Year in Review: Must-Read Articles of 2020

I know this list looks long, but every article is worth reading (or re-reading), so bookmark them all. You won’t regret it!

♥ Happiness Won’t Save You (The New York Times): “It was the quintessential Philip Brickman conversation. A man lingers on the rooftop of a high-rise, despairing. He makes his way toward the edge. And after some time — seconds? minutes? hours? no one knows — he decides to jump. The ultimate commitment. Or is it really a rejection of all commitments? Whatever it is, does it feel right? Does it help? Or does it suddenly reveal, my God, that there was actually another way?”

♥ The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents (The Atlantic): “… the Gold Coast of Connecticut pumps more athletic recruits into Ivy League schools than any other region in the nation. Kids’ sports look a little different here … Backyards feature batting cages, pitching tunnels, fencing pistes, Olympic-size hockey rinks complete with floodlights and generators … Harvard, which typically admits approximately 5 percent of its applicants, reports acceptance rates as high as 88 percent for athletes endorsed by its coaches … Over the past decade, the for-profit ecosystem that has sprouted up around athletic recruiting at top-rung universities has grown so excessively ornate, so circular in its logic, that it’s become self-defeating. More and more entrants are chasing an unchanging number of prizes … niche sports passed their saturation point long before the pandemic hit. There are simply too many kids competing for too few spots … Amid the shifting norms, there’s a growing sense of unease among suburban parents in niche-sport hubs—a dread that they went too far, failed to read the room. And they’re not wrong … The stampede of the affluent into grim-faced, highly competitive sports has been a tragicomedy of perverse incentives and social evolution in unequal times: a Darwinian parable of the mayhem that can ensue following the discovery of even a minor advantage. Like a peacock rendered nearly flightless by gaudy tail feathers, the overserved athlete is the product of a process that has become maladaptive, and is now harming the very blue-chip demographic it was supposed to help.”

The Very Real, Totally Bizarre Bucatini Shortage of 2020 (Grub Street): “This made both perfect sense and absolutely no fucking sense at all, the sort of demented-timeline event that could only happen in 2020, when everything is, metaphorically, an innocent piece of pasta turned into a straw in a bid to help the environment that actually ends up being fatally dangerous. I confessed to Rosario that every time I made bucatini, I ate several raw strands per minute as I cooked it, as a sort of barometer of al dente–ness. I wondered if I was now going to die because of it, and I made peace with this instantly … I had confirmed that the bucatini shortage was real and understood that the bucatini shortage was a combination of factors: the pandemic’s pasta demand, how hard it is to make bucatini because of its hole, De Cecco’s strange and untimely barring from the U.S. border.”

The Devastating Decline of a Brilliant Young Coder (Wired): “Lee received his death sentence with pure calm. While his family cried beside him, he complimented a doctor for having a nice wedding ring. At that, Alaric looked at him and realized for the first time the depths of his brother’s transformation. Few disorders ravage their victims’ selfhood with the intensity of the behavioral variant of FTD. It takes all the things that define a person … and shreds them. Over time, the disease transforms its victims into someone unrecognizable, a person with all the same memories but an alarming new set of behaviors. Then it hollows them out and shaves away their mobility, language, and recollections.”

♥ Heartbreaker (Toronto Life): “Lovers make the easiest marks. In the dating world, there is no consumer protection agency, no regulatory body or task force looking out for earnest seekers of love. That leaves the romantics … to fend for themselves. They’re led not by reason and logic but by the belief that somewhere out there is the person who’ll make their life shinier and easier, happier and complete. We all want to believe we’re too smart to fall for a con. But our propensity to believe in something, or someone, rests far more on our state of mind than some predisposition … In the U.S. in 2019, some 25,000 people reported being the victim of online romance scams, with losses estimated at more than $200 million (U.S.). In Canada in that same year, 760 Canadians lost $22.5 million to romance scammers … In both countries, according to the FBI, romance scams now constitute the highest-loss form of consumer fraud … Rootenberg wasn’t running your average romance scam—a cash grab performed from a safe distance. Not only did Rootenberg meet his victims in person, he worked his way into their hearts, homes and beds.”

♥ How I Got Caught Up in a Global Romance Scam (The New York Times): “The man who had stolen my photos to scam lonely people was now asking me for money. So much of our willingness to help other people depends upon what we know of their lives. Without being able to confirm anything he said, could I believe his story? Of course not. Still, he had answered my questions. What was that worth?”

♥ It’s Not Hypocrisy (Slate): “Many of us are coping with that lacerating redefinition by knowingly rolling our eyes. Ginsburg’s death hurts, but more than one strain of political grief is operative. This is why so many political reactions at present seem to orbit around the question of whether an unwanted outcome was unexpected. ‘And you’re surprised?’ is a frequent response to some new instance of Trumpian corruption. This brand of cynicism has spread, quite understandably: It’s an outlook that provides some cognitive shelter in a situation that—having historically been at least somewhat rule-bound—has one side shredding the rules and cheering at how much they’re winning. Folks who at one point gave Republican declarations of principle the benefit of the doubt … feel like chumps now. Conversely, the cynical prognosticators who used to seem crabbed and paranoid just keep getting proven right. Whatever the worst thing you imagine McConnell doing might be, he can usually trump it.”

♥ Sin and Scandal at Liberty University (Rolling Stone): “The value of a Liberty degree, whether earned on campus or online, has always been negligible. In 2017, 41 percent of the university’s graduates were earning less than $25,000 a year. The constant bad publicity of recent years was not going to help.”

♥ I Watched My Friend Dying on Facebook. But It Was All a GoFundMe Scam. (OneZero): “Over the previous months of crowdfunding, Cindy’s close friends had turned to the media in the hope that coverage could help with desperately needed fundraising. In mid-March … a local reporter named Nicole O’Reilly started to become skeptical of Cindy’s plight. She interviewed Cindy’s best friend and sister, but neither was able to provide key details about her condition … Then in May, the bottom fell out. A Cindy Facebook supporter who also happened to live nearby posted that she’d seen Cindy leaving her apartment. Cindy was neither blind nor confined to a wheelchair — in fact, she was walking on her own, carrying a basket of laundry. A new reality dawned on the group: They’d been ripped off … A police investigation … determined that Cindy never had CIDP, and she was never dying. She managed to dupe a couple of unwitting close friends into helping her fool hundreds of people online, they found, but the internet … really did most of the work … In the virtual world, just as IRL, women are the default caregivers and the suppliers of empathy. And perhaps, because of that prevailing norm, the women who fake being sick are more likely to appreciate the compassion they receive for the lie, to perceive the hit of validation it delivers as a form of social currency.”

♥ “This Plane Is Not Going to Land in Cairo”: Saudi Prince Sultan Boarded a Flight in Paris. Then, He Disappeared (Vanity Fair): “Sultan bin Turki II, like Prince Mohammed, is a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder … Sultan decided the Saudi government owed him compensation for the injuries from his 2003 kidnapping … In a Swiss court, he sued members of the royal family for the kidnapping … By the time Kingdom Centre Tower … came into view, pandemonium had broken out. Non-Saudi members of Sultan’s entourage demanded to know what would happen to them, landing in Saudi Arabia without visas and against their will. ‘Give me my gun!’ shouted Prince Sultan, weak and wheezing. One of his guards refused. Captain Saud’s men had guns, and a shoot-out on a plane seemed worse than whatever would happen on the ground. So Sultan sat silently until they touched down. There was no way to fight, and Captain Saud’s men shuffled the prince down the Jetway. It’s the last time anyone in his entourage saw him … The operation silenced an irritating critic, teaching a lesson to any other would-be dissidents in the royal family.”

♥ What I Learned Inside the N.B.A. Bubble (The New York Times): “In theory, the N.B.A. bubble sounds ridiculous, like a devastating parody of consumer capitalism. In the midst of our global nightmare, the world’s most powerful basketball league decided to finish its season in the candy-colored refuge of the world’s most famous theme park. Players would live in strict isolation at Disney resorts, where they would have access to the kind of rapid daily virus testing that, for months, the rest of the nation had been begging for. Games would take place in arenas without crowds. Regular citizens, quarantined at home, could watch it all on television. The N.B.A. bubble was like a circus crossed with a corporate retreat crossed with a space mission. It was March Madness in Versailles.”

♥ How the Coronavirus Hacks the Immune System (The New Yorker): “… disease—the predation of parasites upon hosts—is actually the most potent force in evolution … The coronavirus … inhibits the interferon response but does nothing about the cytokines; it evades the local defenses but allows the cells it infects to call for reinforcements. White blood cells are powerful weapons: they arrive on an inflammatory tide, destroying cells on every side, clogging up passages with the wreckage. They are meant to be used selectively, on invaders that have been contained in a small area. With the coronavirus, they are deployed too widely—a carpet bombing, rather than a surgical strike. As they do their work, inflammation distends the lungs, and debris fills them like a fog … As the virus spreads unchecked through the body, it drags a destructive immune reaction behind it. Individuals with COVID-19 face the same challenge as nations during the pandemic: if they can’t contain small sites of infection early—so that a targeted response can root them out—they end up mounting interventions so large that the shock inflicts its own damage.”

♥ A TikTok House Divided (Vox): “… Girls in the Valley is not a spontaneous occurrence of a handful of college-age social media stars choosing to live together, but rather the calculated product of a talent management company that plucked influencers from across TikTok to form a collective. Call it the boy-band model but for Gen Z, where stars leverage each other’s burgeoning fame against the backdrop of multimillion-dollar homes … To answer a glaring question: No, collab houses don’t really make any money. It is not a wise business decision, per se, for a management company to spend lavishly on rent solely because fans like seeing their favorite TikTokers hanging out together. Collab houses, instead, are meant to be a gateway to something much more lucrative: reality TV stardom and, consequently, the elite brand sponsorships that come with it.”

♥ Buying Myself Back (The Cut): “I’d been shot nude a handful of times before, always by men. I’d been told by plenty of photographers and agents that my body was one of the things that made me stand out among my peers. My body felt like a superpower. I was confident naked — unafraid and proud. Still, though, the second I dropped my clothes, a part of me disassociated. I began to float outside of myself, watching as I climbed back onto the bed. I arched my back and pursed my lips, fixating on the idea of how I might look through his camera lens. Its flash was so bright and I’d had so much wine that giant black spots were expanding and floating in front of my eyes.”

♥ A Restaurant Ruined My Life (Toronto Life): “I … joined the burgeoning ranks of the know-it-all gourmand. I owned fancy knives. I photographed my food. I had a subscription to Lucky Peach. I had a well-thumbed copy of Kitchen Confidential and a demi-glace-spattered copy of The French Laundry Cookbook. At work, I had trouble concentrating on spreadsheets and instead found myself scribbling menus on graph paper. I could picture a quaint dining room with wooden tables, scalloped plates and plaid napkins … I naïvely figured I could do it as well as the restaurant lifers, the tattooed dude-chefs and the nut-busting empire builders. What I lacked in experience I could make up for in enthusiasm … Eighty per cent of first-time restaurateurs fail. I knew this. Opening a restaurant was the least sensible, dumbest thing I could do … I was in no position to take a risk.”

♥ Inside eBay’s Cockroach Cult: The Ghastly Story of a Stalking Scandal (The New York Times): “… on June 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice charged six former eBay employees, all part of the corporate security team, with conspiring to commit cyberstalking and tamper with witnesses. Their alleged targets were almost comically obscure — a mom-and-pop blogging duo from a suburb of Boston and a Twitter gadfly who wrote often in their comments section. According to the government, their methods were juvenile and grotesque, featuring cockroaches, pornography, barely veiled threats of violence and death, physical surveillance and the weaponization of late-night pizza.”

♥ The Desperate Fight to Save His Family Ends in Tragedy (The Oregonian): “Back in the Jeep, struggling to navigate a road once so familiar but now shrouded by smoke-filled darkness, Chris almost ran over what looked like a bikini-clad woman on the road. Once he was closer, he realized she was wearing underwear. Her hair was singed, her mouth looked almost black, and her bare feet were severely burned. He impatiently tried to help her into his car, explaining how he needed to find his wife and son, feeling like she was resisting. Finally, she spoke. ‘I am your wife.’”

♥ Un-Adopted (The Cut): “In the kindest light, Myka, now 33, and James, 35, were painted as well-meaning but naïve parents who had gotten in over their heads; in the harshest, they were fame-hungry narcissists who’d exploited a child for clicks and profit only to discard him when caring for him proved too difficult.”

♥ Is Spain’s Royal Family Finished? (Foreign Policy): “… 82-year-old Juan Carlos I, the king of Spain from 1975 to 2014, announced his decision to leave the country … The most recent royal flight from Spain has been presented by both Juan Carlos and Felipe as a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy from further reputational damage. But it’s hard to believe that the former king is not more concerned about protecting himself from Swiss and Spanish authorities and from the backlash that will follow if their inquiries prove justified … The Spanish monarchy is at a critical moment in its history, with polls suggesting that Spaniards are roughly split down the middle over whether Spain should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic once more.”

She Stalked Her Daughter’s Killers Across Mexico, One by One (The New York Times): “Hope is a toxin that poisons many families of the missing. They either purge it and try to move on from their loved ones, or they sustain it, and it destroys them … Disappearances undermine the very nature of grief, stripping families of even the most basic closure. Condemned to a life buoyed by even the tiniest bit of hope, the pain cycles on a loop, its own unique form of torture.”

♥ The Bizarre Fall of the CEO of Coach and Kate Spade’s Parent Company (ProPublica): “Working under an alias, he took photos, many sexual, at least some involving nudity, of women in a studio just feet from where his wife and children lived. He had what he now acknowledges was an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with one of the women he photographed. That life had surfaced in 2009, hindering a chance for him to enter government service, only to be publicly left behind — until today … In the end, Zeitlin’s downfall occurred before a word was published. He had some common language in his employment contract in which he stipulated that he had never been the subject of any allegation of ‘harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or sexual or other misconduct’ and agreed that ‘any act or omission’ on his part that could have a ‘material adverse effect’ on Tapestry and ‘its reputation’ would be considered ’cause’ for his termination. Only days after Tapestry’s lawyers began asking questions, Zeitlin stepped down.”

The Stranded Babies of the Coronavirus Disaster (The New Yorker): “As the virus spread, and travel froze, parents around the world suddenly found themselves separated, by thousands of miles, from newborns who were, in fact, their biological children. Commercial surrogacy is growing more popular, thanks to a number of converging factors: advances in reproductive technology, a wave of restrictive adoption laws, the rise of gay rights, and the fact that women in developed countries are waiting longer before having children, leading to more problems with fertility. But it’s also illegal in most of the world, including in almost all of mainland Europe. Opponents of the practice argue that it makes surrogates vulnerable to exploitation, especially if they are poor, and creates risks for the children … every year, thousands of would-be parents travel abroad, to the handful of countries where surrogacy is legal. One of the biggest destinations is the United States, which has cutting-edge reproductive technology and the most permissive laws: both same-sex couples and unmarried people can have children via a surrogate. But the price tag is out of reach for many people, and, in the past decade, Ukraine has emerged as a cheaper alternative. Ukrainian surrogates give birth to several thousand babies every year, the majority of whom have foreign parents. The country has around fifty reproductive clinics and numerous agencies that act as middlemen, matching couples with egg donors and surrogates. COVID-19 threw this system into chaos. There are no official numbers on how many babies were stranded around the world … at least two hundred babies were stuck in the U.S., cared for by an improvised network of surrogates, relatives, baby nurses, and Good Samaritans.”

♥ “Ghislaine, Is That You?”: Inside Ghislaine Maxwell’s Life on the Lam (Vanity Fair): “The woman who once had everything money could buy, only to lose it all because of a man, was once again living a life of luxury. All she had to do to keep it was to give the monster what he wanted. And what he increasingly wanted were women—’on the younger side,’ as Donald Trump would say—for whom Maxwell is said to have searched everywhere: spas, massage parlors, parties. Once she found them, she would invite them to ‘tea’ at Epstein’s mansion … several victims claim that Maxwell not only lured them into Epstein’s web, but also fondled or sexually abused them. When asked about Maxwell’s role in his sex crimes during a deposition, Epstein invoked the Fifth Amendment at least 14 times.”

♥ The True Story of the Heartthrob Prince of Qatar and His Time at USC (Los Angeles Times): “From the moment Al Thani stepped off the plane, an entire economy quickly grew up around him to meet his wishes and whims: chauffeurs, a security detail, concierges, trainers, a nurse, an all-purpose fixer and even, according to several USC faculty members, a graduate student who served as his academic ‘sherpa’ … His enablers went to extraordinary lengths to keep him happy: Forging documents, flouting university rules, plying a UCLA dean with a golden camel statue, giving a Rolex to a professor and even … buying a $500 gift for a DMV employee in an effort to secure a coveted vanity plate.”

♥ Breaking the Curse of the It Bag (The New York Times): “Sometimes, being crowned the Next Big Thing is the worst thing that can happen to a designer … the Pouch, a squishy clutch bag made from butter-soft leather crushed in the middle that feels kind of like a soft toy, or a therapy dog … was among the first products Mr. Lee made when he arrived at Bottega, and it was a phenomenon: an It bag when It bags were no longer supposed to exist … According to Kering’s 2019 annual report, released earlier this month, the Pouch was ‘the fastest selling bag in Bottega Veneta history.’ It was followed not long afterward by aggressively square-toed leather slides with the trademark basket-weave intrecciato of the brand blown up to steroidal proportions, more bags, and quilted leather skirts and coats.”

♥ History Will Judge the Complicit (The Atlantic): “Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar. These kinds of lies also have a way of building on one another. It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes. Social scientists who have studied the erosion of values and the growth of corruption inside companies have found, for example, that ‘people are more likely to accept the unethical behavior of others if the behavior develops gradually (along a slippery slope) rather than occurring abruptly’ … This happens, in part, because most people have a built-in vision of themselves as moral and honest, and that self-image is resistant to change. Once certain behaviors become ‘normal,’ then people stop seeing them as wrong.”

♥ Elon Musk, His Rocket, and the Grand Scheme that Tore Apart Boca Chica (Esquire): “Brownsville is the country’s poorest metropolitan area … SpaceX was promising nothing short of an economic transformation, estimating it would create five hundred local jobs at an average salary of $55,000 … Things got off track almost immediately. Crews drilled in search of bedrock on which to build a launchpad but didn’t find any. Instead, they learned that when you dig a hole on the mudflats, murky water soon seeps in. If SpaceX needed solid ground in Boca Chica, it would have to create it. So the company trucked in 310,000 cubic yards of earth, then waited three years for the soil to settle … Musk had claimed the project would be an operational spaceport by 2016, but that year came and went, with not much to show other than an expensive pile of dirt. For years, the main sign to Boca Chicans of SpaceX’s presence was the company’s steady accumulation of houses and vacant lots.”

♥ The Princess, the Plantfluencers, and the Pink Congo Scam (Wired): “Each rare plant … if properly nurtured … turn into a business opportunity, by selling cuttings … to fellow collectors online … the biggest returns [come] from plants with shocks of color—specifically, pink … Of all the pink plants online, few are as prized as the pink princess philodendron. Its heart-shaped leaves unfurl toward the sun, with streaks of bubblegum pink the shape of a crescent moon … In the past three years, houseplant sales have grown by 50 percent, according to the National Gardening Association. It’s now a billion-dollar industry, and an increasing share takes place online. Plants that weren’t rare before are now in high demand. … The incredible hype around rare plants has also attracted its fair share of poachers, thieves, and grifters. In 2018, for example, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated cases where thousands of succulents had been taken from public land to be sold online for $50 each.”

♥ My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? (The New York Times): “… the very first time you cut a payroll check, you understand quite bluntly that, poetic notions aside, you are running a business. And that crew of knuckleheads you adore are counting on you for their livelihood … The conversation about how restaurants will continue to operate, given the rising costs of running them has been ramping up for years now; the coronavirus did not suddenly shine light on an unknown fragility. We’ve all known, and for a rather long time. The past five or six years have been alarming. For restaurants, coronavirus-mandated closures are like the oral surgery or appendectomy you suddenly face while you are uninsured. These closures will take out the weakest and the most vulnerable. But exactly who among us are the weakest and most vulnerable is not obvious.”

♥ Reddit’s Profane, Greedy Traders Are Shaking Up the Stock Market (Bloomberg): “Members of r/WSB believe they’ve discovered a kind of perpetual motion machine in the interplay of stocks with options contracts … It goes like this: Members make bets that rely on market makers, the professional middlemen who sell you a ‘call’ … or a ‘put’ … Market makers … When taking a bet, they lay off the risk. If someone buys a call … speculating on a rally, the dealer buys stock in the underlying company. If the stock rises, the dealer may have to pay out on the option—but that’s offset by the gain on the shares. When shares keep rising, managing the hedge entails buying more stock. That’s where the Reddit set perceives a weakness. A favorite tactic on r/WSB is to swamp the market with call purchases early in the morning in an attempt to force dealers to keep buying stock … As the stock price rises, so does the value of the calls, often by far more … The forum’s zest for call options is a key force behind a broad market trend. By one measure, the value of options traded rose 77% over the first six weeks of 2020. Much of this expansion was concentrated in a handful of stocks popular among individual investors … Chatter on a Reddit message board is pushing up prices on some stocks and reshaping the options market. Retail traders are back—for better or for worse.”

♥ The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake (The Atlantic): “… the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families … We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families … Americans today have less family than ever before. From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has been cut in half. In 1960, according to census data, just 13 percent of all households were single-person households. In 2018, that figure was 28 percent. In 1850, 75 percent of Americans older than 65 lived with relatives; by 1990, only 18 percent did.”

♥ The Porn Industry’s Biggest Scandal Is Also an Unsolved Mystery (Vanity Fair): “Traci Lords was the biggest porn star in the world in the mid 1980s. Then, in July of ’86, it was revealed in dramatic fashion—the FBI busting down Traci’s door—that she’d been underage for virtually her entire adult career … Traci’s story … properly told, provides the key … to understanding late-20th-century and early-21st-century American pop culture.”

♥ How Far Can Abused Women Go to Protect Themselves? (The New Yorker): “Throughout the two-thousands, Alabama was among the states where a woman was most likely to be murdered by a man … In 2011, Alabama stopped submitting its homicide data … but Georgia and Tennessee, its neighbors, are still in the top ten … In the past several decades, imprisonment of women in the United States has increased at a rate twice that of men; there are now some two hundred and thirty thousand women incarcerated … a 2004 study … found that nearly half of them said that they had acted in self-defense or retaliated in the wake of abuse … Stand Your Ground defense … which was introduced in Alabama in 2006, makes it legal to use lethal force to defend oneself against threats or perceived threats, with no duty to retreat. Thirty-three states now have such laws … over all, according to F.B.I. data, Stand Your Ground laws have actually helped both women and men win justifiable-homicide defenses. But in some states the laws have done little or nothing for women. A statistical analysis of Stand Your Ground cases in Florida … found evidence of both racial and gender bias. The gender bias applied to ‘domestic’ cases—those which occurred on a defendant’s property. The probability of conviction for a male defendant in such a case was about forty per cent; for a woman, it was about eighty per cent. The analysis suggests that, in domestic cases, Stand Your Ground works better for men than for women. In Alabama, Roman found, no women received justifiable-homicide rulings between 2006, when the state’s Stand Your Ground law was implemented, and 2010, after which the state stopped reporting its data.”

♥ The Outsize Influence of Your Middle-School Friends (The Atlantic): “Two-thirds of the children entering their first year of middle school changed friends between the fall and the spring … At the start of the year, they stay close physically and emotionally to those familiar classmates. But as they settle into life in the new environment, their social horizons expand. They gravitate to those with similar interests of the kind that begin to solidify in these years … Similarities, as always, attract. Earlier friends often fall by the wayside. Friendship has real power for kids … friendship may even begin to resemble an attachment relationship like what children initially have with parents … But there is also a dark side to the social world of middle school … Sixth graders who do not have friends are at risk of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. About 12 percent of the 6,000 sixth graders in Juvonen’s study were not named as a friend by anyone else. They had no one to sit with at lunch and no one to stick up for them when bullied. Of that group, boys outnumbered girls nearly two to one, and African American and Latino students were more likely to be friendless than white kids … not having friends in sixth grade triggered a greater sense of threat in seventh grade, which led to increased internalizing difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, by eighth grade … It wasn’t friendlessness alone that created problems, it was the resulting sense of threat.”

♥ Who Killed the Knapp Family? (The New York Times): “Suicides are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids … Only in America has life expectancy now fallen three years in a row, for the first time in a century, because of ‘deaths of despair’ … America is polarized with ferocious arguments about social issues, but we should be able to agree on what doesn’t work: neglect and underinvestment in children. Here’s what does work. Job training and retraining give people dignity as well as an economic lifeline … Another successful strategy is investing not just in prisons but also in human capital to keep people out of prisons.”

♥ Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine (The Atlantic): “Today’s social networks, Facebook chief among them, were built to encourage the things that make them so harmful. It is in their very architecture … Facebook is not a media company. It’s a Doomsday Machine … Facebook does not exist to seek truth and report it, or to improve civic health, or to hold the powerful to account, or to represent the interests of its users, though these phenomena may be occasional by-products of its existence … it took the concept of ‘community’ and sapped it of all moral meaning.”

The Journalist and the Pharma Bro (Elle): “Over the course of nine months, beginning in July 2018, Smythe quit her job, moved out of the apartment, and divorced her husband. What could cause the sensible Smythe to turn her life upside down? She fell in love with a defendant whose case she not only covered, but broke the news of his arrest. It was a scoop that ignited the Internet, because her love interest, now life partner, is … Martin Shkreli: the so-called ‘Pharma Bro’ and online provocateur, who increased the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent overnight and made headlines for buying a one-off Wu-Tang Clan album for a reported $2 million. Shkreli, convicted of fraud in 2017, is now serving seven years in prison … Watching Smythe, I finally realize her motive for telling her story. She wants Shkreli, and hopes putting their love on the record might at last give her some power in the relationship.”

♥ America’s Hollow Middle Class (Vox): “You maintain your middle-class identity by defining yourself as not poor, not working class, regardless of your debt load or the ease with which you could descend into financial ruin. So many are so obsessed with defining themselves as not poor that they can’t grapple with the changes in spending habits that would actually prevent them from becoming so … Delia … is a real person, but Delia’s not her real name; she doesn’t want others knowing her family’s business. She also thinks all her friends and neighbors are in a better financial situation than she is. They don’t ever talk about it, but she thinks they have better rates on their mortgages, more equity in their homes — how else could they drive $60,000 SUVs and put pools in over the summer? But someone on the outside might look at Delia’s life and think something very similar. That’s how you get the hollow middle: when a bunch of people are terrified of being poor, have no idea how to talk with others about money, and have no political will to advocate for changes that would alter their position.”

♥ Get Rich Selling Used Fashion Online—or Cry Trying (Wired): “Poshmark concedes that the people who manage to make a living selling full time on the app are those who get their inventory new from Amazon or Asian wholesale websites—not people who spend hours hunting through thrift stores and reselling … Poshmark … seems to rely on its sellers never discovering what thrift stores such as Buffalo Exchange knew long ago: Most of our old clothing is worth way less than we think it is. So little, in fact, that it’s hard to even give it away. That’s the tension at the heart of Poshmark: Whether you’re just trying to clean out your closet or treating it like a small business, for the amount of time you have to invest in interacting on the app, it’s almost impossible to make more than a meager return while selling old clothes. Poshmark is less a road to entrepreneurship and more another on-ramp to the gig economy … Poshmark appeals to women because it offers flexible work while allowing them to mostly stay home. It contributes to the fantasy that with enough hustle, they will make good money off of their old clothing, keep it all out of the landfill, and pay for a nice vacation while they’re at it. But its product design choices have turned the act of selling into a time-consuming social exercise of questionable value.”

♥ Tony Hsieh’s American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months Of The Zappos Visionary (Forbes): “… the memories of Hsieh paint an image of a man whose mission in life was to create happiness … But while he directly … and indirectly … delivered on making other people smile, Hsieh was privately coping with issues of mental health and addiction … Hsieh’s personal struggles took a dramatic turn south over the past year, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed the nonstop action that Hsieh seemingly craved … Hsieh, always a heavy drinker, veered into frequent drug use, notably nitrous oxide … By August, it was announced that he had ‘retired’ from the company he built … Friends and family members, understanding the emerging crisis, attempted interventions over the past few months to try to get him sober. Instead … Hsieh retreated to Park City, where he surrounded himself with yes-men, paying dearly for the privilege.”

♥ Jeans Now, Pay Later (The Atlantic): “… their revenue comes primarily from stores, which pay much more than they would to process the same transactions with credit cards … These new lenders … give retailers greater access to … the nearly half of Americans in their 20s who don’t have a credit card. While many of the services offer loans for four- or five-figure purchases, with interest rates similar to those of credit cards, their bread and butter is the mundane commerce of everyday life for the young … financial experts … voiced apprehension about the sudden pervasiveness of point-of-sale lenders and the challenges consumers face in using them wisely. Their penchant for targeting young audiences … was also a point of concern. But the experts were clear about something else: There is no reason to vilify these services more than any of the other products that encourage (or merely help) people to buy things they can’t afford … That come-what-may desire for instant gratification is what point-of-sale loans hope to inspire in us … By decoupling the act of buying from the act of spending, they remove the psychological friction that can force people to stop, consider their choices, and decide whether they can really afford to buy that one fabulous thing.”

♥ Elon Musk, Blasting Off in Domestic Bliss (The New York Times): “The view of Silicon Valley has grown darker in recent years, as Americans realized that the lords of the cloud who were supposed to improve our lives were carelessly harvesting our data and allowing themselves to be disinformation factories. Mr. Musk’s peers may mock him for his grandiosity and say that his worldview of good battling evil is just a smart business stance to lure the best people. And he is certainly a grandmaster at marketing and self-promotion. But he also really does want to save the world and make products that bring joy.”

♥ Laughing at Quibi Is Way More Fun Than Watching Quibi (WIRED): “In the past five years, a cascade of Jackass Icarus narratives have outraged and delighted the public that consumes them. From Fyre Fest to Theranos to the rich parents behind Operation Varsity Blues, this is a flush era for grifting, trickery, and fraud. One of the central pleasures of taking in these stories is watching the players at the center get their comeuppance. They are morality fables, capped off with finales that produce shivers. While the emotional response it elicits is similar to that of a scam story, Quibi isn’t a scam. Delighting in Quibi’s foibles is distinct from, say, rejoicing when Elizabeth Holmes’ hubris was finally exposed. What’s the difference? Quibi is a good, clean goof, a majestically pure screw-up. No malice, no harm—just a flop. It’s ‘snackable.’ It is a symptom of a fundamentally absurd system, an example of the rot of Hollywood patronage and American kakistocracy.”

♥ The Allure of the Nap Dress, the Look of Gussied-Up Oblivion (The New Yorker): “One could theoretically wear a Nap Dress to bed, but it is decidedly not a nightgown … It is not the same thing as a caftan, which, though often luxurious, is more shapeless and more grown-up. It is not a housedress, which we tend to associate with older women shuffling onto the stoop to grab the morning paper, the curlers still in their hair. A housedress is about forgetting the self, or at least hiding it under layers of quilted fabric. The Nap Dress, on the other hand, suggests a cheeky indulgence for one’s body, and a childlike return to waking up bleary-eyed hours before dinner.”

I Went to Disney World (The Atlantic): “What is an amusement park in which visible smiles are forbidden, and laughter and screams of delight are muffled to the point of inaudibility? If you think it is like watching sitcoms without a laugh track … you do not fully appreciate the inhumanity of this situation, the strangeness of being in a place that exists to elicit joy—wiped clean of all legible emotion. The psychologist Paul Bloom has noted that the pandemic is unlike other catastrophes, because our suffering and collective response are solitary. To be a hero during the Blitz, you pulled neighbors from rubble; you commiserated with friends and encouraged them, in person, to buck up. To be a pandemic hero, you stay home and binge-watch Project Runway in your underpants. In Disney World more than anywhere else, this odd and psychically depleting fact about the pandemic—that it robs us of shared emotional space—haunts you. It may still be the happiest place on Earth, but you can’t tell by looking at anyone.”

Sweatpants Forever: How the Fashion Industry Collapsed (The New York Times): “… the fashion industry was a giant bubble heading toward collapse. Now the pandemic was just speeding up the inevitable … An incredible surplus of clothing was presently sitting in warehouses and in stores, some of which might never reopen … In April, clothing sales fell 79 percent in the United States, the largest dive on record. Purchases of sweatpants, though, were up 80 percent … The pandemic has also forced a correction of the calendar. With factories shut down and deliveries delayed, many of this year’s fall collections will, for the first time in a long while, actually arrive in season. Some in the industry have even talked about pushing the unseen and unsold 2020 collections to 2021 to avoid losses … The fascinating part is that in order to do that — to give that aged inventory value again — requires literally killing fashion, that nebulous deity that says something is ‘in’ this year and not the next … Fashion is, by definition, unpredictable. People buy clothes for illogical, emotional reasons. The challenge … was to build a brand that could be immune to trends and novelty and whatever dystopian disaster was coming next.”

Happy New Year, everyone!


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