Here are The Feature’s highlights of the year. This list is comprised of my favourites and reader favourites, selected from articles posted here in 2011 (limited to those originally published in 2011). Open this post in your browser to make use of the Read Later button accompanying each link.
Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker
Haggis had not spoken publicly about his resignation from Scientology. As we stood in a chill wind on Sixth Avenue, he was obviously uncomfortable discussing it, but he is a storyteller, and he eventually launched into a narrative.
MJ, Mens Journal
Bats, of course, use echolocation. Beluga whales too. Dolphins. And Daniel Kish. He is so accomplished at echolocation that he’s able to pedal his mountain bike through streets heavy with traffic and on precipitous dirt trails. He climbs trees. He camps out, by himself, deep in the wilderness. He’s lived for weeks at a time in a tiny cabin a two-mile hike from the nearest road. He travels around the globe. He’s a skilled cook, an avid swimmer, a fluid dance partner. Essentially, though in a way that is unfamiliar to nearly any other human being, Kish can see.
Brian Christian, The Atlantic
In the race to build computers that can think like humans, the proving ground is the Turing Test—an annual battle between the world’s most advanced artificial-intelligence programs and ordinary people. The objective? To find out whether a computer can act “more human” than a person. In his own quest to beat the machines, the author discovers that the march of technology isn’t just changing how we live, it’s raising new questions about what it means to be human.
Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic
When President Obama and two-thirds of the world’s leaders gather in New York City, it is up to the U.S. Secret Service to keep them all safe. Granted unprecedented access, our author tells the story of how the agency pulls off the most complicated security event of the year, from counter-surveillance to counter-assault, hotel booking to event scheduling.
Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker
Time is a dimension like any other, fixed and defined down to its tiniest increments: millennia to microseconds, aeons to quartz oscillations. Yet the data rarely matches our reality. The rapid eye movements in the mirror, known as saccades, aren’t the only things that get edited out. The jittery camera shake of everyday vision is similarly smoothed over, and our memories are often radically revised. What else are we missing?
David Grann, The New Yorker
Rodrigo Rosenberg knew that he was about to die. It wasn’t because he was approaching old age—he was only forty-eight. Nor had he been diagnosed with a fatal illness; an avid bike rider, he was in perfect health. Rather, Rosenberg, a highly respected corporate attorney in Guatemala, was certain that he was going to be assassinated.
Peter Crooks, Diablo Magazine
You may have heard the name Christopher Butler in the news lately but certainly not for reasons that the 49-year-old Concord resident would want you to know about. I’ve been following Butler’s mysterious story since last August, when he invited me to write a Diablo feature about his business. It unexpectedly turned out to be the most interesting—and frightening—story in my 14 years of being a journalist.
James Meek, London Review of Books
Every week Dutch households and businesses are visited by postmen and postwomen from four different companies. There are the ‘orange’ postmen of the privatised Dutch mail company, trading as TNT Post but about to change their name to PostNL; the ‘blue’ postmen of Sandd, a private Dutch firm; the ‘yellow’ postmen of Selekt, owned by Deutsche Post/DHL; and the ‘half-orange’ postmen of Netwerk VSP, set up by TNT to compete cannibalistically against itself by using casual labour that is cheaper than its own (unionised) workforce. TNT delivers six days a week, Sandd and Selekt two, and VSP one. From the point of view of an ardent free-marketeer, this sounds like healthy competition. Curiously, however, none of the competitors is prospering.
Maria Bustillos, The Awl
It’s high time people stopped kvetching about Wikipedia, which has long been the best encyclopedia available in English, and started figuring out what it portends instead. For one thing, Wikipedia is forcing us to confront the paradox inherent in the idea of learners as “doers, not recipients.” If learners are indeed doers and not recipients, from whom are they learning? From one another, it appears; same as it ever was.
Michael Finkel, GQ
They did it for the simplest of reasons: adventure. Three friends, on a drunken dare, set out in a dinghy for a nearby island. But when the gas ran out and they drifted into barren waters, their biggest threat wasn’t the water or the ocean—it was each other.
Leslie Jamison, Believer Magazine
Over twenty years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—Gary Cantrell by birth, self-dubbed Lazarus Lake—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fool’s Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Lake (known as Laz) calls it “The Race That Eats Its Young.” The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.
Marcia Angell, The New York Review of Books
It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it. The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, for which the federal programs were created.
Nathaniel Rich, Rolling Stone
When an attractive young woman from a privileged British family is murdered in Italy, you’ve got a popular crime story. When the person suspected of killing her is an attractive young woman from a privileged American family, you have tabloid gold. When the prosecutor hypothesizes that the victim was slaughtered during a satanic ritual orgy, you’ve got the crime story of a decade. When a sitting U.S. senator declares that the case “raises serious questions about the Italian justice system” and asks if “anti-Americanism” is to blame, and when 11 Italian lawmakers in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition request a probe of the prosecutor’s office — well, at that point, you have an international crisis.
Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair
Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s “suddenly wealthy” has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the specter of an “extinction vortex,” Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it.
David Eagleman, The Atlantic
The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart. The more we learn, the more the seemingly simple concept of blameworthiness becomes complicated, and the more the foundations of our legal system are strained.
Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times
As drug smugglers from the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico sent a never-ending stream of cocaine across the border and into a vast U.S. distribution web in Los Angeles, DEA agents were watching and listening.
Paul Ford, The Morning News
When it comes to IVF, in-vitro fertilization, nothing is normal. Your world is upside-down. Your doctor compliments your wife on her monkeys. Then, when every dollar and exertion has gone toward a single hour of hope, it begins to snow
Andrew Marantz, Mother Jones
Every month, thousands of Indians leave their Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns to seek work in business process outsourcing, which includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do. The competition is fierce. No one keeps a reliable count, but each year there are possibly millions of applicants vying for BPO positions. A good many of them are bright recent college grads, but their knowledge of econometrics and Soviet history won’t help them in interviews. Instead, they pore over flashcards and accent tapes, intoning the shibboleths of English pronunciation—”wherever” and “pleasure” and “socialization”—that recruiters use to distinguish the employable candidates from those still suffering from MTI, or “mother tongue influence.”
John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ
When John Jeremiah Sullivan and his wife leveraged everything they had to buy a big brick neo-Colonial in Wilmington, North Carolina (the Hollywood of the South!), their realtor made an irresistible proposal: By allowing a popular teen TV show to film at the house a few days a month, they could pretty much get the mortgage covered. What came next was a journey into a pop-cultural hall of mirrors.
Taylor Branch, The Atlantic
With so many people paying for tickets and watching on television, college sports has become Very Big Business. According to various reports, the football teams at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Penn State—to name just a few big-revenue football schools—each earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion-dollar salaries. When you combine so much money with such high, almost tribal, stakes—football boosters are famously rabid in their zeal to have their alma mater win—corruption is likely to follow.
Michael Idov, GQ
Five years ago, a relatively unknown (and unhinged) director began one of the wildest experiments in film history. Armed with total creative control, he invaded a Ukrainian city, marshaled a cast of thousands and thousands, and constructed a totalitarian society in which the cameras are always rolling and the actors never go home.