The Weekend Reader

Top Ten Articles of 2015

(As judged by Maxwell Anderson)


Last year I offered to share my picks for the 10 best articles I read in 2015 as a gift to supporters of the Weekend Reader. It has taken me a shamefully long time to compile this.  But here they are. I present them in largely the same format in which I shared them in the Reader. In the inconsistencies you get a picture of some of the ways my style evolved through the year.

 Thank you for your generous support.




The Plot to Free North Korea with Smuggled Episodes of Friends

By Andy Greenberg for Wired Magazine 3.1.2015

The North Korea Strategy Center is led by a 46 year-old defector named Kang Chol-hwan. It’s mission is to overthrow the Kim dynasty’s control of North Korea. They aren’t arming insurrectionists with weapons. They aren’t trying to stage multilateral negotiations. They are smuggling in thumb drives loaded with bootleg episodes of Friends, Desperate Housewives, and movies like The Hangover. 


"The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence" Part 1 of 2


"The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction" Part 2 of 2

by Tim Urban in Wait But Why

This is the most important article I'm recommending this week.  I think it's so important that I'm abandoning my usual format of highlighting a half-dozen articles across a broad spectrum so that you can focus on this. Warning 1: These posts are long. Warning 2: They may scare the pants off you. Thanks to Paris for posting this and scaring me...

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a topic that we've all heard about but if you are like me you may not have a solid understanding of what the implications are and how near we may be to a science fiction scenario when computers supplant humans as the dominant intelligence on the planet. These posts hypothesize that AI intelligence may become so great that they may come to control the future of the human race without our volition. They also deal with why you and I instinctually dismiss this as unlikely or impossible.  You'll have to read it for that. Here's a teaser for some of the mind-warping, exciting and frightening stuff:

"ASI [Artificial SuperIntelligence], when we create it, will be the most powerful being in the history of life on Earth, and all living things, including humans, will be entirely at its whim—and this might happen in the next few decades...If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time—everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us. Creating the technology to reverse human aging, curing disease and hunger and even mortality, reprogramming the weather to protect the future of life on Earth—all suddenly possible. Also possible is the immediate end of all life on Earth. As far as we’re concerned, if an ASI comes to being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth—and the all-important question for us is: Will it be a nice God?"

I don’t want this to be true. I don’t even really want to think about it. In fact I even feel some ambivalence about sending this because I don’t want to make you afraid and I don’t want to add to a culture of hysteria. But I can’t help but think this is worth having a lot of smart and wise people thinking about and working together on. I'd love to hear your thoughts. '


Sea of Crises
by Brian Phillips for Grantland

Yokozuna is the highest rank you can achieve as a sumo wrestler. And sumo appears to be a sport where grade inflation remains absent. Achieving yokozuna status is rare.  "In 265 years, 69 men have been promoted to yokozuna. Just 69 since George Washington was a teenager...Until the last 30 years or so, foreigners were rare in the upper ranks ofsumo in Japan..." Hakuho, is the greatest sumotori today. He may be the greatest sumotoriof all time. Here's a highlight reel. He is enormous and enormously popular in Japan. But like five the past eight yokozuna, he is a foreigner, a Mongolian. "There has been no active Japanese yokozuna since the last retired in 2003. This is a source of intense anxiety to many in the tradition-minded world of sumo in Japan."  

In this beautiful, dreamlike, story, Phillips visits Japan to see Hakuho and understand the culture of sumo. But he detours in pursuit of another story soaked in the tradition and shame-eschewing culture of Japan - the attempted coup and death by seppuku of one of Japan's greatest writers: Yukio Mishima. This is a story of samurai honor, physical magnitude, and disorientation. 


Engineering the Perfect Baby MUST READ

By Anthony Regalado in MIT Technology Review

George Church at Harvard Medical School likes to say that his lab is "the center of a new technological genesis—one in which man rebuilds creation to suit himself." Church's confident and neo-religious branding isn't just the result of his last name. It's based in no small part on his lab's use of a radically simple new technology for targeting and replacing DNA, called CRISPR-Cas9. Today labs around the world are working on "gene therapy" to treat diseases like sickle cell anemia or Parkinson's. CRISPR gives scientists a precise, inexpensive and easy to use tool for experimenting like never before.

With CRISPR, scientists can edit not only adult somatic cells but also "germ line" cells. Germ line cells are the hereditary ones, in the embryo itself. They are the ones that pass on your grandfather's propensity to baldness and other good things. Church is enthusiastic about editing the human germ line because "it could be possible to eliminate disease genes and to pass those genetic fixes on to future generations.Such a technology could be used to rid families of scourges like cystic fibrosis. It might also be possible to install genes that offer lifelong protection against infection, Alzheimer’s, and ... maybe the effects of aging." If true, this technology would revolutionize healthcare. It would be absolutely world-changing. But to be clear, by editing the genes that people would pass on through time to their offspring, in essence, we are talking about eugenics and designer babies.

Church seems ready not just to design babies for desirable traits. He is interested in editing the genes of people to augment them beyond normal limits, to make them, in effect, superhuman. Sound like science fiction? The X-men perhaps?  "Church likes to show a slide on which he lists naturally occurring variants of around 10 genes that, when people are born with them, give them extraordinary qualities or resistance to disease. One makes your bones so hard they’ll break a surgical drill. Another drastically cuts the risk of heart attacks. And a variant of the gene for the amyloid precursor protein, or APP, was found by Icelandic researchers to protect against Alzheimer’s. People with it never get dementia and remain sharp into old age."  


Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison
by Mark Binelli in The New York Times

The U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado is the highest security prison in the nation. It is the home of notorious criminals like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, mob man Sammy "the Bull" Gravano and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Inmates at ADX, as it is known, spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. "Since opening in 1994, the ADX has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control." The former warden of the Colorado supermax, Robert Hood, has described the facility as "a clean version of hell." This article takes you inside the prison and details the lawsuits against the institution's practice of near-unceasing solitary confinement. The results have been at times grisly. Attorneys argue the state has driven their clients to violent insanity.


The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison

by Jessica Benko for The New York Times Magazine

If the U.S. supermax security prison is "a clean version of hell," Norway's highest security prison seems like a slightly more constrained version of normal life.  "There is no death penalty in Norway. There are no life sentences. The maximum term for any crime is 21 years." There may be no more humane maximum security prison on the planet. With it's supermax facility, the U.S. takes the stance that some people are beyond rehabilitation, Norway's highest security prison makes reintegration a central goal and "works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens."

And it doesn't come cheap: "spending on the Halden prison runs to more than $93,000 per inmate per year, compared with just $31,000 for prisoners in the United States." So this would be totally unaffordable in America. On the other hand, "if the United States incarcerated its citizens at the same low rate as the Norwegians do (75 per 100,000 residents, versus roughly 700 per 100K in the U.S.), it could spend that much per inmate and still save more than $45 billion a year."

The prison "yard" at Halden is big. There are hills. There are trees. It feels like a park. “A lot of the staff when we started out came from other prisons in Norway,” said the prison director. “They were a little bit astonished by the trees and the number of them. Shouldn’t they be taken away? And what if they climb up, the inmates? As we said, Well, if they climb up, then they can sit there until they get tired, and then they will come down.”


The Killing Machines
by Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down in The Atlantic

By now everyone is familiar with most of the big questions of drone warfare.Do drone strikes help by taking out terrorist leaders or do they create more recruits by enraging local populations? Is it ethical to execute an enemy when they have no chance of fighting back? Do drones cause a lot of "collateral damage" a.k.a., killinginnocent bystanders, even children? This article is from 2013, but is the best piece I've read that surveys the whole of drone warfare. If you haven't read it, you ought to.It will make you think differently about drones.  

I couldn't possibly summarize this article in a paragraph, so let me instead just reprint a couple graphs as a teaser. The first is in a section about the trope that drones sanitize warfare into a de-personalized video game where men behind remote controls kill other humans at will. This is the plot of the Ethan Hawke movie. This article showed me there is at least an alternative narrative, which the author took from interviewing drone pilots: that drone warfare can feel incredibly personal.  .

"The dazzling clarity of the drone’s optics does have a downside. As a B-1 pilot, Dan wouldn’t learn details about the effects of his weapons until a post-mission briefing. But flying a drone, he sees the carnage close-up, in real time—the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. Often he’s been watching the people he kills for a long time before pullingthe trigger. Drone pilots become familiar with their victims. They see them in theordinary rhythms of their lives—with their wives and friends, with their children. War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing. Pilots are sometimes shaken."

Another section explores the alternatives to drone warfare: manned bombers or ground operations and what is most likely to harm the fewest civilians. 

"The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a left-wing organization based in London, has made a strenuous effort, using news sources, to count bodies after CIA drone strikes. It estimates that from 2004 through the first half of 2013, 371 drone strikes in Pakistan killed between 2,564 and 3,567 people (the range covers the minimum to the maximum credible reported deaths). Of those killed, thegroup says, somewhere between 411 and 890—somewhere between 12 percent and 35 percent of the total—were civilians. The disparity in these figures is telling. But if we assume the worst case, and take the largest estimates of soldier and civilian fatalities, then one-quarter of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been civilians...

"...No civilian death is acceptable, of course. Each one is tragic. But any assessment of civilian deaths from drone strikes needs to be compared with thepotential damage from alternative tactics...In fact, ground combat almost always kills more civilians than drone strikes do. Avery Plaw, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, estimates that in Pakistani ground offensives against extremists in that country’s tribal areas, 46 percent of those killed are civilians. Plaw says that ratios of civilian deaths from conventional military conflicts over the past 20 years range from 33 percent to more than 80 percent."

Reading Bowden, you get the sense that he thinks drones are a difficult pill to swallow, but one that may give us the best way to fight terrorists.  But he's also pretty clear that for drones strikes to have moral authority, the state must be extremely careful in how it uses them, doing things like limiting lethal drone use to warfare (rather than policing), and making all targeting decisions and actions transparent to the public. 


Faking Cultural Literacy” 

by Karl Taro Greenfeld for The New York Times

This is a terrific piece. Funny. Thoughtful. And Convicting. Thanks to John C. for pointing me to it. Here's a sample: "What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened.

What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness."


Solitude and Leadership
by William Deresciewicz in The American Scholar
(29 minute read)

The gist: 

“If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts” counsels the subtitle of this excellent piece by William Deresiewicz, whom I’ve referenced in a previous reader for his thoughts on “the miseducation of the American elite.” Deresiewicz gave this address to the plebe class at West Point in 2009. In it, he reminds the cadets that leadership is not only about riding out in front and rallying the crowd. The best leaders are those who invest time, in quiet hours of reading and reflection, to develop their own thoughts about things.  


We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing. 


Janet Wolfe, Gothamite on a First-Name Basis With Her Era, Dies at 101

By Margalit Fox for The New York Times (9 minute read)

THE GIST: This is the obituary of a woman I’d never heard of before but who was known to many readers of the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town column — they profiled her half a dozen times. She was many things, a dancer, an arts administrator, and ultimately a New Yorker. Even just reading about her, she seems to have been a woman who during her century spent with us had a sparkle you couldn’t ignore. What sweet way to live. Please read the whole piece, it will take less than 10 minutes and it’s just really good. You’ll walk away with a smile on your face and a small pang of regret that you didn’t get to be friends with this woman.


Ms. Wolfe, who was long divorced from her husband, the Broadway music director Samuel Matlovsky, had never taken his surname. This was not for ideological reasons but because, she told The New Yorker, “a name like that you have to spell all the time.”

…Last but certainly not least, there was Ms. Wolfe the arts administrator, who in 1971, divorced and in need of a job, petitioned an acquaintance at the Housing Authority to give her one. “Could you start a symphony orchestra?” he asked. Ms. Wolfe, who neither played an instrument nor read music, agreed; the orchestra gave its first concert the next year…

…“I may be the executive director of a symphony orchestra, but as far as the world is concerned I’m a housing assistant,” she told The New Yorker in 1986. “I took the bottom test and I never took any more. I don’t want to rise in the ranks. They ask you things like what to do if the elevator explodes. I put ‘Run like hell.’ The answer is ‘Call your supervisor.’”

…Ms. Wolfe was not so much of New York as she was New York: garrulous, generous, whip-smart, endearingly harebrained, unflinchingly direct, occasionally lonely, more than a little ribald, supremely well connected and sometimes down but never out — a small, bright moon that for decades orbited the rarefied worlds of theater, film and classical music…

…And so, for the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st, Ms. Wolfe lived her inimitable life, grappling with bureaucracy (“The only reason I don’t have a license is not because I had 22 traffic tickets 12 years ago, it’s because I’m afraid to take the written test”) and joyfully reducing the degrees of separation that dared divide the world. (“The guy driving the cab was in the secondhand furniture business, and the guy I was sharing the cab with wanted a desk. They both came up and had a drink and then they went off together.”)

She lived a life, “joyfully reducing the degrees of separation that dared divide the world.” I like that line. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad new year’s resolution. 


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