[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Welcome to the monthly tour of long-form excellence that I, due to being semi-retired, have the time to read. You probably don’t have that kind of time but one or two of these might brighten your day anyhow.
Katie Mack, an Astrophysics professor, is one of our best science writers; her book The End of Everything is definitely on my to-read list. The American Institute of Physics has a long interview with her which I found interesting as a sort of mini-autobiography of a life in science. Touches on issues of cosmology, communication, and diversity.
Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science is the transcript of a talk by Donald Knuth, probably the most famous living Computer Scientist. He is a wise man. For the vast majority of people who don’t care in the slightest about the History of Computer Science, there’s still interest here in the consideration of how we ought to communicate about technology, and is it ever OK to do so without diving into the meat of the matter, the details of the problems that practitioners study and ideally solve?
JWZ offers They Live and the secret history of the Mozilla logo. Who is JWZ, you ask? One of the people most responsible for turning the World Wide Web from a tool for science publishing into a giant global engine for culture and business. If you read this you will learn about some colorful and too-little-known corners of geek culture. In particular, anyone who was involved with technology back then will probably find this fascinating.
The geography of cities is three-dimensional, extending far above and below their surface. It is geological and architectural and legal and financial. Covenants, Easements & Wayleaves: The Hidden Urban Interfaces Which Shape London Part 1 studies the subject, diving (literally) deep, building its story around the London Underground.
Now, this is of special interest to anyone who reads books. I became aware of Patricia Lockwood a couple of years ago, mostly due to her engaging, hyper-intense, frequently-off-color Twitter account; previously, her primary vocation was poetry. Separately, I have signed up for news from the London Review of Books, which is really excellent. Last November the LRB suggested I look at something called Malfunctioning Sex Robot by Ms Lockwood, which turned out to be an essay on the collected novels of John Updike. I read a couple of those novels in my younger years — mostly about horny suburban New Englanders if memory serves — but don’t actually care enough, in normal circumstances, to look at Updike lit-crit. But oh my goodness, Lockwood’s piece riveted my attention end-to-end, full of sentences that I thought should be displayed on museum walls and Times Square billboards. A remarkable piece of writing.
Now we have, also from Lockwood in the LRB, I hate Nadia beyond reason, which is about The Lying Life of Adults, a collection from Elena Ferrante, best known for the Neapolitan Quartet, an astonishing extended novel about women and men (mostly women) navigating the second half of the 20th Century, spiraling out from the wrong part of Naples. These are almost unbearably intense and I found myself so deep in their emotional grip that I stopped reading about three-quarters of the way through out of sheer rage at one of the protagonists, who was about to do something I thought was stupid and damaging. Anyhow, turning Lockwood loose on this predictably results in fireworks and, I’d think, significantly increases the likelihood that you’re going to end up reading either more Lockwood or more Ferrante. A sample:
So yeah, to call the Neapolitan Quartet ‘a rich portrait of a friendship’ seems insane, or like something a pod person would say. Lila is a demon of inducement, the cattle prod that drives the mild herd forward, Lenù the definition of homeostasis. The epigraph is from Faust, which I guess according to this formula is a story about two dudes hanging out: only one of them is completely red, because he is the Devil. Like that legend, it begins in a location so specific it can only be referred to as a crossroads, and then moves into the macrocosmos. It is the picture of a person standing on a single point, and inside the long deep dive of a soul into the universe. Of course, it is also a rich portrait of a friendship.
I’m going to have to go back and finish the Quartet now.
So in 1974, there was this movie called Phantom of the Paradise. It follows the Phantom of the Opera canon pretty closely: Disfigured composer, hopeless love, villainous impresario, bloody revenge. Except for The Paradise is a rock nightclub and the whole thing is drenched in rock-n-roll culture. It’s ridiculous. I loved it. Writing in Pitchfork, Phantom of the Paradise Perfectly Captures the Sinister Side of the Music Industry by Nathan Smith puzzlingly adopts the strategy of taking the movie seriously. If you’re old enough to have seen it, you’ll probably like this. For the vast majority of you who aren’t, you might want to watch it, because it’s fun.
Here’s a link to a thing that’s long: The Titles of the PhD Dissertations Defended at the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in 1980. Pretty sure I can’t add much to that title.
I’ve loved the music of British bass wizard Jah Wobble for many years but you never seem to read much about him. Bandcamp has a feature, though: Mapping Jah Wobble’s Interdimensional Dub. Worth reading, if only because of the many links to excellent music. Trivia: His real name is John Wardle; “Jah Wobble” comes from an attempt by Sid Vicious, in a typical drunken stupor, to pronounce it. Item: Subcode, a song on Radioaxiom, a dub outing by Wobble and fellow cosmic-bassist Bill Laswell, has the phattest bassline ever recorded by anybody. Finally, here he is live, with Sinéad O'Connor. You need a subwoofer.
It’s been obvious to any thinking person as long as I’ve been an adult that sexual minorities, starting with gay people, are just being who they are. Thus the slogan, from the earliest days of the LGBTQ struggle “Born this way”. Which would suggest a genetic basis. Except for, as The new genomics of sexuality moves us beyond ‘born this way’ discusses, there doesn’t seem to be a “gay gene” or in fact any straightforwardly discoverable genetic basis. Which shouldn’t change anything at the societal level, and is further evidence that what we are is more than what our DNA says; a finding that’s been pretty obvious since the sequencing of the human genome. And yeah, gender is a lot more fluid than even us progressives thought last millennium. This has wider implications for the consideration of experiences that run in regions and families like education and poverty; the piece introduces the term “postgenomics” which I suspect will get lots of traction.
In Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening, the NYT goes deep on the current landscape. Maybe we’re looking at an inflection point? It’s not obvious, but it’s worth close attention.
Hockey Has a Gigantic-Goalie Problem is by Ken Dryden and is a good, fun, read, but you probably need to have played or watched some hockey. I got a bit annoyed by Ken not mentioning the fact that when he himself was probably the world’s best goalie, the fact that he’s a really tall dude was part of the reason. Still, good stuff.
If you care about history, you should want to read books by people who were there to watch it. Which gets very difficult as the history you care about grows more ancient. Still, History Books » Primary Sources helpfully curates a bunch of contemporary narratives of key episodes of history. Shockingly, they left out Xenophon’s Anabasis, which I liked so much I blogged about it seventeen years ago.
What’s the opposite of history? Sci-fi, of course, and if you’re looking for some of that, the Guardian offers The best recent science fiction and fantasy – review roundup. I’ve read none of these! Must fix that.
Sorry to end on a down note, but there is Very Bad Stuff happening in India, mostly hiding behind the many other unfolding global disasters such as the climate emergency, Covid, China’s mass inhumanity, and the rise of the alt-right. No wait, this is a rise-of-the-alt-right story. The political faction currently ruling India is behaving frighteningly like the Nazis in 1930’s, feels sometimes like paragraph by paragraph out of the same playbook. Nobody can say we weren’t warned; the new news here is that Big Tech, seduced by the immense potential of the billion-strong Indian market, seems to be playing along with the ethnofascists: India Targets Climate Activists With the Help of Big Tech . And it’s not just climate activists either.
Until next month!