Long-form journalism really levelled up this year, for reasons I haven't yet explored. You would think with so many newspapers and magazines shuttering that investigate and deep journalism would give way to clickbait and easy gets; thankfully, 2018 gave us top-notch longreads from some unlikely sources, such as The Daily Beast, New York Magazine's Intelligencer and even CBC's interactive team.
In no particular order, here are my top long-form articles of the year...
How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions
One of the most engaging reads I've come across in a long time, I'm not surprised Hollywood embroiled itself in a bidding war for the film rights to this story. In a nutshell, it's about an ex-cop in charge of the Monopoly game McDonald's launched in the 80s and ends up becoming a fascinating probe into the seedier side of these innocuous games parents inevitably played to keep up with their kids' nagging. Jeff Maysh has a nose for what makes a kickass longread and his blood, sweat and fearlessness comes through Crystal Pepsi-clear in this nostalgic return to innocent days made all the more sinister by a rogue selfish Ohio dude.
Worst Roommate Ever
I've been lucky to have had decent roommates back in the day, so I couldn't relate to several what New Yorkers had to deal with when Jamison Bachman took a room in their apartment. But I can imagine that seething frustration at dealing with a guy who skipped rent, blamed others for things they didn't do, The details the reporter unearthed are the kinds of things a j-school prof teaches about adding the perfect amount of colour to a profile. We can practically be in the slippers of those roommates who had to watch Bachman take advantage of their kindness, to the point where you practically want to scream at the screen, "Just call the police on him!" So yeah, maybe not a beach read.
The Untold Story of Robert Mueller's Time in Combat
Robert Mueller isn't taking reporter questions or inviting any podcasters to interview him. The lead investigator into the Russia-U.S. investigation seems to be shrouded in mystery...until you take the time to read Wired's exhausive profile of Mueller, focusing on his time in the military during Vietnam. You can get a more rounded view of what drives Mueller and why President Trump should be shaking in his PJs. Mueller doesn't fuck around, to put it bluntly.
This is your brain on pot
I'm used to getting my longform interactive reads from the likes of NY Times and Buzzfeed but hat-tip to CBC for shedding its rep as stodgy and staid (at least for a moment) to deliver a concise and comprehensive feature on how cannabis's THC affects your brain. It can be confusing to newbies and stoners exactly how cannabinoids affect our own endocannabinoid system so give this a scroll if you want to understand how you're affected by cannabis use. With Canada legalizing cannabis in 2018, we should see more of these interactive sub-sites that help explain headier concepts to Canadians just dipping their toes into the greenery.
This is a late entry to my best-of list, but a Toronto Life expose on the topsy-turvy career in Toronto's startup community deserves a mention. And luckily it's written with flair and style and energy. Mark Pupo recounts his days working for several Toronto startups and identifying how the positions he took on fit as well as a shrunken Christmas sweater. He knew this wasn't the right path for him but along the way he collected so many anecdotes and oh-so-true characteristics of this city's bustling tech space, I can't help but recommend this longread to anyone who's even leaned into the startup community in Canada. You'll feel less alone, trust me.
This post was a toughie because I enjoyed so many memorable podcast episodes this year. But I made some hard decisions today to pare it down to the top five episodes that stood out to me.
Honorable mention does to the many kickass episodes in Seth Godin's Akimbo, the fine folks at Weed + Grub, Canadaland, Beautiful Anonymous and the live shows courtesy My Brother, My Brother and Me.
In no particular order...
Episode: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
In this love letter to films, Unspooled profiles a new movie each episode and hosts Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson break down the appeal of each prolific work. My favourite in their debut season has to be this on-ehour look at Spielberg's gem E.T., a classic I revisited in late 2017 when I realized that, heck, I haven't seen this movie in around 15 years. It still holds up, for all the reasons the Unspooled hosts share: sharp writing, telling the story (for once) from the child's perspective, breaching a sentimentality that rarely veers into predictability. Scheer and Nicholson have a free and easy chemistry that makes listening to Unspooled a pure joy. Amy Nicholson The Extra-Terrestrial
Podcast: Hidden Brain
Episode: Starving the Watchdog
I've long been fascinated by neuroscience and social science, and Hidden Brain combines both in each episode, dissecting a certain aspect of human behaviour in each ep. In this late 2018 standout, host Shankar Vedantam looks at what happens when a local newspaper vanishes from a community requiring those municipal watchdogs to oversee law enforcement and politicians. It's harrowing stuff, especially when we learn about the studies concluding how government corruption increases when those media outlets aren't around to hold public officials accountable. This episode might be treading familiar territory for anyone with knowledge of the battered media landscape, but I'd reco this episode just the same, mainly due to how succinctly Hidden Brain argues for journalism to thrive in communities in desperate need of those critical reporters.
Podcast: Reply All
Episode: The World's Most Expensive Free Watch
Few podcasts shine a light on the seedier niches of tech and social media than Gimlet's Reply All. My fave this season was their deep dive into an odd corner of Instagram where shady companies promote free watches which end up being anything other than gratis. The ep ends as you'd expect but along the way you get a detailed picture of just how easily someone can get wrapped into the frenzy of getting free stuff online. It's a cautionary tale that will undoubtedly be relatable to anyone who's felt they were swindled into getting something other than they wanted, whether online or IRL.
Podcast: Business Wars
Episodes: The Netscape vs Microsoft Browser Wars series
It's hard to flush out one segment of this six-episode series recounting the Net browser battle between Netscape and Microsoft. If you only have vague memories of the Netscape browser (such as myself), you'll want to take this adventurous trip down a geeky lane to get acquainted with a young Marc Andreessen and a hustling Bill Gates, both of whom had their peaks and valleys when they unveiled their new browsers for the nascent Net market. Even if you aren't a big tech head, but got a thing for competitive spirits between entrepreneurs, you'll want to give this series a listen. Honourable mention goes to BW's other fantastic series this year, where they revisited the fight between Xbox and Playstation.
Podcast: The Moment With Brian Koppelman
Episode: Seth Godin
"If you write every day in public, your brain will behave in a different way. We are hiding because we got taught to hide by the mechanistic managers who only want us to focus on quality." That's just one of the many thoughtful and inspiring quotes by marketing guru Seth Godin, who I've long admired for his cogent analysis of making great art and what it takes to be a freelancer. In a conversation with the writer and host Brian Koppelman (who never just sticks to a list of questions but lets the conversation flow freely), Godin covers a lot of ground, from the importance of finding a fulfilling life beyond what the market dictates to pursuing excellence to why we resist making decision and so much more. I might be biased because I love me some Godin but I challenge you to spend an hour with this ep and tell me you weren't encouraged to think differently about your life and/or the path you want to take to be a better person, in some way, in any way.
For the first time in recent memory, I read more non-fiction than fiction books over 12 months, which is not to say I didn't try reading some recommended novels but most of them ended up being lacklustre and I shelved them (er, returned them to the library) within a few chapters.
Thankfully, this year has given readers a gold rush of other engaging and entertaining books, which range from comedic memoirs to inside scoops on Apple to a harrowing journey of a Holocaust survivor. It was hard to narrow it down to five books but that's the life of an infrequent blogger who has a pocket of time on Saturday to tackle non-client work!
Without further delay, here are my top 5 books of 2018:
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
You nitpickers out there will say Ng's second book is a 2017 release, which is true, but it was in September '17 so it's close enough, and I didn't get around reading it until two months ago, so can you please pump the brakes on the hatorade? Thanks.
So Little Fires Everywhere is undoubtedly one of the best novels I've read in at least 18 months, when David Mitchell's ghost story Slade House floored me completely. What Ng accomplishes in this book is remarkable: she insightfully flushes out what makes functional families veer into disfunction, without ever veering into caricature or stereotype or deadened pacing. She has such a firm grasp of what keeps readers gripped to read more, I couldn't believe the reading sessions I was indulging in with Little Fires Everywhere. I average usually 30 minutes per sit-down, but her book had me glued for at least an hour at a time. This was one one of my rare fiction reads this year, and I'm glad I took a risk on an author I never heard of but came recommended from the New York Times book section.
ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGH SIDE OF LIFE by Eric Idle
If you're in any way a self-described Monty Python nerd, you have to silly walk, not run, to get this long-awaited memoir. Bonus points if you read John Cleese's top-notch memoir, because Cleese laid the groundwork for the pre-Python account of how British comedy was evolving in the 60s and Idle picks up where Cleese left off. By being so candid with his seemingly crystal-clear of oft-told but rarely detailed stories of, say, how miserable it was for the troupe to film Holy Grail, Idle gifts Python fans with an insider's tale that is truly hilarious to read.
I reviewed this book for The Washington Post, so rather than repeat myself, I'll just copy-and-paste my closer: "It’s the kind of book you’ll want to read twice — once when the genius of Python sketches are fresh in your memory, and once when those scenes have faded so you can be reminded how these comedy rebels shook up an art form that was due for a dose of surreal silliness."
LIKEWAR: THE WEAPONIZATION OF SOCIAL MEDIA by Peter W. Singer
You might have heard of this thing called the Internet Research Agency in Russia that paid staff to pretend to be Americans and sow dissent among Republicans and Democrats, sometimes pretending to be Black Americans who urged Americans to vote for Trump or stay home on Election Day. But what cyberweapons expert Peter W. Singer does with LikeWar is excavate more details about exactly how this was pulled off and other similar propaganda warfare waged across the world. LikeWar is an eye-opener, especially if you aren't reading Wired as voraciously as I do; so if you want a clear picture of the niche corners of the Web brimming with deep-fake videos, ISIS online recruitment strategies and fake-news viral messaging than you'll want to give this book a read.
CREATIVE SELECTION: INSIDE APPLE'S DESIGN PROCESS DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF STEVE JOBS by Ken Kocienda
I used to write exclusively about tech awhile back, when I started my career as a journalist, and I love documentaries or longreads about the hardware of software that make some of gadgets so damn cool. The iPhone OS is one such area of interest for me, and I finally came across a new book that offers Appleheads an in-depth reveal that I don't believe has ever been written before. Ken Kocienda spent his entire career as a designer and engineer at Apple where he famously came up with the iPhone keyboard we all tap away on like a pianist on speed. Did you know the design could've been entirely head-scratching if Jobs didn't give his blessings to Kocienda's iteration? See below for what I mean:
Kocienda doesn't reveal just the origin story of the iOS keyboard but also the Safari browser he helped make what it is today. So if you got a thing for software engineering or how a behemoth like Apple operates, Creative Selection is one heckuva page-turner.
THE LIFE OF MOSHELE DER ZINGER: HOW MUSIC SAVED BY LIFE by Moshe Kraus
This pick is an outlier to many of you because it's a rare find and self-published and on an obscure person to many but a truly important inspiration to me. Moshe Kraus, a Holocaust survivor and cantor in Ottawa, formed part of my solo show Jewnique; I interviewed him about his time at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, what he found in Jewish music, and how he found a way to remain faithful to his religion when everything around him told him that only chaos and evil reigned supreme. Few memoirs have me get ferklempt but Krause's book did in more than one segment, but it wasn't all tragedy, lest you think Kraus didn't find joy in the aftermath of the Holocaust by bringing his cantorial talent to Mexico City, Johannesburg and Israel, among many others. If you want to get a sense of Kraus's story through my piece on him in Jewnique, see below:
Look at that smile. Pascal Siakam is having the greatest time running up the court with the ball because he knows he's unstoppable. He realizes he can get to the rim with ease, maybe with one of his spicy spin-o-rama moves, and back there, Joel Embiid is lumbering up the court, yeah he knows it too. He has this look of resignation on his face that says, "Oh man, not again."
Not again because in the most recent Raptors-Sixers game, the Raptors won once more, their second win against this top-tier Eastern Conference team. After Wednesday's demolition of the Warriors, and Tuesday's impressive blowout of the Clippers, the Raptors now reign supreme over the NBA, taking the #1 spot at 23-7.
The Raps' point differential is 8.6. They sit second in FG%, just behind the Warriors. Kyle Lowry leads the league in assists (10) and a mind-blowing stat from Kawhi Leonard's career maintains during his stint on the Raps: He has more steals than personal fouls.
Stats and W-L record is one thing but the pace of play is simply entertaining to behold. Coach Nurse has the team running fast after an opponent's made FG or a rebound, with Lowry blasting passes down court to a streaking Siakam or Leonard. Then add the improved play of Serge Ibaka (is there a jumper he can't hit?!), the choking defense led by Leonard, and the steady Freddy play of Van Vleet of late, and you get a recipe for success that the Raps haven't seen in the DeMar era.
I miss DeRozan but I don't miss how he didn't let the Raps space the floor effectively. With Lowry making more plays through pick-and-rolls and finding cutters, he isn't in that static stand-around mode so common when DeRozan was given the ball to work one-on-one. I'm really loving how everyone is making that extra pass to find a wide open three pointer, or unselfishly sharing the rock to that player matched up against a smaller defender. It's beautiful basketball.
I've been watching the Raps for as long as they've been a team and I haven't anticipated a postseason as hungrily as I am in 2018. Today's roster is deeper and more talented than any I've seen, playing with the kind of energy and swagger you'd expect from a healthy mix of young blood and veteran talent. Where this team goes in the playoffs is still nerve-wracking to many hardcore Raps fans with deep memories, but I'm confident these guys will find a way to crush the competition in the East and make it to the Finals with a talented lineup that should strike cold fear into any Western Conference team we match up against.
What do you think? Are the Raps for real this year? Comment or tweet at me via @SilverbergDave
Sometimes, you just never know when someone will say something to brighten your everyday. That happened more than once during my recent tour of Jewnique, my solo show. In Calgary, Ottawa and Blue Mountain Resort, I met folks who saw my show and shared such glowing sentiments with me, it made up for the bubbling anxiety I felt in my chest each time I thought Oh boy, time to perform an hour of memorized spoken word for a room full of strangers.
One Ottawa man told me, “If I had you as a history teacher, I would’ve paid more attention in school.” Another woman told me, after my performance at the Calgary Jewish Book Festival, that what I was doing was remarkable, truly remarkable, and I should definitely bring Jewnique to the Fringe Festival (don’t worry, I’m on it). Several attendees told me it was impressive how I painted scenes so vivid, they forgot they were in a social hall and were transported to the scenes I painted in the show, such as Syria in the 70s, or a concentration camp, or a mikvah’s calm waters.
When I look back at the sparkling moments of my tour, those compliments shine bright, much like the kudos I heard when I debuted Jewnique in Toronto earlier this year. It’s not just the quick euphoria of an ego boost; to be validated by those who have no relationship to me beyond spending an hour watching me tell the story of my relationship to Judaism…I feel a great deal of nachas knowing my work has touched them in some way.
And it’s a great feeling to know I’ve accomplished what I set out to do: Create a piece of art I can be proud of, from its first-draft iteration in May to the final touches I gave it in October. While I’ve always admired the journalistic work I’ve done, for a long time I never felt that same glow around some of poetry work (even though I created little new work in the past six years, due to the heavy obligations of running Toronto Poetry Slam and an online news network).
Now with Jewnique, and the kind words bestowed upon me by strangers, I feel a deeper confidence in creating theatre work I’m excited to stage for more audiences. Jewnique is just the beginning and rest assured I’ll be leaping back on stages to see what else is burning inside me that deserves to taste air.
My solo show Jewnique is on tour and I'm thrilled to bring this very personal show to more audiences across Canada.
My first stop is Blue Mountain Resort, but that's a private event called Limmud FSU which is a weekend-long event to foster a deeper relationship to Judaism for Canadian Russian Jews. I have no idea what to expect from this event, or Blue Mountain Resort, so I'm thrilled to launch my November tour at this unique event. Dare I say...Jewnique event?!
Next I'm bringing Jewnique to Ottawa on Nov 18 at the Ottawa JCC (21 Nadolny Sachs Private). It begins at 1:30 pm and cover is only $5. Note my show is 55 minutes long, no intermission.
After Ottawa, the weekend after, Jewnique debuts in Calgary on Nov. 25 as the finale show at the Calgary Jewish Book Festival Finale Event at Calgary Jewish Community Centre (1607 90 Ave SW). The show begins at 2pm and it's free entry.
I plan to bring Jewnique to more folks in 2019, and I've reveal more details on next year's touring schedule soon. If you know anyone interested in bringing Jewnique to their event or synagogue, get in touch with me anytime.
A question I often get is: How do you hustle to get those freelance gigs? Isn't it nerve-wracking to not know where your next cheque is coming from?
My short answer is often a variation of, "It's only frustrating when I don't come up with ideas or have the energy to reach out to potential clients. Otherwise, the hustle is exhilarating."
The long answer is, well, this blog post. What I mean by "exhilarating" is the thrill of the hunt, the internal high-five of Yes! Got the gig I wanted! With the hunt, though, comes the pain of rejection, but I've developed a thicker skin than ever before thanks to the dozens of pitches I send each year. With the good comes the sting of the stiff-arm.
Note that I wrote "sting" because it feels more like a momentary prick than a sustained bruising. I've learned to pick myself up after a round of dejection and realize I just have to hone a pitch better, find a more alluring story idea, select a more appropriate outlet for the idea. Often a rejection can energize a freelancer to be better than he was yesterday.
The hustle of freelance writing is a 24/7 exercise. So when I read an article in a magazine, there might be a quote from someone who isn't central to the story but whom I find intriguing. That person might form the basis of my next pitch, once I learn more about what they do. Or I might be a tech conference or a cannabis expo like Lift for kicks but my journalistic Spidey-sense will be tingling when I come across someone or something that could be my next pitch. To paraphrase Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Closely Watching.
As to the nervey bit of business of not knowing if I'll be getting a hefty cheque this month, that's the game I decided to play so I have to go with the flow. Some months are more lucrative than others, sure, but lately I don't get out of bed for anything less than my minimum rate and such discipline has invigorated me. I realize I'm beyond the $150/article rate of 30-year-old me. I realize I'm only interested in writing about topics that tingle me in that can't-wait-to-tackle-this-article kind of way.
I'll end with a quote from one of my favourite thinkers on freelancing and productivity, Seth Godin. He was once asked about the notion that “Freelancer” was “mostly considered a second class citizen."
Godin swiftly refuted that prejudice: “Think about the people who are truly great. The programmer who can save you months. The cartoonist who draws life-changing images on the backs of business cards. The guitar player who can sit in on a recording session and change everything…These people are first class. They’re in charge. Top of their game. The best of the best. That’s the freelancer each of us is capable of being.”
I've been writing about cannabis policy and culture for more than 15 years, having first published in High Times and then in The Globe & Mail (ganja yoga was a thing back in 2010, folks). So it's frustrating to see so much misreporting by Canadian journalists on cannabis, whether mistaking certain terms for others or trying to add "balance" by having a throwaway quote from a critic who seems oblivious to new research/studies into cannabis as a medicine.
Below are some missteps I've seen by Canadian journalists covering cannabis, and note I'm not highlighting any journalists or publications by name, because I think that kind of shaming isn't in my wheelhouse.
The 140-character limit on Twitter. 140 sharpened your editing skills. Now, it's messy.
Playing improv games for fun. Or... was that just me and my friends in grade 11? Probably not, right?
Shift Magazine. I always liked that weirdo Canadian tech magazine.
When Kanye made great albums. And that's all he was known for. Basically.
The smell of fortune cookies on my street. OK, I know that's just me, because not everyone lives on a street that used to have the gloriously sweet odour of cookies wafting into their windows, soon to be replaced by the dusty clouds of drills and shovels upturning earth to make way for splash new condos. Yeah. I miss that.
I always buy more almonds than I actually want to eat.
Foxes are animals running cat software on dog hardware.
Lip-reading would be a great skill to have if you love watching sports.
I'd rather face a freezing cold day than a deadly hot day because I can always add layers but I can't do anything about a hot day. Nudity is not an option.
The best Red Hot Chili Peppers album is Blood Sugar Sex Magik. They lost some of that funk and groove post-BSSM.
Marshmallow and bacon can be delicious together. Don't knock it til you try it.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, Toronto is the city that often naps.
Kendrick Lamar would make an awesome slam poet.
You haven't had gelato until you've had Death in Venice's Ricotta Lemon Rosemary gelato.
Don't hang around people who end up looking over your shoulder to find someone else to talk to.
Waiters always seem to ask how my food is just as I'm stuffing my face with something.
Ray Bradbury Theatre, the TV show, might look dated but its storytelling impact still holds strong today.
Knowing the art of turbo-walking past slow pedestrians and cigarette smokers is a crucial skill if you live downtown.
Don't touch other people's hair without asking them first.
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Media criticism. Poetry. Being a better creative. Toronto stories. Technology. Sports. Why X-Files rocks.