It’s May. We’ve been holed up for two months. The country is demanding we march back toward normalcy, even if nothing has really changed in the fight against Covid-19. Fun times. How about some reading material to distract you?
On to this month’s picks. Best reads get a ⭐.
117.) The harmless practical joke that changed baseball by Will Leitch for MLB.com
Boston ruins everything in sports.
118.) ‘Space Jam’ Forever: The Website That Wouldn’t Die by Erik Malinowski for Rolling Stone
This is from 2015, but came up in my Pocket feed recently, and it’s definitely worth reading again now.
119.) Inside the Strip Clubs of Instagram by Taylor Lorenz in The New York Times
120.) Revisiting Hours: How ‘Walk Hard’ Almost Destroyed the Musical Biopicby Alan Scherstuhl in Rolling Stone
Man, I love this movie. Everything about it is pitch perfect. Which leads me to my ranking of the best parody movies ever:
1.) Naked Gun
3.) Dewey Cox
5.) Hot Shots!
Note: There’s a subtle difference between spoof and parody. They’re both aimed at undercutting tropes of traditional fare, but a spoof tends to aim more broadly — what it has to say is mostly about the actual thing it’s spoofing — whereas parody (say, Shaun of the Dead or Spinal Tap), have slightly loftier goals.
121.) From a Miami condo to the Venezuelan coast, how a plan to ‘capture’ Maduro went rogue by Anthony Faiola, Karen DeYoung and Ana Vanessa Herrero in The Washington Post
122.) The Killing of Ahmaud Arbery by Charles M. Blow in The New York Times
123.) A Black Hole Is ‘Almost on Our Doorstep’by Marina Koren in The Atlantic
124.) What Is It About Yawning? by Christine Calder in Phys.Org
⭐125.) What Happened to Val Kilmer? He’s Just Starting to Figure It Out. by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in The New York Times
In the hands of a less empathetic writer, or perhaps in a time when we weren’t all held hostage by uncertainty, this might’ve just been another point-and-laugh profile of a failed celebrity. Instead, what we get is something so much better, so much more universal. In painting this picture of Kilmer, we see the limitations of faith and fear, and they’re both admirable and sad. Man, this was so good. One of the best things I’ve read so far this year.
126.) Why Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Flourish. And Why It Matters. by Max Fisher in The New York Times
127.) Alan Alda would like your attention by Ellen McCarthy in The Washington Post
It’s tough not to like Alan Alda, who seems like someone who’s never been overly concerned with his own celebrity so much as what he can do with his platform. And I tend to agree that we have a communication problem in this country, but I also think it starts with having an empathy problem.
128.) Why All the Warby Parker Clones Are Now Imploding by Maya Kosoff in Medium
See, disrupting isn’t actually as easy as they’d have you believe. Turns out that people who have no real experience starting a company to bring down traditional powers aren’t necessarily smarter than everyone else.
129.) Social Distancing: ‘That’s My Girl. She Was Something Else.’ by Sarah Delia at WFAE
This has been a nice series by Charlotte’s NPR station, and this one, in particular, was a reminder that the cost of Covid-19 goes well beyond those who’ve actually had the disease, but that there are some silver linings to this slow down, too.
130.) “Sushi in the time of Coronavirus” by David Utterback
This is a really personal insight into the havoc brought on by the shutdown, and I think the long and short of it is, the virus has exposed a ton of significant problems that already existed in our economy, and the recovery won’t be as easy as simply re-opening.
131.) My priceless, worthless baseball cards by Ryan Hockensmith at ESPN.com
There’s a running joke about how much sports writers love Springsteen and Jason Isbell, but I think there’s an easy explanation for it. Both of them are exceptional writers, and they’re exceptional because they consistently pull off the toughest trick in writing: They create a story that’s incredibly specific while also touching on themes that are entirely universal. They’re personal and relatable. I think that’s the key to this piece by my pal Ryan Hockensmith.
The mark of great reporting is the capacity for a story to put the reader in the reporter’s shoes — to take your reader and drop them into a time and place to allow them to witness the action. But a story that’s truly transcendent doesn’t make them a witness so much as it makes the reader the subject. I think that’s one reason first-person essays tend to connect so well, as this one certainly does.
I texted Ryan after I read it to tell him how much I enjoyed the story. He said that, in fact, he’d heard from people all over the country (and well beyond) about how it reminded them of their own childhoods, too. That’s wonderful, and exactly what this kind of piece should do. It’s specific to the subject, but the subject could also be anyone, and when you’re reading it, it sure feels like the subject is you.
132.) The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months by Rutger Bregman in The Guardian
First, this is an insane tale. Second, it reminded me of a story I read a few years back that’s even more riveting in its detail on three boys lost at sea for 51 days in the same part of the world for roughly the same reasons. But lastly, it hits on a theme I think needs a lot more exploration — that we’re all in this together, and by nature, humans need each other. We’re pack animals. We hear so many stories about human selfishness, which is obviously a sincere trait. But when the shit really hits the fan, as it is now around the globe, I think there’s a lot more realization that we belong together than apart, even if we’re hearing more on the news about the latter ideology.
133.) I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked About the Viral “Plandemic” Video. by Marshall Allen in ProPublica
I’m not asking people to be a Republican or a Democrat. That’s your call. Just don’t be an idiot.
134.) The secrets behind the runaway success of Apple’s AirPods by Jeremy White in Wired
135.) The Day the Live Concert Returns by Dave Grohl in The Atlantic
Here’s the thing about working as a reporter who talks to famous people: You quickly learn most of them are not who you thought they were. Most of them are jerks. It’s not their fault, really. Being famous is hard. It’s impossible to relate to normal society anymore. But a lot of them are just not people you or I would actually like to spend much time with.
Which brings me to Dave Grohl. There’s a short list of people I’d be willing to bet a paycheck are actually every bit as awesome as I think they are. Tom Hanks, of course. George Clooney, maybe. But yeah, Dave Grohl. I just don’t want to live in a world where he’s not awesome.
136.) Trump’s Favorite TV Network Is Post-parody by Devin Gordon in The Atlantic
I’d never heard of OAN before Mike Gundy’s insane comments last month, but here we are. My problem with the story is that, I think, it gives OAN exactly what they wanted: A national audience, a new cadre of haters, and a lot of point-and-laugh mockery disguised as journalism that they can turn around and say, “See, the lame-stream news is out to get us!” Yes, there’s probably lots to mock (I’ve never seen it, so TBD) but mocking is too easy here. It’s a liberal-leaning reporter dunking on an obviously flawed conservative mouthpiece. Don’t punch down. Just shine a spotlight. That works better.
137.) What Sammy Watkins Believes by Tyler Dunne in Bleacher Report Magazine
Man, I hate to just bash another reporter, but I have some HUGE problems with this piece. Beyond the fact that it’ spends waaaaaay too much time parroting Watkins lunacy, it just lacks anything close to real reporting. This is transcribing with flair. Watkins goes on at length about — well, absolute craziness. And while I’m no psychologist, every bit of this screams some type of bipolar or manic/depressive disorder (not to mention possible effects of controlled substances). And yet it’s all written as if his words are the story. There’s no checking with former coaches and teammates. There’s no verifying some of the insanity Watkins discusses. There’s no insight from medical professionals. There’s literally one other source in the story, a teammate who seems to have some out-there thoughts of his own. How easy would it have been to add some context to Watkins’ craziness? I texted three people for insight after reading this and got more background in 10 minutes than the story lays out in a few thousand words. But the real problem, beyond a piece that seems pleased to wallow in lunacy porn, is that I honestly worry about Watkins after reading it. His behavior is not normal, not OK, and not to be shrugged off as something a little out there. This could’ve been a monster story. Instead, it’s a point-and-pretend we’re not laughing.
I’ve followed this story less because I think it might eventually sway my vote (we’d need a candidate without assault allegations for that to be true) but more because I think it’s really fascinating how the media has approached it. Honestly, it’s gotten a lot more ink than any of the accusers of Trump got, which I think exposes the general tendency of legacy reporting to avoid being called out for bias against Trump. But more, it’s a fascinating balancing act — moral arbiters when the “bad guys” are accused, trying now to figure out how to tell a very complicated story. This piece does a nice job of exposing why the story is so complicated, but it also didn’t quite sit well with me. While I’m hardly ready to say I fully believe Reade’s accounts, it’s noteworthy that so little seems to be written upending the public figure’s background, but we’re deep diving into Reade’s, talking to everyone from her high school boyfriend to past employers. The long and short of it is, accusing someone of assault is a no-win situation.
139.) The Corrupt Bargain by Eric Foner in The London Review of Books and 140.) The Supreme Court Is Not Going to Fix the Electoral College by Garrett Epps in The Atlantic
I’m putting these together as they’re both on the same topic: The ridiculousness of the electoral college. Will it change? Not any time soon in my opinion. But I think it has to eventually. I say this in a non-partisan fashion: It doesn’t benefit our country at all when 40 of the 50 states can safely be ignored by national candidates, and we’d all be better off if Republicans had to care what people in New York thought, and Democrats had to listen to the concerns of folks in the Bible Belt. The reason we keep getting extremes in both parties is because the system rewards it.
141.) The Cult of Elon Is Cracking by Marina Koren in The Atlantic
People want to compare Elon Musk to Tony Stark, but I’m thinking he’s probably more Howard Hughes.
⭐142.) A captivating photo of Georgia Tech from 1918 and the story behind it by Ken Sugiura in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
What a terrific idea for a story, and so well executed. Just a wonderful read with tons of surprising insight.
143.) The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet by Andy Greenberg in Wired
In the end, reading a story like this, you ask yourself how much you believe the subject and, invariably, whether you like him or not. I feel like the story leads you toward being on Hutchins’ side, but I came away feeling like he’s a con artist. Or just insanely immature.
⭐144.) A Biblical Mystery at Oxford by Ariel Sabar for The Atlantic
Hoo boy, the reporting on this piece is phenomenal. For what’s a relatively dry narrative about antiquities theft and forgery, it’s a rollicking tale that is just so well told. Highly recommend.
And now, a subsection on conspiracy theories, which are not only on the rise due to the pandemic, but journalism about them is also on the uptick, as you’ll see in these next few pieces.
First, I think the real story surrounding conspiracy theorists is one of profound sadness. I understand the massive amount of hatred and evil that tends to come with them, but I struggle to get past the idea that the reason so many people gravitate to them is based on fear and loneliness.
A few years back, I read this great piece on the advancement of artificial intelligence, and one of the starting points for its projections is Moore’s Law, which theorizes that technology essentially grows exponentially, and the rate of doubling is about every two years. Here’s how that looks graphically, per the Wait But Why story:
I bring this up because we’re at a critical point here in which the world around us is changing far more rapidly than our minds can comprehend, and if you’re the type of person who is uncomfortable with that loss of control (or, more to the point, the loss of perceived control), this is terrifying. So those people search for some way to regain that perception of control, and they often find it in things that promise answers. Sometimes it’s religion. Sometimes it’s a politician like Trump. But often, it’s these conspiracy theories. It’s also no surprise that religion, Trump and conspiracy theories all tend to overlap on the Venn diagram of these people’s interests, too.
I guess it’s not that I feel sorry for the people who believe in Q or think the coronavirus is a hoax. That’s certainly not true. But I do feel some sympathy for them. Because the real truth of the world is that we do not have control. We live in a complex universe that is cold and uncaring and ruthless, and our steady march forward only brings us more complexity. That is difficult for even the most emotionally stable of us, so it’s no surprise that so many others cannot survive without the drug of self-deception.
I think this piece from ⭐The Atlantic – 145.) The Conspiracy Museum by Robin Sloan – does a really good job of using parody to illustrate that point, which is what journalism surrounding conspiracy theories should do.
I’m not sure that this story from The Atlantic – 146.) The Prophecies of Q by Adrienne LaFrance – does the same, but its value is as an explainer for a conspiracy group that has risen to such prominence that numerous states now have believers on their political tickets (all Republicans, I should add). This story from Bloomberg Businessweek – 147.) The King of Germany Will Accept Your Bank Deposits Now by David Gauvey Herbert – feels more like a colorful tale about one of the fringe demagogue, which is a little more indulgent, and I’m not nearly so comfortable with.
This is the Catch-22 of modern reporting on the far right/conspiracy theory folks. Do we cover them, shine a light on what they’re doing, mock their beliefs and point out their flaws? Or do we ignore them, let them linger in the shadows and leave most of mainstream America ignorant to how insidious their belief systems are?
The answer feels like it should be Option A, which this piece in The Washington Post – 148.) The three reasons conspiracy theories are more dangerous than ever by Max Boot – seems to agree with. But then you read about someone like Peter Fitzek, and all he wants is the publicity. Or Trump — he wants the media to get up in arms about his latest ridiculous lies. That’s all part of the plan. In fact, it’s why it works. Rather than a microscope on the flaws of their rationale, the media becomes a bullhorn for their rhetoric and propaganda. They don’t care if 95% of the world sees their story and shakes their head. They benefit massively by the 5% that is intrigued and digs deeper down the rabbit hole.
So the answer is that there really is no answer. And boy, isn’t that the type of explanation of reality that leads people to conspiracy theories in the first place?
149.) The Case for Letting the Restaurant Industry Die by Helen Rosner in The New Yorker
Look, I agree with some of the points Tunde Wey is making here, but this comes off to me as sort of the Steve Bannon approach of the left. There’s anger driving the discussion, and a massive frustration that things change slowly. And so the answer becomes, let’s burn it all down and start over. And that’s bullshit. Because the equation always ignores how many people — largely the people you say you’re fighting for — are hurt in the process. Anyway, I found the arguments here profoundly frustrating.
150.) Trump Sows Doubt on Voting. It Keeps Some People Up at Night. by Reid J. Epstein in The New York Times
151.) 30 Movies That Are Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before by David Sims in The Atlantic
Only seen a couple of these. I hated (HATED!) Morvern Caller. I mostly liked Scott Pilgrim. I’m eager to check out a few others. I think it helps to expect the unexpected going in.
152.) What Put the Cheer in Cheerwine? by Kathleen Purvis for Imbibe Magazine
⭐153.) Inside Roy Halladay’s struggle with pain, addiction by John Barr, Mike Farrell and Brian Rivera for ESPN
I’m having a hard time working through what I feel about this story, which is really well done. I covered Roy starting about a month after his perfect game through what amounted to the end of his dominance in 2012, and I’ve beat myself up a bit because a.) I wish I’d better understood him, and b.) I keep wondering what I should’ve done better to actually know what was happening rather than simply accepting the Halladay narrative.
There was so much in this story that brought back some memories that feel different now. There’s good stuff. I remember him zipping his remote control planes around the locker room. I remember how much he loved his boys. I remember the day Harvey Dorfman died, and Roy talking at length about how much his book changed his life.
But then there are the other moments. I remember Roy having to leave a July game at Wrigley field because of the heat, which feels like a harbinger given the discussions of his profuse sweating from painkillers. I remember him taking a leave from the team for a few days, explained away as a family issue. I remember when Ken Rosenthal reported on Roy’s back issues in spring training in 2012, and Roy vehemently denying any health problems.
Would a guy who was so terrified to open up to anyone have ever really shown the cracks in the facade to the media? Probably not. But none of us ever even thought to ask. So rich was the Roy Halladay narrative, so great was his success on the field, that I never considered for a moment that there was a real human being underneath it all who might be suffering.
I’d like to think I’m a more thoughtful reporter now, that David Hale today would’ve approached Roy Halladay differently. I think that’s true. But all I know for sure is that I overlooked so much back then, and that’s really tough to process now. I’m angry at myself, and I’m forever sad that a guy I genuinely liked and respected was so tormented behind the scenes.