The 25 best longform articles of 2017

The image shows a red square with the text "2,952,My year in Pocket

I’ve always been a bookworm, but over the last year or two the number of books I’ve read outside of work has steadily declined.  This was dismaying until I noticed that I’ve just been substituting longform journalism for the other reading I normally might have done.  I do almost all of my reading through Pocket, which recently sent the very reassuring year-end email above.

Here are the 25 most interesting articles that I found out of those almost three million words (!) in 2017, in no particular order.  Check out my 2016 list as well.

Black mothers keep dying after giving birth.  Shalom Irving’s story explains why.  NPR.  “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.  ‘It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,’ said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.  …  [Chronic stress] has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).”

Every parent wants to protect their child.  I never got the chance.  The Cut.  “But no matter whose fault it is, giving birth to a child with a terminal disease is something I did do. This is just as obvious as it is important: I am the one who was pregnant and gave birth to Dudley. That I continued my pregnancy under mistaken pretenses feels like an irreparable violation, one that I don’t think any man — including the one who loves Dudley as much as I do — is capable of understanding.”

How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico.  ProPublica.  “But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.  Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

The best books on Vermeer and studio method.  Five Books.  “There is quite a lot of argument about Vermeer’s working practice, particularly over whether or not he might have used an optical aid, such as a camera obscura.  But he only had the same things available to him as did any other painter of his day. Because his pictures look quite different from his contemporaries, the big questions are whether he worked in an unusual way, and also how he could have used a lens in his studio. There is very little documentation about Vermeer, and so I had to start by finding out what were the suggested methods and materials for artists at the time, and how people were using lenses. There was a bit of an overlap between alchemy, medicine and painting then, and old artists’ treatises give recipes for cures and experiments as well as for paint. They were all fascinating, and so my reading became very wide, and it took a very long time to write this book. This is why the bibliography is so big.”

The African enlightenment.  Aeon.  “In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’). The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta. Today, 350 years later, it’s hard to find a copy of Yacob’s book.”

The hellraisers of Nairobi.  Nairobi Side Hustle.  “From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.  Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. ‘For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,’ she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down.”

Afghan war rugs and the lossy compression of cultural codingRespectable Lawyer.  This is a Twitter thread, so not so easy to quote here, but it’s a fascinating discussion of how the Soviet and American invasions are visually represented in rugs, and how cultural artifacts get passed between generations of weavers.

India’s Silicon Valley is dying of thirst.  Your city may be next.  Wired.  “Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, ‘the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.'”

What do slaveholders think?  Aeon.  “While not every one of the slaveholders I spoke with in the course of this research was as frank as Aanan, his approach bears all the traits of contemporary slaveholding: financial distress, emotional manipulation, illegality, and paternalism. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about Aanan with one of my research partners. Yes, they had heard of him. I updated my field notes: ‘Largest contractor in [town].’”

How did Indonesia and Malaysia become majority-Muslim when they were once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms?  r/AskHistorians.  “While Islam was spreading, Southeast Asia was experiencing other rapid changes in matters other than religion. Forests were cleared to make farms, while fishing villages turned into humongous cities within a few generations. People began to leave their villages and head out for the wider world. Animism tends to be localized and unpredictable, but Islam is true no matter where you go and says that no matter what, the pious go to Heaven and the evil fall to Hell. Islam was perhaps the most suitable religion in this brave new world.”

The couple who saved ancient China’s architectural treasures before they were lost forever.  Smithsonian Magazine.  “Liang and Lin—along with a half dozen or so other young scholars in the grandly named Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture—used the only information available, following stray leads in ancient texts, chasing up rumors and clues found in cave murals, even, in one case, an old folkloric song. It was, Liang later wrote, ‘like a blind man riding a blind horse.’ Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a string of extraordinary discoveries in the 1930s, documenting almost 2,000 exquisitely carved temples, pagodas and monasteries that were on the verge of being lost forever.”

What would count as an explanation of the size of China? Marginal Revolution. “Currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?”

Rice and banchan — a love affair.  Ask a Korean.  “If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, ‘companion to rice.’  Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.”

The Japanese origins of fine dining.  Eater.  “There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called ‘tweezer food,’ before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.”

Why would aliens ever bother with Earth?  Literary Hub.  “For these reasons, it strikes me that if there is intelligent alien life out there in our galaxy, they almost certainly wouldn’t pay us a visit in person in huge city-sized motherships, but by sending their sentient robots as emissaries.”

The origin of cities — part 1The HipCrime Vocab.  “Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activities of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same ‘cosmological’ orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial ‘order’ on earth – ‘as above so below’ in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.”

Here be dragons: finding the blank spaces in a well-mapped world.  VQR.  “Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. ‘The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,’ Siggi says. ‘Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.’ … A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, ‘the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried’ when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time.”

New exoskeletons will harness the subtle anatomy of human balance.  Nautilus.  “Unlike the rest of us, the [Kenyan] women were supporting the load [they carried on their head] with the structural components of the body, rather than metabolizing tissues of the body. They were balancing it perfectly on their bones, without the aid of any muscle, tendon, or supporting structures. Over time, Heglund showed, the bones and bodies of the African women had adjusted to perfectly support the head weight in the most energy efficient manner. The structure had adjusted so it aligned in an ideal formation to keep the weight off the muscles.”

The science of suffering.  New Republic.  “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.  After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as ’embodied history.’ Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules.”

How to raise a sweet son in an era of angry men.  Time.  “Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger.Now they can feel what they want and be what they want. There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth.”

How do you count without numbers?  Sapiens.  “None of us, then, is really a ‘numbers person.’ We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.”

Why clocks run clockwise (and some watches and clocks that don’t).  Hodinkee.  “The idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. ‘Widdershins’ is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe).”

Why did life move to land?  For the view.  Quanta.  “Life on Earth began in the water. So when the first animals moved onto land, they had to trade their fins for limbs, and their gills for lungs, the better to adapt to their new terrestrial environment.  A new study, out today, suggests that the shift to lungs and limbs doesn’t tell the full story of these creatures’ transformation. As they emerged from the sea, they gained something perhaps more precious than oxygenated air: information. In air, eyes can see much farther than they can under water. The increased visual range provided an ‘informational zip line’ that alerted the ancient animals to bountiful food sources near the shore.”

The self-medicating animal.  New York Times.  “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body. ‘I believe every species alive today is self-medicating in one way or another,’ Huffman told me recently. ‘It’s just a fact of life.'”

The secret economic lives of animals.  Bloomberg.  “‘Biological markets are all over the place,’ says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.”

The political economy of mass atrocities

This recent post from Alex de Waal on the structural causes of mass violence should be required reading.  I’m quoting here a bit out of order because it ranges rather widely, but there are several important main points.

On targeting prevention activities:

The Enough Project has a habit of targeting the well-known gallery of rogues. It wasn’t news to anyone that Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir ran a government responsible for mass atrocities against civilians. A project aimed at stopping mass atrocities needed to point out that Bashir’s challengers—the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army—did not have a better record. Since the eruption of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013, that fact has become painfully obvious—but the depths of corruption and militarization, and South Sudanese leaders’ sense of impunity and recklessness were evident beforehand. Similarly, everyone agrees that Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army is a villain. But in terms of sheer numbers of people harmed and damage done to the fabric of society, the Ugandan army is comparably destructive. The Ugandan defense budget is the black heart of corruption in that country—and remains a valued partner for U.S. security cooperation. South Sudan’s pathological political economy appeared on American advocates’ radar only after mass atrocities occurred—let that not be the case for Uganda.

On the internationalization of the US war on terror:

The firehose of counter-terror funding—now increasingly blended with peacekeeping operations—is generating out-of-control security establishments across the world. Army generals and security chiefs receive hard currency for which they do not need to account. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that these security entrepreneurs have an interest in keeping crises bubbling away, and are networked in both to counter-insurgency and insurgency.

Corruption, violence and impunity are not anomalies: they are how individuals respond to the incentives and opportunities they face. The black budgets of the U.S. national security establishment, the monies associated with arms deals, and the blanket secrecy that covers all of these, are the fuel in this engine.

And on the US role in supporting brutal dictators:

Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State describes how U.S. money and license to act with impunity changed Afghanistan from a corrupt patrimonial system into a vertically-integrated and transnationally-linked criminal cartel. The Pentagon and the CIA were the chief accomplices in the criminal takeover of the Afghan state. Repeatedly, when anti-corruption officers identified a highly-placed person responsible for thievery, they found that individual was protected by the CIA—purportedly indispensible for America’s war on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

It is no different in Africa. Chad’s president Idriss Déby is a ruthless dictator who runs his country as a personal business. But his troops are valued by France and the U.S. for military operations against militants in Mali and Nigeria, so he gets a free pass.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan, international interventions have made a bad situation worse. … We have a closed security establishment that considers itself above the rules that govern society as a whole. Their worldview subordinates public interest to greed and fear, and their prescriptions for global problems don’t challenge this formula.

Follow-up comments on Mosul and Mexico

After I published posts on patterns of violence in Mosul and Chicago and Boston and Mexico this summer, John Bertetto, the managing editor at Foreign Intrigue (which published the original Boston/Mexico piece), wrote to me with some great comments.  Republishing his email here, with his permission (and slight edits to the formatting).

In re: Boston and Mexico:

Combating DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] is a huge endeavor, obviously, but one fraught with opportunity to be successful. As vertically integrated organizations, they provide ample means for intervention. Focusing on the drugs will never be sufficient; they are traffickers, and traffickers traffic. What those items are, that’s another matter. DTO derive substantial profit because they currently traffic their own product, but experience has shown that when times are lean or when other markets provide greater profits they will diversify into other things, particularly humans. But trafficking networks can be broken, and a comprehensive strategy to target DTOs should include operations that focus on this, as well as on all other aspects of the trade – from financing to production, packaging, transportation, trafficking, wholesales, and economic diversification (using illegal revenues to create legitimate businesses) – provides many avenues from which we can intercede and work inward, dismantling the organization. What is missing, typically, is coordination and political will/lack of corruption. I do like the idea Dan offers of vetting and training local autodefensas – not so much as a paramilitary force but as a community watch group. This empowers locals and helps embolden them to report activities. Concurrently I’d get the military out of the DTO fighting business. This is an LE [law enforcement] issue, and should remain one. Use of the military sends the wrong message to both the community and the criminals. The community feels as though their is no law and that their is a war going on, and the criminals feel like soldiers. They should feel like the criminals they are, and everyone should feel that their is a sense of law.

Street gangs are differently primarily because they are not vertically integrated. Strategies should include isolation from needed criminal resources as well as alleviation of conditions that lend themselves to criminal activity. I’ve written a bit on dealing with street gangs, including pieces specifically addressing targeting considerations and dealing with complexity.

In re: Chicago and Mosul:

I wrote a piece at Foreign Intrigue that may be on interest to you, if you have not already seen them. In “Undergoverned Spaces” I talk a bit about some of what you address, specifically what comparisons we can make between places like Chicago and Mosul. For me, right now there is a fundamental taxonomy problem. We have this dichotomy of governed v. ungoverned that lets us frame many issues incorrectly, and from there it’s all downhill. The first question should not be “Is there governance or is there not governance,” but rather “Is there sufficient governance, is there insufficient governance, or is their no governance.” If we look at some areas of Chicago, saying their is sufficient governance is clearly incorrect, but saying their is no governance or lawlessness is equally incorrect. The issue is more profound when we look at places like Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the Ukraine – an excellent example now because we have not walked all over it and the issues like we have Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of “un/undergoverned” makes us ask of foreign countries “What would be our role here: building a government or supporting one already in place?” This has cascading effects across everything else, from how we craft our IR policy, how we deliver or messaging, what kind of support we lend, the size of our commitment, if we are going to deploy US forces and, if so, what and how large. For domestic US cities, the answer will always be “undergoverned,” and from here we conduct a systems analysis to determine which areas of governance are lacking and determine how to bring those up to par.”

As you might imagine, I am totally on board with this point of view on governed vs. ungoverned spaces.

Updates from PacDev

I had a great time at the Pacific Conference for Development Economics this weekend.  Sendhil Mullainathan really stole the show with an amazing keynote on his new book, Scarcity (which looks like essential reading for anyone interested in poverty issues), but there were also a number of fascinating studies on the political economy of conflict and post-conflict recovery.

  • Tarek Ghani presented some of his joint work with Michael Callen and Josh Blumenstock on the use of mobile money for salary payments in Afghanistan.  Given the amount of violence ongoing in the south of the country, there’s a premium on liquidity in case one has to suddenly flee, and the authors were interested in whether cash or mobile accounts better met this need.  They found that respondents who believed that higher rates of violence would occur in the future were less likely to hold a balance on their mobile accounts, preferring cash instead.  For all the potential of mobile money, there’s still a lot that implementors don’t understand about why people do (or don’t) decide to adopt it.
  • Bilal Siddiqi discussed results from a justice sector intervention in Liberia (joint with Justin Sandefur).  They framed the study with the observation that, while most Liberians prefer customary forms of dispute resolution to (expensive, inefficient) state courts, women are actually more likely to go to state courts when they’re suing men.  The implicit idea is that customary courts are less likely to rule in their favor.  The authors look at the effects of a legal aid program which made it easier for people to access state courts, and found that respondents who participated in the program were happier with their judicial outcomes and had better food security.