Aaron Carroll writes today about Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which I haven't read. And he tells me that King did something remarkable: Just before the end of the last book, he wrote a coda telling his readers not to bother reading the final chapter. Just enjoy the journey of reading the book and let it go:

I forced myself not to finish the story. Instead, I thought about how much I had grown and changed while I enjoyed it....I’ll admit that I went back later, and finished the book. To be honest, I had sort of predicted the final bit, much as I liked it. But Stephen King succeeded. In all the times I’ve talked to others about the series, I have never discussed the ending. I don’t care. What mattered, and what people who have read the book care about, was what happened before the ending.

But still, what I think about most is the coda. He changed the way I think about books and reading. I’ve learned to slow down and think about the story. I’ve learned to appreciate the journey, and focus not so much on the ending.

Oh, Aaron. You've been snookered. Stephen King has somehow contrived to make a virtue out of the fact that modern authors are so relentlessly crappy at finishing up their stories. They can write 500 pages of wonderful, well-crafted prose — or, in King's case, probably 5,000 pages — but most of them simply have no idea how to provide a conclusion that's equally well crafted and satisfying. Why? I don't know. But it's a defect, not a virtue. I don't know if the ending to the Dark Tower series was any good, but don't listen to Stephen King. Authors should learn how to write complete narratives. That means a beginning, a middle, and an end. Anything that lets them off the hook for not getting all three parts right — for not giving the ending every bit as much love and attention as the rest of the narrative — should be treated as nothing more than the special pleading that it is.

UPDATE: I didn't make this clear, and I should have: I'm not insisting on neat and tidy endings. Be as cryptic as you please! But too often endings these days seem almost like afterthoughts, dashed off because the book was due at the publishers and the author just ran out of ideas or something. Modern authors can obviously write with immense craft and sensitivity, and I think that endings deserve exactly as much attention to craft and tone and narrative as the rest of the book. That's all.

Also: this has nothing to do with Stephen King. I have no opinion about the endings to his stories. He was just an excuse to get this off my chest.

Pickles are mysterious things. You take a regular old vegetable. Just your average cucumber, carrot, bell pepper. Add some brine, maybe a few spices, and then, a few days later, presto! A pickle. But what really causes this magical transformation? The latest episode of The Field Trip podcast sets out to find an answer:

On our tastiest field trip yet, we investigate the delicious world of fermentation and the bacteria that make it possible. We take a trip through Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, where owner Alex Hozven explains the art and science behind fermenting food and shows us how they make sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha and other mysterious surprises. At Cultured, they use traditional methods of fermentation — that means no heat, and no vinegar, but plenty of Lactobacilli and other friendly microbes. Come with us as we explore “the cave” and learn about its billions of tiny workers.

Then we check in with fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods and expert on all things pickle-y. We hear about some surprising and tasty treats that we had no idea are made through fermentation, and learn about some of the ancient roots of pickling, and why it was such an important method of food preservation in the era before refrigeration.

Have a listen:


Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign has run into trouble recently after national media refocused on decades-old racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and deeply conspiratorial articles published under Paul's name (and at least occasionally under his signature) in late 1980s and early 1990s newsletters.

The Texas congressman, who defended the newsletters when they first became a political issue in 1996, has since disavowed their contents repeatedly. But in a 1998 John Birch Society film unearthed by Andy Kaczynski, Paul endorsed some of the more paranoid ideas outlined in the Ron Paul Survival Report—including the the idea that a United Nations dictatorship was imminent:

As a narrator scarily intones that American churches will be forcibly shuttered under UN rule, Paul urges viewers to stay informed. "If the United Nations has their way, there will be curtailment of our right to practice our religion," he says. "They are not going to be believers in the right to practice our religion as we have seen fit throughout this country. And therefore individuals who are interested in this subject certainly cannot be complacent about what the United Nations is doing."

The scene is preceded by an image of of a building that's been converted into a "United World Temple" emblazoned with UN flags, and immediately followed by images of soldiers and guerillas fighting in the streets.

This is exactly what you'd expect from the John Birch Society, an organization that has spent four decades urging the United States to leave the United Nations. It's not what you'd expect from a serious Republican presidential candidate. It's not even the kind of language you tend to hear from Paul on the campaign trail, where he's more likely to talk about raw milk than the New World Order. And that's been Paul's best defense; the newsletters just don't sound like anything he's ever said. 

That's partially true, but in the last few days, we've seen a clip (from 1990) of Paul embracing the idea that the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations are secretly running the country, and now this. Josh Marshall reminds us, meanwhile, that back in September, Paul said that the border fence might actually be used to keep Americans penned in. Setting the racist articles aside, Paul really did endorse some of the more out-there arguments in his newsletters.

Many of Newt Gingrich's tweets have been lost to history.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich often says that, at heart, he's still a four-year-old boy "who gets up every morning hoping to find a cookie that friends or relatives may have left for me somewhere."

Thank goodness for Twitter, which has the democratizing effect of making almost all male elected officials sound like four-year-old boys bounding down the stairs in search of snickerdoodles—none more so than Newton Leroy Gingrich, whose verified account chronicled his every meal, TV appearance, and stray thought about electro-magnetic pulses and dinosaurs. ("If you have never seen dunkleostus the armored fish from the devonian you should visit cleveland museum of natural historu It is amazing".) Or at least it did. As Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner noted, shortly before jumping into the presidential race in May, Gingrich quietly deleted his Twitter archive for 2009 and much of 2010.

Gingrich had an uneasy relationship with the micro-blogging platform. It was there that he'd called future Supreme Court Justice Sonio Sotomayor a "Latina woman racist" for touting her life experiences as a qualification for the bench. But he'd also given us a peek at his four-year-old side. On Easter of 2010, for instance, he live-tweeted his consumption of foil-wrapped chocolates. Fortunately, Wonkette grabbed a screenshot:

Screenshot via WonketteScreenshot via Wonkette

He concluded: "I like Reese's peanut butter cup because Reese's is also from Hershey. However Callista got me a Reese's peanut butter egg. It is good too."

Well, he's easy to shop for anyway.

Update: Washingtonian has, like an 11th-century monk transcribing the works of the ancients, carefully preserved some of the early @NewtGingrich tweets. My favorite sequence:

@newtgingrich: Having a good lunch at the mcdonalds in osseo with callista and her mother bernita. Good crispy chicken sandwich, great fries, good coffee

@newtgingrich: Drugans restaurant and golf course in holman wisconsin has great food and a seven foot tall wooden troll. They do a wonderful job

Last week we gave you our favorite books of 2011. This list of reader recommendations from Facebook (If you don't already follow us on FB, sign up here.) doesn't come with a medal, prize or award, just a promise that during the past year our readers found these books worth curling up with. It's a fine example of their quality taste and judgment. Still, we know there were many more great reads in 2011. By all means, weigh in with your favorite book of the year and don't miss our readers' list of the best albums of 2011.

The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman (Scribner)

Her writing is exquisite, and this novel is a deep, fulfilling read told in an enchanting way. It really stays with you.

—Robin Raven 

Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer (The Penguin Press, HC)




















Excellent stories about the Memory Championships and how the human memory works.

—David Wessman


1Q84, Haruki Murakami (Harvill & Secker)




















One of the most fascinating explorations life and reality in novel form I've ever read. Murakami has really outdone himself with this one.

—Christopher Earle


The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century, Alex Prud'Homme (Scribner)

Because the entire planet needs to understand the fate of our water.

—Elizabeth Runnels Ondyak


Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, Michael Moore (Grand Central Publishing)

Reading about Michael's life experiences could turn even the most hardcore teabagger into a tree-hugging progressive! OK, maybe not, but they're all very moving.

—Christopher Howard


Ready Player One, Ernest Cline (Crown Publishers, New York)

A young adult coming of age, hero-wins-all, and sweet love story folded into 1980's-era nostalgia (in its most idealized form) plot set in futuristic game/life-ing; in which most events and interactions occur in a cyberspace "game" that has become a substitution for reality.
—Bat Country


Swamplandia!, Karen Russell (Knopf)




















With a host of bizarre ingredients (a family alligator show, a young girl with a ghost boyfriend, a crazy Florida theme park), Russell cooks up one of the best and most touching coming-of-age stories I've read.

—Susan Mumpower-Spriggs


Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable




















This seminal work analyzes the man in the context of his community and his family. Brilliant truth-telling.

—Susan Mumpower-Spriggs


The Art of Fielding, A Novel, Chad Harbach (Little, Brown and Company)

Makes me feel like books are still a thing.

—Brooke Shelby Biggs


How to Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press) [Out in US in 2012]

Making women all over the UK laugh out loud in public.

—Constance Fleuriot


What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes (Grove Press)

Something everyone who has been fortunate to avoid war should read. Karl served in the horror of Vietnam as a Marine Captain in the jungle. A must for all Americans!

—Jim Word

El Sicario, Room 164


80 minutes

In a motel room in or around Ciudad Juárez, a man in a black veil sits down to spill his guts. This sparse, haunting film, coproduced by Mother Jones contributor Charles Bowden, centers on a monologue delivered by a former sicario, a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. In businesslike tones, he details his bloody career, from his recruitment as a teenager to his years of service to el patrón. He demonstrates how he nearly drowned one of his "patients" in the bathtub of this very room. But his calm wavers as he explains how he escaped the cartel, at least for now. "There are no borders for the narcotraffickers," he says. "Whenever they want to do something, they have the money to get it done by anybody, anywhere."

Rick Santorum, left, talks about his Iowa pheasant hunt Monday as Rep. Steve King listens in.

Outside Doc's Clubhouse in Adel, Iowa, on Monday, Rick Santorum sported a bright orange Cabella's suit and matching NRA hat as he chatted up reporters. The presidential candidate joked about his "four clean kills" on the day's pheasant and quail hunt, and his weight: 211 pounds. Santorum recently lost a dieting competition to Iowa Rep. Steve King, who joined him on the pair's second hunt in recent months. But the GOP underdog, who's running sixth in the state behind Michele Bachmann, was less than candid about the expectations game a week ahead of the January 3 caucuses.

Santorum, who has made a point of visiting each of Iowa's 99 counties but remains the only serious contender in the state who has yet to take a turn as the front-runner, said he sees the caucuses as three competitions in one. The first is among libertarians, "which Ron Paul is going to win." The second is the moderate primary, "which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for." Then there's the "non-Newt-Romney" bloc of real right-wingers, in which Santorum hopes to edge out Bachmann and Rick Perry. But even if he loses that contest, he may stick around. "I think you could have a bunch of folks all packed together...and first, second, third may not mean as much as how well you do," he told me.

Looking for Mr. Smith? Don't look in Congress. Adjusting for inflation, and not counting home equity, members of Congress are more distant from their constituents than ever before:

The financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since [the 70s], according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post. Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 2½ times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

It just costs too much to run for Congress today for anyone who's not fairly well off to do it. And that's no coincidence. As income inequality goes up, campaign funding from rich donors also goes up — partly because the rich have more money and partly because they're more motivated to use that money to influence the political process in order to protect their wealth. This creates an arms race that effectively precludes anyone who doesn't have either money of their own or access to wealthy donors from running. And that means that Congress has fewer and fewer members with any real connection to the working world. Is it any wonder that members of Congress these days don't really care at all about the views of the poor and the working class?

Tyler Cowen points us to the chart on the right, from the Economist, and says he was surprised to learn that Germany has more passenger cars per capita than the United States. But there's no real surprise here. It's mostly a matter of whether a Ford Explorer counts as a "passenger car."

You see, in the non-commercial/non-truck world, the federal government distinguishes between "passenger cars" and "other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles." In 2008, there were 137 million passenger cars, which works out to about 446 cars per thousand people. However, there were also 101 million "other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles," primarily in the fast-growing category of SUVs and pickup trucks. Add that up and you get 238 million of the things that we'd ordinarily call cars, which comes to about 775 vehicles per thousand people.

In Germany, apparently, they don't make this distinction. In the non-commercial/non-truck world they put everything into one bucket and just count 44 million "cars." That comes to about 544 vehicles per thousand people.

Unsurprisingly, then, it turns out that we have more cars per capita than Germany. You just have to be careful about comparing national statistics across borders.

Everyone's writing about luxury intercity bus travel today because a new study was released a few days ago claiming that a new breed of "curbside" bus operators has grown their business by 32% in the past year. Matt Yglesias thinks this is mostly new travel, not substitutes for existing travel. Felix Salmon isn't so sure: he suspects that new operators like BoltBus and Megabus are just cannibalizing business from the older breed of "Chinatown operators."

I'm not sure this is really answerable. The first thing I wondered when I saw that 32% increase was how many trips that represented in absolute terms. I figured it might be fairly low, but I didn't expect it to be this low:

Curbside operators expanded daily bus operations by 32.1% in 2011, primarily due to  the addition of three new hubs. Curbside operators now account for 778 daily bus operations in the continental United States, up from 589 last year.

So that's 189 new daily operations. At a very rough guess, that represents growth of maybe 3 million passengers per year.

At another rough guess based on available information, airplanes carry nearly a billion passengers per year on intercity travel and cars carry another 2 billion or so. So that means the growth in curbside bus traffic amounts to about 0.1% of total intercity passenger traffic.

That's a rounding error. There's just no way of knowing whether that's new traffic, substitution traffic, or anything else. It's literally below the level of measurability. For now, I think we just have to admit that we're in the dark about this.