Beautiful paper-cut artworks by artists Julia Ibbini and Stéphane Noyer that recall the geometry of Islamic art and architecture and are made possible by computer-controlled laser cutters:
Beautiful paper-cut artworks by artists Julia Ibbini and Stéphane Noyer that recall the geometry of Islamic art and architecture and are made possible by computer-controlled laser cutters:
John Lanchester at his best, comparing the current government to live-action role-players:
“Until Liz Truss, no one had ever thought to try Larping as a system of government. But it turns out that we in the UK are living inside a full-scale Thatcher Larp, whether we voted for it or not. (For the avoidance of doubt: we didn’t. Check the 2019 Conservative manifesto for proof.) This unhappy discovery was something the country, and the financial markets, learned from Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini-budget’ on 23 September, the latest catastrophic f***-up inflicted on the UK by an over-confident Etonian.”
This, Lanchester argues, is why the markets had such a catastrophic response to the mini-budget – because it made it unavoidably, unignorably clear that the government was fundamentally unserious:
“The uncosted new policy became, to markets, a signal that the new government is not serious and doesn’t know what it’s doing. Truss can wear as many pussy-bow blouses and sit on as many tanks as she wants, but while her policies continue to be uncosted, it’s Larp Thatcher, not the real thing. Markets don’t want a G7 economy to be led by people playing ‘let’s pretend’.”
There’s a particular phenomenon on Twitter: the “buckle up” thread, in which someone grossly simplifies a historical issue in strident terms. Rosa Lyster suggests these threads are typically:
“bewilderingly irate, laden with a combination of baroque linguistic flourishes and performatively subversive swearing, assumption of complete ignorance on the part of the audience, fondness for the word “gaslighting,” a powerful youth pastor-like eagerness to “meet people where they are,” high likelihood that it will be retweeted by people who refer to themselves as “Scolds” in their twitter bios, strong urge to lay the blame for the ills of the 21st century firmly at the foot of a basically random actor or event, total erasure of most things that have ever happened.”
The main problem, Lyster argues, is that these threads are strangely popular:
“The thing about Buckle Up Twitter, hard as this may be for right-thinking people like me to accept, is that a lot of other people LOVE IT. They absolutely love to be told that they are morons and that all of this is actually Beau Brummell’s doing.”
A characteristically thoughtful post from Tom Critchlow on the phenomenon of the “executive offsite” and the annual planning day, with observations about why they so often fail and suggestions of how they might be made to work more effectively. #
A compelling website that captures the unbridled joy that the UK’s shadowy right-wing think tanks expressed at Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini budget” a few weeks ago, before the subsequent crash. #
Sacha Judd on the “hate engine” that powers so much online fandom, which cropped up most recently with the drama surrounding the film Don’t Worry Darling:
“In watching all of this unfold, all I could think was that we are overdue a reckoning with the way the online environment is allowing misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods to be increasingly weaponized against women in cinema. And the Hollywood engine is beyond overdue in getting to grips with fandoms and the power they wield, even after over a decade of toxic hate and harassment being leveled at artists of color, widespread blowback over casting choices, and the inability of studios to protect their stars.”
A fascinating article by investor Tom Morgan about dealing with uncertain times.
Resisting the urge to provide false certainty (to yourself or to others) is important. Sometimes you’ve got to just sit with your problems and cogitate. But, Tom wonders, does the length of time you spend struggling with a problem match up in some way with the quality and significance of the insight that you generate? #
As Hurricane Ian batters the US, this story from 2017 makes for a staggering read. Its author, Michael Grunwald, visits Cape Coral, Florida – at that point the country’s fastest-growing city, despite it being little more than a swamp and sitting just a few feet above sea level.
Predictably, the city has its origins in what was basically a real estate scam:
“Gulf American unloaded tens of thousands of low-lying Cape Coral lots on dreamseekers all over the world before the authorities cracked down on its frauds and deceptions. It passed off inaccessible mush as prime real estate, sold the same swampy lots to multiple buyers, and used listening devices to spy on its customers. Its hucksters spun a soggy floodplain between the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico as America’s middle-class boomtown of the future, and suckers bought it.”
But, bizarrely, it somehow worked, with disastrous long-term consequences:
“The thing is, the hucksters were right, and so were the suckers. Cape Coral is now the largest city in America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its population has soared from fewer than 200 when the Rasos arrived to 180,000 today. Its low-lying swamps have been drained, thanks to an astonishing 400 miles of canals – the most of any city on earth – that serve not only as the city’s stormwater management system but also its defining real estate amenity. Those ditches were an ecological disaster, ravaging wetlands, estuaries and aquifers. Cape Coral was a planning disaster, too, designed without water or sewer pipes, shops or offices, or almost anything but pre-platted residential lots. But people flocked here anyway. The title of a memoir by a Gulf American secretary captured the essence of Cape Coral: Lies That Came True.”
If you were founding a society in 2022, it seems pretty likely that you wouldn’t decide to make a single family its perpetual hereditary rulers-for-life. You wouldn’t design an elaborate system of pomp and pageantry with which to support this family, and you wouldn’t advance religious arguments that claimed they’d been chosen by god for the purpose. Monarchy is, on the face of it, a system at odds with the principles of the modern world.
Another great example of niche businesses made possible by the internet:
“In the beginning, I figured we would do floppy disks, but never CDs. Eventually, we got into CDs and I said we’d never do DVDs. A couple of years went by and I started duplicating DVDs. Now I’m also duplicating USB drives. You can see from this conversation that I’m not exactly a person with great vision. I just follow what our customers want us to do. When people ask me: ‘Why are you into floppy disks today?’ the answer is: ‘Because I forgot to get out of the business.’ Everybody else in the world looked at the future and came to the conclusion that this was a dying industry. Because I’d already bought all my equipment and inventory, I thought I’d just keep this revenue stream. I stuck with it and didn’t try to expand. Over time, the total number of floppy users has gone down. However, the number of people who provided the product went down even faster. If you look at those two curves, you see that there is a growing market share for the last man standing in the business, and that man is me.”
Toby Shorin with a superb long essay, the product of six years’ work, that’s both an eerily accurate summary of the last decade of culture and a vision of the future that it’s hard not to be depressed by.
Shorin characterises the 2010s as the era of “lifestyle”:
“The 2010s is what I want to call the era of Lifestyle. You know what it felt like, because you lived through it. And I did too. Since 2014 I have lived in New York, inside the machine where Lifestyle is made. Spending my waking moments moving through these branded experiences, I felt they they pointed to something I could say but not name.”
Now coming to an end, what replaces it? Shorin argues that brands will begin to manufacture and shape culture far more directly, rather than merely reflecting it:
“The Lifestyle era was not about creating culture; it was about attaching brands onto existing cultural contexts. It was not about shaping people; it was about sorting consumer demographics into niche categories. The new order we are entering into reverses this. For some organizations, culture has become the product itself, and products have become secondary, auxiliary, to the production of culture.”
The South African journalist R. W. Johnson, who The Economist memorably described as “a romantic contrarian liberal”, is no monarchist. Reviewing Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy for the LRB in 1988, he skewered a particular kind of fatuousness exhibited by those who meet royalty:
“Similarly, Nairn catches Kinnock at the Andy-Fergie wedding delightedly telling the media about how Fergie had smiled and ‘that smile was worth all the rest of it!’ Or Ken Livingstone, after a brief handshake with the Queen: ‘I have always thought that the Queen is a very nice person indeed. Today confirmed that view.’ As Nairn points out, our Ken ‘had no basis whatever for this observation in the normal sense of the words’. We see this phenomenon all the time, even from the leaders of the Left. People are so overcome with pleasure at meeting a royal personage that they seek to rationalise this ecstasy by investing the said royal with impressive human qualities, often appearing to claim knowledge of the royal which they cannot possibly have. Again, monarchy makes them lie. And hence the phenomenon of the Royal Joke during which people fall about in near-hysteria when Philip or Charles say something like: ‘If it rains today we could all get wet!’ People then queue up to tell the TV camera about ‘the Prince’s wonderful sense of humour’. More lies, always more lies. The cultural compulsion is truly strong.”
If you’ll permit me a little self-promotion, I spent some time recently assembling a glossary of words and phrases that you commonly encounter in the world of consumer packaged goods. It’s called FMCG.FYI, and it will help you tell your awareness from your emboss and your shelf wobblers from your six-sheets. #
Helen Lewis on learning to drive at age 37, and why it’s a singularly challenging – but also rewarding – experience:
“Everyone I knew told me that the rule for driving lessons is that you need one hour for every year of your age. That reflects the slower reaction times and greater nervousness associated with adulthood, as well as the brain’s dwindling plasticity. From birth to age 2, a baby makes 700 neural connections a second. That process slows as the brain matures, and a psychological shift also occurs: We insulate ourselves from our own weaknesses. I was terrible at team sports at school; today, I no longer play team sports. I once knew what a quadratic equation was; these days, I would fire up my phone’s calculator to subtract 37 from 64. The things that I was always good at? Well, that’s different. I’ve honed those skills so well that people will pay me money for them. But a well-worn groove can become a prison. The better you get at something, the greater the rewards – but the less acquainted you become with humiliation or humility. ‘One of the biggest reasons it gets harder to do new things as you get older is that new things are generally undignified at first (indeed, this is an excellent heuristic for discovering them) and the older you get, the more dignified you’re expected to be,’ the tech investor Paul Graham wrote recently.”
A fascinating paper from Stephan Heblich, Stephen J. Redding, and Hans-Joachim Voth that examines the economic effects of slavery on the industrial revolution in Britain.
They discover that areas of Britain with more slavery-derived wealth adopted industrial practices more quickly, mechanised more quickly and had higher per-capita wealth than areas with less slavery wealth. #
A thoughtful and personal essay by Jon Day on the phenomenon of hoarding, something his own father does and that he has a tendency towards himself:
“You could argue that the hoarder’s tragedy is his inability to convince society that the objects he treasures have value. The line between ‘having a lot of stuff’ and ‘being a hoarder’ is porous, dependent to a large extent on social norms… A hoard that has been curated can become a collection; a collection that has been labelled becomes an archive (just as a collector is merely a hoarder who has space for his stuff).”
Day draws an interesting parallel between the messiness of hoarding and the idea of western psychology and psychoanalysis:
“It’s no wonder psychoanalysts have found hoarders so fascinating: making order out of disorder is the hoarder’s problem and the analyst’s process… The psychoanalytic method has a lot in common with the hoarder’s. ‘All psychoanalyses are about mess and meaning, and the links between them,’ Adam Phillips writes in ‘Clutter: A Case History’. ‘If our lives have a tendency to get cluttered, apparently by themselves but usually by ourselves, most accounts of psychoanalysis have an inclination to sort things out.’”
“Joseph Henney’s emotional support animal WallyGator goes with him almost everywhere, from the grocery store to walks in the park. They hug each other and sleep in the same bed. WallyGator is an alligator.
“The two watch television together on the couch, and when Henney takes him to the farmers market, WallyGator gives hugs to shoppers – as long as they are OK with being that close to a 70-pound reptile with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.”
David Greer explains the importance of plankton, those invisible but essential marine creatures:
“Tiny and virtually invisible as most plankton are, they make up more than 90% of the biomass in the world’s oceans and are collectively the lowest rung on the marine food chain. Everything we eat that comes from the ocean ultimately depends on plankton for its existence. As if that’s not reason enough to pay attention to the future of plankton, it’s worth considering that about half of the oxygen we take in with every breath also owes its existence to plankton.”
Like all other life on earth, plankton are threatened by the effects of climate change – with potentially disastrous consequences. #
Alex de Waal, who’s covered Eritrea for years, profiles its despotic leader Isaias Afewerki:
“No country in the world has a purer autocracy than Eritrea. The state of Eritrea is one man, Isaias Afewerki, who for twenty years was the leader of a formidable insurgent army that won a war of liberation against Ethiopia in 1991, and who has since ruled as president without constraint on his power. Three decades after independence, Eritrea has no constitution, no elections, no legislature, and no published budget. Its judiciary is under the president’s thumb, its press nonexistent. The only institutions that function are the army and security. There is compulsory and indefinite national service. The army generals, presidential advisers, and diplomats have been essentially unchanged for twenty-five years. The country has a population of 3.5 million, and more than half a million have fled as refugees – the highest ratio in the world next to Syria and Ukraine.”
The late eighties in the US was a time of many things, not many of which have aged well. One of them was the sales promotion:
“America was in the grip of a sweepstakes mania. The industry had grown to an estimated value of a billion dollars, and every company, from Toys R Us to Wonder Bread, seemed to be running giveaways and promotions. Even Harvard University’s alumni magazine was offering ten thousand dollars in Sony electronics.”
One company ran countless such promotions. There was just one problem: they were all rigged. Jeff Maysh tells the story, which – like all stories of fraudulent eighties excess – inevitably ends up involving Donald Trump. #
Ash Sarkar on the loathsome Andrew Tate, and his place in the “attention economy”:
“I suspect that the only person more pleased than me about picking up this commission to write about the former kickboxer’s misogyny, the dangers of his online reach, and its impact on impressionable young men is Tate himself. He makes no secret of his thirst for notoriety, nor the seeming pleasure he takes in being a source of distress to others. In the attention economy, there’s not a huge difference between a dedicated critic, or a loyal fan. A follow is a follow, whether it’s motivated by adoration, loathing, or morbid curiosity. A feminist writing for a mainstream publication like GQ about the poisonous influence of Andrew Tate isn’t a challenge to his business model. It’s a sign that it’s succeeding.”
I was previously familiar with Murry Gell-Mann only through Michael Crichton’s Gell-Mann amnesia:
“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the ‘wet streets cause rain’ stories. Paper’s full of them.
“In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”
But this interview, from 2003, reveals a thoughtful, interesting, curious and funny man whose first interest was in languages and who retained a humanity and humour throughout his scientific career:
“I was still discouraged, though, about having to go to MIT, which seemed so grubby compared with the Ivy League. I thought of killing myself (at the age of 18) but soon decided that I could always try MIT and then kill myself later if it was that bad, but that I couldn’t commit suicide and then try MIT afterwards. The two operations, suicide and going to MIT, didn’t commute, as we say in math and physics jargon.”
Mike Rothschild on the ongoing developments within QAnon, the loose movement of conspiracy theorists that emerged during Donald Trump’s initial run for president in 2016.
“In the post-Trump world, the QAnon movement split along two parallel tracks. Sometimes they happened to intersect, but many other times they went their own way…
“One track was a mainstreaming of Q’s core tenets to the point where the basics of QAnon – the drops, the obscure ‘comms’ – were no longer necessary, or even desirable. Q was no longer the cool, secret club that you had speak the jargon to have a chance of getting into. It was just ‘conservatism’ now.
“The other track was much farther on the fringe than even most Trumpists were willing to travel. This was where Michael Protzman and his devoted cultists in Negative48 rode, along with other, even more outwardly racist and ant-Semitic new Q promoters. On this track, Q drops were still gospel and the ‘comms’ still were being decoded for all their secrets. And there were a lot of secrets. Trump and JFK Jr. spoke in number codes with Prince and Elvis, quantum medical beds and NESARA would deliver permanent health and prosperity to all, and Trump was still actually the president of a ‘devolved’ military government. Fewer people were in this part of Q’s big tent, but they got a lot of baffled media attention for their bizarre antics – gematria cultists waiting for JFK and drinking industrial bleach out of a communal bowl to fight COVID will get clicks.”