A study published this week in Nature maps, for the first time, the global web of mycorrhizal fungi networks that adorably dorky scientists love to call the “wood wide web”, and reporters love to call a social network for trees. What it really is, though, is the world alive beneath our feet—the interconnections in the undergrowth that are the collectivist foundation of the planet’s ecosystem. Yeah look, that’s the only climate change content for this week—not despair for a change, but just a picture of something beautiful, only just coming into focus. Also maybe a quote from that most Buckslip of novels, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer a few weeks back and does as glorious a job as anything we’ve read of bringing that network to life:
“Networked together underground by countless thousands of mile of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests.... Her trees are far more social than [she] suspected. There are no individuals. There aren't even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.“
Helen Rosner, introducing us to the term “share of stomach”, on Liquid Death, the VC-funded bro-punk marketing nadir of the bottled-water industry: “Arguing about what’s punk is a cornerstone of punk culture. But most of us can agree that logging on to Amazon to buy a twenty-two-dollar twelve-pack of water is definitively not.”
Repentance is incomplete without humility. We’ve heard enough from those responsible for ruining things—now they want us to listen to their mea culpas, and to give them all the more credit for finally coming so far around. After Chris Hughes in the NYT last week, we’re just not in the mood. But this week Paul Ford took his turn, so we’re sucked right back in. He’s just as guilty of nostalgia, but his is more whimsical than mythic. Both talk big, but while Chris works up to policy proposals, Paul digs down into how it has felt to get caught up. Humbled not just by Big Tech, but by his own inability to see clearly when in the thick of it all. In short, this is better writing than anything else you’ll find from the tech elite, whether on Medium, Hacker News, or the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Anand Giridharadas’s evisceration of Jared Diamond’s new book Upheaval is almost too painful, but we love how he lays out the systemic problems of the "30,000-foot" book, those chunky airport monsters from opinionated men which “sell an explanation of everything.” Also, he calls out something critical that’s not talked about nearly enough–the complete lack of professional fact checking in the non-fiction book market, unless the author themselves wants to pay for it.
We’ve long been fascinated by fotonovelas, a genre popular in France, Spain and parts of Latin America roughly from the fifties through seventies, but which never really caught on in North America. In his regular column Pinakothek for The Paris Review, where he “excavates and examines miscellaneous visual strata of the past”, Luc Sante unpacks the roots and visual grammar of the form. Also at The Paris Review, Hanif Abdurraqib has a new column, where he’ll be reflecting on the relationship between songs and memory; here, he begins, by untangling personal moments of longing, loss, and near-loss through the music of Lucy Dacus.
Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s cover story on CBD oil in this week’s NYT Mag is an authoritative piece of reporting. Velasquez-Manoff embraces hope without succumbing to hype as he lays out the fraught politics of research, and the racially charged history of prohibition, where “cannabis science and vernacular cannabis use exist in an uneasy symbiosis”. As scientists “search for signals on what to study in this sea of self-experimentation”, this article gives a better grounding to understand its real, exciting possibilities than a thousand hype pieces about miracle cures. Like aspirin, as the writer sees it, CBD oil’s potential as a catch-all therapeutic for myriad chronic disorders isn’t so much unearthly magic, as it is science learning to listen to listen to the wisdom of real-world use: “The active ingredient in aspirin, salicylate, was first extracted from willow bark and was a folk remedy for thousands of years before scientists finally made a pill from it in the late 19th century. Folk medicine, for all its associations with old wives’ tales, has yielded important medical discoveries in the past, and it may well do so again.”
For Bloomberg, Leslie Patton tracks the rise of “ghost kitchens” from one-off attempts to turn a quick buck off UberEats deliveries of generic take-out into a massive, venture-backed industry where the same product sells under a variety of demographically-targeted brands, Travis Kalanick is back trying to make another buck, and labour rights, as ever, are squeezed beyond breaking. Read in conjunction with Alex Danco on the rise, and potential future, of outsourced “Cooking as a Service”.
GoT content! We hadn’t expected to read Zeynep Tufekci writing on the show for Scientific American, but she’s great here in analysing what happened when the showrunners took over the story from the author, as “sociological and institutional storytelling” in which characters evolve in response to the broader forces at play around them gave way to the kind of individualistic, psychological storytelling the mass entertainers know how to tell much more easily. “Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing,” she writes. “For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork.”
We’ve been more enthralled with the other HBO ensemble alt-history political saga wrapping up this season anyway.
You don’t need a thinkpiece to appreciate Holly Herndon’s new album PROTO, but we can’t seem to talk about “generative music” without drawing parallels to our age of surveillance or raising questions about human agency and robot ethics. Hua Hsu does all that in his review, but more impressive is his ability to somehow capture a sense of Herndon’s music, which itself makes these associations. There are plenty of other Stanford Ph.D.-level technical wizards who can’t make music as challenging and dramatic as this. If we must credit the machines, shout out to the Apple Music algo that first introduced us to her 2015 album Platform.
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