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. Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy | David S. Cloud | Los Angeles Times | April 10, 2011 | 12 minutes (2,957 words)
How miscommunication, imperfect technology and preconceptions about allies and enemies led to a fatal mistake. Radio and cockpit transcripts documented the decisions that led to a US Predator drone attack that killed a group of civilians in Afghanistan in February 2010:
“At 5:30 a.m., when the convoy halted briefly, the drone’s camera focused on a man emerging from one of the vehicles. He appeared to be carrying something.
“‘What do these dudes got?’ the camera operator said. ‘Yeah, I think that dude had a rifle.'”
“‘I do, too,’ the pilot replied.
“But the ground forces unit said the commander needed more information from the drone crew and screeners to establish a ‘positive identification.'”
“‘Sounds like they need more than a possible,’ the camera operator told the pilot. Seeing the Afghan men jammed into the flat bed of the pickup, he added, ‘That truck would make a beautiful target.'”
2. This Tech Bubble Is Different | Ashlee Vance | Businessweek | April 14, 2011 | 12 minutes (2,966 words)
A different perspective on the “tech bubble” question: Are we actually building anything worthwhile with this technology? Vance chronicles the career path of early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher, whose work was focused on data research to help drive advertising:
“After a couple years at Facebook, Hammerbacher grew restless. He figured that much of the groundbreaking computer science had been done. Something else gnawed at him. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google, and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ he says. ‘That sucks.’
“‘If instead of pointing their incredible infrastructure at making people click on ads,’ he likes to ask, ‘they pointed it at great unsolved problems in science, how would the world be different today?’ And yet, other than the fact that he bailed from a sweet, pre-IPO gig at the hottest ad-driven tech company of them all, Hammerbacher typifies the new breed of Silicon Valley advertising whiz kid. He’s not really a programmer or an engineer; he’s mostly just really, really good at math.”
3. Where We All Will Be Received | Nell Boeschenstein | This Recording | April 8, 2011 | 11 minutes (2,714 words)
A personal reflection on Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” 25 years after it was released:
“Likewise, I have a hunch the album means what it does to our parents because it captures who they were at that moment in time. Here was this man who’d been young with them and who had put into words and music what it was like to be young when they had been young. Here was that young man all grown up and growing older still, struggling with a career slump and aging and still exploring this stuff of life by funneling it into words and music.
“And that’s just it: Paul Simon was never a rock star. Hell, he wasn’t even a folk star. You can see it in the clips of the concert he put on in Zimbabwe after Graceland was released: his best dance moves are worse than your uncle’s worst dance moves at your sister’s wedding. He can’t dance and he can’t preen, but he can write. He is a startlingly intelligent and creative Schmo of sorts, and that, to me, is perhaps his most interesting aspect. Stardom implies a certain panache that Simon has never had because the man is a nerd.”
4. The Real Housewives of Wall Street | Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone | April 13, 2011 | 12 minutes (3,088 words)
Why did the Fed give $220 million to the wives of two Morgan Stanley executives? Taibbi examines how Christy Mack (wife of Morgan Stanley chairman John Mack) and Susan Karches (widow of late investment-banking president Peter Karches) made the most of the government’s TALF program through their own investment initiative, Waterfall:
“The technical name of the program that Mack and Karches took advantage of is short for Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility. But the federal aid they received actually falls under a broader category of bailout initiatives, designed and perfected by Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, called ‘giving already stinking rich people gobs of money for no fucking reason at all.’ If you want to learn how the shadow budget works, follow along. This is what welfare for the rich looks like.
“…A key aspect of TALF is that the Fed doles out the money through what are known as non-recourse loans. Essentially, this means that if you don’t pay the Fed back, it’s no big deal. The mechanism works like this: Hedge Fund Goon borrows, say, $100 million from the Fed to buy crappy loans, which are then transferred to the Fed as collateral. If Hedge Fund Goon decides not to repay that $100 million, the Fed simply keeps its pile of crappy securities and calls everything even.”
5. The Trials of Kaplan Higher Ed and the Education of The Washington Post Co. | Steven Mufson, Jia Lynn Yang | Washington Post | April 9, 2011 | 21 minutes (5,209 words)
A self-examination of the Washington Post’s troubles with its Kaplan education division in the wake of ethical missteps and new federal regulations restricting federal student loans, which “have become the lifeblood of for-profit schools, including Kaplan”:
“The company was snared in a government sting that found Kaplan employees pushing students to take on loans without regard to whether they could afford them. It has been hammered by congressional critics, sideswiped by hedge fund investors and investigated by journalists. In the end, The Post Co. reluctantly conceded it would have to revamp Kaplan’s business model and turn away many prospective low-income students it once wooed.
“The challenges have never jeopardized The Post Co.’s survival, but they cast a spotlight on management decisions and raise a question: How did The Post Co. end up here?”
Featured Longreader: Amanda Michel @amichel
Amanda is Director of Online Engagement at ProPublica
“My favorite longread of this week is Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story’s ‘In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures.’ When @NYTJim tweets ‘If you read only 1 article today, this piece … should be it,’ I know to dive right in. Morgenson and Story neatly unpack answers to pressing questions, like the obvious: Why haven’t there been more prosecutions? It is an illuminating read for anyone trying to make sense of the financial crisis. Accompanying their story is a timeline of government investigations and enforcement actions. Check that out, too.”
In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures | Gretchen Morgenson, Louise Story | New York Times | April 14, 2011 | 17 minutes (4,131 words)