Archive for the ‘Worth Reading’ category
Striking photographs accompanied by an interesting story well told. Its start:
Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”
Peter Pomerantsev’s profile of Russia’s current politics and public culture is great. The details of the biggest Russian biker gang are fascinating. A subculture triply foreign to me: I’ve never had first-hand experience of syncretic mystical religions, Russia, or bike gangs. And the gang’s on Putin’s payroll:
There are five thousand of them in Russia, five thousand Beowulf-like bearded men in leathers riding Harleys. It’s Weitz who has done most to turn them from outlaws into religious patriots. For the past few years, Vladimir Putin has posed for photo-ops with them, dressed in leathers and riding a tri-bike (he can’t quite handle a two-wheeler). They defended the ‘honour of the church’ after the Pussy Riot affair, roaring in a cavalcade through Moscow bearing golden icons of Mary the Mother of Christ on the front of their Harleys. The Kremlin gives them several hundred million rubles a year and they work to inspire loyalty across the country with concerts and bike shows that fuse flying Yamahas, Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze acts, Spielberg-scale battle re-enactments, religious icons, holy ecstasies, speeches from Stalin and dancing girls (there are booths for go-go girls next to the great crosses).
The easiest way I found to get reasonable pictures of the gang was this tag archive on a blog.
Perhaps this just shows that I like Apple, but I really like John Gruber’s essay about why Clayton Christensen’s famous disruption theory seems to be sustainably inaccurate in the case of Apple.
There have been periods of low-end Clayton Christensen-style disruption — the Japanese imports in the ’70s and ’80s and corresponding collapse of Ford, GM, and Chrysler’s collective market dominance is a good example. But it is undeniably true that there is a sustainable and profitable high-end of the market, occupied by companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. Point this out and someone will inevitably argue that sure, those companies are thriving, but they all have tiny market share. But Apple is sort of like BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Lexus all rolled into one. There just aren’t that many competitors for this segment of the market in phones and tablets, and most of them aren’t very good.
Good criticism expands on and explains clearly the work it critiques. It brings a deeper understanding of the subject by virtue of contextualizing it in a world a a consumer of the work under review probably rarely notices, and may not even fully comprehend.
I’d say by that definition James Bowman’s essay on the recently concluded television series Breaking Bad is quite good criticism. I watched the show from start to finish, even when I found it’s painful plot points made me want to stop. And while at the end, I felt satisfied, I didn’t fully comprehend. Bowman’s contextualization is hugely useful in this regard:
All of us are uneasily aware that beneath the good civilizational order in which most readers of these pages and viewers of the show continue to live their lives there is a dark alternative where old rules dominate, the Enlightenment’s recurring bad dream just waiting for the opportunity to reassert itself. Ironically, it is Walt’s Enlightenment credentials as a man of science that are his entrance ticket to this new state of nature.
(via Ross Douthat)
I really enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s story of the details of Bill Gates time at Harvard. I’d known the outline for decades, but the details are interesting:
Gates’s case [before Harvard’s disciplinary committee] arose when auditors from the Defense Department decided to check the use of the PDP-10 that it was funding in Harvard’s Aiken lab. They discovered that one sophomore—W.H. Gates—was using most of the time. After much fretting, Gates prepared a paper defending himself and describing how he had created a version of BASIC using the PDP-10 as a simulator. He ended up being exonerated for his use of the machine, but he was “admonished” for allowing a non-student, Allen, to log on with his password. He accepted that minor reprimand and agreed to put his early version of the BASIC interpreter (but not the refined one he and Allen were by then working on) into the public domain.
This is a neat little historical anecdote:
On April 13, 1861, Irish immigrant and watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, working for the M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C., was repairing President Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, when he heard of the attack. Forty-five years later, Dillon told the New York Times what he did that day.
“I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, and with a sharp instrument wrote on the metal beneath: ‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.’”
But it gets neater when you read the rest of the (quite short) story.
(via, of all things, the Mac Power Users podcast)
I worry about the cliche of calling a writer on his home-country “poetic”, but I can’t think of a better way to explain why I enjoyed this essay from Pico Iyer about his visit to Hyberbad, India’s growing technology hub:
The beauty of India, I thought, lies in how little it ever changes, deep down; it clings to the ways of a thousand years ago, and to the multifarious customs it has adopted in the centuries since, with an intimacy that many a neighbor might envy. No one in search of the old in India ever comes away disappointed.
When I came across this in the NYRB — an august politics and culture institution — I though, jellyfish!? And then I greedily thought, “This far outside the norm means this will be fantastic.” And it is. By turns amazing and terrifying, you’re almost guaranteed to learn something:
On the night of December 10, 1999, 40 million Filipinos suffered a sudden power blackout. President Joseph Estrada was unpopular, and many assumed that a coup was underway. Indeed, news reports around the world carried stories of Estrada’s fall. It was twenty-four hours before the real enemy was recognized: jellyfish. Fifty truckloads of the creatures had been sucked into the cooling system of a major coal-fired power plant, forcing an abrupt shutdown.
It’s been a while since I posted one of these. But an early answer on this on made it so I had to:
You realize that other people’s life-changing realizations can sound like so many facile calendar quotations, right? A realization is just that – something you have come to know is real, for you, because of cumulative experiences and observations in your own mind.
I have a pet theory that all the most important things are banal when spoken.
Whatever else is true, Jason Everman has had an eventful life. A member of both Nirvana and Sonic Youth, he went on to be a well-regarded US Special Forces operative. Clay Tarver tells his story so far well:
Kurt Cobain had just killed himself, and this was a story about his suicide. Next to Cobain was the band’s onetime second guitarist. A guy with long, strawberry blond curls. “Is this you?”
Everman exhaled. “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
Having last published an old piece I about reading him, I think this piece about what, if anything, we’re supposed to understand all the protests that have gone on around the world in the last few years is an obvious follow-on. A passage that really caught my eye:
The art of politics lies in making particular demands which, while thoroughly realistic, strike at the core of hegemonic ideology and imply much more radical change. Such demands, while feasible and legitimate, are de facto impossible. Obama’s proposal for universal healthcare was such a case, which is why reactions to it were so violent.
I’ve posted a piece (only one!?) by Slavoj Žižek, and have enjoyed a few more. So when out of the giant reading backlog came a really neat piece about what makes his writing so interesting to read, I had to share. A choice quote:
The biggest obstacle facing the reader of Žižek’s work is not the academic trappings — the technical terms, the references to other thinkers — but a writing style that defies convention. Broadly speaking, the general expectation of argumentative writing is that it will lay out a more or less straightforward chain of reasons supporting a clear central claim. Even though we acknowledge that this format is almost never encountered in its pure form, it still remains a kind of ideal. In Žižek’s writing, though, it’s difficult to pick out anything like a “thesis statement,” and the argument most often proceeds via intuitive leaps rather than tight chains of reasoning.
Suketu Mehta piece about the favelas — for so long dominant symbols of both Brazil and lawlessness — and the results that government “pacification” in the wake of the coming World Cup and Olympics are having is well worth a read.
Until 2008, when the pacification program started, the traficantes controlled roughly half of the favelas, and the militias the other half. Both still hold power in most favelas. The ultimate aim of the state government of Rio’s plan, called the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), or Police Pacification Unit, is to drive both of these groups out and replace them by the state.
This made some waves last week, and for good reason. A really nice quality commencement speech (a thing for which I still hold some fondness). A selection:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
I enjoyed Freddie Deboer’s review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future, a book about which it seems I was right to be both interested in and dubious of. This paragraph is, I’m increasingly convinced, the trenchant and unanswered question facing the future of the capitalistic economies:
It is hard to overstate: This country, in its current condition, has no other option but something close to full employment. Our pathetic social safety net, even absent the contracting effect of austerity measures, can’t fill in the gaps caused by the demise of ubiquitous employment. Even the counterrevolution has no other idiom; the most common epithet directed toward Occupy protests, after all, was “Get a job!” That the near impossibility of getting a job was the point for many who were protesting was too destabilizing a notion to be understood. In the short term, I have no doubt that the unemployment rate will fall. The question is the long-term structural dependability of a social contract built on mass employment.
James Bamford’s piece about the NSA, its history, and it’s likely cache of legally-questionable data about US citizens is a valuable nugget of sanity among all the hubbub that’s followed the Edward Snowden’s data release. I liked this slice of history:
On July 1, 1920, a slim balding man in his early thirties moved into a four-story townhouse at 141 East 37th Street in Manhattan. This was the birth of the Black Chamber, the NSA’s earliest predecessor, and it would be hidden in the nondescript brownstone. But its chief, Herbert O. Yardley, had a problem. To gather intelligence for Woodrow Wilson’s government, he needed access to the telegrams entering, leaving, and passing through the country, but because of an early version of the Radio Communications Act, such access was illegal. With the shake of a hand, however, Yardley convinced Newcomb Carlton, the president of Western Union, to grant the Black Chamber secret access on a daily basis to the private messages passing over his wires—the Internet of the day.
The always-worth-reading Atul Gawande has a new piece in the New Yorker about his role in working to improve practices around childbirth world wide and what it (and some more historical anecdotes) have to tell us about how you really change the world. The whole piece is good, but this part felt most notable to me:
Besides, neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching. “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. And that’s what we want: for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the other lifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm.
(via The Browser)
Really interesting story from Brendan Koerner in Wired about a speaker installer whose side business in putting secret compartments into vehicles landed him in jail. The heart of the issue in the case:
Alfred Anaya’s case makes clear that the government rejects [the “technology is morally neutral”] worldview. The technically savvy are on notice that they must be very careful about whom they deal with, since calculated ignorance of illegal activity is not an acceptable excuse. But at what point does a failure to be nosy edge into criminal conduct? In light of what happened to Anaya, that question is nearly impossible to answer.