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.

Why?

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.

Radar week 9: War and empathy

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Masha Gessen has been one of my mainstay reads through the invasion of Ukraine.

• This profile of Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton walks a fine line—there’s a pang of gatekeeping outrage as it describes the weird success he’s garnered, and how he’s chosen to use it, a sort of empathy-virality-philanthropy axis which must make many fundraisers jealous. But I think it’s at its best when it is asking him to interrogate his own power.

• Dream team: Angela Chen, one of my most talented and multifaceted former colleagues, interviewed by Anne Helen Petersen, one of my go-to writers, on asexuality.

Frances Haugen on what Nick Clegg can really do to fix Facebook’s worst parts. Scale up people, be honest. I suspect none of this is palatable in Menlo Park.

At first I thought this interview with Evan Dando may be trying to be the late 90s version of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, but in fact it is just a romp.

Mistakes on purpose

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We are surrounded by ways to make mistakes. 

There are so many.

And so we err. We blunder. We learn to apologize.

But mistakes can also be made on purpose.

Sometimes that purpose is mystical. Navajo weavers introduce “spirit lines” into their rugs to stop these transcendent objects from trapping their soul. 

The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embraces the beauty in imperfection and teaches acceptance and impermanence. (The idea of designing technology that can age, passim.)

Sometimes the purpose is more earthly. 

Trap streets are “cartographic fictions”—fake entries in maps, added in by the maker as a signature. China Miéville turned them into a whole world in Kraken. If you make the map, you know where the traps are; if you copy the map, you don’t spot the mistakes. You get caught.

T-rex pounds down the track, smashing through trees and roaring wildly as it hunts down the jeep. Jeff Goldblum, folded up in terror and injury, cringes back and knocks against the gearshift. Laura Dern suddenly screams “Look out!” 

Did you see it?

It is easy to miss on the first attempt, or even the fifth. But keep looking, and the eye can eventually discern what the brain couldn’t: a brutal jump cut right in the middle of an action scene from one camera angle to a slightly different camera angle of the same thing

One of the biggest movies of all time, breaking one of the most basic rules of cinematography.

There’s a line at the end of the first verse of The War on Drugs song “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” that sounds like “I never wanted anything / that someone had to give / I don’t live here anymore / I went along eeh will.”

In an episode of the Song Exploder podcast, lead singer Adam Granduciel explains: He ran out of words when he was writing and made a noise instead. Despite attempt after attempt in the studio to replace it with another line, he could never find a better answer. So it stayed.

There are so many ways we can make mistakes, but also to make things that merely have the appearance of a mistake. Rug makers, musicians, film editors, map makers—all making deliberate choices to keep an error, or introduce one, in a piece of work. 

They know why, just like you do. There are moments when feeling overtakes theory, and when the wrong answer is the only way to get the emotion right.

Radar, week 8: Insatiable appetites

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  • The NYT’s David Leonhardt, who has consistently argued for a kind of liberal’s relaxation of covid restrictions, has been a loud voice during the pandemic and often an incredibly frustrating one. This New York profile gets into a lot of good material on it. My favorite line: “He was exactly as tall as I expected.”
  • Paul Farmer, one of the truly unique forces in global health equity, died this week. I found this tribute one of the most honest and affecting.
  • Something else we have endless edacity for? Scam stories. Here’s a new one: a design agency, spun up while everyone works remotely, that never truly existed.

What are animals to us?

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What are animals to us? 

They’re our friends, our families

They’re entertainment. They’re beauty. They’re food.

Sometimes researchers dress up as pandas so they can get closer to study them. To medieval poets, animals are teachers themselves.

Some animals are threats to us.

Rampaging pigs are “super invaders” in the Bay Area.

Bats may well be the ultimate source of the covid pandemic.

Chinese virologist Zhi Shengli, whose lab is now the center of many people’s theories about the origins of Sars-CoV-2, has been working on bat coronaviruses for years. She spoke to Jane Qiu in a piece I helped edit.

Some animals are threats to themselves.

Today the Canada goose is among the most common birds you’ll see, living in the lakes and waterways of big cities nearly everywhere, but in the early 20th it had been hunted almost to the point of extinction. 

John Green tells a story about them being the victims of “live decoys.” That is, a hunter would take a goose, clip its wings, and place it in a pond. The honking call was a siren song to other flocks, who would be drawn to the decoy and then promptly get dispatched by the men waiting in the bushes with guns. 

Live decoys were made illegal in America in 1935: now there are millions of Canada geese around the world.

The same idea is still in use elsewhere, though.

Judas goats are used to lead sheep or cows to the slaughterhouse.

In the Galapagos, they were used to help eradicate an invasive population.

Judas goats probably don’t feel guilty, but then again, they never asked for the job. They never asked to be taken to remote Pacific islands, either.

So what are animals to us? They are resources to be harvested; technologies to be deployed. 

We’re using their organs for xenotransplantation.

We’re even turning them into explorers.

Phil Lubin, a cosmologist in Santa Barbara, has a neat and slightly bananas plan for interstellar travel that uses tiny vessels that can travel at immense speed. His latest idea is to send tardigrades into space

So now they’re emissaries now, too.

Perhaps they’ll be the first creatures from Earth to meet an alien race. 

I wonder what they’ll say about us.

Radar, Week 7: Reckonings and records

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• I was rapt by the way this Katie Baker piece on Eric Schneiderman’s attempt at a #MeToo redemption tiptoed through such difficult territory.

Hype as a scale.

• Scratching that Murakami-esque, middle aged vinyl dad itch: Listening Room on Instagram

• When she was worried about the state of the world in the 1960s, Pauline Oliveros started singing and playing long, extended drones on her accordion. She spent nearly a year on a single note, an A.

How we broke the supply chain.

Inspired by gravity

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Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans said if you inspire enough people to support your work just enough, you can earn a living from almost anything. A thousand people, a hundred dollars each, that’s enough to build on. A simple theory.

Li Jin recently put forward a modest proposal: what if you get 100 people who give much, much more? More money from fewer people.

Why stop there? Why not a single patron giving one thousand times as much? 

Because that’s art world economics

Because the point wasn’t the hundred dollars.

It was the thousand souls.

Portraits by Jean Smith

Money is gravity.

You need it to operate, but it’s not the point.

Nobody is inspired by gravity.

Kelly’s essay was written in 2008. The web was still just a little bit wild around the edges at that point. Patronage was still a weird experiment, and software was still given away, called shareware. The rules were still being written. 

That certainly doesn’t mean it was all better, but it was differently balanced.

The proportions had not been airbrushed; the cycle hadn’t established itself.

Today, being weird online means one of two things. Either you’re trying to get there before other people do, not missing an opportunity, changing the rules to your advantage. That’s the excitement some folks feel right now: they feel like it’s possible to rewrite gravity.

Or it means finding new proportions, new angles to see from, avoiding maximizing everything, knowing life is not moneyball.

Jean Smith tried music and a variety of odd jobs before she turned to painting. Today, she sells her portraits on Facebook for $100 each. 

She could certainly charge more, but the egalitarian price is the point.

Radar: Week 6

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Loss and survivance

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You can lose a lot of things. Your door keys. Your temper. The plot. 

If you’re particularly careless, you might even lose entire countries. 

Ukraine is on the edge right now. It’s not the first.

Doggerland was a piece of prehistory, a stretch of marshy coastline from when Britain was just an archipelago dangling from one corner of Europe. It was misplaced during the Original Brexit 9,000 years ago when the sea carved East Anglia away from the Netherlands. 

It was only rediscovered in the 1930s.

Today, Jakarta is sinking into the ocean. Rather than lose a capital city, Indonesia’s just moving it somewhere else.

You lose things as you grow older. People, places, memories. Some of them you can control, come back from. Some you can’t. 

Sometimes people disappear. Or they can be disappeared. Sometimes they’re gone, even if they’re not even really lost.

Roy Scranton wrote about what loss can teach us. When the Europeans slaughtered their way across the Americas, he says, “truly, a world ended. Many worlds, in fact. Each civilization, each tribe, lived within its own sense of reality—yet all these peoples saw their lifeworlds destroyed.”

I think about those lines, those lifeworlds, a lot.

Loss.

David Marchese asked Eddie Vedder about loss: he turned the story around.

Scranton introduced me to a new term to describe what happens when you lose it all. 

You fight back by commiting an act of survivance

That’s what Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe poet, calls it.

Derrida wrote about survivance too. He called it something between life and death, the continuous reanimation of a living-dead being.

Indonesia is survivance. Turning the story around is survivance. The people of Doggerland were survivance, too.

Maybe we might all have to be it one day.