Welcome to the monthly “Long Links” post for March 2021, in which I take advantage of my lightly-employed status to curate a list of pointers to good long-form stuff that I have time to savor but you probably don’t, but which you might enjoy one or two of. This month there’s lots of video, a heavier focus on music, and some talk about my former employer.
What with everything else happening in the world, people who are outside of Australia may not have noticed that they had a nasty sex scandal recently. My sympathy to the victims, and my admiration goes out to Australian of the Year Grace Tame's full National Press Club address, which is searing and heart-wrenching. I don’t know much else about what Ms Tame has done, but I’d award her the honor for just the speech, which a lot of people need to listen to. Probably including you; I know I did.
"The ocean takes care of that for us", by Fiona Beaty, thinks elegantly and eloquently about the relationship between oceanfront humans and the ocean. Indigenous nations saw the ocean as a self-sustaining larder, and it could be that again. Assuming we can learn to act like adults in our relationship to the planet we live on.
I’m a music lover and an audio geek, and like most such people, have long lamented the brutal dynamic-range compression applied to popular music with the goal of making sure that it’s never not as loud as the other songs it’s being sequenced with on the radio in car. The New Standard That Killed the Loudness War points out that the music-streaming landscape, a financial wasteland for musicians mind you, is at least friendlier to accuracy in audio. I especially love it when a live band gets into a vamp and the singer says “take it down, now”, and they drift down then surge back. No reason pop recordings shouldn’t use that technique; it’s basic to classical music. Now they can.
What Key is Hey Joe In? (YouTube). By watching this I learned that Hendrix didn’t actually write Hey Joe. It’s not 100% clear who actually did write it, and it’s also unclear what key it’s in. Adam Neely has an unreasonable amount of fun exploring this, and there isn’t a simple answer. The most useful thing you can say is that it’s designed to sound good on a conventionally-tuned guitar. If you’re not literate in music theory you’ll miss some of the finer points, but you might still enjoy this.
One of the pointers I followed out of this video was to a massive blog piece by Ethan Hein entitled Blues tonality, which I’m going to say covers the subject exhaustively but also entertainingly, with lots of cool embedded videos to reinforce his musical points. Some of which aren’t music that any sane person would think of as Blues.
And still more music! My streaming service offered up a number by Emancipator and I found myself thinking “Damn, that’s beautiful, who is it?” Behind the name “Emancipator” is Douglas Appling, a producer and DJ who decided to be a musician too, and am I ever glad he did. The music is mostly pretty smooth and you might be forgiven for thinking “nice chill lightweight stuff” but I think there’s a lot of there there. The DJ influence is pretty plain, but to me, this sounds more like classical music than anything else; carefully composed and sequenced with a lot of attention to highlighting the timbres of the instruments. Mr Appling has put together a band to take the music on the road and I think it’d be a fun show. Here’s a YouTube: Emancipator Ensemble, live in 2018.
I hate to end the musical segment here on a downer, but remember how I mentioned that the streaming landscape is a place where musicians go to starve? Islands in the Stream dives at length into the troubled and massively dysfunctional relationship between music and the music business. This picture has been rendered still darker, of course, by Covid, which has taken musicians off the road, the last place where they can sometimes make a decent buck for offering decent music. At some point a truly enlightened government will introduce a minimum wage for musicians, which means that the price you pay to stream will probably have to go up; Sorry not sorry.
Let’s move over to politics. Like most people, I read Five Thirty Eight for the poll-wrangling and stats, but sometimes they unleash a smart writer in an interesting direction. The smart writer in this case is Perry Bacon, Jr; in The Ideas That Are Reshaping The Democratic Party And America, he itemizes the current progressive consensus in clear and even-handed language. This being 538, there are of course numbers and graphs, and a profusion of links to source data, making this what I would call a scholarly work. Most important phrase, I think: “many of these views are evidence-based — rooted in a lot of data, history and research.” The piece is the first of a two-part series. Next up is Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy. In case you hadn’t noticed, the American right, so far this year, has largely abandoned discussing actual policy issues and has retreated into an extended howl of outrage about how “woke” people are trampling free speech via “cancel culture”. Since this is coming from a faction that enjoys being led by Donald Trump, it’s too much te expect integrity or intellectual rigor in their arguments. But from an analytical point of view, who cares? What matters is whether or not the stratagem will work. The evidence on that is, well, mixed.
These days, a lot of politics coverage seems to involve my former employer Amazon. How Amazon’s Anti-Union Consultants Are Trying to Crush the Labor Movement is not trying to convince you of anything, it is simply a tour through America’s anti-unionization establishment and the tools Amazon has been deploying nationwide and in Alabama. They’re spending really a lot of money. What on Earth Is Amazon Doing? is a well-written survey of the company’s late-March social-media offensive, kicking sand in legislators’ faces and pooh-poohing the peeing-in-bottles stories. Amazon is a well-run company but nobody would call this a well-run PR exercise. Is this a well-thought-out eight-dimensional chess move, or did leadership just briefly lose its shit?
The most important Amazon-related piece, I thought, was A Shopper’s Heaven by Charlie Jarvis in Real Life Magazine, which I’ve not previously encountered. It’s building on the same territory that I did in Just Too Efficient (by a wide margin the most radical thing I’ve ever published) — at some point, the relentless pursuit of convenience and efficiency becomes toxic, and we are way way past that point.
OK, enough about Amazon. But let’s beat up on the tech business some more, just for fun this time, with How to Become an Intellectual in Silicon Valley, an exquisitely pissy deconstruction of Bay Aryan thought leaders. Yes, it is indeed mean-spirited, but seriously, those people brought it on themselves.
I recommend John Scalzi’s Teaching “The Classics”, which wonders out loud why high-school students still have Hawthorne and Fitzgerald inflicted on them. There is one faction who feels that those Books By Dead White Guys are essential in crafting a well-rounded human, and others who argue that it’s time to walk away from those monuments to overwriting built on foundations most well-educated people now find morally repugnant. Scalzi finds fresh and entertaining things to say on the subject.
Let’s try to end on a high note. There was a news story about Wikipedia noticing that their content is mined and used by multiple for-profit concerns, using access methods (I’m not going to dignify them with the term “APIs”) that are not designed for purpose. Following on this, they had the idea of building decent APIs to make it convenient, reliable, and efficient to harvest Wikipedia data, and charging for their use, thus generating a revenue stream for long-term support of Wikipedia’s work. This is both promising and perilous — fuck with the Wikipedia editorial community’s loathing for most online business models at your peril. Anyhow, Wikimedia Enterprise/Essay is the best insider’s look at the idea that I’ve run across. [Disclosure: I’ve had a couple of conversations with these people because I’d really like to help.]
And finally, a tribute to one of my personal favorite online nonprofits: The internet is splitting apart. The Internet Archive wants to save it all forever. Just read it.