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Motherboard's Favorite Longish Reads of 2011

_It's been a weird and awesome year of losing sleep over everything that keeps us up at night - science and technology; weirdos with great, crazy, weird ideas; music, film, and politics; and of course the Internet and drugs, history, the future, and...
December 20, 2011, 1:07pm

It’s been a weird and awesome year of losing sleep over everything that keeps us up at night – science and technology; weirdos with great, crazy, weird ideas; music, film, and politics; and of course the Internet and drugs, history, the future, and damn near all things in between. In the past 12 months, Motherboard has put out well over 1,200 pieces, including tons of original stories, interviews and videos, spanning this gamut. We hope you’ve had just as weird and awesome a time riding along with us. Here’s to another year together in the maelstrom.


Of course, one of the only ways of putting the seemingly relentless churn of today’s media cycle into any sort of perspective is through good, old-fashioned yarns. We made a point of bookmarking some of this year’s longer reads that piqued our interests enough that we actually made time to sit down, maybe even with printed versions, and properly work through them in unplugged silence. If for no other reason but to temper the prevailing shot-in-the-arm model with “alone time” away from any sort of screen, these stories are worth sharing because they’re compelling, or just straight can’t-make-this-up wacky. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders – Guy Lawson – Rolling Stone

…and how the Pentagon turned on them.

Packouz was baffled, stoned and way out of his league… Sitting in the restaurant, [he] tried to clear his head, cupping a hand over his cellphone to shut out the noise. “Tell the Kyrgyz KGB that ammo needs to get to Afghanistan!” he shouted into the phone. “This contract is part of a vital mission in the global war on terrorism. Tell them that if they fuck with us, they are fucking with the government of the United States of America!”

How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History – Kim Zetter – Wired

[Liam] O Murchu looked at [Eric] Chien. They'd been tearing at Stuxnet for more than a month and had seen hints of other exploits in it, but confirmation had eluded them. The e-mail was vague on details, but the mere suggestion that there might be more zero days within his grasp was enough to spark O Murchu's competitive spirit. "That's it," he said. "I'm not drinking any more tonight."

Surviving the Fall – Tom Junod – Esquire

Ten years later, putting the Falling Man to rest.

…And yet there’s something that distinguishes Gwendolyn from all the other grieving family members who will observe the tenth anniversary of the attacks on Sunday morning — the fact that her brother, Jonathan, has been made to stand for all. She and her family have changed places with the Hernandezes; the same Esquire article that “cleared” Norberto Hernandez of being the Falling Man made the provisional case that it was Jonathan Briley. The memorial that will stand for all the others murdered that day is on the ground; the memorial for Jonathan is in the sky, or in the infinitely replicable pixels of a digital photograph.

David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street – Drake Bennett – Businessweek

Meet the anthropologist, activist, debt-obsessed anarchist who helped transform a hapless rally into a global protest movement.

When Graeber and his friends showed up on Aug. 2, however, they found out that the event wasn't, in fact, a general assembly, but a traditional rally, to be followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street to deliver a set of predetermined demands ("A massive public-private jobs program" was one, "An end to oppression and war!" was another). In anarchist argot, the event was being run by "verticals"—top-down organizations—rather than "horizontals" such as Graeber and his friends. Sagri and Graeber felt they'd been had, and they were angry. What happened next sounds like an anarchist parable.

Unraveling Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel – Richard Marosi – Los Angeles Times

Sifting through trash was always a filthy chore, especially so in this case. Cuevas was the father of a newborn. The agents were elbow-deep in dirty diapers. Finally, they pulled something from the muck. It was a piece of spiral notebook paper with numbers scrawled on it. Phone numbers.

The Immortal Horizon – Leslie Jamison – The Believer

Inside the grueling Barkley Marathons.

On the western edge of Frozen Head State Park, just before dawn, a man in a rust brown trench coat blows a giant conch shell. Runners stir in their tents. They fill their water pouches. They tape their blisters. They eat thousand-calorie breakfasts: Pop-Tarts and candy bars and geriatric energy drinks. Some of them pray. Others ready their fanny packs. The man in the trench coat sits in an ergonomic lawn chair beside a famous yellow gate, holding a cigarette. He calls the two-minute warning.

This Tech Bubble Is Different – Ashlee Vance – Business Week

How the coming tech bubble might leave us emptier than ever.

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 (GOOG), 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.”

Deep Intellect – Sy Montgomery – Orion

Inside the mind of an octopus named Athena.

The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other. She had already oozed from the far corner of her lair, where she had been hiding, to the top of the tank to investigate her visitor. Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water. Athena's melon-sized head bobbed to the surface. Her left eye (octopuses have one dominant eye like humans have a dominant hand) swiveled in its socket to meet mine. "She's looking at you," Dowd said.

Dealing With Assange and the Wikileaks Secrets – Bill Keller – The New York Times

Assange was openly contemptuous of the American government and certain that he was a hunted man. He told the reporters that he had prepared a kind of doomsday option. He had, he said, distributed highly encrypted copies of his entire secret archive to a multitude of supporters, and if WikiLeaks was shut down, or if he was arrested, he would disseminate the key to make the information public.

Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail? – Matt Taibbi – Rolling Stone

To understand the significance of this, one has to think carefully about the efficacy of fines as a punishment for a defendant pool that includes the richest people on earth — people who simply get their companies to pay their fines for them. Conversely, one has to consider the powerful deterrent to further wrongdoing that the state is missing by not introducing this particular class of people to the experience of incarceration. “You put Lloyd Blankfein in pound-me-in-the-ass prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street,” says a former congressional aide. “That’s all it would take. Just once.”

Getting Bin Laden – Nicholas Schmidle – The New Yorker

Schmidle – the son of the deputy director of U.S. cyber command – was granted access to people familiar with the raid, but not with any of the SEALs themselves. For this, the truth of his account has been called into question (one former Journal editor said it was “planted” on him), not least by a former SEAL. His book on the raid has in turn been discredited by the Pentagon. Go figure.

Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden's life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, "For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo." After a pause, he added, "Geronimo E.K.I.A."—"enemy killed in action."


Now get reading. Be sure to hit the replies and tell us what we’re missing.


Some of our own favorite long reads:

Space Oddity: My Weird Year with NASA
The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Quiet Mission to Fight PTSD With Psychedelic Drugs
Murder by Tylenol

-by Brian A. Anderson, long-form desk. Reach Brian at @TheBAnderson.

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