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7 deadly reads

Sitdown Sunday: Technology has tainted our attention spans. This secret society is fighting back

Settle down in a comfy chair with some of the week’s best longreads.

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked some of the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. Reclaiming our attention

youngpeopleattachedtotheirsmartphones Shutterstock Shutterstock

There are growing concerns that our capacity to pay attention has drastically shrunk because of the constant presence of technology in our lives. 

In this piece, Nathan Heller goes inside the Order of the Third Bird – a secret international society that is working to try and develop unusual techniques to help us to concentrate.

(The New Yorker, approx 38 mins reading time)

Last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported a huge ten-year decline in reading, math, and science performance among fifteen-year-olds globally, a third of whom cited digital distraction as an issue. Clinical presentations of attention problems have climbed (a recent study of data from the medical-software company Epic found an over-all tripling of A.D.H.D. diagnoses between 2010 and 2022, with the steepest uptick among elementary-school-age children), and college students increasingly struggle to get through books, according to their teachers, many of whom confess to feeling the same way. Film pacing has accelerated, with the average length of a shot decreasing; in music, the mean length of top-performing pop songs declined by more than a minute between 1990 and 2020. A study conducted in 2004 by the psychologist Gloria Mark found that participants kept their attention on a single screen for an average of two and a half minutes before turning it elsewhere. These days, she writes, people can pay attention to one screen for an average of only forty-seven seconds.

2. ‘The Robin Hood of irrigation’

A riveting feature on Dennis Falaschi, the man US prosecutors have accused of masterminding the theft of more than $25 million-worth of water from the federal government over the last two decades.

(Los Angeles Times, approx 18 mins reading time)

Walsh walked over to where the hat was spinning. He peered down at a standpipe that had once connected the Delta-Mendota Canal to an irrigation ditch that extends through adjacent farmland. The standpipe had been cemented closed and was no longer functional. At least in theory. Walsh moved closer and heard a rushing noise in the pipe — the sound of water running hard and fast. There must be a leak, he thought. But if the canal were leaking, there should have been water pooling around him. The field where he was standing was dry. And he saw something even more peculiar. The abandoned pipe was old and rusted. But it had been fitted with a new gate to control the flow of water from canal to ditch. And that gate had a lock. Walsh’s water authority was responsible for every turnout on that canal. But he had never seen this lock, and he didn’t have a key.

3. Cabbage Patch Kids

cabbage-patch-kids-dolls-sign-at-the-babyland-general-hospital-in-cleveland-georgia-image-shot-052005-exact-date-unknown Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls sign at the Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Remember those? Well, Babyland General Hospital in Georgia is the only place in the world where you can witness the “birth” of a Cabbage Patch Kid. Joshua Rigsby recounts his family visit there with horror and humour.

(Thrillist, approx 8 mins reading time)

Once children and adults gather like supplicants around the base of Mother Cabbage, an employee ascends the dais above and behind the plaster mound. She wears medical scrubs like the other employees, but hers are white. A flesh-colored microphone is taped to her cheek. She walks with the bearing of one entrusted with sacred rites—the oracle of Delphi cosplaying as a nurse from the 1940s.

The Delphic oracle examines Mother Cabbage, but what she’s examining isn’t visible to the faithful. She pulls out what appears to be a large metal caliper, the kind that was once used for dragging fresh-sawed blocks of ice out of lakes in New England. She measures. “I just want to make sure that Mother Cabbage is fully dilated to 10 cabbage leaves,” she explains. She measures in one direction, adjusts the caliper, and measures the other direction. “She is fully dilated,” she continues. “Mother Cabbage is ready to give birth.”

4. The unlikely do-gooder

Stuart Potts has lived in a one-bedroom flat in Middleton, Greater Manchester since 2020. Ever since he moved in, he’s let homeless people come and stay with him. In this piece, we hear from some of those he’s helped, and learn about Pott’s own demons. 

(The Guardian, approx 22 mins reading time)

His work is entirely informal, operating outside the auspices of any governing authority, charity registration, funding body or council department. Last year, the council rang Potts, asking to inspect the flat since he was advertising it as a shelter. “They said: ‘We need to know if the cooking facilities are safe,’” Potts recalled. “I said: ‘All right, I’ll kick them out on the street and we’ll see what the cooking facilities are like in a fucking tent, shall we?’” He gave a dry laugh, shaking his head. (The council didn’t come: he successfully argued that since it’s a private property, they had no right to inspect.) The entire operation is funded out of Potts’ pocket: a universal credit allowance that after his rent – £595 a month – leaves him with less than £100 a week.

The drastic increase in homelessness and rough sleeping over the past decade and a half is visible on the streets of every major city in the UK. But even those who are distressed by this are unlikely to host strangers in their own home. Potts, though, sees his actions as logical and obvious: people need help, and if you can provide it, then you should. “I don’t need this space – I can sit in my bedroom and watch TV,” he said, motioning at his modestly sized front room. “If more people helped others, the world would be a better place, wouldn’t it?”

5. The Olympic medals awarded for art

243007-100thliffeyswim-aw-ol-180727 A commemorative stamp featuring Jack B Yeats' famous painting 'The Liffey Swim'.

As Paris prepares to host the 2024 Olympics, a hundred years ago, the city saw medals being awarded for works of art – including a silver to one Jack Butler Yeats for his oil painting ‘The Liffey Swim’.

John Branch writes about what happened to some of the other works that were awarded, and why the competition stopped recognising the arts. 

(The New York Times, approx 11 mins reading time)

For decades, beginning with the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the Olympics included competitions in painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature — a “pentathlon of the Muses,” as Pierre de Coubertin, the founder and leader of the modern Olympics, called them. “From now on they will be part of each Olympiad, on a par with the athletic competitions,” Coubertin said. Thousands of artists, some of them famous, most of them not, submitted works. More than 150 Olympic arts medals were awarded, the same medals that athletes received. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, 400,000 people visited the monthlong exhibition of entries. As the Olympics return to Paris this summer, thousands of gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded — all for sport, none for arts.

6. Costume drama

Chantal Fernandez writes about how, despite the Met Gala’s popularity each year, the exhibits at the museum’s Costume Institute is not attracting the crowds it used to.

(The Cut, approx 16 mins reading time)

Meanwhile, the playbook at the Costume Institute seems stuck in time and its shows are no longer blockbusters. Before the pandemic, the department’s spring exhibitions were far and away the most attended shows at the Met each year. Three of Bolton’s shows rank among the ten most popular in the history of the museum. After 2019, its spring exhibitions remain well attended but no longer exceptionally so. New York City’s tourism dip isn’t totally to blame. Last summer, an exhibition of van Gogh’s “Cypresses” drew a higher share of total Met visitors than the Costume Institute main event for the year, a Karl Lagerfeld retrospective. A representative for the Met said, “We have many highly attended exhibitions, Costume Institute shows being among them.”


An interview with Cher from 1986.

(Vanity Fair, approx 12 mins reading time)

Cher herself is puzzled by her enduring popularity. “I think people like me, but I’m not exactly sure why,” she says. “I think there are just people that you like.” At the moment she made that uncharacteristically inarticulate observation, she didn’t look like the celebrity Cher. In a white cashmere cable V-neck and gray flannel pants, with her mundanely monochromatic hair damp from a post-gym shower, she looked simply like a woman that people might like. Except, perhaps, for the tattoo blossoming above her left ankle, she might have been the prettiest woman in the local P.T.A. That is part of her appeal. 

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