Radar week 18: Re-release

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Link / Things my friends have made

Facing life: Eight people discuss life after incarceration in this beautifully simple, extremely touching project from Pen and Brandon.

• New York Times is killing it with clear interactives at the moment—here’s one about the soundtrack to the AIDS crisis: I was sold as soon as they showed me a bunch of pictures of mixtapes.

How police interfere with public spaces.

• I get the ethical stance of Ogilvy saying it won’t work with influencers who digitally edit or filter their images any more. But it’s always weird for an advertising firm to get on its high horse. Nor does it seem they have a stance on other forms of image manipulation. Makeup? Wigs? Cosmetic surgery?

• Talking of confusing ethics: the monk helping the Vatican take on AI.

Just a formality

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Form follows function: an inspiration for designers and makers of all kinds.

You see it surface in other ways, twisting a little, showing a different face: Separate content and presentation; Radical functionalism; Let people’s needs determine the shape of the thing, not the other way around.

But form follows function is an ideal, not a fact. 

It appeared as a counter to formal constriction, not as a natural law. Because while function is the why, forms do dictate what can go in them. Forms that are given to us determine some of the ways we create, determine the edges, the shape, the possibilities. 

You write your text messages differently to your emails. You sit straighter at a wedding ceremony than you do on your sofa. You make different things with a saw than you do with a hammer.

Or: The pop song is three minutes long. The novel is a book of fiction containing, very roughly, 75,000 words. An American sitcom season is 22 episodes, each running 21 minutes. 

Formal constraints can be constricting, limiting. They can shrink our horizons, turn us all into hammers. 

Form doesn’t emerge from a void. And formats don’t always catch on. 

Sometimes this is technical: the creation is too time-consuming or expensive or complicated to be worth the effort. Sometimes it’s commercial: the Hiway disc, invented in the 1950s at Columbia Records, was smaller than a 45 and could contain as much music as an LP, but was sold as a record you could play in your car, which it turned out nobody wanted. 

Sometimes it’s a little of both: Sony’s Betamax was technically better than JVC’s open standard VHS, but it could only handle an hour or so of video. Greater capacity and higher availability beat higher fidelity, and Betamax lost.

When formats catch on, it’s a push and pull between what already exists and what comes next. The form shapes the function. 

The pop song is three minutes long because the technology of music distribution created limits; only around three and a half minutes of recorded sound could fit on one side of a 45. But if we had only listened to four-hour long operatic epics, would that have worked? Would people have so readily bought singles? 

In his book How Music Works, David Byrne says the technology tessellated with formats that people already knew—short blues songs, for example—and eased their path. Just as VHS tapes could contain movies more easily than its rivals, 45s were more readily adopted because they already fit at least some people’s musical tastes.

Theodore Adorno said that music was debased by the three minute pop song, that our attention spans were being killed by “atomized listening.” It’s true that form preceding function means that our horizons change. 

But formal constraints—like forms themselves—are not impermeable or unchangeable. They shift with time, with taste, with technology.

Movies, no longer constrained by the needs of VHS, are getting longer. Streaming media has largely liberated us from the episode length or season limitations. And when I listen to the music of Billie Eilish or the XX, I hear an intimate experience that seems directly related to the constraints and context of earbuds.

I like discovering the platonic ideal of a particular format, or the bracing feeling of seeing somebody push a familiar concept over new edges.

And yes, don’t let the format get in the way. But also don’t reject the benefits that form can bring. Remember that, just as with all rules, form follows function… except when it doesn’t.

Radar week 13: Niche hobbies

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• This collection of Japanese cassette tapes is quite beautiful.

This drone time lapse photography of a herd of sheep moving around has a wonderful liquid quality to it.

• The dirtbag left (and its heroes) gets an inordinate amount of attention. The latest is Adam Tooze.

• I think the common thread between these “rock and pop greats” who are avid model railway enthusiasts is not that they are musicians, but that they are old dudes.

• Free documentary on Isamu Noguchi’s unfinished atomic bomb cenotaph.

Red sky thinking

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What is urgency? Why are some people driven while others sit back?  

Because I am a happy cliche, Hamilton has been on repeat recently. In Burr’s words: “he has something to prove, he has nothing to lose.”

Why wouldn’t you try to do everything you can? Time is limited, and you can’t wait for life to happen to you.

Clearly not everyone feels this way. Or even if they do, they don’t all feel able to do the same.

There is a moment in the recent Kurt Vonnegut documentary where they talk about how he failed at all kinds of things; as a General Electric publicist, as a car salesman, and sometimes as a parent. But he was driven beyond comprehension to write, write, write. 

Where it comes from, that inner momentum, is a mystery. Perhaps it’s desperation. Or necessity. Or, like Vonnegut, a need for expression. 

Perhaps parents pass their workaholism on

But urgency is real, and there are urgent things all around us. Not the distractions, the cheap trinkets that want your attention for a millisecond to justify their existence. I mean the big stuff. The real politics—the invasions, the insurrections—or the stuff of science, the energy crisis, the burning world. These worlds circle each other and interlink, two cultures writ over again.

What if drive is just another way of expressing resilience? Of overcoming?

Because not stopping looks a lot like resilience to me. We make new things, share new thoughts. We keep going.

Compliance can decline over time, but psychology says resilience is the default state

Nick Harkaway talks about something similar he calls ”wild sky thinking”

“It’s about resilience, flexibility, adaptation and novelty in the face of the strange, not just on a physical or policy level, but as a strand of self-identity,” he says. “Wild Sky thinking is about how to live with yawning existential chaos… Wild Sky thinking accepts radical change as a permanent state, generates fluid or branching strategies, and seeks to thrive by creating chains of liveable space in volatile environments.”

The wildest sky I remember happened on September 9, 2020. San Francisco was bathed in unending dusk caused by a horrible cascade. The wildfires created smoke. The smoke blocked the sun. The sun turned the skies red.

For a moment it was a slap in the face, a hiatus, a break in what you thought you knew.

It was that moment when you don’t know what to do.

And then?

Urgency. Drive.

Time is limited.

What can we do but create? What can we do but keep going?

We make new things, we share new thoughts. We keep going.

On freedom

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Information wants to be free

People want to be free too. 

But freedom from? Or freedom to? Hello Isiah Berlin.

What freedoms count on either side of this moral ledger? Who gets to speak? And who gets to criticize? We’re dragged there again and again by the faithless, often in the tawdriest pages of the New York Times.

A couple of years ago, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny became my go-to book on the threat to freedom. (His writing on Ukraine is unmissable.) 

There’s a lot about freedom in that book. 

In any writing on facism, I suppose.

Hannah Arendt argued that the birth of America in 1776 wasn’t intended to create a new order. It was meant to rewind individual liberties back to where they’d been before. 

I don’t know enough to agree or disagree. 

But I do know—just as Ukrainians know, and people who have fought for their rights know—what real unfreedom looks like. 

And I also know that the other half of Stewart Brand’s quote was that information wants to be expensive.

Radar week 10: Murder and memoir

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• You should absolutely read this piece on the complex and secretive technological surveillance net that police in Minnesota are using in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests that came afterwards. (MIT Technology Review)

Things I discovered from this Tara Westover interview: She didn’t want to write another memoir. Now she’s done a lot of therapy and she is writing another memoir. Her relationship with writing is really interesting and complicated. She’s funny. But nobody who reads Educated thinks she’s funny. (Longform)

Jonathan Tjarks on dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I think this should touch everyone. (The Ringer)

Lavinia Greenlaw takes a look at Nico. Quoting a friend: “Even the furniture groaned out loud when she walked into the room. I had seen chairs creep across the carpet in hopes that she might sit down on them.” (London Review of Books)

This bumper sticker fest is either property of a couple you absolutely wouldn’t want to spend time with, or an individual who has a very bifurcated personality. (Twitter)

Ambient everything

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Ambience is everywhere. 

The ambient noise that turns cafes into workplaces, or the ambient music we listen to when we’re trying to focus. Ambient information, too: the flood of news and ideas and jokes and conversation that we never quite see, but experience constantly. 

To be ambient is to be lop-sided. 

Ambience is a funnel rather than a bridge; a seesaw more than a handshake. 

One side makes its effort external. It produces, focuses, creates, anything from music to information to ideas. The other side’s effort is internal. It consumes, digests, it moves on.

Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it. 

To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of  other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other. 

Ambient friendship.

Technology companies are obsessed with ambience. 

Google has been trying to make ambient computing happen for years

Amazon, too

It wants ambient shopping: stores where you simply walk in, pick up stuff, and walk out. We’ve gone from replacing clerks to replacing interaction.

Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store talks a lot about how obsessed with this reality the folks there are, and how much time and effort they have put into it.


Maybe because the heart of this new sort of information ambience—that is, the lop-sidedness—is a kind of power. 

Ambient noise doesn’t know who is listening. It is created by people who care about what they are doing, and is consumed by people who don’t. It’s a marriage of convenience.

But with ambient computing, that relationship changes.

You are both the creator—generating a flood of data—and the absent-minded consumer. But the computer, it hears. It acts. It is ambient only in as much as you do not notice; like ambient friendship, marrying convenience and utility against the feeling of being watched.

Ambient friendship, when it goes wrong, can feel more like stalking

It’s no surprise that ambient computing feels like ambient surveillance.