September 29, 2018

Sunday Reads

I think there’s a thread to be found in this fortnight’s selection of medium-long-form articles and essays for you to engage with on a lazy Sunday. They’re all about how we arrange, label and perceive the world around us, and how that in turn changes the world. And that’s why I found them all of interest.

Shoreline Maps of the World

One of my favourite maps was at a heritage site on the west coast of Ireland showing Celtic trading routes from Spain to Scotland. It was rotated 90 degrees, revealing how a sea-faring culture would perceive distance quite differently to us. Getting from Galway to, say, London would take forever, but a ship was always travelling to Brittany. It completely changed my perception of how Europe worked back then.

These shoreline maps (see above) take a resolutely ocean-first approach to flattering the globe, and the results are very disorienting. I love them.

Yuval Noah Harari on The Myth of Freedom

Harari is probably the pop-philosopher of the moment, which means one should be wary when his explanations of the world make perfect sense because clarity usually comes at the cost of nuance. All that said, I continue to love his way of piecing observations about the world together in novel ways.

This demolition of the notion of “free will” is quite something and fits with a lot of my thinking without falling into handwringing absolute determinism (“how can we punish evil is there is no free will!”). He simply puts forward that humans are programmable, which is why advertising works, and so in order to respect the will of the people you need to know who or what is programming them. It’s an interesting challenge for democratic systems that emerged when the people themselves were mostly in control of their own programming because experiences were mostly localised. Now we’re in a globally interconnected era it’s often hard to tell who’s nudging our brains.

How does liberal democracy function in an era when governments and corporations can hack humans? What’s left of the beliefs that “the voter knows best” and “the customer is always right”? How do you live when you realise that you are a hackable animal, that your heart might be a government agent, that your amygdala might be working for Putin, and that the next thought that emerges in your mind might well be the result of some algorithm that knows you better than you know yourself? These are the most interesting questions humanity now faces.

2018’s Cattiest Academic Fight Is Over the ‘Meghalayan’

Someone at The Atlantic is obsessed with furious geologists and keeps commissioning articles about them. I for one am happy about this.

How interesting!, you may think. I love science! And perhaps in an earlier era, that’s all you would have had to think. The dawn of the Meghalayan would have earned some wide-eyed headlines, made life slightly easier for a few researchers, and promptly been relegated to a second-round Jeopardy question.

Instead, the Meghalayan kicked off one of the cattiest, most intransigent fights among earth scientists that I can remember—a battle that now concerns some of the most profound questions up for scholarly debate today, including the importance of climate change, the likelihood of societal collapse, and the ultimate place of humanity in the universe.

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound

As someone who has skim-read all his life, way before everything was read off screens, I found this fascinating. I’ve never really been able to read texts in depth. One of the reasons I didn’t actually get my philosophy degree back in the day was because I couldn’t do most of the heavy reading. But, as you’ll know from posts like this, I am a voracious reader and consumer of ideas and knowledge. The web was made for people like me, the knowledge dilettantes, and I honestly believe there’s a place for my approach to learning. But if everyone processes texts my way? That’s something else. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is from the intriguingly named Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice. Diverse learners for social justice is my new gang name.

Unlearning the Origins of Photography

Ask any photographer when photography started and they’ll say the 19th century, when the chemistry was developed to save images in a camera obscura. But it’s an illuminating exercise to go beyond the technical and explore when and where the idea of photography came about, especially as photography and cameras were employed to define the 20th century and all that it meant. Where did this mechanistic, systemic point of view originate?

Suggesting that the origins of photography go back to 1492 is an attempt to undermine the imperial temporality that was imposed at that time, enabling people to believe, experience, and describe interconnected things as if they were separate, each defined by newness. To put it another way, for photography to emerge as a new technology in the late 1830s, the centrality of the imperial rights on which photography was predicated had to be ignored, denied, or sublimated, or in any case pushed into the background and not perceived as constitutive of its operation as a technology.

How often, especially in the internet era, do wankers like me fetishise the new in ignorance of what the new is built upon? How often do we get away with it?

Sunday Video

A Short Tour of the Manufacturing Might of China

A mediative look at the front-line of hyper-duper consumer capitalism.

On the Deck

These may be featured next time, they may not. But they caught my eye, so they might catch yours.

September 16, 2018

Sunday Reads

Feels like a light bunch of reads this fortnight. Maybe because of the new job I haven’t been deep-diving so much, but maybe this is a good thing. Enjoy some word-snacks.

How Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will become President

A few years ago, possibly when Trump was running for, but hadn’t yet become, president, I read an article following Mr Rock around his daily life which posited he might be president one day. I looked for it today but there are now hundreds of the things, which either means he will be, or he definitely won’t be. This is not that article - this is short story in the form of an emailed proposal by Robert Sloan that declares President Rock to be an inevitability that needs to be programmed by a book that will become a film staring The Rock who, when he becomes president, will use his memory of the film as a template for policy, just as Reagan did with his movies, so it needs to be a good book.

Continuing to Dangle

I am endlessly impressed at how Andrew Rilstone writes so eloquently, making serious and lucid points about the human condition, while exploring the minutiae of 1960s Spider-man comics, of all things. This sort of nerd-heavy writing should not transcend its nerdery, but it does.

Will Terrence Malick Ever Really Finish The Tree of Life?

I’m a sucker for artists who never finish their work, always coming back to fix it. Eddie Campbell’s endless edits of his Alec comics has begotten a complete reworking of From Hell and all those Directors Cuts can’t just be for financial reasons. (Let’s not mention George Lucas though…) So news that Terrence Malick is reworking his magnum opus is entertaining if nothing else. I wasn’t that fussed with the original but maybe I’ll revisit it now it’s 50 minutes longer.

The New Science of Seeing Around Corners

This is a nice short overview of the state of what we might call “extreme imaging”, using faint echoes and shadows to build a pretty coherent record of the world beyond our senses.

In their first paper , Freeman and Torralba showed that the changing light on the wall of a room, filmed with nothing fancier than an iPhone, can be processed to reveal the scene outside the window. Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner. This summer, they demonstrated that they can film a houseplant and then reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the rest of the room from the disparate shadows cast by the plant’s leaves. Or they can turn the leaves into a “visual microphone,” magnifying their vibrations to listen to what’s being said.

That visual microphone stuff is amazing, recording a crisp packet with a high-speed camera and then playing the vibrations back like the grooves on a record vibrating the stylus. Your food packaging is always listening.

The Beautiful, Ugly, & Possessive Hearts of Star Wars

If you only read one article about how Star Wars fandom has become a cess-pool of awfulness, then this one will do. Seriously, it’s 12,000 words long and I read it one sitting.

Why the Future of Data Storage is (Still) Magnetic Tape

I have a theory that most developments in computers over the last few decades will, in the long term, be shown to be dead ends and by the middle of the century we’ll be using fundamentally the same technology as powered the moon landings, only way more powerful. It’s amazing that the same technology used to load Hungry Horace onto my ZX Spectrum is now storing terabytes of data on tracks 50 nanometres wide, and there’s still ways to go.

Is NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover Doomed?

I hope not, though it’s had a good ride.

September 12, 2018

Lindsay Ellis on YouTube, on Manufacturing Authenticity on YouTube

I discovered Lindsay Ellis a few months ago as this person who does deep-dive video essays on nerdy subjects in a way that isn’t shite and have been hooked ever since. Despite never really being a big follower of deep-dive video essays I now only ever watch cleverly edited straight-to-camera rapid-fire talkings about some minutiae or other by people much younger than me.

Because Lindsay’s style of work is new to me I’ve of course got like 2,000 words in the drafts folder about it, which I will eventually edit down to something succinct like “I like her work because she uses her brain to think about stuff while crafting these wonderfully entertaining packages that remind me of zines in the 1990s”. But that’s for another day.

This video in particular is a bit of a departure because it’s about YouTube itself, the platform on which she and many others present and distribute their work. It’s mostly about the desire for and value given to “authenticity”, which has been around long before YouTube and will be with us long after but which remains fascinating for how impossible it is to define (given our inner selves are often a mystery to us, can we ever truly be authentic?) and for how we feel we know it when we can’t see it.

More pertinently, the combination of YouTube’s culture of authenticity-expectation and it’s aggressively tuned algorithms, does not appear to be providing video producers with a safe working environment, mentally speaking.

In June Polygon published YouTube’s top creators are burning out and breaking down en mass and this week The Guardian released The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’.

James Bridle calls this algorithmic employment:

[Algorithmic employment] has two main qualities: optimisation and opacity. “Optimisation” - from the employer’s point of view of course - really means the extraction of every possible effort, with no regard to the cost (there are always others to exploit).

But the process is always opaque - and thus confusing, anxiety-inducing, to the employee… selective opacity is a form of power, a deeply oppressive one…

That’s combined, too, with the illusion of choice, whether it’s YouTubers or Uber drivers, or the supposed flexibility of zero-hours contracts. The outsourcing of responsibility. Google, YouTube, and others continue to engineer and implement dystopia for our benefit, if we choose to see it.

What makes the YouTube algoployees different to, say, Deliveroo biker could be the emotional labour required to manufacture the correct levels of authenticity, and to deal with the fallout of that when it lands in places you weren’t expecting.

I discovered this evening that comments on YouTube count as an engagement metric, so videos that have lots of comments get pushed up the sidebar by the algorithm. Added to this, users of YouTube expect to be able to leave comments and if they don’t, they get mad.

I feel like I’ve discovered a new seam of really interesting activity on the internet and it’s all great and awesome, but I’m simultaneously worried about the mental health of these people, and that’s not nice. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it might involve moving off YouTube, if that’s even possible.

Pete’s favourite YouTube accounts of the moment:

Is it wrong that even after all this I’m finding myself thinking seriously about starting a YouTube channel thingy? Something like Pete in the shed with the rabbits. I dunno.

September 3, 2018

The danger of meaning

I would comfortably say that I'm often searching for meaning in things. This feels like a good thing to do, to not accept face values but to prod and question and figure out what's actually going on. And upon finding meaning I'm happy and satisfied. My work is done. I can move on.

So I was intrigued, on starting to watch Examined Life - a series of interviews with contemporary philosophers, to come across Avital Ronell's rejection of meaning.

(Sidebar: I know Ronell is apparently what we might call a "controversial" figure and a pretty horrible person, by some accounts, but I'm just interested in this idea of Heidegger's she articulates here.)

It's worth watching, but in essence, meaning makes things satisfying, so we are prone to accept meanings without questioning them because they feel good. But many things don't lend themselves to simple meaning, and that's when we have to work harder, to pay attention to our actions and question the easy but empty meanings that are attached to such things.

I found myself thinking of traffic lights and the language of road signage. It is easy for motorists to read the signage and apply that meaning to the road environment to the exclusion of any messier information that might be around. A green light means go, so we go. We are slaves to meaning.

An intriguing, but rarely implemented, method of traffic calming is to remove as much signage as possible, along with curbs, road markings, crossings, etc. This shared space idea makes driving full of uncertainty because you don't know what anything means. There's no handy light telling you to go and a sign saying at what speed. You have to move your car through this space and anything can happen.

pic via

Ronell seems to be saying we should approach the world like a shared space road, removing all the signage erected by those who control and influence society's rules and moving carefully because anything can happen.

Of course this could lead to paralysis, but I think it's more about being aware that the meaning we assign to something or someone is, by necessity, a massively simplification. They are evil, they can be trusted, they deserve their fate. These simplifications let us get past the issue nice and quickly, but that does not make using them the right thing to do. Nuance is important.

Plenty to ponder.

Examined Life is on Prime at the moment.

September 3, 2018

Pretty Trauma

With some trepidation I watched the first episode of season two of The Handmaids Tale the other night. The first season had been very good but I'd heard the next was a bit all-out brutal horrorshow and, oddly enough, I didn't find myself needing that of an evening.

That first episode is pretty brutal and presumably sets the tone for some outright misery. Usually I'm OK with that, but I'm wondering to what end this is all for. The first season mirrored the book and therefore had a coherent arc. There was a point. This next wave is, what, world building? Where's it going?

Obviously that will become clear over time, but there was something about the presentation that slightly unnerved me. It was quite beautiful.

There's a whole thing in film theory (I believe - this is definitely not my area) about the perils of presenting horrifying scenes that you want the viewer to engage with but in doing so make the horrifying thing exciting and alluring. Film, like all visual art, gets its power by showing an abstracted, unreal or hyperreal version of the world using tropes and styles that can detach us as much as involve us. Or something. Maybe an example will help.

In this first episode of Handmaids season 2 the women are forced to stand in a courtyard in the rain holding a rock at arms length as an ongoing punishment for the denouement of season 1. It's basically a torture scene, but it's filmed beautifully. The women are perfectly arranged in a circle and frequently filmed from above, their bright red and white costumes contrasting with the dark bricks.

It is a visually beautiful scene, perfectly staged, cleanly shot. Prior to this was a flashback to the pre-fascist days which is all soft lights and handheld cameras. A contrast is being made, but I'm uneasy about how gorgeous the nightmare looks. How it draws me in. Maybe that's the point? I'm not sure.

I filed all that away in my mind, but then we watched I, Tonya last night, a biopic about ice skater Tonya Harding, which was excellent in many many ways. I particularly liked how the tone threw me off guard. The trailer sets up a light-hearted comic romp about white-trash idiots and the film itself pretty much delivers that sort of film, except it doesn't because this is a story about an abused woman, emotionally by her mother and physically by her husband, ultimately punished by society for something she (probably) didn't do. I'm sitting there thinking, am I supposed to be laughing at this? It's been set up as a funny, there are some genuinely funny bits, but this story is not funny at all. It's a genuine tragedy.

I think I, Tonya plays a bait and switch, promising you a Goodfellas or Logan Lucky and then betraying that with something much darker. The Founder did a similar thing with Michael Keaton's character who you initially root for and by the end feel terrible for ever liking. It's a subtle and tricky thing, to subvert the viewer's experience like that, and it's all the more powerful when it works.

Handmaids doesn't feel like it's doing anything subtle here. It seems to be simply saying "This world is awful. Look how awful it is. Look at it." But to make sure we look they make this awful world look beautiful even when it's supposed to be ugly and brutal. Especially when it's ugly and brutal. And I'm not sure that works in the way they intended.

September 2, 2018

Sunday Reads

A currently biweekly digest of longer-form writings and the occasional video I would like to commend to you for a lazy Sunday morning.

The Shape of Space

This extensive look at the geometry of living in environments where up and down don't make sense is packed full of quite wonderful things. Buckminster Fuller made a big deal of us living on "Spaceship Earth" and encouraged shifts in language to reorient ourself as riding on a planet moving through space, but our evolutionary experience is stubbornly locked to a gravity model. Even astronauts on the International Space Station, that great experiment in post-planetary living, orient themselves as if "they are in a very tall building with all the intermediate floors removed." Also of note is an intelligent and detailed look at those 1970s cylindrical space habitats that haunted my childhood.

Russian Cosmism Versus Interstellar Bosses: Reclaiming Full-Throttle Luxury Space Communism

Cosmism is a new term to me and I'm enjoying discovering it. Like many ideas that came from inter-war Europe and post-revolutionary Russia, it's unrealistic and bonkers but highly alluring. And the parallels with the fringe ideologies of our algorithm-weilding masters is quite striking, albeit more optimistic, maybe? Does the left need to "seize back crazed utopic ideas from fascists and Silicon Valley" in order to save the world from Trump? It's certainly worth considering.

How to be human: the man who was raised by wolves

A long-read on Marcos Rodríguez who was abandoned as a child in poverty-stricken Spain and grew up without human contact. But that's just the preamble. The story really happens when he is brought back to civilisation but doesn't have any of the social tools to deal with a culture coming out of Fascism.

It may be no accident that Rodríguez’s case was, for half a century, rather less celebrated: he emerged from the mountains into a country scared to investigate itself for fear of what it might find. There was little appetite for reopening debates about poverty and neglect, or the sale of children into labour, even in the 1970s. It was not until much later, 35 years after Franco had died, in a democracy mature enough to confront its past, that the details and significance of his story were finally embraced.

What does a nuclear bomb blast feel like?

The headline here is soldiers at nuclear bomb tests seeing the bones in their hands as they covered their faces, but the real kick in the guts for me is that they were forced into secrecy for decades and never compensated for being there at all. Oh, these are British soldiers, by the way, dying of leukaemia and fathering deformed babies. This bloody country...