Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.
This week, I was tapped to guest host the Sunday Long Read, a newsletter that rounds up the best medium-length and longform stories on the internet for that week. It’s a project run by ESPN senior writer and investigative reporter, Don Van Natta Jr. and business reporter, Jacob Feldman (plus a very savvy team of behind the scenes producers). The newsletter has been running for a few years now (this is its 314th edition) and it’s great, you should subscribe.
As a guest editor, I was tasked with providing between 15 and 20 stories as well as an introductory essay. I totally underestimated how hard it is to dutifully consume all the big features of the week but I found the exercise was so helpful. I don’t know that I’ve ever read deeper or more broadly online than I have this week. It only seemed fair to share that work with you all, here. As I write below, this was a pretty intense week, personally. I plan to write more about that when the timing is right. For now, I hope you’ll read the following. And thanks again for all your support. It means the world.
You’re all catching me at a weird moment. On Monday I frantically booked and took my first flight in 18 months back home to Ohio to say goodbye to a loved one while there was still time. I spent the week by the bedside of my 95 year-old grandmother who was recently transferred to hospice care. On the flight, I anxiously attempted to plan the coming week in my head. I wanted to make the most of our time together. I asked friends and even complete strangers what they wished they’d asked their grandparents before they died and I wrote out a list of questions for Grandma that I hoped would help me rise to this moment. I’m the reporter in the family and the storyteller. I approached and coped with this sad, existential moment in our lives the only way I knew how: by ‘going to work.’
I wanted to ask her what she did for fun as a child. I wanted to know more about my grandfather, who died when I was just seven. What I wanted most was to unlock that magical door that sometimes opens in an interview, where a series of questions triggers a tangent you didn’t expect—one that reveals something new and profound. What I wanted was to know who Grandma really was, before it was too late.
As soon as I saw her, I threw out the script. There was too much that needed to be done. Grandma needed care, not to be the subject of a “60 Minutes” sit-down. We did get our moments of quiet, though, and I managed to rattle off a few questions. It seemed inconceivable to her that she could have been born before the Depression and “The War”—before what many consider modern life. And yet, her every detail was vivid. Summers playing baseball in abandoned lots; winters sledding down the steep neighborhood hills. She told me how, while digging a victory garden during the Second World War, she came upon a huge bag of old arrowheads, buried long ago by the area’s indigenous peoples’. Grandma, at 95, is a bridge, connecting history to the present.
When she would fall asleep, I would scroll my phone, reading many of the pieces that I’ve linked to below. I told her about a few of them and we talked about how different life today felt compared to her youth (it was the week Jeff Bezos went to space, after all). Her response to every story I summarized was the same: “What a world we live in,” she said.
It was in that spirit that I selected the stories below. Each one of them is a time capsule. Taken together, they offer a portrait of life in 2021. Like my grandmother’s stories, they are entertaining and immersive. They help make sense of the world, if only by highlighting how messy life is. These kinds of stories, I’ve come to realize this week, are a gift.
Near the end of one tale, a stemwinder about my grandfather’s job as a car salesman, she looked at me and laughed. “Oh, I’ve got stories, don’t I?” she said.
She sure does. And now, this morning, you have some, too. What a world we live in.
I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say
By Jack Thomas for The Boston Globe Magazine
Jack Thomas’ meditation on life and his impending death arrived in my feed at the exactly the right moment. His dispatch from a terminal diagnosis is both heart-breaking and funny and contains the kind of earned wisdom of a life well-lived. In the last year, especially, we have been surrounded by uncertainty and the specter of death. Living in a pandemic has forced us to wrestle with heavy, existential questions about what it means to live with purpose and to die with dignity. Many of these thoughts and feelings are hard to put into words, which makes Thomas’ essay a true gift for us all. The piece is an ode to family, friends, jazz, Julia Child, and everyone he met along the way. It is life-affirming in the most literal sense: Thomas reminds us not to take our days above ground for granted.
Watching the Watchmen
By Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger for BuzzFeed News
The militia-backed plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in the fall of 2020 is a harrowing story that seems to intersect with every contentious element of modern American life. Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger, two stalwart investigative reporters, expertly weave together extensive interviews and tens of thousands of pages of court and law enforcement documents to tell the tale. This is a story about the troubling rise of right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism—both on and offline. But it is also a story about polarized politics, the role of law enforcement, free speech, and the fracturing of reality that’s left us all feeling quite anxious about the future.
There’s Nothing Adam Ondra Can’t Climb, but Is An Olympic Medal Out of Reach
By Jeremy White, Aaron Byrd, Larry Buchanan, Mika Gröndahl, Karthik Patanjali, Or Fleisher, Bedel Saget, Emily Rhyne, Umi Syam, Joe Ward & Paula Ceballos Delgado for The New York Times
Do you remember ‘Snow Fall,’ the 2012 New York Times feature that set the bar for interactive online storytelling? Well, this piece is the clear heir to that Pulitzer-winning achievement. The piece marries its fascinating subject, Adam Ondra, arguably the best climber in the world, with a deep look at Olympic climbing and its fraught decision to include speed climbing into global competition. But while the story is captivating, the true delight is the interactive element. The Times visual team (which, I can say from first-hand experience, is the paper’s not-so-secret weapon) blends audio, video, 3-D animation to make the sport of climbing come alive. It is the type of piece that is not only a work of art, but helps you understand and appreciate all the skill and difficulty of a sport that is ascending in popularity. I’ve never seen anything like it. (And if you like that piece the NYT did similar ones for gymnastics, swimming, and hurdling).
The Fire That Forged Giannis Antetokounmpo
By Mirin Fader for The Ringer
If you didn’t know who Giannis Antetokounmpo was, you probably found out this week when the Greek basketball phenom propelled the Milwaukee Bucks to its first NBA championship since 1971. In this piece, excerpted from her forthcoming book, Mirin Fader walks us through the years that transformed Giannis from a promising-but-goofy rookie, into the intimidating, fiercely competitive MVP he’s become. Like any great feature, you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate Fader’s in-depth reporting and storytelling. At heart, this is a piece about complicated player-coach dynamics and coming of age. I’m obsessed with stories that help you understand how greatness—in any pursuit—is cultivated. This story is a masterclass in that art.
The New COVID Panic
By Susan Matthews for Slate
I’m going to include a few stories here that capture the state of the pandemic as we enter the mid-to-late summer. Susan Matthews’ piece is a reported survey of our current moment, which is a mix of gratitude for reopenings, vaccine hesitancy, and a genuine fear that the covid’s delta variant may send us back into the dark days of 2020. The author has received some understandable pushback for not discussing the impacts of Long Covid on the vaccinated, but, nonetheless, I found the piece extremely helpful. Matthews asks and tries to answer the big question on our minds: What is your responsibility if you're a vaccinated person in the world just trying to do the right thing for yourself/those around you?
Reasons I’m Wearing a Mask Again
By Katherine J. Wu for The Atlantic
I’ve appreciated Katherine Wu’s writing throughout the pandemic. This piece builds on the theme of the one I listed above and wrestles with the notion of what I call ‘covid backsliding’ (aka putting masks back on in public indoor spaces). The mask discussion is contentious and easily devolves into fearmongering and moralizing but Wu cuts through the polarizing culture war issues and focuses on what’s real. “The vaccines don’t feel different, but the conditions they’re working in do,” she writes. When it comes to masking and risk assessment, we’re all, ultimately, on our own. But pieces like this give us a helpful framework to make those choices.
How TikTok's Algorithm Figures Out Your Deepest Desires
By Staff of The Wall Street Journal
Am I breaking the rules by including a longform video? Well, too bad. The Wall Street Journal set up hundreds of automated TikTok accounts to try and understand what makes TikTok’s (famous and mysterious) recommendation algorithm tick. I have some qualms with their focus on negative content but overall the piece is a great look at the shadowy, technical inner workings of a major social media platform. It’s also a great reminder that recommendation algorithms aren’t magic—they’re a blend of big data surveillance and some pretty obvious assumptions about human preferences.
How Tech Won the Pandemic and Now May Never Lose
ByDavid Streitfeldfor The New York Times
More than the writing or reporting, I’ve included this piece because it’s such a helpful frame to think about the tech industry and Silicon Valley as a whole right now. As one interviewee in the piece notes, “The economy split in two on about April 7, 2020... one part of the economy suffered greatly, but another did just fine.” David Streitfeld walks us through how tech did more than ‘just fine.’ In fact, the pandemic accelerated tech’s grip on the world economy to such a degree that it might be impossible to reverse. What does that mean for all of us? I don’t know, but this piece opened a door in my brain and assures I’ll be reporting out that angle for years to come.
Mark in the Metaverse
ByCasey Newton for The Verge
Sorry! More tech stories (what did you expect!) I always love reading longform interview transcripts. Now, I’ll admit that Mark Zuckerberg is a classically boring interview. But I’ve included this piece because I think it builds on the piece above. Silicon Valley and Zuckerberg have nearly unchecked and unlimited money, power, and influence over our politics, culture and economy. What do they plan to do with that? I think Casey Newton’s interview looks at one possibility. Zuckerberg’s new obsession is essentially a secondary, virtual life, lived immersively in digital spaces. It sounds, at times, dystopian and sci-fi and outlandish. But Zuckerberg is not alone in the pursuit of a metaverse—many powerful tech folks are trotting out the term these days—which means, perhaps we need to pay attention. This is a useful primer.
The Barn on Drew Ruleville Road
By Wright Thompson for The Atlantic
Wright Thompson is one of my favorite reporters and storytellers. This piece in The Atlantic might be his best work to date. Thompson tells the little known story of the Mississippi barn where Emmett Till was tortured and murdered. The piece is deeply reported and carefully told. It is a story about how we reckon with the injustices of the past and how history is written, forgotten, and rewritten. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of AI
By Jason Fagone for The San Francisco Chronicle
What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee?" That’s a hell of a premise. And this story delivers. Jason Fagone’s story is a complex emotional portrait of a relationship, a now-deceased woman’s life, a man struggling with grief, and an extremely powerful bit of technology. Stories like these remind me that the future isn’t around the corner, it’s here. The ethical dilemmas of AI will only get thornier.
Sun, Sand, and Spaghetti
By Mike Diago for Eater
I love stories that open my eyes to cultural traditions and history that I knew nothing about. Mike Diago’s ode to the Dominican ritual of beach spaghetti is a perfect example of this type of story. Ultimately this is a story about belonging. Diago reminds us that each spaghetti is never just beach spaghetti. Instead, as the piece notes, “it is a way to mark your presence in public. Saying, ‘We are here, we are human, we have our dignity, and we have our traditions.”
No, You Beg
By Allie Conti for The Cut
"New York's ability to turn *everything* into a status game is just breathtaking,” is how Gimlet’s Lydia Polgreen tweeted this New York magazine feature on the bonkers market for rescue dogs during the pandemic. Allie Conti’s piece is a wild look at how the pandemic seems to have changed everything and nothing at the same time. There’s something for everyone to feel superior about in this one. Also recommended is this read from Defector, “If You Really Want A Dog, You Can Get A Damn Dog.”
How Stephen Colbert Survived the Pandemic, Trump and the Loss of Laughter
By Cynthia Littleton for Variety
This is a Colbert profile that does multiple things at once. It’s a look at the comedian, a meditation on what makes Late Night TV work, and a story about working from home. I won’t spoil it, but the best part comes ¾ of the way through, when Colbert Executive Producer, Chris Licht, talks about the night that CBS’s entire broadcast hinged on a shaky home office wifi connection.
How Capitalism Invented the Care Economy
By Premilla Nadasen for The Nation
The pandemic sparked a necessary conversation about care work and essential workers. But, as Premilla Nadasen writes, “Implicit in this discourse is that the worth of poor and working-class people of color is important to the degree that they serve and care for the middle and upper classes.” Nadasen’s essay offers a very simple and powerful premise that requires we flip the way we think about essential work. “Every human being is essential, whether they work or not, and should be valued, respected, and protected, regardless of whether they care,” she writes.
Call Me a Traitor
By Kerry Howley for NY Mag
This is easily the most well written piece I read all week. It will stay with me for years, I imagine. Just give it your time.
The Day the Good Internet Died
By Katie Baker for The Ringer
“It’s the year 2011, and I can’t get enough of the internet.” That’s how Katie Baker starts this piece on Google Reader and the demise of some of the magical, joyful corners of the internet. Baker’s prose is wonderful and this piece evoked in me not only nostalgia for “good internet” but a real resentment for the ways that platforms and the digital ad industry have corporatized and sanitized parts of the web. But Baker also pushes against the, perhaps, revisionist idea that the web was ever what we thought it was. Anyhow, the piece includes this line, of which I’m wildly jealous: “It’s the year 2021, and I can’t get enough of the internet. This is an admission of defeat.”
Ok! That’s it for today. If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version, and come hang out with us on Sidechannel, the Discord you’ll get access to if you switch over to paid. We recently opened up a #wrong-opinions channel and it is delightful.
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