This week's three-star articles are all excellent, but not terribly uplifting
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A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death / New York Times
The huge government apartment complex where Mrs. Ito has lived for nearly 60 years — one of the biggest in Japan, a monument to the nation’s postwar baby boom and aspirations for a modern, American way of life — suddenly became known for something else entirely: the “lonely deaths” of the world’s most rapidly aging society. “4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm. To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found. [...] The Itos arrived in mid-December 1960, on the very first day that tenants were allowed in. It was a clear day, full of promise, with Mount Fuji visible in the distance from their third-floor balcony. Her 4-year-old stepdaughter, Mrs. Ito wrote in her autobiography, was “so happy that she ran around the apartment, drawing a complaint from their second-floor neighbor.” Their new home was called a “3K” — three small rooms and a kitchen, with a bathroom and toilet. What struck Mrs. Ito wasn’t only the modern efficiency of the place, the concrete sturdiness that seemed capable of withstanding the strongest earthquakes, or the sun that came into every room. Peeking into the kitchen for the first time, she found the item that had, perhaps more than anything else, caused housewives to dream of life in the danchi: a sink, no longer made of tiles, but of sparkling stainless steel.
The Lost Genocide / Longreads
Abdul was seven years old when he began to understand his government wanted to exterminate him. The realization came slowly, over the nights he stood watch as a sentry for his hometown, Pwint Hpyu Chaung — a string of three hamlets that sheltered more than 1 thousand Rohingya in a marshy river valley in Rakhine State, in the northwest corner of Myanmar. The year was 1999. Abdul was supposed to watch the roads for trouble from Buddhists settled in nearby “model villages,” a program conducted by the Myanmar government to essentially drive the Rohingya out of their homes. [...] A few years earlier, in 1988, Myanmar officials had begun crafting a secret program to legally subjugate the Rohingya and eventually drive them out of Myanmar. The eleven-point scheme detailed in a government report was titled “Rohingya Extermination Plan,” according to documents published by the International State Crime Initiative, a London-based organization dedicated to researching state-sponsored human rights violations. “Mass killing of the Muslim is to be avoided in order not to invite the attention of Muslim countries,” the report explained. [...] “Genocide” can only be legally declared after litigation at the International Criminal Court. While reporting this article, governmental sources I spoke to from the United States and Europe referred to genocide as the “g-word” — often unwilling to even speak it fully in informal conversations — because of the potential consequences of using it should a legal case be set in motion. And yet, even though the word was so powerful that senior diplomats could not utter it, it had been effectively neutered by many nations’ fear of harming their self-interest and by the United Nations’ bureaucratic maneuvering. Without any danger of effective legal action, Myanmar flouted the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, continuing to deny it access to Rakhine State through the summer and into the fall. The fact-finding mission wasn’t the only United Nations investigation into a possible genocide that was downgraded during this time: A CoI examining the civil war in Syria was unraveling as its high-profile lead prosecutor quit, saying, “I give up. The states in the Security Council don’t want justice.”
The Making of an American Nazi / The Atlantic
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
Trapped: The Grenfell Tower Story / GQ
Buildings aren’t supposed to burn the way London’s Grenfell Tower did. But to the residents stuck inside, and to the firefighters who rushed to save them, this was a different kind of fire, a blaze that burned at 1,800 degrees, a devastating inferno that killed dozens and shocked an entire nation. This is the untold story of what it felt like to fight that fire and to flee it—a story of a thousand impossible decisions and the people who dared that night to make them.
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How the sandwich consumed Britain / The Guardian
This piece was very popular this week, though I didn't quite think it lived up to the hype:
But just because something seems simple, or intuitive, doesn’t mean that it is. The rise of the British chilled sandwich over the last 40 years has been a deliberate, astonishing and almost insanely labour-intensive achievement. The careers of men and women like Roger Whiteside have taken the form of a million incremental steps: of searching for less soggy tomatoes and ways to crispify bacon; of profound investigations into the molecular structure of bread and the compressional properties of salad. In the trade, the small gaps that can occur within the curves of iceberg lettuce leaves – creating air pockets – are sometimes known as “goblin caves”. The unfortunate phenomenon of a filling slumping toward the bottom of a sandwich box, known as a skillet, is “the drop”. Obsessed by perfection and market share, the sandwich world is, unsurprisingly, one beset by conditions of permanent and ruthless competition. Every week, rival sandwich developers from the big players buy each others’ products, take them apart, weigh the ingredients, and put them back together again. “It is an absolute passion,” one former M&S supplier told me. “For everybody. It has to be.”
Do civilisations collapse? / Aeon
The idea that the Maya or Easter Islanders experienced an apocalyptic end makes for good television but bad archaeology
A Mother’s Ninth-Century Manual on How to Be a Man / The Paris Review
When still in his teens, William became determined to win the battles his father couldn’t. He joined a rebellion against the ruling dynasty that had once been as close as kin. It was an audacious act, and in the long run it was destined to fail, but it was consistent with the moral education he’d received since childhood. His mother, Dhuoda, had drilled into him that there was only one true measure of nobility: “in every matter, be obedient to the interests of your father.” She wrote those words of maternal wisdom in Liber Manualis, a handbook on how to be a nobleman that she composed for William when he was a teenager, and which she hoped would guide him through his adult life. Across eleven chapters, Dhuoda’s book outlines the subjects that should most concern a man of high birth, such as how to pray and read the Bible; how to distinguish vice from virtue; how best to honor his parents; how to serve God and the Crown; how to handle illness, affliction, and hardship. The work belongs to the tradition of “mirrors for princes,” an ancient literary genre that also proliferated during the Middle Ages. But, Dhuoda’s mirror, the only extant written work by a European woman from the ninth century, is one of a kind: not, as most were, a cleric’s tutorial but a mother’s gift of loving guidance through an uncertain future, with the thoughts, feelings, and personality of its author running through it. Like the Alfred Jewel, the Cross of Lothair, and so many of the most beautiful creations of early medieval Europe, the Liber Manualis beguiles with its intimacy and exquisite intricacy, a glittering portal to a culture that can seem entirely alien from our own.
When will the Earth try to kill us again? / Ars Technica
Volcanism, on the other hand, has coincided with most, if not all, mass extinctions—it looks suspiciously like a serial killer, if you like. This isn’t your regular Vesuvius/St. Helens/Hawaii style volcanism. It’s not even super-volcanoes like Yellowstone or Tambora. I’m talking about something far, far bigger: a rare, epic volcanic phenomenon called a Large Igneous Province or “LIP.” LIPs are floods of basalt lava on an unimaginable scale: the Siberian Traps LIP, which erupted at the end-Permian extinction, covers an area the size of Europe. It’s estimated that over 3 million cubic kilometers of rock were vomited onto the planet’s surface, The end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, stretching from Canada to Brazil into Europe and West Africa, was just as large. Others are similarly gigantic. In the words of Bond and Grasby, “Four of the ‘Big Five’ extinctions are associated with LIPs—too many to be mere coincidence —implying that large-scale volcanism is the main driver of mass extinctions.” Even the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was simultaneous with the Deccan Traps LIP in India. It’s possible that the combination of the Chicxulub asteroid impact and the Deccan eruptions, rather than just the impact, pushed life over the edge. And recent evidence points to a LIP trigger for the second phase of the end-Ordovician extinction, the one missing from Bond and Grasby’s quote. If confirmed, that would link LIPs to all five of the Big Five extinctions.
Raising a Teenage Daughter (with Comments and Corrections by Hannah)) / California Sunday Magazine
I really liked this idea and its execution:
I offered Hannah what I had. Here’s how to make a bridge while shuffling cards. ["I don’t have the fine motor skills for this."] Here’s why you show up to things that you think you don’t want to do: Showing up is the secret to life. ["Which I recently wrote an essay about for English."] She rejected most of the books I loved (even Siddhartha). ["I receive, on average, a dozen book titles when I ask for a recommendation from my parents. It would be impossible to read them all. Plus, I want to choose what to focus on and file the rest away. Parents seem to need immediate return on their advice and assume no ideas get recorded for later use."] But she did connect with Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, so I took her to hear Solnit speak. Solnit, God bless her, is a resplendent adult who told the whole audience that she was a solitary semimiserable kid. This was right after the 2016 election. During the Q&A, a young woman asked what I’m sure she thought was a decent question: What should you do to contribute to the political discourse if you’re not comfortable protesting? Solnit eviscerated her. Who cares about your comfort? — that was her basic answer. Being an adult means doing important things that are uncomfortable. Hannah loved this. ["Of course I did. It was the ultimate feminist talk, and I was searching for someone to look up to. After the election, I was lost. I didn’t know what to do in response. Solnit helped give me an answer."] Not all our outings went that well. I took Hannah to a matinee of a documentary friends made called Audrie & Daisy. It’s a terrifying film about sexual assault in high school. When Hannah was young, she said why at least a thousand times a day, ["Well, I wanted to know everything, back when that seemed reasonable, and I thought adults knew and understood everything, so it made sense to ask. Back then, all of my questions had answers."] and Dan and I developed a theory: She needed to know the truth; the truth would soothe her. Then on Christmas morning, when Hannah was 5, decked out in her new fairy dress, she asked where babies came from, and Dan told her. She didn’t speak for a week. ["I have never heard this story before. So glad you aired it out here, Mom."]
Genetically Engineering Yourself Sounds Like a Horrible Idea—But This Guy Is Doing It Anyway / Gizmodo
Zayner, 36, has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of Chicago, but a few years ago he decided to quit the scientific establishment—and a fellowship at NASA—to devote his time to selling inexpensive DIY bio supplies online, seeding the biohacking revolution one made-in-China pipette sale at a time. Hawking kits for DIY genetic engineering and basic science supplies to both hobbyists and schools, Zayner says that this year his company, The Odin, pulled in about $500,000 in gross revenue. [...] The gene Zayner was about to put into his skin cells sometimes occurs in abundance in dark moles that can become cancerous. “They found no association between it and cancer, but they found it as a marker for cancer. It’s present at the scene of the crime,” he said. Presence at the scene of the crime was not enough to sway him: “I trust the science that’s out there, and I think it will be mostly okay,” he said. Even if his auto-experimentation did wind up giving him cancer, he rationalized that it would be possible for a doctor to treat. He was only applying the DNA topically to a small patch of skin, he felt it was likely that unwanted side-effects would be isolated to that patch of skin as well. “If something goes wrong, I can just chop off that part of the skin,” he said.
How to Hire Fake Friends and Family / The Atlantic
A bit unsettling:
Money may not be able to buy love, but here in Japan, it can certainly buy the appearance of love—and appearance, as the dapper Ishii Yuichi insists, is everything. As a man whose business involves becoming other people, Yuichi would know. The handsome and charming 36-year-old is on call to be your best friend, your husband, your father, or even a mourner at your funeral. His 8-year-old company, Family Romance, provides professional actors to fill any role in the personal lives of clients. With a burgeoning staff of 800 or so actors, ranging from infants to the elderly, the organization prides itself on being able to provide a surrogate for almost any conceivable situation. Yuichi believes that Family Romance helps people cope with unbearable absences or perceived deficiencies in their lives. In an increasingly isolated and entitled society, the CEO predicts the exponential growth of his business and others like it, as à la carte human interaction becomes the new norm. I sat down recently with Yuichi in a café on the outskirts of Tokyo, to discuss his business and what it means to be, in the words of his company motto, “more than real.” [...] Yuichi: I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows. [...] Yuichi: Yes, I’ve been seeing her for eight years. She just graduated high school. Morin: Does she understand that you’re not her real father? Yuichi: No, the mother hasn’t told her.
The Case for Not Being Born / New Yorker
David Benatar may be the world’s most pessimistic philosopher. An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes, in a 2006 book called “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.
Motel Living and Slowly Dying / Los Angeles Review of Books
By trade and by self-identity, I am a novelist. But to keep the groceries coming, I am also an oil pipeline worker. They call me a “pig tracker,” which means I monitor the location of cleaning and diagnostic tools traveling through pipelines, and when I’m not in the field, I’m in a hotel somewhere along the line, sleeping my way toward my next shift. The particular rhythms of what I do — track the pig in its journey beneath the prairies, hand off the job to my counterpart on the other shift, find a hotel near where I’ll rejoin the line, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat — have made me something of an unintentional expert on hotel living and on the America nobody dreams about seeing on vacation.
The 'masculine mystique' – why men can't ditch the baggage of being a bloke / The Guardian
Far from embracing the school run, most men are still trapped by rigid cultural notions of being strong, dominant and successful. Is it leading to an epidemic of unhappiness similar to the one felt by Betty Friedan’s 50s housewives?
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How to Design a Comic Book Page / Kottke
Using a single page from Art Spiegelman’s Maus (considered by many as one of the finest graphic novels ever written), Evan Puschak considers how Spiegelman used the page (and not the individual panel) as the atomic unit of the narrative of his father surviving the Holocaust.
The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus / BBC
Great thought and effort go into creating restaurant menus – and there are some very powerful psychological tricks employed to make you choose.
The American football: How it is played – archive, 1929 / The Guardian
The ball is placed in the centre of the “line-up,” then held by the centre man of the side in possession, and at the chosen moment is passed by him between his legs to the chosen back, who either runs with the ball towards the enemy’s goal or passes the ball to another back to do so. After each “down” the same preliminaries are all religiously gone through, which makes matters very tedious at times. The game is divided into four quarters, each of 15 minutes. The fact that a player has not got the ball does not prevent him being bumped and thrown by the man on the other side, who may decide on this course so as to remove a potential danger. “Bumped,” by the way, is often a euphemism for much rougher (and illegal) action, and injuries are frequent; but then there are plenty of reserves.
Retired Couple Travel from Oxford to Hong Kong Using Only Public Transport / Independent
A retired couple decided to visit their son in Hong Kong using only public transport to complete the 12,000 mile journey from their Oxford home. While Phil and Emma Whiting could have flown to the autonomous Chinese territory from London in just shy of 12 hours, they instead opted to spend eight weeks travelling to their final destination, hopping on trains, buses, ferries, taxis, horses and a cable car to get there.