Olympic Reads

Sarah Lyall had a lovely essay on navigating the Olympic park in yesterday’s Times:

The park is a city unto itself, with the feel of an instant, pop-up sportscape, a grand but almost generic place. It feels as if it could be anywhere or nowhere, a great temporary community whose positioning outside one of the world’s most idiosyncratic cities is almost immaterial. Sure, the prevailing accents are British, and some of the restaurants sell fish and chips, and everyone loves Team GB, but the Olympic park barely feels like part of London or even part of Britain.

Jeré Longman also has a piece in the Times (today’s, I think, but it’s been online for a few days) on Lolo Jones that’s notable for how unerringly cruel it is. I didn’t know you could roll like that, NYT. Deadspin also has a good breakdown of the piece.

Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.

Steve Myers wrote about the photographer that caught that remarkable shot of Gabby Douglas’s winning beam routine (that also has a really cute editor’s note):

He wasn’t sure he had gotten the shot, though. Because he photographed the entire competition, he didn’t have time to look at anything. He put the card in his laptop, sent the images to an editor, and kept shooting. Only later did he realize that he had nailed it.

Scott Staton has a short history of strange controversies in marathons to accompany an excellent (subscription-only) New Yorker feature on a dentist alleged to have cheated repeatedly in marathons:

The original Olympic course retraced the route from Marathon to Athens along rough country roads. Of seventeen runners, twelve were Greek and eight failed to finish. To the host city, it meant the world that the winner of this first official marathon, Spiridon Louis, was “a child of the soil.” Another Greek runner followed and was awarded silver. When Spiridon Belokas came next, he completed an improbable Greek medal sweep and was rapturously received by the crowd. But the fourth place finisher, from Hungary, contested the result, charging that Belokas had covered part of the course in a carriage. This was true; Greek elation mingled with disgrace. Belokas lost his medal, but won the distinction of being the first person ever disqualified for cheating in a marathon.

Katie Baker for Grantland wrote a light but comprehensive history of trampoline is an Olympic sport (with a delightful number of links within):

Nissen was both restless and a consummate showman, two traits that helped explain some of his more notorious marketing stunts. In 1960, he rented a kangaroo and was photographed bouncing alongside it in Central Park. (The shot, which took nearly a week to get right, ended up in Sports Illustrated.) In 1977, he smuggled the components of a bespoke four-by-eight-foot trampoline to the top of the Giza pyramid in Egypt, assembled it, and bounced away. Back down at the bottom, he “found several Egyptian police along with the director of Egyptian antiquities waiting,” his daughter Dagmar wrote in a book about her dad. He had interests outside of the trampoline too: Nissen held more than 40 patents (including one for something named the “Bunsaver Air Cushion”) and in the ’70s owned a women’s professional basketball team called the Iowa Cornets.


Olympic Reads

Rob Trucks interviewed Nancy Hogshead-Makar about the moment she knew her career was over:

One of the hard parts when people talk about quitting is just that it feels so good to be that masterful at something, to be at the very top of the game, and to—I mean, I still, to this day, I’m 50 years old, I get in the water and I feel masterful. I feel like I can grab hold of the water, I can move the water. I move confidently and gracefully in the water. This is clearly where God meant for me to be. And then to go try to start from scratch at anything else is tough.

Sarah Rich on the history of the olympic pictograms:

Of all the instances in which graphic communication is necessary to transcend language barriers, the Olympic Games are, if not the most important, probably the most visible. We take the little icons of swimmers and sprinters as a given aspect of Olympic design, but the pictograms were a mid-20th Century invention—first employed, in fact, the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 (some pictographic gestures were made at the 1936 Berlin games, though their mark on international memory has been permitted to fade because of their association with Third Reich ideology).

Dvora Meyers on NBC’s stupid gymnastics coverage:

As we’ve noted, NBC didn’t show the floor routine of Ksenia Afanasyeva, the defending world champion on the apparatus, who crashed to her knees on her final tumbling pass—the moment that basically sealed the American women’s first team gold medal in 16 years. Showing Russians unhappy and in tears is one of NBC’s favorite pastimes, but seeing Afanasyeva stumble would’ve eliminated any sort of faux suspense that remained after Anastasia Grishina’s enormous error.


How to Build a Subway

New York has been trying to put another subway on the east side of New York for over 80 years. First World War II got in the way, then looming bankruptcy in 1975. Today, 2nd Avenue has been transformed by permanent construction, blocked crosswalks, and the occasional rumbling of underground explosions. The parade of giant, noisy machines was a fun curiosity for about ten seconds, but I’m more interested in what’s happening underground.

Village Voice obliged in April with a great feature on the “sandhogs” working underground all day to finish the tunnel:

The history of the New York City sandhogs dates back to the 1870s and the sinking of the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. Local 147 was formed some 30 years later, in 1906, and has been integral to every subterranean public-works project since. Subways, car and water tunnels, sewers—you name it, they’ve dug it. Yet in all that time, the sandhogs have never experienced a bonanza of work such as that of the past few years. Along with the Second Avenue subway, there is the East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal; the westward extension of the 7 train; City Water Tunnel No. 3 and the Croton Filtration Plant; the renovated South Ferry station; and the new Fulton Street Transit Center in Downtown Brooklyn. In the weeks just prior to 9/11, only 12 of Local 147’s roughly 600 members had work. Today, the union is around 2,000 strong, with well more than half enjoying consistent employment throughout the recent boom.

Now The Times has a short piece on the construction, with some great details and anecdotes about the process of drilling 22-foot-wide tunnels under New York:

Current technology permits a subtler approach: workers chiseled a launch box at 96th Street and in it assembled a tunnel-boring machine, a mechanical worm with a 130-ton head full of whirling steel discs. The discs chewed two 22-foot-wide tunnels at a depth of 80-feet — enough to slide below water, gas, and electric mains, connect to the station at 63rd and keep the incline of the track always below 3 percent, the steepest grade trains can reliably climb. Beforehand, to test the stability of the ground, engineers took two-inch-wide borings every 1,000 feet, from the street to below the floor of the planned tunnel. In the middle of 92nd, they discovered a challenge: soil and crumbly rock underpinning the city that, if jostled, could cause quaking above. “If we settle the ground in a cornfield it doesn’t really matter,” Mukherjee says. “Here if I settle the ground, I collapse the buildings.” To firm up the site, contractors drilled eight-inch-wide, 80-foot-deep holes and inserted steel pipes. Into those pipes they pumped a constant stream of calcium-chloride brine chilled to minus-13 degrees. In 10 weeks, the earth was frozen solid, and they could cut and brace the tunnel so it would support the surrounding sediment after the ground thawed.


Olympic Reads

Eric Freeman on NBC’s approach to broadcasting the Olympics, and what it says about NBC:

"The broadcast is athletic competition communicated with an unheard-of level of editorial control, in which stars are picked before the games begin, sports are prized for their ability to produce narrative, and performance comes secondary to what people can say about it."

The myths and legends surrounding Usain Bolt (see also: Luke Dittrich’s profile of Bolt):

"Few would deny that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world — but even fewer could say why. While his fans are happy to call him a miracle, the man himself is lost in a cloud of legends, hype and marketing."

Adam Elder for Wired on the technological advances in timing that Omega brings to the Olympics:

"The Games are as much a showcase for Omega as they are for the athletes, a chance for the Swiss watchmakers to show off the latest advances in sports timing technology — including a clock accurate to one-millionth of a second."


The Best Watchdog Journalism on Campaign Finance →

ProPublica has rounded up some of the best stories on campaign finance:

This week, we’re exposing the world of campaign finance post-Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that opened the door to super PACs. The stories fall into three categories: donor profiles, super PACs and scandals, though as Michael Kinsley said: “The scandal in Washington isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what’s legal.”

Among the best is the New Yorker’s profile of the Koch brothers and The New Republic’s recent story on Harold Simmons, the 2012 campaign’s biggest donor, but you should browse the full list.

If you’re into this sort of thing (who isn’t, right?), your next stop will be ProPublica’s MuckReads page, their curation of watchdog reporting, which also has a Twitter hashtag.


David Kushner

David Kushner’s been busy: three stories in about as many weeks, all fantastic reads.

Undercover Anarchist (Rolling Stone)

What happens when a cop falls in love with the radicals he’s spying on? Mark Kennedy found out the hard way.

The Man Who Hacked Hollywood (GQ)

They’ve become a part of the pop-culture landscape: sexy, private shots of celebrities (your Scarletts, your Milas) stolen from their phones and e-mail accounts. They’re also the center of an entire stealth industry. For the man recently arrested in the biggest case yet, hacking also gave him access to a trove of Hollywood’s seamiest secrets—who was sleeping together, who was closeted, who liked to sext. What the snoop didn’t realize was that he was being watched, too.

Machine Politics

The man who started the hacker wars.

When you’re done these, Kushner’s entire output since 2003 is reprinted in full on his website (with no pagination!).


Behind The Scenes

The methods of identifying a killer are as numerous as the methods of killing a person, but how reliable are they really?


National Magazine Awards 2012 Finalists

The American Society of Magazine Editors announced the National Magazine Awards finalists for 2012 today, one of the highest awards in the magazine industry. Below are some of the articles and essays receiving awards that are available online. The full list of winners is available here.

Public Interest


Feature Writing

Essays and Criticism


Nine Words For “Recursion”

In a paper co-written by Noam Chomsky in 2002, its authors claim recursion is the only “uniquely human component of the faculty of language.” Imagine Chomsky’s surprise, then, when linguist Daniel Everett published a paper 3 years later claiming to have found an Amazonian tribe whose language exhibited no sign of recursion, along with various other features appearing to go some way to disproving Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. Everett’s findings are far from conclusive and difficult to verify, and accordingly, the scholarly debate has been furious.


Prose and Cons

Revisiting the misdeeds of journalists in the wake of Mike Daisey.

Mike Daisey recently found himself the latest in a long line of journalists facing scorn for plagiarising or fabricating parts of their reporting, leading This American Life to air a retraction of an episode where Daisey told his story.


Diamonds in the Rough

Looking at the tumultuous, profitable world of diamonds. A worldwide cartel controls supply and demand while labs try to mass-produce diamonds, squabbling between shareholders guts a successful jewelers, and the heist of the century that remains unsolved.

7.3.2012art and entertainmentnewspeoplelong reads

Julian Assange and Wikileaks

Wikileaks has been making news since 2006, but in 2010 they made big news with a series of leaks starting with the “Collateral Murder” videos. Following that were the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs. Wikileaks’ final leak that year was the diplomatic cables, the largest leak of classified documents in history. As the leaks and the events surrounding them unfolded, Wikileaks became one of the biggest, most thrilling stories in years.


Who’s Watching You?

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads"

Jeff Hammerbacher

Brick and mortar retailers like Target have been tracking you for years, rapidly improving their statistical methods to make educated guesses about how to advertise at you more effectively, but as the internet becomes more and more ubiquitous the practice is moving online and getting bigger than ever.

Almost all of your favourite companies are gathering data on your surfing habits in a massive interconnected web of ad trackers. The primary goal is to serve more effective advertising, but these companies now hold enough data on you to bring privacy concerns to the fore. A Wall Street Journal investigation a year and a half ago found a burgeoning industry with millions of dollars flowing through it holding detailed records on you, making increasingly precise predictions about your behaviour, and a recent investigation by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic takes a philosophical look at your anonymity among the machines.


America’s Warehouses

What happens when you buy something online? Your order finds its way to a worker in a warehouse on a 7:30am to 5pm shift who finds the item somewhere in a cavernous warehouse and scans it. Thousands of times a day. They risk termination if they don’t meet impossible targets, if they take a day off for a doctor visit, even if they injure themselves. They have almost no worker’s rights or benefits. And they make about $11 an hour.

The warehouses are owned by third party logistics companies, and they staff the warehouses using temping agencies that supply thousands of warehouse workers. Sometimes they’re supplying so many that they even have offices right there in the warehouse. By operating this way, big name retailers like Amazon and Walmart distance themselves from the conditions in the warehouses. They’re rarely named in the frequent lawsuits, and they can easily shift responsibility.


Think Again: Cyberwar →

With the advent of viruses like Stuxnet, cyberwarfare is upon us according to Businessweek and a string of other commentators. Thomas Rid for Foreign Policy disagrees, arguing that it’s all hype. So far, any cyberwarfare we’ve seen doesn’t fit the description of an act of war.