Jersey Bears, Sex Charlatans & Phantom Planets

By Flora Stadler

The sun is out! The weekend is in sight! Here are a few long reads to enjoy outside while you’re getting some much-needed vitamin D. But these aren’t your average-sized stories, so bring sunblock.

Direct Eye Contact

Illustration: Tamara Shopsin for The New Yorker

By John McPhee for The New Yorker
Approx. length: 2,000 words

John McPhee is one of my favorite long-form writers. He’s been writing for The New Yorker for decades, but it’s been a while since he contributed. So I was excited to see a new piece about the black bears of New Jersey.

McPhee has a geometer’s sense of structure when he writes (which he outlines in his book, Draft No. 4)—each element, from lead sentence to closing scene, builds a story that perfectly complements its themes. He knows how to frame a subject to make the reader see why it’s interesting, why it matters, and he does this because he understands that chronologically is usually not the most compelling way to reveal a story.

I never think much about bears (except when I’m hiking at certain hours), but this story goes beyond the fluctuating bear population of New Jersey. It considers geography, politics, guns, tragedy. In it, the bears aren’t monsters—the real bogeyman is time, sweeping up animals and their human neighbors in changes they can’t avoid. McPhee isn’t showy or sentimental, but his writing is beautiful and deeply felt, and I love that.

Proof of why he’s great: “In the past three years, twenty-one bears have entered New Jersey homes, with no human fatalities. For example, Diane Eriksen, of West Milford (Passaic County), was under the impression that she was alone in her house. Hearing a sound in her living room, she went and had a look. A bear looked back. She beat a retreat and called 911. The bear, at the coffee table, helped itself to half a bowl of peppermint patties, scattered the wrappers all over the floor, and took off. The 911 call resulted in its death.”

The Fake Sex Doctor Who Conned the Media into Publicizing His Bizarre Research on Suicide, Butt-Fisting, and Bestiality

Illustration: GMG Art for Gizmodo

By Jennings Brown for Gizmodo
Approx length: 5,000 words

This insane profile had me at the title. It’s always interesting/terrifying to read how willfully gullible a reporter, program host, or publication can be in the name of a good hook. This time, the hook was Dr. Damian Jacob Markiewicz Sendler, a self-proclaimed forensic sexologist and research scientist, who is actually neither. He’s not even a doctor. It took one reporter making a bunch of calls to Harvard and Columbia (whose medical schools Sendler didn’t attend) and checking his license to practice in New York State (which he doesn’t have) to completely dismantle the good doctor.

But Sendler was able to sell himself as an expert to every outlet—from Huffington Post to Savage Lovecast (the popular sex podcast by Dan Savage)—hungry for a shock factor. Described by Brown as a “serial fabulist,” Sendler delivered shock—waxing faux-scientific on everything from necrophilia to suicide.

Backing up his fake credentials were fake research papers—about a dozen of them, published in peer-reviewed academic journals. There’s a lot of conversation about why peer review is flawed, and this guy certainly makes the case. But it’s satisfying to read as Sendler paints himself into a corner and, one by one, every claim he made on his website disappears. Luckily, there are screenshots!

What will happen to the “scientific” papers he published? Will news outlets offer retractions for the times they trusted Sendler’s imaginary expertise? Will he be arrested for practicing without a license? This article left me wanting a part 2.

The implications: “The articles published in forensic journals [Sendler’s ‘studies’ have been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine] are often based on case files. And even if they’re wacky, they could influence legal cases, according to Anna Randall, a certified sex therapist who has researched sexual asphyxiation and paraphilia. ‘Oh absolutely. They could use this in court,’ Randall told me, referring to Sendler’s published articles.”

The Hunt for Planet Nine

Illustration: Jacob Stead for Longreads

By Shannon Stirone for Longreads
Approx. length: 9,000 words

This story is an epic in the truest sense: it’s an adventure that involves high stakes and new worlds (literally), the main figures are both heroic and fallible, and as it continues, the journey becomes more important than the destination.

Science writer Shannon Stirone does a wonderful job of capturing part of that journey as Caltech astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown search for a massive planet they believe exists around the edges of the solar system. Looking to prove their very complicated calculations, the pair end up on the summit of Mauna Kea (the highest peak in all of Hawaii), using one of the world’s most powerful telescopes to find their prize.

Stirone brings life to the landscape, describing technicolor Hawaiian sunrises and isolated Martian-like mountaintops with equal beauty. She also observes the two astronomers in all their comical humanity: gobbling Pop-Tarts and making crazy calculations before realizing they may need to hit the oxygen tank.

If found, the mythical Planet 9, estimated to be 5-10 times larger than Earth, could reveal a lot about how our solar system was formed. But between the astronomers and it are limited time, billions of stars, and lots of handmade algorithms.

SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t find it. Yet. But there’s increasing confidence that it’s out there.

Fun fact: Finding Planet 9 would allow Brown—whose earlier discoveries in space led to Pluto being demoted from a planet to a mere planetary-mass object (aka dwarf planet)—to replace the one planet he removed from models of our solar system with a much larger and more informative one. Meanwhile, Batygin mathematically proved that eventually Mercury could either fall into the sun or collide with Venus and be ejected from the solar system. Essentially, these guys are smart enough to undo the galaxy.

This kind of reporting and writing doesn’t happen for free. Think about subscribing or donating to a publication if you enjoy what you read!

Tech Vegans, Carbon Hunting, & the Property Managers of Wall Street

February is all snow days and slow days—a good time to settle in with some magazines that have been piling up in the corner. I’ll be posting an occasional series called Long Form, featuring some of my favorite recent long-form articles.

Long-form journalism can read a lot like a good short story—compelling characters and plot—a self-contained experience. At best, I forget I’m even learning something. So grab a cup of coffee, find a comfy chair and let’s get reading.

First up is I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell (Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo), a fun and fascinating read about how hard it actually is to avoid Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. For the article, the author cut out every piece of technology (software, apps, hardware like smart phones and TVs) that was powered in any way by products from the “big five” tech giants. She took her tech diet seriously, even having a special network tool designed to prevent her devices from communicating with any of the tech giants’ servers. It’s terrifying to see how deeply embedded these companies are in daily life, with a vast infrastructure that makes them more like utilities than conveniences. Although you can become a “digital vegan” (it’s a thing), it’s going to cost you time and effort. Hill thinks that escaping these monopolies may mean rethinking the assumption that everything on the internet is free, but also questions who could afford which version of the internet.

This was interesting: Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t retail, but web hosting that powers many apps and websites.

Second, The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change (Jon Gertner, the New York Times). Offering a glimmer of hope for the ecological future, this article explores the race to perfect technologies like carbon capture,
and to build a new market for them. The story connects past breakthroughs like Haber-Bosch—a process of manufacturing fertilizer that led to a population explosion—to the kind of problems we face in a densely populated and industrialized planet and how technological breakthroughs could address them. There’s just enough science to keep the reader on the path, following Swiss company Climework’s efforts to build a direct-air-capture network at a lower cost and larger scale than currently possible. Experts on both sides of the argument for this technology give context to how it may (and may not) mitigate climate change.

My favorite part: “The technicians had in front of them 12 large devices… which soon would begin collecting carbon dioxide from air drawn in through their central ducts. Once trapped, the CO₂ would then be siphoned into large tanks and trucked to a local Coca-Cola bottler, where it would become the fizz in a soft drink.”

The hot, new investment market for foreclosed homes, and what that means for renters, is the subject of When Wall Street is Your Landlord (Alana Semuels, The Atlantic). This article focuses on the suburbs of Atlanta, where the 2008 housing bubble hit hard, and where some zip codes have one-in-five single-family rental homes owned by institutional investors. Semuels outlines general issues with property management investors through a lot of anecdotal evidence, and some unflattering comments made to shareholders about profits. It makes the grim case that the giant money machine of private equity has found a way to profit off of a crisis it helped to create, and how the implications of that will impact the prosperity of many families for at least a generation.

Suggested side read: This connects to the New York Times series, Bottom Line Nation, showing how private equity firms swooped in after the 2008 financial crisis and took over in unexpected ways.

Have any slow reads you’d like to recommend? Post them in the comments!