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7 deadly reads

Sitdown Sunday: The Beluga whale who escaped the Russian Navy

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. The whale who escaped the Russian Navy

norway-hammerfest-hvladimir-the-beluga-whale Hvaldimir the beluga whale. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Hvaldimir the beluga whale has become something of a celebrity since he popped up off the coast of Hammerfest, Norway, but he’s now at the centre of a dispute over his welfare.

Ferris Jabr writes about a trained whale learning to be wild, and the ethical debate around whether humans should intervene in rehabilitating him.

(The New York Times, approx 27 mins reading time)

The military conscription of a beluga whale might sound like a conceit plucked from less-than-convincing spy fiction, but it is actually a well-documented practice. Since the 1960s, Russia and the United States have trained dolphins, seals and other marine mammals to assist their naval forces by tagging enemy divers, detecting mines and recovering items from the seafloor. Satellite photos of Russian naval bases near Murmansk, not far from the spot where Norwegian fishermen first found Hvaldimir, reveal the type of sea pens often used to hold belugas. Audun Rikardsen, a professor of marine biology at the Arctic University of Norway, told me that international contacts have since confirmed that Hvaldimir belonged to the navy.

In the years since Hvaldimir first entered the global spotlight, the very qualities that make him so endearing — his intelligence, curiosity and charisma — have put him in perpetual danger. While traveling along the coasts of Norway and Sweden, he has inadvertently hooked himself on fishing lines and suffered multiple gashes caused by boat strikes. Incessant chewing of ropes and chains has worn his teeth to nubs. Overzealous spectators have swarmed him for photos, prodded him with brooms and thrown rocks in his vicinity to draw his attention. Some Norwegians have threatened to seek warrants to shoot and kill the beluga because he has damaged salmon farms or other underwater structures.

2. The guilty juror

In 1990, juror Estella Ybarra was pressured into convicting a man who she believed was innocent. Almost three decades later, she persuaded the district attorney to reinvestigate. An incredible story of  legal negligence, remorse and a wrongful conviction.

(Texas Monthly, approx 44 mins reading time)

Her life went on. Years passed, then decades. Her four sons married and had children. She grew into her new role as an abuela. She stopped working, and her husband retired. Every year at Christmas she would sit around the tree with her children and grandchildren, opening presents and talking about their lives. She treasured such moments, but during those gatherings she also found herself wondering about Jaile: What was his Christmas like, locked in a lonely Texas prison cell? Did he have kids? What about his parents? The shame she felt came flooding back. Why hadn’t she stood her ground?

Then one day in 2017, she was cleaning out her desk drawers and came upon an old envelope. She opened it and, to her surprise, there was the juror’s certificate. Though it had been 27 years, her “award” was in pristine condition. She held it in her hands, studying those principled words that had unsettled her in the days after the trial: fair and conscientious, life, liberty. All of the old regrets rose in her again. But this time something shifted. For reasons she didn’t completely understand, she felt different. This time, she decided to do something about it.

3. “All this from a slice of gabagool?”

the-sopranos-tv-james-gandolfini-sops-022 James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It’s been 25 years since The Sopranos premiered on HBO. In this article, its creator David Chase and four other show writers discuss how it changed television forever. 

(Rolling Stone, approx 19 mins reading time)

Over the course of trying and failing to sell a very un-broadcast show to broadcasters, a new path opened up: HBO was starting to make its own scripted drama series. And because the pay cable channel didn’t have advertisers, and because it was still so new in that area (only the prison drama Oz preceded Sopranos), executives there largely let Chase do what he wanted. When he had talked about the series elsewhere, industry veterans kept telling him that he would have to shoot the majority of it in Los Angeles, with brief trips to New Jersey each season to film some exterior scenes to create the illusion that everything was happening in the Garden State. Chase knew he had found the right home when, unprompted, HBO’s Chris Albrecht pointed to an early New Jersey reference in the script and asked, “‘Now, you’re really going to shoot there, right?’”

Chase had initially dreamed that HBO wouldn’t order The Sopranos to series, which might allow him to film a second hour on his own and take it to the Cannes Film Festival as a movie. But it turned out the TV business felt a lot less disgusting when he got to tell the kinds of stories he wanted to. “I had the best job in Hollywood,” he says. “I had complete creative freedom. That’s why it was so good, if you want to say the show was good. Because they left us to our instincts.”

4. Aesthetic optimisation

An interesting excerpt from Kyle Chayka’s new book about how the internet and algorithms are “flattening culture” and making everything look the same.  

(The Guardian, approx 19 mins reading time)

I often typed “hipster coffee shop” into the search bar as a shorthand because Yelp’s search algorithm always knew exactly what I meant by the phrase. It was the kind of cafe that someone like me – a western, twentysomething (at the time), internet-brained millennial acutely conscious of their own taste – would want to go to. Inevitably, I could quickly identify a cafe among the search results that had the requisite qualities: plentiful daylight through large storefront windows; industrial-size wood tables for accessible seating; a bright interior with walls painted white or covered in subway tiles; and wifi available for writing or procrastinating. Of course, the actual coffee mattered, too, and at these cafes you could be assured of getting a cappuccino made from fashionably light-roast espresso, your choice of milk variety and elaborate latte art.

The most committed among the cafes would offer a flat white (a cappuccino variant that originated in Australia and New Zealand) and avocado toast, a simple dish, also with Australian origins, that over the 2010s became synonymous with millennial consumer preferences. (Infamous headlines blamed millennials’ predilection for expensive avocado toast for their inability to buy real estate in gentrifying cities.) These cafes had all adopted similar aesthetics and offered similar menus, but they hadn’t been forced to do so by a corporate parent, the way a chain like Starbucks replicated itself. Instead, despite their vast geographical separation and total independence from each other, the cafes had all drifted toward the same end point. The sheer expanse of sameness was too shocking and new to be boring.

5. The power of group chats

text-messages-in-cellphone-screen-with-abstract-hologram-speech-bubbles-instant-messaging-app-texting-group-chat-sexting-or-sms-concept Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

How the online form of communication has become essential to our social lives. 

(The New York Times, approx 14 mins reading time)

To me, the most notable thing about all these group chats is their essential constancy. Types of communication that were once limited by the human capacity for having actual conversations now flow at unprecedented speed, in many directions at once; we are strangely perma-linked to specific subsets of our friends and family, ceaselessly co-processing everything that happens. We feel as if we are endlessly whispering in our friends’ ears at a distance. We can pick up the conversation at any time, from anywhere. My brothers and I are not the kind of siblings who keep in daily touch — a phone call from one of them would put me on edge instinctively. Still, every few weeks, one of us might say “siblings check-in” in our shared chat and give a few basic updates. Conversely, my friends Charlotte and Mack and I will spend an hour going back and forth about someone we knew in passing when we all lived in Boston; we will say nothing about ourselves, really, and in fact our dynamic is such that “updates” would feel trite and forced. We are used, instead, to the idea that the conversation can just continue wherever it was we left off, or didn’t.

6. Get Out Of Jail Free cards?

An investigation from Jonah E. Bromwich on how police officers in New York apparently give courtesy to friends and relatives in order to help them avoid traffic tickets.

(The New York Times, approx 10 mins reading time)

By the time he pulled over the Mazda in November 2018, drivers were handing Bianchi these cards six or seven times a day. But this woman’s card was a little older, a little tattered-looking. It was difficult to make out the contact information of the officer who had given it to her, which is usually written on the card’s back. So Bianchi did the wrong thing, which is to say, the right thing: He wrote the woman a ticket. Though Bianchi didn’t know it then, he had just begun what would become a yearslong struggle to do the job the way he thought it should be done. He had inherited his moral obligations — and a strong dose of stubbornness — from his grandmother, who raised him on Staten Island. But he had no family in the Police Department, and no one who could tell him what to do when its leadership began to turn against him.


wimbledon-greater-london-england-july-02-2022-wimbledon-tennis-championship-close-up-of-an-umpire-chair-with-bananas-and-microphone File photo of an umpire chair at Wimbledon. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

With the Australian Open well underway, here’s a longread from 2020 on what it’s like to be an umpire in the world of professional tennis.

(The Guardian, approx 27 mins reading time)

It was the week of the Italian Open in May, and as we watched a doubles match under the afternoon sun, Bernardes, who speaks softly and has a serene air, told me it had taken him a while to learn not to let the abuse get to him. “If you take all the things that happen on court personally, you cannot survive in this sort of job,” he told me later. “You will go crazy.”

It is rare to hear tennis umpires speak so openly. Few roles in professional sport are more secretive. During tournaments, they can be seen up in the chair – but once the match is over, they are not allowed to explain their decisions in press conferences or on social media. Their code of conduct prohibits them from meeting journalists. In 2019, a month after Damian Steiner officiated the Wimbledon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, he was fired by the ATP tour, one of the sport’s main governing bodies, for giving a series of unauthorised interviews in his native Argentina, in which he suggested a few amendments to the sport’s rules and discussed specific matches and players. (At the time, the ATP called this “a direct violation of the standard protocol”.)

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