102 Spectacular Nonfiction Stories from 2012

Conor Friedersdorf's annual collection of the very best that journalism has to offer.
102 stories

Each year, I track the most exceptional stories I encounter while assembling my twice-weekly newsletter, The Best of Journalism, as well as acting as an editor-at-large for Byliner. These projects afford me the opportunity to read as much impressive nonfiction journalism as any single person possibly can. The result is my annual Best of Journalism List, now in its fifth year. If you’re feeling nostalgic, here’s the 2011 edition.

There are, of course, worthy pieces of writing and reporting that escaped my attention in 2012, but I can assure you that all of the 102 stories listed below deserve wider attention—as do the authors of these stories. The featured bylines are linked to the authors’ Byliner writer pages, which makes it easy to discover and read more of their excellent work. The stories are listed alphabetically by writer.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll also note that I’m a staff writer at The Atlantic (where my colleagues neither saw nor influenced this list) and have done my best to remain objective. I hope you enjoy this year’s selections. —Conor Friedersdorf

No. 1
From the Web

We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction

An Oxford philosopher argues that we are not adequately accounting for technology’s risks—but his solution to the problem is not for Luddites.

Mar 2012

"Human beings have been around for roughly a hundred thousand years on this planet, so how much should that count in determining whether we're going to be around another hundred thousand years?"

No. 2

A Plea to Be Free

Greg Ousley murdered his parents at 14. So why does he think he deserves to get out of prison?

"On one occasion, while his mother hung laundry in the backyard, he took a rifle down from the gun cabinet and aimed it at her head, imagining what would happen if he pulled the trigger. He quickly put the gun away, terrified by his own thoughts."

No. 3
From the Web

Tom Wolfe’s California

In the Golden State, the great writer first chronicled the social changes that would transform America.

Sep 2012

"All that money, freedom, and sense of limitless possibility have the same effect on California writ large as they do on people who rocket overnight from steelworker’s son to superstar. Out pours everyone’s inner weird. And enter Tom Wolfe."

No. 4
From the Web

The Great Illusion of Gettysburg

How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.

Feb 2012

"Four hundred feet long. Fifty feet high. It was art on an astonishing scale. 'The impression upon the beholder as he steps upon this platform,' one reviewer wrote, 'is one of mingled astonishment and awe.'"

No. 5
From the Web

You Owe Me

The first lesson of teaching dying children is to come back the next day.

"Gio’s was the first death I witnessed as a writer, as an outsider who enters into the intimate world of struggling children. I assumed that his death was a template of sorts: this is how the very young die; they become almost holy."

No. 6
From the Web

If Antoine Walker Shimmies, but It’s in Boise, Is He Really Shimmying?

The three-time NBA All-Star shares a distinctive piece of NBA history with Michael Jordan. So how did he end up here, in the remotest of hoops hinterlands?

"In five hours Walker will take the court for the Idaho Stampedes. An All-Star living in a $915-a-month apartment, and playing for a salary of less than $25,000. He has no car, subsists mainly on cold cuts and fast food and plays in front of crowds as small as 155."

No. 7
From the Web

Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.

We throw thousands of men in the hole for the books they read, the company they keep, the beliefs they hold. Here’s why.

Oct 2012

"What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement."

No. 8
From the Web

Is Origami the Future of Tech?

Nature uses folding to manufacture some of its most intricate creations, from flowers and wings to protein and DNA. What if humans could do the same?

"Any faceted solid, he showed, no matter how complex or irregular, could be folded from a single uncut sheet of paper. Start with a piece of paper big enough, and you could model Notre Dame down to the last gargoyle."

No. 9
From the Web

Making the World’s Largest Airline Fly

Merging Continental and United means endless decisions, from uniforms to coffee.

"Even simple-seeming choices grow comically intricate when they involve commercial air travel, with its constant balancing of safety, cost, space, style, reliability, convenience, speed, and comfort."

No. 10
From the Web

The Frequent Fliers Who Flew Too Much

Many years after selling lifetime passes for unlimited first-class travel, American Airlines began scrutinizing the costs—and the customers.

"He was airborne almost every other day. If a friend mentioned a new exhibit at the Louvre, Rothstein thought nothing of jetting from his Chicago home to San Francisco to pick her up and then fly to Paris together."

No. 11
From the Web

The Crayola-fication of the World

How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.

Jun 2012

"What really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries."

No. 12
From the Web

The Art of Waiting

Yearning for conception in a world of fecundity.

Mar 2012

"A large part of the pressure and frustration of infertility is the idea that fertility is normal, natural, and healthy, while infertility is rare, unnatural, and means something is wrong with you."

No. 13
From the Web

The Enchanted Island of Centenarians

Unraveling the mystery of why the inhabitants of Ikaria live so long and so well.

"The years passed. His health continued to improve. Today, three and a half decades later, he’s 97 years old and cancer-free. He never went through chemotherapy, took drugs or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move home to Ikaria."

No. 14
From the Web

Fade to Light

One of the most terrifying aspects of Alzheimer’s disease is that those afflicted can seldom tell us what it is like.

Nov 2012

"Lowell has an absurdist bent that complicates a reading of the illness. One of his typical jokes: 'What’s the difference between a duck?'"

No. 15
From the Web

Why Things Fail

From tires to helicopter blades, everything breaks eventually.
Oct 2012

"In our Moore’s law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. All this is great for innovation, but it’s terrible for reliability."

No. 16
From the Web

No Evidence of Disease

A troubling disorder changes everything.

Sep 2012

"Once you've had cancer, no one will ever tell you you're healthy. The best you can hope for (and it's wonderful) is the little phrase ‘no evidence of disease’, often shortened to NED. This is less comforting than what you really want."

No. 17
From the Web

What to Make of Finnegans Wake?

On reading—and re-reading—James Joyce’s “monster.”

"Sometimes I felt like I almost understood the Wake, and sometimes I felt like I was not supposed to understand it. Every so often I got so caught up in the hectic flow of its prose that I stopped worrying or wondering if I understood it or not."

No. 18
From the Web

The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador

Last fall, one of Spain’s greatest matadors took a horn to the face. It was a brutal goring, among the most horrific in the history of bullfighting. Miraculously, Juan Jose Padilla was back in the bullring—sí, fighting bulls—a mere five months later. And in the process of losing half his sight, he somehow managed to double his vision.

Oct 2012

"The horn crunches through Padilla's skin and bone, exiting through his left eye socket. Cameras clock the instant that a glistening orb pops loose onto the matador's cheek. A frightening silence descends on the crowd. Nobody knows the depth of the wound."

No. 19
From the Web

The Man behind the Troll

Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, the biggest troll on the Web.

Oct 2012

"The idea of free speech is sacred to many Reddit users, a product of the free-wheeling online message board culture from which Reddit springs. If you criticize someone else for posting something you don't like, you are a whiny fascist."

No. 20
From the Web

Rubble and Despair of War Redefine a Syrian Jewel

Aleppo residents, battered by war, struggle to survive.

“One sixth grader, Ahmed, clutching the kindling he had made by ransacking a room, offered an irreducible argument for looting his own school. ‘I want heat,’ he said.”

No. 21
From the Web

Last Meals

Cooking for the condemned.

Sep 2012

"The last meal is a tradition that dates back to pre-modern Europe, wherein offering a last measure of human comfort before carrying out the execution absolved the executioner of his guilt."

No. 22
From the Web

Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?

Dec 2011

"The message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props."

No. 23
By Editors Recommend

The Innocent Man, Part One

On August 13, 1986, Michael Morton came home from work to discover that his wife had been brutally murdered in their bed. His nightmare had only begun.

Nov 2012

"He had no criminal record, no history of violence, and no obvious motive, but the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, failing to pursue other leads, had zeroed in on him from the start."

No. 24

A Snitch’s Dilemma

What do you do when the cops you work for are dirtier than you are?

"Two and two came together in White’s mind. They did it, he suddenly knew. They messed up. They killed that old lady. Now his heart pounded as the implications became clear. And they want me to cover for them."

No. 25
From the Web

The Many Wonders of Christopher Walken

Walken is one weird dude. But he’s also so much more than that.

Dec 2012

"I found that Christopher Walken is a man who walks through the world as if through a dream, blissfully unaware that most people are frightened by him, and inexplicably unaware that he is a cult figure."

No. 26
From the Web

The Tragic Truth about Caste

Why even members of India’s lowest classes cling to unfair system.

Jan 2012

"Unlike slavery, where whites actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution."

No. 27
From the Web

Why Johnny Can’t Ride

Childhood obesity rates are soaring, youth participation in sports and other active pursuits is plummeting, and a generation is coming of age with little understanding of the joy and freedom of unsupervised play. There’s a simple solution—but all across the nation our schools earn a failing grade when it comes to letting kids ride their bikes.

May 2012

"In 2009 only 13 percent of all children walked or rode to school, whereas in 1969 nearly half did. Experts blame broad cultural changes for the decline, as well. "We've gotten so used to ferrying kids around in cars," laments one."

No. 28
From the Web

Making It in America

In the past decade, the flow of goods emerging from U.S. factories has risen by about a third. Factory employment has fallen by roughly the same fraction. The story of Standard Motor Products, a 92-year-old, family-run manufacturer based in Queens, sheds light on both phenomena. It’s a story of hustle, ingenuity, competitive success, and promise for America’s economy. It also illuminates why the jobs crisis will be so difficult to solve.
Jan 2012

"I had come to Greenville to better understand what is happening to manufacturing in the United States, and what the future holds for who lack higher education, but are striving for a middle-class life."

No. 29

A Jew in the Northwest

Exile, ethnicity, and the search for the perfect futon.

"It’s like this. I fell in love with the place. I spent a sabbatical here a few years ago just for the hell of it, and by the time it was over, I never wanted to leave."

No. 30
From the Web


The coming war on general-purpose computing.

Jan 2012

"General-purpose computers are astounding. They're so astounding that our society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they're for, how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them."

No. 31
From the Web

The Heretic

For decades, the U.S. government banned medical studies of the effects of LSD. But for one longtime, elite researcher, the promise of mind-blowing revelations was just too tempting.
Jul 2012

"But here’s the clincher. LSD had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. The 26 men unleashed a slew innovations shortly after their LSD experiences, including a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device."

No. 32
From the Web

How Companies Learn Your Secrets

Your shopping habits reveal even the most personal information—like when you’re going to have a baby.

"The moment a couple have a baby they are instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way."

No. 33
From the Web

The Autumn of Joan Didion

The writer’s work is a triumph—and a disaster.
Jan 2012

"Women who encountered Joan Didion received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair."

No. 34
From the Web

Utopian for Beginners

An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented.

Dec 2012

“Releasing a newborn language into the wild, where it can evolve and be corrupted in the mouths of others, has consistently proved difficult for language creators.”

No. 35
From the Web

Scientology and Me

Growing up in the church.

Nov 2012

"I was fascinated by the E-meter when I was little; wouldn’t you be? The machine promised to show you what was going on inside the black box of your brain and give you the power to change it."

No. 36
From the Web

The Slave Who Circumnavigated the World

The voyage of Enrique of Malacca.

Jul 2012

"Enrique of Malacca is, it turns out, the closest thing there is to a hero in the story of Ferdinand Magellan's horribly botched attempt to circumnavigate the world."

No. 37
From the Web

The Inconvenient Astrologer of MI5

Following the stars during World War II.

Apr 2012

"Hitler’s death was assured, he explained, by Neptune entering his house of death at the same time as his progressed Ascendant conjuncting his natal Neptune, a set-up to be triggered by transiting Uranus."

No. 38
From the Web

The Caging of America

Why do we lock up so many people?

Jan 2012

"How did we get here? How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction?"

No. 39
From the Web

There Are No Goodbyes in the Army

A military wife on the sacrifices made by those left at home.

Apr 2012

"I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, but I could see it now: This is where he belonged—on a journey that would take him away from me again and again to a world of select men I don’t think I’ll ever be allowed to understand."

No. 40
From the Web

Listening to Books

Why audiobooks just don’t speak to some readers.

Feb 2012

"Reading is that heroic and dignified effort of the raccoon resisting the shiny objects and paying sustained attention to the page."

No. 41
From the Web

The Yankee Commandante

How a dropout dreamer from the Midwest helped win Cuba for Castro and played a dangerous game with Hoover’s F.B.I.

May 2012

"In 1957, when Castro was still widely seen as fighting for democracy, Morgan had travelled from Florida to Cuba and headed into the jungle, joining a guerrilla force. In the words of one observer, Morgan was “like Holden Caulfield with a machine gun."

No. 42
From the Web

Paradise with an Asterisk

Bikini Atoll, a tiny ring of islands halfway between Hawaii and Australia, is a world-class diving destination and home to one of the Pacific’s last great fishing grounds. So where are all the tourists? Welcome to heaven on earth, where the vestiges of hell lie just below the surface.

Oct 2012

"The soil under our feet, whitish gray in color with flecks of coral, contains a radioactive isotope called cesium 137. The soil itself is not dangerous to touch. The danger lies in the plant life that takes it in, and in the animal life, like the huge coconut crabs that live on the island and eat the plants."

No. 43


The life of a guitar.

Dec 2012

“No guitar is as beloved—or as famed. On Trigger’s face you can see the topography of modern music, the countless hours Willie has spent playing country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, swing, folk, reggae, thirties pop, forties pop, and eighties pop.”

No. 44
From the Web

The Day I Saw 248 Girls Suffering Genital Mutilation

In 2006, while in Indonesia and six months pregnant, Abigail Haworth became one of the few journalists ever to see young girls being “circumcised”. Until now she has been unable to tell this shocking story.

Nov 2012

"Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted."

No. 45

Not an Ike and Tina Thing

Trips to Alaska put the coldness of the author’s romantic relationship with an abusive man into perspective.

Mar 2012

"Even as I’d begun to understand the harm that I was doing to myself, that was being done to me, I’d never used the words 'abusive relationship.' For one thing, of course, as he reminded me so often, we weren’t actually in a relationship."

No. 46
From the Web

In Rust Belt, a Teenager’s Climb from Poverty

How Tabi outran the odds against her.

Dec 2012

"The college mail reminded her how badly she wanted to escape her mother’s destiny. And yet the glossy pictures of emerald campuses revealed how far away that green world was."

No. 47
From the Web

Obama Does It Better

When it comes to targeting and persuading voters, the Democrats have a bigger advantage over the GOP than either party has ever had in the modern campaign era.

Oct 2012

“When it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era.”

No. 48
From the Web

Future Football Stars, the NFL Is about to Destroy Your Life

Former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson has some words of warning for Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III on the day of the NFL Draft.

Apr 2012

"The NFL is a man’s world, and even when secure in the blossoming of one’s own manhood, the question is unavoidable: Am I man enough?"

No. 49
From the Web

The Departed

Hundreds of Kashmiri militants who left home as young men two decades ago have begun to return, middle-aged and disillusioned. What happens to them now?

Sep 2012

"They find themselves back in a place they hardly recognise, transformed by decades of grinding conflict most of them did not witness. Many of the men they knew have been lowered into graves, and the simpler, even innocent, ways of life they grew up with are now long gone."

No. 50
From the Web

The Honor System

Stealing magic has become a commonplace crime. Teller, a man of infinite delicacy and deceit, decided to do something about it.

Oct 2012

"Because Teller performs almost entirely without speaking, his voice comes as a surprise. He speaks in prose, in long, languid paragraphs peppered with literary and historical references. But his round face, particularly his eyes and mouth, continue to do much of the talking for him."

No. 51
From the Web

The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama

Sure, we as a nation have always killed people. A lot of people. But no president has ever waged war by killing enemies one by one, targeting them individually for execution, wherever they are.

Aug 2012

"You are not the first president with the power to kill individuals. You are, however, the first president to exercise it on a mass scale. It is as though you realize that more than any of your policies, the Lethal Presidency will be your legacy."

No. 52
From the Web

Counter-Terrorism Is Getting Complicated

Especially in the case of the Waffle House terrorists, where it may be the Department of Homeland Security that’s fomenting terror.

Feb 2012

"They'd become famous for doing what codgers do in every community in America, and for making Americans wonder if instead of 'solving the world's problems,' as the codgers like to say, the codgers might really be talking about blowing it up."

No. 53
By Editors Recommend

The Snow Kings of Mexico

Disposable submarines, a marijuana catapult, a tunnel entrance hidden under a pool table—drug-trafficking has never been so clever, or so complicated. Inside the billion-dollar business of the Sinaloa cartel.

“As a mirror image of a legal commodities business, the cartel brings to mind that line about Ginger Rogers doing all the same moves as Fred Astaire, only backward and in heels. In its longevity, profitability and scope, it might be the most successful criminal enterprise in history.”

No. 54
From the Web

Monopoly Is Theft

The antimonopolist history of the world’s most popular board game.

Oct 2012

"The official history of Monopoly states that the board game was invented in 1933 by an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow. The game’s true origins, however, go unmentioned."

No. 55
From the Web

Operation Delirium

Decades after a risky Cold War experiment, a scientist lives with secrets.

Dec 2012

"He became the military’s leading expert in a secret Cold War experiment: to fight enemies with clouds of psychochemicals that temporarily incapacitate the mind."

No. 56
From the Web

Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides for 80 Years

The legend of Ball’s Pyramid—and the “tree lobster.”

Feb 2012

"They were alive and, to Nick Carlile's eye, enormous. Looking at them, he said, 'It felt like stepping back into the Jurassic age, when insects ruled the world.'"

No. 57
From the Web

The Meme Generation

Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your husband. The end is nigh.

"Rarely in history have so many truly smart people applied their intelligence to something as dumb as aggregating and propagating LOLcats."

No. 58
From the Web

The Expendables

It’s the dark romance of the French Foreign Legion: haunted men from everywhere, fighting anywhere, dying for causes not their own. Legionnaires need war, certainly, and Afghanistan is winding down. But there’s always the hopeless battle against rogue gold miners in French Guiana …

Dec 2012

"An old legionnaire told me about a lesson he learned as a young recruit, when a veteran sergeant explained dying to him. He said, 'It’s like this. There is no point in trying to understand. Time is unimportant. We are dust from the stars. We are nothing at all. So fuck off with your worries about war.'"

No. 59
From the Web

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

A remembrance.

Jul 2012

"We hear a car door slam, then a loud knock on the back window. John Deere has a gun in one hand and a badge in the other. He's telling me to get out of the car. 'Only you," he says to me. "You going to jail tonight.'"

No. 60
From the Web

The Comedian Comedians Were Afraid Of

Patrice O’Neal didn’t just want to be famous, he wanted to be as good as Richard Pryor. To hear his fellow comics tell it, he was—a brutal truth-teller who spared no one, starting with those closest to him.

May 2012

"He believed that stand-up—if it was any good—had to take prisoners, that it was always at someone’s expense. And if anybody was going to be uncomfortable, it wasn’t going to be him."

No. 61
From the Web

The Plot to Destroy America’s Beer

What has the InBev merger with Anheuser-Busch meant for some of the most popular beers sold in the United States?

"No matter how much you industrialize it, every can of beer starts as a living thing. It’s not like making soda."

No. 62
From the Web

Where’s _why?

What happened when one of the world’s most unusual, and beloved, computer programmers disappeared.
Mar 2012

"We live in world of astonishingly advanced technologies, easy to use and all around us. Yet for nearly all of us, code, the language that controls these objects and in a way controls our world, is mysterious and indecipherable."

No. 63
From the Web

Beyond the Brain

In the 1990s, scientists declared that schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses were pure brain disorders that would eventually yield to drugs. Now they are recognizing that social factors are among the causes, and must be part of the cure.
Sep 2012

"Schizophrenia now appears to be a complex outcome of many unrelated causes—the genes you inherit, whether you got beaten up as a child, even how much sun your skin has seen."

No. 64
From the Web

The Perfect Milk Machine

Dairy scientists are the Gregor Mendels of the genomics age, developing new methods for understanding the link between genes and living things, all while quadrupling the average cow’s milk production since your parents were born.

May 2012

"While there are more than 8 million Holstein dairy cows in the United States, there is exactly one bull that has been scientifically calculated to be the very best in the land. He goes by the name of Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie."

No. 65
From the Web

State of the Species

Does success spell doom for Homo sapiens?

Nov 2012

"By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while."

No. 66
From the Web

How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy

Jaroslav Flegr is no kook. And yet, for years, he suspected his mind had been taken over by parasites that had invaded his brain. So the prolific biologist took his science-fiction hunch into the lab. What he’s discovering now will startle you. Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia? Inside the emerging science of mind-controlling parasites.

Mar 2012

“Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia?”

No. 67
From the Web

The Chickens and the Bulls

The rise and incredible fall of a vicious extortion ring that preyed on prominent gay men in the 1960s.
Jul 2012

"Impersonating corrupt vice-squad detectives, members of this ring had used underage men to blackmail closeted pillars of the establishment, among them two generals, a U.S. congressman, and several well-known actors, singers, and television personalities."

No. 68
From the Web

That Face!

The uncanny art of studio photography’s heyday.

Oct 2012

"Before Facebook, there was the photo studio: a room, a camera, and a photographer. Once upon a time, studio portraiture was an essential part of the visual vernacular."

No. 69
From the Web

The White-Hot Middle of Nowhere

In the dusty triangle where Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan meet, there is more than one war going on.

"The longer we lingered, the tenser the atmosphere became. An old man with a missing finger pulled me aside. 'I advise you to leave this place. Be careful. You would be worth a lot of money.'"

No. 70
By Editors Recommend

The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever

In a bowling alley one night, Bill Fong came so close to perfection that it nearly killed him.

Jun 2012

*"Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: 'That’s it, baby!' In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that."

No. 71
From the Web


Following a subtle trail of artifacts, a Canadian archaeologist searches for a lost chapter of New World history.

"Had a Norse party landed on the remote Baffin Island coast and made friendly contact with its native hunters? Did the yarn represent a key to a long lost chapter of New World history?"

No. 72
From the Web

Out of the Wild

Where will the next pandemic come from? And how can we stop it?
Aug 2012

"The prospect of a new viral pandemic, for these sober professionals, looms large. They talk about it; they think about it; they make contingency plans against it: the Next Big One. They say it might happen anytime."

No. 73
From the Web

Welcome to the Future Nauseous

How tomorrow is becoming today, and what it will do to your mind.

May 2012

"I haven’t done a careful analysis, but my rough, back-of-the-napkin working out of the implications of these ideas suggests that we are all living, in user-experience terms, in some thoroughly mangled, overloaded, stretched and precarious version of the 15th century that is just good enough to withstand casual scrutiny."

No. 74
From the Web

The Atheist Paradox

Now that Christianity is the dominant religion on the planet, it is unbelievers who have most in common with Christ.

Nov 2012

"Empirically, religion is what most humans do. Atheists like me are in the minority, a statistically trivial aberration. This puts us in an interesting position."

No. 75

Greetings from Williston, North Dakota

In recession-strapped America, Williston, North Dakota, may be some kind of paradise: a town where oil jobs are plentiful, lap dances are cheap, and desperate—possibly meth-addicted—men can change their luck. On the loose in the new Wild West.

Jul 2012

"I'd heard Williston was a magical place. A small town where the recession didn't exist, where you could make six figures driving a truck, and where oil bubbles straight up from the Earth's Bakken layer like water from an elementary school fountain.”

No. 76
From the Web

Boys on the Side

The hookup culture that has largely replaced dating on college campuses has been viewed, in many quarters, as socially corrosive and ultimately toxic to women, who seemingly have little choice but to participate. Actually, it is an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.
Sep 2012

"So there we have it. America has unseated the Scandinavian countries for the title of Easiest Lay. We are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold."

No. 77
From the Web

Everybody Gets Popped

Lance Armstrong’s Regime.

“For Hamilton, as for many of the other leading cyclists, doping did not constitute an unfair advantage. Instead, it was a way of sorting out who was really the toughest.”

No. 78
From the Web

Vanishing Voices

One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?

"The Earth’s population of seven billion people speaks roughly 7,000 languages, a statistic that would seem to offer each living language a healthy one million speakers, if things were equitable. In language, as in life, things aren’t.”

No. 79
From the Web

Black Market Street

Inside a thriving open-air drug business.
Oct 2012

"The hustler pours the green buds into the customer's hand, stray stems and leaves fluttering to the pavement. Seconds later, a fiftysomething man with bills folded between his calloused fingers shuffles up to the hustler. It feels like a busy day."

No. 80
From the Web

The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot

The story of a rookie hanging on to the fragile hope of a professional football career, as told by his uncle.

"His specs were, of course, familiar to me. But somehow the officious, bare-bones alignment on my computer screen—in categories befitting a prize steer at auction—rendered him a complete stranger. And a rather impressive one at that. Name: Pat Schiller. Position: Outside linebacker."

No. 81
From the Web

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.
Jul 2012

"Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone."

No. 82
From the Web

North Korea Won’t Be Liberated in a Day

North Korea’s prison camps are roundly condemned as heinous, but remain untouched. When an idealistic young reporter takes on a mission to help shut them down—bearing Hemingway and Vollmann in mind—he winds up on the doorstep of the Embassy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

Nov 2012

"I can’t say I’m idealistic enough to fight or die for the freedom of North Korea, if that option were available to me. The old idealists fought in the mountains; I scroll over North Korean mountains on Google Maps."

No. 83
From the Web


On the many pleasures of pleasure.

"Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily."

No. 84
From the Web

The Trouble with Atheists

A defence of faith.

Aug 2012

"My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We're weird because we go to church."

No. 85
From the Web

The Landlord’s Tale

A member of a maligned class explains, among other things, how he keeps up the neighborhood.

Dec 2012

"I used to feel guilty about charging rent. I hadn’t done anything to deserve it, other than maintaining a building—a building I hadn’t even built. Now that I’m middle-aged, though, I feel fine collecting rent."

No. 86

The Beautiful Game

In Argentina, rival soccer fans don’t just hate, they kill, and the violent partisans of top clubs fuel crime syndicates that influence the sport at its highest levels. Braving the bottle rockets, howling mobs, urine bombs, and drunken grannies on a wild ride through the scariest fútbol underworld on earth.

Oct 2012

"When I landed in Argentina in May, the violence was mounting faster than ever. By the close of the season in June, the death toll was already nine. And a new season would begin in August."

No. 87
From the Web

The Giant, Underestimated Earthquake Threat to North America

The enormous fault off the coast of the Pacific Northwest has been silent for three centuries. But after years of detective work, geologists have discovered that it can unleash mayhem on an epic scale.

Mar 2012

"What happened in Japan will probably happen in North America. The big question is when."

No. 88
From the Web

Here and Gone

The strange relationship between Lionel Messi and his hometown in Argentina.
Oct 2012

"Other players seem to chase the ball, while Messi moves in concert with it, full speed to full stop. Then, when the game ends, the fire inexplicably goes out: vanishing eye contact, single-syllable answers—a flatline."

No. 89
From the Web

The Great New England Vampire Panic

Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, farmers became convinced that their relatives were returning from the grave to feed on the living.

“Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, farmers became convinced that their relatives were returning from the grave to feed on the living.”

No. 90
From the Web

Feet of Clay, Heart of Iron

Horseshoe champion Brian Simmons might be the toughest athlete in the world.

Oct 2012

"This is what Simmons is thinking about as he stares down a 14-inch tall stake. He is thinking about the slippery clay, and how he might adjust his release point, and as these thoughts slip into his brain, he has lost without even pitching the shoe."

No. 91
From the Web

The Beauty of the Airline Baggage Tag

How luggage gone wrong gets right.

Oct 2012

"That random sticky strip you rip off your suitcase when you get home? It’s actually a masterpiece of design and engineering."

No. 92
From the Web

To Cheat or Not to Cheat

A decade after Ken Caminiti helped pull baseball’s steroid problem out of the shadows, those who chased the big league dream in a dirty era still wrestle with how they dealt with the dilemma of a generation.

"This is a story about the real cost of steroids in baseball—about the hundreds, even thousands, of anonymous ballplayers whose careers and lives were changed by a temptation that defined an era."

No. 93
From the Web

The Truck Stop Killer

He was methodical, he rode the highways, and he preyed on teenage girls. Girls who’d run away. Girls no one would miss. In the summer of 1985, the author was such a girl. One night on I-95, she hitched a ride from a stranger and endured the most terrifying moments of her life.

Nov 2012

"He pulled the truck onto the shoulder of the road by some woods, took out a hunting knife, and told me to get into the back of the cab. I knew in my body that it was over. Then he said one word: Run."

No. 94
From the Web

Atari Teenage Riot

The inside story of Pong and the video game industry’s Big Bang.

Nov 2012

"The men who created Pong were knocked back by old men in drab suits who said games weren’t going to be big business. But games were going to be big business, even those started in unassuming surroundings. And nothing was going to stop them."

No. 95
From the Web

Château Sucker

Rare-wine collectors are savvy, competitive guys with a taste for impossible finds. So how did the biggest hoax in history take place right under their noses?

May 2012

"The whole apparatus of the rare-wine market is about converting doubt into mystique. Most wealthy collectors want to spend big and drink famous labels, not necessarily ask questions or hear the answers."

No. 96
From the Web

20/20 Riotous Hindsight

The Southern California of 1992 was almost unrecognizably different from today.

"There is no relationship in citizenship more elemental than that between the resident and the cop."

No. 97
From the Web

Errol Morris, Forensic Epistemologist

The celebrated documentary filmmaker talks about truth in photography.

Jun 2012

"What upsets me about a lot of writing about photography is that the writer just emotes. The photograph made me feel x, or y, or it made me feel z."

No. 98
From the Web

The Code Thief

Douglas Groat circled the world as one of the CIA’s top burglars. He thought he understood the risks of his job—until he took on his own employer.

"They were trained in what the CIA calls 'flaps and seals'; they carefully opened and photographed the code books and one-time pads, and then resealed each document and replaced it in the safe exactly as it had been before. Two hours after entering the embassy, they were gone."

No. 99
From the Web

How I Hacked My Brain with Adderall: A Cautionary Tale

A funny thing happened on the way to The Matrix.

Jul 2012

"If I wanted to pull myself up out of the flood of information and ideas, I needed some sort of therapy: I had to find my dank drank. With a little help from my already-artificially-hyper-productive friends, I think I knew where to find it."

No. 100
From the Web

How a Salafi Preacher Came for My Soul

The far-reaching ambitions of Egypt’s rising Islamists.
Oct 2012

"All Hesham wanted was to describe in grotesque detail the fate that awaited me and everybody I loved: Our skin would thicken, not with calluses but with soft, thin, tender layers, each more sensitive than the last. And then Allah would burn off those layers individually, savoring the pain until he reached flesh."

No. 101
From the Web

Outrageous Freedom

In the face of deep prejudice and persecution, the Ugandan gay rights movement has crafted a surprising victory.
Nov 2012

"When I met John Abdallah Wambere, known by his gay activist nom de guerre Longjones, my first thought was: 'Will that shirt get him killed someday?'"

No. 102
From the Web

When You Swallow a Grenade

How antibiotics go to war.

“It is hard to imagine a time when a scratch could so easily lead to death.”