Nathaniel Rich

You are currently browsing articles tagged Nathaniel Rich.


Author George Plimpton, front left, and J.W. Gallivan, Jr., a Rober


  • George Plimpton seemed to have lost the will to live soon after I interviewed him in 2003. Two weeks later he was dead. It was unintentional, I swear.
  • The best part of Plimpton’s journalism, from being an embed Bedouin on the set of Lawrence of Arabia to playing quarterback in a preseason game for the Detroit Lions, was that he realized the business sometimes served an important purpose, but the vast majority of it was a lark to have fun in between visits from the Time Inc. drink cart. I cant say I approve of his mixing fiction into his fact, but the lust for life was admirable. Perhaps being in close proximity to Robert F. Kennedy as he was assassinated–he helped wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand–gave him perspective that life and death is life and death, and everything else is not.
  • Plimpton began writing for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, one of the young literary lights recruited by editor Sid James to write for his publication in that era. Plimpton thrived, with the magazine nurturing his flair for participatory journalism. One who did less well was Kurt Vonnegut, whose first assignment was to write a full-length article about a spooked racehorse that jumped over a fence. Before grabbing his coat and exiting the offices to never return, he typed these words: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”
  • I’m sure there was some great national prank after Plimpton’s Sidd Finch story on April Fools Day in 1985, but that was one of the last hurrahs of the pre-Information Age, a story that would unravel now on Twitter in minutes. We still get fooled a lot, but by nothing nearly so wonderful. 

In a New York Review of Books piece about Plimpton’s sports journalism, Nathaniel Rich acknowledges that sometimes the writer dropped the ball, as he did in underplaying that racial hatred directed at Henry Aaron as the Atlanta slugger closed in on Babe Ruth’s home-run record, but his close proximity to the game often allowed him to digest small details about the games, including points about class, something not every patrician would appreciate. An excerpt:

Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton’s books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era that, as Rick Reilly writes in his foreword to The Bogey Man, “historians classify as ‘Before Insurance Lawyers Ruined Everything.’” (Journalists might classify it as Before Fact-Checkers Ruined Everything.) Plimpton writes about baseball locker rooms “heavy with cigarette and cigar smoke,” star players humbled by their off-season jobs (Pro-Bowler Alex Karras fills jelly doughnuts), and teams that cheat by positioning a spy with binoculars on a roof near the opponent’s practice field. He is able to convince major league All-Stars to take part in his scheme by offering, to the players on the team that gets the most hits off him, a reward of $125, the equivalent today of about $1,000. (By comparison, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera earned $19,000 per inning this season.) It was also an age in which the press was powerful enough to convince professional teams to grant full, unfettered access to a journalist. Today a writer for a major national magazine is lucky to be allowed more than one hour with the subject of a cover article. Plimpton spent a full month living in a dormitory with the Lions.

As enjoyable as it is to read about Plimpton being treated roughly by professional gladiators in front of large crowds, the participatory approach also has its journalistic benefits. He understood that within every professional athlete is an amateur who, through some combination of born talent and luck, is surprised to find himself elevated to divine status. As a writer who, after the success of Paper Lion, was a bigger celebrity than most of his subjects, Plimpton had a special sensitivity to the hidden vulnerabilities of giants.

The weigh-in ceremony before Cassius Clay’s first championship fight against Sonny Liston is best remembered for Clay’s rumbling taunts, but Plimpton notes that Clay’s pulse was taken at 180; the doctor concluded that he was “scared to death.” We learn that Roger Maris, after the stress of breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, changed his batting style the following year to avoid reliving the experience. Plimpton devotes a chapter in One for the Record to the pitchers who allowed the most famous home runs in baseball history. Ralph Branca tells him that, after yielding “The Shot Heard Round the World,” he left the Polo Grounds to find his sobbing fiancée waiting for him in the parking lot with a priest. Branca’s second career, Plimpton notes, was in life insurance.•

Tags: ,

Nathaniel Rich, who made an appearance on Afflictor’s “Great 2014 Nonfiction Articles,” has written a smart piece for the New York Review of Books about pro football, the blood sport at the heart of American culture, which receives a disproportionate amount of our attention but almost always for the wrong reasons. The opening:

During the two weeks before the Super Bowl there were more than 10,000 news articles written about the slight deviation in air pressure of the footballs used by the New England Patriots in their American Football Conference Championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in an attempt to defuse conspiracy allegations, joked in a press conference, “Things are fine—this isn’t ISIS.”

He was right: it wasn’t ISIS. During those two weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was the subject of only seventy-nine articles in The New York Times. “Deflate-gate” was the subject of eighty. These included interviews with football players, who explained why a deflated ball was easier to throw and catch; physicists, who suggested that the deflation might have occurred due to climate effects; logisticians, who opined on the time necessary to deflate a football; and a seamstress of Wilson footballs who vowed, “It’s not Wilson’s fault.” Even the leader of the free world felt obliged to make a statement. “Here’s what I know,” said President Obama on Super Bowl Sunday. “The Patriots were going to beat the Colts regardless of what the footballs looked like.”

In that period Andy Studebaker’s name appeared in only nine articles, all published in sports blogs. Studebaker is the twenty-nine-year-old backup linebacker for the Colts who, while defending a punt return, was blindsided with a gruesome hit to the chest by the Patriots’ backup running back Brandon Bolden. Studebaker’s head jerked back and he landed on his neck. On the sideline after the play Studebaker was seen coughing up blood.

Nor was much made of the fine levied on professional monster Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers for illegally smashing into the defenseless head of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the National Football Conference Championship game. Matthews’s fine was $22,050, or approximately what he earns every ninety seconds of game play. There was also little attention given to the fact that, in the second half of that game, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman injured his left arm so badly that he couldn’t straighten it; he played the final quarter with it bent and pressed tightly to his chest like a chicken wing.

Was it broken? Badly sprained? Was he given shockingly powerful illegal or legal drugs in order to endure the pain? The league, and Seattle, were mum on these points. When asked ten days later about the injury, Sherman said, “It’s a little sore, but not too bad.” Then, with a wink: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” Minutes after the Super Bowl ended it was revealed that Sherman had torn ligaments in his elbow and will have to undergo reconstructive surgery.•



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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As you might have noticed if you read this blog regularly, I’m fascinated by cults, communes, utopias and mass movements, when groups of people give themselves up to an idea that doesn’t necessarily mesh with reality. On that subject: Read “The Man Who Saves You From Yourself,” Nathaniel Rich’s excellent 2013 Harper’s profile of cult infiltrator David Sullivan. (Sullivan died from cancer just after its publication.) Here’s the opening:

Nobody ever joins a cult. One joins a nonprofit group that promotes green technology, animal rights, or transcendental meditation. One joins a yoga class or an entrepreneurial workshop. One begins practicing an Eastern religion that preaches peace and forbearance. The first rule of recruitment, writes Margaret Singer, the doyenne of cult scholarship, is that a recruit must never suspect he or she is being recruited. The second rule is that the cult must monopolize the recruit’s time. Therefore, in order to have any chance of rescuing a new acolyte, it is critical to act quickly. The problem is that family and friends, much like the new cult member, are often slow to admit the severity of the situation. ‘Clients usually don’t come to me until their daughter is already to-the-tits brainwashed,” says David Sullivan, a private investigator in San Francisco who specializes in cults. “By that point the success rate is very low.”

Sullivan became fascinated with cults in the late Sixties, while attending Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. It was a golden age for religious fringe groups, and Boulder was one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting centers, as it is today. (There are now, according to conservative estimates, 2 million adults involved in cults in America.) “You couldn’t walk five steps without being approached by someone asking whether you’d like to go to a Buddhist meeting,” says John Stark, a high school friend of Sullivan’s. Representatives from Jews for Jesus and the Moonies set up information booths in the student union at the University of Colorado, a few miles down the road from Fairview High. Sullivan engaged the hawkers, accepted the pamphlets, attended every meditation circle, prayer circle, shamanic circle. When the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi led a mass meditation session at the university, Sullivan was there, watching from the back of the lecture hall.

Sullivan was not religious. Though raised Catholic, by high school he considered himself a “hardcore atheist.” Before the family moved to Boulder, his father had managed a used-car dealership in Salina, Kansas. His mother worked in a pawnshop. On Thursday nights, during the late shift, Sullivan sat with her at the counter, where he met criminals, alcoholics, and grifters trying to stay one step ahead of bill collectors. He saw how people could be manipulated if you exploited their weaknesses. He learned about desperation and the lies people told to arouse sympathy. From his grandfather, a funeral-home director who, Sullivan suspects, forged death certificates for the local Catholic church, he learned how to keep a secret. The suicide of a gay priest was called a heart attack. The botched abortion of a pregnant nun was pneumonia.

During spring break in 1968, inspired by On the Road, Sullivan and Stark set off on a tour of the Southwest in Sullivan’s baby-blue Pontiac convertible. They visited Drop City in southern Colorado, eating brown rice and tofu under geodesic domes, and the New Buffalo Commune outside of Taos, New Mexico, washing dishes after the communal meal and hitting on the women. Stark remembers how excited Sullivan would become when he entered these communities. “He had a wanderlust, a powerful urge to immerse himself in these different cultures.” When they spent the following summer in Mexico City, Stark noticed that Sullivan had begun to speak with a Mexican accent.

“There was a soul-searching element of it,” says Sullivan. “But I was also curious to know what the gurus were getting out of it. And I wanted to figure out how they picked up all those girls.”

The spiritual groups, he soon realized, shared a simple tactic: they demanded that their followers suspend critical thought. “They’d say, ‘You have to break out of your Western mentality. You’re too judgmental. You have to abandon your whole psychological-intellectual framework. Your obsessive materialism is blocking you from seeing the truth.”

“I became disturbed by how dramatically they transformed people, and in such a short period of time. They could take some regular American kid and all of a sudden he’s wearing saffron robes, walking around barefoot, all painted up, with a tiny ponytail and shaved head, dancing for hours, selling flowers and incense, living on the floor and eating disgusting food, repeating Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama.”•


Tags: ,

What’s easier, de-extincting an average example of a bygone species or engineering a superior version of one still in existence?

The counterintuitive answer is that they may be equally difficult even though it might be assumed the latter would be relatively simpler. Creating a Mammoth from scratch could be no harder than “building” another Secretariat. Those new mammoths, however, won’t be exactly the same as their “ancestors” nor would a new champion be exactly like the Triple Crown winner of yore. There are just too many variables. But exactitude isn’t as important as progress. These creatures will be new and different, and the same will be said eventually of enhanced humans. That’s where we’re headed. It’s a brave new world, and a fraught one, but we probably won’t survive without such experimentation.

Excerpts follows from two new articles:The Mammoth Cometh,” Nathaniel Rich’s excellent New York Times Magazine piece which will surely have a place on my “Great 2014 Nonfiction Pieces Online For Free” list if I’m still doing this blog by the end of the year; and “Can Science Breed the Next Secretariat?” Adam Piore and Katie Bo Williams’ Nautilus article about recreating an incredibly rare natural mutation.


From “The Mammoth Cometh”:

There is no authoritative definition of “species.” The most widely accepted definition describes a group of organisms that can procreate with one another and produce fertile offspring, but there are many exceptions. De-extinction operates under a different definition altogether. Revive & Restore hopes to create a bird that interacts with its ecosystem as the passenger pigeon did. If the new bird fills the same ecological niche, it will be successful; if not, back to the petri dish. ‘It’s ecological resurrection, not species resurrection,’ Shapiro says. A similar logic informs the restoration of Renaissance paintings. If you visit The Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, you won’t see a single speck of paint from the brush of Leonardo da Vinci. You will see a mural with the same proportions and design as the original, and you may feel the same sense of awe as the refectory’s parishioners felt in 1498, but the original artwork disappeared centuries ago. Philosophers call this Theseus’ Paradox, a reference to the ship that Theseus sailed back to Athens from Crete after he had slain the Minotaur. The ship, Plutarch writes, was preserved by the Athenians, who “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place.” Theseus’ ship, therefore, “became a standing example among the philosophers . . . one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

What does it matter whether Passenger Pigeon 2.0 is a real passenger pigeon or a persuasive impostor? If the new, synthetically created bird enriches the ecology of the forests it populates, few people, including conservationists, will object. The genetically adjusted birds would hardly be the first aspect of the deciduous forest ecosystem to bear man’s influence; invasive species, disease, deforestation and a toxic atmosphere have engineered forests that would be unrecognizable to the continent’s earliest European settlers. When human beings first arrived, the continent was populated by camels, eight-foot beavers and 550-pound ground sloths. “People grow up with this idea that the nature they see is ‘natural,’ ” Novak says, “but there’s been no real ‘natural’ element to the earth the entire time humans have been around.”

The earth is about to become a lot less “natural.” Biologists have already created new forms of bacteria in the lab, modified the genetic code of countless living species and cloned dogs, cats, wolves and water buffalo, but the engineering of novel vertebrates — of breathing, flying, defecating pigeons — will represent a milestone for synthetic biology. This is the fact that will overwhelm all arguments against de-extinction. Thanks, perhaps, to Jurassic Park, popular sentiment already is behind it. (“That movie has done a lot for de-extinction,” Stewart Brand told me in all earnestness.) In a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, half of the respondents agreed that “an extinct animal will be brought back.” Among Americans, belief in de-extinction trails belief in evolution by only 10 percentage points. “Our assumption from the beginning has been that this is coming anyway,” Brand said, “so what’s the most benign form it can take?”

What is coming will go well beyond the resurrection of extinct species. For millenniums, we have customized our environment, our vegetables and our animals, through breeding, fertilization and pollination. Synthetic biology offers far more sophisticated tools. The creation of novel organisms, like new animals, plants and bacteria, will transform human medicine, agriculture, energy production and much else.•


From “Can Science Breed the Next Secretariat?”:

Any trainer with good horse sense could have told you that Trading Leather was something special before he raced from the pack, overtook Galileo Rock, and galloped to victory in the prestigious Irish Derby last June. All one needed to do was take in the magnificent crevasse of muscle running down the back of his hindquarters, the length and architecture of his limbs, his inimitable dignity of motion.

But the legendary trainer who bred him, Jim Bolger, 72, had an extra reason to believe his prized colt was suited for the mid-distance race on the storied track at County Kildare. Bolger had Trading Leather tested for the “speed gene.” He knew, like an expectant mother who has an embryo tested to find out the sex of her baby, what distance Trading Leather was optimally suited to run and at about what age he’d be ready to run it.

Genetics testing has arrived in the world of thoroughbred horse racing. Bolger, whose name is synonymous with success in the fickle game of horse racing, has called it “the most important thing that has happened to breeding since it began over 300 years ago.” The speed gene is now central to the decisions Bolger makes every year when he sits down to pencil out which of his roughly 100 thoroughbreds to mate, and when to begin training his most promising yearlings. Merging specific gene types from his sires and mares, he believes, can result in new lines of lucrative champions. He’s so sure of the science behind the speed gene that he opened a company to sell a speed gene test to his fellow breeders and trainers.

Genetic testing has long been a dream of the sports industry. Since the human genome was mapped in 2000, sports scientists have been racing to identify genes that contribute to athletic superiority. The first test purporting to evaluate human athletic potential hit the market in Australia back in 2004 (arriving in the United States in 2008), a year after a team of researchers published a study linking a single gene to a type of muscle fiber involved in producing the explosive, short-duration bursts of energy needed for sports like power lifting and sprints. This January, Uzbekistan became the first nation to announce a plan to use genetic tests to evaluate future Olympians. The tests of children as young as 10 will be overseen by a team of geneticists who have been studying the genes of the nation’s best athletes for two years, and are preparing a report detailing 50 genes that will form the basis of their talent search.

Every new announcement of a ‘sports gene’ seems to stir up a debate about science and culture, nature and nurture. Can genes account for athletic performance? Are they any match for expert training?•

Tags: , ,

Nathaniel Rich has a post on the New Yorker blog about the field of disaster forecasting, which can be approached from many disciplines. (Even Cliodynamics, which focuses on mapping dynamics that are historical, can help us divine the future.). Of course, knowing doom is approaching isn’t the same thing as preventing it. From the post:

“The Philippines could have been better prepared, but the best preparation is no match for two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds.

Nevertheless, our knowledge of how disasters occur, and how they will occur in the future, has never been more sophisticated. We are now able to prophesy impending cataclysms with a specificity that would have been inconceivable just several years ago. Several factors have contributed to this progress: a growing public anxiety about disasters; advances in disciplines as disparate as computer science, fluid mechanics, and neuroscience; and an infusion of funding from governments, universities, and especially corporations, which have figured out that disaster planning saves money in the long run. But the field remains in its infancy. Disaster prediction—like disaster science, disaster economics, disaster-response technology, disaster art, disaster cinema, disaster lit—is a growth industry. All indications suggest a growth curve that will continue to steepen well into the next century. Disaster is big business, and its prophets will profit.

Milestones in the past year include the March publication, by a team of U.C.L.A. scientists, of a new computer model that predicts where the next global pandemic will originate.”


The crisp opening graph of Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine description of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, which I somehow have never visited on my trips to that city:

“Before New Orleans was called the Big Easy, it was known as the Wet Grave. The nickname referred both to the inundation of coffins when buried in the swampy ground, and to New Orleans’s standing during the 19th century as the nation’s filthiest, deadliest city. The cholera epidemic of 1832 killed more than 4,000 people in three weeks; it returned the next year to claim another thousand. The 1853 yellow-fever outbreak is among the deadliest epidemics ever to hit an American city; some 8,000 perished that summer alone. Diphtheria, typhoid and malaria were constant companions. It is therefore not surprising that America’s first licensed apothecary shop was established here in 1823, at 514 Chartres Street, blocks from America’s oldest pub.