The Top Five Long Reads of 2010

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?

NOTE: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma is actually a five part series (see Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5). However, Part 1 is the most interesting, I think.

(3) “Pelé as a Comedian” [Run of Play] — When I first blogged about Phillips’ masterful essay, I wrote:

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).

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Notes:

1) I will update this post with five honorable mentions.

2) If you’re interested in reading more of long form journalism, I suggest perusing the longreads website and Twitter stream.

3) You should subscribe to this blog by email using the box on the top right.


The Top Ten Wired Articles of 2010

I subscribed to Wired Magazine (print edition) in December of 2009. I’ve read almost all of the feature articles over the last twelve months. The following is my list of top ten Wired articles which have appeared in print from January until December of this year. I highlight notable passages from each piece as well.

(1) “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up” (January 2010). Jonah Lehrer is one of my favorite science writers (do subscribe to his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex), and his piece in the January edition of Wired is a good way to begin this list. The piece challenges our preconceptions of the scientific process and how we make mistakes in the scientific quest for answers:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

(2) “Fill in the Blanks: Using Math to Turn Lo-Res Datasets into High-Res Samples” (March 2010). I highlighted this piece in this entry, and it’s still definitely of the most interesting articles I’ve read this year, not least because the entire concept of compressed sensing was totally new to me:

Compressed sensing works something like this: You’ve got a picture — of a kidney, of the president, doesn’t matter. The picture is made of 1 million pixels. In traditional imaging, that’s a million measurements you have to make. In compressed sensing, you measure only a small fraction — say, 100,000 pixels randomly selected from various parts of the image. From that starting point there is a gigantic, effectively infinite number of ways the remaining 900,000 pixels could be filled in.

(3) “Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief” (April 2010). A fascinating piece about Gerald Blanchard, who has been described as “cunning, clever, conniving, and creative.” Incredible what he was able to accomplish during his stint:

Over the years, Blanchard procured and stockpiled IDs and uniforms from various security companies and even law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, just for fun and to see whether it would work, he pretended to be a reporter so he could hang out with celebrities. He created VIP passes and applied for press cards so he could go to NHL playoff games or take a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with racing legend Mario Andretti. He met the prince of Monaco at a yacht race in Monte Carlo and interviewed Christina Aguilera at one of her concerts.

(4) “Getting LOST” (May 2010). LOST is my favorite show on television (by far), so it’s with some bias that I select this piece into the top 10. This piece has outstanding trivia about the show, an interview with executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and really excellent infographics (my favorite is this one).

(5) “The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic” (June 2010). Felix Salmon (whose finance blog I follow at Reuters; unrelated, but I also recommend Salmon’s excellent take on bicycling in New York City.) reports on Charles Komanoff, the man whose goal is to alleviate traffic in New York City.

[It is ] the most ambitious effort yet to impose mathematical rigor and predictability on an inherently chaotic phenomenon. Despite decades of attempts to curb delays—adding lanes to highways, synchronizing traffic lights—planners haven’t had much success at unsnarling gridlock. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2007, metropolitan-area drivers in the US spent an average of 36 hours stuck in traffic—up from 14 hours in 1982.

Komanoff tracks ALL of this data in a massive spreadsheet, dubbed Balanced Transportation Analyzer (warning! .xls link, 5.5MB):

Over the course of about 50 worksheets, the BTA breaks down every aspect of New York City transportation—subway revenues, traffic jams, noise pollution—in an attempt to discover which mix of tolls and surcharges would create the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.

(6) “Secret of AA” (July 2010). Some 1.2 million people belong to one of Alcoholic Anonymous’s 55,000 meeting groups in the United States. But after 75 years, we still don’t know how it works. Fascinating:

There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea.

(7) “The News Factory” (September 2010). You’ve probably seen those videos from Taiwan recounting events of the moment through hilarious animated videos (see The iPhone Antennagate; Chilean Miners). What’s fascinating is that there’s an entire company working to create these videos. Next Media Animation (NMA) is a factory churning out  videos:

The team at Next Media Animation cranks out about 20 short clips a day, most involving crimes and scandals in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But a few are focused on tabloid staples in the US—from Tiger Woods’ marital troubles to Michael Jackson’s death. Seeing them filtered through the Next Media lens is as disorienting as it is entertaining.

How can they create such impressive (relatively speaking) videos in such a short period of time?

It takes Pixar up to seven hours to render a single frame of footage—that is, to convert the computer data into video. NMA needed to create an animated clip in a third of that time and render more than a thousand frames of animation in just a few minutes. A team spent two years wrestling with the problem, experimenting with one digital tool after another—Poser, 3ds Max, Maya. “It didn’t look good, and it took too long,” says Eric Ryder, a Next art director. “But Jimmy doesn’t want excuses.”

(8) “The Nerd Superstore” (October 2010). An excellent look into ThinkGeek, a site for nerds. ThinkGeek is a profitable company that carries an assortment of products:

Today ThinkGeek has 51 employees. Single-day orders occasionally top out at $1 million, and an astonishing amount of that product is caffeine. You can purchase it online or from the mail-order catalog in the form of mints, candy, gum, jerky, sprays, capsules, chews, cookies, and powders, as well as in lip balms, brownie mix, and soaps (liquid and solid). The company has thus far pushed more than 1 billion milligrams of the stimulant.

Where else could you purchase awesome sauce, brain freeze ice cubes, and an 8-bit tie all in one place?

(9) “The Quantified City” (November 2010). What can a hundred million calls to 311 reveal about a city? Steven Johnson uses New York City as an example where the collected data is quantified:

As useful as 311 is to ordinary New Yorkers, the most intriguing thing about the service is all the information it supplies back to the city. Each complaint is logged, tagged, and mapped to make it available for subsequent analysis. In some cases, 311 simply helps New York respond more intelligently to needs that were obvious to begin with. Holidays, for example, spark reliable surges in call volume, with questions about government closings and parking regulations. On snow days, call volume spikes precipitously, which 311 anticipates with recorded messages about school closings and parking rules.

The 311 complaints, visualized in an infographic, for one week in September (question for the reader: do you think population density matters here?)

(10) “Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics” (December 2010). Excellent piece by Jason Fagone about kids competing at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). While the piece focuses on two students, it’s important to note how elite this event is:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year.

But what’s the downside of such intense training and competition? I ponder the possibilities with some personal reflections in this post.

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Notes:

1) For some of the titles above, I’ve used the titles presented in the print edition of Wired (the titles are usually longer on the Web).

2) If you’re a fan of Wired, what’s your favorite article from 2010? Feel free to comment below.