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. Chain World Videogame Was Supposed to be a Religion—Not a Holy War | Jason Fagone | Wired | July 15, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,554 words)
A videogame design contest uses religion as a theme—and the winning entry becomes a religion unto itself. Game designer Jason Rohrer created the winner, called Chain World, but it only existed on one USB stick:
“According to a set of rules defined by Rohrer, only one person on earth could play the game at a time. The player would modify the game’s environment as they moved through it. Then, after the player died in the game, they would pass the memory stick to the next person, who would play in the digital terrain altered by their predecessor—and on and on for years, decades, generations, epochs. In Rohrer’s mind, his game would share many qualities with religion—a holy ark, a set of commandments, a sense of secrecy and mortality and mystical anticipation. This was the idea, anyway, before things started to get weird. Before Chain World, like religion itself, mutated out of control.”
More Fagone: “Teen Mathletes Do Battle at the Algorithm Olympics” (Wired, Nov. 2010)
2. The Woman Who Fell to Earth: A Love Story | Ruthann Richter | Stanford Medicine Magazine | July 16, 2011 | 16 minutes (4,186 words)
What happens to your personality and your relationships after a traumatic accident? Deborah Shurson miraculously survived a skydiving accident in 1982—plummeting 2,600 feet to the ground—but her marriage did not survive:
“Deborah and Randy, who had met as college students at Chico State, had been leading fast-track lives. Deborah, a synchronized swimmer and former ‘Miss Congeniality’ at San Carlos High School, had been an up-and-coming commercial interior designer. Randy was acting captain in the Menlo Park Fire Department. Both fitness buffs, they had taken a trip to Lake Tahoe just before the accident, hitting the difficult black-diamond ski runs. They were at the top of their game, with plans to remodel their three-bedroom home and start a family.
“But now Randy was confronted with a strange new person in his life, the change in Deborah like a ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ he says.
“Six years after the accident he and Deborah divorced, an unfortunately common side effect of brain injury, experts say. ‘To this day, it still hurts me,’ Randy said years after the accident. ‘I still have a lot of grief. I avoid Deb because of the grief I have over the loss of her.'”
Also from Stanford Medicine: “When Are You Dead?” (John Sanford, March 2011)
3. Stop Blaming Wall Street | John B. Judis | The New Republic | July 13, 2011 | 14 minutes (3,633 words)
Blaming big banks and financialization for the recession is too simplistic, Judis argues. He instead points to decisions over the last 67 years that caused America’s industrial economy to wither away. Breaking up the banks won’t fix that:
“Some critics of financialization have insisted that breaking up the banks is the key to reviving the US economy. Charles Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has said, ‘We would be better off if we downsized the whole financial sector by about eighty percent.’ It’s certainly true that, if the derivatives market isn’t thoroughly regulated and if reserve requirements for banks aren’t raised, then a very similar crash could happen again. The Dodd-Frank bill goes part of the way toward accomplishing this, though it leaves too much to the discretion of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and regulatory agencies.
“But, unless the United States takes the necessary measures to revive its industrial economy, radical downsizing of the financial sector could do more harm than good. It could even deprive the economy of an important source of jobs and income. Many mid- and large-sized cities—including New York, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis—are now dependent on financial services for their tax bases. Instead of agitating for breaking up the banks, critics of financialization would do well to make sure that Republicans don’t gut Dodd-Frank.”
More Judis: “End State: Is California Finished?” (Oct. 2009)
4. A Goodbye to Ambien in Dubai | Amy Schumer | The Hairpin | July 19, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,376 words)
A stand-up comedian books a gig in Dubai, and realizes her prescription can’t come with her:
“My stomach drops. I specifically Google ‘Ambien in Dubai.’ I discover it’s illegal there. Of course it is. Even people who come with their pills in the prescription bottle and a note from their doctor? Jail time. It’s a gray area, some people say on the message boards. I am pretty sure ‘Gray Area’ is not a term used in Sharia Law. (I have been following Amanda Knox since day one and she is innocent.) I’d rather not do a real life reenactment of Brokedown Palace. I don’t want to be a story people learn from.
“Why is this alarming? Amy, don’t you know you’re not supposed to take Ambien every night? Yes, yes I have heard that. But no one ever told me that if you take it every night and want to get off of it, the withdrawal is comparable to that of heroin.”
See also: “The Dubai Job” (Ronen Bergman, GQ, Jan. 2011)
5. Blood in the Water | Tim Zimmerman | Outside | July 18, 2011 | 29 minutes (7,373 words)
Just months before six-ton orca Tilikum killed his Sea World trainer in 2010, another trainer was killed at a marine park in the Canary Islands. Zimmerman investigates the connection between the two incidents, and what circumstances lead a killer whale to act out:
“When killer whales perform a behavior correctly, they are ‘bridged’ (often with a whistle sound, in essence signaling ‘well done’) and then receive reinforcement in the form of a reward, such as a fish or a playful rubdown. When they don’t perform correctly, the trainer reacts with a three-second neutral response and withholds the reward. This is known as a least-reinforcing scenario, or LRS. Repeated failed attempts—and the corresponding lack of reward—can sometimes lead to a frustrated killer whale. ‘The question the trainer has to constantly be asking is: Is this animal mildly frustrated but still has the ability to stay with it and work through the problem?’ explains Samantha Berg, who worked as a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu Stadium in the early 1990s. ‘Or have I gone beyond this animal’s limits and it’s time to cut the losses, take a break, and start over?'”
See also: “The Hunted” (Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, April 2010)
Featured Longreader: David Hill @davehill77
David writes about sports and culture at Negative Dunkalectics
“Lawrence Lipking’s ‘The Trouble with Genius’ examines the mind of the chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. Lipking is an adept writer and scientific scholar, but also is an accomplished chess player. He argues that any attempt to understand Fischer must explore the product of his genius: his chess games.
“The information age seeks to ‘master’ games through rote memorization and increasing the brain’s capacity to store and process large quantities of data. Colson Whitehead, in his wonderful piece on poker in Grantland this week, calls these types of modern players ‘Robotrons.’ They have no patience for mystery, no tolerance for the inexplicable. For the Robotron, every problem has a single answer.
“Boris Spassky incorrectly believed that Fischer was such a player. Lipking tells about how Spassky would intentionally make mistakes to try to draw Fischer into a ‘labyrinth or muddle.’ Fischer adjusted. In unfamiliar positions he merely sought out ‘the truth.’
“‘He would swiftly trade off powerful pieces that most players love to fondle—a dominant bishop, or a knight that commanded key squares—in order to convert his advantage to something neat and direct. The ‘truth’ of a position energized him.’
“This ‘truth’ is what is so important not only to understanding genius, but to understanding our own fascination with games. For me ‘the truth’ is the metaphysical quality of sports and games that lies beneath the surface. ‘The truth’ is important because without it games are predictable and static. Without ‘the truth’ there would be no underdog victories. There would be no buzzer beaters. There would be no drama. Worst of all, there would be no hope.”
The Trouble with Genius | Lawrence Lipking | The New Republic | July 7, 2011 | 16 minutes (3,898 words)