Links: Best of 2019
Happy holidays! Here's this year's collection of 4-star links, ranked to the best of my ability.
(Here are the collections from 2018 and 2017; before that, I hadn't yet migrated to TinyLetter. In case this has been forwarded to you, the top of this issue summarises what this is all about.)
The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives / New Yorker
Robert Caro is a legend (as Conan O'Brien would attest), and several of you have told me to read his books, which I confess I haven't done yet. I have extra motivation to do so after reading his reflections on his research process. This is a superb read:
I ran into June just as I entered the city room; motioning to Alan’s office, she told me to go right in. Walking across the room, I saw, through the glass window, the big red head bent over something he was reading, and as I entered his office I saw that it was my memo. He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.” I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left. [...] I didn’t sit down at the table. I sat instead behind Sam Houston, in a chair against the wall, and it was sitting there that I opened my notebook. I didn’t want anyone at that table who was not one of the Johnsons of Johnson City. It was about the same time as dinnertime in Johnson City long ago. Rays of the low evening sun came into the dining room and cast shadows, the same shadows the sun would have cast when Sam Houston sat there as a boy. “Now, Sam Houston,” I said, “I’d like you to tell me about those arguments that your father and Lyndon used to have at dinnertime.” At first, it was slow going, halting, just fragments of generalized memory, and I had to keep interjecting (“And then what?”) to keep it going at all. But, once Sam Houston started remembering, the memories, strikingly different from others he had previously given, began coming clearer and faster, until finally no interjections were necessary, and there were no pauses: Sam Houston was re-creating family dinners at the Johnsons’, saying, almost shouting, back and forth, what his father had shouted at his brother, and what his brother had shouted back: “ ‘You’re just not college material, are you, goddammit? You’re just a failure, Lyndon, and you’re always going to be a failure . . .’ And Lyndon would shout back, ‘What are you? You’re a bus inspector, that’s what you are! . . .’ ‘Sam! Sam!’ Mother would say . . . ‘Lyndon! Lyndon!’ ” And when, finally, after quite a long time, Sam Houston had stopped talking, and was sitting quietly, very quiet and still, so still that I felt he was in the grip of memory, memory as true as it could be after all these years, I said to him, “Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful stories about Lyndon when you both were boys, the stories you told me before—just tell me them again with more details.” There was a long pause. I can still see the scene—see the little, stunted, crippled man sitting at the long plank table, see the shadows in the room, see myself, not wanting to move lest I break the spell, sitting there against the wall with my notebook, saying, “Tell me those wonderful stories again.” “I can’t,” Sam Houston said. “Why not?” I asked. “Because they never happened.”
Faith, Friendship, and Tragedy at Santa Fe High / Texas Monthly
An incredible and moving piece -- this will probably be one of the top three links I send out this year:
Sabika Sheikh, a Muslim exchange student from Pakistan with dreams of changing the world, struck up an unlikely friendship with an evangelical Christian girl. The two became inseparable—until the day a fellow student opened fire. [...] Santa Fe is a deeply conservative community. In 2000 the town attracted national attention when officials from the school district appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their practice of conducting public prayers before football games. (They lost the case.) And the Cogburns are the town’s Brady Bunch. Every Sunday, Joleen and Jason take their children to Santa Fe Christian Church, which holds as a central tenet that the Bible is literally true. The affable Joleen, who grew up in Santa Fe, sometimes teaches a women’s Bible study class. On Friday nights, the equally good-natured Jason, a former high school quarterback from nearby Texas City who owns a wholesale seafood and crawfish company, would lead a recovery group for addicts and alcoholics. “We are Kingdom-minded,” Jason explained, brushing his shoulder-length blond hair out of his eyes as he took a seat at the table. “We like to tell our children that we live in this world but that we are not of this world.” Like all of the Cogburn children, Jaelyn, the oldest birth child, had been homeschooled by Joleen, who followed a Bible-based curriculum. Jaelyn was shy. Outside of her own siblings and a couple of girls from her church youth group, she mostly stayed to herself. But earlier that summer, she had surprised her parents, telling them that she wanted to meet new people. She said that God had “put it on my heart” to go to Santa Fe High. Joleen and Jason assumed that their daughter would have trouble adjusting to life at a public high school with 1,500 students. Instead, Jaelyn came home on that first day of school, a smile on her face, talking excitedly about meeting a girl from Pakistan. As Joleen began fixing dinner, Jaelyn retreated to her bedroom, where she kept five Bibles on her bookshelf. She googled Pakistan and learned that it is in South Asia, bordered on one side by India and China and on the other by Afghanistan and Iran. She also read that almost all of Pakistan’s 200 million residents are Muslim. Jaelyn returned downstairs, walked into the kitchen, and told Joleen that Sabika was likely a Muslim. “You know, Mom,” she said, “I’ve never met a Muslim.” “Well, maybe God has put you together for a reason,” Joleen said. “Who knows? Maybe the two of you will become friends.”
The Beating Heart / Washington Post Magazine
Another superb piece by Gene Weingarten:
I stared disconsolately at three crumpled slips of loose-leaf paper. Separately, they had been drawn out of an old green fedora by three strangers in a restaurant, and together they created an ordinary day chosen at random: “December,” “28” and “1986.” That was the date I was going to be researching for the next six years. It was for a book to be titled “One Day,” which would explore whether, in the insistent gyre of human experience, there even is such a thing as “an ordinary day.” The date seemed intuitively problematic: It was a Sunday, infamous among journalists for being the sleepiest news day of the week, and it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, infamous among journalists for being the sleepiest news week of the year. And it was a year that didn’t seem all that historically memorable. Bad day, bad week, bad year. One of my first discoveries involved an event that occurred in the early morning of that day, in suburban Washington. A woman received a new heart in a transplant performed by a surgical team that had never tried that operation before: It had worked only on corpses, in macabre rehearsals in a hospital morgue. That was all I knew, at the start.
Great Impractical Ideas in Computer Science: PowerPoint Programming / YouTube
This is brilliant on so many levels. I'm guessing that even the less computer-inclined amongst you will find this impressive and amusing. If for some reason you feel like skipping ahead, the second part, starting at 23:30, is completely different from the first part but arguably even more interesting.
My friend teaches a student-taught course on Esoteric Programming Languages. He invited me to do a guest lecture on PowerPoint.
My Friend Mister Rogers / The Atlantic
I wouldn't call this Tom Junod's finest writing (though that's a high bar); it's a bit raw, a bit all over the place. Yet as an emotion-laden reckoning with what it means that Fred Rogers befriended him over two decades ago, it just works. It's a wonderful, beautiful piece -- and because of that, many of you may have already seen it. In case you saw it shared somewhere and hadn't bothered reading it yet, I'll chime in and recommend it as well:
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved. I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all. He puzzles me now as much as he did when I first met him at the door of the apartment he kept in New York City, dressed, as he’d warned me when we spoke on the phone and he invited me over, in a shabby blue bathrobe and a pair of slippers. Fred was, let’s not forget, a rather peculiar man, and it is not just his goodness but rather the peculiarity of his goodness that has made him, 16 years after his death, triumphant as a symbol of human possibility, although just about everything he stood for has been lost.
The Lingering of Loss / New Yorker
My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest. [...] I sewed my first son his first snowsuit when I was pregnant with him, in the middle of a hard and terrible winter, the ramp-up to Y2K, the much anticipated end of the world. He wasn’t due till the very beginning of April; it would be spring by then, thawed, even blooming. Still, wouldn’t he be cold? He was coming out of me: didn’t he need something to go into? I bought a yard of Kermit-green fleece and a matching zipper, and I stitched for him that sort of star-shaped sack Maggie Simpson wears. (Most of my ideas about parenting came from Marge, fretting beneath her blue beehive.) The zipper ran from the left foot to the right shoulder. I sewed on little flaps for his tiny hands to be tucked into, like letters into envelopes. I tried the snowsuit out on a stuffed bear the brown of the bark of a sugar maple. We named the bear Elly, for Eleanor Roosevelt, and I carried her around the house in her new fleece suit, practicing. The doctors had to unzip the baby out of me. I couldn’t push. Maybe I didn’t want to, I don’t know, I don’t remember. When I was trying to deliver him, my best friend, Jane, was on her deathbed, more than a hundred miles away. We were historians, counters of years, markers of time, so this spring, twenty years since that day, day of birth, day of death, I opened her computer, to honor the anniversary.
Fight the Ship: Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy / ProPublica
Excellent reporting and storytelling:
The collision of the vessels was the Navy’s worst accident at sea in four decades. Seven sailors drowned. Scores were physically and psychologically wounded. Two months later, a second destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, broke that grim mark when it collided with another cargo vessel, leaving 10 more sailors dead. The successive incidents raised an unavoidable question: How could two $1.8 billion Navy destroyers, protected by one of the most advanced defense systems on the planet, fail to detect oncoming cargo ships broadcasting their locations to a worldwide navigational network? The failures of basic seamanship deeply embarrassed the Navy. Both warships belonged to the vaunted 7th Fleet — the most powerful armada in the world and one of the most important commands in the defense of the United States from nuclear attack. ProPublica reconstructed the Fitzgerald’s journey, relying on more than 13,000 pages of confidential Navy investigative records, public reports, and interviews with scores of Fitzgerald crew members, current and former senior Navy officers, and maritime experts. The review revealed neglect by Navy leadership, serious mistakes by officers — and extraordinary acts of valor and endurance by the crew. The Fitzgerald’s captain selected an untested team to steer the ship at night. He ordered the crew to speed through shipping lanes filled with cargo ships and fishing vessels to free up time to train his sailors the next day. At the time of the collision, he was asleep in his cabin. The 26-year-old officer of the deck, who was in charge of the destroyer at the time of the crash, had navigated the route only once before in daylight. In a panic, she ordered the Fitzgerald to turn directly into the path of the Crystal. The Fitzgerald’s crew was exhausted and undertrained. The inexperience showed in a series of near misses in the weeks before the crash, when the destroyer maneuvered dangerously close to vessels on at least three occasions. The warship’s state of readiness was in question. The Navy required destroyers to pass 22 certification tests to prove themselves seaworthy and battle-ready before sailing. The Fitzgerald had passed just seven of these tests. It was not even qualified to conduct its chief mission, anti-ballistic missile defense. A sailor’s mistake sparked a fire causing the electrical system to fail and a shipwide blackout a week before the mission resulting in the crash. The ship’s email system, for both classified and non-classified material, failed repeatedly. Officers used Gmail instead. Its radars were in questionable shape, and it’s not clear the crew knew how to operate them. One could not be made to automatically track nearby ships. To keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour. The ship’s primary navigation system was run by 17-year-old software.
An Epidemic of Disbelief / The Atlantic
As Spada wandered through the warehouse, he made another discovery, one that would help uncover a decades-long scandal, not just in Detroit but across the country. He noticed rows of steel shelving lined with white cardboard boxes, 10 inches tall and a foot wide, stacked six feet high. What are those? he asked a Detroit police officer who was accompanying him. Rape kits, the officer said. “I’m assuming they’ve been tested?” Spada said. “Oh, they’ve all been tested.” Spada pulled out a box and peered inside. The containers were still sealed, indicating that the evidence had never been sent to a lab. He opened four more boxes: the same. “I tried to do a quick calculation,” he later told me. “I came up with approximately 10,000.” Spada’s estimate was conservative. Eventually 11,341 untested rape kits were found, some dating back more than 30 years—each one a hermetically sealed testament to the most terrifying minutes of a woman’s life, each one holding evidence that had been swabbed or plucked from the most private parts of her body. And in all likelihood, some microscopic part of her assailant—his DNA, his identity—sat in that kit as well. Or kits. Eric Eugene Wilkes was known to Detroit police for robbery and carjacking. Not for rape. Yet Wilkes’s DNA was in boxes scattered throughout the warehouse, even as he walked free. His DNA first arrived there more than 18 years ago, after he raped a woman waiting for a bus on December 26, 2000. It next appeared after another rape four months later. Three days after that, police shelved the untested kit from his third victim. [...] But the rape-kit scandal has turned out to be only a visible symptom, a mole on the skin that hints at a pervasive cancer just below the surface. The deeper problem is a criminal-justice system in which police officers continue to reflexively disbelieve women who say they’ve been raped—even in this age of the #MeToo movement, and even when DNA testing can confirm many allegations. From the moment a woman calls 911 (and it is almost always a woman; male victims rarely report sexual assaults), a rape allegation becomes, at every stage, more likely to slide into an investigatory crevice. Police may try to discourage the victim from filing a report. If she insists on pursuing a case, it may not be assigned to a detective. If her case is assigned to a detective, it will likely close with little investigation and no arrest. If an arrest is made, the prosecutor may decline to bring charges: no trial, no conviction, no punishment. Each year, roughly 125,000 rapes are reported across the United States. Sometimes the decision to close a case is surely correct; no one wants to smear an innocent man’s reputation or curtail his freedom because of a false report. But in 49 out of every 50 rape cases, the alleged assailant goes free—often, we now know, to assault again. Which means that rape—more than murder, more than robbery or assault—is by far the easiest violent crime to get away with. [...] To police officers who haven’t been trained to spot signs of trauma, many rape victims appear to be lying. Why was she laughing when she gave her statement? Why was she so flat and unemotional? One Detroit detective told Campbell that a victim should be “a complete hot mess. They should be crying. They should be very, very traumatized.” But research finds that many victims don’t respond in a predictable fashion. This goes for their behavior during the assault as well as after: Why didn’t she fight? Why didn’t she run? Liz Garcia used to tell people that she would fight like crazy if a stranger ever came into her house. “I don’t say that anymore. I could have had all the weapons in the world in my house. But I couldn’t grab a weapon. He was taller, bigger; there was no fighting him.” One survivor told me she offered her assailant a glass of iced tea, hoping her courtesy would dissuade him. Another tried to politely decline the assault: You don’t have to do that. It’s fine. Yet another pretended she was enjoying herself, hoping he wouldn’t kill her afterward.
How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success / New Yorker
In 2002, Burnett rented Wollman Rink, in Central Park, for a live broadcast of the Season 4 finale of “Survivor.” The property was controlled by Donald Trump, who had obtained the lease to operate the rink in 1986, and had plastered his name on it. Before the segment started, Burnett addressed fifteen hundred spectators who had been corralled for the occasion, and noticed Trump sitting with Melania Knauss, then his girlfriend, in the front row. Burnett prides himself on his ability to “read the room”: to size up the personalities in his audience, suss out what they want, and then give it to them. “I need to show respect to Mr. Trump,” Burnett recounted, in a 2013 speech in Vancouver. “I said, ‘Welcome, everybody, to Trump Wollman skating rink. The Trump Wollman skating rink is a fine facility, built by Mr. Donald Trump. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Because the Trump Wollman skating rink is the place we are tonight and we love being at the Trump Wollman skating rink, Mr. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” As Burnett told the story, he had scarcely got offstage before Trump was shaking his hand, proclaiming, “You’re a genius!” Cut to: June, 2015. After starring in fourteen seasons of “The Apprentice,” all executive-produced by Burnett, Trump appeared in the gilded atrium of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, to announce that he was running for President. Only someone “really rich,” Trump declared, could “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” He also made racist remarks about Mexicans, prompting NBC, which had broadcast “The Apprentice,” to fire him. Burnett, however, did not sever his relationship with his star. He and Trump had been equal partners in “The Apprentice,” and the show had made each of them hundreds of millions of dollars. [...] Burnett is an avid raconteur, and his anecdotes about his life tend to have a three-act structure. In Act I, he is a fish out of water, guileless and naïve, with nothing but the shirt on his back and an outsized dream. Act II is the rude awakening: the world bets against him. It’s impossible! You’ll lose everything! No such thing has ever been tried! In Act III, Burnett always prevails. Not long after arriving in California, he landed his first job—as a nanny. Eyebrows were raised: a commando turned nanny? Yet Burnett thrived, working for a family in Beverly Hills, then one in Malibu. As he later observed, the experience taught him “how nice the life styles of wealthy people are.” Young, handsome, and solicitous, he discovered that successful people are often happy to talk about their path to success. [...] “The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
Why Do Chinese People Like Their Government? / Sup China
Much more than the oversimplified "it's the economy, stupid" answer that's often proffered. This excerpt from the intro summarises this piece well, but it's much drier than the rest of the essay, so trust me when I say this is well worth reading:
First, I’ll look at the gap in political culture between China and the liberal Western democracies, especially the United States. I’ll argue that there is little appreciation among most WEIRD individuals — that is, Western, Educated people from Industrialized, Rich, and Developed nations — for just how highly contingent political norms they take for granted really are from an historical perspective. I’ll sketch the outlines of the major historical currents that had to converge for these ideas to emerge in the late 18th century. Then, I’ll compare this very exceptional experience with that of China, which only embraced and began to harness those engines of Western wealth and power — science, industrialization, state structures capable of total mobilization of manpower and capital — much later. And late to the game, China suffered for over a century the predations of imperial powers, most notably Japan. Hopefully, I’ll show why it was that liberalism never really took hold, why it was that Chinese intellectuals turned instead to authoritarian politics to address the urgent matters of the day, and why authoritarian habits of mind have lingered on. Next, I’ll argue that a lot of unexamined hubris lies not only behind the belief that all people living under authoritarian political systems should be willing to make monumental sacrifices to create liberal democratic states but also behind the belief that it can work at all, given the decidedly poor record of projects for liberal democratic transformation in recent years, whether American-led or otherwise. It’s important to see what the world of recent years looks like through Beijing’s windows, and to understand the extent to which Beijing’s interpretation of that view is shared by a wide swath of China’s citizenry. Finally, I’ll look at the role of media in shaping perspectives of China in the Western liberal democracies and in other states. A very small number of individuals — reporters for major mainstream media outlets posted to China, plus their editors — wield a tremendous amount of influence over how China is perceived by ordinary Anglophone media consumers. It’s important to know something about the optical properties of the lens through which most of us view China.
The story of Jamal Khashoggi's murder and how the world looked the other way / Insider
One year ago, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and never walked out. In the months that followed, the facts of his disappearance and murder would emerge in fragments: an international high-tech spy game, a diabolical plot, a gruesome killing, and a preposterous cover-up reaching the highest levels of the Saudi government, aided by the indifference and obstinacy of the White House. Eventually those fragments came to comprise a macabre mosaic. This June, the United Nations special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions issued a 100-page report detailing the Khashoggi affair. The report, the product of five months of independent investigation spanning six countries, added to the thrum of international indignation about Khashoggi's murder. But so far it has largely failed to galvanize it into action. Here is the story, as we know it, illustrated by Chris Koehler and told as a nonfiction narrative by the author Evan Ratliff. This account draws on our own reporting, the UN report, hundreds of news accounts and video interviews — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Sabah, a Turkish outlet, in particular — and public testimony. We're retelling it because Jamal Khashoggi's story should be heard in full. And because even if you think you know what happened, you may not know how or why. [...] It was easy to forget, later, that he was a man in love. That was the Jamal Khashoggi who arrived on a flight into Istanbul, early on the morning of October 2, 2018. He was a few days short of 60 and divorced, a voluntary exile from his native Saudi Arabia living a lonely existence in Virginia. His tall frame carried an unsubtle paunch, and his hair had thinned out to the sides. The graying of his beard was nearly complete, covering an owlish face with eyes that could simultaneously betray easy mirth and deep sadness. An internationally acclaimed journalist writing for The Washington Post, he was considered brilliant by his peers. But he spent most of his days struggling under the burden of what he'd left behind, writing in hopes of breaking the world's indifference to the creeping repression in his home country. He'd grown dismayed to see its architect, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — known in the West as MBS — fêted by Washington and Silicon Valley as a dynamic reformer, while his friends and colleagues back home languished in prison for speaking out. His mission, he had come to believe, was to speak for them. But on that fall morning in Istanbul, Khashoggi stepped off the plane with an entirely different purpose.
An illusion of justice / Washington Post
Over the next few years, six young black men and one black girl would be arrested for crimes associated with Hardy’s murder. Four were charged. Two were tried — one was acquitted; one was convicted and sentenced to die. There was precious little evidence for any of the charges. This is a story about a wrongful conviction. It’s about witnesses who were rewarded for lies and threatened for telling the truth. It’s about overly aggressive law enforcement, a supine judiciary and almost comically ineffective representation, and how all of these things put a man on death row who nearly everyone now agrees is innocent — even the man who prosecuted him now doubts his guilt. It’s a story about the lives ruined along the way. And it’s about the murder of a much-liked deputy that, because of all of this, remains unsolved.
What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane / The Atlantic
From the always-excellent William Langewiesche:
The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish. This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.
The Day the Dinosaurs Died / New Yorker
A young paleontologist may have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth. [...] Within two minutes of slamming into Earth, the asteroid, which was at least six miles wide, had gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and lofted twenty-five trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. Picture the splash of a pebble falling into pond water, but on a planetary scale. When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up. The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blast looked nothing like a nuclear explosion, with its signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a “rooster tail,” a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere. [...] “We have the whole KT event preserved in these sediments,” DePalma said. “With this deposit, we can chart what happened the day the Cretaceous died.” No paleontological site remotely like it had ever been found, and, if DePalma’s hypothesis proves correct, the scientific value of the site will be immense. When Walter Alvarez visited the dig last summer, he was astounded. “It is truly a magnificent site,” he wrote to me, adding that it’s “surely one of the best sites ever found for telling just what happened on the day of the impact.”
Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret / New Yorker
The fragmented image of Mohamedou Salahi that United States military, law-enforcement, and intelligence agencies assembled in a classified dossier was that of a “highly intelligent” Mauritanian electrical engineer, who, “as a key al-Qaida member,” had played a role in several mass-casualty plots. Other men carried box cutters and explosives; Salahi was a ghost on the periphery. The evidence against him lacked depth, but investigators considered its breadth conclusive. His proximity to so many events and high-level jihadi figures could not be explained by coincidence, they thought, and only a logistical mastermind could have left so faint a trail. [...] Shortly before the first detainees arrived, Robert McFadden, an N.C.I.S. special agent, was eager to receive the flight manifest. “I just couldn’t wait to see who the detainees were,” he told me. He had spent much of the past fifteen months in Yemen, investigating Al Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and hoped that some of the men who were being shipped to Guantánamo would have information about the case. But, when the list of detainees finally arrived, he recalled, “my reaction was, What the fuck? Who are these guys?” Most of the names were Afghan or Pakistani, “and the Arabs who were on the list certainly weren’t recognizable to me and my colleagues who had been working Al Qaeda for years.” A few weeks later, after McFadden visited the detention camp, he concluded that the detainees were “essentially nobodies.” He told me, “There was not anyone approaching even the most liberal interpretation of a ‘high-value detainee.’ ” In Afghanistan, the U.S. military was inadvertently presiding over a kidnapping-and-ransom industry. Helicopters dropped flyers in remote Afghan villages, offering “wealth and power beyond your dreams” to anyone who turned in a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. “You can receive millions of dollars,” one of the flyers said. “This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” A common bounty was five thousand dollars—far more money than most Afghans earned in a year—and “the result was an explosion of human trafficking” by various armed groups, Mark Fallon, the deputy commander of Guantánamo’s Criminal Investigation Task Force, wrote in his memoir, “Unjustifiable Means,” which was heavily redacted before being published, in 2017. As Michael Lehnert, a Marine Corps major general who briefly served as the detention camp’s first commander, later testified to Congress, “What better way to enrich yourself, while resolving old grudges, than to finger a neighbor who was your enemy, regardless of his support for either Al Qaeda or the Taliban?” [...] “Had I done what they accused me of, I would have relieved myself on day one,” Salahi wrote in his diary. “But the problem is that you cannot just admit to something you haven’t done; you need to deliver the details, which you can’t when you hadn’t done anything. It’s not just, ‘Yes, I did!’ No, it doesn’t work that way: you have to make up a complete story that makes sense to the dumbest dummies. One of the hardest things to do is to tell an untruthful story and maintain it, and that is exactly where I was stuck.” [...] In the military hearing, Salahi described the torture program in vivid detail. The transcript omits much of his testimony, noting that, at the moment he started to describe the abuse, “the recording equipment began to malfunction” and that the tapes were “distorted.” The transcript continues, “The Detainee wanted to show the Board his scars and location of injuries, but the board declined the viewing.” [...] The government no longer attempted to prosecute Salahi—nobody had touched the criminal case since Couch withdrew—but it argued that he should nevertheless be detained indefinitely. On March 22, 2010, a U.S. district-court judge named James Robertson ruled on Salahi’s petition to be released. “The government’s case, essentially, is that Salahi was so connected to al-Qaida for a decade beginning in 1990 that he must have been ‘part of’ al-Qaida at the time of his capture,” Robertson wrote. But the government had “abandoned the theory” that Salahi knew about 9/11 before it happened. As for his jihadi connections, Robertson continued, the government’s classified filings “tend to support Salahi’s submission that he was attempting to find the appropriate balance—avoiding close relationships with al-Qaida members, but also trying to avoid making himself an enemy” of the group. In Robertson’s assessment, the government’s evidence about Salahi was “so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.” He concluded, “Salahi must be released from custody.” Steve Wood was elated when he heard the news. But the government appealed, and Salahi stayed in Guantánamo.
The New China Scare / Foreign Affairs
Fareed Zakaria with a very illuminating piece (it's worth registering to read it for free):
A new consensus, encompassing both parties, the military establishment, and key elements of the media, holds that China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it. [...] Let’s be clear: China is a repressive regime that engages in thoroughly illiberal policies, from banning free speech to interning religious minorities. [...] Do these facts make China a vital threat, and to the extent that they do, how should that threat be addressed? The consequences of exaggerating the Soviet threat were vast: gross domestic abuses during the McCarthy era; a dangerous nuclear arms race; a long, futile, and unsuccessful war in Vietnam; and countless other military interventions in various so-called Third World countries. The consequences of not getting the Chinese challenge right today will be vaster still. The United States risks squandering the hard-won gains from four decades of engagement with China, encouraging Beijing to adopt confrontational policies of its own, and leading the world’s two largest economies into a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope that will inevitably cause decades of instability and insecurity. [...] To say that hedging failed reflects a lack of historical perspective. In the early 1970s, before Nixon’s opening to China, Beijing was the world’s greatest rogue regime. [...] By comparison, today’s China is a remarkably responsible nation on the geopolitical and military front. It has not gone to war since 1979. It has not used lethal military force abroad since 1988. Nor has it funded or supported proxies or armed insurgents anywhere in the world since the early 1980s. That record of nonintervention is unique among the world’s great powers. All the other permanent members of the UN Security Council have used force many times in many places over the last few decades—a list led, of course, by the United States. China has also gone from seeking to undermine the international system to spending large sums to bolster it. Beijing is now the second-largest funder of the United Nations and the UN peacekeeping program. It has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers, more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. [...] As for the effect of mercantilist Chinese policies on the U.S. economy, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has noted that “it cannot be argued seriously that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected U.S. growth by even 0.1 percent a year.” [...] Pompeo has asserted—in a patronizing statement that would surely infuriate any Chinese citizen—that the United States and its allies must keep China in “its proper place.” China’s sin, according to Pompeo, is that it spends more on its military than it needs to for its own defense. But the same, of course, could be said of the United States—and of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and most other large countries. In fact, a useful definition of a great power is one that is concerned about more than just its own security. The old order—in which small European countries act as global heavyweights while behemoths such as China and India are excluded from the first ranks of global institutions—cannot be sustained. China will have to be given a place at the table and genuinely integrated into the structures of decision-making, or it will freelance and unilaterally create its own new structures and systems. China’s ascension to global power is the most significant new factor in the international system in centuries. It must be recognized as such. [...] This dismal success rate is an early indicator of what a broader “decoupling” strategy would look like. China is the largest trading partner of many countries besides the United States, including key players in the Western Hemisphere, such as Brazil. When asked how they would respond to decoupling, senior leaders around the world almost all offer some version of the answer that one head of government gave me: “Please do not ask us to choose between the United States and China. You will not like the answer you get.”
The Havana Job / Medium
When three CIA agents bungle their way into Fidel Castro’s clutches on the eve of the most dangerous international standoff of the 20th century, they are sentenced to Cuba’s most notorious prison, the Isle of Pines. Escape seems impossible. This is the previously classified story of a Hail Mary plan, a Dirty Dozen crew of lowlifes, and a woman who wouldn’t bow to authority as she fought to bring them home.
Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India / New Yorker
In 2013, when another reporter asked if he felt sorry about the deaths of so many Muslims, he suggested that he had been a helpless bystander. “If someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind—even then, if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful?” Modi said. “Of course it is.” To many observers, Modi’s success stemmed from his willingness to play on profound resentments, which for decades had been considered offensive to voice in polite society. Even though India’s Muslims were typically poorer than their fellow-citizens, many Hindus felt that they had been unjustly favored by the central government. In private, Hindus sniped that the Muslims had too many children and that they supported terrorism. The Gandhi-Nehru experiment had made Muslims feel unusually secure in India, and partly as a result there has been very little radicalization, outside Kashmir; still, many Hindus considered them a constant threat. “Modi became a hero for all the Hindus of India,” Nirjhari Sinha, a scientist in Gujarat who investigated the riots, told me. “That is what people tell me, at parties, at dinners. People genuinely feel that Muslims are terrorists—and it is because of Modi that Muslims are finally under control.” [...] Modi’s supporters often get their news from Republic TV, which features shouting matches, public shamings, and scathing insults of all but the most slavish Modi partisans; next to it, Fox News resembles the BBC’s “Newshour.” Founded in 2017 with B.J.P. support, Republic TV stars Arnab Goswami, a floppy-haired Oxford graduate who acts as a kind of public scourge for opponents of Modi’s initiatives. In a typical program, from 2017, Goswami mentioned a law mandating that movie theatres play the national anthem, and asked whether people should be required to stand; his guest Waris Pathan, a Muslim assemblyman, argued that it should be a matter of choice. “Why can’t you stand up?” Goswami shouted at Pathan. Before Pathan could get out an answer, he yelled again, “Why can’t you stand up? What’s your problem with it?” Pathan kept trying, but Goswami, his hair flying, shouted over him. “I’ll tell you why, because—I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you why. Can I tell you? Then why don’t you stop, and I’ll tell you why? Don’t be an anti-national! Don’t be an anti-national! Don’t be an anti-national!” The lack of journalistic scrutiny has given Modi immense freedom to control the narrative. [...] As Ayyub and I drove around Kashmir, it seemed unclear how the Indian government intended to proceed. Economic activity had ground to a halt. Schools were closed. Kashmiris were cut off from the outside world and from one another. “We are overwhelmed by cases of depression,” a physician in Srinagar told us. Many Kashmiris warned that an explosion was likely the moment the security measures were lifted. “Modi is doing what he did in Gujarat twenty years ago, when he ran a tractor over the Muslims there,” a woman named Dushdaya said.
A Million People Are Jailed at China's Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here's What Really Goes on Inside / Haaretz
I rarely send out four-star articles, and they're typically (what I consider to be) superb pieces of writing. This one isn't quite that, and it's possible Haaretz will ask for your e-mail address to ungate this...but it's also an important and horrifying account that doesn't seem to be getting enough attention:
Twenty prisoners live in one small room. They are handcuffed, their heads shaved, every move is monitored by ceiling cameras. A bucket in the corner of the room is their toilet. The daily routine begins at 6 A.M. They are learning Chinese, memorizing propaganda songs and confessing to invented sins. They range in age from teenagers to elderly. Their meals are meager: cloudy soup and a slice of bread. Torture – metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks – takes place in the “black room.” Punishment is a constant. The prisoners are forced to take pills and get injections. It’s for disease prevention, the staff tell them, but in reality they are the human subjects of medical experiments. Many of the inmates suffer from cognitive decline. Some of the men become sterile. Women are routinely raped. Such is life in China’s reeducation camps, as reported in rare testimony provided by Sayragul Sauytbay (pronounced: Say-ra-gul Saut-bay, as in “bye”), a teacher who escaped from China and was granted asylum in Sweden. Few prisoners have succeeded in getting out of the camps and telling their story. Sauytbay’s testimony is even more extraordinary, because during her incarceration she was compelled to be a teacher in the camp. China wants to market its camps to the world as places of educational programs and vocational retraining, but Sauytbay is one of the few people who can offer credible, firsthand testimony about what really goes on in the camps. [...] Much of what she said corroborated previous testimony by prisoners who had fled to the West. [...] A large number of camps have been established in that region over the past two years, as part of the regime’s struggle against what it terms the “Three Evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism. According to Western estimates, between one and two million of the province’s residents have been incarcerated in camps during Beijing’s campaign of oppression.
The Legend of John Arthur, the Toughest Man in America / Men's Journal
(For those of you in Europe, this won't work without a VPN connection outside the GDPR zone...)
John Arthur has been shot, stabbed, fought in mob-run deathmatches. He’s arrested and killed some of America’s worst criminals as an undercover agent. And now he’s finally coming clean. [...] Of all the faded legends at Legends, though, no one has a larger reputation than Arthur. It’s an incredible feat, considering he never competed regularly in the United States as a pro boxer or kickboxer. His bona fides come solely from his years in the illegal bare-knuckle arena and working in law enforcement—not to mention fifty years of black-belt-level experience in American Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and the ancient Greek martial art Pankration. “Most managers don’t know how to fight, but have you seen John’s scars? I’ve seen him do stuff no one else knows how to do,” Blanks says. “I mean, he’s fought to the death in overseas matches.” Magnus puts it another way. “If John and I were facing off, I think I would just shoot him,” he says. “And hope I don’t miss.” Brown-eyed with a trim mustache and black tracksuit, Arthur has become a legend in the boxing world for training the hotheads no one else can handle and transforming them into champions. In the ’80s, he coached Michael Nunn, a volatile middleweight, taking him from drug dens to Caesars Palace. “A street guy,” Arthur recalls. “I had to break into the damn ghetto just to get him so we could go work out.” In the ’90s, Arthur took on Lakva Sim, an unruly featherweight from Mongolia, leading the 5’7″ puncher to a world title. “Ornery little bastard who loved to drink and cuss out promoters,” he says. Most famously, Arthur revived the career of James Toney, a world-champion heavyweight who once threatened to pull a gun on his own manager, scaring off everyone in the business—until Arthur donned gloves and entered the ring with Toney himself, sparring daily with the 5’9″, 220-pound behemoth until he brought him back to form. “He’s Superman,” Toney says of Arthur. “I was young and wild and crazy, and he stayed on top of me. He’s different. I mean, he’s shot and killed people. I seen his gunshot wounds—you won’t see that with no other manager.” [...] When I cold-called Arthur, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I encountered the last thing I had anticipated: relief. “Funny you should call,” he said, sighing. “For the longest time, I didn’t want to talk about this stuff. But now I’m nearing 70 and want to leave something for my grandkids. Where should I begin?” Over the next two years, in face-to-face interviews and endless phone calls, Arthur began to spin an incredible tale—so implausible, in fact, that I soon began reaching out to well over a dozen former fighters, co-workers, and family members to confirm his stories, every one of them only enriching his saga. “I should’ve been dead many times,” Arthur says, heading back to the ring in his gym. “Being where I’m from, I’ve had to have balls of steel.”
Click here to subscribe and to see previous issues.