Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)
1. The Stoner Arms Dealers | Guy Lawson | Rolling Stone | March 17, 2011 | 43 minutes (10,854 words)
Two hard-partying kids in Florida get wrapped up in a gunrunning operation—funded through a $300 million U.S. government contract to supply weapons to allies in Afghanistan. How did 20-somethings David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli manage to get a massive Pentagon contract in between cocaine binges and nights out in South Beach?
“They had picked the perfect moment to get into the arms business. To fight simultaneous wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration had decided to outsource virtually every facet of America’s military operations, from building and staffing Army bases to hiring mercenaries to provide security for diplomats abroad. After Bush took office, private military contracts soared from $145 billion in 2001 to $390 billion in 2008. Federal contracting rules were routinely ignored or skirted, and military-industrial giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin cashed in as war profiteering went from war crime to business model. Why shouldn’t a couple of inexperienced newcomers like Packouz and Diveroli get in on the action? After all, the two friends were after the same thing as everyone else in the arms business — lots and lots and lots of money.
“‘I was going to make millions,’ Packouz says. ‘I didn’t plan on being an arms dealer forever — I was going to use the money to start a music career. I had never even owned a gun. But it was thrilling and fascinating to be in a business that decided the fate of nations. Nobody else our age was dealing weapons on an international level.'”
2. Indian Point Blank: How Worried Should We Be About the Nuclear Plant Up the River? | Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker | March 3, 2003 | 18 minutes (4,435 words)
An in-depth explanation (from 2003) of the risks associated with nuclear power plants. Kolbert tours Indian Point in New York with a focus on possible terrorist plots, and also points out vulnerabilities in storing and protecting spent fuel rods:
“By now, Indian Point 3 has collected six hundred and twenty-four tons of spent uranium, and Indian Point 2 has amassed eight hundred and eight tons. Although the fuel is of no use in generating electricity, it is still highly radioactive and produces a great deal of heat, which is why it must always be kept submerged. Two years ago, after much prodding from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the N.R.C. released a study looking at the risks of a spent-fuel fire. While the commission concluded that the risk of such a fire was low—the fuel would have to be left out of water for several hours—it acknowledged that the consequences ‘could be comparable to those for a severe reactor accident.’
“This finding is frequently cited by critics of Indian Point, who note that the spent fuel is housed outside the containment domes, in buildings that are comparatively vulnerable, and that it contains a host of extremely dangerous ‘fission products,’ including radioactive iodine, radioactive cesium, and strontium. Gazing down into the pool, I couldn’t help wondering—even though I realized that this was not the issue—what would happen if someone fell into it.”
3. Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections on a Historic Upset | Sean Gregory | Time | March 17, 2011 | 39 minutes (9,658 words)
A view (from the bench) of Princeton’s unlikely 1996 win against the Bruins in the NCAA Tournament. Gregory, a former player, revisits the big game, interviewing teammates and his former opponents about how they pulled it off—and some of the insults that were exchanged:
“The UCLA frustration was starting to build. Near the end of the first half, in another scene largely unnoticed by millions watching on TV but cherished by the members of the team, UCLA’s Kris Johnson exchanged some words with James Mastaglio, a Princeton sophomore who started most of that season but was now coming off the bench. The CBS cameras caught Mastaglio mouthing “F— you! F— you!” to Johnson. It turns out that after a tussle, and a stare down, Johnson had hit Mastaglio with the ultimate insult. ‘Nerd!’ Johnson barked at him.
“‘It was an incredible line,’ says Mastaglio, a hedge-fund trader in New York who was a key player on Princeton’s next two Ivy title teams. As a senior, he started alongside Goodrich, Henderson, Lewullis and Earl on a Tiger team that reached the top 10 in national rankings. ‘I really had nothing else to come back with. That was the last thing I expected to hear in the middle of a tight college-basketball game. And if he could have seen my grades, he would know I was not a nerd. Just ask my professors.’
“When reminded of his smack talk, Johnson is a bit embarrassed. ‘I called him a nerd? Oh, great,’ says Johnson, a basketball analyst at foxsportswest.com. ‘That’s how weak my bagging game was. All I could say to the Princeton kid is, “Hey, shut up, nerd.”‘”
4. Why Yasir Qadhi Wants to Talk About Jihad | Andrea Elliott | New York Times Magazine | March 18, 2011 | 34 minutes (8,615 words)
A leader in the Muslim American community evolves from a conservative cleric with fiery rhetoric to a pacifist who denounces violence and urges students to “make love, not jihad.” Qadhi, a PhD candidate at Yale, also struggled with being both an important link between the U.S. government and Muslim community—and a “person of interest” whose former students have been involved in terrorist plots:
“In May 2008, Qadhi received an invitation from Quintan Wiktorowicz, an analyst for a government agency that was hosting a conference on counterradicalization. In attendance were British and American intelligence officials, including the director of Homeland Security at the time, Michael Chertoff.
“During a break, Qadhi spotted a Houston acquaintance who happened to work for Chertoff. ‘I said, “Don’t you think it’s ironic that on the one hand, you’re reaching out for my expertise and wanting my help, and on the other hand, you’re harassing and intimidating me as if I’m a potential terrorist?” ‘”
5. Google: The Quest | Farhad Manjoo | Fast Company | March 18, 2011 | 21 minutes (5,312 words)
Specifics on how CEO Larry Page is changing corporate culture to make Google a more focused company. Once famed for its employees’ “20 percent time” projects, Page is encouraging creativity, but within tighter boundaries:
“The governing philosophy was ‘Let’s hire lots of really smart people and let them do whatever they want,’ says Brian Kennish, a Google engineer from 2003 to late 2010. … The archetypal product of this era was Gmail, which was born when engineer Paul Buchheit hacked it up in a single day in the summer of 2001.
“Kennish, echoing several other former Googlers, adds, ‘This system worked really well until the company reached about 10,000 workers. After that, things started to break down.’ (Google now has 24,000 employees and plans to hire another 6,000 in 2011.)
“Android represents a new order, one that Page, who has long played a role in product strategy, will accelerate. ‘We don’t believe in “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” planting seeds randomly all over and harvesting whatever pops up,’ says Alan Eustace, Google’s head of engineering, in what can only be called a repudiation of the still widely held belief about how Google operates.”
“The endless, often mind-numbing back-and-forth correspondence that defines office life is the subject of ‘Pushing Paper,’ an essay by the almost-too-aptly named Ben Kafka that considers the nature of paperwork. But ‘Pushing Paper’ is more than a meditation on memos; it is an argument for a reconsideration of work itself: ‘Paperwork has never fit comfortably into our idea of what work means, or what it means to work,’ Kafka writes, noting that so-called working-class heroes are understood to be people like Rosie the Riveter. But we office workers work with our hands, as well: they’re just on keyboards, not assembly lines or down manholes or on garbage trucks.” Pushing Paper Ben Kafka | Lapham’s Quarterly | March 16, 2011 | 16 minutes (3,820 words)