Media Summary: January/February 2017

Cahokia (artist’s rendition), across the Mississippi from what is now St. Louis

(I think I missed the entry for January, clubbing that here too …)

So, random stuff read, heard, seen:

And just as Smith’s friend says, this descent to righteousness is a habit—one of those habits of the heart, as Alexis de Tocqueville called them, that are essential to “the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States.” In a nation founded on the suspicion of authority, in which the state church is no church at all, in which everyone may well be equally right (or just as disastrously wrong), ideologies inevitably wrestle each other to a standstill. But there is no arguing with the person suffering through no fault of his own; he’s been wronged, so he is right. The struggle for the moral high ground becomes, in remarkably short order, a race to the bottom.

  • Cautiously optimistic about a possible forthcoming movie adaption of Dune
  • AtlasObscura has a lot of interesting, weird stuff, like this bit about the “China girl” images that apparently used to be at the beginning of every movie reel.
  • I’ll admit I never knew about the man behind the “Hugo award”; and if you care about the Hugo award at all, you should read this piece, written by James Gleick (yes, that guy); would’ve used this image for the cover if I’d got to this item first.
  • Harry Houdini wasn’t just a great escape artist, he was also a great inventor. Also, secret footage(!)
  • Finally, 38000 year old art.

Media Summary: December 2016

  • This may only be interesting from a curation/archival point of view, but still: the folks at the “Long Now Foundation” (responsible for that big clock) have a “Manual for Civilization”, which is their canonical list of fundamental books as per various Science Fiction authors, artists, etc.
  • I still think people should care about handwriting, so I’m happy when someone agrees with me
  • This is a fertile period for political theories, and one source of explanations is to go all the way back to the mid-century Frankfurt School.
  • You may have never heard of Terence McKenna, but you might still enjoy this selection of quotes by him.

“The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.”

“Culture is the effort to hold back the mystery, and replace it with a mythology.”

  • I got to know about “Christmas Tree Worms” after seeing the photos someone took on a coral reef dive (there’s no end to weird stuff in the sea).
  • I don’t have time to really play console games any more (sigh!), but I can still drool. Though now I care less about “Call of Duty”, and more about stuff that has a compelling narrative. A leading contender here is “No Man’s Sky”, and here is NPR’s literary perspective on it.
  • Hypertext and interactive fiction is a recent fad of mine, so I found this article interesting, since it asks why we don’t have more hypertexts around (my own explanation is that this branch of fiction migrated from books, to video gaming instead).
  • Finally, I wasn’t sure whether to file this under the ‘science’ or ‘art’ category, and I chose the latter because it just looked so freaking gorgeous: a renaissance-era geometry book! Here is an example:

Notes:

  • List is somewhat in flux because my, um, note-taking system was badly used the last several weeks. There was a lot of other interesting stuff, which is just … lost.
  • A reminder that none of this means anything, it’s a rough catalogue of “some stuff I came across over a month”, that’s all.

Media summary: November 2016

  • Someone made a list of the 25 best films of the century so far (the number one spot goes to David Lynch, so I won’t argue with it)
  • A new aircraft carrier, quite fancy, but with a hefty price tag too ($13 billion)
  • I’m not a fan of Jacobin mag’s political stuff, but this article has some humorous criticism of “anti-stuff” (so … more power to the hoarders? 🙂 )
  • Archaeologists struck gold with a large number of well-preserved (thanks to the lack of oxygen) ships at the bottom of the Black Sea, dating from ancient Greece to the Ottoman empire.
  • An article in Lapham’s Quarterly correlates the introduction of mirrors to the rise of individuals
  • Soviet Sci-Fi. Utopia. Dystopia. Everything in between.
  • Speaking of which … lost gems of Soviet design (too little, too late, which is always how the best stuff is; perhaps later a whole blog post on this, or a whole book), see cover image for an example.
  • The Economist (finally?!) admitted that the simplistic models pushed in macroeconomic textbooks need to be upgraded to account for “institutional strength”.
  • Finally, Harvard research shows that (shockingly!) “an entire global generation has lost faith in democracy”.

(yes, I eschewed footnotes for inline links this time)

Personal Media Summary: October 2016

Meta: This is delayed by a few weeks, and I’m ending the short experiment of cross-posting to Medium.

A few things I saw or read the last month and half:

  • Watched a lot of episodes of Midsomer Murders (I’m surprised at how many seasons this show has!). Slight dip in quality around season 8, and we stopped around season 9 for now.
  • Watched five episodes of Miss Marple (would’ve watched more, but they were really long, and last one was really silly)
  • Re-watched Interstellar. Just as awesome as the first time round, and the “five-dimensional beings” stuff felt just as gratuitous.
  • Saw a few episodes of The Daily Show (after a gap of several years)

(all of this TV watching happened because my dad was visiting, and I was bed-ridden, all through November)

  • Atlas Obscura is my current favorite for amazing trivia, such as this series1 of “fore-edge paintings” on old books.
  • My “tune of the month” is a track2 from Bladerunner.
  • A bizarre, freaky or tragic animal activity: the offspring of a certain spider species3 eat their mother (!)
  • This is a pre-election piece of reading that shouldn’t be too surprising post-election either, a publication4 by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston titled ”Where have all the workers gone?”. Depressing overall, but page 20 has the money quotes on “the prevalence of pain and pain medication”. Also, it points out how the labor force participation rate has been declining from 67.3% in 2000 to 62.4% in 2015, a 40-year low (!)
  • Some pre-election musings5 on Democracy, that turn out to be prescient.

But what if, in our moment, democracy, as we understand it, isn’t worth defending? Hacker and Pierson’s fellow political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels take up this question in their new book, Democracy for Realists.

The pair take this question into consideration by setting their sights on what they call the “folk theory” of democracy: the idea that democracy is a system for translating the people’s will into government policy. They describe this belief as a 21st-century “divine right of kings” and consider it just as deluded as its medieval predecessor. For them, American democracy is not the embodiment of a popular will but the endless struggle between warring tribes motivated by cultural, political, and religious alle­giances, plus a hefty dose of self-interest. All politics, by this reasoning, is identity politics.

And that’s when voters know what they’re doing. Drawing on more than half a century of scholarship, Achen and Bartels conclude that “the political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary citizens are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” These citizens routinely fail simple tests of political knowledge and base their votes on a sloppy mixture of group loyalties and shortsighted assessments of their own well-being—assuming they bother to vote at all, which in the United States, most of the time, they don’t.

That assessment provides a shaky foundation for would-be defenders of democracy. In Achen and Bartels’s telling, politicians win office by appealing to primal instincts within the electorate, while the work of governing is done by elites who know how to organize, build coalitions, and pressure the right legislators. “Policy-making,” they write, “is a job for specialists.” Voters don’t set the agenda; they merely help to elect those who do.

  • The idea6 of another, unseen planet in the solar system just won’t go away.
  • A compilation7 of all the movies that should have won the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’, but didn’t.
  • A really old washing machine advertisement8! Essentially, it’s the same, even after a century: someone using a machine and looking really, really happy doing it.
  • Take this as a bit of comfort if you like to write but you’re worried if you should write in a particular way or for a particular audience: Umberto Eco believes that ”… “I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”

More choice quotes from that interview9:

“Because that’s literature,” said Eco. “Dostoevsky was writing about losers. The main character of The Iliad, Hector, is a loser. It’s very boring to talk about winners. The real literature always talks about losers. Madame Bovary is a loser. Julien Sorel is a loser. I am doing only the same job. Losers are more fascinating.

“Winners are stupid … because usually they win by chance.”

  • This link10 is a bit for fans of Soviet Sci-Fi.
  • Finally, the “long read” recommendation11 of the month:

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.

Personal Media Summary: August 2016

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“City” (Image Credit: The New Yorker)

Random reads from August:

  • I try to start with a “blast from the past”, so here1 is

  • A rambling but heartfelt account2 of the paradoxes of ‘Brexit’

  • Someone discusses their experience of trying to read a hundred books3 in a year

  • I had always wondered about this, but apparently it’s true: we can sense individual photons4

  • This piece5 is the “Silicon Valley critique” (a semi-permanent sub-genre of news/opinion these days) of the month (you can tell it’s supposed to sound relevant; it has a subtitle!). Anyway, it’s definitely good writing:

In their introduction to The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization, the fashion scholars Eugenia Paulicelli and Hazel Clark write that this “aesthetic gentrification… divides the new world map in the light of a softer post-Cold War prejudice: the fashionable and the unfashionable world.” In other words, we are experiencing an isolationism of style versus one of politics or physical geography, though it still falls along economic lines. You either belong to the AirSpace class or you don’t.

  • Among the million articles trying to explain Trump, is this one6 by George Layoff (he of ”Metaphors We Live By” and ”Philosophy in the flesh”)

  • I’m halfway through my five-year goal of reading all of Pynchon, so here’s a piece7 describing the best place to start, ”The Crying of Lot 49”. Shameless plug:

John Ruskin has said “all books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour and the books of all time.” Yet The Crying of Lot 49 occupies a strange third space: novels that are timely yet timeless—books that are so suffused with the cultural minutia and noise of a moment that their saturation itself helps them to endure.

… and …

In our present moment, it is necessary, rather than radical, to be paranoid. Paranoia is now the result of being aware and observant. We are being watched, tracked, traced, and catalogued. Oedipa’s nightmare has become our reality. Therefore, 50 years later, we should allow her to become our guide.

  • Let’s call this my “art pick of the month”: an amazing large-scale work over four decades (we could use more of these!) in the desert8.

  • Every now and then, something like this comes along: the largest pyramid9 by volume was apparently under a large hill for a long time.

  • This one is merely trivia, but it turns out there’s a link between the now-customary “everything is really fictional here” disclaimer in movies, and … wait for it … _Rasputin_10(!)

  • Has the overuse of irony been killing effective critique? Maybe, maybe not. Anything more on the topic will be boring unless you like this sort of thing in which case … this11 might be the sort of thing you like.

  • Regardless of your opinion about his other political views, Eric Raymon has this fascinating account12 of the history of science fiction, and how it links up with broader cultural and political history.

  • If you’ve been reading comments, forums, etc. on the internet over the last decade or so, none of this13 will be new for you, but it made the cover of Time magazine this time, so I guess its news (basically, there be trolls).

  • This14 report suggests that the real crisis of inequality isn’t gauged by simply looking at individual incomes or wealth, but the generational impact within households.

  • To end with another blast from the past, here15 is some hand-wringing about France being “americanized”, from roughly six decades ago (but oh, doesn’t it seem so current :-))

(still cross-posting this here and on Medium; perhaps later I’ll just stick to the latter)

Personal Media Summary: July 2016

shinjukusta.jpg
Shinjuku Station

Random general reads from July:

  • A “scientific” take on the basic shapes of stories1 (no kidding)

  • Behind every romantic myth is a bunch of B.S., which, this author claims, is the case with _Bushido_2

  • My music pick of the month: a track3 from Bladerunner

  • An article showcases4 how well-intentioned political reforms in the past led to the chaotic present conditions

  • Yanis Varoufakis shares5 his opinion on things to come

  • Photo pick of the month: X-ray images6 of train stations!

  • More typograph (last month: Alien, this month: _Bladerunner_[^typography])

  • Amazing and poignant pictures7 showcasing lost Soviet technology, in a London exhibition. Sample caption:

“Secret cities that cannot be found on maps, forgotten scientific triumphs, abandoned buildings of almost inhuman complexity. The perfect technocratic future that never came.” (from a memorial on a deserted nuclear station)

  • Some kid posted8 on Reddit about building an amateur fusion reactor, which is awesome, except for this depressing acknowledgement:

Spending 3+ hours a day on a project during junior and senior year did not help my grades. My counselor told me that I wouldn’t get into the top colleges because of this reason. I believed her and didn’t apply to my dream colleges.

  • Blast from the past: an article9 from 1996 (yes!) about memes and memetic engineering (so yeah, memes aren’t new, kids :P)

  • Yes, helicopter parenting should be, uh, avoided, but this author10 sympathises and blames gentrification instead.

  • Finally, file this in the “surprising biological news” section: apparently11 crows try to investigate the deaths of their fallen kin, and even hold funerals (!) for them.

Personal Media Summary: June 2016

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Image credit: Quanta Magazine

Random general reads from June:

  • ”The Cave of Forgotten Dreams” introduced1 me to millennia old human-painted caves, but Bruniquel Cave has been dated2 to an astonishing 176,500 years!
  • The annual internet trends report3 always has something interesting (among other things, internet growth is slowing, mobile use is increasing, and people are increasingly living inside various messaging apps)
  • If you thought HBO’s ”Silicon Valley” did a good job of lampooning its namesake, add one more contender: David Lyon’s new book, ”Disrupted”4, apparently does a pretty good job of savaging “start-up culture” …

“Arriving here feels like landing on some remote island where a bunch of people have been living for years, in isolation, making up their own rules and rituals and religion and language — even, to some extent, inventing their own reality,” Lyons writes, noting that “…every tech start-up seems to be like this. Believing that your company is not just about making money, that there is a meaning and purpose to what you do, that your company has a mission and that you want to be part of that mission — that is a big prerequisite for working at one of these places. How that differs from joining what might otherwise be called a cult is not entirely clear.

  • A fascinating video5 of the construction of a concrete wind turbine shows the assembly of this 379 foot tower.
  • This is either very funny or very tragic, but I can somewhat relate, having just visited here last week: a prank6 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shows the impossibility of identifying what “art” is (and, in my opinion, the endless scope for farce).
  • The Antikythera mechanism has been known to be 2000 year-old mechanical marvel, but recent X-ray scanning (along with the discovery of a “user’s manual”) seems to suggest7 this was a precise simulator of the planets, sun and moon, showed the phases of the moon and multiple calendars, and attempted to predict eclipses (!)
  • Whether you see it as an explanation or an excuse, a recent article8 links a growing acceptance of theocracy in the muslim world (and populist sentiments elsewhere) to fundamental failures in the secular vision (featuring an interview with Shadi Hamid and a review of his recent book).

It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation at a time when many people, including outside the Middle East, are loosing faith in technocratic, liberal democracy. There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering.

I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives, whether that means [they] resort to ideology, religion, xenophobia, nationalism, populism, exclusionary politics, or anti-immigrant politics. All of these things give voters a sense that there is something greater.

On a basic level, violence offers meaning. And that’s what makes it scary. In the broader sweep of history, mass violence and mass killing is actually the norm. It’s only in recent centuries that states and institutions have tried to persuade people to avoid such practices.

  • We can count on buildings continuing to get taller, since Adrian Smith (who designed the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) is planning to construct the Jeddah Tower9 in Saudi Arabia, and it’s expected to be more than a kilometer tall(!)
  • This article makes the claim for the return of a sort of “social pension”10, to fix the current state of retirement systems (he/she who lives longest, benefits the most, which sounds a bit dubious to me …)
  • The temples of Angkor Wat are already a popular tourist destination, but a wide area Lidar scan over several years has revealed11 to be only the tip of a massive urban complex (“… the colossal, densely populated cities would have constituted the largest empire on earth at the time of its peak in the 12th century”).
  • It’s bad enough that small book shops and used book shops are gone, so I hope that Barnes & Noble survives its current troubles12 … it’s really the only place where I can physically browse all kinds of stuff.
  • The user experience of the modern web13, with its multiple surveillance-equipped walled gardens is … uh … not as great as expected, and clearly short of the utopian promises14 made two and a half decades ago. Will cryptocurrencies save us? I don’t know …
  • The wonders of the natural world never cease. After months of research deep underground, microbes15 have been found (see image at top) which live off electricity (and aren’t as rare as you’d expect)
  • Finally, my favorite bit of awesomeness and fandom last month was an in-depth look at the typography16 in the Alien movies.