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Once again, a selection of long-form pieces for those who (unlike me) have jobs and won’t have time for all of, but might benefit from ingesting one or two. This month we have lots of musical offerings, along with politics, advice on how to walk, and 5G.
Let’s start weird. I first ran across the writing of John Michael Greer when his site was called The Archdruid Report because Greer was in fact an Archdruid, which is to say the leader of a niche sect with “Druid” in its name. He’s irritating as hell because his writing is bathed in an atmosphere of “I’m so smart, I can see all sorts of things nobody else can and I’m doing you the favor of sharing my wisdom.” But I still occasionally read him because once you get past that, he does say lots of interesting things. In Whispers of the Fall, he takes up the argument that we are members of a falling civilization. Grim stuff, but good reading.
These L-L aggregations are always going to have some geeky software stuff. But before I scare away the tech civilians, let’s take our first dip into music, with the amazingly lovely work of Hania Rani, a Polish composer, keyboardist, and singer. I’d put her somewhere on a musical spectrum with Phil Glass and Enya at the ends. A good place to start is Live from Studio S2, but type her name into YouTube and you’ll see lots of great stuff. Several of her performances are collaborations with cellist Dobrawa Czocher, and they’re exquisite.
I’m a little nervous about saying this, but: I just can’t take my eyes off the screen when Ms Rani is on it. She is neither glamorous nor conventionally pretty, but (particularly in that Studio S2 video) she somehow, when performing, radiates effortless beauty so extreme that (for me at least) it lifts up the music.
Now let’s read about fast software. Nelson Elhage’s Reflections on software performance takes up the vexed question about how and when we should think about making software performant. He acknowledges the following three guidelines, which I generally believe in and have intoned at younger programmers more than once:
Premature optimization is the root of all evil.
Make it work, then make it right, then make it fast.
CPU time is always cheaper than an engineer’s time.
And yet, and yet… as Elhage explains eloquently, performance is important, and sometimes you just can’t add it in later. This strikes close to my heart because during my years at AWS my primary coding project was an event-filtering library that was obsessively concerned with performance. I have hope that AWS will open-source it, but in recent months I’ve put in a lot of hours rebuilding it in another programming language, and with this thing, performance is sort of the point. So I can see both sides of this one.
While we’re doing tech, let’s have a look at 5G, about which I recently wrote a highly skeptical blog piece. I remain unconvinced that the huge capital outlay 5G requires will buy much that’s useful. Anyhow, AWS has a product called “Wavelength” that is supposed to deliver 5G’s benefits by locating compute out in the cellular-network relays. AWS just announced New AWS Wavelength Zone in Toronto – The First in Canada. That link is to a blog about putting 5G to work, which I think is valuable because it really leans into the practicalities.
What’s the application that’s going to benefit from 5G wonderfulness? A little knee-high rolling robot used to make small food deliveries, for example a single cup of coffee, within a 2km radius. The benefit is a factor of ten cost reduction, which is nice I guess. But, uh…
Now let’s veer gently away from technology into politics by way of Josh Marshall’s On The Elon Musk Razzmatazz. I’ve been viscerally unhappy about the Musk Twitter takeover, but unable to sort out why. Mr Marshall did. Here’s a quote:
That’s what this is and where we are: an extremely powerful and wealthy jackass on an ego trip. You can take the bro out of the frat house but you can’t take the frat house out of the bro. In fact when you’re worth hundreds of billions of dollars (for now…) you don’t even have to leave the frat house. You can bring it with you. This is a guy whose ideas about speech and also the construction of syllogisms apparently culminated two joints in at a dorm room bull session in sophomore year…
It’s mostly not quite that sharp-edged; in fact, a carefully-considered piece that anyone who cares about Twitter, or about the quality of online discourse, should read.
Back to music, namely a brand-new release on Bandcamp: BORIS + ENDON / EROS. Boris is a Japanese experimental-metal band that I’ve blogged about twice in Photos of Wata of Boris and Live Metal Is Better. This is a collaboration with Japanese even-more-experimental metallistas Endon, whom I once saw live opening for Boris and sort of dissed in that second blog piece. But here we have 28 minutes or so of thoughtful and well-executed metal which is intermittently quite beautiful. If you like it, you can buy it off Bandcamp and a noticeable proportion of that money goes straight to the artists, so go ahead and do that.
Back to civic policy now, and an issue that’s white-hot where I live and I think in most big interesting cities: Is it OK to build big fancy high-rises in the middle of un-fancy neighborhoods? Density is good, right, but gentrification is, um, mostly bad I guess? Anyhow, the NYTimes has numbers to report: A Luxury Apartment Rises in a Poor Neighborhood. What Happens Next? The numbers aren’t that satisfying, but the take-away is that it’s not obvious that the high-rise does any particular damage. Which isn’t going to make this issue any less vexed, but if you read it you’ll at least have seen some data being thought about.
While we’re visiting the Times, let’s veer back into music via a piece that’s pretty well pure fun: Why We Can’t Quit the Guitar Solo. It’s a triumph of fancy Web presentation technology, with cool guitar riffs bursting out at you as you scroll, many of which you will have heard. Only a fool would want a musical life entirely without shredding, so the target here is pretty soft, but the author and Web geeks here have great fun skewering it, and you’ll probably have fun scrolling through it.
Now let’s step sideways by way of Interview: Ramez Naam, futurist, author, and investor. I loathe the term “futurist” so, despite this having been recommended by a Smart Person, went in hostile. But I was won over. I certainly didn’t agree with everything Mr Naam said, but I was never bored, and felt like I’d learned one or two useful things. Perhaps I was drawn in by his arguments for something I profoundly believe: Assuming we don’t all die in the climate catastrophe, there is going to be a freaking huge amount of money made building out the low-carbon energy services as we transfer from now to the future. So if you have some money, finding a way to invest in this project might help save a couple billion lives and also pay back pretty well.
In the last Long Links I enthused about the writing of Chris Arnade. He goes for long walks in interesting parts of the world, and then in parts that most people wouldn’t think interesting, and takes pictures, and writes them up, and it’s never not interesting. Recently he published How to Walk (12 miles a day). Walking for extended distances is, I believe, one of the core competences of Homo sapiens and if you don’t believe me go read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines then come back to argue the point; but you won’t. We are almost all city livers now, and thus it’s hard to overvalue good practical advice on how to excel at this essential human behavior in the context that we actually inhabit.
There is, however, a point that is troublesome: Arnade points out that in many long-walk contexts, you just can’t beat the comfort and practicality of socks-under-sandals (good socks and good sandals, of course). But I have been advised more than once by the members of the demographic that I would like to have sex with that I can forget it if I ever appear in that combination. So I don’t, which doesn’t mean that he’s wrong.
And now for our musical grand finale: Sierra Ferrell. I listen to her music more or less every day and caught her latest tour during a Covid downcurve. I have rarely been so sure about anything as I am in predicting: Gonna be a big star.
What happened was, she ran away from a broken West-Virginia home to be a hobo — no really, hopping trains and living in camps. Then a few people noticed the talent, then she got onto the tiny-venue acoustic circuit, then a few of her YouTubes started getting millions of views, then the tour I attended (still in progress as I write) is selling out most of its dates.
So, why? Probably most important, the songs are wonderful. Pretty well a pure country aesthetic, but with melodies that you’ll wake up humming and lyrics that go to surprising but truthful places. Then, the voice; she is the kind of singer that arrives only every other generation, if we’re lucky.
Then there’s that beauty thing that I mentioned reluctantly above. I don’t feel in the slightest reluctant to talk about this because she works so hard at it. She never appears twice in the same output, and every outfit is fabulous. As is her facial jewelry, and tattoo, and hairstyle. The night we saw her she wore this floor-length dress that was pure white and covered with reflective sequins so that she sparkled like diamonds, as if there weren’t enough other reasons to watch her. If you drop by her Wikipedia entry, the only picture just now is by me and it’s not very good, only faintly suggesting the visual effect of That Dress. I have no idea if she’s actually conventionally pretty (although I’m pretty sure, to quote Blondie, that her hair is beautiful) because onstage, she has that Star Power that you just can’t look away from.
Ms Ferrell deeply understands how to do online video, so the best way to check her out is to drop by YouTube and type “Sierra Ferrell” into the search bar and watch whatever comes up. One hint: The stuff she’s been posting recently is quite a bit better than those millions-of-views videos from a few years ago.
No, wait, what did I just say? The best way to check her out is to see if the tour’s coming anywhere near you and if it is, drop everything, postpone grandma’s funeral if necessary, and go see the show. You’ll thank me.