Sometimes a writer does a really amazing piece that makes me jealous. Other times they do a piece that just makes me want to give up. Every time I read Katherine Boo I'm just glad that I don't even attempt to do narrative writing. It would be embarrassing to have anything I write put up against her. This dispatch from a refugee center for Katrina victims is heart wrenching and does more than anything else to bring home the psychological dimensions of American urban poverty.
People know Krugman these days as a feisty political polemicist, but back when he was less politically engaged he was absolutely one of the very finest popularizers of economic ideas ever. This piece is a wonderful, brief introduction to the fundamental economic forces driving the world and a lot of my current thinking is preoccupied with the questions it raises. Reading it again, I realized that a point I like to make about the elevator being a great mass transit technology is almost certainly something I subconsciously picked up here.
Jane Jacobs has a somewhat ambiguous legacy—or at least one that's contested by different factions in the present-day debate over cities and urbanism—but to me her most important idea is encapsulated in the title and spirit of this piece. It's old and, I think, utterly prescient about what successive waves of planning fads miss. The purpose of urban space is for people to use it. A great place is a place where people want to be.
In an odd way, crime has fallen off the political landscape. To an extent it's been replaced on the agenda by concern about the dire consequences of mass incarceration. But violent crime itself remains a major area in which the United States lags behind other developed countries. To suggest that smarter management of the criminal justice system could make it less brutal while simultaneously creating large reductions in the quantity of crime sounds utopian. And yet the proposals for parole system reform found in this article are utterly convincing.
This is the piece of writing that inspired me to make the turn from fiction and corporate research into journalism. It’s the best reframing of American society that I’ve ever read. And kudos to Harper’s for running it. It’s not often you see anarchist anthropologists making highly visible contributions to public discourse.
I love combing through The Atlantic’s archives. There’s almost no better way of grasping the strangeness of the past than to flip through a general interest magazine from 1960. Here, we find Fred Hapgood grappling with what human intelligence meant in the light of new machines that could do something like thinking.
Intelligence was being explored in a new way: by finding out what was duplicable about how our minds work. Hapgood's conclusion was that if you could automate a task, it would lose value to humans. What tremendous luck! Humans value that which only humans can do, he argued, regardless of the difficulty of the task. And that because computers were so good at sequential logic problems, we'd eventually end up only respecting emotional understanding, which remained (and remains) beyond the reach of AI.
Breslin’s unflinching and devastating investigation of the porn industry in Los Angeles would be at home in many an excellent magazine. But Breslin didn’t go that route. Instead, she built a custom site that presents the story with her photographs and design.
Steven Levy’s piece on cypherpunks and Internet libertarians could not feel more relevant in the wake of WikiLeaks’ rise and the heavily scrutinized role of online organizing in recent revolutions. During Wired’s first year, I’d just gotten an Internet account and had somehow stumbled on the magazine. It became my guide to this hybrid life that we all live now, half-online, half-offline.
Energy problems are long problems that often receive short solutions. In 2000, when Mother Jones ran this history about what happened to the energy research boom of the late 70s and early 80s, I was buying $0.99 a gallon gas for my Escort. I chose this story because I think longform journalism can keep people interested in these issues that require decadal attention but are subject to year-to-year fluctuations in public interest. And it’s a great story.