My Favorite Longreads in 2014

I must admit 2014 has been a slow year in reading for me, compared to the last four to five years. There are no excuses, only that other priorities shuffled to the top of my daily/weekly life. The blog remained active throughout the year, but dwindled in both quantity and quality. Nevertheless, I can still recommend my favorite top five #longreads of the year, as I look back through my archives. They are as follows, in chronological order as they appeared on this blog:

1) In a long piece titled “Einstein’s Camera,” Joshua Hammer profiles the photography of Adam Magyar [Medium]:

In a growing body of photographic and video art done over the past decade, Magyar bends conventional representations of time and space, stretching milliseconds into minutes, freezing moments with a resolution that the naked eye could never have perceived. His art evokes such variegated sources as Albert Einstein, Zen Buddhism, even the 1960s TV series The Twilight Zone.The images—sleek silver subway cars, solemn commuters lost in private worlds—are beautiful and elegant, but also produce feelings of disquiet. “These moments I capture are meaningless, there is no story in them, and if you can catch the core, the essence of being, you capture probably everything,” Magyar says in one of the many cryptic comments about his work that reflect both their hypnotic appeal and their elusiveness. There is a sense of stepping into a different dimension, of inhabiting a space between stillness and movement, a time-warp world where the rules of physics don’t apply.

Magyar’s work represents a fruitful cross-fertilization of technology and art, two disciplines—one objective and mathematical, the other entirely subjective—that weren’t always regarded as harmonious or compatible. Yet the two are intertwined, and breakthroughs in technology have often made new forms of art possible. Five thousand years ago, Egyptian technicians heated desert sand, limestone, potash, and copper carbonate in kilns to make a synthetic pigment known as “Egyptian blue,” which contributed to the highly realistic yet stylized portraiture of the Second and Third Dynasties.

2) In a piece titled “Big Score,” Elizabeth Kolbert enlightened us about the history of the SAT exam [The New Yorker]:

In the early decades of the test, scores were revealed only to schools, not to students. This made it difficult to assess the claim made by the College Board, the exam’s administrator, that studying for the SATs would serve no purpose. Still, a brash young high-school tutor named Stanley Kaplan concluded, based on the feedback he was getting from his pupils, that the claim was a crock. Kaplan began offering SAT prep classes out of his Brooklyn basement. Accusations that he was a fraud and a “snake oil salesman” failed to deter his clientele; the students just kept on coming. In the nineteen-seventies, Kaplan expanded his operations into cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami; this is when the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate his claims. The commission found that Kaplan was right: tutoring did boost scores, if not by as much as his testing service advertised. The College Board implicitly conceded the point in 1994, when it changed the meaning of the SAT’s central “A”; instead of “aptitude” it came to stand for “assessment.” Then the board took the even more radical step of erasing the meaning of the name altogether. Today, the letters “SAT” stand for nothing more (or less) than the SATs. As the Lord put it to Moses, “I am that I am.”

Originally featured here.

3) In “Old Masters at Top of Their Game,” Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure [The New York Times]:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s…

4) Ian Urbina, made me reminisce about the way I create passwords and sometimes the mental anguish I go through remembering them all. In a piece titled “The Secret Life of Passwords,” he explains why passwords capture our imagination [The New York Times]:

Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything: Scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive.

5) Capping off the list is Brian Phillips’s piece titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he juxtaposes a sumo wrestling tournament, searching for a long-lost individual, and traces history of a failed coup attempt by  Japanese writer Yukio Mishima [Grantland].

Outside of the general trivia about sumo and Japan, I loved the descriptions in the piece:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

What were your favorite longreads of 2014?

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Related: here are my list of favorite #longreads from 2013.

Sumo Wrestling, Yukio Mishima, and a Search for a Forgotten Man

I’ve been a fan of Brian Phillips’s writing ever since reading and recommending “Pelé as a Comedian.” This year, Brian’s best writing probably comes via his piece at Grantland titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he goes on a two week trip to Japan. During his visit, he witnesses a sumo tournament, traverses around Tokyo and other parts of Japan, and recounts his fascination with a failed coup attempt by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, which ended in ritual suicide, seppuku.

A wonderful description of Tokyo:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

It’s a dream city, Tokyo. I mean that literally, in that I often felt like I was experiencing it while asleep. You’ll ride an escalator underground into what your map says is a tunnel between subway stops, only to find yourself in a thumping subterranean mall packed with beautiful teenagers dancing to Katy Perry remixes. You will take a turn off a busy street and into a deserted Buddhist graveyard, soundless but for the wind and the clacking of sotoba sticks, wooden markers crowded with the names of the dead. You will stand in a high tower and look out on the reason-defying extent of the city, windows and David Beckham billboards and aerial expressways falling lightly downward, toward the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea.

This is a beautiful description:

It takes a sumo novice perhaps 10 seconds of match action to see that among the top-class rikishi, Hakuho occupies a category of his own. What the others are doing in the ring is fighting. Hakuho is composing little haiku of battle.

The majority of the piece gives the reader this feeling as though one is in a ship, being gently throttled back and forth as Phillips describes his experiences of traveling and getting lost:

So I wandered, lost, around Tokyo. I went to the shrine of Nomi no Sukune, the legendary father of sumo, who (if he lived at all) died 2,000 years ago. I went to the food courts in the basements of department stores. I thought I should look for the past, for the origins of sumo, so early one morning I rode a bullet train to Kyoto, the old imperial capital, where I was yelled at by a bus driver and stayed in a ryokan — a guest house — where the maid crawled on her knees to refill my teacup. I climbed the stone path of the Fushimi Inari shrine, up the mountain under 10,000 vermilion gates. I visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, rebuilt in 1955 after a mad monk burned it to the ground (Mishima wrote a novel about this), and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, weirder and more mysterious because it is not actually covered in silver but was only intended to be. I spent 100 yen on a vending-machine fortune that told me to be “patient with time.”

Highly recommended in entirety.

 

The Secret Lives of Passwords

Ian Urbina, writing in The New York Times, confesses his fascinations with passwords. In a piece titled “The Secret Life of Passwords,” he explains:

Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything: Scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive.

On the changing state of the passwords looking into the future:

This year, for example, Google purchased SlickLogin, a start-up that verifies IDs using sound waves. iPhones have come equipped with fingerprint scanners for more than a year now. And yet passwords continue to proliferate, to metastasize. Every day more objects — thermostats, car consoles, home alarm systems — are designed to be wired into the Internet and thus password protected. Because big data is big money, even free websites now make you register to view virtually anything of importance so that companies can track potential customers. Five years ago, people averaged about 21 passwords. Now that number is 81, according to LastPass, a company that makes password-storage software.

The TL;DR version:

Passwords do more than protect data. They protect dreams, secrets, fears and even clues to troubled pasts, and for some, they serve as an everyday reminder of what matters most.

It’s a wonderful piece, but makes me wonder about all the people Mr. Urbina interviewed who felt compelled to reveal (or maybe make up) their passwords to make themselves or their lives sound more interesting than they really are.

Anyway, my antidote to the humanizing of passwords: download, install, and use 1Password.

On Masters in Old Age, Loving the Work, and Never Retiring

In a remarkable piece in The New York Times, Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s.

Here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 81:

Q: What has been the most surprising thing for you about moving into your 80s?

A: Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have. . . . It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’’

On the persistence of Carmen Herrera, age 99, who sold her first painting at age 89:

Q: You painted for decades, but didn’t sell your work until just 10 years ago. What kept you going?

I do it because I have to. I have my ideas. I do my drawings. I make my paintings. It’s my love of the straight line that keeps me going. This has not changed.

Q: What was your reaction when you sold your first painting at 89?

I was never bitter. I always wished others well. I thought maybe the market would be corrupting. Without commercial success you can do what you want to do. There is freedom to be working alone. But, oh, when my work began to sell! I thought, Damn it, it’s about time!

Christopher Plummer, actor, age 84 on loving the work you do and never retiring:

Q: I keep hearing that staying in shape is crucial past a certain age. Anything else?

A: Yes. And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.

I really appreciated the quote from The Once and Future King, quoted in the piece, on always learning:

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

The whole piece is a must read and worth the click for the photographs as well.

Sarah Marquis, Modern Day Ultra Adventurer

The New York Times has an incredible profile of Sarah Marquis, an uber-adventurer who’s walked more than 10,000 miles, solo:

But then there’s Sarah Marquis, who perhaps should be seen as an explorer like Scott, born in the wrong age. She is 42 and Swiss, and has spent three of the past four years walking about 10,000 miles by herself, from Siberia through the Gobi Desert, China, Laos and Thailand, then taking a cargo boat to Brisbane, Australia, and walking across that continent. Along the way, like Scott, she has starved, she has frozen, she has (wo)man-hauled. She has pushed herself at great physical cost to places she wanted to love but ended up feeling, as Scott wrote of the South Pole in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Despite planning a ludicrous trip, and dying on it, Scott became beloved and, somewhat improbably, hugely respected. Marquis, meanwhile, can be confounding. “You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Marquis told me. “It’s never: ‘Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.’ ” Perhaps this is because the territory Marquis explores is really internal — the nature of fear, the limits of stamina and self-reliance and the meaning of traveling in nature as a female human animal, alone.

I’ve read before about the human ability to become hyper-aware in severely stressed environments, but this is on another level:

Eventually, however, Marquis passed out of Mongol territory. The washing-machine cycle ended. Her body changed, and her mind changed, too. Her senses sharpened to the point that she could smell shampoo on a tourist’s hair from a mile away. “One day you walk 12 hours, and you don’t feel pain,” Marquis said. The past and present telescope down to an all-consuming now. “There is no before or after. The intellect doesn’t drive you anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. You become what nature needs you to be: this wild thing.”

Worth clicking through for the read and the embedded videos.

Why Are Americans So Bad at Math?

The New York Times has a noteworthy piece on why math education is so poor in the United States. Borrowing examples from how math is taught in Japan, the article outlines how different initiatives to reform math education in America have failed (and why they are likely to continue to fail). Worth the read.

It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer.

I hadn’t heard of this parable/story before, but it is quite the embarrassment:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

Maybe we need to develop more system-wide efforts to showcase teaching styles to observers, like they do in Japan:

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers.

What else matters? That teachers embrace new teaching styles, and persevere:

Most policies aimed at improving teaching conceive of the job not as a craft that needs to be taught but as a natural-born talent that teachers either decide to muster or don’t possess. Instead of acknowledging that changes like the new math are something teachers must learn over time, we mandate them as “standards” that teachers are expected to simply “adopt.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that their students don’t improve.

Here, too, the Japanese experience is telling. The teachers I met in Tokyo had changed not just their ideas about math; they also changed their whole conception of what it means to be a teacher. “The term ‘teaching’ came to mean something totally different to me,” a teacher named Hideto Hirayama told me through a translator. It was more sophisticated, more challenging — and more rewarding. “The moment that a child changes, the moment that he understands something, is amazing, and this transition happens right before your eyes,” he said. “It seems like my heart stops every day.”

Worth reading in entirety here.

On Business and Design Considerations of 1st Class Airplane Seating

David Owen, writing in The New Yorker, in a cleverly titled article “Game of Thrones,” describes the business and design considerations of seats in modern-day airplanes. While the economy seating is fairly routine (cramped), there is a lot of creativity involved in how 1st class and business seating is designed and built:

Airplane interiors are even more tightly regulated. Nearly every element undergoes a safety-enhancing process called “delethalization”: seats have to withstand an impact equal to sixteen times the force of gravity, and to remain in place when they do, so that they don’t block exit routes or crush anyone, and they can’t burst into flames or release toxic gases when they get hot. Doing something as simple as slightly increasing the thickness of the padding in a seat cushion can necessitate a new round of testing and certification, because a more resilient seat could make a passenger bounce farther after an impact, increasing the risk of injury caused by turbulence or a hard landing. Delethalizing some premium-class seats—in which a passenger’s head and torso have a lot of room to accelerate before being stopped by something solid—requires the addition of a feature that many passengers don’t even realize is there: an air bag concealed in the seat belt.

This bit about how expensive video-back video screens is fascinating:

In economy, the tight spacing of the seats makes air bags mostly unnecessary. But seat-back video screens and the hard frames that surround them pose a safety challenge, partly because of the potential for injuries caused by head strikes, and partly because the computers and the electrical systems that serve them have to be both fireproof and fully isolated from the plane’s—so that crossed wires in somebody’s seat don’t allow a ten-year-old playing a video game to suddenly take control of the cockpit. Largely as a result, in-flight entertainment systems are almost unbelievably expensive. The rule of thumb, I was told, is “a thousand dollars an inch”—meaning that the small screen in the back of each economy seat can cost an airline ten thousand dollars, plus a few thousand for its handheld controller.

1st_class_seat

The article mentions but doesn’t link to the TheDesignAir’s Top 10 International Business Classes of 2014 (it’s well worth a look).