[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Welcome once again to Long Links, a monthly curation of long-form pieces that pleased and educated me and that being semi-retired gives me time to enjoy; offered in the hope that one or two might enrich the lives of busier people.
It’s simple (and accurate) to say that Xi Jinping’s regime is barbaric, obscurantist, and brutal, and that the people of China are badly mis-governed. That given, the place is interesting; I for one am continuously astonished that they manage to hold it all together. Maria Repnikova on How China Tells its Story dives deep on this; on the very-grey line between what can and can’t be said, what Chinese propagandists think it is they’re trying to do, and (especially) the differences between the Chinese and Russian approaches to storytelling.
Scale Was the God That Failed is by Josh Marshall, founder and editor of Talking Points Memo, a rare example of an all-digital publication that grew out of a blog and has become a sustainable business. It’s not actually long-form measured by number of words, but contains more intellectual meat on the subject of Internet Publishing than you can find in a dozen typical discourses on the subject. Read this if you want to learn why Internet advertising is so awful, why your local paper went out of business, and why it’s not being replaced by high-profile Web publishers, who these days are mostly in the news for yet another round of journalist layoffs. Here are a couple of sound-bites. [Historically, newspapers and TVs and radio stations enjoyed local monopolies, thus…] “almost all of the elements of good, newspaper journalism—big newsrooms paying middle-class salaries and giving reporters the time to get the story right—were made possible by those monopolies.” Also: “The chronic oversupply of publications chasing a fixed number of ad dollars has required publishers to continually charge less for ads that demand more of readers.” Anyhow, investment-driven big-journo launches have pretty well all failed. Marshall offers several examples of things that have worked, including his own publication. But there’s still a crisis in journalism, which is really bad for democracy.
Regular readers will know that I’m an audiophile; I used to really enjoy advising people on buying and setting up good-sounding stereo gear, but that seems to happen less these days. Still, judging by the intense traffic at my local record store, there are a lot of people listening to vinyl. I’m not a fanatic, listen mostly to digital music, but still find the experience of listening to vinyl entrancing. I really liked How to Buy the Best Record Player and Stereo System for Any Budget in Pitchfork. I haven’t heard a lot of the stuff they recommend, but here’s the advice I’ve often given to non-obsessive people who want good sound at a fair price: Decide how much you want to spend. Go buy speakers from PSB, amplification from NAD, and a record player from Rega that fit in your budget; they all have large product lines with entries at all the sane price-points. You’ll be happy. (But don’t buy a Rega cartridge.) Having said that, Marc Hogan, who wrote the Pitchfork piece, probably has fresher data.
Moving from Pitchfork to discogs.com, here are the 50 Most Popular Live Albums of All Time and The 200 Best Albums of the 2010s. I like the methodology; Discogs has as much claim to know what music people like as any organization in the world. As an audiophile and music lover, I have a soft spot for live recordings; a band on stage has more adrenaline in its veins than any studio can generate, and there’s less production interference between the music and you. Of the 50 mentioned here, I own 15. As for the Music Of The Teens, I have only seven. Because my taste these days has become less mainstream. Because what, in this century, are “albums”, anyhow? And because I’m an out-of-touch old fart.
Here’s another one that’s probably geek-only: The TEX tuneup of 2021, by Donald Knuth. TEX, these days, is pretty well only used for scientific publishing, and in just a few science neighborhoods. But it’s wonderful that a piece of software that’s so old and, to be honest, so old-fashioned, is still lovingly maintained. Knuth thinks this may be the last refresh.
This is only 3:54 long and not really a video, just panning and zooming around a photo of the moon. But, wow. The photo is taken with a Leica APO-Telyt-R 2.8/400mm, of which apparently only 390 were ever made, starting back in the Nineties. As I write, you can get one on eBay for $13,999. Might even be worth it.
Speaking of fine photographs captured with unconventional technology, take a tour through Interview: David 'Dee' Delgado’s love letter to New York City, shot on 4x5 film. What beautiful colors. To quote Delgado, self-described as a Puerto Rican independent photographer based in New York City: “This whole project was shot on a Toyo 45A which is a 4x5 field camera. It’s not a light camera. It’s a heavy camera. Lugging that camera along with the film, film holders, and a dark cloth is not an easy task. Shooting 4x5 is a lot slower, especially when you are using a field camera. It slows things down and lets you connect…” It sure connected with me.
Now let’s enter dangerous territory, with The Sexual Identity That Emerged on TikTok. On the surface, it’s about what might or might not be a segment of the gender/sexual spectrum: “super-straight”. On the other hand, it might be ignorant hatefulness. Whatever you may think on that issue, I found Conor Friedersdorf’s exploration of the conversation fascinating. As if discussing the issues aren’t difficult enough, he broadens his scope to include a broader survey of Internet conversation, and stays humane in the face of inhumanity. Anyhow, educational and thought-provoking. Even if you’re outraged.
The Ever Given is still stuck (legally, now) in the Suez Canal, but it’s not news any more. I think it still has stories to tell, though, and offer in evidence Gargantuanisation by John Lanchester in the LRB. [That’s a link to a Google search because the LRB URL is flaky and doesn’t seem to support direct linking.] Lanchester is a very good writer and has first-person experience with problems in the Canal. He has plenty to teach about what the Ever Given means and what trends it exemplifies. The story starts with a question: Have you ever thought about what ship might have brought whatever’s in the package that Amazon just delivered to you across whatever ocean needed crossing? Does anyone? This is a large and pretty well invisible segment of the economy. It’ll be less invisible if you read this.
These days I hear less talk about God from politicians, even in America, where such talk used to be not only commonplace but nearly compulsory. It’s not hard to figure out why; Americans are less religious. 538 does the numbers in It’s Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion. I’m not sure why this is surprising in a world where supernatural events are not observed and prayers aren’t answered. But it changes lots of societal dynamics and needs to be talked over.
From The Health Care Blog: America’s Health and The 2016 Election: An Unexpected Connection. The piece isn’t that long but I include it because of the graph at the top, entitled “Vitality anad the Vote”. It is astonishingly information-dense, the kind of thing that features in the books of Edward Tufte. Looking at it, I observe the following:
The graph measures, not vote distribution by geography, but its first derivative, vote movement.
There is more geography in the South and Midwest than the West and Northeast.
Midwestern Americans are remarkably less healthy than those to their east and west, with the Southerners in between.
[The headline.] Healthier people swung progressive, unhealthy ones to Trump. Obviously there’s a correlation here with age.
I wish there was a mouse-over so I could ask about anomalously outlying counties.
The accompanying text is competent and useful, but wow, that graph.
I don’t know much about Alex Steffen, but his Climate-Crisis coverage has impressed me. The Last Hurrah, from his Substack, asks what a climate radical (like me) should think of Joe Biden’s progress thus far. Despite the obvious fact that Biden’s program is woefully inadequate in the face of onrushing disaster, Steffen finds grounds for optimism. Which is something that we can all use some of these days.
Now, here’s a high-impact story. Microsoft is going to change the default font in Windows from the current and reasonably-OK Calibri. Many people, as in billions, are going to spend a lot of time looking at screens-full of this stuff, so the future of humanity is significantly affected. Thanks to Scott Hanselman for posting a small sample. My response: We can rule out Seaford for its absurd ’ (right single quote). Skeena [swoosh] looks [swoosh] like it’s sponsored by Nike. Something in Grandview makes the kerning hurt. Bierstadt wins for me because the chars snuggle up together with a little more flow.
Finally, you want long-form? Dive into How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously, which is a monster. And never not interesting. And no, you probably don’t have to take UFOs seriously even if you enjoy reading a few thousand words about those who do, which you probably will — enjoy reading I mean, not taking seriously.