Top 5 Longreads of the Week: Jan. 3, 2014

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1. I Smoked Pot with David Brooks

Gary Greenberg | garygreenberg.com | January 3, 2014 | 6 minutes (1,700 words)

A satirical response to New York Times columnist David Brooks, from his “stoner friend,” about giving up smoking pot:

Now that he’s gone and outed himself, I guess I’m free to tell the secret. I smoked pot with David Brooks. I was one of that “clique” with whom he had “those moments of uninhibited frolic.” There were seven of us. We all know what happened to Dave. The rest: a surgeon (rich), a dentist (gay), two lawyers (one dead already), one teacher and one househusband/artist (that’s me). I never spoke up before because I figured if I threw mud at someone whose whole career rests on being squeaky clean, well, that’s just mean. And it’s mostly irrelevant now. I mean, like he said, we’ve “aged out” and “left marijuana behind.”

See also: “Buzzkill” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker)

 

2. ‘A Hive of Mysterious Danger’

Seph Murtagh | Missouri Review | 2010 | 30 minutes (7,714 words)

The author, on teaching a literature class at Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York:

As I mentioned earlier, the class I taught at Auburn was on existentialist literature, with works by Camus, Kafka, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky on the syllabus. Existentialism, I told my students, and winced as I heard myself say it, is a “philosophy of the streets.” It was an overly dramatic statement, but I meant that existentialism is a style of thinking grounded in the messy ambiguities of life. One thing that distinguished philosophers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard from the philosophers who preceded them was a willingness to reflect seriously about human emotions that, while not wholly neglected in the Western philosophical tradition, had tended to take a backseat to reason: emotions such as love, terror, pity, revenge, grief and joy. The prisoners in my class had an entire grammar of experiences to draw from, a familiarity with the courts, for instance, which gave them a special insight into Kafka’s The Trial, or a knowledge of what it means to be an outsider, which made them sympathize with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and they quickly warmed to the idea of drawing connections between their experiences and the concepts they encountered in the readings.

More Missouri Review: “The First Week of After” (Margaret Malone, 2008)

 

3. ‘Did Your Father Touch You?”’

Jennifer Gonnerman | New York Magazine | December 29, 2013 | 22 minutes (5,595 words)

A daughter regrets the lie that sent her father to prison:

When he asks Chaneya why she told officials at the medical clinic that her father had sexually assaulted her, she gives the same answer three times: “I don’t know.”

When he asks what she’d say to the judge if he interrogated her about why she lied, she doesn’t quite answer the question, instead saying, “I want my father to come back home.”

The interview ends after 25 minutes, but then her grandmother asks one final question: Where did the story that she told on the witness stand come from?

“I just made it up,” she says.

More Gonnerman: “The Man Who Charged Himself with Murder” (2012)

 

4. How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

Alexis Madrigal | The Atlantic | January 2, 2013 | 20 minutes (4,960 words)

Madrigal digs into the personalization algorithm of Netflix and discovers 76,897 micro-genres that are recommended to users:

They capture dozens of different movie attributes. They even rate the moral status of characters. When these tags are combined with millions of users viewing habits, they become Netflix’s competitive advantage. The company’s main goal as a business is to gain and retain subscribers. And the genres that it displays to people are a key part of that strategy. “Members connect with these [genre] rows so well that we measure an increase in member retention by placing the most tailored rows higher on the page instead of lower,” the company revealed in a 2012 blog post. The better Netflix shows that it knows you, the likelier you are to stick around.

More Madrigal: “How Google Builds Its Maps” (2012)

 

5. A Speck in the Sea

Paul Tough | The New York Times Magazine | January 2, 2014 | 30 minutes (7,588 words)

A fisherman’s improbable rescue after going overboard in the middle of the night:

The first thing you’re supposed to do, if you’re a fisherman and you fall in the ocean, is to kick off your boots. They’re dead weight that will pull you down. But as Aldridge treaded water, he realized that his boots were not pulling him down; in fact, they were lifting him up, weirdly elevating his feet and tipping him backward. Aldridge’s boots were an oddity among the members of Montauk’s commercial fishing fleet: thick green rubber monstrosities that were guaranteed to keep your feet warm down to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature Montauk had not experienced since the ice age. Sosinski made fun of the boots, but Aldridge liked them: they were comfortable and sturdy and easy to slip on and off. And now, as he bobbed in the Atlantic, he had an idea of how they might save his life.

More by Tough: “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” (2011)

 

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Photo: melloveschallah, Flickr

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