February 20, 2014
The Oracle of Ice Hockey

In Finland not long after World War II, kids would play a street game called ice ball, which had few rules and less strategy. They’d scramble through neighborhoods buried in snow, batting and kicking a piece of cork the size of a tennis ball—graduating, eventually, if they were keen and had money for skates, to a soccer field covered with ice. But some of the more serious kids wanted to play hockey. Back then, teams weren’t especially well organized: the worst athlete was usually stuck in front of a net, while the better ones attacked. Until one day, in the early 1950s, a hockey team in Rauma put a kid called Upi, who had been a powerful skater since his ice-ball days, in the net. And his team began to win.
About 10 years later, Upi—emphasis on the oop—moved to Turku, on the southwestern coast, where he found a place in goal for one of the local hockey teams. Like Roy Hobbs, he fashioned his own stick. Turku was a port town, roughly halfway between Stockholm and the Soviet border, the gateway to a 20,000-island archipelago that extends into the Baltic Sea. Its people knew how to fish and build big ships. Few people had TVs. No book about how to be a goaltender had ever been translated into Finnish. And so nobody really knew what a goalie was supposed to do. (The first proper indoor ice-hockey rink in all of Finland wouldn’t be completed until 1965.) In this splendid isolation, a school of goaltending was born, with Upi, who today is 70, as its first practitioner and eventual guru.
Until recently, aside from a handful of Americans and Europeans, National Hockey League goalies were overwhelmingly Canadian. But at the turn of the millennium, the Finns began to arrive. In 2002, Pasi Nurminen secured a starting role in Atlanta. The next season, Miikka Kiprusoff led Calgary to the league-championship finals. And then it was as though a dam broke: Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Bäckström, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask. Before 2002, no Finnish goaltender had ever locked down a starting role in the NHL. Suddenly, a country with a population of just more than 5 million people was producing one-sixth of the league’s starting goalies, most of them true blue chips. The Finns, who have now won just about everything a goalie can win in the league, are not particularly distinguished at any other position. (One NHL general manager suggested to me that outside of goaltending, no Finnish skater would crack a list of even the top 50 Canadians.) Yet any of Finland’s three Olympic goalies could have started for Canada’s team this year. How deep is Finland’s pool of talent? In 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks signed an undrafted kid who’d only recently started playing in Finland’s top professional league—before that he’d been driving a Zamboni in suburban Helsinki to pay his bills. Two years after he was signed, Antti Niemi led the Blackhawks to the championship.
This has unsettled the birthplace of hockey. In any single game, the most important player on the ice is typically the goaltender. For the past quarter century, Canadians like me have been especially smug about what seemed to be an endless supply of elite goaltenders from Quebec. Yet at the same moment that Finland’s goalies have glided so effortlessly onto hockey’s biggest stages, a crisis of confidence has begun to emerge in Canada. The last great Canadian netminder, Martin Brodeur, is in his 40s. And the pipeline behind him has gone dry.
A bunch of half-cocked theories have emerged to explain how these Finnish goaltenders came to be. People I asked would cite everything from the welfare state to the stoic national character. Then I began to hear too about Urpo Ylönen, the old man who lived on Finland’s southwestern coast. People who knew hockey and Finland spoke of him the way Jedis would talk about Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi. That they referred to him simply as Upi only added to the mystique. So early one foggy morning, I found myself on a train from Helsinki to Turku, a place I knew only from the back of hockey cards, hoping to meet him—and to figure out what had gone so awry back home.
Read more. [Image: Tuukka Koski]

The Oracle of Ice Hockey

In Finland not long after World War II, kids would play a street game called ice ball, which had few rules and less strategy. They’d scramble through neighborhoods buried in snow, batting and kicking a piece of cork the size of a tennis ball—graduating, eventually, if they were keen and had money for skates, to a soccer field covered with ice. But some of the more serious kids wanted to play hockey. Back then, teams weren’t especially well organized: the worst athlete was usually stuck in front of a net, while the better ones attacked. Until one day, in the early 1950s, a hockey team in Rauma put a kid called Upi, who had been a powerful skater since his ice-ball days, in the net. And his team began to win.

About 10 years later, Upi—emphasis on the oop—moved to Turku, on the southwestern coast, where he found a place in goal for one of the local hockey teams. Like Roy Hobbs, he fashioned his own stick. Turku was a port town, roughly halfway between Stockholm and the Soviet border, the gateway to a 20,000-island archipelago that extends into the Baltic Sea. Its people knew how to fish and build big ships. Few people had TVs. No book about how to be a goaltender had ever been translated into Finnish. And so nobody really knew what a goalie was supposed to do. (The first proper indoor ice-hockey rink in all of Finland wouldn’t be completed until 1965.) In this splendid isolation, a school of goaltending was born, with Upi, who today is 70, as its first practitioner and eventual guru.

Until recently, aside from a handful of Americans and Europeans, National Hockey League goalies were overwhelmingly Canadian. But at the turn of the millennium, the Finns began to arrive. In 2002, Pasi Nurminen secured a starting role in Atlanta. The next season, Miikka Kiprusoff led Calgary to the league-championship finals. And then it was as though a dam broke: Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Bäckström, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask. Before 2002, no Finnish goaltender had ever locked down a starting role in the NHL. Suddenly, a country with a population of just more than 5 million people was producing one-sixth of the league’s starting goalies, most of them true blue chips. The Finns, who have now won just about everything a goalie can win in the league, are not particularly distinguished at any other position. (One NHL general manager suggested to me that outside of goaltending, no Finnish skater would crack a list of even the top 50 Canadians.) Yet any of Finland’s three Olympic goalies could have started for Canada’s team this year. How deep is Finland’s pool of talent? In 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks signed an undrafted kid who’d only recently started playing in Finland’s top professional league—before that he’d been driving a Zamboni in suburban Helsinki to pay his bills. Two years after he was signed, Antti Niemi led the Blackhawks to the championship.

This has unsettled the birthplace of hockey. In any single game, the most important player on the ice is typically the goaltender. For the past quarter century, Canadians like me have been especially smug about what seemed to be an endless supply of elite goaltenders from Quebec. Yet at the same moment that Finland’s goalies have glided so effortlessly onto hockey’s biggest stages, a crisis of confidence has begun to emerge in Canada. The last great Canadian netminder, Martin Brodeur, is in his 40s. And the pipeline behind him has gone dry.

A bunch of half-cocked theories have emerged to explain how these Finnish goaltenders came to be. People I asked would cite everything from the welfare state to the stoic national character. Then I began to hear too about Urpo Ylönen, the old man who lived on Finland’s southwestern coast. People who knew hockey and Finland spoke of him the way Jedis would talk about Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi. That they referred to him simply as Upi only added to the mystique. So early one foggy morning, I found myself on a train from Helsinki to Turku, a place I knew only from the back of hockey cards, hoping to meet him—and to figure out what had gone so awry back home.

Read more. [Image: Tuukka Koski]

February 20, 2014
The Dark Power of Fraternities

A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.
Read more. [Image: Phil Toledano]

The Dark Power of Fraternities

A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.

Read more. [Image: Phil Toledano]

January 21, 2014
Sit Back, Relax, And Read That Long Story — on Your Phone

Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published a story called “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500.” It ended up getting more than a million pageviews, which is notable because the story is also more than 6,000 words long. The other notable thing: 47 percent of those views came from people accessing the story on mobile devices. And while people who read the piece on tablets spent an average of more than 12 minutes with the story, those doing so on phones  spent more than 25 minutes—a small eternity, in Internet time. 
Those stats are, if not counterintuitive, then counter-conventional: The working assumption, among media executives and most of the public who cares about such things, has long been that phones are best suited for quick-hit stories and tweets rather than immersive, longform reads. And while content producers have attempted to take advantage of the “lean-back” capabilities of the tablet (see, for example, tablet-optimized products like The Atavist), phone use has generally been seen as flitting and fleeting—the stuff of grocery store lines and bus rides. ”The average mobile reader tends to skim through headlines and snackable content as opposed to diving into long-form articles,” Mobile Marketer put it in late October. 
Read more. [Image: kgnixer/Flickr]

Sit Back, Relax, And Read That Long Story — on Your Phone

Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published a story called “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500.” It ended up getting more than a million pageviews, which is notable because the story is also more than 6,000 words long. The other notable thing: 47 percent of those views came from people accessing the story on mobile devices. And while people who read the piece on tablets spent an average of more than 12 minutes with the story, those doing so on phones  spent more than 25 minutes—a small eternity, in Internet time. 

Those stats are, if not counterintuitive, then counter-conventional: The working assumption, among media executives and most of the public who cares about such things, has long been that phones are best suited for quick-hit stories and tweets rather than immersive, longform reads. And while content producers have attempted to take advantage of the “lean-back” capabilities of the tablet (see, for example, tablet-optimized products like The Atavist), phone use has generally been seen as flitting and fleeting—the stuff of grocery store lines and bus rides. ”The average mobile reader tends to skim through headlines and snackable content as opposed to diving into long-form articles,” Mobile Marketer put it in late October.

Read more. [Image: kgnixer/Flickr]

January 15, 2014
The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

Nighttime heists, Chinese knockoffs, and poisoned meatball-sabotage: the high-stakes pursuit of the world’s most-prized fungus,
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini]

The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

Nighttime heists, Chinese knockoffs, and poisoned meatball-sabotage: the high-stakes pursuit of the world’s most-prized fungus,

Read more. [Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini]

January 2, 2014
How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

If you use Netflix, you’ve probably wondered about the specific genres that it suggests to you. Some of them just seem so specific that it’s absurd. Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?
If Netflix can show such tiny slices of cinema to any given user, and they have 40 million users, how vast did their set of “personalized genres” need to be to describe the entire Hollywood universe?
This idle wonder turned to rabid fascination when I realized that I could capture each and every microgenre that Netflix’s algorithm has ever created. 
Through a combination of elbow grease and spam-level repetition, we discovered that Netflix possesses not several hundred genres, or even several thousand, but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies.
There are so many that just loading, copying, and pasting all of them took the little script I wrote more than 20 hours. 
We’ve now spent several weeks understanding, analyzing, and reverse-engineering how Netflix’s vocabulary and grammar work. We’ve broken down its most popular descriptions, and counted its most popular actors and directors. 
To my (and Netflix’s) knowledge, no one outside the company has ever assembled this data before.
What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.
Read more. [Image: @darth]

How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

If you use Netflix, you’ve probably wondered about the specific genres that it suggests to you. Some of them just seem so specific that it’s absurd. Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?

If Netflix can show such tiny slices of cinema to any given user, and they have 40 million users, how vast did their set of “personalized genres” need to be to describe the entire Hollywood universe?

This idle wonder turned to rabid fascination when I realized that I could capture each and every microgenre that Netflix’s algorithm has ever created. 

Through a combination of elbow grease and spam-level repetition, we discovered that Netflix possesses not several hundred genres, or even several thousand, but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies.

There are so many that just loading, copying, and pasting all of them took the little script I wrote more than 20 hours. 

We’ve now spent several weeks understanding, analyzing, and reverse-engineering how Netflix’s vocabulary and grammar work. We’ve broken down its most popular descriptions, and counted its most popular actors and directors. 

To my (and Netflix’s) knowledge, no one outside the company has ever assembled this data before.

What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.

Read more. [Image: @darth]

December 25, 2013
Vacation Reading: 9 Great Education Articles from 2013

Sometimes, it takes a longer article to illuminate something as complex as education in America. Here are nine articles from 2013, covering everything from public policy to teaching practice. Many of the lessons highlighted by these writers will remain relevant in 2014 and beyond.
Read more. [Image: Bryan Snyder/Reuters]

Vacation Reading: 9 Great Education Articles from 2013

Sometimes, it takes a longer article to illuminate something as complex as education in America. Here are nine articles from 2013, covering everything from public policy to teaching practice. Many of the lessons highlighted by these writers will remain relevant in 2014 and beyond.

Read more. [Image: Bryan Snyder/Reuters]

December 12, 2013
Against ‘Long-Form’ Journalism

I have had it with long-form journalism. By which I mean—don’t get me wrong—I’m fed up with the term long-form itself, a label that the people who create and sell magazines now invariably, and rather solemnly, apply to their most ambitious work. Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long? Or does your heart sink just a little? Would you feel drawn to a movie or a book simply because it is long? (“Oooh—you should really read Moby-Dick—it’s super long.”) Journalists presumably care about words as much as anyone, so it is mysterious that they would choose to promote their stories by ballyhooing one of their less inherently appealing attributes. Do we call certain desserts “solid-fat-form food” or do we call them cakes and pies? Is baseball a long-form sport? Okay, sure—but would Major League Baseball ever promote it as that? So why make a ripping yarn or an eye-popping profile sound like something you have to file to the IRS?
Read more. [Image: Hobvias Sudoneighm/Flickr]

Against ‘Long-Form’ Journalism

I have had it with long-form journalism. By which I mean—don’t get me wrong—I’m fed up with the term long-form itself, a label that the people who create and sell magazines now invariably, and rather solemnly, apply to their most ambitious work. Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long? Or does your heart sink just a little? Would you feel drawn to a movie or a book simply because it is long? (“Oooh—you should really read Moby-Dick—it’s super long.”) Journalists presumably care about words as much as anyone, so it is mysterious that they would choose to promote their stories by ballyhooing one of their less inherently appealing attributes. Do we call certain desserts “solid-fat-form food” or do we call them cakes and pies? Is baseball a long-form sport? Okay, sure—but would Major League Baseball ever promote it as that? So why make a ripping yarn or an eye-popping profile sound like something you have to file to the IRS?

Read more. [Image: Hobvias Sudoneighm/Flickr]

December 10, 2013
Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad

How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.
Read more. [Image: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad

How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.

Read more. [Image: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

December 4, 2013
The Vigilante of Clallam County

On a morning last fall, Patrick Drum sat quietly in his black and white striped uniform and handcuffs as he awaited his fate. The sleeves of his top were short enough to reveal a tattoo reading “Win Some” on his right forearm and one reading “Lose Sum” on the left. From the court’s gallery where dozens of reporters and community members sat, he seemed barely to move as the families of the two men he had killed four months before came forward to speak.
 “The only thing I’ll say is I don’t has no sympathy for the man who shot and killed my son,” said Jerry Ray’s father, Paul, his voice breaking. The wife of the other victim, Gary Blanton, said Drum’s followers were harassing her and her family—spitting at them, parking at night outside her home. “Tell your supporters to stop,” she said. “My children and I don’t deserve this… I think we’ve suffered enough.”
Read more.

The Vigilante of Clallam County

On a morning last fall, Patrick Drum sat quietly in his black and white striped uniform and handcuffs as he awaited his fate. The sleeves of his top were short enough to reveal a tattoo reading “Win Some” on his right forearm and one reading “Lose Sum” on the left. From the court’s gallery where dozens of reporters and community members sat, he seemed barely to move as the families of the two men he had killed four months before came forward to speak.

 “The only thing I’ll say is I don’t has no sympathy for the man who shot and killed my son,” said Jerry Ray’s father, Paul, his voice breaking. The wife of the other victim, Gary Blanton, said Drum’s followers were harassing her and her family—spitting at them, parking at night outside her home. “Tell your supporters to stop,” she said. “My children and I don’t deserve this… I think we’ve suffered enough.”

Read more.

December 3, 2013
The Things You’ll Miss

My mom died on July 18, 2013, of pancreatic cancer, a subtle blade that slips into the host so imperceptibly that by the time a presence is felt, it is almost always too late. Living about 16 months after her diagnosis, she was “lucky,” at least by the new standards of the parallel universe of cancer world. We were all lucky and unlucky in this way. Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.
Psychologists call this drawn out period “anticipatory grief.” Anticipating a loved one’s death is considered normal and healthy, but realistically, the only way to prepare for a death is to imagine it. I could not stop imagining it. I spent a year and a half writing my mother a goodbye letter in my head, where, in the private theater of my thoughts, she died a hundred times. In buses and movie theaters, on Connecticut Avenue and 5th Avenue, on crosswalks and sidewalks, on the DC metro and New York subway, I lost her, again and again. To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.
A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.
Read more. [Image: Arkadiusz Benedykt/flickr]

The Things You’ll Miss

My mom died on July 18, 2013, of pancreatic cancer, a subtle blade that slips into the host so imperceptibly that by the time a presence is felt, it is almost always too late. Living about 16 months after her diagnosis, she was “lucky,” at least by the new standards of the parallel universe of cancer world. We were all lucky and unlucky in this way. Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.

Psychologists call this drawn out period “anticipatory grief.” Anticipating a loved one’s death is considered normal and healthy, but realistically, the only way to prepare for a death is to imagine it. I could not stop imagining it. I spent a year and a half writing my mother a goodbye letter in my head, where, in the private theater of my thoughts, she died a hundred times. In buses and movie theaters, on Connecticut Avenue and 5th Avenue, on crosswalks and sidewalks, on the DC metro and New York subway, I lost her, again and again. To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.

A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.

Read more. [Image: Arkadiusz Benedykt/flickr]

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