Every book imaginable, just not your book

Everyone has a book in them, they say. Well, perhaps not.

No, you probably don’t have a book in you
I am a literary agent. It is my full-time job to find new books and help them get published. When people talk about “having a book in them,” or when people tell others they should write a book (which is basically my nightmare), what they really mean is I bet someone, but probably not me because I already heard it, would pay money to hear this story. When people say “you should write a book,” they aren’t thinking of a physical thing, with a cover, that a human person edited, copyedited, designed, marketed, sold, shipped, and stocked on a shelf. Those well-meaning and supportive people rarely know how a story becomes printed words on a page. Here’s what they don’t know, and what most beginner writers might not realize, either.

Perhaps your book has already been written and is somewhere in the library?

Library of Babel
Borges’s short story The Library of Babel is a thought experiment: imagine every possible combination of letters printed out in 410 page books. The library would contain all knowledge and falsehoods, all of the great works of fiction and a true prophecy for everyone in the world. It would also contain all of these things, but with all the A’s and E’s switched, or with X’s between words instead of spaces. Jonathan Basile, a Ph.D. student at Emory University turned Borges’s idea into a (virtual) reality. Every possible book that could be found in the Library can be read online, but to stumble on something meaningful is near impossible, which makes it all the more exciting to try. (Via)

Looking East for answers

I don’t think we modern Westerners appreciate how easy it is for us to dip into Eastern philosophy. It’s all just a mouse-click away (and maybe feels a little superficial because of that?). It wasn’t always like that, of course.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis — David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment
But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

And here the detective story begins. It’s a great read, and crazy to think that in the early 1700s, when Hume was building up his body of work, the number of Europeans who had studied Buddhism could literally be counted on one hand.

Now, of course, Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques are big business, with apps like Headspace and Insight Timer on millions of phones. But are they really getting us any further forward?

Meditation in the time of disruption
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.

Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.

The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.

They’re not the only ones wanting a quick fix. Katie Bloom from the Outline enrols on a 10-week introductory ‘happiness’ course from the School of Practical Philosophy.

Enlightenment can be yours for just $10
The fine print reads: “Jobs come and go. Physical beauty fades, markets rise and fall. Even close relationships can end. But the benefits of philosophy last a lifetime.” These benefits — HAPPINESS included — can be gained, according to the ad, by attending the 10-week introductory course at a place called the School of Practical Philosophy.

The clichéd, Hallmark-y, feelgood pop-philosophy isn’t to everyone’s tastes, though.

The classes had more in common with my Catholic K-12 education than with the philosophy courses I took in college. It’s difficult to characterize what we learned, because none of it really cohered. Each week had a theme (“The Light of Reason,” “Beauty,” etc.), and consisted of cherry-picked ideas from eastern and western philosophies and religions, devoid of context and presented as fact. We had souls, we were told; the proof was that our bodies and thoughts and feelings changed, but something inside of us remained constant. There was beauty in everything, we learned one week, a banal-seeming claim that set off an agonizing half-hour argument about whether there was beauty in the Holocaust.

But maybe getting to the bottom of Truth and being one with the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence isn’t what it’s all about, as Katie muses at the end of the course.

Here’s what else I learned. Two Watches looked forward to class all week. His divorce had been awful, his kids lived with their mom, and he was lonely. (“Even close relationships can end,” goes one of the SPP’s subway ads.) He worked in maintenance at Yankee Stadium. He hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t belong to a church — his life was not teeming with opportunities to talk about the nature of wisdom. The lessons were fun, but the real appeal was community.

The students who stuck around until the final week reminded me of the many lonely people I had met while working in the service industry, people who often tried to turn a short, professional interaction into something lengthy and intimate. It was possible my classmates were not compelled by the notion that “three distinct energies governed the universe.” Maybe they just liked sitting in a room of people who would listen to them. The week before, an elderly widow had confessed in halting speech that it was hard to be kind to her husband towards the end of his life, because his illness changed his personality, made him mean. I watched as the woman sitting next to her, a stranger, squeezed her hand.

Rather than looking for answers, perhaps we’re just looking for people to ask the questions with.

Too many books, not enough time

Everyone’s at it.

Goodreads Choice Awards – Best Books 2018

London Evening Standard’s best books of 2018

Guardian best books of 2018: across fiction, politics, food and more

Barnes & Noble – Best Books of 2018

The New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Publishers Weekly – Best Books 2018

Quartzy – Best books we read in 2018

And if all that wasn’t enough for you.

Download 569 free art books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
You may remember that we featured the site a few years ago, back when it offered 397 whole books free for the reading … [T]he Met has kept adding to their digital trove since then, and, as a result, you can now find there no fewer than 569 art catalogs and other books besides. Those sit alongside the 400,000 free art images the museum put online last year.

I think I prefer Maria Popova’s round-up, though.

The loveliest children’s books of 2018
Maurice Sendak’s last book, a celebration of history’s heroic women illustrated by Maira Kalman, a stunning serenade to the wilderness, and more.

So many books, so little time.

We should ban the ‘best of’ end of year lists – they make us feel guilty and old
I mean, I suppose if I did nothing else with my free time, I might be able to get through the Times’ list, but that would be next year gone, and I would have to put off all the great new books of 2019 until 2020 and so on, year after year until the sweet release of death.

Don’t believe all you read

Imagine being one of the journalists, editors or fact-checkers at Der Spiegel, the German weekly news magazine, when this article was being produced, having to own up to this catalogue of failure.

Claas Relotius reporter forgery scandal
It has now become clear that Claas Relotius, 33 years old, one of DER SPIEGEL’s best writers, winner of multiple awards and a journalistic idol of his generation, is neither a reporter nor a journalist. Rather, he produces beautifully narrated fiction. Truth and lies are mixed together in his articles and some, at least according to him, were even cleanly reported and free of fabrication. Others, he admits, were embellished with fudged quotes and other made-up facts. Still others were entirely fabricated. During his confession on Thursday, Relotius said, verbatim: “It wasn’t about the next big thing. It was the fear of failure.” And: “The pressure not to fail grew as I became more successful.”

Story after story is dissected, and lies revealed. The consequences and implications for journalism worldwide are already being played out.

Trump ambassador uses Der Spiegel fabrication scandal to take aim at journalists
Grenell also got into a debate with a correspondent for the German public broadcaster ZDF, whom he told to “stop defending fake news and fabricated stories.”

“We do,” the correspondent, Andreas Kynast, wrote back. “Do you?”

2018 in art and design

Another late December day, another round-up of what happened this year.

It’s Nice That’s Review of the Year 2018
Well, 2018 was a year, wasn’t it? Between us, we’re quite glad that it’s (nearly) all over. Now’s the perfect time to reflect on creativity flourished in yet another turbulent 12 months on a topsy-turvy planet.

A great collection of articles. I particularly enjoyed reading their summary of 2018’s news stories — as they say, it “might be the only round-up of 2018 that’s (mercifully) free of the twin terrors of Donald Trump and Brexit.”

Review of the Year 2018: Top 25 News
From Burberry getting a new logo courtesy of Peter Saville to Marina Abramović promising to electrify herself with one million volts in the name of art, via Taylor Swift butting heads with Spike Jonze over allegations of copy-catting, and the release of a new typeface that claims to be able to boost your memory, a lot has happened in the creative world since we said hello to January back in, well, January.

Some real gems there. Remember that Damien Hirst exhibition? And the great KFC chicken shortage back in February?

And how about this review of what’s been happening in the colourful, noisy, fast-paced world of video game design.

The best in video game concept art for 2018
My favourite feature here at Kotaku is Fine Art, a daily look at the concept art that goes into our favourite games. With the end of the year fast approaching, I thought it was time to look at some of the best work we’ve been able to showcase this year from some of the biggest games.

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“The most wonderful time of the year”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The competitive business of recruiting pro Santas
“It’s incredibly demanding work,” says Ferrell. “If you’re at a big mall, you might see upwards of 3k kids per day. And with each one, you get 3-5 pictures. You’re looking at 10k bright flashes per day. When you get off, you can hardly see.” […]

In the line of duty, Ferrell has been sneezed on, vomited on, peed on — “everything that can come out” of a child has ended up in his lap. One Christmas, a 6-year-old headbutted him and split his eyebrow open, speckling his white fur lapel with blood. He now carries 3 extra suits for back-up.

Noerr Programs Santa University

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Merry Christmas cards give wrong message about alcohol, experts warn
Henry Cole is widely credited with creating the first commercial Christmas card, depicting a scene showing people drinking, in 1843. In 1980, an analysis of greetings cards revealed themes that suggested getting drunk is a natural and desirable element of celebrations and that drunkenness is humorous, enjoyable and harmless.

Instabrag humbug: why I’m giving up social media for Christmas
We went there just before Christmas last year. A great place to tweet #Christmasmagic from, without doubt, but unfortunately when we arrived, it rained so much it made Brexit look like a spa day. We were surrounded by cold, damp, bored kids. For three solid, awful days. Thing is, you’d never know that if you’re a Facebook fan/friend of mine. I lied, OK? I just wanted my life to look good, all right? I was only ever after the dopamine hit of the Likes. I’m only in this for the Likes. In the digital age, the only place we ever go on family holidays now is the Like District.

12-year-old’s Christmas list demonstrates heartbreaking awareness of family’s financial predicament
“A new controller would be great too, but honestly, the one I have isn’t that bad.”

The vital, busy, invisible border

A neat summary and infographic from the Economist on the issues surrounding the Irish border in relation to Brexit.

What does the Irish border have to do with Brexit?
The invisible frontier has become the most complicated feature of Britain’s negotiations with the European Union. […]

For the past 20 years Britain’s political class has all but ignored Northern Ireland. Yet two decades after the end of the Troubles, the Irish question is back–and it is more likely than any other matter to derail Brexit.

For the love of books — and book shops

Some worrying news recently, about the fate of the book shop.

Brazilian booksellers face wave of closures that leave sector in crisis
In a widely shared “love letter to books”, Companhia das Letras co-founder Luiz Schwarcz has laid out the stark reality of Brazil’s current book market, urging readers to buy books this Christmas to help the sector survive.

“It remains impossible to predict the full extent of the knock-on effects of this crisis, but they are nonetheless already terrifying … Here, many towns are about to be left without a single bookstore, and publishers are now faced with the challenge of getting their books out to readers and have to deal with significant accumulated loss,” wrote Schwarcz, who won a lifetime achievement award at the 2017 London book fair.

If you’ll forgive the ropey Google translation, here’s more from that open letter.

Cartas de amor aos livros – Love letters to books
To those who, like me, have in their affection for books their reason for living, I ask them to spread messages; that spread the desire to buy books at the end of the year, books of their favorite authors, new writers who want to discover books bought in bookstores that survive heroically to the crisis, fulfilling their commitments, and also in bookstores that are in difficulties, but who need our help to rebuild.

That was a nicely timed article from the Guardian, as I was just re-reading my posts about James Bridle and his book, New Dark Age. I was just about to order it on my Kindle when I came across this introduction to another one of his extracts from it.

Conspiracies, Climate, and the New Dark Age
Hello, I’ve written a book. New Dark Age is a book about technology, knowledge, and the end of the future. It’s published by Verso, and you can buy it direct from the publisher as hardback and ebook (which is better for me, them, and publishing in general) — or wherever you usually acquire your reading.

It’s never occurred to me before, to buy an e-book direct from the publisher — Amazon is just too convenient. One of my New Years Resolutions should be to think a little more about these decisions, and put my money where my mouth is.

And a couple more from the Guardian on what bookshops are facing.

‘I’d love to scream at them’: how showroomers became the No 1 threat to bookshops
Last weekend, Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, tweeted a rebuke of the “people taking pictures of books and buying them from #Amazon in the store and even bragging about it”: “This is not OK, people. Find it here. Buy it here. Keep us here. That is all.” The tweet, by the shop’s owner, Kelly Justice, has been liked 40,000 times and was met with support from booksellers around the world. But among customers, the conversation was divided between those who recognised the rudeness of the act and those who felt it was legitimate. […]

“I’d love just to be able to scream at customers who do this about tax and the treatment of authors and small publishers, but our philosophy is always to wow them with charm and knowledge, even when they are blatantly doing it,” says Dave Kelly of Blackwell’s in Oxford. “Sooner or later, the general public will wake up to the damage companies such as Amazon are doing to small businesses and the creative industry and, with a bit of luck, bookshops will still be here to supply the books that they love.”

Amazon faces boycott ahead of holidays as public discontent grows
No one denies the convenience of shopping on Amazon but for some there are a host of reasons – from the working conditions at Amazon warehouses, the company’s aggressive anti-tax lobbying, its impact on local business or its selling of white nationalist merchandise – that make that convenience too high a price to pay. […]

The potential loss of business was enough to make Bank of America reverse course but perhaps Amazon is just too big to boycott. For years, some spurned Amazon in favor of local bookshops. Then more recently, people sat out Prime Day in solidarity with workers protesting against the company in Europe. Yet Amazon barely shrugged and continued growing. Earlier this year, the company disclosed that the number of Prime members surpassed 100 million. More new members signed up for Prime in 2017 than in any other year.

And here’s an interview with journalist Franklin Foer, on similar themes.

Why Amazon is a ‘bully’ and Facebook and Google are ‘the enemies of independent thought’
“That was my frustration when I went and talked to the Justice Department about Amazon,” Foer said. “It’s like, ‘Well, they’re actually hurting consumers over the long run by hurting producers. And they’re behaving in a bullying sort of way. Maybe not to consumers, but to producers. Why in God’s name can’t you see the harm?’ And they just couldn’t see it because it was so outside of the current paradigm under which they’re operating.”

A strange morning

The Quartz Daily Brief is just one of several e-mail newsletters I like to start my day with, on my commute to work on the number 97. A variety of topics are covered, some catch my eye more than others — politics, yes; business, not so much — but today’s ‘Surprising Discoveries’ section was so odd I just have to share it all with you.

Jack Dorsey sent his facial hair to Azealia Banks. The Twitter CEO wanted the rapper to make a protective amulet out of his beard shavings.

A judge ordered a Missouri poacher to watch Bambi on repeat. He has to watch the Disney classic at least once a month during his year-long jail sentence.

Actual witches want Trump to stop saying “witch hunt.” They say his comparison of the Mueller investigation to their painful history is disrespectful.

A diamond the size of an egg was unearthed in Canada. The value of the 552-carat “fancy yellow” gem will depend on the cutting (subscription).

The year 536 was the worst to be alive. A mysterious global fog covered half of the planet for 18 months, leading to constant darkness, crop failure, and mass starvation.

That’s quite a collection of strangeness for one morning. Sign up for your own odd start to the day.

It’s Monday, so get the coffee on

We can’t do without it now, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coffee was pretty foul stuff requiring the hard sell.

“The Virtues of Coffee” explained in 1690 ad: the cure for lethargy, scurvy, dropsy, gout & more
Price made a “litany of claims for coffee’s health benefits,” some of which “we’d recognize today and others that seem far-fetched.” In the latter category are assertions that “coffee-drinking populations didn’t get common diseases” like kidney stones or “Scurvey, Gout, Dropsie.” Coffee could also, Price claimed, improve hearing and “swooning” and was “experimentally good to prevent Miscarriage.”

Among these spurious medical benefits is listed a genuine effect of coffee—its relief of “lethargy.”

I’m caffeinely unadventurous — I only ever order the ‘Americano with room for milk please’ — but I’ve lately discovered moka pots. Don’t know what took me so long, they’re great. Here’s a potted history from Atlas Obscura; the rise…

The humble brilliance of Italy’s moka coffee pot
Over the next 60 years, the moka pot would conquer the world. As of 2016, the New York Times notes that over 90 percent of Italian homes had one. It became so iconic that Renato Bialetti, when he died in early 2016, was actually buried in a large replica of the moka pot.

… and fall…

The moka pot, which in the U.S. had previously had a light following, especially for Italian-Americans, became an object of extreme derision. Coffee purists cried that it couldn’t possibly produce espresso; the moka pot, like the La Pavoni, uses about 1.5 bars of pressure, while a pump espresso machine ideally hits about nine bars. This is, of course, a ridiculous argument; there is no actual definition of espresso, and in any case, the moka pot is at most a second cousin to the espresso machine. There’s no particular reason to compare a steam-driven stovetop machine to a pump-driven electrical device, but coffee people did.

… and rise again.

The past few years have changed that, a little bit. Coffee people have softened their stance, and recognized the moka pot for what it is: an entirely different branch of the coffee machine tree, a very old, very clever, and very economical way to make coffee. The previous complaints about the moka pot fell away, and it is increasingly, in coffee circles, given credit for all its strengths.

monday-coffee-1

Well, I’m a big fan of mine. Just as good as on the high street, I think.

Have we reached peak Costa Coffee?
But if Starbucks represents the kind of distant consumerism that Britons often reject for being too American and Caffè Nero symbolises the sophisticated, European consumerism that makes us feel oafish and uncouth, then part of the success of Costa lies in its ability to reach a middle ground – and to offer it with a smile. It provides no-airs-or-graces coffee, with a reassuring mass-produced quality to its stores.

And if anyone needs an idea about what to get me for Christmas…

11 brilliant gifts for the coffee (or tea) enthusiast in your life
Most of us can appreciate a decent cup of joe. Then, there are those who obsess over bean sourcing, brew temperatures, and whether their paper filter is unbleached. For these friends and relatives, a gift card to the local franchise drive-thru probably won’t do. Check out 11 thoughtful gifts for the coffee and tea lovers in your life.

Or I could just look at this for a while…

hot-coffee

Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.

Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.” […]

At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.

Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.

Yo-Yo Ma – The Making of Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”

From the comments:

It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.

Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!

Less talk, more thinking

Two recent articles, from within different contexts but with the same unconventional conclusion: most political debates are pointless and serve just to reinforce division and animosity.

Against debate
The confident assertion of a clear statement beats caution and caveats. Experiments tell us that people often mistake overconfidence for competence thereby selecting for it and against actual ability. Debates favour articulate overconfident posh folk who in fact know nothing – which is why we got into this mess.

Resolved: Debate is stupid
People — yes, even you — do not make decisions on an entirely rational basis. An audience is more easily won over with a one-liner that inspires applause or laughter than a five-minute explanation of a complicated phenomenon. A false statistic repeated confidently will be more convincing than a truth stated haltingly by some guy you’ve never heard of.

And here’s another article that I think is related. It’s from Slate and wants to be about how Twitter is finally proving itself to be a useful, benevolent platform for debate, with historians acting as fact-checkers and context-providers. I’m not so sure.

Viral history Twitter threads: 2018 was the year historians embraced the platform.
Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

I’m growing more and more disillusioned with Twitter, and social media in general. Yes, these longer sets of tweets can provide ‘explanations of complicated phenomena’, and are interesting to read. But are we really saying that Twitter, with its average tweet length of about 50 characters, can overcome those problems with political debates, highlighted above? Or are they just preaching to the converted?

How many tweets have you seen that have included the words, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

Big in Japan

I was inspired to search through my Pinboard bookmarks for things relating to Japan, following my son’s recent school trip there. Here’s some of what I found.

David Bowie memorialized in traditional Japanese woodblock prints
The recent release of two modern ukiyo-e woodblock prints featuring the rocker has caused such mass swooning among legions of Japanophile Bowie fans, the reverberations may well be powerful enough to ring temple bells in Kyoto.

We could all use a little more Chindogu, the Japanese art of useless inventions
A little bit Dada, a little bit “only sold on television,” intentionally useless inventions called Chindogu look like a bunch of plastic junk at first glance, but there’s more to it than that. And they’re not quite altogether useless. In fact, as creator Kenji Kawakami stated when he first revealed Chindogu to the world in 1995, these objects are “un-useless.” They have a purpose, but they take their halfway practical solution to a perceived problem and stretch it to maximum absurdity. It’s all kind of dumb, and that’s the point.

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Japan pampers its pets like nowhere else – A dog’s life
It is common for a parent taking a baby for a stroll to exchange a look of solidarity with another pram-pusher, only to glance down and realise the other’s contains a furry friend. Greying Japan is alert to animal ageing, too: there are acupuncture services for elderly pets, and several firms offer funerals.

In Japan, the Kit Kat isn’t just a chocolate. It’s an obsession.
There are also carefully chosen collaborations that capitalize on Japan’s culture of omiyage, which can be loosely defined as returning from travels with gifts for friends, family and colleagues. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat, which would go on sale in mid-October, would be sold right alongside the real Kikyou shingen mochi at souvenir shops and in service areas along the Chuo Expressway, a major four-lane road more than 200 miles long that passes through the mountainous regions of several prefectures, connecting Tokyo to Nagoya. With any luck, people would associate the Kit Kat with the traditional sweet and snap it up as a souvenir. But for this to be a success, for Kit Kat to expand into the souvenir market, consumers would have to believe that Kit Kat, originally a British product, was Japanese, and that although it was manufactured in a factory far away, it somehow represented the very essence of a region.

Miyu Kojima creates miniature replicas of lonely deaths
Twenty six-year old Miyu Kojima works for a company that cleans up after kodokushi (孤独死) or lonely deaths: a Japanese phenomenon of people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a long period of time. […] Part art therapy and part public service campaign, Kojima spends a large portion of her free time recreating detailed miniature replicas of the rooms she has cleaned.

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An early 20th century guide to wave designs for Japanese craftsmen is now available online
In 1903, Japanese artist Mori Yuzan’s wave designs were published in a resource guide for Japanese craftsmen looking to add aquatic motifs to their wares. The three-volume series, titled Hamonshū, includes variations on contained and free-form wave patterns suitable for embellishing swords, religious objects, and ceramics.

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And their firework catalogue is a pretty interesting resource too.

What’s the rush?

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month, and all that. But doesn’t Christmas seem to start earlier and earlier each year?

How long before we see Santa in July? Consult Quartz’s Christmas Creep Calculator™
Quartz has fed the latest data into its Christmas Creep Calculator™, which for years has harnessed cutting-edge artificial intelligence, sophisticated machine learning, and the “Add Trendline” function in Microsoft Excel to project the path of the Christmas shopping season creeping ever earlier in the calendar. Behold:

whats-the-rush-2

In short, 2130. And they have a Mariah Carey calculator now, too.

Is this headlong rush into the festive season symptomatic of our culture speeding up more generally? This piece from the Verge thinks so.

Time is different now
There was an Olympics this year. Black Panther, too. If that surprises you to remember — as it surprises me — that’s because so much else has happened since. (“Everything happens so much,” wrote the Twitter account @horse_ebooks in the summer of 2012, which is as good a motto for these days as any.) Things are speeding up, or at least they seem to be.

I wonder, though. Maybe we’re just getting bored quicker, and more keen to move on to the next thing on the conveyor belt, and the next, and the next.

 

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* of the year

December’s not quite here yet, but the best somethings of the year articles are starting already. Here are two I’ve spotted recently.

National Geographic’s best photos of 2018
National Geographic’s 100 best images of the year—curated from 107 photographers, 119 stories, and more than two million photographs.

of-the-year-2

As well as the usual, and often quite grisly, natural history images, there are some remarkable human interest stories here too.

of-the-year-3

Books of the year 2018: the TLS contributors decide
From autofiction to ‘unbooks’ and ‘Ancient Mariner novels’.

of-the-year

Having spent much of the past three years writing about a fictional piano-tuner I thought I had had enough of the instrument. Then along came Paul Kildea’s fascinating Chopin’s Piano: A journey through Romanticism (Allen Lane) and I was hooked again. The starting point for this beguiling journey is a somewhat basic piano – a pianino – made in Majorca in the 1830s on which Chopin composed and polished his 24 Preludes.

[…]

Hastings’s indictment of Washington policy after the South Vietnamese military coup of 1963 is lethal. America’s prolongation of the war was a mutilating act of self-harm which took generations to heal. It happened because US policymakers lied to the electorate, which is usual enough, but more culpably also lied to close colleagues and lied to themselves. In this sense, at least, Brexit is Britain’s Vietnam.

[…]

Schnackenberg has everything except (a) a snappy name, and (b) a recital voice powerful enough to overcome the uproar of gerbils mating. Listen to her on YouTube and you’ll think that the Americans are developing a new weapon: Stealth people. 

YouTube’s conspiracy problem rears its ugly head again

The recent wildfire in California has been devastating for the towns and communities involved. This video gives us a glimpse of what some people have had to face. It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t filmed at night.

Family drive through flames escaping California wildfire

A video on YouTube, shared via the Guardian News channel. But it’s YouTube that’s again in the news, over the blatantly false videos it hosts and the mechanisms for publicising them.

YouTube lets California fire conspiracy theories run wild
The Camp Fire in California has killed at least 79 people, left 699 people unaccounted for, and created more than a thousand migrants in Butte County, California. In these circumstances, reliable information can literally be a matter of life [and] death. But on YouTube, conspiracy theories are thriving.

I don’t want to go into the theories themselves, the specifics aren’t important.

But the point isn’t that these conspiracy theorists are wrong. They obviously are. The point is that vloggers have realized that they can amass hundreds of thousands of views by advancing false narrative, and YouTube has not adequately stopped these conspiracy theories from blossoming on its platform, despite the fact that many people use it for news. A Pew Research survey found that 38% of adults consider YouTube as a source of news, and 53% consider the site important for helping them understand what’s happening in the world.

Combine those statistics with these, from the Guardian, and you can see the problem.

Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories
“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and most of the time that has gone beneath the radar of the established media,” said Naughton. “Insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”

That dismissive attitude changed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016, he said.

And that’s why these accounts of conspiracy theory vloggers manipulating YouTube to get millions of views for their blatantly false videos are so important.

The issue of conspiracy theorists in a society far predates platforms like YouTube. However, platforms such as YouTube provide new fuel and routes through which these conspiracy theories can spread. In other words, conspiracy theories are the disease, but YouTube is a whole new breed of carrier.

How on (the round) earth can we fix this?

Coffee to the rescue

It’s Monday, so put the kettle on.

How coffee protects the brain
Scientists have now proved that drinking certain types of coffee can be beneficial to brain health, but how does this popular brew support cognitive function? A new study identifies some of the mechanisms that allow coffee to keep mental decline at bay.

Yes, I know this is one of those health pendulum stories — coffee/bacon/red wine is good for you one week, bad for you the next — but I’m happy to think of all this coffee I’m drinking as an investment for my future.

How to fix* broken Brexit

With humour.

Instead of this …

Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as agreed at negotiators’ level on 14 November 2018 [pdf]

… and this …

Brexit analysis: Why Theresa May’s deal may be doomed
Somehow, all this would be bought at no cost. British citizens would continue to enjoy frictionless travel to the E.U; goods and services would still cross borders with hyperloop-y speed and ease. But immigrants would find that Britain’s international entry points had become a veritable eye of the needle. Above all, we were told that all our E.U. contributions would now get fed straight into the National Health Service […] It’s not just that these assertions were unfounded. They showed a fundamental overestimation of Britain’s power and prestige, of its ability to bend other states to its will. The E.U. has not as yet capitulated to a single meaningful demand from a British government that has frequently looked weak and confused.

… read this.

And instead of this …

Brexit deal resignations are more bad news for the British pound
Today’s resignations have been far worse for the pound. About an hour after Raab, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey resigned, too. There have been four more junior-level resignations on top of that, all before lunch.

… read this.

(* Ok, not so much ‘fix’ as ‘get through’.)

Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet – don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

tetris-sounding-good-1

Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Mark Knopfler (possibly).

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.