Jill Lepore

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Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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My main objection to the 10,000-hour rule is that it cherry-picks particular pieces of research that provide a nice round number for a narrative attempting to make sharp an old saw (“Practice Makes Perfect”). It tells a macro story that doesn’t gibe with the micro, trying to pitch a camping tent over an entire city, stretching the fabric beyond its capacity for coverage.

The cult of Disruption is not dissimilar in how it goes about building its case. In the business world and beyond, radical innovation and its ability to replenish is revered, sometimes to a jaw-dropping extent. In one of my favorite non-fiction articles of the year, “The Disruption Machine,” Jill Lepore of the New Yorker takes apart the bible behind the idea, Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, which like the 10,000-hour rule, builds its case very selectively and not necessarily accurately. An excerpt:

“The theory of disruption is meant to be predictive. On March 10, 2000, Christensen launched a $3.8-million Disruptive Growth Fund, which he managed with Neil Eisner, a broker in St. Louis. Christensen drew on his theory to select stocks. Less than a year later, the fund was quietly liquidated: during a stretch of time when the Nasdaq lost fifty per cent of its value, the Disruptive Growth Fund lost sixty-four per cent. In 2007, Christensen told Business Week that ‘the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone,’ adding, ‘History speaks pretty loudly on that.’ In its first five years, the iPhone generated a hundred and fifty billion dollars of revenue. In the preface to the 2011 edition of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen reports that, since the book’s publication, in 1997, ‘the theory of disruption continues to yield predictions that are quite accurate.’ This is less because people have used his model to make accurate predictions about things that haven’t happened yet than because disruption has been sold as advice, and because much that happened between 1997 and 2011 looks, in retrospect, disruptive. Disruptive innovation can reliably be seen only after the fact. History speaks loudly, apparently, only when you can make it say what you want it to say. The popular incarnation of the theory tends to disavow history altogether. ‘Predicting the future based on the past is like betting on a football team simply because it won the Super Bowl a decade ago,’ Josh Linkner writes in The Road to Reinvention. His first principle: ‘Let go of the past.’ It has nothing to tell you. But, unless you already believe in disruption, many of the successes that have been labelled disruptive innovation look like something else, and many of the failures that are often seen to have resulted from failing to embrace disruptive innovation look like bad management.

Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation.”


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Kleenex was apparently not originally intended for nose-blowing. From “It’s Spreading,” Jill Lepore’s excellent 2009 New Yorker article about the media feeding frenzy that created the Parrot Flu scare of the 1929-30:

“By the twenties, Americans, and especially housewives, lived in fear of germs. Not only did newspapers and magazines run almost daily stories about newly discovered germs like undulant fever but their pages were filled with advertisements for hygiene products, like Listerine (first sold over the counter in 1914 and, in many ways, the granddaddy of Purell), Lysol (marketed, in 1918, as an anti-flu measure), Kotex (‘feminine hygiene,’ the first menstrual pad, introduced in 1920, a postwar conversion of a surgical dressing developed by Kimberly-Clark), Cellophane (1923), and Kleenex (1924; another Kimberly-Clark product, sold as a towel for removing makeup until a consumer survey revealed that people were using it to blow their noses).” (Thanks Longform.)


Baby ogre sells Kleenex in Japan, 1986:


Clare Boothe Luce and Henry Luce, 1954. (Image by Phil Stanziola.)

An outline of the idea behind Time magazine, which struggles for relevance in the endless news cycle of the Internet age, from “Untimely,” Jill Lepore’s smart 2010 New Yorker article about the feud between glossy Goliaths Henry Luce and Harold Ross:

Time is an artifact of the Age of Efficiency. Americans, Luce and Hadden believed, were too busy to read the newspaper. The New York Times was ‘unreadable,’ too dense, too dull. Time would be everything, abridged: a week’s worth of news in twenty-odd pages that could be read in an hour. An early bid for subscribers read ‘Take TIME: It’s Brief.’ Each issue was to contain about a hundred articles, none more than four hundred words long. Luce and Hadden put together dummy issues by cutting sentences out of seven days’ worth of newspapers and pasting them onto pages. At first, Time was a kind of assembly-line news, manufactured in a Taylorized shop. But they wanted it to be more than a “digest” (the word has something alimentary in common with what’s now called a “feed”). They sorted the news into categories—National Affairs, Foreign Affairs, The Arts, Sport—which, amazingly, hadn’t been done before, or not nearly as crisply. ‘The one great thing was simplification,” Luce said. “Simplification by organization, simplification by condensation, and also simplification by just being damn well simple.’ The Simplified Spelling Board, endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, had excised the extra ‘e’ from ‘abridgement.’ Turning the Times into Time saved a letter right there. No wasted letters, no wasted thought. As Luce and Hadden explained in the magazine’s prospectus, ‘TIME is interested—not in how much it includes between its covers—but in HOW MUCH IT GETS OFF ITS PAGES INTO THE MINDS OF ITS READERS.’” (Thanks Longform.)

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