Welcome to the Long Links offering for November 2020, in which I take advantage of my lightly-employed status to recommend a list of long-form works that I had time to consume, acknowledging that while you probably don’t, one or two of them might reward the time it would take you to absorb. This month’s highlights: Election rear-views, Siberia, blueswomen, the Orlando NBA bubble, and a lovely lecture about software and music.
As you might have heard, there’s this large Anglophone country south of Canada where they had an election last month. The next few long-form recommendations consider what it might have meant.
Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit’s On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway, a pretty hardass take: “If half of us believe the earth is flat, we do not make peace by settling on it being halfway between round and flat.”
More: What Trump Showed Us About America offers short pieces from 35 “thinkers” (what’s one of those?) and the subject is obviously important. Some are lightweight but plenty isn’t.
More: How Trump Changed America is by Clare Malone over at Five Thirty Eight, and is unironically heartfelt. She deploys the words “hollow” and “hollowness” in considering the Trump years and I think this points at several important truths. There’s a lot of good writing and clear thinking in here. I quote: “So what is America after Trump? A nation figuring out how — and whether — to engage and whom to love: the stranger or the self? I know the cynic’s prediction of which we’ll choose, but pure cynicism is boring.” Yeah.
More, still at Five Thirty Eight: Are Blowout Presidential Elections A Thing Of The Past?, by Geoffrey Skelley, isn’t actually a long-form piece but raises a long-form problem: The 2020 US Presidential election was the ninth consecutive one in which the popular-vote margin was less than 10%. Which is numerically weird. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that there’d be random variation in the margin, but if that were true, you’d expect one candidate to win double their opponent’s vote two-thirds of the time (do the math, it isn’t hard). What are the forces that systematically and repeatedly make these elections so close? I don’t know and neither does the author. But I’d like to.
More: I’m a big fan of Peter Beinart, especially his writings about Israel and its neighbors and problems, full of clear vision and obviously on a subject that requires extreme courage. In How Trump Lost he makes the point (as have others) that if Trump had actually delivered the program he ran on in 2016 he’d probably have won in 2020. Progressives like me ignore the attraction of alt-right populism at our nations’ peril, and we can’t always count on its having standard-bearers who are clueless buffoons.
More: Joe Biden Must Be a President for America’s Workers offers a straightforward argument that the new administration needs to start with inequality and the increasingly dire position of blue-collar America, and offers practical suggestions on how to do that. I can hear voices muttering “class reductionist!” but I don’t care, I agree with pretty well every word.
No more! · Enough about that election. Let’s move on…
In the New York Times, Along Russia’s “Road of Bones”, Relics of Suffering and Despair tries to wrap words and pictures around the unimaginably vast and harsh expanses of Eastern Siberia. I learned one time, on an endless pain-filled flight from Tokyo to Paris, that there remains a part of the planet where you can look out of a plane for an hour at a time and see no marks left by any human, and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by Siberia. But I don’t think you need such a fascination to enjoy this piece.
The Most Magical Place on Earth (in GQ, forsooth) is by Taylor Rooks, a Black woman sportswriter whom I’d never previously encountered. This is about life in the Orlando Disney NBA anti-Covid bubble and I really enjoyed it. When you drop the NBA players and staff and coaches and media into three hotels for a few months and seal them off from the rest of the world, they all get to know each other in new and interesting ways. Add drama following on George Floyd’s murder, and then there’s the general Covid-angst backdrop, and it all adds up to a very engaging read. I’m going to have to track down Ms Rooks and read more.
Inside YouTube’s plan to win the music-streaming wars: The title says it all. I am currently a YouTube Music customer, and enjoying it as the service learns to understand my admittedly unusual tastes. But this made me sad, because the music world (actually, the world in general) does not need another extrusion of the vast Google amoeba oozing in and sucking the life and profit out.
The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free — subtitled “The Political Economy of Bullshit” is, like the last Long Link, exactly what the title says, and correspondingly sad, at least initially. But it’s a refreshing read, takes a serious detailed look at the shape of the problem and offers lots of practical think-big ideas about useful paths forward. Also, the closing line is “The truth needs to be free and universal”, a sentiment that should warm many hearts.
The future of work is written is by Juan Pablo Buriticá at increment — hadn’t previously heard of either the author or the site. It addresses the future of remote work and since so has everyone else you might resist the temptation to read it. But check out the title: Buriticá dives deep on the strengths of collaboratively-written asynchronous communication in the remote-work construct. He considers the IETF in general and the “RFC” notion in particular. I’m obviously sympathetic to that, and my most recent employer thrived on written communication and document-based decision making, so I think there’s a lot to study here.
The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done looks at the issue of what “Productivity” means for knowledge workers, and how to improve it. This field of study was invented by Peter Drucker who gets some attention here, but the piece looks most closely at Merlin Mann, the inventor of “Inbox Zero” (I personally prefer the low-stress inbox approach) and the term “productivity pr0n”. There’s reason to suspect that trying to do anything useful in the face of an overwhelming flow of input, much of it claiming to be high-priority, is a fool’s errand, and part of the solution has to involve disconnection. Useful!
There’s this person named Paul Ford whom I’ve known about for years, he seems to earn his living doing technology but in my mind he’s a writer, and when I see something new from him, I’m inclined to stop whatever I’m doing and read it right then. Tech After Trump is what it says on the label and I find little to disagree with. In Web Conversation From the Other Side Paul imagines a dialogue between the technology of 2000 and that of 2020. Probably mostly of interest to technologists, but really extreme interest for a lot of us.
If you’re convinced (like me) that monopolization is a central problem afflicting many sectors of our economies and wondering (like me) what to do about it, the problem of defining the term “market share” becomes very important. Benedict Evans’ Market definitions and tech monopolies addresses this question. Unfortunately he offers more questions than answers, but they are good, challenging questions.
Now let’s close with a few musical offerings. I really enjoyed Women created the blues. Now they are taking it back, and it led to the discovery of some terrific music, notably by Samantha Fish. I have big soft spots for woman blues singers and loud electric guitar and if the woman’s also bashing the guitar well what’s not to like?
Not all the good guitarists are women. But my mental list of Guitar Players That Matter had never really included George Harrison even though I kinda liked that band he played in and he wrote one of my favorite songs. But Notes You Never Hear: The Metaphysical Loneliness of George Harrison argues that I’m wrong, that his contribution to all those records we’ve all heard so much is a Really Big Deal. I’m not sure I’m convinced, if I were launching a fantasyland rock&roll band and could only hire one Beatles guitarist it probably wouldn’t be George. But I still enjoyed this a lot.
Finally, I offer a 51-minute lecture by Alice Eldridge, a keynote at the “AI Music Creativity 2020” conference. It’s beautiful albeit annoyingly academic in that it keeps referring to other scholars by name and assuming we know who they are. Did I say beautiful? And extremely intellectually stimulating. She makes heavy use of the gerund “musicking” which I kind of like. There is geek mind-candy including a few flashes of source code and exotic music hardware but that’s not why you should watch this, you should sit down with an adult beverage when you’ve nothing else to distract you and listen carefully to what Dr. Eldridge has to say because every word carries carefully-considered weight and many of them are also beautiful.