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The best tech writing of 2011

long reads

2011 brought ever more things to skim, sort, filter, and read, so it's no surprise that our collective Instapaper queues are overflowing. Before you mark everything as read — you're not really going to get to those 3,219 unread articles no matter how hard you attack your New Year's resolutions — we've got a couple stories that you shouldn't miss. Here's a selection of writing about technology that stayed with us, whether it offered a particular insight into a startup, added a fresh take on endless social media pandering, or simply nailed some classic pound-the-pavement, behind-the-scenes reporting.

Ftrain.com: Paul Ford - The Web Is a Customer Service Medium

WWIC is the thing people talk about when they talk about nicer-sounding things like "the wisdom of crowds" or "cognitive surplus." It has become the first thing I think about when I think about the web. I've spent a lot of time with users, and as part of various web communities. I've answered thousands of emails about things I built or said. Now, when I sit down to graffle, I start by asking: "How do we deal with the WWIC problem?" Everything else comes after.

Wired Magazine: Kim Zetter - How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History

The fact that Stuxnet was injecting commands into the PLC and masking that it was doing so was evidence that it was designed, not for espionage as everyone had believed, but for physical sabotage. The researchers were stunned. It was the first time anyone had seen digital code in the wild being used to physically destroy something in the real world. Hollywood had imagined such a scenario years earlier in a Die Hard flick. Now reality had caught up with fantasy.

The New Yorker: Ken Auletta - A Woman's Place

People at Google tried to persuade her to stay, pointing out that Facebook’s chief financial officer would not report to her and that she would not be invited to join its board of directors. But eventually she took the job. Later, Sandberg would tell people that Facebook was a company driven by instinct and human relationships. The point, implicitly, was that Google was not. Sandberg seemed to have insulted some of her former colleagues. "She could have handled her departure more crisply," a senior Google official says.

BLDGBLOG: Geoff Manaugh - Spacesuit: An interview with Nicholas de Monchaux

But then the actual spacesuit--this 21-layered messy assemblage made by a bra company, using hand-stitched couture techniques--is kind of an anti-hero. It's much more embarrassing, of course--it's made by people who make women's underwear--but, then, it's also much more urbane.

Tweetage Wasteland: Dave Pell - Something Disintegrates at a Burger King

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple’s marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can’t stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.

The New York Times: Jonah Weiner - Where Do Dwarf-Eating Carp Come From?

Unlike those games, though, Dwarf Fortress unfolds as a series of staggeringly elaborate challenges and devastating setbacks that lead, no matter how well one plays, to eventual ruin. The goal, in the game’s main mode, is to build as much and as imaginatively as possible before some calamity — stampeding elephants, famine, vampire dwarves — wipes you out for good.

BusinessWeek: Felix Gillette - The Rise and Inglorious Fall of Myspace

To dispel the gloom, Myspace employees bought a slushy machine and instituted Friday happy hours. One day the actor Pauly Shore was wandering through the Myspace offices and was cajoled by Raich into posing with the slushy machine. Pretty soon the photo of "The Weasel" bending down to suck some red brew out of the machine’s spigot was ricocheting around the offices and getting posted all over Myspace. It felt for a moment like old times.

The New York Times: Mona Simpson - A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs

When I met Steve, he was a guy my age in jeans, Arab- or Jewish-looking and handsomer than Omar Sharif.We took a long walk — something, it happened, that we both liked to do. I don’t remember much of what we said that first day, only that he felt like someone I’d pick to be a friend. He explained that he worked in computers.

n+1: The Editors - Chathexis

Tucked beneath our covers, laptops propped on our knees—is this not the posture most conducive to meaningful Gchatting? In addition to being comfortable, our beds are private; on Gchat, we must be by ourselves to best be with others. Night affords another degree of solitude: like the lights in the apartment building across the street, Gchat’s bright bulbs go out, one by one, until a single circle glows hopefully. Like Gatsby’s green light, it is the promise of happiness.

The Awl: Nishant Batsha - The Condition: Existential Googling

Questions that are self-consciously academic (why is it that emptiness tends to co-exist with our late capitalism?) or simply existential (why is this all so meaningless?) appear in the search box. I’ve confessed this habit to friends, who at first tend to label it as just another idiosyncrasy. After a few drinks, the confession surfaces: they too find themselves seeking solace in Google from time to time. To borrow a turn of phrase from Søren Kierkegaard, we all seem to be suffering the Sickness Unto Search. We are Existential Googlers.

BusinessWeek: Douglas MacMillan and Adam Satariano - The Shadowy World of iPhone Cases

With the secretive Cupertino (Calif.) iPhone maker unwilling to share specifications in advance, case companies rely on rumors, factory leaks, and other guesswork to approximate new designs before they’re revealed. "If you have a good sense that you have the right measurements and plans, then you can ramp up production," says Karl Jacob, chief executive officer of case maker Coveroo, who says he does not use leaked designs. If a company guesses right, then "while these other guys are waiting in line, you already have 100,000 units on the way from China," he says. But a wrong guess means "risking millions of dollars to create inventory that could be worthless."

Fast Company : Danielle Sacks - The Boy in the Bubble

They have downed one too many greasy meals of pizza and burritos, he explains, so they're now competing in their own version of The Biggest Loser. Nguyen, a surfer and snowboarder, doesn't have an ounce of extra body fat on his compact 5-foot-7 frame; still, he has hatched a plan to bury his employees. "I have a strategy to lose weight really, really fast, at a pace they can't keep up with. Then they'll be demoralized," he smizes, over his lunch of fruit salad and iced tea. "I don't care if I have to go to the hospital, I'm going to beat all of them. I'm not going to let them win. I refuse to let them win." The week before his final weigh-in, he tells me, all he'll consume is rice cakes and beef jerky. "I'm in every game. I play every game. Weight-loss game. Scrabble."

The Awl: Bethlehem Shoals - The Condition: Personality Seepage

If enough of ourselves is up on the screen at once, we feel whole, even real. It reinforces the belief (a necessary one for some of us) that bringing our lives to the web doesn’t mean draining them (or us) of anything, well, human.

The Atlantic: Megan Mcardle - Anatomy of a Fake Quotation

At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and--for reasons that I, appropriately chastened, will not speculate on--stripped out the quotation marks. Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history. Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google.

Forbes: Victoria Barret - Dropbox: The Inside Story Of Tech's Hottest Startup

Jobs smiled warmly as he told them he was going after their market. "He said we were a feature, not a product," says Houston. Courteously, Jobs spent the next half hour waxing on over tea about his return to Apple, and why not to trust investors, as the duo—or more accurately, Houston, who plays Penn to Ferdowsi’s mute Teller—peppered him with questions.When Jobs later followed up with a suggestion to meet at Dropbox’s San Francisco office, Houston proposed that they instead meet in Silicon Valley. "Why let the enemy get a taste?" he now shrugs cockily. Instead, Jobs went dark on the subject, resurfacing only this June, at his final keynote speech, where he unveiled iCloud, and specifically knocked Dropbox as a half-attempt to solve the Internet’s messiest dilemma: How do you get all your files, from all your devices, into one place?

For even more excellent pieces that we just weren't able to include in these top 15, head on over to the Rest of the Best in the forums. While you're at it, check out some of The Verge's features on Kickstarted, walking robots, a history of jetpacks, and survival condos.

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