144: Semantic existentialism

A new BS Original interview, Nabokov on Superman, and many other things both fungible and not.

For me, it felt like it really started on the train back from Montreal. Stepped on to the train vaguely worried about surfaces, stepped off into a pandemic. The alerts along the way buzzing for Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert and the HBO. I switched to writing these intros in the first person just after I got back and so now we have them for posterity. Happy anniversary, for all of this, to you, with whatever you’ve been through and whatever you’re still going through. Personally, I like the argument that the pandemic truly started on this continent when Remote, Oregon, became the job capital of America. I guess that’s where my desk is now.

Still, a year in, the ports are still clogged with our doom shopping. Coronagrifting attention addicts continue to come up with “design” solutions that make me irrationally angry. The Ghanaian coffin dancers are doing branded content for Afrisocks. That tune still bangs. But some of you are probably vaccinated now? That’s cool. Onwards! Tell me how you’re doing, won’t you?

– Patrick

BS Originals

We’re getting our original interviews back up and running again. For this one, we just wanted to eavesdrop on two brilliant people we really respect in conversation with each other, so we asked longtime BS reader Britt Wray—who writes the email Gen Dread, “a newsletter about staying sane in the climate and wider ecological crisis”—if we could listen in on her working through a few things with the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. We produced this interview in collab with Gen Dread, which you should totally subscribe to. Welcome to the many many new subscribers who came to us via Britt’s email this week—we’re so happy to have you here.

Glenn Albrecht and a new lexicon for a troubled planet.
The scale of the climate crisis leaves us bereft of a language to adequately conceive of it. But can deliberate and provocative thinking around that language offer us tools to cope? A conversation between environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, and writer and science communicator Britt Wray.

Things

I’m young and bursting with prodigious sap,
and I’m in love like any healthy chap –
and I must throttle my dynamic heart
for marriage would be murder on my part,
an earthquake, wrecking on the night of nights
a woman’s life, some palmtrees, all the lights,
the big hotel, a smaller one next door
and half a dozen army trucks – or more.

Yes, dear reader, this is indeed Vladimir Nabokov, in 1942, thinking in rhyme about Superman’s superhuman sexual concerns. And yes, dear reader, we did pay the subscription fee to the TLS just to read this and we have no regrets. None! Unlike the New Yorker editor who rejected it—their life’s biggest mistake. Honestly, we’d consider signing up for Clubhouse just to read the whole thing to all of you.

Semantic existentialism: Carl Zimmer at Quanta on the endlessly futile struggle for scientists and philosophers to agree on a basic, consistent definition of “life”. Full, of course, of the kinds of researchers who collect and curate hundreds of existing definitions to settle on another, only for nobody else to like that for all the reasons you can imagine. Stay for the many commenters below offering their own very certain definitions.

Favourite new newsletter of the week—Chaoyang Trap House, a Beijing-based group-chat-as-email about “marginal subcultures, tiny obsessions, and unexpected connections” in China. Some of our fave emails are taking this conversational form lately—listening in on smart and generous critical thinkers jamming on ideas always seems like a quietly excellent privilege.

And from the also-excellent Vittles email, a wonderful piece on the many historical forces that shaped the singular and passionate pizza culture of Buenos Aires, and those that try to shape it past a fixed idea still. What we wouldn’t give for a slightly confusing porteño slice right about now.

Ben Mauk continues his vital reporting on the horrors of life in Xinjiang, as told by those who’ve lived it, now with the epic scale and resources of The New Yorker to hand. What’s important about Mauk’s work is not that he’s breaking any hard news about the atrocities, but that he’s presenting, as clearly as anyone in English-language media has, what it is to live them. As a rare treat, the interactive blockbuster article treatment here helps, rather than hinders, in getting the story across. If you missed his interviews with exiles in Kazakhstan in The Believer a couple of years back, do read those as well.

Clare Busch in Newlines on the more-than-25-year history of Turkey’s Saturday Mothers movement, quietly and loudly persisting through regime changes, police harassment, accusations of supporting terrorism, and a pandemic, to keep alive the memory of thousands disappeared.

Scientific American reporting on a data-analysis study—important to note, only a preprint, and we don’t know how to read those economics formulae to critique it for you—with a headline that speaks for itself: “Killings by Police Declined after Black Lives Matter Protests”.

“We are aware that both West Papua rebels and the Indonesian military need signal. My job is merely providing the signal.” A report from Febriana Firdaus in Rest of World on the digital battlegrounds of the West Papuan independence movement, where beyond the physical conflict and tolls of the decades-long struggle, Papuan voices push back against government troll campaigns, bandwidth throttling, and internet shutdowns.

We’ve been trying to figure out just what to make of Joshua Hammer’s massive NYT Mag report on the strange fate of Paul Rusesabagina, he of Hotel Rwanda fame, since it dropped last week. If you’ve not read much on the Rwandan genocide lately, Hammer is one of its best and most reliable western documenters—he was there at the time, at least—and this is a really strong and in-depth overview of some of what happened to the country after global attention turned away, and of the dark paths minor Hollywood fame sent Rusesabagina on, inevitably leading to his arrest on the runway in Kigali. But there’s so much disinformation flying in every direction, from the Rwandan government and its leader Paul Kagame’s henchmen and whisper campaigners, to the conspiracy theorists and genocide deniers on the outside, that it feels like the real story it’s trying to tell is in the spaces it can’t quite reach. Hammer is not unaware of this, and does what he can to find a middle ground, but we long for actual Rwandan voices, if they were able to tell this story in a way that won’t land them in prison or worse, who might get us closer to a truth. If you know of any, let us know! But meantime, chalk one more up for the devastating consequences of Hollywood’s saviour complex.

"It occurs to me that not everyone has watched the 1967 short film that Jim Henson made for IBM and its new word processing machine," Seth Rockman tweeted. We agree. Please enjoy the mesmerising "Paperwork Explosion":

(Watching this, we were haunted by the nagging familiarity of the dialogue. And then it hit—flashback to Australia, 2000, when Kate Crawford, who would go on to cofound the AI Now Institute, dropped this B(if)tek banger built around a sample from it that’s only rarely left our heads in the years since.)

“Our success in adapting to isolation has a price: Over time, the feeling of missing other people starts to mutate into a more profound alienation. A self is a social construct, created through interaction, and these months alone have not only robbed us of the society of others, but of the aspects of ourselves that we shape in collaboration with other people. After a year of training ourselves to shield against the invisible threat posed by other bodies, reopening means grappling with the disturbance to our sense of self posed by other minds.”

Two friends of Buckslip, on different forms of isolation—first, Linda Besner in the Globe and Mail on the turbulence that awaits us on our imminent reentry. And Josephine Rowe, in an excerpt at LitHub from her stunning book-length exploration of the underappreciated Australian writer Beverley Farmer, finding in it words that sharpen “appreciation for both the immediate, sensory world and the histories underlain.”

We love Peak Design products (in the beforetimes, their hardy-as-heck-but-still-somehow-cool duffel was slung around Patrick’s shoulder on trips to everywhere from Lebanon to East Timor), so we naturally enjoyed how they responded to Amazon shamelessly copying one of their products for the Amazon Basics range simply by having fun with them in video form. But it led us to wonder, has anyone properly written on how this self-replication Amazon concept-lifting machine actually works? We dug up this WSJ report from last year, but we still want to read something more on it. Add it to the list of things we want you to write for us, ok?

We started reading this Ketan Joshi piece thinking, do we really need to read and/or share another graph-heavy explainer of why Bitcoin is such a curse for the planet? The answer was yes, we do.

“I think the story of Bitcoin isn’t a sideshow to climate; it’s actually a very significant and central force that will play a major role in dragging down the accelerating pace of positive change. This is because it has an energy consumption problem, it has a fossil fuel industry problem, and it has a deep cultural / ideological problem… All three, in symbiotic concert, position Bitcoin to stamp out the hard-fought wins of the past two decades, in climate. Years of blood, sweat and tears – in activism, in technological development, in policy and regulation – extinguished by a bunch of bros with laser-eye profile pictures.”

See also: videos of raids on clandestine Bitcoin mines secreted in Abkhazian basements.

It seemed important to put that before any further talk of NFTs, marble cards, Beeplemania, and the art world. And we were loathe to send you back there, but we wanted you to have the opportunity to go wherever the heck all of that sent Dean Kissick, via Pepe in Giverny:

“There’s just too much of everything. There are too many different Oreos. 65 flavours in 8 years is too many. Too many Hot Chicken Wing Oreos, Waffle & Syrup Oreos, Jelly Donut Oreos, Supreme Oreos. There’s too much content that appears different but is the same. Too many identities are available to us. Too many manias. Too many hysterias. Examine nearly any aspect of society and you can see it’s gone too far. The reason so many flavours of Oreos are invented, according to the cookie’s brand director, is that this overabundance of choice reminds us of and drives us back to the original. It reminds us of how much we like the old Oreo, the Platonic ideal of the Oreos of childhood, the Proustian Oreo with the glass of cold milk. When there’s too much of everything however, at some point the original is lost, the memory is lost, and all that remains are faded, flat, hollowed-out derivatives.”

Meanwhile, back in the more fungible art world, this comprehensive Artnews survey of the pre- and intra-pandemic business models of art museums across the US by Amy Haimerl is a fascinating melange of old behemoths and new hunting for wows, for endowments, for purpose.

Let us now praise famous spreadsheets: this contrarian (but sort of correct!) appreciation of Excel is bonkers detailed and quite delightfully weird in its imagining of Excel as an endlessly giving fountain of productivity (and product ideas). In particular we love the infographic towards the end that illustrates the wild number of online startups devoted to replicating just one aspect of what the old mule handles in its own stubborn way.

“It was easy to misunderstand her as just a typist – and many did – not only because she also typed everything, as he never learned how, but also because her interventions were made in private, before the text was ever seen by anyone else. I was witness to it as a child and then as a teenager, but by and large only they knew what passed between them and how much she reframed, adjusted, trained the novels as they grew. She was adamant that her contribution was not writing, that the creative partnership they had was uneven. She declined interviews and stepped out of photographs—even family ones, so that as we were looking this week for images for the order of service at her cremation, we had very few, and those were stolen moments gleaned before she could practise her invisibility trick. It was part of how it worked: he produced, they edited; he burned, she fanned. It was their conspiracy, the thing that no one else could ever offer him, in which they both connived.”

Nick Cornwell with a loving remembrance of his mother, Jane, and her devoted and critical role in the creation of the books written by his father, David, who died just two months before her, the conspiracy running right to the end. You might know David better as John le Carré.

You may have read a lot of reports this week about the death of Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette tape. Just as interesting, we found, was this piece by Addison del Mastro at The American Conservative, on the cassette tape mechanisms still being manufactured long after the actual manufacturers pulled the Bic pen and threw them out the car window: “The modern global manufacturing process, anchored in China’s Guangdong province, takes hold of dead technologies and reanimates them in a cheap but serviceable manner. It is thus possible to continue producing the same thing, or the same type of thing, long after mainstream manufacturers have vacated a shrinking market. Most of the cassette players being made today are not produced by an actual company, but rather ordered to spec, assembled mostly out of off-the-shelf parts, and slapped with a brand name (look up “Reka” or “Riptunes”). There’s something democratic about it: low-cost manufacturing on demand. There’s also something almost spooky about this.”

We don’t post this Montreal Gazette article about rent hikes at the Mile End bookstore SW Welch simply because we adore that particular bookstore (we do)—in fact the landlord later backtracked in the face of community anger. But because it shows in detail how everything that is beautiful and irreplaceable about a neighbourhood like that can be rather easily and systematically dismantled by a couple of people with some cash and a shoulder to the development wheel. Happens here in Toronto too, where just this weekend one of our more infamous developers was sprung illegally renting apartments to unsuspecting tenants above an auto body shop emitting toxic fumes, on a site he hopes to turn into a tower a block away from where Patrick’s writing this just now. That one we post because it gives us an excuse to indulge in posting one of the great Toronto songs, about selfsame developer:

Head scratcher of the week: We’re wondering how the hell the Canadian edition of The Epoch Times, the Falun Gong-affiliated purveyor of far-right conspiracy theories and wall-to-wall condemnations of the Chinese Communist Party, wins itself a federal grant worth $455,000 CAD, plus emergency wage subsidies from the government’s business relief kitty? The first amount comes via the Canada Periodical Fund, intended to help print magazines and community newspapers “overcome market disadvantages” in a country where domestic publishers have long struggled against the dominance of much larger American competitors. While the paper has gotten a makeover in recent years to give it more the appearance of a professional news outlet, the content itself has arguably gotten even more pernicious, amplifying much of the fact-proof nonsense from the fringier fringes of the right-wing mediasphere. We know this because like many Canadian residents we’ve recently received free sample copies in the mail, despite the objections of many postal workers forced to deliver them.

Related, Perry Link has a good overview in the New York Review of Books on the enthusiasm for Donald Trump among many dissidents and CCP critics in the Chinese diaspora and the recent emergence of the derogatory term baizuo—literally meaning “white people on the left”. As with any relatively new term circulating on the internet, pinning down its usage can prove a bit slippery; though in some cases it’s been used by dissidents to describe the naiveté of Western leftists historically toward the CCP, it seems most often thrown around to capture the perceived double-standard of Western media when covering China, or to mock a ‘woke left’ overly fixated on identity and cultural issues.

“Maybe my brain is just pickled in a thick brine of year-long lockdown logyness, but is it possible that the Grammys award show this weekend was actually kind of … good?” That’s Buckslip pal Carl Wilson over at Slate, giving credit to the one televised awards show that has managed to reinvent itself successfully for pandemic times. This, even though the highly deserving Phoebe Bridgers came away empty-handed. At least Elton John has promised to rectify the oversight.