The Year in Writing
December 26, 2011 12:56 PM   Subscribe

The Browser has been mentioned before on Metafilter as a website that collects the best writing around the web. Over the past 3 days they've been posting their year end list of the best essays from 2011. The full annotated list is after the jump.

These are listed in reverse chronological order from being posted on the site...

Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?, in The New Yorker, by Atul Gawande:

You'd be surprised if a successful singer or sportsman had no coach. Why not so for other professionals? Surgeon investigates: "I can’t say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I’ve discovered that I do"
Gawande was recently featured on Metafilter in a commencement address that deals with teamwork in medicine.

The Forever City, in The Wallstreet Journal, by Robert Hughes:

Art critic recalls first trip to Rome, in 1959. Charming, evocative piece of travel writing: "In Rome, for the first time in my life, I felt surrounded by speaking water. What trees are to Paris, fountains are to Rome"

Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code, in Wired, by Jonah Lehrer (also discussed on Metafilter earlier this year):

Extraordinary account of how MIT statistician cracked the code behind lottery scratch tickets. Achieved 90% win rate. "The visible numbers turned out to reveal essential information about the digits hidden under the latex coating"
In the comment thread on Metafilter, there was a terrific technical description of the process of ticket printing.

The Rape of Men, in The Observer, by Will Stor (on Metafilter):

Remarkably powerful, harrowing piece of writing on a topic -- male rape -- that is largely ignored by UN, governments and aid agencies. "Of all the secrets of war, there is one that is so well kept that it exists mostly as a rumour"

Obituary: Colonel Albert Bachmann, in The Telegraph:

"Mustachioed, pipe-smoking and blessed with an ability to wreak havoc within his own organisation, Bachmann’s resemblance to Inspector Clouseau was striking. He reduced the Swiss intelligence agency to a state bordering on chaos"

When Kerouac Met Kesey, in The American Scholar, by Sterling Lord:

Lovely piece by literary agent who represented both men. Iconoclastic thinkers who overlapped as writers. But they had very different ways of opting out of society. As was clear when they met. (And Kesey never saw film of OFOTCN)

Nato Must Help Us!, in Zeit:

Extraordinary report by German journalist of secret travels in Syria and meetings with protest leaders. Even hospitals aren't safe for dissidents: “You come in with a bullet in your leg. And you come out with a bullet in your head"
This article is from August, and here is a roundup of news links from around the same time.

The Human Lake, in Discover Magazine, by Carl Zimmer:

Exceptional article on the teeming ecosystem of microbes within our bodies from one of the masters of science writing. Reveals that "in your lifetime you will produce five elephants of microbes. You are basically a microbe factory"
Another article from Discover talking about the 'wonderland' of bacteria in your navel, including this comment about the current state of microbiology.

The Chernobyl That Nobody Wants, in Eurozine, by Barys Piatrovich:

Gripping account of first month after Chernobyl's nuclear disaster. 25 years ago, uncertainty turned to anxiety and then panic as "virtually the whole of the radioactive end of Mendeleev's periodic table fell on Belarus"
A video linked earlier in the year about Chernobyl's radioactive wolves.

The Left Behinds, in The National Journal, by Michael Hirsh:

Today America struggles with record numbers of long-term unemployed and a dwindling middle class. But this isn't a sudden effect of the financial crisis – it's the result of three decades of short-sighted economic policy. Here's why

Tour De Gall, in Vanity Fair, by A.A. Gill (on Metafilter):

Gloriously hostile review of Paris restaurant, L'Ami Louis. On veal kidneys: "The heat had welded them together into a gray, suppurating renal brick. It could be the result of an accident involving rat babies in a nuclear reactor"
Love him or hate him, there was another notable Gill article about Dubai from earlier in the year.

The Arab Counterrevolution, in The New York Review of Books, by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley:

Outstanding analysis of Arab uprisings, looking ahead to what may follow. "Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it"

The Wave Maker, in Vanity Fair, by William Langewiesche:

Epic story of Ken Bradshaw, elite surfer. How he surfed the largest wave in history - "it was like skiing down an avalanche chute in the mountains", then rejected sponsorship and media hype for a life in commercial shipping

Grabbing Dinner, in Garden and Gun, by Bill Heavey (on Metafilter):

"You got to remember – you're not petting that frog. You're not slapping that frog. You got to grab that frog." So begins a nighttime frogging expedition in Louisiana. And frog eyes are whiteish. "Don't grab anything with red eyes"
Included in the MeFi thread, a recommendation for "the tastiest frog legs in North America."

On Pseudonymity, Privacy and Responsibility on Google+, in Technosocial, by Kee Hinckley:

Stunning, emotional blog post in defence of online anonymity. Long, but well thought-out and compelling in its conclusions. "Persistent pseudonyms aren't ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are"
The 'Nym Wars were covered in detail in this excellent FPP.

Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse?, in The New York Review of Books, by Timothy Snyder:

Breathtaking. Brilliant. Snyder asks history's most loaded question, and answers it with meticulous balance sheet. Stalin was first with ethnic killing campaigns; murdered more people than Hitler; but fewer than we used to think
The Myths of a Christian Europe, in Pandaemonium, by Kenan Malik (on Metafilter):

Excellent essay. The liberal, democratic values we hold dear aren't so rooted in Christianity as we might think. So any weakening of Christianity in Europe won't erode those values. But crass alarmism about Islam might

The Overjustification Effect, in You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney:

Superb essay on money, happiness. "No matter how you turn it, the science says once your basic needs are taken care of, money and other rewards don’t make you happier." If you think differently, you're deluding yourself. Here's why
Other You Are Not So Smart articles of note that have been highlighted on the Blue.

When the Crescendo Is the Least of Your Worries, in The Morning News, by Christopher R. Graham:

After practicing confidently with his iPod in private, novice conductor discovers the terror, joy and challenges of directing a professional orchestra. Conclusion: "Professionals and amateurs just don’t belong on the same stage"

Experimental Physics and the Limits of Human Knowledge, in The European Magazine, by Rolf-Dieter Heuer:

Man who oversees CERN research laboratories talks candidly on the Higgs Boson particle, the relationship between science and belief, the nature of scientific proof and whether human brains are equipped to comprehend the universe

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, in Vanity Fair, by Joseph Stiglitz (on Metafilter):

Nobel prize-winning economist, on inequality in America. Concentration of power and wealth in top 1% now so great that it may be irreversible. In effect, the rich have captured the government. They can buy the policies they want

How Doctors Die, in Zocalo, by Ken Murray (on Metafilter):

"What’s unusual is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves"
KathrynT speaks of the benefits of honest medical counsel.

Here Be Monsters, in GQ, by Michael Finkel (on Metafilter):

Epic tale of three boys found in a dinghy in the middle of the Pacific. "They had no food, no water, no clothing, no fishing gear, no life vests, and no first-aid kit. They were close to death. They had been missing for 51 days"
A similar GQ article from 2007, linked within the MeFi thread.

The End of the American Era, in The National Interest, by Stephen Walt (on Metafilter):

"The era when the United States could create and lead a political, economic and security order in virtually every part of the world is coming to an end. Which raises the obvious question: What should we do about it?" Excellent essay

The Great Tech War of 2012, in Fast Company, by Farhad Manjoo (on Metafilter):

The four American companies that have come to define 21st century information technology and entertainment are on the verge of war. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google will fight it out across many markets. The rest are dust

Unspoken Truths, in Vanity Fair, by Christopher Hitchens (on Metafilter):

Advancing cancer attacks his vocal cords. "My voice suddenly rose to a piping squeak. It began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. Now it threatens daily to disappear"
Of couse, the Hitchens obit. thread.

Welcome to the Age of Overparenting, in Boston Magazine, by Katherine Ozment (on Metafilter):

Cautionary tale of modern parenting: "I’d bought into the self-esteem dogma — the idea that bathing our children in good feeling and positive reinforcement arms them with the confidence they need to lead better lives." A mistake

Day's End, in New York Magazine, by Frank Rich:

The 9/11 decade is now over. It was supposed to bequeath Americans a stronger nation, not a busted one. Civic virtue, bi-partisanship. A finer legacy than Gitmo and the Patriot Act. But it was hijacked, ideologically, commercially

Varieties of Irreligious Experience, in The Humanist, by Jonathan Ree (on Metafilter):

Outstanding [article] on evolution of atheism and complexity of religious belief. Rationalists should realise modern believers "may not accept the idea of God as an actually existing entity, so arguments for atheism will not disturb them"
A comment from the FPP, with links to two other interesting articles about atheism.

A Brief History of the Corporation, 1600 to 2100, in Ribbon Farm, by Venkat (on Metafilter):

Not so brief actually but outstanding on globalisation and the end of the corporation. We are entering an era of Coesian growth which "is fundamentally not measured in aggregate terms at all. It is measured in individual terms"
The link to the original article appears to be down at the moment. 3Quarksdaily has an abstract, however.

The Xinjiang Procedure, in The Weekly Standard, by Ethan Gutmann(on Metafilter):

"Chinese medical authorities admit the lion’s share of transplant organs originate with executions, but no mainland doctors, even in exile, will normally speak of performing such surgery." Now one has. Prepare for a shocking story

The Case of the Pregnant Seaman, in PLoSBlogs, by Emily Anthes (on Metafilter):

Merchant marine's waistline increases 5 inches in 6 weeks; visits doctor, who rules out liver disease and hepatitis. Marine then confesses “I think there is a life in my abdomen. This may be a pregnancy". Welcome to couvade syndrome

The Movie that Ate Itself, in GQ, by Michael Idov (on Metafilter):

Unmissable story of a most bizarre film project. A cast of thousands. Many living full-time in a nightmare vision of 1950s Moscow. A totalitarian society, under the control of a deranged director. Where the cameras are always on

The Destruction of Economic Facts, in Business Week, by Hernando de Soto (on Metafilter):

Acclaimed Peruvian economist with helpful backgrounder on financial crisis. Confused by all the recent analysis? No problem, this clear and detailed feature should help you grasp the underlying causes and evaluate continuing risks

Nelson Mandela's Legacy, in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, by John Carlin (on Metafilter):

Tremendously well-crafted, well-informed piece of writing, paying tribute to political skills and intelligence of former South African president. To focus on his (admirable) spirit of forgiveness is to underestimate the man hugely
A recent post about the state of South Africa.

Dr. Don, in The New Yorker, by Peter Hessler (on Metafilter):

New Yorker at its best—and that's setting the bar high. Profile of Don Colcord, small-town pharmacist in Colorado. Dispenses drugs and medical advice, fixes watches, knows customers by name, helps out poor, holds town together

Deep Intellect, in Orion, by Sy Montgomery (on Metafilter):

What goes on in the mind of an octopus? "As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. She changed colour beneath my touch"
Agentofselection tells their own octopus story.

The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?, in The New York Review of Books, by Marcia Angell (on Metafilter):

10% of Americans over the age of six take antidepressants. What's going on here? The drug companies have captured the system. Through lobbying and marketing, they decide what constitutes a mental illness, and how to treat it

One Man Against Tyranny, in Smithsonian, by Mike Dash:

Gripping story of painstaking, one-man plot to kill Hitler. The would-be assassin: An unassuming carpenter from southern Germany, whose skill, patience and determination were such that Hitler refused to believe he'd acted alone

Religion in the 21st Century, in Philosopher's Beard:

"Religion has been brought low by its old enemies, philosophy and politics. Religion persists and is even popular. But it is now in the mind, a matter of personal belief projected outwards. In short, religion is now secular"

Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia, in Grantland, by Colson Whitehead:

Ignore the off-putting title. Thoroughly entertaining story of journalist entering World Series of Poker. Sports writing at its best. Starts off with the immortal line: "I have a good poker face because I am half-dead inside"

A Murder Foretold, in The New Yorker, by David Grann (on Metafilter):

Epic tale of murky political intrigue in Guatemala and how one attorney, investigating controversial murder case, accurately predicted his own assassination. Long, powerful article with a plot straight out of a John Grisham novel
A little back story, which one commenter recommends starting with first.

The Woman Who Knew Too Much, in Vanity Fair, by Suzanna Andrews (on Metafilter):

On Elizabeth Warren, scourge of the banking elite: “We cannot run our country without a strong middle class. We cannot run a democracy without a strong middle class. If we hollow out the middle class, the country we know is gone"

What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447, in Popular Mechanics, by Jeff Wise (on Metafilter):

Black box recordings retell events aboard Air France Airbus that crashed in 2009 killing 228. Gripping, if worrying, read. Confused co-pilot flew into a severe thunderstorm, tried to climb above it, stalled the plane

The Great Murdoch Conspiracy, in The Telegraph, by Peter Oborne:

Terrific denunciation of state of relations between over-mighty press and timorous politicians at Westminster. Much through the lens of the rise and fall of Rebekah Brooks, "one of the great adventuresses of her era"

What is Debt?, in Naked Capitalism, by Philip Pilkington (on Metafilter):
Fascinating interview with economic anthropologist David Graeber. "The big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – ‘I owe you one’ – turns into something that can be precisely quantified." Through violence?

The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See, in Men's Journal, by Michael Finkel:

The story of Daniel Kish and how he taught himself to "see" like a dolphin, using echolocation. "He can hear a building 1,000 feet away, a tree from 30 feet, a person from six feet." No colour but he can "see" round corners
An interesting post about being blind in America from earlier in the year.

The Real Housewives of Wall Street, in Rolling Stone, by Matt Taibbi (on Metafilter):

"Huge roaring river of cash" has flowed out of Fed since 2008 crash, to prop up US financial system. Now Fed has been forced to open its books. Money has ended up in some odd hands. Those of Morgan Stanley's boss's wife, for example

So there you have it. A year's worth of writing. Apologies to any FPPs that the link checker or my own efforts didn't catch. Happy holidays, happy reading, and happy New Years.
posted by codacorolla (20 comments total) 180 users marked this as a favorite
EPIC. I have stuff to read all week!
posted by mochapickle at 1:16 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great list. Added to my "Best of 2011" bucket. Here's another: Give Me Something To Read’s 2011 Highlights.
posted by stbalbach at 1:29 PM on December 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

crap, i went with a few different formatting versions before i posted it, and it looks like a few errors snuck in. contacting the mods to see if it's fixable.
posted by codacorolla at 1:30 PM on December 26, 2011

wow. thanks for this! my instapaper reading list has just been fed as much as I've been this Christmas.
posted by idlethink at 1:32 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually, these lists are of works that can be had via non-subscription. Many outstanding pieces not available to non-subscribers of various journals and magazines, and so we get the best of those pieces that are there for non-subscribers.
posted by Postroad at 2:00 PM on December 26, 2011

Mother of God...
From The Chernobyl That Nobody Wants, in Eurozine, by Barys Piatrovich :

As I have said already, most of the "Chernobylites" from the 30km Belarusian exclusion zone died within ten, fifteen or twenty years of "being moved". It would have been immediately obvious that something was wrong if whole villages or streets had died out, leaving empty houses behind. As it is, the "Chernobylites" died off quietly, one by one, almost unnoticed, without spoiling the national statistical picture even at district or local level...
Finishing it...

I just have no more words...

posted by PROD_TPSL at 2:30 PM on December 26, 2011

Brilliant post. I've read a lot of these already, having come across them on Mefi but I'll enjoy catching up on the rest of them this week.
posted by triggerfinger at 4:05 PM on December 26, 2011

I've seen a few of the articles mentioned over the course of the year, and they've mostly been very good. I look forward to reading the ones that I've missed. Thanks, codacorolla.

That being said, I saw PROD_TPSL's quote from the Chernobyl article, and it just didn't ring true. I couldn't help myself and had to take a closer look.

From The Chernobyl That Nobody Wants, in Eurozine, by Barys Piatrovich :

As I have said already, most of the "Chernobylites" from the 30km Belarusian exclusion zone died within ten, fifteen or twenty years of "being moved"

This is not even close to true.

There have been some difficulties in carrying out follow-up studies of Chernobyl, and no doubt there were attempts to cover up, but nevertheless the most reliable investigations have reached the following conclusions:

134 plant staff and emergency workers suffered acute radiation syndrome (ARS) from high doses of radiation. In the first few months after the accident 28 of them died. Although another 19 ARS survivors had died by 2006, those deaths had different causes not usually associated with radiation exposure.

Regarding the general public in the three most affected countries, the only evidence of health effects due to radiation is an increase in thyroid cancer among people exposed as children or adolescents in 1986. There were more than 6,000 cases reported from 1991 to 2005 in Belarus, Ukraine and four most affected regions in the Russian Federation. By 2005, 15 of the cases had proven fatal, the report said. A "substantial portion" of the cases could be attributed to drinking milk in 1986 contaminated with short-lived iodine-131 from the accident.

Elsewhere in the article, the author says:

Scientists say that the amount of caesium in our soil will have been reduced by only 1 per cent after 200 years. And as for strontium-90, americium-241 and plutonium... The half-life of plutonium-239, for example, is 24 390 years

The 3 main Caesium isotopes released have half-lives of 30 years, 2 years and 30 minutes, so that's also clearly not true. As the author specifically mentions half-life in the next sentence, I assume that he's not ignorant of the concept. He may be talking about the total Caesium content of the soil and not the radio-isotopes of Caesium, but if that's the case, he's being deliberately misleading.

The author is from the Chernobyl area and clearly has lost some friends and family, but it's not an excuse to just make shit up.
posted by Jakey at 4:21 PM on December 26, 2011

That Rape of Men is mindblowing worthwhile read. Cultures need to change:

>"Part of the activism around women's rights is: 'Let's prove that women are as good as men.' But the other side is you should look at the fact that men can be weak and vulnerable."

I was busy studying hard in the summer so I missed this story and many others.
posted by Listener at 4:25 PM on December 26, 2011

Probably the most useful post I've seen on the blue this year. Just memorised about half of the Christianity in Europe piece for future arguments...
posted by garlicsmack at 4:51 PM on December 26, 2011

The Browser usually has great reads. And this is a treasure trove of course!
posted by joost de vries at 5:14 PM on December 26, 2011

For a reader, The Browser is arguably the best site on the Internet.
posted by rahulrg at 6:00 PM on December 26, 2011

Jakey, the effects of Chernobyl on human health are extremely controversial. The UN report you linked to may not be reliable since it relies on data from Russian scientists who are from the same corrupt institutions who caused the accident to begin with. In fact the UN report is so controversial other reports were made to counter it, including TORCH which stands for The Other Report on CHernobyl. TORCH predicted about 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths. The Ukrainian Health Minister claimed in 2006 that more than 2.4 million Ukrainians, including 428,000 children, suffer from health problems related to the catastrophe. The studies go on and on, in every country in Europe, and have vastly different scopes and results.
posted by stbalbach at 6:23 PM on December 26, 2011

woah. epic, fantastic, BEST. OF. THE. WEB.

this post broke my iPhone's newfangled 'Reading List' virginity, big time.

thanks awfully for going to the trouble of this FPP.
posted by alan2001 at 7:16 AM on December 27, 2011

Great! One of mine made it.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 7:45 AM on December 27, 2011

This is an excellent post!
posted by OmieWise at 7:56 AM on December 27, 2011

It's ... it's full of posts.
posted by swift at 12:27 PM on December 27, 2011

The post is coming from inside the post!
posted by OmieWise at 12:36 PM on December 27, 2011

Thank you a thousand times. Truly the best of the web, a great post.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:19 AM on December 28, 2011

I realized this from one of today's FPPs, but apparently The Philosopher's Beard is Metafilter's own.
posted by codacorolla at 10:13 AM on December 29, 2011

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