On Another Type of Tournament, Magic: The Gathering

Noah Davis has a long feature about the three day Magic: The Gathering tournament in Seattle. As he recounts, it’s not just the nerds who enter this event:

The tournament at Showbox is both unusually intense and unusually laid back for a high-level Magic event. The pressure comes from the cash at hand and the extremely high quality of play, while the intimate feeling stems from the small group involved. Normal Pro Tour events — there are three every year — feature upwards of 400 players. The Grand Prix, tournaments that anyone can pay to enter, routinely draw more than 1,500 contestants and are played in massive convention spaces. “The laid back feel is nice. It’s nice not to have to walk around a big event hall,” David Ochoa says of the Players Championship, although he and others will admit they miss being recognized by adoring fans.

After a photo op of the entire group, the day kicks off with a Cube draft, one of the many formats of the game. Individual players are better at different variations of Magic, so the tournament features three varieties: Cube draft, booster draft, and Modern constructed. For our purposes here, the specific details of each format are not really important. Basic ones include which cards are allowed to be chosen and whether the decks are constructed before the tournament or drafted in a fantasy football-esque manner the day of the event.

After drafting, the players get 30 minutes to build their decks, then the action begins. Except it doesn’t. There’s a problem with the audio on the Internet stream. The Players Championship is a spectator experience, but it’s an online spectator experience. Fans are welcome inside the Showbox, but there will only be a handful throughout the weekend. The event isn’t promoted as an in-person experience. There’s little room because the space is dedicated to creating the Internet experience. Seven thousand viewers consistently watch the stream at all times, peaking just below 9,000 on the final day. The stage holds three tables, while five tables sit stage right for the other games. Equipment for the broadcast takes up the entire left side of the venue. Staff responsible for getting the tournament online outnumber the players nearly two to one. Two announcers at a time — over the course of three days, six men total will offer play-by-play and color — provide commentary throughout the tournament, focusing on the on-stage “feature match.” A large boom camera on the floor and two other cameras offer the producers three different angles on the action, allowing commentators and the audience at home to see into the players’ hands. But the game cannot start until the audio is ready. Brian Kibler suggests the group “hurry up and wait.” An organizer responds, “That’s what an event like this is about.” Everyone laughs, then sits patiently at their tables while the techs scramble to fix the issue. Soon, they do. Game on.

A fascinating read, even if I’ve never played a full game of Magic in my entire life.

The Many Faces of Stephen Colbert

If you’re a fan of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and its mastermind host, Stephen Colbert, you have to read this Charles McGrath piece in The New York Times. Over the six years of the show’s existence, Stephen’s popularity has exploded:

There is a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after Colbert (Colbert’s Americone Dream) and a NASA exercise device (the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Elliptical Trainer, or Colbert) and a minor-league hockey team mascot (Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle) in Saginaw, Michigan…

In the piece, we learn about the creation of the “new Colbert” and Stephen’s efforts to create a super-PAC:

The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC — a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.

On Colbert’s most awkward (but perhaps also his most defining) moment:

…Was his appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. Mark Smith, an A.P. reporter who, as head of the correspondents’ association, was responsible for booking the talent, admitted later that he wasn’t all that familiar with the show, which was only three months old when he approached Colbert. Neither, to judge from video of the event, were many in the audience. Colbert got up and addressed the president, saying: “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things. He stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a powerful message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”

Stephen Colbert’s father died when Stephen was 10, and he muses on his experience growing up. Turns out, Colbert began pronouncing his name as “coal-Bare” when he was in high school:

By high school he had become dreamy and nerdy, spending all his time reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons, and his friends were all the same way. “Socially, we were out in the hinterlands,” he said. “Living in the social mud huts.” But during junior year he happened to say something that made people laugh, and pretty soon he had become the school wit. It was around that time that he started Frenchifying his name. “I was probably still Colbert to a lot of people,” he said, pronouncing the T, the way the rest of his family did. “But in my mind I was coal-BARE.”

On the popularity of the show:

Colbert likes to say that the whole show is a “scene,” a term that in improv-speak means not just a unit of dramatic time but a transaction in which one character wants something from another. The other character in this instance is us, the audience, and what Colbert wants from us is love. The one moment on “The Colbert Report” that is not fake is when he sits at his desk and basks while the audience chants, “Ste-phen, Ste-phen, Ste-phen!” He can’t get enough.

I like the author’s comparison to James Thurber’s famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (a must-read, if you’ve never read it):

The show also enables a Walter Mitty side of Colbert, which is why he says he will never get tired of it. “As executive producer of this show, I get to ask my character to do whatever I want,” he said. Among other things, the character has so far visited troops in Baghdad; bottled and branded his own sperm; dueled light sabers with George Lucas; sung with Barry Manilow; sung as a trio with Willie Nelson and Richard Holbrooke; appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show, along with Taylor Hicks and the Abominable Snowman, in a big production of the hit song “Friday”; harmonized on the national anthem with Toby Keith; and danced a passage from “The Nutcracker,” in suit jacket, tights and codpiece, with David Hallberg.

There are so many money quotes in the piece that you just have to read the whole thing.

The Top Five Posts of 2011

As 2011 is coming to a close, I thought I’d highlight the most popular posts from this year:

1) David Eagleman and the Brain on Trial

2) The University of Twitter: Alain de Botton’s Course in Political Philosophy

3) Date a Girl Who Reads

4) The Top Five Longreads of 2011 (So Far)

5) The Top Five Longreads of 2011

So if you want to catch up on some interesting reading, check out those links. Happy New Year!

The Top Five Longreads of 2011

One year ago today, I published my post on the best longreads of 2010. Today, I bring you my list of the best longreads of 2011. It’s been another amazing year for long-form journalism, and it’s hard to whittle down the list to just five entries. Nevertheless, these five pieces stood out in my mind:

(1) “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” [Wall Street Journal] – first highlighted in this post, I wrote: “riveting, at times unbelievable, account of how a German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter came to the United States at the tender age of 17 and proceeded to climb up the ranks of society. But he did it through conniving tactics, playing cool, and always acting the impostor.” It is already on my short list for best long read of the year.

When he entered the magnificent Gothic church in early 1992, the former Christopher Crowe had a new name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. “Hello,” he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep-school accent, wearing a blue blazer and private-club necktie, which he would usually accent with khaki pants embroidered with tiny ducks, hounds or bumblebees, worn always with Top-Sider boat shoes, without socks. “Clark,” he said, “Clark Rockefeller.”

(2) “The Assassin in the Vineyard” [Vanity Fair] – I am a huge fan of reads that involve mystery, espionage, and crime. This piece by Maximillian Potter, which I first highlighted here, is far and away one of the most thrilling short reads I’ve read in 2011. In that post I wrote:

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Thoroughly engaging and entertaining read.

(3) “The Epidemic of Mental Illness” (Part I) and “The Illusions of Psychiatry”(Part 2) [New York Review of Books] — this two part series, written by Marcia Angell changed my perspective on depression, the medicine used to treat it, and the field of psychiatry in general. I point out both reads because they are meant to be read in order (Part I then Part II).

Reviewed in Part I are books by  Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. A notable paragraph of skepticism from Part I:

Do the drugs work? After all, regardless of the theory, that is the practical question. In his spare, remarkably engrossing book, The Emperor’s New Drugs, Kirsch describes his fifteen-year scientific quest to answer that question about antidepressants. When he began his work in 1995, his main interest was in the effects of placebos. To study them, he and a colleague reviewed thirty-eight published clinical trials that compared various treatments for depression with placebos, or compared psychotherapy with no treatment. Most such trials last for six to eight weeks, and during that time, patients tend to improve somewhat even without any treatment. But Kirsch found that placebos were three times as effective as no treatment. That didn’t particularly surprise him. What did surprise him was the fact that antidepressants were only marginally better than placebos.

I thought I’ve read a fair amount of skepticism in Part I. And then I read “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” which totally transplanted my thoughts on psychiatry from one mindset to another.

While Carlat believes that psychoactive drugs are sometimes effective, his evidence is anecdotal. What he objects to is their overuse and what he calls the “frenzy of psychiatric diagnoses.” As he puts it, “if you ask any psychiatrist in clinical practice, including me, whether antidepressants work for their patients, you will hear an unambiguous ‘yes.’ We see people getting better all the time.” But then he goes on to speculate, like Irving Kirsch in The Emperor’s New Drugs, that what they are really responding to could be an activated placebo effect. If psychoactive drugs are not all they’re cracked up to be—and the evidence is that they’re not—what about the diagnoses themselves?

(4) “Gilad Shalit and the Rising Price of an Israeli Life” [New York Times] – of all the longreads I’ve read this year, I think this one most likely escaped a lot of people’s radar. The story is about Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in June 2006 and didn’t gain his release from captivity until October of this year. The author of the piece, Ronen Bergman, offers why he is an authority on writing about this controversial subject:

I have covered Israeli hostage and M.I.A. cases for more than 15 years, including the covert ways in which Israel’s powerful espionage agencies operate to bring soldiers home alive or dead. Over that time, the issue has come to dominate public discourse to a degree that no one could have predicted. Israeli society’s inability to tolerate even a single soldier held in captivity results in popular movements that have tremendous impact on strategic decisions made by the government. The issue has become a generator of history rather than an outcome of it.

Perhaps more than any other issue in the last five years, the politics behind negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit embroiled the country of Israel. This is a must-read piece that offers an eye-opening perspective.

(5) “The Man Who Sailed His House” [GQ] – Michael Paterniti writes a remarkable story of a Japanese man named Hiromitsu who survived the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Not only is the story incredible, but so is the narration (you here are this man, experiencing the catastrophe in the present):

At two forty-six, something rumbles from deep in the earth, a sickening sort of grinding, and then everything lurches wildly, whips back, lurches more wildly still. The cut boards stacked along the wall clatter down, and your first move is to flee the shed, to dive twenty feet free onto open ground and clutch it, as if riding the back of a whale. Time elongates. Three minutes becomes a lifetime.

When the jolting ends, stupefaction is followed by dismay—and then a bleary accounting. Already phones are useless. The boss, Mr. Mori, urges you to rush home to check on your wife and parents, but fearing a tsunami, fearing a drive down into the lowlands by the sea, and trusting the strength of your concrete house to protect your wife and parents, you at first refuse. There are ancient stone markers on this coast, etched warnings from the ancestors, aggrieved survivors of past tsunamis—1896, 1933—beseeching those who live by the water to build on the inland side of their hubris or suffer the consequences.

Originally featured in this post.

I think 2011 was another excellent year for long-form journalism. I highly recommend checking out the Longreads Tumblr for more “Best of 2011 in Longreads” posts. Finally, check out my #longreads tag on this blog for more reading.

Why Are American Universities Failing?

There’s no easy answer. Unmotivated students. High student debt. Too much emphasis on athletics versus academics. Declining emphasis on teaching (versus doing research). And so on. In this post in New York Review of Books, Anthony Grafton cites eight different sources (books and papers) and provides some clues:

Vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House(1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.

This paragraph sounds more depressing than what my first year in college was actually like (there was no Facebook yet):

Is the higher education bubble about to pop? I don’t know. The more thoughtful writers warn against monocausal explanations. Bowen and his colleagues, for example, test the effects of student loans on attrition rates. They conclude that it is not clear that debt is a primary cause of student failure. Still, these developments are interwoven, in the experience of many students if not in the intentions of legislators. Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops.

The summarizing piece is worth reading. I just wish the author made some effort to break down graduation rates, debt levels, etc. by public/private universities, household income, and race.

The Man Who Sailed His House

In this month’s GQ, Michael Paterniti writes a remarkable story of a Japanese man named Hiromitsu who survived the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Not only is the story incredible, but so is the narration (you here are this man, experiencing the catastrophe in the present):

At two forty-six, something rumbles from deep in the earth, a sickening sort of grinding, and then everything lurches wildly, whips back, lurches more wildly still. The cut boards stacked along the wall clatter down, and your first move is to flee the shed, to dive twenty feet free onto open ground and clutch it, as if riding the back of a whale. Time elongates. Three minutes becomes a lifetime.

When the jolting ends, stupefaction is followed by dismay—and then a bleary accounting. Already phones are useless. The boss, Mr. Mori, urges you to rush home to check on your wife and parents, but fearing a tsunami, fearing a drive down into the lowlands by the sea, and trusting the strength of your concrete house to protect your wife and parents, you at first refuse. There are ancient stone markers on this coast, etched warnings from the ancestors, aggrieved survivors of past tsunamis—1896, 1933—beseeching those who live by the water to build on the inland side of their hubris or suffer the consequences.

A description of the approaching tsunami:

You don’t look out to sea, not once; you stand staring at the mountain, Kunimi, in the distance. And now you can hear her downstairs, inside again, and now comes the creak of the bathroom door. Comes the sound of running water. Comes this vision of the mountain, placid, immovable—and then, to your right, to the north, within twenty feet, drifts the whole house of your neighbor. The house is moving past as if borne by ghosts. When you turn left, to the south and the garden, everything is as it’s always been, dry and in place. When you turn back the other way, you can see only this coursing field of ocean.

Just an incredible descriptive paragraph here:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house—chimneys and doors, stairs and walls—crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down?

The experience of being out at sea, and deciding: should I drink? Should I eat? Can I?

At sunset, sky in scratches of purple light, a gnawing in your gut tells you it’s dinner, so you crack open the first can, drink, then, head tilted back, try to lick out the last drop. The roof is perhaps twelve feet by six, of corrugated metal nailed to wood beams, your raft at sea. Last night, you and Yuko slept beneath it, and now you perch atop it on the sea, above the goblin sharks and whatever else lurks below. 

Hiromitsu forces himself from going to sleep, and soon experiences hallucinations. Frightening:

You’re convinced you see a body coming near, and start screaming—Help me! But then it’s a tree trunk. In another you see a huge wave hurtling toward the roof and imagine turning into a tree to save yourself. But just as you think to stand and hang your arms like branches, you stop yourself for fear the roof will tip.

And what of the rescue?

Out of the oblivion, a clear voice responds, “We’re here,” and the boat drifts alongside your roof-home, and the voice asks, “Which side is safest?” And you say, “The side toward land, please,” as you strip the plastic container full of notes from your body and place it on the altar of your futon. Then one of the bundled figures steps out of the lifeboat onto the tippy roof and comes toward you with arms outstretched. The figure leads you across, five paces, and only when you lean forward into their boat and splay your body over its hard gunwale, like a glorious falling tree, do you know it’s real…

This is a story of survival, love, and loss. Hiromitsu lost his wife to the tsunami, but he carries her memory:

This is how you speak to her, through the scraps in the bag, but also aloud sometimes. Before eating, you might murmur, “Thank you,” as if she’s prepared the food on your plate. You might do the same on a beautiful day, as if she’s created it. And before bed each night, you tell her you love her. You say this to her presence or spirit, but you forgo mementos, little altars, or pictures on the wall. You can’t bear the idea of seeing her again, as you knew her in all those endless days before the wave.

The Importance of Coaches

Have you ever wondered why sports stars and musicians have coaches, but they seem to be less common in professional settings? Atul Gawande ponders the same thing in his brilliant piece in The New Yorker, “Personal Best.” His perspective is that of a doctor operating on patients, but I think Gawande’s hypothesis can be expanded to numerous professions:

I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.

But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

I like the extension of coaching to sports and Gawande contacting Itzhak Perlman:

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. One of these views, it seemed to me, had to be wrong. So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.

I asked him why concert violinists didn’t have coaches, the way top athletes did. He said that he didn’t know, but that it had always seemed a mistake to him. He had enjoyed the services of a coach all along.

And how did Gawande’s coach help Gawande? Tremendously:

I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time. That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.

Of course, the piece would be incomplete without this disclaimer:

Coaching has become a fad in recent years. There are leadership coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, and college-application coaches. Search the Internet, and you’ll find that there’s even Twitter coaching.

A key takeaway here:

For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find myself a tennis and life coach, not necessarily in that order.

The Top Five Longreads of 2011 (So Far)

I am a huge fan of Longreads. I am a yearly subscriber and often use the #longreads tag on Twitter and Facebook to point out superb longform articles. At the end of last year, I published a post highlighting the top five longreads of the year. It is still the most popular post here on Reading By Eugene.

After  I published that post, some people commented that the list was too short — I could have easily made a top ten list, or at least included five honorable mentions. That is all true, and I will probably follow this advice at the end of 2011 with my (what I now hope to be) annual longreads round-up.

Until then, I’ve decided to highlight the best longreads of the first half of 2011. Here they are, in no particular order.

(1) “The Clock in the Mountain” [The Technium] — amazing story by Kevin Kelly of a clock being built in Texas, designed to last ten thousand years:

There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.

Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants was the last book I read in 2010. Highly, highly recommended.

(2) “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” [Wall Street Journal] – first highlighted in this post, I wrote: “riveting, at times unbelievable, account of how a German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter came to the United States at the tender age of 17 and proceeded to climb up the ranks of society. But he did it through conniving tactics, playing cool, and always acting the impostor.” It is already on my short list for best long read of the year.

When he entered the magnificent Gothic church in early 1992, the former Christopher Crowe had a new name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. “Hello,” he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep-school accent, wearing a blue blazer and private-club necktie, which he would usually accent with khaki pants embroidered with tiny ducks, hounds or bumblebees, worn always with Top-Sider boat shoes, without socks. “Clark,” he said, “Clark Rockefeller.”

(3) “The Assassin in the Vineyard” [Vanity Fair] – what can I say? I am a huge fan of reads that involve mystery, espionage, and crime. This piece by Maximillian Potter, which I first highlighted here, is far and away one of the most thrilling short reads I’ve read in 2011. In that post I wrote:

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Thoroughly engaging and entertaining read.

(4) “The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See” [Men’s Journal] — truly an incredible story of how one man, Daniel Kish, has learned to see. How? By learning echolocation (what bats use to navigate):

Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy — Kish is now 44 — he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish, I can confirm, is completely blind.

He knew my car was poorly parked because he produced a brief, sharp click with his tongue. The sound waves he created traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second, bounced off every object around him, and returned to his ears at the same rate, though vastly decreased in volume.

But not silent. Kish has trained himself to hear these slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does — he calls it “FlashSonar” — but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.

(5) “The Epidemic of Mental Illness” (Part I) and “The Illusions of Psychiatry” (Part 2) [New York Review of Books] — this two part series, written by Marcia Angell changed my perspective on depression, the medicine used to treat it, and the field of psychiatry in general. I point out both reads because they are meant to be read in order (Part I then Part II).

Reviewed in Part I are books by  Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. A notable paragraph of skepticism from Part I:

Do the drugs work? After all, regardless of the theory, that is the practical question. In his spare, remarkably engrossing book, The Emperor’s New Drugs, Kirsch describes his fifteen-year scientific quest to answer that question about antidepressants. When he began his work in 1995, his main interest was in the effects of placebos. To study them, he and a colleague reviewed thirty-eight published clinical trials that compared various treatments for depression with placebos, or compared psychotherapy with no treatment. Most such trials last for six to eight weeks, and during that time, patients tend to improve somewhat even without any treatment. But Kirsch found that placebos were three times as effective as no treatment. That didn’t particularly surprise him. What did surprise him was the fact that antidepressants were only marginally better than placebos.

I thought I’ve read a fair amount of skepticism in Part I. And then I read “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” which totally transplanted my thoughts on psychiatry from one mindset to another.

While Carlat believes that psychoactive drugs are sometimes effective, his evidence is anecdotal. What he objects to is their overuse and what he calls the “frenzy of psychiatric diagnoses.” As he puts it, “if you ask any psychiatrist in clinical practice, including me, whether antidepressants work for their patients, you will hear an unambiguous ‘yes.’ We see people getting better all the time.” But then he goes on to speculate, like Irving Kirsch in The Emperor’s New Drugs, that what they are really responding to could be an activated placebo effect. If psychoactive drugs are not all they’re cracked up to be—and the evidence is that they’re not—what about the diagnoses themselves?

One of Marcia Angell’s conclusions in that piece:

At the very least, we need to stop thinking of psychoactive drugs as the best, and often the only, treatment for mental illness or emotional distress. Both psychotherapy and exercise have been shown to be as effective as drugs for depression, and their effects are longer-lasting, but unfortunately, there is no industry to push these alternatives and Americans have come to believe that pills must be more potent. More research is needed to study alternatives to psychoactive drugs, and the results should be included in medical education.

So that’s my top five list of longreads of the first half of 2011? I mentioned honorable mentions at the beginning of the post, and I’ll include three of them below.

Honorable Mentions

(1) “What Happened to Air France Flight 447?” [New York Times] – a spectacular recounting of the Air France flight from Rio de Janiero to Paris, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009.

(2) “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” [Guernica Magazine] – a revealing look at what some call a slave business for interns on the campus of that magic place, Disney World:

“We’re not there to flip burgers or to give people food,” a fast-food intern said. “We’re there to create magic.”

(3) “The Brain on Trial” [The Atlantic] – my most recently featured long read, this piece by David Eagleman is a controversial read, in which, Eagleman argues that how the human brain is wired ultimately determines how people will act. There is no such thing as free will.

(4) “The Possibilian” [The New Yorker] – speaking of David Eagleman (see above), this is a fantastic profile of the scientist. What did a brush with death teach Eagleman about time, its perception, and the brain? Find out in this fascinating article.

Time isn’t like the other senses, Eagleman says. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain. They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the color of a smell, or the scent of a feeling. (Unless, of course, you have synesthesia—another of Eagleman’s obsessions.) But a sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. It’s there in the length of a song, the persistence of a scent, the flash of a light bulb.

(5) “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” [Awl] – I love Wikipedia. It’s my primary source to look up facts and yes, even current events. In this piece, Maria Bustillos goes in depth discussing its merits. I like this paragraph:

There’s an enormous difference between understanding something and deciding something. Only in the latter case must options be weighed, and one chosen. Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic. Rather than being handed an “authoritative” decision, you’re given the means for rolling your own.

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So there you have it. Top five long reads of the first half of 2011, plus five honorable mentions. It’s been a great year for #longreads so far, and it was tough to weed this list down to five (and it will be even harder to do so at the end of the year!). At least one or two of the pieces I mention here will be in my top five list at the end of the year. Of the best long reads I mentioned here, which one do you think already deserves that recognition? If I didn’t include a longreads post which you’ve thoroughly enjoyed and think should have made my list, please, do not hesitate to leave a comment below.

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Readings: Natalie Portman, China’s Museum, Madoff Tapes

A few reads from the last couple of days:

1) “From Lab to Red Carpet” [New York Times] – Natalie Portman won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role (for her performance as Nina, a ballerina in Black Swan) last night. But did you know that in her younger days, she was a brilliant student?

Among the lesser-known but nonetheless depressingly impressive details in Ms. Portman’s altogether too precociously storied career is that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel competition.

The piece also discusses the academic endeavors of other actors as well.

2) “China Debuts World’s Largest Museum” [Art Info] — the largest museum in the world is now in China. Located on the east side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China measures 2.07 million square feet and thus surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which previously reigned as the largest museum at 2.05 million square feet. The third largest museum in the world is now The Hermitage in St. Petersburg (which I visited in 2007). (via)

3) “The Madoff Tapes” [New York Magazine] – an incredible piece by Steve Fishman. A different profile of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, in which we hear from Madoff himself. Absolutely astounding that he called the people who trusted and invested with him as greedy.

“Everyone was greedy,” he [Madoff] continues. “I just went along. It’s not an excuse.” In his mind, the hedge funds and the banks were little more than marketers, skimming their 1 to 2 percent off the top, a fee for their supposed “due diligence,” though they exercised little oversight. “Look, there was complicity, in my view…”

Readings: USB Plug, Nabokov’s Lepidoptery, Art Forger

A few interesting readings from today:

1) “USB Plug Goes Both Ways” [Yanko Design Blog] – wonderful concept for a double sided USB plug. Would alleviate a ton of hassles of trying to correctly connect the USB thumb drives and other devices to our computers.

2) “Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated” [New York Times] – when he wasn’t writing novels, Nabokov had a deep passion, lepidoptery:

Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

This piece explains how one of Nabokov’s most interesting (and controversial!) theories about a group of butterflies he studied (the Polyommatus blues) has been vindicated:

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

I love the inclusion of Nabokov’s poem near the end:

I found it and I named it, being versed

in taxonomic Latin; thus became

godfather to an insect and its first

describer — and I want no other fame.

3) “The Forger’s Story” [Financial Times] – a fascinating piece about Mark Augustus Landis, who may be described as a reverse-forger. That is to say, he forged paintings not for the purpose of selling them, but to see if they would be accepted into museums:

For nearly three decades, Landis has visited ­museums across the US in various guises and tried to donate paintings he has forged. As well as Father Scott, he has posed as “Steven Gardiner” among other aliases. He never asks for money, although museums have often hosted meals for him and made small gifts. His only stipulation is that he is donating in his parents’ names – often his actual father, ­Lieutenant Commander Arthur Landis Jr, a former US Navy officer.

Landis has been prolific and consistent in his endeavor:

Matthew Leininger, chief registrar of the ­Cincinnati Museum of Art, has spent more than two years tracking Landis’s progress. He estimates that Landis has tried to fool at least 40 museums – and probably many more – in 19 states in cities from Boston and Chicago to Savannah and ­Oklahoma City. Some forgeries have been spotted, yet he has persuaded museums not only to add works to ­collections, but even to hang them in galleries.

What’s fascinating is that what Landis does isn’t against the law:

The difficulty is that, however annoying and disruptive Landis’s activities may be for museums, he does not seem to have broken the law. “The criminal statute [of fraud] says there must be a loss and that’s the problem. There hasn’t been a loss to any victim,” says Robert Wittman, an investigator who used to run the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

As always, I recommend reading the entire piece.