Marginal

An interesting read about the little notes we add to our interesting reads.

At the marginsNational Review
That what I’m describing is a tension inherent in the marginalia business will be obvious to anyone who’s ever read with pen in hand. Writing in a book today, I record some portion of my thinking for tomorrow. Though I trust that it will be readable, I can’t pretend that it will all make sense. Among my favorite margin notes, for instance, is the lone exclamation point, with which I frequently signal both agreement and furious dissent. Will those who come behind me know one from the other? Will I? Perhaps not. But we’ll know what moved me.

Two things strike me about this. Firstly, are our Kindle notes too impersonal and clinical, compared to those left by our fading pencils and scratchy pens? And secondly, is this entire blog—my collection of notes about things I’ve read—just one huge margin?

Plenty to fill the time

Having to stay at home, with a lot of time on your hands?

The 33 best movies over 3 hours longVulture
Some of these long movies inflate the familiar three-act structure to epic proportions, while others use their expanded lengths to stretch out and wander into unexpected places. We wouldn’t necessarily suggest marathoning these films back-to-back, but watching them one at a time is an experience worth clearing your schedule for.

Pandemics: An essential reading listVulture
Just as the film Contagion has found a second life with news of the coronavirus outbreak, so too are novels about epidemics popping up on reading lists around the country. With stakes so high, it’s easy to see why novelists find outbreaks of disease so compelling. Here are 20 great fictional takes, ranging from the historical to the futuristic.

The 40 best horror movies on ShudderVulture
If you’re new to the service and wondering where to start, don’t fret: We’ve dug into Shudder’s increasingly impressive catalogue to find the best films worth your time, from classics like Halloween to newer entries like Mandy. Watch them all.

Or perhaps something more culturally uplifting.

On coronavirus lockdown? The top online museum and art tours to enjoy from homeThe Art Newspaper
As coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to spread and disrupt the daily lives of people across the globe, forcing many to self-quarantine, we are compiling the best online offerings from artists, museums and galleries. Whether you are staying at home or your local museums and galleries have closed, here are some of the best digital initiatives to satisfy your creative cravings.

No audiences, but concerts streamed to the world. This is a moment in classical music historyClassic FM
Last night, Bach Collegium Japan performed Bach’s St. John Passion at the Cologne Philharmonic. The performance was full of passion and the highest artistry. At the end of the final chorale, orchestra, choir, soloists and conductor turned and bowed, but very poignantly, there was no sound or ovation to be heard.

That’s because in the Spring of 2020, the world’s musicians are not playing to audiences, they are not showcasing their craft for the applause, or even rapt silence. They are simply playing to share music with a world that needs to hear it.

Met to launch “Nightly Met Opera Streams,” a free series of encore Live in HD presentations streamed on the company website during the coronavirus closureMetropolitan Opera
“We’d like to provide some grand opera solace to opera lovers in these extraordinarily difficult times,” said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. “Every night, we’ll be offering a different complete operatic gem from our collection of HD presentations from the past 14 years.”

I wish wish wish they’d show this one.

How an opera gets madeYouTube

Trailer From The Loop

Two years after I first saw his work, it’s finally hitting our screens.

‘Tales From the Loop’, a wondrous Amazon Prime series based upon the artwork of Simon StålenhagLaughing Squid
The series takes its title from a pair of books written by Stålenhag about “paintings from a childhood that never was and a future that could have been.” The series focuses on a machine that unlocks such a future for those who enter.

Tales From the Loop enlivens the gravity-defying dystopia of Simon Stålenhag’s illustrationsColossal
Launching April 3, the television series is based on the understanding that “not everything in life makes sense” as it chronicles the lives of those residing in the Loop, a machine built to uncover answers to the world’s mysteries. It features a gravity-defying universe that sees floating objects, snow ascending from a pile on the floor, and pieces of a house ripped upward. Retro robots even foster relationships with the families and children immersed in the explorative environment.

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Next month, then, for Amazon Prime customers. Let’s hope it’ll spill out wider for those of us who aren’t primers. Meanwhile, here’s an interview with the man behind those melancholic images.

Simon Stålenhag: meet the artist behind Amazon Prime’s mysterious new TV showDigital Arts
Tales from the Loop is based on the books and artworks of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, so to coincide we’ve looked backed to when we interviewed him about how he conceives and paints his sci-fi worlds – and what the hell is really going on.

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The language of Utopia can be yours for just $81,000

I’m not sure if Duolingo will be turning this into a new language course any time soon.

For Sale: Sir Thomas More’s Utopian alphabetAtlas Obscura
The characters in the Utopian language walk the line between Greek and geometric runes. There is no casing, just large circles, squares, triangles and lines, with various accents attached. It would be gobbledygook if not for its accompanying Latin translation, which speaks to the creation of Utopia and its singularity as a philosophical—and aspirational—place.

As I was reading that, I was getting Thomas More mixed up with Thomas Cromwell, something that has happened to the Wolf Hall actors playing those roles, too. But anyway.

Thomas More is the villain of Wolf Hall. But is he getting a raw deal?The Guardian
The other piece of influential writing that has helped emphasise More’s superior character is his own book, Utopia. A philosophical argument couched in the tale of a traveller who returns from an unknown land, it has furnished English literature with many enduring ideas – not least that of a Utopia itself; a perfect, unattainable society. Published in Latin in 1516, Utopia still intrigues and amuses readers despite having been around for half a millennium. In More’s imagined Utopia, property, goods and food are all shared among the households in each city and there is a heavy emphasis on agriculture, although some weight is given to academic learning as well. When it comes to government: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all,” he suggests.

That last line reminds me of that Groucho quote about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.

But perhaps $81,000 is a little steep for just one book. Maybe you’re just after something to fill your shelves.

Books sold by the linear footBoing Boing
So it turns out there’s an entire industry of books hand-picked and organized to look good, sold in bulk according to a variety of visual or conceptual themes. Color gradients is a hot trend in the world of books sold by the linear foot.

Just a few stores I found: Books by the FootZubal BooksThe Book BundlerDecades of Vintage and Booth & Williams all specialize in books sold for their aesthetic appeal rather than their contents.

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Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Fending off the Jackpot

I’m about halfway through William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, and was very happy to read somewhere that it’s part two of a trilogy. Here’s hoping we’ll all be around to enjoy the third…

William Gibson on the apocalypse: “it’s been happening for at least 100 years”New Statesman
His characters call it “the Jackpot”. “It’s multi-causal, and it’s of extremely long duration,” he explains. Over many decades, climate change, pollution, drug-resistant diseases and other factors – “I’ve never really had the heart to make up a full list, else I’ll depress myself” – deplete the human race by 80 per cent. The Jackpot is the mundane cataclysm of modernity itself. It is hundreds of millions of people driving to the supermarket in their SUVs, flying six times a year, and eating medicated animals for dinner. “If the Jackpot is going to happen,” Gibson says, “it’s already happening. It’s been happening for at least 100 years.”

As well as bringing to life an all-too-plausible future, he has a keen grasp on the present. (All science fiction is really about the present, I guess. As he has said earlier, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”)

Putin is the pre-eminent figure in the klept that Gibson sees emerging in the real world. He describes Russia’s reported attempts to influence the 2016 US election as “the most cost-efficient black op in human history. It was a long shot, but it did work, and every day since then they must have had a good laugh, and gotten ready to enjoy yet another day of watching this endlessly exploding grenade at the heart of American government. I doubt they’ve tried to control him very much. It isn’t necessary.”

This story caught my eye. Another artist inspired by a frustrating political situation to produce something positive.

Artist Whitney Bedford is drawing a portrait of Elizabeth Warren every day until she is elected presidentThe Art Newspaper
“It’s really the only currency I have,” says Bedford, fresh from a powerful paintings show at Susanne Vielmetter’s gallery that explored ideas of landscape and toxic land use. “I felt that if I did something I’m known for in public, it could be an incentive for other people to act.” She calls her project “Elizabeth Warren Wins”.

“There’s never been a candidate I’ve been so excited about. And I’ve never done something so fangirl in my life,” she adds. “I don’t get the whole Bernie tsunami because he sounds angry to me. I like how measured and intelligent she is, and I’m on board with pretty much all of her positions.”

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The perils of DIY book cover design

Well, at least they’re trying, I guess.

The worst book covers on AmazonDesign You Trust
Who needs a professional designer when you can save money and make a book cover by yourself, right? Wrong.

But are the professionals doing a better job?

Horror books have lost their identityIn Praise of Shadows

Talking rubbish

Whilst I could be described as being a ‘knowledge worker’, I work in a place as far from Silicon Valley as it’s possible to be. There is no table-football or Lego in my office. We don’t have hot desks or use Slack. And there’s no expectation that we swap the 9-to-5 with 996, that is 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Less 24/7, more 7-and-a-half/5. Others aren’t so lucky, however.

Silicon Valley ruined work cultureWired
Lyons believes these new-agey corporate practices, along with perks like free snacks or beer on tap, are simply a misdirection from something rotten at the core. He blames worker unhappiness not just on Silicon Valley’s work culture but also on its business model—one he calls “shareholder capitalism.” The modern tech company is obsessed with growth and profit, at the expense of its employees and to the benefit of its investors. Some lucky employees might have stock options, but most don’t, and even then it’s a small percentage of the money flowing back to investors. The perks, then, function like trick mirrors, “a way to distract employees and keep them from noticing that their pockets are being picked.”

I’m imagining Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s new book on Silicon Valley and start-up culture, to be a Microserfs for millennials. It probably isn’t.

Seduced by Start-up Land: A new memoir about millennial ambition in Silicon Valley – The Cut
Uncanny Valley is a memoir about Wiener’s journey through start-up culture during its most bullish and self-aggrandizing era, and how her idealism gives way to disappointment and horror as society starts to suffer the consequences of tech’s unchecked fetish for growth.

Examining endemic ills of tech bros in ‘Uncanny Valley’The Boston Globe
The most valuable question Wiener asks is why we are allowing that to happen — why we have such blind faith in these “ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs,” why we’re so seduced by their confidence that we assume their priorities should be our own, why we defer to them when we ought to be saying no.

As well as via some very suspect management practices, that culture is expressed by the choice of language being used.

Garbage language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?Vulture
Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.” […]

I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

She’s not the only one to spot this, of course.

Corporate buzzwords are how workers pretend to be adultsThe Atlantic
From a more cynical perspective, buzzwords are useful when office workers need to dress up their otherwise pointless tasks with fancier phrases—you know, for the optics. Coal miners and doctors and tennis instructors have specific jargon they use to get their points across, but “all-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything.”

Perhaps, instead of using garbage language, we could flick through the pages of Eunoia, a diction of words that don’t translate.

Eunoia: The internet’s dictionary of untranslatable wordsBlog of the Long Now
Eunoia is itself an untranslatable word meaning a “well-mind” or “beautiful thinking.” The user can search Eunoia’s database by “language, tag, or the word itself. There are over 500 words in the database, across 50+ languages and 50+ tags.”

The language with the highest untranslatable words was German; from the well-known Schadenfreude, which means to be happy at someone else’s misfortune, to the complicated Jein, meaning both yes and no.

That last one, jein, reminded me of this new construction that I’m still looking for an excuse to use.

But/andRobin Sloan
I find that in my own writing, my own sequencing of ideas, what I most often want is “and,” except that “and” is so linear: it can’t capture a turn or a twist. The layers of “but/and” do it almost perfectly, and, as a bonus, its clumsiness basically admits, “I am no great rhetorician; this is not a mathematical proof; I’m just trying my best,” which, to me, is a great benefit. […]

“And” is the continuation, fine as far as is goes; “but” is the negation, even if you pretend it’s not; “but/and” is the turn, the twist, the resonance, the perfect fifth.

Less is more, more, more

We’re surrounded by stuff, let’s get rid of it all. Jia Tolentino reviews The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka, and wonders whether, beneath the vision of “less” as a life style, there is a path to something more profound.

The pitfalls and the potential of the new minimalismThe New Yorker
It is rarely acknowledged, by either the life-hack-minded authors or the proponents of minimalist design, that many people have minimalism forced upon them by circumstances that render impossible a serene, jewel-box life style. Nor do they mention that poverty and trauma can make frivolous possessions seem like a lifeline rather than a burden. Many of today’s gurus maintain that minimalism can be useful no matter one’s income, but the audience they target is implicitly affluent—the pitch is never about making do with less because you have no choice. Millburn and Nicodemus frequently describe their past lives as spiritually empty twentysomethings with six-figure incomes. McKeown pitches his insights at people who have a surplus of options as a consequence of success. Kondo recently launched an online store, suggesting that the left hand might declutter while the right hand buys a seventy-five-dollar rose-quartz tuning fork. […]

“The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism,” a new book by the journalist and critic Kyle Chayka, arrives not as an addition to the minimalist canon but as a corrective to it. Chayka aims to find something deeper within the tradition than an Instagram-friendly aesthetic and the “saccharine and predigested” advice of self-help literature. Writing in search of the things that popular minimalism sweeps out of the frame—the void, transience, messiness, uncertainty—he surveys minimalist figures in art, music, and philosophy, searching for a “minimalism of ideas rather than things.”

Along the way, he offers sharp critiques of thing-oriented minimalism. The sleek, simple devices produced by Apple, which encourage us to seamlessly glide through the day by tapping and swiping on pocket-size screens, rely on a hidden “maximalist assemblage,” Chayka writes: “server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, devastated mud pit mines that produce tin.” Also, he points out, the glass walls in Apple’s headquarters were marked with Post-it notes to keep employees from smacking into them, like birds.

It’s not just a critique of style over substance, though.

The self-help minimalists say that keeping expenses low and purchases to a minimum can help create a life that is clear and streamlined. This practice can also lead to the conclusion that there is not only too much stuff in your apartment but too much stuff in the world—that there is, you might say, an epidemic of overproduction. If you did say this, you would be quoting Karl Marx, who declared that this was the case in 1848, when he and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” Comparing a “society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange” to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells,” they contended that there was “too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” Hence, they suggested, the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism, which brings the periodic “destruction of a mass of productive forces”—as, perhaps, we experienced in 2008, before the rise of Kondo and company.

Packed your school bag, kids?

There are other collections of school exercise books around, but this one is fully online and looks to be vast, with hundreds of children’s exercise books from across the globe, from the 1700s to 2000s.

Exercise Book Archive
The Exercise Book Archive is an ever-growing collection of old exercise books from all over the world. Everybody is invited to discover the history, education, and daily life of the children and young people of the past through this unique material.

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The Boeing. France, March 31, 1973

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3rd year of school 1943-44. Austria, September 1943

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My Friend. United Kingdom, March 7, 1936

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The blizzard at Honey Brook. United States of America, February 1899

Don’t keep it to yourself

I read quite a lot, as most of us do—from books and newspapers, screens and  phones. But when was the last time you read aloud? Or had something read aloud to you?

As Meghan Cox Gurdon explains, in this extract from her book The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud In the Age of Distraction, reading aloud is something that goes way back.

Rediscovering the lost power of reading aloudLiterary Hub
So far as we can tell, starting in Paleolithic times, in every place where there are or have been people, there has been narrative. Here is Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform script 1,500 years before Homer. Here are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, vast Sanskrit poems dating from the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Here too is the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf, the Icelandic Völsunga saga, the Malian epic Sundiata, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Persian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian ferment of The Thousand and One Nights, and the 19th-century Finnish and Karelian epic the Kalevala. This list is necessarily partial.

Once upon a time, none of these stories had yet been fixed on a page (or a clay tablet), but were carried in the physical bodies of the people who committed them to memory. Long before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, and 1,000 years before cloistered monks and their illuminated manuscripts, the principal storage facility for history, poetry, and folktales was the human head. And the chief means of transmitting that cultural wealth, from generation to generation, was the human voice.

Talking to myself

Yesterday’s post from Jeremy in Hong Kong was about William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, a book that shows how ancient Stoic philosophy is still relevant and needed today. And yesterday’s Wintergatan Wednesday video also included a review of William Irvine’s book, coincidentally.

Intrigued, I knew I had this book on my Kindle somewhere, so I thought I should re-read it and maybe blog a review of this book myself.

But then I realised I already had, back in 2013.

Once again, surprised Present Me thanks diligent Past Me for all his help with forgetful Future Me.

The future of reading in safe hands

The end of paper? The end of books? As Leah Price discusses in this excerpt from her latest book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books: The History and Future of Reading, it’s the same old story.

Books won’t dieThe Paris Review
In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another: the rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading. Yet in 1913, a journalist interviewing Thomas Edison on the future of motion pictures recounted the inventor declaring confidently that “books … will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” By 1927 a librarian could observe that “pessimistic defenders of the book … are wont to contrast the actual process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophecy the death of the book.” And in 1966, Marshall McLuhan stuck books into a list of outdated antiques: “clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs—all are obsolete.”

Throughout the nineteenth century and again in the twentieth, every generation rewrote the book’s epitaph. All that changes is whodunnit.

And here’s a somewhat related article, asking us to see our current worries about technology ruining everything in a wider, historical context.

Pessimism v progress – The Economist
The New York Times sums up the encroaching gloom. “A mood of pessimism”, it writes, has displaced “the idea of inevitable progress born in the scientific and industrial revolutions.” Except those words are from an article published in 1979. Back then the paper fretted that the anxiety was “fed by growing doubts about society’s ability to rein in the seemingly runaway forces of technology”. …

The most important lesson is about technology itself. Any powerful technology can be used for good or ill. The internet spreads understanding, but it is also where videos of people being beheaded go viral. Biotechnology can raise crop yields and cure diseases—but it could equally lead to deadly weapons.

Technology itself has no agency: it is the choices people make about it that shape the world.

Well yes, to an extent. But are we completely free in our choices, or are we being manipulated a little?

I do think these Economist illustrations are very clever, though, like that one of Johnson’s V for victory sign.

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Unrolling history

A roll of paper was sealed in a jar and buried under a Buddhist shrine near the northern Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Two thousand years later, and it’s made its way to the United States and the Library of Congress in a Parker Pen box. Of course you’re going to want to know what it says, but ‘fragile’ doesn’t begin to cover it. 

How the Library of Congress unrolled a 2,000-year-old Buddhist scrollAtlas Obscura
The actual unrolling happened in June, 2006, on a Saturday, to reduce the risk of air currents created by coworkers and better control the humidity and temperature of the library’s paper lab. Krueger was present with only two others: Yasmeen Khan, a senior rare book conservator at the library, and Mark Barnard, the chief conservator at the British Library. “One cannot underestimate the nerves of steel required for such a project,” Krueger says. “We had only one chance for success.”

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The long and the short of it

From Amelia Wattenberger, a simple but very effective way of visualising an aspect of some famous texts from a variety of classical authors, such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austin.

Sentence lengths
How do different writers vary their sentence length? See how some authors play with different lengths, while others stick with one.

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Christmas comes early for art book lovers

In 2014, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles launched its Virtual Library, a project to breathe new life into its extensive archive of art books, some of which are now out of print. It started with 250 titles, but has kept growing.

Over 300 books are available for free download in the Getty Museum’s Virtual LibraryHyperallergic
“As a publisher, when you run out of copies of a book you can basically either reprint it and keep selling it, or you can retire the title, declaring it out of print,” said Greg Albers, Digital Publications Manager for Getty Publications, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “If it doesn’t make financial sense to reprint and the book goes out of print, the original author or another publisher may choose to pick up the reins and publish a new edition, but more often than not, the book will just sort of disappear. This isn’t a fate anyone wants to see for their books and luckily at the Getty, a decidedly mission-driven organization, we were able to pursue an alternate option. We worked though some legal/copyright issues and released PDFs of the original books, for anyone to read and download, 100% for free.”

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Add those to this collection from last year, and keep your digital bookshelves very well stocked.

Download 569 free art books from the Metropolitan Museum of ArtOpen Culture
You may remember that we featured the site a few years ago, back when it offered 397 whole books free for the reading, including American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915; Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomical Drawings from the Royal Library; and Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But the 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.

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Remember, remember

Every year we’re asked to remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. But how many of us really know what this means, this annual reinforcing of historical, institutionalised hatred and prejudice?

In her latest newsletter, The Conversation’s deputy editor Jo Adetunji compares our slightly bored commemorations today with the nightmare people went through at the time.

Before coming to the UK from Canada, I had no clue what Bonfire Night was. It was vaguely explained to me by friends as a celebration of some man named Guy Fawkes and his failure to blow up parliament on November 5th, 1605. Traditionally, the occasion is marked with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies. Or, as I’ve found in London, paying a £10 entry fee to stand in a wet, muddy park in some corner of the city, shivering while you wait for a five-minute fireworks display soundtracked by The Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars.

Of course, the real history behind Bonfire Night is far more dramatic than my recent celebrations let on. England in 1605 was bitterly divided – except back then, it was a religious schism taking place between the Protestants and the Catholics following the Reformation. Following the foiled attempt by Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators, it only got worse. Accusations of treason, heresy, and even witchcraft, were used to persecute perceived enemies of the crown. Catholics fled north to escape, settling in places like Lancashire, which was cast as lawless – and full of witchcraft.

Through the lens of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, a fictional account of England in the early 1600s, Shareena Z Hamzah writes about the horrendous treatment of Catholics and women accused of murder by witchcraft. While Bonfire Night is a reminder of Fawkes, it should also be a reminder of the innocent people caught up in England’s troubled past.

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The calls to continually burn these effigies (these days, I think, a thing of the past) remind me a little of a calmer, slow-motion Two Minutes Hate event.

It would be nice to think such religious intolerance is consigned to the history books. Alas:

In China, every day is Kristallnacht
In a cultural genocide with few parallels since World War II, thousands of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed. At least 1 million Muslims have been confined to camps, where aging imams are shackled and young men are forced to renounce their faith. Muslims not locked away are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, forced to drink and smoke in violation of their faith, barred from praying or studying the Koran or making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

And — in possibly the most astonishing feature of this crime against humanity — China has managed to stifle, through 21st century repression and age-old thuggery, virtually any reporting from the crime scene.

Devolving politicians

Banksy painting of chimps as MPs sells for record £9.9m at Sotheby’s
The timing of the sale was impeccable, coming exactly four weeks before the revised Brexit deadline and a year after Banksy’s Girl with Balloon (2002) was shredded via remote control in the same saleroom. That work sold for £1.04m with fees after it was legally designated a new work by Banksy’s handling service Pest Control and renamed Love is in the Bin a week after the auction in October 2019.

Banksy painting of MPs as chimpanzees sells for record £9.9m
Chimpanzees first appeared in his work in 2002, with his piece Laugh Now. The painting shows a row of apes wearing aprons carrying the inscription “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”. In 2009, Banksy said of Devolved Parliament: “You paint 100 chimpanzees and they still call you a guerrilla artist.”

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan review – a Brexit farce with legs
But in truth the parallel is misleading. It is not just that in McEwan’s case the metamorphosis is reversed: Sams is not a human transmuted into an insect but a cockroach who has taken over the body of the prime minister of the UK. (The room in which he awakes is in 10 Downing Street.) It is also that this fable is much more Swiftian than Kafkaesque. In The Metamorphosis, the story is really about the strangeness of everyday life and the human capacity to deny it. The world of The Cockroach is more like one of Swift’s parallel universes where political and intellectual idiocies are not so much reduced to absurdity as magnified into towering follies.

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Productivity advice from US spies

I have to admit to a certain level of smugness when a popular website publishes something that I’ve already highlighted here years ago. Like this top-secret US sabotage manual from 1944, for example, that I first mentioned in 2015.

This new Quartz article does take a different approach to it, however, by looking at what it can teach us about today’s bureaucratic management styles.

How to cope with a toxic boss, according to a US spy manual from WWII

“Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit shortcuts to be taken. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions. Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant projects.” […]

“When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions. To lower morale, and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient works; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.” […]

If you feel like your boss is following these directions, the only option is to insert yourself as a counter-saboteur, and to get ahead of their actions. This World War II manual has actually proven helpful in my own corporate work experience. If nothing else, it has prompted me at times to think about how to turn an overly bureaucratic situation into a productive and expedient one.

The beginning of the ‘end of books’

We’re very familiar with the assertion that printed books will soon be a thing of the past because we’ve moved away from that format. Well, that story began a long time ago.

Octave Uzanne’s “The End of Books” (1894)
The end of books has been declared many times. Over a century before the invention of the e-reader and the meteoric rise of the audiobook and podcast, ardent French bibliophile Octave Uzanne (1851–1931) wrote a story, inspired by rapid advances in phonographic technology, imagining how printed text might disappear …

One of these men — called the Bibliophile — is asked his opinion on the future of books. He replies as follows:

If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.

“Printing”, he continues, “is…threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.”

Check out these marvellous illustrations or click through for more or to read this yourself from a digitised copy of Scribner’s Magazine.

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Every restaurant-table will be provided with its phonographic collection; the public carriages, the waiting-rooms, the state-rooms of steamers, the halls and chambers of hotels will contain phonographotecks for the use of travellers. The railways will replace the parlor car by a sort of Pullman Circulating Library, which will cause travellers to forget the weariness of the way while leaving their eyes free to admire the landscapes through which they are passing.

The future of the 90s

Nothing wrong with indulging in a little nostalgia now and then, right?

Do you remember Suck.com, the web’s first and best snarky internet/pop-culture magazine? It owned the show in the 90s, and I was a huge fan. It stopped publishing in 2001, but for the last four years the “Suck, Again” project has been serialising its archives as a daily email newsletter, each article sent out twenty years to the day since the original.

Gen Xers rejoice: Suck.com comes back as a daily newsletter
Launched in 1995 by Wired staffers Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman — the same year as Salon.com and a year before Slate — Suck offered a daily riff on early Web culture, politics, pop culture and dating. It was done with a characteristically Gen X flare: arch, wry, ironic and smart. It was massively influential.

It’s fascinating to see just how deeply the internet and the other new technologies have become embedded into our societies since then — and just how ‘on the money’ the Suck.com team were in highlighting the issues that we’re still grappling with today, two decades later.

Like this from April 1999 — fifteen years before Alexa first appeared, for example.

Bit Rot
In the December 1998 Wired, Negroponte – director of MIT’s Media Lab and sharp-dressed retailer of broader-bandwidth tomorrows to corporate America (and to the unwashed AOL millions in his best-selling book Being Digital) – announced that he was vacating his bully pulpit on the magazine’s end page. After six years there, the man, whose audio-animatronic prose is to literary style what the Parkinsonian tics of Disneyland’s Mr. Lincoln are to fluid human movement, had decided to step down.

Negroponte’s departure marks the end of an era when Magna Cartas for the Knowledge Age and Declarations of the Independence of Cyberspace were taken seriously, at least by the self- anointed “digital elite.” Oddly, Negroponte himself seems not to have noticed how retro his Jetsonian visions of digital butlers and supercomputing cufflinks seem in the politically turbulent, economically anxious late-’90s. At the end of a century that has witnessed acid rain and global warming, Bhopal and Chernobyl, he beckons us toward a future where technology never fails, corporations are always benign, and there’s a high-tech magic bullet for every social malady.

Here’s a more favourable piece on him for 21C magazine.

Net prophet
In his immaculate Italian suit, Nicholas Negroponte looks more like an international financier than one of the leading thinkers of the information age. His new book, Being Digital, may have propelled the head of MIT’s Media Lab into the spotlight, but is he a true visionary or just a well-connected hype merchant?

For all that I might now think that Nicholas Negroponte was a little wide of the mark politically, I’ve had his Being Digital book on my bookshelf since it was first published in 1995, just next to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. They’re still two of my favourites. 

(Featured image c/o Phil Gyford on Flickr)