Brian Phillips

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Amid all the righteous rage over the avalanche of fake-news misinformation spread by Facebook, Twitter and Google in the run-up to Election Day, an idea by Larry Page from a 2013 conversation kept returning to me. It was reported by Nathan Ingraham of Verge:

Specifically, [Page] said that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation.”

That’s when his response got really interesting. “There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.”•

The discrete part of the world the technologist is describing, an area which permits experiments with unpredictable and imprecise effects, already exists, and it’s called Silicon Valley. These ramifications do career around the world, and the consequences can be felt before they’re understood. As Page said, “not all change is good.”

A brilliant analysis of the “wait, what?” vertigo of this Baba Booey of a campaign season can be found inShirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten,” an MTV News article by Brian Phillips, an erstwhile scribe at the late, lamented Grantland. “There has always been a heavy dose of unreality mixed into American reality,” the writer acknowledges, though the alt-right’s grim fairy tales being taken seriously and going viral is a new abnormal. Great communicators can no longer compete with those gifted at jamming the system. The opening:

Is anyone surprised that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t feel responsible? One of the luxuries of power in Silicon Valley is the luxury to deny that your power exists. It wasn’t you, it was the algorithm. Facebook may have swallowed traditional media (on purpose), massively destabilized journalism (by accident), and facilitated the spread of misinformation on a colossal scale in the run-up to an election that was won by Donald Trump (ha! whoops). But that wasn’t Facebook’s fault! It was the user base, or else it was the platform, or else it was the nature of sharing in our increasingly connected world. It was whatever impersonal phrase will absolve Zuckerberg’s bland, drowsy appetite from blame for unsettling the things it consumes. In this way, the god-emperors of our smartphones form an instructive contrast with our president-elect: They are anti-charismatic. Unlike Trump, the agents of disruption would rather not be seen as disruptors. In the sharing economy, nothing gets distributed like guilt.

The argument that Facebook has no editorial responsibility for the content it shows its users is fatuous, because it rests on a definition of “editorial” that confuses an intention with a behavior. Editing isn’t a motive. It is something you do, not something you mean. If I publish a list of five articles, the order in which I arrange them is an editorial choice, whether I think of it that way or not. Facebook’s algorithm, which promotes some links over others and controls which links appear to which users, likewise reflects a series of editorial choices, and it is itself a bad choice, because it turns over the architecture of American information to a system that is infinitely scammable. I have my own issues with the New York Times, but when your all-powerful social network accidentally replaces newspapers with a cartel of Macedonian teens generating fake pro-Trump stories for money, then friend, you have made a mistake. It is time to consider pivoting toward a new vertical in the contrition space.•


From “Soccer in Oblivion,” a perfectly written Grantland piece by Brian Phillips, which examines the intersection of sports and war, one of which is just games and the other often mistaken for one: 

Fighting on the scale of the Great War is essentially incomprehensible, like the atom or the spaces between stars. Its extremity defeats the imagination. You can say ’16 million dead,’ but what’s 16 million? You can picture the lunar hell between the trenches, the broken trees and craters; you can try to fathom the misery of life in the armies, where rats outnumbered men. But these are conventional images. It may be that all you can do is to sift through fragments, to search for illumination in unexpected places. Sixty thousand men vaporized in an afternoon is inconceivable, but you can find a statistic that makes you catch your breath. This one is eloquent: In August 1914, a British recruit had to stand 5-foot-8 to be accepted into the army. In October, the limit was lowered to 5-foot-5. By November, it was set at 5-foot-3.

Or you can notice, say, the prevalence of soccer balls in group photos from the war. They’re everywhere. You’ll see the Isle of Wight Rifles, 8th Battalion Hampshire Regiment, posed around a cannon, jaunty and smiling, their hats on crooked — and a football tucked between the feet of the man in the center. The football is there because the men like football, of course. But there’s a deeper reason, which is that the men are trying to see war as a game.”


You like to believe that India sending rockets into space or South Africa building soccer stadiums for international competitions will bring something meaningful to poor people in those countries: infrastructure, information, medicine, money. That’s questionable, but even if that occurs, it’s painful to crane your neck past the horrors to get a good view of the action. But most of the Western reporting about such events focuses on the safety and comfort of the tourists, not the at-risk locals.

The opening of “A Yellow Card,” a Grantland essay by Brian Phillips, an uncommonly graceful writer, about the grandeur of the World Cup being visited upon the poverty of Brazil:

“Three points make a trend, but in a World Cup year, two points are good enough. So here’s one: Early on the morning of October 29, 31-year-old Geisa Silva, a social worker with the Brazilian military police, found her husband’s backpack on their front porch in Rio de Janeiro. Joao Rodrigo Silva Santos was a retired professional soccer player, a journeyman who’d spent most of his career knocking around the Brazilian lower leagues; post-retirement, he ran a food shop in the city’s Realengo neighborhood. He hadn’t come home the night before, and Silva had been worried, jumping up at the sound of every car. Before dawn, she got ready to leave for her job with a police unit responsible for conducting an anti-gang crackdown. When she opened the front door, she saw the backpack. It contained her husband’s severed head.

And here’s point two: Four months earlier, on the afternoon of June 30, during a pickup soccer game in the northeastern Brazilian municipality of Pio XII, a 19-year-old amateur referee named Otavio Jordao da Silva Cantanhede showed a yellow card to his friend, a player named Josemir Santos Abreu. Abreu protested. A fight broke out. Cantanhede pulled a knife and stabbed Abreu twice. Abreu died on the way to the hospital. In retaliation, a group of Abreu’s friends attacked Cantanhede. Cantanhede was — I’m quoting the New York Times — ‘tied up, smashed in the face with a bottle of cheap sugarcane liquor, pummeled with a wooden stake, run over by a motorcycle and stabbed in the throat.’ Then his legs were sawed off. Then his head was cut off and mounted on a wooden post near the field.

And here’s a quick question, just an aside. How do you feel, hearing these stories? I don’t mean how do you think you’re supposed to feel; I mean how do you feel, in fact? Are you intrigued? Disturbed? Sad? Curious? Titillated, in the way that horrifying real-life stories can sometimes leave you titillated? You don’t have to answer. Just think about it.”


A bunch of my favorite articles from 2012. (A couple of pieces from December 2011 are included since I do these lists before the absolute end of the year.) All ungated and free.

  • Pedestrian Mania(Brian Phillips, Grantland): Beautiful piece about world-famous 1870s long-distance walking champion Edward Payson Weston, subject of the book, A Man in a Hurry.
  • Brains Plus Brawn(Daniel Lieberman, Edge) Incredibly fun article about endurance, which points out, among many other things, that as quick as Usain Bolt may seem, your average sheep or goat can run twice as fast.
  • A New Birth of Reason” (Susan Jacoby, The American Scholar): Great essay about Robert Ingersoll, the largely forgotten secularist who was a major force in 19th-century America, taken from the writer’s forthcoming book, The Great Agnostic.
  • One’s a Crowd” (Eric Kleinberg, The New York Times): Great Op-Ed piece about the increasing number of people living alone.
  • How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times): A deep and penetrating explanation of the complicated forces at play in job outsourcing.
  • The Power of Habit“ (Charles Duhigg, Slate): An excerpt from the author’s bestseller of the same name which explains how Pepsodent became omnipresent.
  • We’re Underestimating the Risk of Extinction (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic): I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise (or conclusions) of this interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, but I enjoyed its intelligence immensely.
  • Hustling the Cloud” (Steven Boone, Capital New York): Wonderful piece about a bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night search for free Wi-Fi–and anything else that would seem to make sense–in a time of dire economic straits.
  • Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine): Fascinating examination of the titular biologist, who wants to make breathing bots that will cure the world’s ills.
  • The Machine and the Ghost(Christine Rosen, The New Republic): The author riffs on how the rise of smart, quantified gizmos and cities necessitates a new “morality of things.”

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If you read this blog with any regularity you can understand that a story about the most famous pedestrian of the 1870s might have a special place in my heart. Still, this Grantland article by Brian Phillips about a walking wonder named Edward Payson Weston is wonderful on its own merits. The opening:

“In the summer of 1856, Edward Payson Weston was struck by lightning and fired from his job at the circus. He was 17 years old and had been traveling with the big top for no more than a few weeks — ‘under an assumed name,’ as he reassured the readers of his 1862 memoir, The Pedestrian. One day, as the troupe’s wagons passed near Tyngsborough, Massachusetts, he was ‘affected by a stroke of lightning’ and nearly killed. Nineteenth-century circus managers were about as tenderhearted as you would expect when it came to physical infirmity. When Weston was too sick to perform in Boston a few days later, he was unceremoniously sacked.

For most of us, being hit by lightning and kicked out of the circus would be an extraordinary turn of events. For Weston, it was a pretty typical week. Weston, whose story is recounted in the spectacularly entertaining book A Man in a Hurry, by the British trio of Nick Harris, Helen Harris, and Paul Marshall, lived one of those fevered American lives that seem to hurtle from one beautiful strangeness to the next. By his mid-teens, he had already: worked on a steamship; sold newspapers on the Boston, Providence, and Stonington Railroad; spent a year crisscrossing the country with the most famous traveling musicians in America, the Hutchinson Family Singers, selling candy and songbooks at their concerts; and gone into business for himself as a journalist and publisher. In his 20s and 30s, he somehow became one of the most celebrated athletes in the English-speaking world despite the fact that he was physically unprepossessing — 5-foot-7, 130 pounds, with a body resembling ‘a baked potato stuck with two toothpicks,’ as one journalist wrote — and that his one athletic talent was walking. Just straight-up walking made Weston, for a while, probably the biggest sports star on earth.”

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The opening of “A Fighter Abroad,” Brian Phillips’ smart Grantland article about an 1810 boxing match, noted for its brutality, hoopla and racial politics, which helped birth modern sports:

“On December 10, 1810, in a muddy field around 25 miles from London, a fight took place that was so dramatic, controversial, and ferocious that it continues to haunt the imagination of boxing more than 200 years later. One of the fighters was the greatest champion of his age, a bareknuckle boxer so tough he reportedly trained by punching the bark off trees. The other was a freed slave, an illiterate African-American who had made the voyage across the Atlantic to seek glory in the ring. Rumors about the match had circulated for weeks, transfixing England. Thousands of fans braved a pounding rain to watch the bout. Some of the first professional sportswriters were on hand to record it.

It was the greatest fight of its era. But its significance went beyond that. Even at the time, it seemed to be about more than boxing, more than sport itself. More than anything, the contest between a white English champion and a black American upstart seemed to be about an urgent question of identity: whether character could be determined in the boxing ring, whether sport could confirm a set of virtues by which a nation defined itself.

The fight cemented a set of stock characters — the fast-talking, ultra-talented, self-destructive black athlete; the Great White Hope; the canny coach who’s half devoted to his pupil and half exploiting him — that have echoed down the centuries. In fact, so much about the fight feels familiar today, from the role of race to the role of the media, that if you had to name a date, you could make a good case that December 10, 1810, was the moment sport as we know it began.”

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