Weekend Reading: The Terror of Tornadoes, bell hooks, Steph Curry's Record, and More
The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.
There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.
Rare December Tornado Outbreak Was a ‘Worst-Case Scenario’ — Thomas Frank, E&E News/Scientific American
The storms that ravaged the South didn’t reach my hometown in the western part of the state, just above the Mississippi state line, with the same force they had about two hours north, where my sister lives and works. Across the northern state line into Kentucky saw the worst of the damage.
The tornado outbreak that likely killed more than 100 people over the weekend was an anomaly in every way possible. The deaths were concentrated in a state — Kentucky — that has been relatively unscathed by tornadoes and tornado fatalities. The outbreak hit during a month when tornadoes are least likely to occur. And it struck at night, when tornadoes are unusual — and particularly deadly because people are asleep and unlikely to hear warnings. … The outbreak is certainly the deadliest to have occurred in the United States during a winter month, according to an E&E News analysis of NOAA tornado records dating to 1950. The deadliest recorded December tornado occurred in 1953 in Mississippi and killed 38 people, NOAA records show.
🖥️ Here’s How Rare That Massive Tornado in Kentucky Actually Was — Philip Bump, The Washington Post: “In the 70 years from 1950 and 2019, there were nearly 64,000 tornadoes recorded in the United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. Of that total, there was precisely one, a tornado that hit in 1952, that generally shared an unusual set of circumstances with the one that touched down over the weekend: It hit Kentucky in December and was measured at at least an F3 in intensity. It’s an unusual combination and, this time, a deadly one.” I love the maps in this story that show the prevalence of tornadoes by month, and, as the months move throughout the year, you can see the tornadoes working their way north on the map, until the winter months roll around again.
📖 They Said the Tornado Would Hit at 9:30. It Hit at 9:30. — Thomas Fuller & Tariro Mzezewa, The New York Times: This story resonated with me from the jump, for one very specific reason: the 1995 movie Twister. When I was a kid, this was a VHS that I nearly wore out from watching and rewinding so many times. For a time, I thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life, to chase storms. If you haven’t thought about the movie in many years, you’d be forgiven if you’d forgotten that it wasn’t just an addiction to the adrenaline of the chase. Helen Hunt’s character was chasing a ghost; as a child, she’d lost her father to a tornado because the warning didn’t come in time. Now, all those years later, the technology has caught up.
The huge strides in tornado prediction rates have been made possible by a cascade of scientific advances. The introduction of Doppler radar in the 1990s and subsequent upgrades allowed forecasters to measure the wind inside of a storm, to distinguish between rain, snow or hail and to see and predict the formation of tornadoes. The proliferation of weather satellites allows scientists even more visibility into the formation of storms — and, crucially, the conditions that might create a tornado. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates 16 satellites.
🗄️ From 2011: “Heavenly Father!" “I Love You All!" “I Love Everyone!" “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" “I Love All of You!" — Luke Dittrich, Esquire: There was a line in that Scientific American story that caught my attention: “Although the exact death toll remains unknown, the outbreak is almost certain to be the deadliest since the devastating Joplin, Missouri, tornadoes killed 158 people in May of 2011. It’s likely to be one of the deadliest tornado events in U.S. history.” I remember that storm well. I was in my first year of law school, and that year I’d made a dear friend who was from Joplin. That’s the only reason I had ever heard of the town when the tornado struck. Out of that storm came this remarkable piece of journalism, and if that evocative headline didn’t get your attention, maybe this deck will: “On May 22nd, a three-quarter-mile-wide tornado carved a six-mile-long path through Joplin, Missouri, killing 160. Unable to escape, two dozen strangers sought shelter in a gas station's walk-in cooler while the funnel ripped apart every building, car, and living thing around. This is their story.”
‘The World Is a Lesser Place Today Without Her.’ Acclaimed Author bell hooks Dies at 69. — Linda Blackford, Lexington Herald Leader
bell hooks, a Hopkinsville native who went on to an international career as a hugely influential author, critic, feminist and public intellectual, died on December 15th at her home in Berea. She was 69. … Gloria Jean Watkins was born on September 25th, 1952, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to Veodis and Rosa Bell Watkins, the fourth of seven siblings. She attended segregated schools in Christian County, then went on to Stanford University in California, then earned a master’s in English at the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate in literature at the University of California–Santa Cruz.
🗄️ From 1999: What bell hooks Had to Say About the State of Feminism in 1999 — Jacqueline Trescott, The Washington Post: This article from 1999 captured bell hooks while she was at an event for one of her books. She was a prolific author, and the book, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, was “her reflections on famous writers, her own work and ‘women who write too much.’” I love this quote in particular: “No one said to John Coltrane, Why do you play the saxophone so much?’ … They accepted he had a passion for this,” hooks says. She is wrapped in black and red wool, as dramatic in person as she is on the page. Writing is as easy for her as breathing, and as necessary for life, she says. “There is a lushness to how my mind works. And sometimes I feel guilty because I have this abundance of ideas but I have my life mapped out in writing for the next 20 years.”
🎧 bell hooks on How We Raise Men — David Remnick, The New Yorker Radio Hour: In the aftermath of the revelation of the details of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes, and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, bell hooks talked with David Remnick about patriarchy and masculinity.
🗄️ From 1995: Cool Cynicism: Pulp Fiction — bell hooks, Artforum: I first read this review of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in American Film Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Until Now, a collection of critical writings on film. While it was likely low on the ladder of her writing in terms of its importance, it was one of the first that I thought of when I heard about her death. It shows off a particular style as she both lauds and criticizes the film.
Tarantino has the real nihilism of our times down. He represents the ultimate ‘white cool’: a hard-core cynical vision that would have everyone see racism, sexism, homophobia, but behave as though none of that shit really matters, or if it does it means nothing cause none of it’s gonna change, cause the real deal is that domination is here to stay — going nowhere and everybody is in on the act. Mind you, domination is always and only patriarchal — a dick thing.
🗄️ From 2019: In Praise of bell hooks — Min Jin Lee, The New York Times: Min Jin Lee tells the story of how she, as a sophomore at Yale University, came to find herself in a class taught by bell hooks. She described hooks as one of those lecturers who can captivate a class, where everyone in the room recognizes that something special is happening. hooks opened Lee’s mind through her writings.
For me, reading ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind. I am neither white nor black, but through her theories, I was able to understand that my body contained historical multitudes and any analysis without such a measured consideration was limited and deeply flawed.
Steph Curry Redrew Basketball’s Map of Possibilities — Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker
What strikes me about Steph Curry breaking Ray Allen’s three-point record isn’t that he did it; that much seemed like a foregone conclusion. It was that I actually got to watch it happen in real time, which by no means was a sure thing. But I saw it, and whenever it comes to discussing that record, I’ll never forget that I saw it live.
Curry’s three, by contrast, isn’t an interesting novelty or the final recourse for a lengthening career. It is the culmination of a process that began when the three-pointer was invented. Techniques exist to be perfected; Curry has pushed the three toward its telos. He runs with his torso slightly bent over, with his feet set at a noticeably wide stance — the better to spring into the holistic motion, big toe to the tip of his pointer finger, that makes the net shiver, no matter how far away. Unlike Allen or Miller or his teammate Klay Thompson, another great shooter, he doesn’t have just one form. He placidly fans the shot upward on standard catch-and-shoots but throws his arms out like a tipsy dart player when he’s off balance and covered well.
📖 Stephen Curry’s Scientific Quest for the Perfect Shot — Ben Cohen, The Wall Street Journal:
Curry decided before this NBA season that he wasn’t satisfied with simply making shots anymore. He wouldn’t even settle for swishing those shots. “Too easy,” said Brandon Payne, his longtime personal coach. “We're doing swishes within swishes.” The only way to do that was to shrink the basket. This is where the shot-tracking technology described in Pyke’s research became useful to Curry. It allowed him to monitor the exact location of his shots and instantly learn whether they were good enough for him. A shot that strays nearly five inches away from the center of the hoop in either direction can still be a swish. But that margin of error in his left-right positioning was much too high for Curry. So last summer, as he shot threes in the NBA offseason, he gave himself only three inches of wiggle room. He was even more demanding when shooting from closer: Curry’s leeway for his free throws was two inches.
📖 His Job Is Counting Stephen Curry’s 3-Pointers. You’d Retire, Too. — Scott Cacciola, The New York Times: This is such a clever use of Steph Curry’s fame and spotlight to highlight a man who toils away behind the scenes and, in many ways, is one of the least likely to get such recognition.
[Fred] Kast, who will turn 82 this month, has recorded every field goal, every free throw, every foul and every timeout in nearly every Warriors home game since 1963-64. He jots the stats into an NBA-issue, spiral-bound notebook that goes to the league office at the conclusion of each season. In a league that has seen its share of technological advances, the official scorer — the person who logs each game’s most vital elements — is a throwback, and every team has one. Somewhere in the NBA archives, there is a small library of Kast’s handiwork.
🖥️ The NBA’s Revolution in Pull-Up Threes Isn’t Going Away. But Does the Shot Actually Help? — Louis Zatzman, FiveThirtyEight: Steph Curry is credited with breaking the game of basketball, with changing the entire way the game is played. This is said in reference to his three-point shooting prowess. “Such shots are now routine, emblematic of a revolution of the pull-up three. Steph Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard each pushed the usage of the shot beyond what had been its logical boundaries in previous eras, and those three remain some of the best pull-up shooters in the NBA. But as often takes place in revolutions, the action has spread beyond the originators; the pull-up three has become the norm throughout the league. Year after year, teams are pushing the envelope in how many pull-up threes are attempted.” FiveThirtyEight takes its statistical look at whether that revolution is a good thing for the NBA.
📖 He Thought He Made N.B.A. History. All He Got Was 3 Points. — Tania Ganguli, The New York Times: For those of us of a certain age, the three-pointer has always been a part of basketball. It’s hard for us to conceive of the game without it. But it bears remembering that it was an addition to the game, long after the fact. And one man thought he’d recorded the first three ever. Until he learned he didn’t.
For more than a decade, Kevin Grevey thought he was the first player in N.B.A. history to make a 3-pointer. “It’s pretty amazing that I didn’t make the first one,” Grevey, 68, said recently. “Because I think the first time I touched the ball I caught it in the corner and toed behind the line, shot it and made it.”
More of Our Favorites From the Past Week
How Netflix Made Americans Care About the Most European of Sports — Amanda Mull, The Atlantic
What We Lost When Vaping Got Political — Vanessa Grigoriadis, Vanity Fair
4 Dead Infants, a Convicted Mother, and a Genetic Mystery — Oscar Schwartz, Wired
Jason Isbell Is Tired of Country’s Love Affair With White Nostalgia — Elamin Abdelmahmoud, BuzzFeed News
John Roberts Has Lost Control — Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.
The Atlantic’s Reporting on January 6th
📖 Beware Prophecies of Civil War — Fintan O’Toole, The Atlantic
Chris Cuomo’s Exit
📖 CNN Faces Prime-Time Uncertainty After Firing Chris Cuomo — Benjamin Mullin, The Wall Street Journal
📖 Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Chose Fraud Instead of Admitting She’d Failed, Prosecutors Said in Closing Arguments at Her Trial — Stephanie K. Baer, BuzzFeed News
This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.
Searching for the Perfect Title: Pamela Newkirk on ‘Spectacle’ and ‘Within the Veil’
A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.
The Orgy Next Door: Ethical Relationships in Gay Talese’s ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife’ and ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’
On the balance between loyalty to the reader and to the investigated subject or community, and the need for self-awareness in literary journalism.