Patrick Radden Keefe

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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If you want to argue the best articles from another era of the New Yorker are better than the best of the current iteration, I suppose you could, but I don’t think the journalism has ever been so consistently on top as in the modern version.

Even by those usual high standards, 2015 has already been an exceptionally rich year. Consider just last month. I don’t think there’s been a day since reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s IRA revisitation, “Where the Bodies Are Buried,” that his complex piece hasn’t popped into my mind.

Another example: Daniel Zalewski’s “Life Lines,” which profiles artist Lonni Sue Johnson, whose hippocampus was left in ruins by encephalitis. The article is filled with spare, knowing phrases like this one: “Johnson’s reliance on the tote bag is a radical extension of what humans naturally do.” Dedicated study of the remaining functions of Johnson’s damaged brain may tell us a lot about our own intact ones. An excerpt:

Memories can be both a pleasure and a hardship. The most dissatisfied people, Kierkegaard observed, can “be found among the unhappy rememberers.” As [Nicholas] Turk-Browne put it, “Memory is such a great thing, but it’s also where your anxiety comes from.” Johnson’s emotional load certainly seems lighter: she is never going to regret making an impatient remark to Aline or worry for days that the Princeton researchers find her tedious. But even the sketchiest memories can weigh someone down. Johnson knows how deeply she loved her past, even if she can perceive only some of its outlines. Aline said, “I took a walk with her the other day, and an airplane flew over and she said, ‘Do you know what that makes me think of? Do you know how much I miss flying?’ And she just went on and on, and got so caught up in that. We were walking on one of the most beautiful days outside that there could be, and she could hardly see the beauty, because she was so caught in the past.”

Aline asked her sister what she’d seen in the scanner.

Silence. “All sorts of things.”

Aline pressed. Had she been sitting up or lying down?

“Lying down—wasn’t that true?”

Aline looked at Turk-Browne searchingly. Correct answers made it seem as if Johnson’s temporal window were expanding. Diplomatically, Turk-Browne observed that Johnson’s answers could reflect semantic knowledge—a general sense of what happened inside the scanner. “It’s amazing how much you can get by on semantic memory,” he told me later.

Johnson and I had said hello earlier that morning. Though I repeatedly mentioned that I was a journalist, she seemed to consider me one of the ambient scientists in her life. “You look so familiar,” she said, and complimented the plaid shirt that I was wearing: “It’d make a great puzzle.”

The data from a dozen scanning sessions took months to assess, and in November Jiye Kim presented the results at a gathering of the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington, D.C. Johnson’s brain had retained objects and scenes for three minutes—as long as intact brains did. To Turk-Browne, the results proved, surprisingly, that “repetition suppression is a form of short-term memory that does not require the hippocampus.” He theorized that another—as yet undiscovered—“visual buffer of recent experience” must be “propping up the visual system and feeding into it.” Perhaps the visual cortex had its own scratch pad. Johnson’s unique brain had exposed a mystery inside everyone’s brain.

As Johnson was leaving the laboratory that day, Turk-Browne asked, “So, where are we?” Her eyes darted. “We’re in . . . a wonderful place,” she said, smiling uneasily.•

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I love doing the semiannual “Great Nonfiction Pieces Online For Free” lists (here’s the one from the end of 2012), but it has one obvious drawback: The amazing stuff that’s gated doesn’t get any love from this blog. So a quick note that if you are behind on your New Yorker reading so far this year and have yet to look at Jon Lee Anderson’s piece about Venezuela (“Letter from Caracas: Slumlord”), you need to catch up on it. Yes, it’s subscription-only, but completely worth the investment.

Oh, an equally amazing piece from the same publication, Patrick Radden Keefe’s new article about the Amy Bishop murder case (“A Loaded Gun“) is completely free and ungated. It’s likewise a must-read.

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