Links: Best of 2020

Here’s this year’s ranked compilation of 4-star links. And perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me, but it’s startling how much I seem to like pieces from the New Yorker. (Saving them to Pocket or the like will let you read them if you don’t have a subscription.)

Previous years: [2019] [2018] [2017]

I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same. | New York Times

An extraordinarily good piece; part of me wanted to extend my rating scale to five stars for this one. Also, as you might expect, it's a rather gut-wrenching read:

A Covid diary: This is what I saw as the pandemic engulfed our hospitals. […]

Brambillasca tells me about how he had two patients side by side one day. One man was around 65 and had been on a ventilator for 10 days. He had heart problems, and he wasn’t improving. To his left was another man, about the same age but healthy. His breathing was becoming faster and shallower. Over the course of two minutes, Brambillasca decided to take the ventilator away from the first man and give it to the second one. “If you think of it as saving the most number of lives, that’s it, you have to do it,” he says. “But I’ll become an ice-cream maker instead of a doctor if I have to go on this way.”

Will I, too, feel that way soon? We are starting to see some cases in our hospitals, but it’s nothing like what doctors in Italy are describing. They warn me that we are about two weeks behind them. Could we really get to where they are in such a short time?


Qassem Suleimani and How Nationals Decide to Kill | New Yorker

Superb reporting:

When nation-states engage in the bloody calculus of killing, the boundary between whom they can target and whom they can’t is porous. On January 3rd, the United States launched a drone strike that executed Major General Qassem Suleimani, the chief of Iran’s élite special-forces-and-intelligence unit, the Quds Force. He was one of Iran’s most powerful leaders, with control over paramilitary operations across the Middle East, including a campaign of roadside bombings and other attacks by proxy forces that had killed at least six hundred Americans during the Iraq War.

Since the Hague Convention of 1907, killing a foreign government official outside wartime has generally been barred by the Law of Armed Conflict. When the Trump Administration first announced the killing of Suleimani, officials declared that he had posed an “imminent” threat to Americans. Then, under questioning and criticism, the Administration changed its explanation, citing Suleimani’s role in an ongoing “series of attacks.” Eventually, President Trump abandoned the attempt at justification, tweeting that it didn’t “really matter,” because of Suleimani’s “horrible past.”


How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda | New Yorker

Recommended to me by many people. Trust me, you should read it:

On July 4th—a date that had no meaning to me except that it was exactly a month short of my eighth birthday—my mother and I landed at J.F.K. Airport, our six suitcases bulging with rolls of hand-sewn bedding, bags of Sichuanese chili peppers, a cast-iron wok, and her stethoscope. My mother now found herself, at the age of forty, living in a tiny studio apartment in New Haven, Connecticut—my father was at Yale by then—with a husband who, she soon discovered, was carrying on an affair. Within a year and a half, he had left us, and she was faced with eviction; she had less than two hundred dollars to her name, and spoke little English.

Now the two of us became the embodiment of the Chinese phrase xiang yi wei ming—mutual reliance for life. My mother knew that in a vastly unequal and under-resourced world she would have to secure whatever small advantages she could.


Baking Bread in Lyon | New Yorker

For most of my adult life, I had secretly wanted to find myself in France: in a French kitchen, somehow holding my own, having been “French-trained” (the enduring magic of that phrase). I thought of Lyon, rather than Paris or Provence, because it was said to be the most Frenchly authentic and was known historically as the world’s gastronomic capital. […]

“Yes,” he said slowly: Oui-i-i-i. He actually seemed to be getting excited. I could see excitement in his fingers. They were drumming a counter. “Come. Work here. You will be welcome.”

“I will see you tomorrow.” I thanked him. We shook hands. I made to leave.

“You live across the street, right? You can stop by anytime. If you can’t sleep, come over. At three in the morning, I’ll be here.”

I thought, If I can’t sleep at three in the morning, I don’t go for walks. But I understood the message. Bob was making himself available. I’ll be your friend, he was saying.


The Twilight of the Iranian Revolution | New Yorker

This February 11th, the forty-first anniversary of the revolution, a celebration was scheduled for downtown Tehran. I was at a restaurant in the city that morning, when a waitress overheard me discussing plans to attend. “You’re going?” she asked with a sneer. “They force people to be there—they blackmail them. They tell people that if they don’t go they will lose their jobs.”

A parade wound down Independence Boulevard for more than two miles. Along the way, placards proclaimed the victory of the revolution, and on every block hung portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei. The festivities seemed subdued, though, with small bands of marchers shepherding kids bundled against the cold. Some of the attendees dutifully cried “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” But when Hassan Rouhani, the country’s President, came to the lectern in Freedom Square there was barely a murmur. Most people carried on talking to one another. “Rouhani promised that after the nuclear deal most of our problems would be solved,” a woman named Majideh told me. “We decided to believe in a miracle. Look what happened.”


The Last Patrol | California Sunday Magazine

In July, I shared this excellent article [a bit further down in this compilation] about “The Cursed Platoon,” led by Clint Lorance. This piece, which goes further by including Lorance's (and his defenders’) perspectives, is even better. It's long but worthwhile:

In 2019, President Trump pardoned Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was serving a 20-year sentence for ordering the murder of two Afghan civilians. 

To Lorance’s defenders, the act was long overdue. To members of his platoon, it was a gross miscarriage of justice.


How China Controlled the Coronavirus | New Yorker

There's been a lot of positive buzz about this piece, but I was hesitant; I've definitely shared too many links in the last six months about the pandemic, China, or both. And yet the buzz was well-deserved. This is a remarkably even-handed, nuanced, and interesting glimpse of a different world:

The Chinese lockdown was more intense than almost anywhere else in the world. Neighborhood committees, the most grassroots level of Communist Party organization, enforced the rules, and in many places they limited households to sending one individual outside every two or three days to buy necessities. If a family were suspected of exposure to the virus, it wasn’t unheard-of for their door to be sealed shut while tests and contact-tracing were being conducted. One student I had taught in the nineties sent a photograph of a door in her community that had been closed with two official stamps. “I haven’t seen such things since I was born, but people who are older must have some memory of such scenes,” she wrote, referring to the Maoist campaigns. “We are becoming numb, which may have more bad impact than the virus, in the long run.”


The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist | GQ

The Argentines who had sat glued to their televisions that Friday the 13th would spend the next weeks engrossed by the story of the Banco Río job—and years after enthralled by a saga that provided one unbelievable twist after another. The incident is still as legendary today as it was 14 years ago. Long after its mysteries were untangled, the so-called Robbery of the Century endures as a modern-day Robin Hood saga—one that immortalized a crew of colorful thieves who set out to become rich and became folk heroes instead. And it all began with Fernando Araujo.

Araujo had a crazy idea, and he shared it with his friend Sebastián García Bolster. This was a few years after the botched Ramallo heist had lodged itself in Araujo's brain. It would be crazy to rob a bank but not leave, he mentioned to Bolster. To disappear through a hole. Bolster had been friends with Araujo since high school, and he agreed: That did sound like a wild way to rob a bank. But he assumed it was just some lark; his pal Araujo smoked a lot of weed.


A Missionary on Trial | New Yorker

Excellent reporting; what starts out sounding like a ProPublica exposé is actually a well-researched, reasonably dispassionate chronicle of a complex situation. While the author does seem to have concluded whether or not Bach is guilty, multiple points-of-view are well served:

Renée Bach went to Uganda to save children—but many in her care died. Was she responsible?


Book Review: Hoover | Slate Star Codex

Yes, it's a book review, and yes, Scott makes a few typos when copying passages from the book. But I found this utterly fascinating:

You probably remember Herbert Hoover as the guy who bungled the Great Depression. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should remember him as a bold explorer looking for silver in the jungles of Burma. Or as the heroic defender of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion. Or as a dashing pirate-philanthropist, gallivanting around the world, saving millions of lives wherever he went. Or as the temporary dictator of Europe. Or as a geologist, or a bank tycoon, or author of the premier 1900s textbook on metallurgy. How did a backwards orphan son of a blacksmith, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Midwest, grow up to be a captain of industry and a US President? How did he become such a towering figure in the history of philanthropy that biographer Kenneth Whyte claims “the number of lives Hoover saved through his various humanitarian campaigns might exceed 100 million, a record of benevolence unlike anything in human history”?


From Nazi Germany to Australia: The Incredible True Story of History’s Longest Kayak Journey | Vanity Fair

With Germany in tatters, his small business bankrupt, Oskar Speck got into his kayak in 1932 for what would become an epic, seven-and-a-half-year paddle—30,000 miles, packed with hero’s welcomes and near-death escapes, all the way to Australia. But as Speck battled sharks, hostile locals, and malaria, Hitler rose to power and W.W. II began. This is the story of Speck’s voyage, an adventure nearly lost to history.


Was Jeanne Calment the Oldest Person Who Ever Lived -- Or a Fraud? | New Yorker

Later in life, Calment claimed to have known Vincent van Gogh, telling different versions of an encounter with him in 1888. “Van Gogh was very ugly. Ugly like a louse,” she once remembered. “We called him le dingo.” According to one anecdote, van Gogh came into her family’s drygoods store, on Rue Gambetta, wanting to buy canvas. Calment sometimes said that her father waited on him. Her father, however, was a shipbuilder; the store actually belonged to her husband’s family. Another time Calment recalled, “My husband said to him, ‘I present to you my wife.’ ” This recollection was also blurred: Calment, an adolescent in 1888, didn’t marry for another eight years.


How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands | New Yorker

Until the nineteen-eighties there were no roads in Camp, so most people got around on horses. Some had Land Rovers, but the soil was so wet that they were always getting stuck in bogs. There weren’t many landmarks to steer by, and fog often obscured the few that there were, so people learned to navigate by looking at the ground. No matter how you travelled, it took hours to get anywhere, so when you passed a house you would stop in for a meal or to sleep over. Anyone living outside a settlement was expected always to be able to come up with a meal and a bed for the night.

For a long time you rarely knew when someone was coming, because there were no phones in Camp, and the mail came once a month. […]

Each morning at ten, a doctor in Stanley would hold consultations over the radio-telephone, and everyone would stop what he or she was doing and sit down around the radio with a cup of tea to listen to islanders describe their coughs and aches and gynecological problems and irritable bowels.

The enormous changes that propelled the Falkland Islands through two centuries of history in twenty years actually began shortly before the war, in the late nineteen-seventies, around the time that Tony Heathman learned how to shear sheep.


The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet | Wired

At 22, he single-handedly put a stop to the worst cyberattack the world had ever seen. Then he was arrested by the FBI. This is his untold story.


A President Looks Back on His Toughest Fight | New Yorker

Excerpted from Obama's new memoir:

“What Axe is trying to say, Mr. President,” Rahm interrupted, his face screwed up in a frown, “is that this can blow up in our faces.” [...]

“So what are we saying here?” I asked. “That despite having the biggest Democratic majorities in decades, despite the promises we made during the campaign, we shouldn’t try to get health care done?”

Rahm looked to Axe for help.

“We all think we should try,” Axe said. “You just need to know that, if we lose, your Presidency will be badly weakened. And nobody understands that better than McConnell and Boehner.”

I stood up, signalling that the meeting was over. “We better not lose, then,” I said.

When I think back to those early conversations, it’s hard to deny my overconfidence. I was convinced that the logic of health-care reform was so obvious that even in the face of well-organized opposition I could rally the American people’s support.


Buying Myself Back | The Cut

Emily Ratajkowski:

I was walking through Tompkins Square Park with a friend and her dog and sipping a coffee when Jim’s name lit up my phone. “See you’re getting sued. My advice …” he began. Jim was a lawyer, familiar with people calling him up to ask for legal advice and therefore used to doling out his opinion even when it wasn’t solicited. “I guess this comes with the territory of being a public persona,” he wrote in a follow-up text.

I guess, I thought.

I sat down on a bench and Googled my name, discovering that I was in fact being sued, this time for posting a photo of myself on Instagram that had been taken by a paparazzo. I learned the next day from my own lawyer that despite being the unwilling subject of the photograph, I could not control what happened to it.


The Fight to Save an Innocent Refugee from Almost Certain Death | New Yorker

Omar Ameen came to the U.S. to escape the violence in Iraq. Now he’s accused of being a member of an ISIS hit squad. [...]

Ameen listened intently, elbows on the table, head hunched forward. As he began to understand the charge, he was overcome with relief. “I wasn’t even in Iraq at the time of the murder,” he said. “This will be easy.” [...]

Soon after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President, he began saying that terrorist groups had infiltrated the flow of refugees into the U.S. “We have no idea where they’re coming from,” he said, in an interview with ABC. “This could be one of the great Trojan horses ever, since the original.” Shortly before the election, he said, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that Muslim refugees in the U.S. were “definitely, in many cases, ISIS-aligned.” His son Donald, Jr., a senior campaign adviser, posted on Twitter, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” Security and intelligence officials found the rhetoric absurd: refugees are the most thoroughly vetted category of people entering the U.S.


The Mysterious Lawyer X | California Sunday Magazine

Nicola Gobbo defended Melbourne’s most notorious criminals at the height of a gangland war. They didn’t know she had a secret.


'The Cursed Platoon' | Washington Post

Only a few hours had passed since President Trump pardoned 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and the men of 1st Platoon were still trying to make sense of how it was even possible.

How could a man they blamed for ruining their lives, an officer the Army convicted of second-degree murder and other charges, be forgiven so easily? How could their president allow him to just walk free? […]

Since returning home in 2013, five of the platoon’s three dozen soldiers have died. At least four others have been hospitalized following suicide attempts or struggles with drugs or alcohol. […]

By November 2019, Twist, a man the soldiers of 1st Platoon loved, was gone and Lorance was free from prison and headed for New York City, a new life and a star turn on Fox News.


The Unraveling of America | Rolling Stone

In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria. Within four years, 18 million men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the arsenal of democracy.

When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the Nazis. At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator every two hours, around the clock. Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes. A single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich. […]

The end of the American era and the passing of the torch to Asia is no occasion for celebration, no time to gloat. In a moment of international peril, when humanity might well have entered a dark age beyond all conceivable horrors, the industrial might of the United States, together with the blood of ordinary Russian soldiers, literally saved the world. American ideals, as celebrated by Madison and Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, at one time inspired and gave hope to millions.


The Future of America’s Contest with China | New Yorker

Excellent and very thorough reporting, and interesting to read alongside another recent four-star link, Fareed Zakaria's piece in Foreign Affairs:

From the balcony, Xi presided over fifteen thousand goose-stepping troops and phalanxes of tanks and jets—five hundred and eighty pieces of equipment in all. For nearly a century, the U.S. has been the dominant military power in the Pacific, as it has in much of the world. Xi sees this as an unacceptable intrusion. “It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia,” he has said. To achieve that, China has strengthened its military to the point that Pentagon analysts believe it could defeat U.S. forces in a confrontation along its borders.


Solving the “The Miracle Sudoku” | Kottke

Every once in a while during my internet travels, I run across something like this video: something impossibly mundane and niche (a ~26-minute video of someone solving a sudoku puzzle) that turns out to be ludicrously entertaining. I cannot improve upon Ben Orlin’s description:

You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.


Michael Jordan: A history of flight | ESPN

"We had field days in elementary school where in May you'd go out and have a 100-yard dash," he says. "Even then, Mike, he hated losing. Some of the memories I have on activity buses going to football, basketball, baseball games. There was many times we'd have a game of cards on the activity bus. And we'd get to the school we were playing, and Mike hadn't been winning the last few hands? He wouldn't let anybody get off the bus."


History Will Judge the Complicit | The Atlantic

But in this case the clichés were wrong. It was Graham who made excuses for Trump’s abuse of power. It was Graham—a JAG Corps lawyer—who downplayed the evidence that the president had attempted to manipulate foreign courts and blackmail a foreign leader into launching a phony investigation into a political rival. It was Graham who abandoned his own stated support for bipartisanship and instead pushed for a hyperpartisan Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. […]

To the American reader, references to Vichy France, East Germany, fascists, and Communists may seem over-the-top, even ludicrous. But dig a little deeper, and the analogy makes sense. The point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin; the point is to compare the experiences of high-ranking members of the American Republican Party, especially those who work most closely with the White House, to the experiences of Frenchmen in 1940, or of East Germans in 1945, or of Czesław Miłosz in 1947. These are experiences of people who are forced to accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own.


The invisible city: how a homeless man built a life underground | The Guardian

After decades among the hidden homeless, Dominic Van Allen dug himself a bunker beneath a public park. But his life would get even more precarious. [...]

Most nights, before bed, before it all went wrong, Dominic Van Allen whiled away the last of the evening hours in a pub called The Garden Gate. It was easy to fit in and feel smart there, chatting and drinking with a crowd who passed through in varied states of dishevelment. Dog-walkers brought in sodden dogs. Exhausted junior doctors shambled in after shifts with their sleeves pushed up. There were scarved and suited older men, frail as antique hatstands, and casually dressed professionals with jobs in finance or entertainment who owned expensive homes nearby. “And it’s you rich buggers,” Van Allen marvelled, genially enough, as he eyed the state of their trainers, “who can afford to look the scruffiest.”


GPT-3 | Twitter (via Threadreader)

I keep seeing all kinds of crazy reports about people's experiences with GPT-3, so I figured that I'd collect a thread of them. [...]

I am completely floored. Someone [ran] a thought of mine through GPT-3 to expand it into an explanation of what I had in mind, and it's like 95% meaningful and 90% correct. I don't think that I have seen a human explanation of my more complicated tweets approaching this accuracy.


The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE | GQ

Zac Easter knew what was happening to him. He knew why. And he knew that it was only going to get worse. So he decided to write it all down—to let the world know what football had done to him, what he'd done to his body and his brain for the game he loved. And then he shot himself.


Surviving It All: She’s 92, made it through the Holocaust, and set off for a cruise around the world in February. | The Cut

I'll just steal the summary from Longreads:

“I think every life is like a novel.” Marga Griesbach was born in Germany in 1927. Her life is like multiple novels — horror, romance, magical realism, travelogue. Whatever you’re doing right now, you should stop it and read this story.


Does Time Really Flow? New Clues Come From a Century-Old Approach to Math. | Quanta

This was superb and blew my mind. (That doesn't mean I necessarily understood much, but what I thought I understood seems brilliant and potentially game-changing.)

Physicists are still digesting Gisin’s work — it’s not often that someone tries to reformulate the laws of physics in a new mathematical language — but many of those who have engaged with his arguments think they could potentially bridge the conceptual divide between the determinism of general relativity and the inherent randomness at the quantum scale.


The Man Who Refused to Spy | New Yorker

The F.B.I. tried to recruit an Iranian scientist as an informant. When he balked, the payback was brutal.


The TikTok War | Stratechery

Westerners asked to think about competition with China — a minority until fairly recently, as many envisioned a China liberalized by economic integration — tend to see it through a geopolitical or military lens. But Chinese communists believe that the greatest threat to the security of their party, the stability of their country, and China’s return to its rightful place at the center of human civilization, is ideological. […]

Perhaps the most powerful argument against taking any sort of action is that we aren’t China, and isn’t blocking TikTok something that China would do? Well yes, we know that is what they would do, because the Chinese government has blocked U.S. social networks for years. Wars, though, are fought not because we lust for battle, but because we pray for peace. If China is on the offensive against liberalism not only within its borders but within ours, it is in liberalism’s interest to cut off a vector that has taken root precisely because it is so brilliantly engineered to give humans exactly what they want.


Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages | Ex Urbe

This blog post (by a UChicago history professor) is a bit less polished than the typical 4-star article, but the content is exceptional:

As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages. […]

As for how an age so terrible to live through produced the masterpieces and innovations we still hold in awe, my ultrashort answer is that Renaissance art and culture was also a gradual ramp-up from ever-changing Medieval art and culture, and that the leaps we seem to see in the later period are the desperate measures of a desperate time.


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