. Yet, as the workforce swells and legalization drives prices down, the livelihood isn’t as dependable as it once was. A blend of reportage and the pseudonymous Hawks’ own experience — numerous trips from Canada to work California’s harvest season — makes his account of “scissor drifter” culture an urgent one. 

In 2017, when Willow last went to work in California, trimmers were expected to buy and cook all their own food. There was one outhouse and an outdoor shower, and she slept in a tent. She was paid $150 (US) per pound. When she checked around, she discovered this was the new status quo. In fact, there were rumours of trimmers being paid as low as $100 per pound. Some trimmers will work in exchange for weed and are just happy to have a place to stay and be fed. Every year, there’s a new crop of trimmigrants with lower and lower expectations. Unfortunately for Willow, the harvest was subpar, and she struggled to finish a pound per day. She left after two weeks, staying just long enough to recuperate her costs. A poor crop can make any situation intolerable.

Death of Writing, Writing of Death: A Reading List on Artificial Intelligence and Language

The other day, I saw a tweet of an obituary, seemingly written by a bot. The obituary’s odd but delightful phrases like “Brenda was an avid collector of dust,” “Brenda was a bird,” “she owed us so many poems,” and “send Brenda more life” were hilarious to some people — send me more life too, please! — while others couldn’t help but wonder: Is this really a bot?

You didn’t have to fall too far down a rabbit hole to learn that the obituary, in fact, was not written by a bot, but a human — writer and comedian Keaton Patti — as part of his book, I Forced a Bot to Write This Book. Some commenters, perhaps proud of their human-sniffing capabilities or just well-versed in real machine-written prose, were quick to point out that there was no way a bot could write this.

This had 20x the feel of a human trying to write a funny thing than a bot

Pretty sure a person wrote this without any technology more complicated than Microsoft word

not a bot! the punchlines are too consistent

For everyone afraid that AI is taking over, the bot said Brenda was a bird…

Try a language generator at Talk to Transformer, an AI demo site.

Even though the obituary was human-generated, it still reminded me of two editors’ picks we recently featured on Longreads — Jason Fagone’s feature “The Jessica Simulation” and Vauhini Vara’s essay “Ghosts” — in which AI-powered prose is a significant (and spooky) part of these stories. Both pieces prominently feature GPT-3, a powerful language generator from research laboratory OpenAI that uses machine learning to create human-like text. In simple terms, you can feed GPT-3 a prompt, and in return, it predicts and attempts to complete what comes next. Its predecessor, GPT-2, was “eerily good” at best, specializing in mediocre poetry; GPT-3, which is 100 times larger and built with 175 billion machine learning parameters, comes closer to crossing the Uncanny Valley than anything, and raises unsettling questions about the role AI will play — or is already playing — in our lives. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2018: Profiles

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profiles.

Sarah Smarsh
Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and many other publications.
Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction.

William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump (Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker)

The intersection of class, race, and religion — what could be more fraught in these times? Cobb’s rare combination of quiet wisdom and a steady journalistic hand is the perfect guide. He profiles Protestant minister William Barber, the progressive activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, with thorough reporting and sensitivity, letting facts speak for themselves but humanizing the subject as no fact alone can do. I’ve been part of the Poor People’s Campaign at the ground level and was heartened to learn here that more than one respected source calls Barber “the real thing.” But, whether or not Barber is your political comrade, you will learn that he believes himself to be your spiritual brother — a refreshing fusion of political and moral force on the sometimes god-averse left.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Feature writer for The New York Times.

The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)

This was a really good year for profiles, despite their death (reported annually). So good that it was very hard to narrow it down, and so I was very grateful that I couldn’t pick any from the New York Times, where I work, which really helped narrow it down. (Though you’ve just got to read this one.)

And how do you choose from the others: Dan Riley on Timothée Chalamet (though exactly which profile/article/photo/table of contents, even, under Jim Nelson wasn’t great?). Allison P. Davis’ Lena Dunham lede-ender of fallopian tubes like outstretched arms? Amanda Fortini opening Michelle Williams’ historically very locked vault. Emily Nussbaum on Ryan Murphy. Paige Williams on Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wright Thompson on Geno Auriemma. Jessica Pressler on Anna Delvey. (Jessica Pressler on anything.) What a year.

But I finally picked one, and when I did, I realized it was a no-brainer. Lyz Lenz, who has terrifying amounts of talent, pulled off the neatest trick: A profile of screamy Tucker Carlson that walks the line of being way too self-referential, and yet somehow makes that work. It’s perhaps because it’s so funny. It’s perhaps because instead of looking for some fatuous lede scene it goes straight to the most prominent aspect of Carlson (why is he always screaming?). It’s perhaps because she knows that there is no end to the delight of knowing his full name: Tucker McNear Swanson Carlson. Or maybe it’s this section ender: “His publicist calls after our interview to make sure I know that Carlson is not a racist.” Whatever it is, I was very grateful for it.

James Ross Gardner
Editor-in-chief, Seattle Met.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Battering Ram (Paige Williams, The New Yorker)

I lost count of how many times Paige Williams was obliged to deploy terms like “inaccurately,” “falsely,” “erroneous,” and “lie” in this extraordinary portrait of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What’s remarkable about Trump’s press secretary though is that, at least here, those words are rarely used to describe statements by Sanders herself — but rather of those whose lies she must justify. It’s also what makes Sanders a cipher of our time. How does someone who vehemently claims to possess high moral character rationalize defending the indefensible? Put another way: How does one become that person? Williams’s search for an answer takes her to her subject’s native Arkansas, where in the ’90s the daughter of then governor Mike Huckabee “was given Chelsea Clinton’s former bedroom” in the governor’s mansion, and Little Rock “residents and journalists mocked the Huckabees as rubes.” Later, during a visit with a lifelong friend, we catch a rare glimpse of the press secretary uncoiled and away from the podium, “wearing tropical-print shorts and flip-flops, with a blue blouse and her pearls.” Details like these are certainly humanizing. But Williams isn’t here to vindicate Sanders’s transgressions. In 9,293 words she deftly dismantles the notion that the president’s “battering ram” might walk away from any of this with clean hands. “A press secretary who had an abiding respect for First Amendment freedoms likely would have resigned once it became clear that Trump intended to steamroll his way through the Constitution,” Williams offers early in the piece. “But Sanders stayed.”

Seyward Darby
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.

The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)

Lyz Lenz’s profile of Tucker Carlson in the Columbia Journalism Review begins and ends with the subject shouting at the writer, but insisting that he’s not. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Carlson’s raison d’être in the Trump era: convincing people to believe lies despite proof of the truth sitting right friggin’ there in the form of scientific studies, sociological data, photographic evidence, and the like. And when gaslighting fails? To Lenz, hardy soul that she is, Carlson again demonstrates his favorite ripostes. He deflects probing questions with glib mockery, by rejecting a query’s value so that he doesn’t have to address it, or — my personal favorite — with pseudo-intellectual incoherence masquerading as the sort of wily argument that wins high-school debaters gleaming trophies. (This is a digression where I beg someone reading this list to pen the definitive essay on how debate is the root of political evil. I will tweet it every day, forever.) Lenz, wholly in control of her craft, injects the profile with her own anxiety and anger about Carlson’s bullshit and with sly reminders that, for too long, respectable media overlooked his bullshit because Carlson was quite good at mimicking Hunter S. Thompson. People keep wondering, wide-eyed, what happened to Tucker Carlson. They don’t want to admit that the answer is, and was always, right friggin’ there.

Krista Stevens
Senior editor, Longreads.

Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffington Post Highline)

To Gerald “Jerry” Selbee, an “intellectually restless” dyslexic cereal box designer from Battle Creek Michigan, everything in the world was a puzzle to be solved. At age 64, Selbee’s mathematical mind discovered a loophole in the Michigan Lottery’s “Winfall” game. He figured he’d test his lottery strategy as something fun to do to in retirement. Jason Fagone wrote 11,000 words about how Jerry and Marge Selbee won $27 million gaming the Michigan Lottery over nine years and this piece has it all in a winning combination. As you root for the working man who finds a way to win against a big government entity, you too savor the thrill of solving a tough puzzle to make your lottery dream come true. This is longform at its finest.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.