The 25 best longform articles of 2018

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My year in Pocket

Continuing my tradition from 2016 and 2017, here are the 25 best articles I read last year, in no particular order.  I share lots of snippets from the interesting things I read at Pocket if you’d like to follow along.

An Internment Camp for 10 Million Uyghurs.  Meduza.  “I was able to find a couple of surviving mosques, but locks held their ancient doors closed. Not far from the madrasah, which was also closed, a furrier sat at an intersection in traditional dress and crafted an Uyghur hat. Both the furrier and the hat were made of bronze. Real fur hats were sold in the city’s souvenir shops, but real furriers were now impossible to find. The marvelous ancient knives that had graced the city on people’s belts and in market stalls had also disappeared. When I greeted a few salesmen and used the word ‘pchak,’ they recoiled, and only one antiques dealer could find a heavy knife case in his stand. Inside were several sumptuous, ancient knife handles — the blades themselves had been cut off. Even when they buy everyday kitchen knives, Uyghurs are now obligated to brand the blade with a laser-carved QR code that identifies the knife’s owner. In Aksu, knives in restaurant kitchens are attached to the walls with chains.”

How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.  The New Yorker.  “Li pointed to a whirring speck in the sky. As it drew closer, the first thing I could make out was a red box under the belly of the drone. A minute later, I saw three spinning propellers, which seemed improbably small for the size of their load, like the wings of a bumblebee. The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the ‘toy plane.’ But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: ‘Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything.'”

Everyday Politics.  Aeon.  “The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways. Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.”

“Give Us His Breath or His Body.”  Roads and Kingdoms.  “In August 2004, twelve men left their village in Nepal for jobs at a five-star luxury hotel in Amman, Jordan. They had no idea that they had actually been hired for subcontract work on an American military base in Iraq. But fate took an even darker turn when the dozen men were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists. Their gruesome deaths were captured in one of the first graphicexecution videos disseminated on the internet—the largest massacre of contractors during the war. Compounding the tragedy was the reality that their deaths received little notice. Why were men from a country so removed from the war, in Iraq? How had they gotten there? And who, exactly, were they working for?”

Inside the Haywire World of Beirut’s Electricity Brokers.  Wired.  “‘We cover where there is no state,’ says Abdel al-Raham, an owner and operator of generators in East Beirut. He began with a small generator, which he used to power his house, around the start of the civil war in 1975. But the generator was loud and noxious, so over time, as a gesture of good faith, he would give his neighbors a lamp connected to his generator. “Just enough for them to light their house and to make up for all the annoying noise,” he says. But because of his generosity, his wife soon became unable to run the washing machine. He went out and bought a new, bigger generator. Then shop owners nearby needed more power, and his brother came to him and proposed they split profits on the power they could sell to the neighborhood. Self-sufficiency turned into entrepreneurship.”

She Ran From the Cut, and Helped Thousands of Other Girls Escape, Too.  The New York Times.  “Ms. Leng’ete never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting. In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.”

My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave Trader.  The New Yorker.  “My grandmother Helen, who helped establish a local church, is buried near the study. My umbilical cord is buried on the grounds, as are those of my four siblings. My eldest brother, Nnamdi, was born while my parents were studying in England, in the early nineteen-seventies; my father, Chukwuma, preserved the dried umbilical cord and, eighteen months later, brought it home to bury it by the front gate. Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. ‘He was a renowned trader,’ my father told me proudly. ‘He dealt in palm produce and human beings.'”

What Putin Really Wants.  The Atlantic.  “But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot. Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. ‘We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,’ he said. ‘Now it’s just funny; how much Americans attribute to him.”

A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe.  LA Review of Books.  “The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. So the time had come to summon Marko again. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache.”

Blood and Oil: Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasoline Industry.  Rolling Stone.  “All that has changed over the past few years, as Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels have moved to monopolize all forms of crime, including fuel theft, muscling out smaller operators with paramilitary tactics honed in the drug war. Black-market gasoline is now a billion-dollar economy, and free-standing gasoline mafias are gaining power in their own right, throwing a volatile accelerant onto the dirty mix of drugs and guns that has already killed some 200,000 Mexicans over the past decade. The most violent year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2017, and some observers now say the conflict has as much to do with petroleum as it does with narcotics.”

Safe House.  California Sunday Magazine.  “Valentina isn’t a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer. She is an immigrant who opens her home to women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them. The women who come are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, housecleaners. Like Silvia, many are ashamed, reluctant to point a finger or to file for divorce. Most are undocumented, and before President Trump’s election, they went to Valentina when they didn’t know their rights or when shelters didn’t have space. Since Trump, even those with papers avoid shelters and mistrust the law. Silvia had stayed at Valentina’s house for a week, and now Valentina has taken to checking on her. She’s hoping Silvia will leave her partner, but she can’t predict if she will or how long it might take.”

Signs and Wonders.  1843 Magazine.  “López first saw sign language on an American television programme in 1977. During a trip to Venezuela to compete in an international track-and-field tournament, he managed to get his hands on a guide to the sign language used in Costa Rica and brought it back to Nicaragua. But oralism was enforced even more strictly at the vocational school than at Melania Morales – teachers were known to slap the hands of students caught gesturing to each other – and López’s instructors confiscated his dictionary. Undeterred, he snuck into the room where the teachers had left the book and hid it inside a folk-dancing costume as he walked out. Armed with the contraband dictionary, Lopez and some deaf friends began to gather regularly. At first, they tried to pick up the Costa Rican vocabulary. But trying to learn to communicate using a foreign rulebook felt unnatural: none of the group had ever used anything like those signs with their families or each other. ‘I didn’t identify with those signs,’ López says. ‘I felt the signs had to be something that belonged to us.’ As a result, they scrapped his dictionary, and began trying to make one of their own.”

Could An Ex-Convict Become an Attorney?  I Intended to Find Out.  The New York Times.  “After the 15-minute ceremony, I turned to everyone, without thinking, and began speaking as my uncle kept recording: ‘The last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison.’ I wanted to say something about the journey. I’d already revealed too much. Miles, sitting beside his brother, paused and looked up. I could tell something confused him. He had questions in his eyes. He stared, listening, as I confessed the thing that I’d been holding back. What man wants to tell his child he’s done time in prison? But I had. And, in that single breath, I’d given him this: an image of his father as both a convict and an attorney.”

The Waiting Room.  The Marshall Project.  “The freed detainees will carry their possessions in plastic garbage bags, knotted and sealed. Any money they had when they were arrested will have been converted to a Cook County–issued check that is unusable for the “release and run,” as it is known. Some will have no idea which way to turn as they leave the jail, and no one will know what to do with a check. There is a currency exchange on Kedzie Avenue and 26th, but that is a 13-minute walk, past the desolate zone next to the 26th Street wall of the jail, where it’s not unusual to get jumped by gangs. The Popeyes at California Avenue used to be a good place to get your check cashed, and it was such a reliable sanctuary in the neighborhood that the sheriff’s department would send the newly released detainees there, making it a regular stop in the out-processing.”

The Real Origins of the Religious Right.  Politico.  “But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”

Híyoge owísisi tánga itá (Cricket egg stories).  Carte Blanche.  “Biologists used to have a comfortable dogma. We believed that everything about an organism could be found somewhere in its DNA. That is not wrong, but neither is it the whole story. Now I am here in the Natural Sciences Building, having discovered a new function of hormones in crickets. What I—an Indigenous woman and a scientist in defiance of every obstacle—have found is not limited to crickets. Researchers studying humans have found that our hormones, too, transcend generations and genes. What I have found may be new to biologists, but not to the peoples of what settlers call the New World. We have known for hundreds of generations that we carry our histories within us. They are part of who we are.”

Embarrassment of Obscurities.  Times Literary Supplement.  “Although NASA was at great pains to present these suits as the pinnacle of modern technological achievement (and indeed each comprised twenty-one layers of fabric, mostly new synthetics such as nylon and spandex), the reality was a little different. Each suit was also a marvellous example of skill and creativity; and it was, almost exclusively, the handiwork of women schooled in the frequently undervalued craft of textiles. The sub-contractor responsible for their assembly was ILC, a firm best known for making Playtex bras, girdles and nappies. Teams of deft-fingered seamstresses and pattern-cutters, working on Singer sewing machines, assembled the spacesuits stitch by painstaking stitch. When the firm received feedback that the prototypes were chafing, they began inserting sections of fluffy material usually used to line girdles; the nylon mesh used to prevent the rubber layer from ballooning in zero gravity had originally been developed for bras.”

The Untold Story of NotPetya, The Most Devastating Cyberattack in History.  Wired.  “Disconnecting Maersk’s entire global network took the company’s IT staff more than two panicky hours. By the end of that process, every employee had been ordered to turn off their computer and leave it at their desk. The digital phones at every cubicle, too, had been rendered useless in the emergency network shutdown.”

Ready for a Linguistic Controversy?  Say “Mmhmm”.  NPR. “Once upon a time, English speakers didn’t say “mmhmm.” But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa’s influence on the Americas. In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say ‘yay’ and ‘yes.'”

Orange or Fruit?  On the Unlikely Etymology of “Orange.”  Literary Hub.  “What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed ‘orange’ to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges. Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges from India to Europe, and the color takes its name from them. Until they arrived, there was no orange as such in the color spectrum. When the first Europeans saw the fruit they were incapable of exclaiming about its brilliant orange color. They recognized the color but didn’t yet know its name. Often they referred to oranges as ‘golden apples.’ Not until they knew them as oranges did they see them as orange.”

Slivers of Sciences in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”  Discover.  “One of the most common arguments is that Circe was feeding the crew jimson weed. While that sounds innocent enough, Datura stramonium, as it is known in the scientific world, belongs to the deadly nightshade family and contains high levels of anti-cholinergic alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. These compounds block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from interacting with its receptors in the brain. When this neurotransmitter is blocked, we can’t distinguish reality from fantasy, we exhibit bizarre behavior, and we can suffer pronounced amnesia. ‘Patients who consume this stuff often have vivid hallucinations and become seriously delirious,’ says Harvard Medical School toxicologist Alan Woolf.”

Tea if by Land, Cha if By Sea.  Quartz. “With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and teein Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi. Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World’s Top Art Forgery Detective.  The Guardian.  “Like criminals of every stripe, modern forgers have kept easy pace with the techniques that attempt to trap them. The mismatch between the purported age of a painting and the true age of its ingredients is the workhorse of Martin’s technique. So forgers have grown more rigorous in their harvesting of materials, taking the trouble, for instance, to source wooden panels from furniture they know is dateable to the year of the fake they are creating. (The trick isn’t wholly new; Terenzio da Urbino, a 17th-century conman, scrabbled around for filthy old canvases and frames, cleaned them up, and turned them into ‘Raphaels’.)”

A Birth Plan for Dying.  Longreads.  “River’s birth was scheduled for September 26. She would be born in the same hospital where I had given birth to our daughter, whom I’ll call M, two years before. The staff were ready for us. A kind nurse checked us in at noon and led us to a delivery room with a small sign on the door — a leaf with droplets of water that looked like tears. It’s a secret code. It alerts everyone who comes in the room that your baby is going to die, so people don’t accidentally congratulate you for being there.”

Migration is What You Make It: Seven Policy Decisions that Turned Challenges Into Opportunities.  Center for Global Development.  “No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what ‘the’ effect of ‘immigration’ is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration. But the world’s wealth of experience in regulating migration can still be a useful resource for setting better policy. We must ask a more fruitful question: how can different policy choices generate positive economic effects from immigration and avoid negative ones? Immigration is not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Its effects depend on the context and the policy choices that shape it.

Recent articles on conflict

Here’s a handful of interesting articles & books that have passed through my huge pile of unsorted PDFs neatly tagged Evernote notebooks recently.  I’ve included links to ungated versions when available; please let me know if you have access to a free version of any of the gated texts.

  • Chris Blattman’s lecture notes on what American political scientists know about the connection between poverty and violence.  A quick, thought-provoking slide deck.
  • Danielle Beswick on the paradoxes of military capacity building in Rwanda (published version appears to be available for free right now).  Nothing new here if you’ve been watching Rwanda and M23 for a while, but the focus on the risks of a strong military is a useful addition to policy discussions of security sector reform.
  • I haven’t read Severine Autesserre’s Peaceland yet, but it’s high on my list.  Another article covering similar territory to Autesserre’s last book is Jens Stilhoff Sörensen’s piece on the failure of statebuilding.  Key quote: “In its aim to secure, I argue, contemporary state-building and global liberal governance contribute to social and spatial fragmentation in different forms, rather than reconciliation and re-integration.They do so by dismantling previously existing frameworks and introducing market relations where the state has few instruments for attracting cross-sectarian loyalty” (p. 49).
  • Michael Gilligan et al. on how conflict affects social cohesion at the community level in Nepal.  Key point: “We find that violence-affected communities exhibit higher levels of prosocial motivation… We find evidence to support two social transformation mechanisms: (1) a purging mechanism by which less social persons disproportionately flee communities plagued by war and (2) a collective coping mechanism by which individuals who have few options to flee band together to cope with threats” (p. 604)