Recommendations for May 29, 2016

29 May

Article: “Sunk” by Mitch Moxley

A few years ago, I read somewhere that there are only four countries in the world where most of the music people purchase is made by artists from their own country: the US, the UK, South Korea, and Japan. I don’t know if that’s still true— it seems like China or India must be moving toward joining that group, at least— but in any case one of the fears that people have about globalization is that, when it comes to the free exchange of cultural productions, the worlds’ cultures do not enter the market on equal footing. “Western,” and in particular American, music, movies, books, and games, tend to eclipse local productions, leading eventually to the decline of local forms and traditions and the homogenization of global culture. (This is more or less what Benjamin Barber is talking about in Jihad vs. McWorld).

I tend to think this fear is overstated, and that in fact the countervailing tendency toward fragmentation is at least as strong, but that’s another discussion. In any case, one product of this fear is the Chinese quota on American movies; only a limited number can be released in China every year, in order to encourage domestic productions and give them a chance to make money. Until very recently, though, American movies still dominated at the box office.

So, a few years ago, one Chinese billionaire wanted to do his part to change the situation by making a genuine Hollywood-style blockbuster epic in China (based on a script he wrote himself and starring his girlfriend— so maybe you can see where this is going). The film, Empires of the Deep, involves Greek warriors who happen stumble into a war between a race of mer-people and some demons, I think? If you can follow the plot of this thing throughout the article, you’re doing better than me, and better than most of the people that worked on it. Several years, undetermined millions of dollars, and four directors later, the film still hasn’t been released, and it’s not entirely clear whether it can be considered “finished.” The story of the film is, on the one had, an example of how nothing can fall apart like a really big idea (I thought repeatedly of the classic episode of This American Life about fiascos). On the other hand, it’s striking that though the making of this film was both made possible and, in the eyes of its producer, necessary by globalization and the shrinking of distances between people and places, the gaps of culture and language between the Chinese and non-Chinese people working on it were still, to say the least, an issue.

And, speaking of globalization:

Article: “One Tiny Leap” by Tom Whipple

So, here’s the real headline of this piece, as far as I’m concerned: the rotation of the earth is slowing. Imperceptibly, irregularly, at a rate measured in centuries and millennia, the speed at which the world turns is decreasing. I am probably only revealing my ignorance in being surprised by this, and I don’t really know what the ultimate consequences are (although I know that in any case they will not manifest in my lifetime). But still.

But one consequence of this deceleration is the leap second. Every so often (and it’s not a regular thing), the people in charge of maintaining the atomic clocks that establish Universal Coordinated Time add a single second in order to account for slightly longer days. This can cause, and indeed has caused, problems, essentially because the official time is therefore the same for two consecutive seconds, making it impossible to establish the sequence of events occurring at sub-second intervals (like algorithmic stock trades). If we don’t add the leap seconds, though, the time on our clocks will gradually fall out of sync with the rhythms of the earth— noon, for instance, will not come in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest point. Which, some argue, is a bad thing.

There’s also an element of international politics here, because Universal Coordinated Time is more or less the same thing as Greenwich Mean Time. In other words, it’s noon UCT when the sun is at its highest point in Greenwich, specifically. There’s no real reason for this, other than the UK long ago established its monopoly on official time standards (as well as being the site of the zero meridian); they continue to be the standard because they always have been. For people in other countries, though, the insistence on inserting leap seconds is really a desire to hold on to this status, this centrality. Without it, atomic time would gradually break away from solar time in Greenwich, specifically; the sun would still be at its highest point at noon somewhere. After all, noon UCT is somewhere between 7:00 AM and 4:00 AM if you’re in the United States, and might be late evening elsewhere.

There’s a lot going on in this debate that interests me, in particular about the relationship between human standards of measurement and our understanding of “nature.” The pro-leap second position is, setting aside the nationalist questions for the moment, that the way we mark and measure time should be tied to natural phenomena, to a standard outside human intervention or control, because…it always has been? Because our biology and/or psychology naturally and inevitably orient us to the rhythms of such phenomena? Or because by doing this we can maintain the sense that the “official,” regulated time is merely a reflection of the world as it is, rather than a way of shaping the world according to our needs and perspectives? Or both?

And, speaking of forcing complex social or material realities into artificial and arbitrary categories…

Article: “The Past Hundred Years Of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms” by Shannon Keating

The latest battleground in the culture wars is the public restroom. At least, that’s what I would probably write if I had to come up with headlines for CNN. Actually, though, public restrooms have been a site for establishing, reinforcing, or contesting all kinds of social roles for a century or more. There’s a lot in this piece— maybe too much, as some of the links Keating tries to draw don’t have sufficient support, to my mind— but at the very least she shows that the current fight over the rights of trans people with regard to public restrooms is only the latest iteration of a much older debate. Most interesting to me here is the idea that we think of bathroom design as a simple reflection of human biology, when in fact it is a way of creating a particular set of consequences for that biology.

And, speaking of waste disposal (yeah, I know)…

Article/photos: “Exploring the Physicality of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan” by David Schalliol

Not exactly a catchy title, but this is still pretty fascinating, and the images are great. The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan is a massive, decades-long project designed to prevent flooding in the Chicago area by digging a new tunnel, called the Deep Tunnel, and reservoir to channel and collect water during storms until it can be treated and released into waterways. This is needed because Chicago has a single system for both sewage and storm drainage, and that system often overflows during big storms, flooding rivers and homes with water that is at least partly sewage. The main thing about this project for me is the scale of it. The Deep Tunnel is, first, really deep: 350 feet below ground in places. And it’s huge, as the pictures show. The reservoir, too, was formerly one of the world’s largest rock quarries. Everything about this is big; it’s a project in the tradition of the so-called “labors of Hercules” that Chicago performed in the mid-19th century, including raising the entire city several feet and reversing the flow of the Chicago River. Just one image:

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