My Thoughts After Reading 5,000 Pages of Magazine Articles in 2017

This year I had a goal of reading 5,000 pages of magazine and news articles (and a few blogs and academic papers). Happily I have completed this goal!

(My other goals were to study both math and programming every day of the year (success!) and listen to 500 hours of podcasts, I only hit 300).

A sub-goal, which I also completed, was to read the top 25 magazine articles ever written as determined by Kevin Kelly, founding editor at Wired. Kelly solicited hundreds of suggestions from contacts in the publishing industry and ranked the articles according to the number of recommendations. Of course, any such list is arbitrary, but as far as lists like this go it seems to be definitive (try Googling “best magazine articles ever” and his list comes up repeatedly. Other lists in the search results are publication specific, say, Esquire’s Top 10 Best Articles). Kelly’s list actually has hundreds of entries and I read a number outside of the top 25.

Because most articles these days are online my goal essentially translated into reading 2.5 million words. I decided early in the year on a figure of 500 words per page to make sure these were proper pages, not the 250-word, double-spaced pages we all wrote as high school Freshman.

If you’re curious this amounts to reading about 14 pages a day. Reading 14 pages isn’t so hard; doing it consistently can be very hard. If you go on a 3-day long weekend getaway that’s not suitable for reading, on the following Monday you need to read 56-pages just to keep up.

I was buoyed by a habit of 15,000 words a day for several months near the beginning of the year when I was toying with a goal of 10,000 pages. I think that goal is achievable, but not while trying to fit in a healthy dose of daily math and programming.

Here are some details about this goal along with some fun graphs and figures.

Methodology

I kept track of everything I read in a Google spreadsheet. I used the “Word Counter Plus” Google Chrome plugin to keep track of the number of words. To use the plugin you just highlight the words. One problem is that for many articles highlighting the article also highlights advertisement text and recommended reading lists. In these cases I would estimate the number of superfluous words highlighted and subtract them out.

In my spreadsheet I recorded the date, article title and publication, and a link to the article. I also kept track of my general feeling about the article on a scale of 1-10 and then a second rating of my feeling about the best or most interesting part of the article. I found this to be very helpful for personal organization! I plan to keep track of every article I read going forward as it makes rereading much easier. (Do you ever think, where did I read that? And can’t find it. Keeping track of what you’ve read helps a lot. It is also great to go back and see things you liked, but can’t quite remember so that you can reread them to refresh your memory).

I didn’t actually record everything I read. Only articles I read in full were recorded, so any article I merely browsed — which is likely equal to the number I actually read — was not recorded. I also didn’t record articles that were too short. For example, I read Marginal Revolution daily, but recording dozens of 50-100 word blog posts quickly got tiring and so much of this reading simply went uncatalogued.

Likewise my list did not include any books I read or technical articles related to my goal of studying math and programming.

Sources

So where did I find the articles I read? Although I did not keep track of article sources in my spreadsheet here is a list from memory.

The Browser

  • If you don’t subscribe to The Browser and you like reading, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life. Just go subscribe. Pay the $34 annual fee, it’s worth it. (The browser sends a daily email digest).

Longreads

  • I subscribe to their weekly roundup of long-form articles, which I highly recommend as another great source of good writing.

Twitter

  • I follow a bunch of different people who are always sharing articles. I find subscribing to smart people and reading what they are recommending to be a really great way to stay abreast of important conversations. Nuzzel is great app for consolidating what those you follow on Twitter are sharing the most.

Facebook

  • Friends post articles and I follow a number of news outlets.

Marginal Revolution

  • This is my favorite blog and I read it daily. Tyler posts a list of daily links, which I often click and browse. I end up reading a number of them all the way through.

Kevin Kelly’s List

  • I read all of the Top 25 articles listed on the main page and about 20 or so articles that were on the list, but outside of the Top 25.

Other Lists

  • For example, I picked out articles to read from the Pulitzer Prize feature writer winners and various end of year “Best of 2017” lists. I ended up reading seven winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing this year.

Things I’ve wanted to read for a while

  • Several pieces I read this year I’ve been wanting to read for a while. Snow Fall and The Case for Reparations are two examples, both of which I’ve started in the past but hadn’t finished.

Looking for other pieces by an author I liked

  • For example, I read a number of pieces by Chris Jones after reading two that I liked. Jones is easily one of the best magazine feature writers around today. Likewise Pablo Torre is one of my favorite hosts of PTI, so I looked up and read a number of his pieces. Torre is most famous for his Sports Illustrated article

    “How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke”.

References and Recommendations

Ideological Spectrum

I read across the ideological spectrum because there is good, cogent, interesting writing across the ideological spectrum.

What Did I Not Read?

So much! Just looking through the various “Best of 2017” lists I see that I missed a lot I hope to catch up on in 2018. There is simply too much good writing to read and more coming out everyday. I find it a bit sad knowing I won’t be able to read it all despite, or maybe because of, the amazing and enriching articles I read this year.

Stats

Here is a summary of this years reads. All told I read 1,085 articles totaling 2,529,738 words (5,059 pages). I read an average of 6,931 words (about 14 pages) a day. The average article length was 2,332 words. I read 260 different publications in total.

You can see from my weekly reading habits that I took some breaks from hardcore reading. During these times I was focusing more on programming.

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What were the longest things I read?

I had a good mix of long and short articles. The chart below gives a sense of the length of some of the longer pieces I read.

 

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Below is the list of all articles I read that were over 10,000 words. Quite a few of them are classics (meaning they appeared on Kelly’s list) and a few more are Pulitzer Prize winners. The longest piece was “Fractured Lands” a 43,000-word (86-page) behemoth that took up the entire print edition of The New York Times Magazine the week it was published.

The next longest article was Wired’s famous “Mother Earth Mother Board” about the laying of underwater submarine cables. (For those that don’t know all intercontinental internet traffic goes through cables that are laid across the bottom of the ocean. Satellite transmission is far too slow and accounts for less than 5% of transmissions. See this short article for more details.) “Mother Earth Mother Board” came in a close second at 41,750 words.

Rounding out the top three was Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It was a paltry 23,000 words.

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What were the shortest things I read?

Glancing at the shortest things I read you can see why I stopped recording all my visits to Marginal Revolution. But don’t miss the “Amazing Bull Fart Sculpture by Chen Wenling” that I read in The Design Inspiration. (It’s actually a really amazing sculpture, you should check it out).

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What publications did I read most?

I read 260 different publications in all. There is quite a long tale of publications I read only once. You will see some familiar names on the list below. Both Vox and The Hustle were buoyed by the fact that I subscribe to their email newsletter (same with Aeon, Nautilus, and the National Review).

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Resources

Here are some supplemental resources that might be of interest.

Esquire Classics podcast series – Contains podcast episodes with the authors of many of the classic Esquire pieces cited here.

Longform – Contains podcast episodes with the authors of many pieces cited here (and many, many others).

Nieman Storyboard’s Annotation Tuesday – Contains annotated Q&A with many of the authors cited here.

Articles That Will Stay With Me

These are articles (outside of the Top 25) that will stick with me. I will tackle the Top 25 separately below.

Comedy

I don’t read much fiction, but these two stories from McSweeney’s are truly hilarious. I’m sure I missed many more wonderful stories in McSweeney’s.

I’m Wes Anderson, And I’m Directing This FBI Investigation Into Russia And The Trump CampaignMcSweeney’s (2017) – So accurate.

Though I Can’t Be Certain, I Suspect That This Hollywood Actress I’m Interviewing May Be Entertaining Thoughts Of Having Sex With MeMcSweeney’s (2017) – The inner monologue of men.

This story from SB Nation is truly hilarious.

I watched in bewilderment while a man tried to return butternut squash because he thought it was cheese, SB Nation (2017) – The greatest live tweet storm of 2017 annotated with behind-the-scenes notes.

Profiles

There are many profiles in other parts of this list, but here are a few I enjoyed this year.

Secrets of the Magus, The New Yorker (1993) – Mark Singer’s famous profile of the magician Ricky Jay.

The Fighter, The New York Times Magazine (2017) – C.J. Chivers won the 2017 Pulitzer Price in Feature Writing for this fantastic essay of Sam Siatta, a marine having trouble reintegrating after returning from Afghanistan.

Honorable mention: Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast, The New Yorker (2017); A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof, GQ (2017); Jackie Chan’s Plan to Keep Kicking Forever, GQ (2017).

The Death Essays

Essays about death and dying, the fear of death, grieving for the dead, both young and old, and what it means to live a good life.

Letting GoThe New Yorker (2010) – A life changing essay by Atul Gawande on the way we grow old and what it means to have a good death. I am excited to read “Being Mortal” in 2018.

One Man’s Quest to Change the Way We Die, The New York Times Magazine (2017) – Jon Mooallem’s profile of B.J. Miller. A life changing essay on dying young and what it means to have a good death.

The Way We Age Now, The New Yorker (2007) – Atul Gawande on the way our body breaks down as we grow old. Aging is inevitable, dispiriting, and beautiful.

Fear Itself: Learning to Live in the Age of Terrorism, The Washington Post (2004) – On riding a bus in Israel. More broadly, a contemplation of whether the US was headed the way Israel in 2004. In Jerusalem residents live in constant fear of death by bombing, due to a pernicious sense of terrorism all around them: “See the stone lion on that building, four stories up? Body parts hung there from the second bombing of the 18 bus in ’96. Down the street, see the Sabarro sign? Fifteen dead, August 2001. It’s closed now. They moved it, but no one goes there anymore. That falafel place to the left? It exploded the same day as that pub over there. ”

The Things That Carried Him, Esquire (2008) – See description under the Top 25 section.

What Bullets Do To Bodies, Huffington Post (2017) – Profile of Dr. Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia specializing in gunshot wounds. “Her religious faith is still strong—it’s not that she goes around talking about it, she told me, it’s just that she has worked for 30 years in trauma and seen a lot of death, and it’s hard to do that and not feel something about God.”

The Really Big One, The New Yorker (2016) – Kathryn Schulz won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for this story. I have been aware of this article for some time: I live in Seattle and it made the rounds last year (it’s all about how half the west coast, including Seattle, is at risk of a massive earthquake of unprecedented scale). I finally got around to reading it. It legitimately makes me want to move. If I start a family and raise kids how can I have them live in a place so destined for massive destruction?

Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?The Washington Post (2010) – See description under the Top 25 section.

Trial by Fire, The New Yorker (2009) – A now famous piece on whether Texas executed an innocent man. It contains a surprising lesson in arson investigation and the persistence  of non-scientific mysticism in matters of grave importance. If this last part appeals to you see also David Grann’s 2010 The New Yorker piece, The Mark of a Masterpiece: The Man Who Keeps Finding Famous Fingerprints on Uncelebrated Works of Art and also John Oliver’s recent segment on forensics.

New Media Articles

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel CreekThe New York Times (2012) – This piece won John Branch the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. I’ve wanted to read it for some time, but only now got around to it. In 2013 it looked like the future of journalism. It was filled with topographical, animated maps; first-person video and audio; and interviews. This article hit home since it takes place on the back side of a mountain I skied numerous times near Seattle. It’s interesting to look back at Snow Fall in 2017. Features occasionally incorporate interactive elements, but more often they simply contain photos and charts. I suspect that the elements in Snow Fall are still expensive to create even in 2017 and so they are reserved for long-form articles with powerful bylines (John Branch also wrote “Deliverance From 27,000 Feet” and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations”).

Deliverance From 27,000 Feet, The New York Times (2017) – Think of this as Snowfall 2.0. It tells the story of the recovery of several bodies of West Bengali climbers that had died the previous season. Interactive elements are similar to Snow Fall.

The Case For Reparations, The Atlantic (2014) – I see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ project as mainly about brining Critical Studies to a broader audience. Little of what he says is new, but he writes about it for a public audience in a style that is elegant and searing. This piece contains video, interactive maps, and original documentation that can be examined.

Although I read it last year, see also Paul Ford’s famous Bloomberg 29-thousand word piece What is Code? The most sprawling piece of New Media I have ever seen, the print edition took up an entire Bloomberg weekly.

Articles About Technology

Google Maps Moat, Justin Obeirne’s Blog (2017) – A fascinating deep dive into how Google is combining satellite images and its own street view data to automatically create Areas Of Interest and highlight these regions for users. Obeirne also discusses how much better Google map’s data is than Apple’s and what Google might do next.

Neuroscience and the Law: Don’t Rush InThe New York Review of Books (2016) – Much of law focuses on intent. Two people that committed the same crime may be charged differently (involuntary manslaughter vs. murder, for instance). Some claim that new imaging techniques and understanding of the brain’s inner workings give us a deeper sense of whether someone intended to do an action. The author argues that these techniques are not yet mature enough to use in sentencing. Although he doesn’t mention it the author’s logic implies that one day in the future it may be appropriate and widespread to use various brain technologies to determine criminal intent.

Why AjitPai Is Right, Stratechery (2017) – Ben Thompson of the consistently good Stratechery gives a reasoned argument for why most people have net neutrality all wrong. I should say Thompson is very much pro-neutrality, but thinks the current discussions are missing a lot. I found this article very persuasive. For a more pointed critique directed at the media see Larry Downes Forbes article Why Is The Media Smearing New FCC Chair Ajit Pai As The Enemy Of Net Neutrality?

Estonia, the Digital Republic, The New Yorker (2017) – I have known for some time that Estonia is trying to create a forward looking, technological state (ex. blanketed internet in public spaces). The extent to which they have already done this boggled my mind. Estonia has already integrated nearly every piece of government information into a portal that every citizen has access to. This portal contains court records, school records, voting access, and much more. The main tenet of Estonia’s system is the once-only principle, meaning data should only need to be entered into the system once. Why enter a user’s address multiple times if that information already lives in the system.

Here is one representative passage: “The bigness is partly inherent in the government’s appetite for large problems. In Tallinn’s courtrooms, judges’ benches are fitted with two monitors, for consulting information during the proceedings, and case files are assembled according to the once-only principle. The police make reports directly into the system; forensic specialists at the scene or in the lab do likewise. Lawyers log on—as do judges, prison wardens, plaintiffs, and defendants, each through his or her portal. The Estonian courts used to be notoriously backlogged, but that is no longer the case.”

The Spy and Theft Stories

These were the most entertaining and fun pieces of the year. I loved them!

The Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Diamond Heist, Wired (2009) – This is like Mission Impossible or Ocean’s 11, except it’s actually real. This article is so, so good. You will not be able to stop reading it once you start.

Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief, Wired (2010) – This article was so outrageous I wasn’t sure if it was real. From the opening line you are put in the middle of unbelievable action that lasts the entire article. Also, so, so good.

How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran, Wired (2007) – The article that served as the basis for the film Argo. Even having seen Argo I found this to be a fantastic and original read.

Inside Quebec’s Great, Multi-Million-Dollar Maple-Syrup Heist, Vanity Fair (2017) – There’s big bucks in syrup.

The Hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso, Bloomberg Business Week (2017) – Like a classic spy movie only real. Full of corporate greed, clever investigatory techniques, and brutal murder.

The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination, GQ (2017) – A stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by VX nerve agent. Kim is the older half brother of Kim Jong-un, the current North Korean Dictator. The assassination was expertly planned, so much so that the two killers had no idea they were involved in the plot.

Stealing Mona Lisa, Vanity Fair (2009) – A thrilling tale of the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and its subsequent return.

Diary, London Review of Books (2017) – Alexander Briant’s diary of an investigation for a major oil company in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. “A few days ago a whistleblower made an allegation that an organised gang in one of the bases has been working to control the supply of goods to our business there. Not only that, we are paying handsomely for large quantities of goods that do not exist. The suppliers, it’s alleged, are owned by government officials who in return will favour the company with contracts. To make matters more complex, the whistleblower alleges that some of our employees are also among the suppliers’ owners.”

The David Foster Wallace man-on-the-street essays

Should we call them that? These are Wallace’s pieces where he is ostensibly sent to visit and report on some public event. The pieces of writing he returns with are so hard to describe and so quintessentially his, half anxiety-induced inner monologue and half comically observant at the micro level.

Ticket to the FairHarper’s Magazine (1994) – David Foster Wallace goes to the Illinois State Fair. Wallace’s description of watching junior baton twirling and amateur clogging are reason enough to read this piece, but there is much more of interest.

Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury CruiseHarper’s Magazine (1996) – See description under the Top 25 section.

The first half of Consider the Lobster – See description under the Top 25 section. Before he tells us why we should consider the lobster Wallace is merely a festival goer at the Maine Lobster Festival.

The work of Chris Jones

I realized I have been reading Jones for a while. He wrote an essay in Esquire back in 2010 that I liked very much, “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man.” Back then I didn’t take note of the author. This year I routinely checked Kevin Kelly’s Top 25 List as I made my way through it. The name Chris Jones stuck in my head. When someone I follow on Twitter (I forget who) suggested “The Woman Who might Find Us Another Earth”, I read it and recognized the byline. I went back and to Kelly’s list and realized it was the same person who had written “The Things That Carried Him.” It made perfect sense, the writing style in the two pieces is so similar. I enjoyed them both so much that I listened to Jones’ Longform podcast episode and when back to read a number of his pieces. I’m happy he has written much more that I have yet to read.

The Woman Who Might Find Us Another EarthThe New York Times Magazine (2017)One of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. On a woman searching for life on another planet while rebuilding her own on ours.

Home, Esquire (2007) – Two American astronauts are stranded aboard the International Space Station in 2003 after the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. How will they get home?

The Things That Carried Him, Esquire (2008) – See description under the Top 25 section.

The Big Book, Esquire (2012) – Fascinating profile of Robert Caro who has spent most of his adult life writing a series of books about Lyndon Johnson (I’ve been wanting to read these books for a while now, maybe that will be a goal during an upcoming year!). There is fear he might die before completing the last book. After reading this profile I really hope he makes it through.

The Honor System, Esquire (2012) – Someone has stolen Teller’s trick. It is a beautiful trick. What happens next?

The Contestant Who Outsmarted The Price Is Right, Esquire (2007) – Terry Kniess scored the first exact guess in the Showcase showdown in the 38-year history of The Price Is Right. How did he do it? And then, how did he really do it?

General culture

A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick, Longreads (2017) – A fascinating inside look at the life of a mover whose job is to relocate the wealthy who have millions of dollars of furniture they need to get to their new homes.

Consistent Vegetarianism and the Suffering of Wild AnimalsJournal of Practical Ethics (2016) – Argues that to be consistent vegetarians must also desire to reduce wild animal populations by various means.

Rape Choreography Makes Films Safer, But Still Takes a Toll on Cast and Crew, LA Weekly (2017) – An important piece about how Hollywood makes rape scenes safe for women and what happens when they don’t. Also addresses the toll that rape choreography takes on the men and women involved in producing and editing the film.

India’s ‘Phone Romeos’ Look for Ms. Right via Wrong Numbers, The New York Times (2017) – On a group of Indian men looking for love by dialing random numbers and trying to talk to the women who answer. “The “phone Romeo,” as he is known here, calls numbers at random until he hears a woman’s voice, in the hope of striking up a romantic attachment. Among them are overeager suitors (“Can I recharge your mobile?”), tremulous supplicants (“I am talking to you, madam, but my body is shaking”) and the occasional heavy breather (“I want to do the illegal things with you”).”

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?The Paris Review (2017) – Claire Dederer grapples with the idea of terrible men who produce great art.

Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?Merriam Webster (2017) – “There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language. There is not even a plot to loosen our language’s morals and corrupt it a bit. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time…The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769.”

O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901, United States Court of Appeals (2017) – What happens when you leave out a comma? “The parties’ dispute concerns the
meaning of the words “packing for shipment or distribution.” The delivery drivers contend that, in combination, these words refer to the single activity of “packing,” whether the “packing” is for “shipment” or for “distribution.” The drivers further contend that, although they do handle perishable foods, they do not engage in “packing” them. As a result, the drivers argue that, as employees who fall outside Exemption F, the Maine overtime law protects them. Oakhurst responds that the disputed words actually refer to two distinct exempt activities, with the first being “packing for shipment” and the second being “distribution.””

Opinion: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, The Supreme Court – The 1943 decision overturning compulsory flag pledges in public schools:

“It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power, and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

The decision of this Court in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, and the holdings of those few per curiam decisions which preceded and foreshadowed it, are overruled…”

The Top 25

In keeping with the formatting adopted by Kevin Kelly the number of stars represents the number of recommendations.

********** Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Esquire, April 1966 – Often considered the greatest magazine feature of all time. It’s significant in part because Talese was sent to profile Sinatra, but was not able to interview the subject of the profile. He was thus forced to interview a supporting cast of characters and observe Sinatra from a far. It’s well written, but perhaps my sensibilities have not yet developed to the point of fully appreciating its genius. I much prefer other pieces on this list.

********* Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970 – A simple assignment to cover the Kentucky Derby turns into a drug-induced haze.  The rumor is that Thompson, up against his deadline, started faxing over copies of his notes taken while high at the Derby. The result was the start of Gonzo journalism. I prefer this piece to Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing,” the writing and story are tighter. This is also Thompson’s first collaboration with Ralph Steadman, the brilliant cartoonist who would work with Thompson for the remainder of their careers.

********* Neal Stephenson, “Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet.” Wired, December 1996 – I was always curious about underwater cables. I just couldn’t believe we actually laid communication cables along the bottom of the ocean, because, like, the ocean is really deep. But we do! And this article tells you everything you will ever want to know about the process of laying these cables. It is long, but a really terrific read.

******* David Foster Wallace, “Federer As Religious Experience.” The New York Times, Play Magazine, August 20, 2006 – DFW attempts to describe the genius that is Roger Federer. If you like this article see also Wallace’s other famous piece on tennis, “The String Theory.” I liked both of these pieces, but prefer Wallace’s longer form pieces like “Shipping Out.”

******* David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Magazine, August 2004 – In the same way that Hunter S. Thompson was sent to cover the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly 35 years prior and unexpectedly came back with what would become the first ever piece of Gonzo Journalism (“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved“), Wallace was sent to cover the Maine Lobster Festival and returned to surprise readers with a thoughtful reflection on the ethics of eating lobster, down to the inner workings of the lobster’s neurological system. Remember again that this was published in Gourmet magazine! Few groups are likely to love lobster more than its readers.

****** John Updike, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” The New Yorker, October 22, 1960 – A very famous sports piece about Ted Williams’ last at bat.

***** Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” Rolling Stone. Part I: November 11, 1971; Part II: November 25, 1971 – The article that became a book. Thompson and his lawyer hit Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 desert rally. Mostly they just do drugs and wander around.

***** Richard Ben Cramer, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?Esquire, June 1986. Another very famous sports piece about Ted Williams. I actually prefer this piece to Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. Made me wish I was there to witness his greatness.

**** Jon Krakauer, “Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds.” Outside Magazine, January 1993 – The article that became “Into the Wild.” I prefer this to Krakauer’s other famous piece, “Into Thin Air” (also on this list). It’s a wildly entertaining piece that also grapples with serious issues about the things we are all searching for in life.

**** Susan Orlean, “The American Man at Age Ten.” Esquire, December 1992. Susan Orlean’s endearing profile of Colin Duffy, a normal ten-year old boy living in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Perfectly captures the imagination and innocence of childhood and the particular realities that start to dawn on all ten-year olds. If you like this kind of thing check out “A Boy of Unusual Vision” about Calvin Stanley, a ten-year old blind boy in Baltimore. A classic from Alice Steinbach, it won her the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. Or for something even more serious check out the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner in Feature Writing from Lane Degregory, “The Girl in the Window.” Be ready to cry.

**** Edward Jay Epstein, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?The Atlantic, February 1982 – Fascinating piece, perhaps less relevant in 2017, about why diamond’s value is so drastically different if you try to sell one as an individual. Tackles the DeBeer’s monopoly more broadly.

**** Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Esquire, October 1971 – How an eclectic group of miscreants across the U.S. used various methods to hack telephone lines and get free long distance phone calls. Particularly fascinating if you are old enough to remember when landlines and not mobile phones were the norm. The cast of characters in this piece is just so interesting.

**** Tom Junod, “Can you say…”Hero”?” Esquire, November 1998 – A profile of Mr. Rogers that might just restore your faith in humanity. He really was a hero.

**** Michael Lewis, “The End.” Portfolio, November 11, 2008 – The article that eventually became “The Big Short.” A good piece that I liked, but didn’t love. I had to head to the library to read this piece.

*** George Plimpton, “The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch.” Sports Illustrated, April 1, 1985 – This piece is so amazing and enthralling, but note the date it was written.

*** David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise.” Harper’s Magazine, January 1996 – To me “Shipping Out” is peak DFW. It’s all on display, Wallace as the gonzo raconteurism, the erudite vocabulary, the nihilism, the portmanteaus (both literary and travel), the epic footnotes.

*** Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air.” Outside Magazine, September 1996 – The article that inspired the book. I prefer the article to the book actually. And because of its reduced length it reads much more like an adventure story.

*** Tom Junod, “The Falling Man.” Esquire, September 2003 – This was a reread for me. It’s about the search for one of the most iconic photos from 9-11, a man falling — seemingly with grace like a diver — from one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. Who was this man?

*** Gene Weingarten, “The Peekaboo Paradox.” The Washington Post, Sunday Magazine, January 22, 2006 – Truly fantastic profile of The Great Zucchini, a clown and children’s performer with some secrets.

*** David Foster Wallace, “Host.” The Atlantic, April 2005 – This piece grew on me, but I ended up really enjoying it. It’s a profile of John Ziegler, a Rush Limbaugh-style conservative talk radio host. This piece is expertly researched and has footnotes which sometimes have footnotes and sometimes even those footnotes have footnotes. I recommend reading all of these footnotes. The online version of this piece is out of order. You will start to read the online piece. Everything will seem fine. There are these high-tech expanding footnotes. Then at a certain point a passage stops mid-sentence and another passage begins. The print version is better for reading the footnotes anyway. I had to go photocopy the original from the library.

*** Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast.” The Washington Post, Magazine, April 8, 2007 – As the description goes in Kelly’s list for this piece, “Joshua Bell is one of the world’s greatest violinists. His instrument of choice is a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. If he played it for spare change, incognito, outside a bustling Metro stop in Washington, would anyone notice?” This piece won Weingarten the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.

*** Chris Jones, “The Things That Carried Him.” Esquire, May 2008 – As the description goes in Kelly’s list for this piece says, “It’s extremely moving without being saccharine or twee. It’s a military story, but utterly without jingoism or indictment. And it’s wonderfully observed.” This piece is told in reverse chronological order, which works perfectly. The care and honor with which the U.S. military treat their dead is really something to behold. It makes you wonder about what you want done with your own body after death.

*** Michael Lewis, “Wall Street on the Tundra.” Vanity Fair, April 2009 – Another piece I couldn’t find online and had to hit the library to read. An account of how tiny Iceland and its cast of characters found its way to the center of the global financial crisis. “This in a country the size of Kentucky, but with fewer citizens than greater Peoria, Illinois. Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t have global financial institutions, or a university devoting itself to training many hundreds of financiers, or its own currency. And yet the world was taking Iceland seriously.”

*** Gene Weingarten, “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?The Washington Post, March 8, 2009 – Weingarten won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for this piece. Accidentally leaving a child in the backseat of a car kills more children than you think. Often times the parent is prosecuted for child negligence. For many it doesn’t matter, their grief and regret is overwhelming. Others try to move on and use the tragedy as a tool for change. And if you think this can’t happen to you — that you would never forget your child — trying reading this piece and then see what you think.

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Dating Experiences From 50 First Dates

Dating Stories

Thanks to Jenn Choi for asking my first question on Whale. Jenn asked about my funniest online dating story. Though I’ve been on 50 first dates or so, the number of dates that have a story worth telling are pretty small. Most of the dates have been pretty standard, although I’ve often wanted a date to throw up on me so I can have the killer dating story.

There was the time a date asked me if I was autistic. The worst part was that she was a special education teacher that worked daily with autistic high school students. In truth I wasn’t so offended and we’re still friends.

Once I went on a first date to an independent film festival that took place in people’s living rooms. The films were pretty funny. It was when I first started dating so I was somewhat awkward and for some reason didn’t my date to get a drink afterword. Because we were silently watching films the whole date we didn’t get to know one another and she had no reason to accept my second date invitation. Rookie mistake.

I’ve gone on a first date twice with the same person, though she didn’t remember our first date.

I’ve had my share of awkward dates where we sit on opposite sides of the table, sipping on our old fashioneds and staring awkwardly past one another.

Previously, I’ve written about a number of strange date cancellations I’ve received.

Perhaps the most interesting date experience I’ve had — and the one I discussed on Whale — is the time I went on a three-way date with a woman, let’s call her Bridget, and her boyfriend. This occurred because I had gotten myself somewhat involved with Bridget and she was in an open relationship. This was completely for the experience you must understand.

By this time Bridget and I had gone on probably three dates and she had sent me a questionnaire by email that required me to fill in my relationship and sexual history as well as my sexual preferences. However, before we became intimate she wanted me to meet her boyfriend. The three of us went to Thai food and then to bubble tea. Yes, it was awkward. Not the most awkward date I’ve been on though. We didn’t talk about the fact that I might one day soon become intimate with Bridget. I found it most awkward that they each paid for their own meal. Even with friends we often take turns paying I consider this ritual a display of friendship and intimacy. I can’t imagine splitting the bill with someone I’m dating.

Bridget and I dated for only another week or two and then, not wanting to actually be in an open relationship for the long run, I ended things and pursued another woman I had recently met. Like a handful of dates, Bridget and I are still friends.

Dating Tips

Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned from going on 50 first dates.

People Only Look as Good as Their Worst Photo
Maybe this is shallow, but people always ask. Perhaps this photo fact isn’t so surprising, people often put their best foot forward so almost by definition their photos are as good as they’re going to look. But listen we all look the way we look and shouldn’t be ashamed of it. And as we all know tastes in physical appearance vary widely. I think people should be confident enough in themselves to show what they really look like rather than trying to hide it. I’m 6’6″and in high school weighed a mere 150 pounds so you can imagine the teasing I was subjected to (even my basketball coach called me “sticks”). This self-consciousness has stuck with me a bit, but there I am in dating photos, chicken legs and all.

Occasionally someone comes out of left field and ends up looking much better than any of their photos. About 1 in 20 times someone will look so different from their photos that I wouldn’t know it was the same person.

Pay for the First Date (If You’re a Guy)
There is a common line of reasoning that says that whoever asked the other person out should pay for the date. Or that on a first date you should split the bill. It’s not 1950, but listen bro, just pay for the date. I’ve never not paid and I’ve never had a woman complain. I’ve had lots of female friends have guys not pay and they always complain.

I think most women appreciate this and chivalry isn’t dead. I keep this practice up until date three or four when eventually the woman begins insisting she will pay at which point I give in (after a while it become douchey to not let a woman pick up the check if she asks).

Create a Standard Date
If you’re going on a lot of first dates and are time constrained you really need to Mark-Zuckerberg-wearing-a-white-t-shirt-everyday your dates and just come up with something standard to do with everyone. Thoughtfulness is important, but on the first date you have no idea how you’ll get along so there is no sense in trying to come up with something creative. And trust me date planning can take a lot of you. Plus a large volume of creative first dates will leave you no first-time activities to share with your significant other once you do get serious.

I would also recommend making the date someone inexpensive as a matter of practicality. Going on 1-2 dates a week and spending $50+ each time can hit your wallet and feels even worse if the date is a dud.

Always do an activity if possible. Sitting across from one another eating dinner or finishing your drinks becomes very awkward if there is no chemistry and conversation subsides. An activity gets the blood flowing, loosens things up, and provides context for conversation. If you do get a drink try to sit at the bar side by side unless you are a skilled conversationalist. Make sure you are no positioned in front of a bar mirror. Even better, sit near a window where people watching can spark conversation and fill the silence.

I have two go-to dates. In the summer I buy my date froyo and we walk Greenlake in north Seattle. It’s beautiful and one of my favorite places to go anyway. In winter we play indoor bocce ball. I ask my date first of course and if they object I come up with an alternative.

These dates also offer an easy exit if things aren’t going well or the option for more fun if they are. Finishing a loop of Greenlake, for example, offers a natural break to part ways or a chance to walk across the street and grab food or coffee.

Second dates moving forward I try to do something fun and a little original.

Chemistry on an App Doesn’t Equal Chemistry in Real Life
It was somewhat surprising to me when I first discovered this, but it has held true. Often a date and I will banter back and forth over text, but when we meet in person the chemistry quickly fades. Other times the chemistry remains. Still other times answers over text are terse and I wonder if we should actually go through with the date, only to discover that in person we hit it off. Don’t rely too heavily on texting chemistry as measure of what the date will be like.

Why I Voted Against Seattle’s ST3 Light Rail Expansion

It is looking more likely that the Seattle area’s $54 billion ST3 light-rail extension will be approved. I voted against it. Here is why.

Being cool isn’t the same thing as being effective

Underlying many of the pro-light-rail arguments that abound — at least those by the casual voter I see on Facebook and overhear around the city — is an air of coolness and futurism. This isn’t articulated explicitly, but here’s a thought experiment to get my point across: suppose we had a ballot proposal to spend $54 billion on a bus expansion package (bus only express lanes, new long-range hybrid buses, more city-to-city bus routes, etc.). What would the reaction be? Probably something like, “Are you kidding me, $54 billion for a bunch of buses?!?! We could build light-rail for that much!” We could (or maybe not as I’ll discuss), but the question is why is light-rail inherently better than other alternatives?

What I hear most are rants about how China and Japan have high-speed rail, how Europe survives on it, how great it was to visit San Francisco and be able to take the BART. Obviously all of this is awesome so of course we should have more rail lines.

Yes, it is indeed great to rail around San Francisco on a train system that you did not pay to construct and do not pay to maintain in a city in which your main purpose is sightseeing not living and commuting to work. But the year is now 2016 and the question is whether we should spend $54 billion and 25 years building a light-rail system or think harder about the alternatives.

It doesn’t pass the sniff test

The one argument you do hear regarding the ST3 expansion is Seattle’s increasingly horrendous traffic. The scrawling of Seattle locals on Facebook every time a new “Top 10 Worst Cities for Traffic” is a smug reminder that if light-rail would’ve actually gotten funded 30 years ago “when it should have” that we wouldn’t have this traffic problem: “Gee, do you think we need light-rail?” the fake rhetoric proceeds.

But this argument doesn’t pass the sniff test. Rail ridership does not largely correlate with reduced congestion. I put together a simple dataset to show this (table below). Many of the cities with the largest weekly U.S. rail ridership also have the worst congestion.

Does this simple table prove we shouldn’t expand light-rail? No. It’s only a sniff test. But that’s precisely the point. The story is more complicated so we should think harder when drawing a direct line from Seattle’s congestion problems to its lack of expansive rail.

(By the way, researchers have found similarly negligent effects on congestion from light-rail and here is more research on the issue).

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The project violates a basic economic principle

The principle being that projects should be paid for by the people that use them. Although this principle is mostly adhered to in the current budget, there is still $4.67 billion in federal grant funding meaning tens of millions of Americans that never ride Seattle’s light-rail will end up paying for it. Sure, we end up paying for a bunch of projects we’ll never use in cities we’ll never visit, but that doesn’t mean we should impose the same cost on others.

The principle is violated at the local level too since every tax payer will help front the bill for light-rail regardless of whether they end up riding it (a very small portion of operating costs come from fare revenue).

It costs ALOT (and will probably cost more)

It costs $54 billion!!! That’s a lot of money!!! And $28 billion of that is increased taxes. And that’s a lot of money!!! Sure cost alone does not indicate the merit of a project, but it does mean we should think really, really hard before moving forward. And it puts the onus on the proposers to make a very strong case about why the project is going to be awesome. In my view they haven’t done that.

And if history is any indication it could actually cost (much) more. This was written about the original lightrail project back in June of 2013:

Sound Transit’s light-rail system, called Link, has also had its share of challenges. The 25 miles of light rail that voters were told would be completed by 2006 at a cost of $1.7 billion, have resulted in 23 miles of track which, when completed, will end up costing $5.2 billion.

In other words the project cost 3 times more than originally projected for two fewer miles.

Overruns of these magnitudes are the rule not the exception. Here, Bent Flybbjerg has done great work (I recommend this interview). His research on megaprojects is gloomy (a megaproject is one that costs more than $1 billion and affects more than 1 million people). In a 2014 paper he wrote the following (emphasis mine):

Performance data for megaprojects speak their own language. Nine out of ten such projects have cost overruns. Overruns of up to 50 percent in real terms are common, over 50 percent not uncommon. Cost overrun for the Channel tunnel, the longest underwater rail tunnel in Europe, connecting the UK and France, was 80 percent in real terms. For Denver International Airport, 200 percent. Boston’s Big Dig, 220 percent. The UK National Health Service IT system, 400-700 percent. The Sydney Opera House, 1,400 percent (see more examples in Table 2). Overrun is a problem in private as well as public sector projects, and things are not improving; overruns have stayed high and constant for the 70-year period for which comparable data exist. Geography also does not seem to matter; all countries and continents for which data are available suffer from overrun. Similarly, benefit shortfalls of up to 50 percent are also common, and above 50 percent not uncommon, again with no signs of improvements over time and geography (Flyvbjerg et al., 2002, 2005).

ST3 will serve mostly current transit riders

The Washington Policy Center used Seattle Sound Transit figures to estimate that only 28 thousand new daily riders would be added by 2040. What they found is, well, troubling (emphasis mine):

This means that under ST3, each new transit rider will cost over $1 million dollars.

It also means that 97% of the one million new residents expected in 2040 will likely not be using Sound Transit’s costly services, meaning Sound Transit officials do not meet the demand for mobility they themselves anticipate.

If Sound Transit officials want to keep hypothesizing what they can do in theory – using the median price of a single-family home in King County, they could buy every new passenger a home and still have plenty left over ($38.2 billion) for:

– 8,000 new hybrid articulated buses
– Paying back taxpayers for the SR 520 bridge replacement
– Eliminating tolls and providing tax relief on the Viaduct replacement project
– Expanding I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass

Yet even after all this spending, they would still have enough left to buy those same homes for the 4,505 homeless people in Seattle, ending homelessness in the city with $21.8 billion still left in their bank accounts.

And here’s the abstract of a 2015 study making a similar point (emphasis mine):

We examine American support for transit spending, and particularly support for financing transit with local transportation sales taxes. We first show that support for transportation sales tax elections may be a poor proxy for transit support; many voters who support such taxes do not support increased transit spending, and many people who support transit spending do not support increased sales taxes to finance it. We then show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves. These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.

There are better alternatives

As Edward Glaeser recently said in an interview with Vox.com:

There’s a strong consensus that maintaining existing infrastructure gives you much more bang for your buck. There have been diminishing returns to building new roads, particularly since we completed the National Highway System. Whereas if you have existing corridors with potholes, the returns to fixing that are very high. [See here for more.]

Another area of agreement among transportation economists is a profound enthusiasm for buses over trains. Bus rapid transit is considered a very high-return investment. These aren’t necessarily buses operating on crowded city streets; these are buses with dedicated lanes that can achieve almost the same speed as trains.

The beauty of buses, from a cost-benefit perspective, is you don’t need to lay down massive infrastructure that you’re stuck with forever. If a bus route doesn’t attract enough people, you switch the route. Or you stop running it. It’s flexible in a way that trains aren’t. And that’s tremendously valuable in a world of uncertainty.

Now, this is not about gutting the subway in New York or the Metro in Washington, DC. But for new stuff, investing in buses tends to make more sense given the modest densities of most American metropolitan areas.

No, I don’t hate light-rail

In fact I live in Seattle and take it to work daily. And I love trains in general. I once traveled from Hong Kong to Madrid completely by train (just thought I’d find a way to throw that in there). But I see critical problems with the current proposal and I have mixed feelings about Seattle’s current light-rail.

For one, Seattle’s light-rail is rarely full except during a morning rush hour and again during an evening one. And even during these peak times the capacity is fractions of that seen on Asian rail lines (I’ve lived in Seoul) and even many in Europe. Sure, some people may see that as a feature and not a bug, but when current capacity is easily met and we’re already talking about spending $54 billion on a new system I think it’s time to stop and think. Yes, the city is growing and will likely continue to grow, the question is what is the benefit of light-rail in that climate and are there better and cheaper alternatives.

This is not to mention my commute is actually 25 minutes longer under the current light-rail regime because the 71, 72, and 73 buses were all rerouted from an express lane route that led directly downtown. Now they go — guess where — to the nearest light-rail station.

Third, the four crucial light-rail stops downtown use the same tunnel as bus traffic and so are subject to the same delays. If a bus breaks down or is slow letting passengers off, the light-rail must wait for the bus to move on. If you are not from Seattle you might have though that the original $5 billion construction project would’ve gotten light-rail a dedicated track, but you’d only be correct outside of the downtown area. These are not theoretical delays; these are daily delays. This is not life’s biggest tragedy, but we all know the feeling of wanting to get home after a long day and when you’re on a motionless train stuck behind a bus (!) and are delayed for two minutes at each of four out of your total six stops you do start to question if the money was worth it.

On Wooden Skyscrapers

This Economist article talks about the many benefits of modern wooden skyscrapers.

Noise:

…the construction site would be a lot quieter without the heavy plant required to pound deep foundations, pump concrete and install steel supports.

Cost:

…for every lorry delivering timber for a wooden building, five lorries would be needed to deliver concrete and steel. All these things may mean that once the total construction costs are calculated, a wooden building can work out cheaper.

Carbon emissions:

Using wood could reduce their carbon footprint by 60-75%, according to some studies.

The biggest concerns are strength, fire, and rot, but with current technology these are overcome:

Strength:

A wooden building is about a quarter of the weight of an equivalent reinforced-concrete structure, which means foundations can be smaller…In much the same way that aligning carbon-fibre composites creates stronger racing cars, aircraft and golf clubs, CLT [Cross-Laminated Timber] imparts greater rigidity and strength to wooden structures.

Fire resistance:

In general, a large mass of wood, such as a CLT floor, is difficult to burn without a sustained heat source—for the same reason that it is hard to light a camp fire when all you have is logs…with other fire-resistant layers and modern sprinkler systems, tall wooden buildings can exceed existing fire standards.

There is also a method that combines small concrete layers on top of a wooden foundation between floors to help reduce floor-to-floor noise and further improve fire resistance.

Rot:

What about woodworm and rot? “If you don’t look after it, steel and concrete will fail just as quickly as timber,” says Michael Ramage, head of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge in Britain.

Ryan Avent Interview

This Derek Thompson interview with Ryan Avent is interesting throughout. Here is one bit:

It is ironic that liberals, who in the abstract support more inclusive immigration and shared wealth, often live in coastal metros areas that are exclusive by design—they are built around water, limit housing height, and declare certain zones out-of-bounds for further construction. As you point out in the book, one of the tallest buildings in New York City is a residential tower on Park Avenue that is home to a stack of billionaires who, although they could live in any ZIP code on the planet, have chosen to live on top of each other, like candies in a Pez dispenser.

And this (on life after automation):

The very rich will still want people, their own personal shoppers and assistants. Being able to retain human labor would be a sign that you’re wealthy. So even in a future city that had a lot of laborers replaced with technology, you might still have artisanal service sector workers.

Public Feelings on Nuclear Power Make Me Sad :(

I sometimes get frustrated with the mass opposition to Nuclear power in favor of green energy.

Remember…

Nuclear power is the greenest type of energy. 

Nuclear power is the safest type of energy (yes, even including indirect deaths of Chernobyl and Fukushima).

There are even possible innovations that would make it very difficult to use the fissile material to make bombs.

Nuclear power can be economical if given a level playing field.

Nuclear power does not have the intermediacy problems of wind and solar.

Nuclear is good all around.

750,000 VCRs Were Sold Worldwide Last Year

That is from this CNN article.

I don’t know what to think about this number. In some ways it seems impossible that any were sold. I can’t remember the last time I watched a VHS film.

On the other hand there must still be millions or even tens of millions of old VHS tapes around (my parents have a small bookshelf full) and of course you need something to watch them on. Given the frequency at which VCRs break maybe I would have guessed that even more units were sold. This is another technology I suspect many in low-income countries skipped.

Apparently Funai Electric is the last maker of new VHS machines and will cease production this month. However, a quick search on Amazon shows a few DVD-VHS combo players, so perhaps this is all just a technicality.