home Must Reads Must reads: Convict labor, Princess Diana, Waymo, Eid, and Paratransit

Must reads: Convict labor, Princess Diana, Waymo, Eid, and Paratransit


Good morning, gentle readers! This week we’re exploring longreads on convict labour, Eid celebrations, and much more. Join us as we talk about what we’re reading…and consider dropping into the comments to let us know what you’re enjoying, too!

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The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires‘ (Jaime Lowe for The New York Times)

With a wildfire bearing down on Los Angeles, this story, about the convict firefighters who risk everything on the front lines in California, is especially timely, and fantastically well-done. Take a long, hot walk into California’s convict labour practices in this story.

California’s inmate firefighters choose to take part in the grinding and dangerous work they do. And they get paid for it, though not much. They have to pass a fitness test before they can qualify for fire camps. But once they are accepted into a camp, the training they receive, which often lasts as little as three weeks, is significantly less than the three-year apprenticeship that full-time civilian firefighters get.

The princess myth: Hilary Mantel on Diana‘ (Hilary Mantel for The Guardian)

Princess Diana is one of the most eulogised and mythologised women in modern times. The reality of her life and death is more complicated, and richer. This is a lovely, thoughtful exploration of who Diana Spencer really was.

By her own account, Diana was not clever. Nor was she especially good, in the sense of having a dependable inclination to virtue; she was quixotically loving, not steadily charitable: mutable, not dependable: given to infatuation, prey to impulse. This is not a criticism. Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.

Inside Waymo’s Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars‘ (Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic)

Depending on where you live, you may have spotted a few self-driving cars on the road, but the technology that gets them there is labyrinthine, highly secretive, and utterly fascinating. Have a peek behind the curtain.

At any time, there are now 25,000 virtual self-driving cars making their way through fully modeled versions of Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix, as well as test-track scenarios. Waymo might simulate driving down a particularly tricky road hundreds of thousands of times in a single day. Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

Sacrifice and Hope on Eid al-Adha‘ (Pelin Keskin for Eater)

Muslims across the world just celebrated Eid, and this thoughtful essay about growing up Muslim, family traditions, and faith is an excellent read — especially because it also intersects with the history of Turkey, and the nation’s struggles.

An animal can be sacrificed any time something good happens, as a way of giving thanks to God, but nothing embodies the central role of sacrifice in Turkey more than Eid al-Adha. The holiday, observed across the Muslim world, celebrates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son upon God’s command; Ibrahim’s obedience is rewarded when his son is left unharmed, and a ram is taken instead. It signifies a readiness to give your all to God, and God’s mercy in return. In commemoration, an animal is bought and sacrificed — these days, a butcher typically handles the actual sacrifice — and money is given to those who need mercy, often to fund sacrifices for families who cannot pay for it themselves, so that they may participate in the holiday. (Traditionally, the sacrificed animal is divided into thirds, one of which goes to the poor, but there is flexibility with the amount, and sometimes money replaces the meat offering.) Eid’s annual occurrence is determined by the lunar calendar, so the date is pushed back about 11 days each year. This year, it begins on September 1; last year, it began on September 12.

On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect, and Human Dignity‘ (Britney Wilson for Longreads)

New York, like many other cities in the US, operates a transit system geared towards the disability community — and it’s dehumanising, frustrating to use, and laden with problems. This story, when opens with a discussion of the service as it is today and rapidly descends into a horrific and bizarre narrative of an absurd incident, highlights what disabled people who use the service have to contend with on a daily basis.

The concept of entitlement is familiar jargon in discussions of race and class, and it is just as widespread in the realm of disability. It’s the idea that we are acting as if someone owes us something rather than merely asking to be treated with the respect and human dignity we deserve. It is the belief that people of a certain status or apparent condition have no right to demand better because we should just be happy with whatever we get. We should be happy we have anything at all.

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Photo: Roger Jones/Creative Commons