In 2010, I have saved over 500 articles to my Instapaper account, and I’ve read the majority of them. In early January, I decided that in addition to reporting the books I read, I would also highlight interesting articles I’ve read throughout the year. I ended up focusing a lot more time reading long form articles, which meant that I could no longer achieve my book reading goal. However, I believe that by diversifying my reading, I’ve learned a lot more than I otherwise could have.
My approach in selecting the five articles below was fairly methodical: I spent days going through my Instapaper account (as well as entries on this blog) making sure that the articles I selected truly represented the best (in terms of interestingness and compelling writing) in long form journalism that I’ve read this year. So without further ado, my top five long reads of 2010:
(1) “The Chess Master and the Computer” [New York Review of Books] – Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, reminisces about playing against computers, from the rudimentary machines of the 1980s, to Deep Blue in 1997, to modern-day super computers. I remember when I was in my high school chess club and one student posed this question: “Can chess be solved?” I’ve been fascinated with this topic ever since, and Kasparov sheds some light about solving chess:
Another group postulated that the game would be solved, i.e., a mathematically conclusive way for a computer to win from the start would be found. (Or perhaps it would prove that a game of chess played in the best possible way always ends in a draw.) Perhaps a real version of HAL 9000 would simply announce move 1.e4, with checkmate in, say, 38,484 moves. These gloomy predictions have not come true, nor will they ever come to pass. Chess is far too complex to be definitively solved with any technology we can conceive of today.
And as I postulated previously, Mr. Kasparov is not excluding the possibility of chess being solved one day; he simply argues that it is inconceivable to solve the game of chess with the hardware we have (or can conceive in our minds) today.
This piece was published in January, and it has been on my mind all year. As I was thinking about my top five long reads of 2010, I simply could not ignore Kasparov’s brilliance. An absolute must-read, and in my mind, the best long read of the year.
(2) “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma” [New York Times] – this isn’t an article but an interview (a conversation, really) with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology. The interview revolves around this central question: are you aware of things you don’t know that you don’t know? As David Dunning put it:
It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.”
The whole thing is a total mind-bender, which I love. Here’s Morris contemplating further:
Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine? Or am I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?” Are we constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know? Perhaps because we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?
Every once in a while you come across writing so good, you can’t sit still as you’re reading it.
Phillips’s sheer eloquence and command of the English language wins my award for being the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve read this year:
Then it happens, and it’s impossible even though it’s happening, but it’s happening even though it’s impossible. Everything that’s wrong—the difficulty of controlling the ball, the interposing defenders, the fact that he can’t use his hands—suddenly seems right, because it merely provides the occasion for the astonishing thing he improvises. You laugh, because it’s exhilarating, and you laugh because the consolation it offers is not a consummate, religious consolation, but an imperfect, fragile piece of momentary happiness. It’s a consolation that was made to make you laugh.
It doesn’t matter if you like soccer. It doesn’t even matter if you like sports. You read this piece for the writing. I called it then and I call it now: an absolute must-read.
(4) “Art of the Steal” [Wired] – it’s hard to pick a favorite Wired story of the year (see ten of the best 2010 Wired articles), but I will go with this one because the story is fascinating and reads like a mini mystery. Gerald Blanchard’s career as a thief begins in childhood:
Blanchard pulled off his first heist when he was a 6-year-old living with his single mother in Winnipeg. The family couldn’t afford milk, and one day, after a long stretch of dry cereal, the boy spotted some recently delivered bottles on a neighbor’s porch. “I snuck over there between cars like I was on some kind of mission,” he says. “And no one saw me take it.” His heart was pounding, and the milk was somehow sweeter than usual. “After that,” he says, “I was hooked.”
And intensifies from there. Riveting.
(5) “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” [The Atlantic] – there were dozens of worthy contenders in The Atlantic this year, but I am choosing David Freedman’s piece because 1) I am a skeptic and 2) This piece has been largely ignored and more people should read about Dr. John Ioannidis’s goal to elucidate the misleading, exaggerated, and even flat-out wrong conclusions medical researchers make:
[Ioannidis] charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem
A key passage:
When a five-year study of 10,000 people finds that those who take more vitamin X are less likely to get cancer Y, you’d think you have pretty good reason to take more vitamin X, and physicians routinely pass these recommendations on to patients. But these studies often sharply conflict with one another. Studies have gone back and forth on the cancer-preventing powers of vitamins A, D, and E; on the heart-health benefits of eating fat and carbs; and even on the question of whether being overweight is more likely to extend or shorten your life. How should we choose among these dueling, high-profile nutritional findings? Ioannidis suggests a simple approach: ignore them all.
You should read the whole piece to find out the explanation. And while some may consider Ioannidis to be an extremist (not to mention a contrarian), I think it is absolutely essential that we hear out the critics (this notion ties quite well to The Anosognosic’s Dilemma above).
1) I will update this post with five honorable mentions.
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