Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)
1. Anthrax Redux: Did the Feds Nab the Wrong Guy? | Noah Shachtman | Wired | March 24, 2011 | 47 minutes (11,758 words)
Army biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins was suspected in the anthrax attacks that terrified the nation in late 2001—but is the real culprit still at large? Shachtman retraces the FBI’s investigation, including early suspicions about Ivins’ colleagues inside the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and new concerns that Ivins (who died in 2008) may have been odd, but not guilty. Still missing: A motive and much physical evidence:
“The killing spores were so volatile that they cross-contaminated piles and piles of mail. Yet spores were never found in Ivins’ house or his car, and only a handful were discovered in his lab. There’s no evidence of any trip to Princeton to mail the letters. And just because the killer spores were descendants of a USAMRIID flask, there’s no guarantee a USAMRIID scientist was actually the mailer. In fact, the FBI was never able to prove where the attack anthrax was cultured. ‘It would’ve been very easy to take the anthrax out, to steal some,’ a former USAMRIID officer says. ‘Anybody could do that.'”
More from Wired: “Fraud U: Toppling a Bogus-Diploma Empire” (David Wolman, Dec. 2009)
2. Miss Grundy Was Fired Today | Andrew Rice | New York Magazine | March 22, 2011 | 21 minutes (5,212 words)
Inside the education reform movement, teacher merit pay, union-busting, and the hero/villain of the whole debate: former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Critics worry that Rhee’s work—now channeled through an organization called StudentsFirst—has evolved into an anti-union movement that focuses on ill-defined teacher performance metrics:
“Rhee’s failings were not simply matters of communication. Her dedication to assessing quality was undermined by a difficult fact: No one has adequately defined good teaching. Value-added formulas, like the one behind IMPACT, are only as accurate as their inputs. Critics argue that standardized tests are flawed and inconsistent and don’t measure what kids should really be learning anyway. And Rhee carried out hundreds of firings before IMPACT was even in place. Rhee acknowledges that for all her talk of stringent standards, there was ‘no perfect option’ when it came to making many of her firing decisions. ‘In anything that we chose, there was a possibility of someone getting screwed,’ she said at an appearance in December. ‘But we thought, “Better the adults getting screwed than the kids.”‘”
See also: “What Makes a Great Teacher?” (Amanda Ripley, The Atlantic, Dec. 2009)
3. ‘The Wire’ as 19th Century Literature | Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson | The Hooded Utilitarian | March 23, 2011 | 12 minutes (2,923 words)
TV and book nerd heaven: A writer and illustrator re-imagine David Simon’s HBO series as a “Victorian masterpiece” that inspired Charles Dickens. In examining the overlooked work of “The Wire’s” writer, Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, Delyria and Robinson reveal why the 19th Century serial, about the town of “Bodymore,” was perfect for its time:
“The genius of The Wire lies in its sheer size and scope, its slow layering of complexity which could not have been achieved in any other way but the serial format. Dickens is often praised for his portrayal not merely of a set of characters and their lives, but of the setting as a character: the city itself an antagonist. Yet in The Wire, Bodymore is a far more intricate and compelling character than London in Dickens’ hands; The Wire portrays society to such a degree of realism and intricacy that A Tale of Two Cities—or any other story—can hardly compare.
“That is not to say that one did not have an influence on the other. Oliver Twist is a searing treatment of the education system and treatment of children in Victorian society; meanwhile, The Wire’s portrayal of the Bodymore schools is a similar indictment, featuring Oliver-like orphans such as ‘Dookey’ and the fatherless Michael, and criminal activity forced upon children with Fagin-like scheming. Yet while Ogden no doubt took a cue from Dickens in his choice to condemn the educational institution, The Wire builds from the simplicity of Oliver Twist, complicating the subject with a nuance and attention to detail that Dickens never achieved.”
See also: “Why Britain Can’t Do ‘The Wire'” (Peter Jukes, Prospect, Oct. 2009)
4. Small Changes, Big Results: Behavioral Economics at Work in Poor Countries | Rachel Glennerster, Michael Kremer | Boston Review | March 20, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,472 words)
How can the lessons of behavioral economics help solve health and education problems in places like Kenya and Malawi? Glennerster and Kremer studied the small ways that programs are trying to increase the use of mosquito nets and the consumption of sanitized drinking water. And as it turns out, adoption is not tied only to cost:
“Another program inspired by our increasing knowledge of consumer behavior sought to provide clean drinking water to households that collect water from contaminated sources. Despite widespread social marketing, few households buy chlorine for home treatment. This is due in large part to the price, which reflects not just the minimal cost of the chlorine itself, but also the larger costs of packaging and distribution.
“A new approach places chlorine dispensers at communal water sources. Using larger, community-level containers substantially reduces packaging costs, making it easier for governments or donors to provide the chlorine for free. The dispensers deliver the right quantity for the standard water-collection container, so the dispenser is convenient to use. The dispenser itself provides a visual reminder of the need to treat water, and combining the steps of water collection and treatment builds good habits. The public placement of the dispenser is designed to facilitate peer pressure and social-norm formation around chlorine use.”
See also: “Cass Sunstein Wants to Nudge Us” (Benjamin Wallace, New York Times Magazine, May 2010)
5. Jonathan Ive: How Did a British Polytechnic Graduate Become Apple’s Design Genius? | Rob Waugh | Daily Mail | March 21, 2011 | 16 minutes (4,079 words)
Profile of the lesser-known Apple superstar: Jony Ive was toiling away, designing printer trays, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. Ive went on to become the company’s lead designer, creating the iMac, iPod and iPad, from a secretive office on the Cupertino campus:
“Ive’s lab is Apple’s inner sanctum. Here, touch screens control the glass-sided machines in which new products take form. Desks are bare bar the aluminum sheets that slot together to form the familiar lines of iconic products such as the MacBook Air.
“Collectively, the designers obsess over each product, stripping away non-essential parts, reworking tiny details such as LED indicators on the sides of laptops and phones. Ive once spent months working solely on the stand for Apple’s desktop iMac; he was searching for the sort of organic perfection found in sunflower stalks.
“That final design used a combination of forged and polished steels and expensive laser welding to create an elegant, beautiful stem that was barely even noticed in the finished product. Ive loathes shape-making for its own sake (Bayley says he’s known to use ‘arbitrary’ as a term of abuse).”
See also: “Interview with Rob Janoff, designer of the Apple logo” (Creative Bits, Aug. 2009)
Featured Longreader: Sarah Fidelibus @verbalcupcake
Sarah teaches writing at San Francisco State University.
“I have had moments lately in which I have found it hard not to think that the world is ending: earthquakes, uprisings, more U.S. ‘military action’ abroad…Where to find moments of stability and peace? Enter Douglas McGray’s ‘How Carrots Became the New Junk Food,’ which was my favorite Longread of the week. Cheeky yet also insightful, McGray’s story is a fun look into the process of rebranding of ‘baby’ carrots as not a nutritious serving of veggies but instead as a decidedly super-cool snack. Even as McGray wonders if we’ve approached, ‘an unfortunate cultural milestone, the moment when eating baby carrots became too much work,’ he manages to reveal absurdities in American culture without getting mired in pointless snark. His story is crisp and refreshing—maybe not like a baby carrot so much as a sorbet for your brain, cleansing your mental palate in preparation for the next course of hard-hitting news.” How Carrots Became the New Junk Food Douglas McGray | Fast Company | March 23, 2011 | 10 minutes (2,437 words)