Monthly Recommendations (January 2022)

For the first recommendations post of the year, I have picked out some of the best New Yorker stories that I read as I worked through my issue backlog from early 2020. I have given up on reading the New Yorker at the pace at which it is published. However, the articles that are included in each issue are rarely “current affairs” related and can basically be read and re-read years into the future. Lately, the role played by magazines in our reading diets has become clearer to me: They are published at a much faster pace than great fiction or non-fiction; while they are written by the very same people who will eventually produce those great works; so magazine pieces offer us a window into upcoming great work. (I think.) So, this month I have a mix of dealing with grief, bad governance as seen through the eyes of an official, compared with the impact of bad policy as seen through the eyes of a journalist, the “mad science”-y feel of triggering avalanches intentionally to avoid larger avalanches, and a disturbing article about the effects of late-stage capitalism on workers.

  1. On The Warpath: A profile of John Bolton (Filkins)

    New Yorker (archived). 6 May, 2019.

    How do the people inside government really work? Several meetings with people who have radically different view on subjects; an exchange of opinions which will most probably end with no one changing their mind; access to decision makers and the people in charge being closely controlled. Most of this portrayed on TV shows about the government: Veep, about the peculiar American system; and Yes, Prime Minister, about the more common Parliamentary system. This profile is another confirmation that this is really how governments work in reality too. Bolton was one of the people in Trump’s cast of national security advisors. Bolton’s main feature was that he was hawkish, which is a polite way of saying “war-mongerer,” as far as I can tell. His appointment seems to have simply fueled the lone wolf mentality that was prevalent in the Trump administration right from the beginning. This quote from an official under him is priceless:

    Under Bolton, there are fewer meetings, less collaboration; he often disappears into his office to immerse himself in documents. … “He reads the memos. There just isn’t a lot of feedback.” Some former officials believe that Bolton’s insularity could be dangerous, particularly in a crisis, when various arms of the government and the military have to mount a quick and coordinated response. “It’s chaos under Bolton,” the former senior national-security official told me. “The national-security adviser is supposed to facilitate the President’s directives and coordinate national policy among the various government agencies. That process has completely broken down.” The official added, “Bolton hasn’t set any priorities. No one knows what the policies are–what’s important, what’s less important. …”

    Principals’ meetings–crucial gatherings involving the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of intelligence agencies–have become rare. “I don’t remember the last time there was a fucking principals’ meeting,” the official said.

    I don’t think anyone wants to hear that about their government’s functioning.

  2. Snow Science Against The Avalanche (Somers)

    New Yorker (archived). 23 March, 2020.

    Science can be used to study practically anything because the application of the scientific method is not constrained by the field that one is applying it to. This article is about the application of the method to the prediction of natural disasters. Avalanches are fascinating because it’s hard to imagine how they begin or how they can get as terribly big as they generally do. They also happen to form almost entirely mysteriously with everything happening below the surface with precious little to monitor. This article is about the patrollers whose job it is to forecast avalanches (in an effort to protect skiers) and to trigger small avalanches which will not cause any harm to avoid the large avalanches which are generally devastating. There is a lot of science behind all this including scales to measure the risk of an avalanche and the mechanics of accumulation of snow on a slope. This article was a fun read. (I don’t do any winter sports, so it was mostly just fascinating that this kind of rigor existed in what I had considered to be basically a random event which no one could predict.)

  3. Why Americans are Dying from Despair (Gawande)

    New Yorker (archived). 23 March, 2020.

    This is an article foreshadowing an unusual and scary phenomenon that will occur in late-stage capitalism. As businesses try to reduce their costs progressively, almost everything will be automated. While there is widespread debate about how much will be automated, it is certainly more than the state we are in right now. It follows that large groups of people will probably lose jobs in the future. Ezra Klein has repeated in multiple podcast episodes of The Ezra Klein Show that the loss of people’s jobs is not just a problem which economists need to deal with, it is problem that society has to think about before the coming wave of job losses. The reason for this is that the jobs that people are involved in are more than just a source for money: It is the source of dignity for workers. When this source is suddenly taken away from them, they’ll face the kind of disillusionment that leads to societal collapse. Most countries are not thinking about this problem because it still seems far off. Whether this problem will even occur is up for debate because Japan is facing a severe shortage of labor because of an aging population and a dropping birth rate. The dropping birth rate seems to be common and unavoidable as even China, the latest to enter the late-stage of its development, is facing an identical problem. Nevertheless, how will economies that are putting their eggs in the capitalism basket deal with the problem?

  4. Abandoned (America’s Abandonment of Syria) (Mogelson)

    New Yorker (archived). 27 April, 2020.

    As the withdrawal of America from Afghanistan played out over the last few weeks of August 2021, two prominent, prior American withdrawals came to mind: America’s partial withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2003, to focus on the war effort in Iraq; and America’s subsequent withdrawal from Iraq about 8 years after the overthrow of Iraq’s leader Saddam. Both these withdrawals ended up relegating the countries to various states of ruin. Afghanistan’s new Taliban leadership seems committed to some form of governance that doesn’t allow regional militias to have undue influence over the general public. Iraq’s government barely saved the country from becoming a failed state, and is in the painful process of recovery; especially because it is unable to provide even the basic necessities of life to its people. America’s withdrawal from Syria was orchestrated by Trump as part of his policy to end long-running wars and it was an equally large catastrophe. This article focuses on the confusion within the American military hierarchy and the crucial misunderstandings between Trump, who was in charge of policy, and the rank-and-file generals, who were in charge of communicating upcoming policy decisions to their Syrian allies. The article highlights the damage that was done to Syria’s future. It is unclear who is to blame for this misunderstanding; even if the blame could be pinned on someone, it would be futile.

  5. Missed Calls (Collins)

    New Yorker (archived). 11 May, 2020.

    Over the past few years, I have stopped using Instagram and Facebook. This has led to no communication with people who are exclusively on one of those 2 platforms. I have known (subconsciously) that my refusal to use these services for reasons that involve my well being or my ideology is a selfish and subversive refusal to stay connected with these people. This article was an uncomfortable account of what it feels like to be on the other side of this divide. It also made me think more about how drastically our expectations about communication have changed in a relatively short period of time. “Stay in touch” was a corporate euphemism for “Remember that we worked together because it might be mutually beneficial in the future.” Now, this phrase has become commonplace even among friends and family.