My Favorite Longreads of 2011

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I spend a lot of time reading, whether on the internet or on my Kindle through Instapaper. The latter is an activity I heartily recommend for anyone.

This year, a myriad of compelling, informative, moving longform content was published online, available for free. Here are some of the pieces I found the most interesting. As some of these cover some pretty dark territory, I certainly didn't "enjoy" reading them all, but if they're on this list, I found them to be works worthy of your attention. Many of them have significantly changed how I think about the topics they cover, which I believe to be a sign of any well-written content:

How 480 Characters Unraveled My Career - Nir Rosen's apologia explains how a few careless tweets destroyed everything he'd been working towards for years.

Our Desperate, 250-Year-Long Search for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun - Maria Bustillos breaks out her forensic grammarian hat over at The Awl.

Leaving in a Huff - Eric D. Snider reconstructs the Moviefone meltdown with hilarity and truth.

The Sad Beautiful Fact That We're Going to Miss Almost Everything - Linda Holmes presents the ultimate conundrum of following pop culture.

Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? - Anthony Grafton not only presents a sobering portrait of American education, but also points to flaws in how we write and conceive of it.

Sweet Emulsion - Scott Tobias explains why we should care that the days of film are numbered.

The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox - A gripping Rolling Stone feature on how young Amanda Knox unwittingly wandered into the midst of an international scandal.

The Hellish Experience of Making a Bad Horror Film - Leigh Whannell describes the nightmare that was making Dead Silence. Glad to see he has a sense of humor about it!

Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door - A Vanity Fair piece on the horrors of domestic sex trafficking.

A Day at the Park - Shawn Taylor movingly describes the emotional struggles of a black father in America.

Parents of a Certain Age - Lisa Miller explores the idea of parents getting pregnant for the first time when they're in their 50s. Arguments for both sides are presented but Miller definitely has a specific position on the subject. I found her explanation behind it to be thought-provoking.

The Shame of College Sports - Taylor Branch provides a sprawling look at the injustice of college athletics and the travesty that is the NCAA.

Homosexuality and the Bible

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No article I've read has been able to articulate my views as effectively as Walter Wink's recent(?) essay on how we should interpret references to homosexuality in the Bible:

The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.

Three Stories on Marriage

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NPR has produced a lot of coverage about the institution of marriage this month. First up, a broad sociological study on how marriage is becoming obsolete. Among the findings, this shocking statistic:

Half a century ago, nearly 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were married. Today, it's just 20 percent. But the Pew report finds fewer married people across all age groups.

We've also learned that unemployment increases the risk of violence and lowers the possibility of divorce:

Simultaneously, a new paper in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy shows that as unemployment rises, the divorce rate goes down: For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, the divorce rate goes down by 1 percent.

Weekend Edition elaborates on these findings. One of the interesting and unfortunate implications of this:

[Social scientists] worry that, you know, we have this, now, inequality in marriage. And is that then is going to exacerbate inequality in the next generation? As the next college-educated Americans have children, bring them up in these very, you know, nuclear family homes, their children, studies would suggest, have a greater chance of themselves going on to college and then being high achievers. Whereas children raised in homes where the parents are not married, while there may be many happy such relationships and the children will be just fine, on average, they have much poorer outcomes. They're less likely to go to college. And so there's a concern that you're going to exacerbate this inequality.

It's fascinating (and maybe a little frightening?) that we'll soon have a generation for whom marriage is obsolete.

Thoughts on Gift-Giving

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Matthew Iglesias at Slate offers a cool, microeconomic perspective of gift-giving:

The problem with presents is that you’re never going to do a better job of satisfying the gift-recipient’s preferences than she could do herself. But preference sets aren’t fixed. If someone had handed me $10, I never would have spent it buying the Cults album, for the simple reason that I hadn’t heard of the band. When it was given to me, I immediately checked it out and loved it. When you step outside the circle of things you know for sure your gift-getter likes, you risk creating a massive deadweight loss. (You give her a ticket to Las Vegas, without knowing that she hates gambling.) But with the greater risk comes a greater potential reward. You may introduce the recipient to something marvelous she would otherwise have never encountered. Giving stuff rather than cash is a way of saying you know better than the recipient what she really wants. The riskier the present, the more likely it is to generate significant benefit. (So, not a sweater.)

Meanwhile, David Bry has a screed over at The Awl against gift-giving at all:

Why do we buy each other gifts? Why do we go to the trouble? So everyone can have to fake more excitement and gratitude than they actually feel upon opening them? “Oh, thanks for this book I told you I wanted that I could have just as easily bought for myself! Thanks for these gloves, this blouse, this bottle of wine. I’m so glad to have this pile of stuff to pack into the car or check at the baggage claim when I could have just bought it on my own time nearer to my own home, or even had it delivered directly to my door. Here, I got you something, too.” It’s like we’ve all entered into this mutual pact that makes everybody's lives a little bit worse.

As for me? I think there's nothing like a thoughtful, valuable-but-not-too-expensive gift. But most of the time, gift-giving does tend to be a socially and psychologically burdensome task. Caveat emptor. Especially if you're giving it to someone else.

Dealing with Cancer

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One of my favorite writers, Mary Elizabeth Williams, has been documenting her life with Stage 4 Melanoma in a series of extraordinary blog posts at Salon. Williams has written about how to talk to someone with cancer, and how to talk about cancer if you have it.

The post that moved me the most was her initial piece about what she's doing to combat cancer. Williams is trying an experimental treatment and doing everything in her power to help others learn about her condition, in the hopes of contributing something to the science surrounding melanoma. May her strength continue to give others strength, and help them to face an uncertain day:

I am an experiment. And as the experiment continues, I intend to keep sharing it with you, giving you my take on what it’s like to both grapple with a potentially fatal illness, and to stand on the front lines of a treatment that just might revolutionize cancer care. Right now, I have a light, speckled rash all over my body, a condition I hope a new steroid cream will correct. My gums sometimes bleed. I have a slick, oily taste in my mouth, one that rendered the birthday cake my family made for me recently all but inedible. Yet when my daughters grandly marched it out from the kitchen, I smiled gamely and posed for pictures. Then I made a wish. Not just for me, but for all of us living here in Stage 4, and for all those yet to someday get that devastating, life-changing phone call. Let all this be worth it, I thought. Let it work. And I blew out the candles.

The Music of 'Mission: Impossible'

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I wrote a post for slashfilm.com looking back at the music of the Mission: Impossible series. Check it out.

Does Teaching Make Humans Unique?

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Discover magazine explores whether or not the ability to teach makes humans a unique species:

If you’re a college student reading this during a lecture because your professor is boring you out of your mind, you may not consider teaching a very big deal. But when you consider everything that goes into one person teaching another, it’s a remarkable behavior. Consider what it takes for you to teach a child how to tie her laces, or write her name in cursive, or skip a stone. She has to watch you do the action and store a representation of that action in her brain. She also needs to listen to you, to understand why a twist of the fingers or the flick of a wrist is important to the procedure. You, the teacher, have to watch her try it, recognize when she gets it wrong, and explain how to do it right. Just as importantly, you have to help the child understand why learning a particular action matters–so that she won’t cut her foot, so that she could throw a stone across the pond, and so on.

Should Stephen Glass Get a Second Chance?

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Stephen Glass was a journalist who fabricated a wealth of materials for features that he wrote for publications such as The New Republic and Rolling Stone. His crimes were dramatized in the solid journalistic thriller, Shattered Glass. Glass is now trying to become a lawyer in California, but the Bar association there is...reluctant. Jack Shafer explores whether or not Glass has learned his lesson:

Glass ‘s legal struggle to join the bar goes back almost a decade. According to court filings, Glass passed the New York Bar Examination in 2000 and applied for admission to the bar in July 2002. But he withdrew his application on Sept. 22, 2004 after the bar notified him he would not likely be approved on moral character grounds. He moved to California that fall and passed its bar exam in 2007, but the Committee of Bar Examiners rejected Glass on moral character grounds in 2009. The committee holds that Glass has not rehabilitated himself, waiting more than 11 years to fully list and identify all of the fabrications in his journalism.

A Network Called The Internet

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a letter from 83 engineers who helped to create the internet. Their mission: stop SOPA.

To date, the leading role the US has played in this infrastructure has been fairly uncontroversial because America is seen as a trustworthy arbiter and a neutral bastion of free expression. If the US begins to use its central position in the network for censorship that advances its political and economic agenda, the consequences will be far-reaching and destructive.

Highrock Christmas Concert 2011

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This weekend, I got to see the power of music shape hearts and minds at the Fifth Annual Highrock Christmas Concert. Spectacular music. Amazing people.

My behind-the-scenes video of the event:



My photographs of the event:

Having Your Hand on the Brass Ring

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New York magazine has an interview with Suzanne Sena, who plays fictional news anchor Brooke Alvarez on The Onion News Network. Suzanne was a finalist in the audition to replace Kathie Lee Giffords as Regis Philbin's co-host. She expounds on her biggest regret of the situation:

The $40 million paycheck I didn’t receive. It was an absolute highlight of my career, but I’ve had many more highlights since then, and the Onion is definitely one of them. To me, it was having my hand on the brass ring and then losing it, but it taught me so much.

I can't imagine being so tantalizing close to a $40 million payday, then having it slip away. Would I be able to psychologically bounce back from that? Not sure, but the fact that Suzanne has is certainly encouraging.

The Problem with Mitt's $10,000 Bet

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Last night at the Republican debate, Mitt Romney bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Romney's book did NOT state that the Massachusetts health care mandate was a wise choice for the rest of the company. Romney, who is worth somewhere in the range of $150 million, wanted to let everyone know that he was SERIOUS about his position.



Democrats are already rejoicing at this apparent gaffe, which even spawned a Twitter hashtag last night. One analyst made the point that weeks from now, voters may not remember WHY Romney made the $10,000 bet. But they'll almost definitely remember that number. In Iowa, where the first caucus will be held in January, it's predicted that this won't go over well.

In my opinion, Romney went wrong by making the bet too believable. Even though the bet was kind of meant to be a joke, it was entirely plausible that a man of Romney's wealth could in fact make such a bet. He needed to go big or go home. Bet $5 billion, or bet $5. $10,000 sounds like an impressive amount to many Americans, where the median income is roughly $40,000, but Romney made it sound like he makes that much money in a day and could easily part with it. Not terribly presidential.

Errol Morris' Recent Book Tour

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Errol Morris just signed my copy of THE THIN BLUE LINE (Morris in background). COULD THIS DAY GET ANY BETTER?
Errol Morris recently signed my DVD copy of The Thin Blue Line. Morris is in the background in the orange coat.
One of my favorite filmmakers, Errol Morris, recently stopped by his hometown of Cambridge, MA as part of a tour to promote his newest book, Believing Is Seeing. Morris is basically all the things I endeavor to be: an incredibly talented person at his craft, who is concerned with the nature of truth and the mysteries of the mind (especially as they relate to photography). For a brief taste of what his book is like, check out his series of essays for the NYTimes on the Fenton cannonball photographs.

I managed to see Morris when he spoke at the Harvard School of Design, but Morris just posted on his site a full transcript of his talk at the Brattle Theatre (a place near and dear to my heart) and it's well-worth the read. I enjoyed his answer to a question about why the book is titled "Believing Is Seeing":

Why the title is Believing is Seeing instead of Seeing is Believing? Well, one seems to be far more clever than the other, although much to my chagrin it’s been used by several other writers. I felt I should read their books. One is a romance novel about a ménage à trois, which was satisfying for a short while, but quickly got kind of tedious. The other is just a straight ahead art book, not to disparage art books, but it did not seem to be terribly interesting. And the third, of course, is my effort. Why Believing is Seeing? Because we somehow think that vision comes to us in some pure native state, as if we don’t bring anything to it. It’s a reminder that what we see is often based on our preconceptions, misconceptions, we don’t come to the world as neutral observers. We come filled with bias, prejudice, vested interests of every kind. Why not occasionally be reminded of that fact?

Who Are The "Most-Read" Authors on the Internet?

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Read It Later, a "save it to read later offline" app for Android and iOS, has compiled usage data to synthesize a report on the most frequently read authors on the service. Obviously, this comes with a bunch of caveats; the report itself identifies some of them:

Read It Later has a unique dataset to explore these kinds of questions. Nearly 4 million users rely on Read It Later when they click the “read later” in their browser, tablet or smartphone—and they come back to our app to dig deeper into the stories they’ve saved, recipes they’ve discovered, or videos their friends have recommended. That means Read It Later users aren’t just drive-by visitors to a piece of content—they’re passionate about it. The content is important enough that they added it to their queue so they wouldn’t miss it.

Overall, though, this provides an interesting view on who and what people are reading, and what types of content are most popular on these types of services. The above chart shows authors who have the highest "rate of return," where people actually returned to check on their stories repeatedly. No surprise: previous /Filmcast guest Alan Sepinwall, an erudite, articulate, insightful television writer, scores right near the top.

[New life goal: making this list one day.]

[Side note: Read It Later is a pretty great app for $3.]

Announcing the Launch of Davechensphotos.com

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I'd like to make this official: as of this moment, my new photography website, Dave Chen's Photos, is online!

It's been a long journey to get to this point. I've spent the past year amassing thousands upon thousands of photographs from a wide variety of events and situations. I've studied with master photographer Jerry Ghionis and read up on the techniques of flash photographer David Hobby. My hope is that the new site will reflect the breadth and quality of my work through an elegant, simple, classy design.

Shortly, I'll be writing a blog post about the two photo website services I've tried this year: 4ormat and Bigfolio (which hosts the current version of the site). I know many of us dislike flash but there are reasons why I chose to use a service that only hosts flash websites. I will get into those later, but iPad and iPhone users are not left out, as there's a fully functional mobile version of the site as well.

In the meantime, check out the new site! Put it through its paces. And ask yourself: would you hire this photographer if he was local? Why or why not? Your answers and feedback are welcome in the comments below.

"Life Can Be Much Broader"

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Thoughts on the nature of existence from the late Steve jobs (via Brainpickings).

The New York Times' Bizarre Jerry Sandusky Interview

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After Bob Costas obliterated Jerry Sandusky's reputation in a well-executed but troubling interview, one would think that we wouldn't need to hear too much more about the matter from the man himself. Costas' questions were pointed, relentless, and well-researched. Sandusky's failure to provide even a moderately plausible explanation for his prosecution (and persecution) spoke volumes.

But today, the New York Times published a front-page story on Sandusky, featuring an interview with Jo Becker. The interview is bizarre, to say the least. Becker seems less interested in getting at the truth than in 1) trying to help Sandusky find justifications/explanations for his imprudent behaviors, and 2) giving Sandusky a massive mouthpiece with which to tell his side of the story. Commenters on the piece are lining up to complain about Becker's softball questions. And as a side note, I can't imagine this interview helps Sandusky's cause any (Seriously, WTF is his lawyer thinking? Unless he's playing some kind of circuitous, long game here...).

I'm not too familiar with Becker's work. But if I may go out on a limb here, I think I can understand the motivation behind such a piece. It felt like Becker was trying to get inside the mind of a pedophile and try to make us understand his plight and condition. There is some value for society in this; if we can't understand monstrosity, how can we ever hope to contain or stop it? But I'm also reminded of this important column about the Sandusky scandal by priest James Martin. In the column, Martin argues that pedophiles often exhibit two tendencies: grandiosity and narcissism. When the pedophile is discovered, these two qualities often fuse together:

The grandiose narcissist now focuses almost exclusively on his own suffering. His removal from office, or from ministry, he believes, is the worst thing that has happened to anyone, and he (or she) laments this fate loudly and frequently. Because of his narcissism he focuses almost entirely on his own troubles; because of his grandiosity he inflates them to ridiculous proportions. He suffers the most. This is the “Poor Me” Syndrome.

Even more dangerous: he draws others into his net, and the suffering of the real victims, those whose lives have been shattered, is overlooked-even by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people. The focus of those within the institution is shifted onto the person they know, rather than the victims that they may not know.

We cannot allow this to happen. Today's NYTimes interview does not help.

Inertia

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From The Atlantic comes this chart indicating what percentage of residents in each state were born there. The conclusion? Most people don't end up leaving their home. For some reason, I'm reminded of the sad words of Stephen Tobolowsky: "If you don't leave, it means you never started."

How To Blog

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Dan Frommer has "10 steps to better blogging." Some decent advice here. I've followed Dan since he worked at Business Insider and I believe his work has noticeably improved since he struck out on his own.