Adrian Chen managed to hunt down Internet trolls in Russia, and then things got weird. Just loved the piece, and Chen’s guts for reporting it out.
Don’t we live in an enlightened age of buying stuff, where hyper-informed consumers and corporate responsibility ensure you needn’t ever feel bad about a cheap shirt? That may be true if you buy from big brands sensitive to negative publicity, but most of earth doesn’t wear big brands; read Michael Hobbes's eye-opener to find out why garment sweatshops will be around for a while. His painful message: "This is why consumer advocacy campaigns are never going to improve working conditions in the developing world: Western markets simply don’t matter as much as they used to."
Long before the national debate about excessive police force, officers in Albuquerque were compiling an astounding record of shootings, to scant consequence. The New Yorker
’s Rachel Aviv digs out incredible detail to tell the grim tale of how the Albuquerque Police Department had long approached city residents with violence, with officers almost never held to account. You start this story unsure how much you care and finish it in amazement.
Ponzi schemes are to business journalism what adultery is to opera, but this is one of the best I've ever read. The scam in question was one of the biggest in Canadian history and does, indeed, center on pigeons, in particular selling breeding pairs to people with a guarantee to buy back the offspring. The story is hilarious, fascinating, and also deeply sad. And a bit of a mystery: Arlan Galbraith, the Pigeon King, bilked his customers out of tens of millions of dollars but didn’t pocket any of it, and seems until the end to have believed that he could convince the world of the value of the hundreds of thousands of pigeons his scheme created.
I am jealous of almost everything that Peter Hessler writes. This year’s standout is his wonderfully titled New Yorker
piece, Learning to Speak Lingerie
. Hessler discovered a market that's not nearly as niche as I would have thought: a community of Chinese selling lingerie (“buttless body stockings, and nightgowns that cover only one breast, and G-strings accessorized with feathers”) in one of the most conservative parts of Egypt. The story is a quirky, illuminating tale of the intersection of cultures and business.
Fake girl, real Instagram. Racked
’s Julia Rubin profiled the folks behind @BarbieStyle, an official Barbie account (with more than 1 million followers) that’s fully art-directed and professionally produced. Barbie travels to France; she attends Coachella; she pops up at the Golden Globes. Each shot is meticulously crafted, as if Barbie was a fashion blogger or, you know, any other real human being. The absurdity shines through, a look at the bizarre state of marketing these days. Someone, somewhere, is putting makeup and sunscreen on a little plastic toy in order to get you to buy more dolls.
This year we lost Grantland
, a wonderful and weird outpost on the Web. Born of the uneasy and doomed marriage of sports cable megamachine ESPN and sportswriter bro living legend Bill Simmons, Grantland
died shortly after the two went their separate ways. For me, the best of many great things on the site in 2015 was the bizarre, violent history of the small-time hoods who briefly ruled the streets outside Fenway Park by selling black-market “Yankees Suck” T-shirts. That it happened to be written by a friend of mine, Amos Barshad, only makes it more galling. If you need me, I’ll be pressing “Amos Sucks” T-shirts.
The number of intractably messy problems that Emily Bazelon takes on in this piece for the New York Times Magazine
is daunting: power dynamics in romantic relationships, Stanford’s ties to Silicon Valley, how universities should handle accusations of sexual assault. It’s a story that defies easy answers to anything. I’m equally jealous of Bazelon’s ability to get this story out of the people involved, and of her skill in putting it all together into a coherent narrative.
A beautifully written, almost wistful, exploration of the links between Scotland and the Vikings by Lisa Abend, who usually chronicles the world of haute cuisine.
This is a heroic piece of reporting about white-collar crooks who use shell companies to conceal their identities while tricking elderly owners into signing over the deeds to their houses. I did not know that it was possible to steal houses; I wish I had known about this first.
I can’t say I’m jealous that I didn’t write this. More like grateful that someone did, since I have no desire to board a “dangerously encumbered” boat with a crew that “consists primarily of thieves.” This story is classic National Geographic
: Writer Robert Draper and photographer Pascal Maitre portray a river that’s as remote to Westerners now as it was when Henry Morton Stanley explored it almost 150 years ago.
A great little glimpse at the strange competitive world of apple production. You don’t want to know where the grape flavor comes from.
I couldn’t put down this epic saga of the online drug marketplace Silk Road, and the operation to shut it down. I find the Dark Web endlessly fascinating and great crime stories have an instant appeal, but it was the characters—their faults and temptations—that left me thinking about this story for weeks afterward. Without spoilers, I will say the climax library scene is brilliant. I’m also a huge fan of Tomer Hanuka’s illustrations, and his work for Wired
here set the tone for the whole piece.
Part profile of a little-known corporate behemoth (whose campus features a fake subway car with a statue of a sleeping homeless man); part public policy exposé (electronic health records are a total mess, thanks in part to that quirky company); part first-person account of the author’s medical record misery after surviving leukemia. Patrick Caldwell’s Mother Jones
story is masterful, memorable work.
This is a wicked good, two-part story in Wired
by Joshuah Bearman telling the archetypal tale of a young djembe-playing crystallographer getting hooked on libertarian economic theory and launching an underground drug bazaar, which, thanks to good timing, Tor cryptography, and peer-to-peer networking, grows into a booming business, resulting in moral corruption, blackmailing hackers, Bitcoin riches, rogue investigators, murder-for-hire betrayals, and, ultimately, a suspenseful, balletic arrest inside a San Francisco public library. Goes on for something like 20,000 words and left me envious and wanting more.
This was the first thing that popped into my mind, certainly the best profile I read this year and one of the best ever. Rebecca Mead captured not only Lin-Manuel Miranda’s passion and imagination, she also got at the anxiety, nervous energy, and uncertainty that went into creating his brilliant musical, Hamilton
. It's a total portrait of a creative (and now MacArthur-certified) genius. Plus, if I had edited it, maybe I could have gotten tickets.
McKay Coppins’s magnificent BuzzFeed
profile of Donald Trump appeared in 2014—but I’m claiming a loophole to put it on the 2015 Jealousy List: Nobody realized until this summer that Trump would seriously run for president, much less become the Republican frontrunner. Coppins didn’t either when a snowstorm stranded him with Trump, who invited him aboard his jet to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s “17-acre Moorish estate in Palm Beach.” The strange journey that follows exposes the inner world of Donald Trump better than anything else I've read—the gold, the gaggle of “yes men,” and the incessant neediness that’s the essence of Trump and the driving force behind the presidential surprise no one saw coming.
As someone who grew up watching the Laguna Beach
reality trilogy, I was insanely jealous of Complex
’s Andrew Gruttadaro, who went inside the special world of Heidi and Spencer, the villainous couple from The Hills
. Reality-TV pros, Spencer and Heidi put on a good show that starts and ends with too much tequila. But the story is also a dark look into the lives of two people who are both running from and chasing fame. “Mercenaries is pretty much what we are,” Spencer says. “Call us in when you are ready for some action. That keeps the bills paid.”
Reading Tim Urban’s science blog Wait But Why
is like having those late-night dorm room conversations you had in college, but with a lot more intelligence and a lot less weed. His breakdown this year of procrastination
was worth reading to the end (which is hard for me) and was both informative and life-changing. And if you really want to break out the Graffix
, dig into his archive and read Tim’s 2014 post on the Fermi Paradox
, which attempts to address our eternal question of whether we’re alone in the universe, and manages to convey mind-bendingly complex ideas in the most easygoing, laid-back conversational style you could ever hope for. —Sam Grobart
I lived in Chinatown off and on for about a decade, but never ventured inside Abacus, a small community bank at the bottom of the Bowery, until the New Yorker
’s Jiayang Fan took me there. Her story about Abacus, the only commercial institution brought to trial over mortgage fraud after the 2008 financial crisis, is a riveting portrait of two immigrant families making their way in the U.S. that also exposes the impossibility of foolproofing the mortgage system.
David Amsden’s curious story of rich trash entrepreneur Sidney Torres fighting crime from his iPad with an Uber-esque app felt more like a William Gibson short story than a late summer report from New Orleans. The piece gets at the weird state of modern public and private policing in America: Here’s a 39-year-old, Bruce Wayne-esque character taking on the task on a dare from Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Torres pioneers a crowdsourced app to dispatch off-duty cops to crime scenes much faster than the NOPD, but while the task force is a promising start, it’s far from perfect. It's a wonderful bit of reporting in a city still struggling 10 years after Katrina.
My obsession started with Rebecca Mead’s 16-page deep dive on the story behind this year’s hit musical Hamilton. I’d seen a notice that a show about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton was heading to the Public Theater in downtown NYC about a month before this article appeared and didn’t give it much thought; I completely overlooked the most important detail of all—the new show was a Lin-Manuel Miranda joint. Forty-eight hours after I read the article, the inspiration for it was playing out live on a stage before me.
The obsession—I’m not alone; it has struck thousands of us fortunate enough to have followed up whatever we’ve read and heard with play—has continued unabated for 10 months and counting, fed by the dozens of articles and profiles of Miranda and his collaborators and castmates, media appearances, social media posts (#Ham4Ham!), and most important, not only the show itself (downtown then, on Broadway now) but especially the addictive cast recording that was released in October. What is so awe-inspiring and fulfilling about this show is just how literary it is, the many many many words arranged in surprising and delightful ways. Hamilton is a feast of words that tell the story of this nation’s founding in ways you won’t encounter in any history book or class.
“Miranda’s ability to make rap and hip-hop seem entirely appropriate to the Revolutionary period has won over viewers who may never have heard of OutKast,” Mead writes. “John Guare, the playwright, was taken by a friend to the workshop last spring. ‘I haven’t felt this alive in a show since I don’t know when,’ Guare says. ‘You had that incredible feeling of when a door opens up and a brand-new wind blows through.’”
This series of three stories, by Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Robert Gebeloff, and Michael Corkery, is about how companies are slipping arbitration clauses into the fine print of contracts, stripping Americans of their right to be heard in court. With the blessing of the Supreme Court, which has ruled in favor of mandatory arbitration, most people who have a cell phone, a credit card, or a job have probably given up their shot at holding corporate America accountable, the stories show.
I thought this was a powerful (and clearly very labor-intensive) way to tell the story of women alleging abuse at the hands of a powerful man in a position of influence over their careers, with portraits of 35 of Cosby’s accusers. The stunning range of ages of the women involved charts a path of how attitudes toward accusations like this have changed over time. I don't want to think about what Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme had to go through to corral them all, but the result was magazine-making at its best. The piece also worked well on the Web, where it was almost interactive—you could click through their individual stories, each one upsetting in its own way, especially because it took so long for anyone to listen.
Some cultural icons are so venerated that everybody is afraid to criticize them, even when their work has undeniably declined. That’s what made Brandon Harris’s “Blood Couple,” in the spring issue of n+1
, so hard for me to put down. Harris is an accomplished director and a lovely writer. He’s also African American like his subject so he approaches with brutal honesty, unlike white writers who tend to be apologists for Spike Lee. Harris calls Lee a one-time “rabble-rousing cultural touchstone” who has become “something resembling a hack—a Jay-Z and Beyoncé-era rich black navel gazer.” But this isn’t just a canny work of film criticism. Harris visits Lee at his office in gentrified Fort Greene and tries to get him to explain himself.
Rebecca Traister is wonderful at finding something new to say about stories that have been wrung endlessly through the news cycle (her affecting take
on the Planned Parenthood scandal is one of several examples this year). More recently, she was one of the first brave voices to cut to the felty heart of the problem with the latest iteration of the Muppets: all of the (suggested) Muppet sex. I nominate this story for its lucidity in a world of Muppet-boffing insanity.
I’m sort of cheating as this New York Times Magazine article came out on Dec. 30, 2014 (it even has an Iggy Azalea reference). However, it remained pretty fresh in my memory throughout the year, so I wanted to share it.
The writer profiles a contemporary art dealer as he runs around New York doing studio visits and meeting emerging artists. Even though we’re only shown a tiny sliver of a much larger landscape—a few days hanging out with a very colorful and sometimes controversial character—the piece does a great job of showing the reader what the whole contemporary emerging-art scene looks like.
To me it just seems like Stefan Simchowitz’s “evil” tricks are not so different from what everyone else around him is doing, from what I’ve gathered even just secondhandedly skimming the art world’s periphery. I found myself almost rooting for this “patron satan,” who has basically managed to get the entire art world all up in a self-righteous tizzy (always fun to watch) through dealings that threaten traditional art world systems and rituals. The article suggests that his business challenges the idea that there is any holy correlation at all between “talent” and contemporary art prices, which is fascinating and what really stuck with me. —Tracy Ma
Losing a star in the Michelin Guide can make chefs cry, or even commit suicide. But as Sam Kashner’s richly detailed Vanity Fair
piece shows, that’s only part of the heavy toll exacted by the star system. It’s not just the brutally hard work and stress involved in getting and keeping stars. Michelin’s insistence on “consistency” makes chefs afraid to experiment and hone their craft. Some top chefs are even handing their stars back. All worth pondering, when a meal at most three-starred restaurants costs well over $200 a person.
This monster travelogue somehow makes a lengthy treatise on infrastructure and materiel spending so compelling that you’ll zip through it. While embedded with the Army, E.B. Boyd takes a smart look at the staggering expense that’s gone into U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and how much is being lost or actively destroyed as things (sorta, kinda) wind down. As her convoy rolls the 125 miles from Chamkani to Kabul, Boyd also does a good job of conveying the constant low-level terror that comes with driving around Afghanistan dressed for battle, without losing sight of the broader policy points.
There is nothing fancy about this story. The headline pretty much says it all. The story is perfectly reported and brings its characters to life. It’s unbelievably painful to read, and says so much about war, politics, and, yes, evil.
This is a moving account of an accomplished Cornell professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and decides to end her life before fully succumbing to the disease. It has stuck with me since I read it many months ago. The piece deftly portrays the struggles faced by patients and their families as they confront Alzheimer’s and the issues surrounding the right to die.
Online heroin sales, possibly faked contract killings, and FBI manhunts are pretty sexy topics to begin with, but for Wired
, Joshuah Bearman painted a much more complex picture of Silk Road (the Dark Web marketplace), the people who may or may not have created it, and the people dedicated to taking it down at whatever cost. Bearman’s strong narrative writing forces you to think about the best and worst of what technology can do and how ultimately it all comes back to ordinary, flawed human beings.
Oh hey, this blog post on artificial intelligence looks like a fun quick read.
At least that’s what I thought to myself as I clicked. And that’s how I fell into this 23,000-word wormhole of fact and prognostication—the format of choice at Tim Urban’s Wait But Why “blog.” I read the piece in January when it first appeared, and it basically inspired me to devote all of my 2015 book reading to science and science fiction about the near future. I know what you’re thinking: Who has the time for this? But don’t worry, it’s just a blog post ...
There is jealousy and there is jealousy. And then there is Chris Taylor, whose inside-the-Kessel-Run reporting on the history and future of Star Wars
makes me question every non-spouse- or child-related decision I’ve made in my entire life. Woe, children of the 1970s: Where did we go wrong, what tragedy befell us, what did we do in our former lifetimes, that Chris Taylor’s Star Wars
career path existed and we were not chosen for it. The above link is a representative sample of Taylor’s work. Books are not allowed on the Jealousy List, but if you’ve read this far, please, I implore you, read Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
It's admittedly a weird metric to use as a barometer for quality, but I read this story on my phone. The whole thing. I just could not put it down. N.R. Kleinfeld’s story was so magnetic, so engrossing, that Instapaper was never an option. The story was somehow brutal and compassionate at the same time, and was told with such care that it achieved a level of nuance that is in remarkably short supply these days.
In the runup to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
, Disney predictably doled out interviews and stories to all the major entertainment publications. Adam Rogers of Wired
went deeper, turning access to director J.J. Abrams and other Lucasfilm and Disney execs into a rumination on the science of cinematic world-building, a nerd-courting exercise originated and perfected by Marvel Studios that is now being desperately copied by everyone else in Hollywood.
In July, the New Yorker
ran a story by Kathryn Schulz about the one-in-three odds that sometime in the next 50 years the Pacific Northwest will endure a devastating mega-earthquake and subsequent tsunami—and how woefully unprepared we are to deal with its aftermath. (The estimated death toll is nearly seven times that of Hurricane Katrina's.) This article did everything a good piece of journalism should do: It made me care deeply about something that, before I read it, I didn’t even know was a problem. It moved me to tell everyone I knew about what I’d read. And thanks to the paragraphs in which Schulz likens subduction zones to two hands rubbing up against each other, it also caused me to make bizarre hand gestures and weird people out when I read it on the subway.
The paper’s accounting of the hundreds of people killed in police shootings in 2015 fills a huge gap in the debate about police use of force. The government doesn’t track shootings by officers, and that information vacuum makes it difficult to have a public discussion grounded in facts. The Post
, along with a similar project at the Guardian
, is providing needed evidence for the country to have that discussion. The individual stories of officers’ encounters—with the armed and violent, the mentally ill, and sometimes people with no weapons at all—are often heartbreaking. In aggregate, they’re something more powerful: Data.
was not the best movie, this paper is not the best writing, and I have to assume that the science is not the most groundbreaking astrophysics. But the conjunction is grand. The graphics do work; they illuminate true beauty in the shape of nature without embellishment. As cosmic journalism, the modeling of spacetime’s warping unwarps our minds’ calcified assumptions of flatness. It is not about something far away, but about the stuff we swim in. The eye is the highest-bandwidth input to the mind, and our battery of lenses to speak to it is immature, but Interstellar
—in ways herein explained—shows how much we have yet to see.
This is a story about a story. The original, by Matt Stopera, appeared on BuzzFeed, and its title describes, and evokes, all of what followed in a four-part meme gone wild: “Who Is This Man And Why Are His Photos Showing Up On My Phone?” Its subtitle, “This weird thing happened to me,” is the perfect distillation of the BuzzFeed mode. The story is an agglomeration of homemade phone photos, GIFs, Twitter snapshots, listicles, and some writing, too, much of it in one-sentence paragraphs. (“Bali!” “So I go to China.”) It has no form any writing teacher would ever understand, but it’s filled with the wonder and joy that’s missing from most everything else I read. It is the story of a man in China (he’s mostly known as Orange Man, or Orange Brother) who unwittingly acquired a phone that Stopera had lost on the Lower East Side in New York, and what happened when their photo streams crossed, and then the Internet got involved.
But this is a crafty recommendation, because, while I am essentially admitting that I totally enjoyed Stopera’s story, which had all the style of a DQ Blizzard, and was just as tasty, I am not actually technically saying I am jealous of it. I am saying I am jealous of Chris Beam’s sensitive, restrained, human take on his story, which probably way fewer people read. Beam, who is a terrific writer, went to visit Orange Man, the subject of Stopera’s piece, and found a much more complicated person, in a much more complicated situation. But Beam doesn’t arrive at the expected place either. We don’t learn that Matt Stopera cynically used Orange Man or anything like that. It’s just an odd, totally real story that gets more interesting with every post, or article, or tweet, or whatever. —Bryant Urstadt
During the course of the hectic lives many of us have, I finished this article thinking that the comedy and empathy were spot on. On too many occasions I have made plans only to cancel or reschedule them ... a few dozen times. I do admit that I felt a bit better when I shared this on social media and a friend assured me I’m not the only one that identifies with this. “Ummm. This is my life. *sigh*,” she said. Regardless, life is too short for canceled plans, so let’s make 2016 the year we stick to them.
The fourth in a terrific five-part series on “The Outlaw Ocean,” this one made me so envious, I spooked a fellow passenger on Metro North cursing under my breath that we'd been beaten to it. Falling as it does at the intersection of my previous life (editing high adventure) and my current one (high capitalism), I loved that it dispensed with the “inverted pyramid”—all the essential news jammed at the top, detail dribbled out later—and Ian Urbina tells the story like the chase picture it is, the outcome clear only to those who cheat and skip ahead. Twist ending, too.
The piece that most sticks with me is William Finnegan’s “Off Diamond Head,” a New Yorker
excerpt from his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
. I’m jealous not only of Finnegan’s beautiful writing but of his youth in Hawaii (maybe minus some of the schoolyard bullies).