June 19, 2024

The debut album from Japanese artists Hatis Noit came out toward the end of June, after what seems like a very long wait. It’s (almost?) entirely made from vocal sounds, manipulated and duplicated. There are points where it reminds me a little of Lisa Gerard and Dead Can Dance (the beginning of “Angelus Novus”, for instance), but in general it sounds like nothing else.

Made to Measure: Why We Can’t Stop Quantifying Our Lives,” James Vincent

The idea of standardization— of officially defining what something is, how it should look, how it should work— is really interesting to me, for a couple of reasons. For one, at least some of the time it’s an instance of international or even global consensus on something— a rare thing. Even countries with centuries of animosity between them can agree to use the meter as a standard unit of length, simply because it’s so much more practical to do so. (Of course, whose units or measurements or whatever end up being the standard is more of a vexed question). The second reason, though, is that it’s often really weird: standards get established for so many different kinds of things, things that most of us would never even think of as requiring them. For instance, Vincent starts out by talking about Standard Reference Peanut Butter, which is used by peanut butter manufacturers to establish the nutritional content of their products. It’s made by the US National Institute for Standards and Technology, and it costs over a thousand dollars for three jars. NIST also sells standardized powdered human lung, in case that’s something you need.

Vincent connects this to a broader historical trend toward increasing measurement and quantification of all aspects of our lives. It’s hard to argue with the claim that this is happening, and has been for a couple of centuries; the excitement over “big data” and its applications in the last decade is simply the latest iteration. I’m not totally certain that all the links that he makes here add up, though. For instance, how deeply connected is the idea of standardization to measurement and quantification? Standards certainly require consistent measurement, but does quantification also always mean standardization? (More precisely, does it always mean the kind of simplistic, one-size-fits-all standardization that we associate with Taylorism, as Vincent suggests here? Is it always “Disciplinary,” in Foucault’s sense?) I wonder, because one of the promises of “big data” is that if we could keep track of more, more precisely, more consistently, we could “optimize” various aspects of life without always ending up in a Procrustean bed. The suggestion is that the problem in the past has been not too much measurement and quantification, but too little; that more data will mean not that more forcing of people into a limited range of standards, but standards that fit more people. Vincent discusses this in talking about the Quantified Self movement:

“If quantification has turned the world into one-size-fits-all rules that do not fit the individual, why not create one’s own set of numbers that better capture the truth?”

I’m not sure I buy those claims either, and I understand the point that in order to measure and compare, you have to have some standard frame of reference, which is necessarily restrictive in some ways. But I also think the idea of more personalized, individualized data, where the point of comparison is mainly oneself, is interesting and maybe does offer some new possibilities.

Also interesting here is the tendency, in quantitative data, to see specificity as precision. Precision always makes numbers seem meaningful— if it didn’t matter, then why bother to measure down to thousandths of a meter, for example? Or, why specify exactly 10,000 steps per day If that number is not meaningful? That number, in particular, turns out not to be:

This number is presented with such authority and ubiquity you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the result of scientific enquiry, the distilled wisdom of numerous tests and trials. But no. Its origins are in a marketing campaign by a Japanese company called Yamasa Clock. In 1965, the company was promoting a then-novel gadget, a digital pedometer, and needed a snappy name for their new product. They settled on manpo-kei, or “10,000-steps meter”. But why was this number chosen? Because the kanji for 10,000 – and hence the first character in the product’s Japanese name, 万歩計 – looks like a figure striding forward with confidence. There was no science to justify 10,000 steps, it seems – just a visual pun.

One thing that highlights is the arbitrariness of many standards. For instance, the meter, Vincent tells us , was “defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole.” That is very specific, but the choice is still arbitrary; there could have been any number of other ways of defining it, and any of them would have been just as useful.

The metre is a metre because hundreds of years ago certain intellectuals decided to define a unit of length by measuring the planet we live on. As it happens, they made mistakes in their calculations, and so the metre itself is around 0.2mm short: a minute discrepancy that has nevertheless been perpetuated in every metre ever since.

That discrepancy doesn’t actually matter, because what is important is the agreement; as long as we are all using the same meter, it’s irrelevant whether it is “accurate” according to some standard. (We must be accurate in making sure our meters are all the same, but that’s a different problem). There’s no additional utility to be gained from the meter being a particular fraction of the earth’s surface, or anything else in particular— for instance, the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second, which is actually the current official definition.

Speaking of standardization: one of may favorite non-fiction books of recent years is Marc Levinson’s The Box, about the development of the shipping container. Kathryn Schulz mentions that book briefly in this piece about shipping containers falling off of cargo ships, which is far more common than you might think. How common, exactly, is hard to say; official figures from the shipping industry estimate 1382 containers lost per year, but the total is almost certainly much higher— Shulz mentions one incident in which over 1800 containers were lost at one time. But even the official estimate is pretty startling; over 1300 steel boxes as big as the trailer of semi truck (since, of course, many of those trailers are shipping containers) getting dropped into the ocean, every single year, full of…just about anything.

What else has started off on a container ship and wound up in the ocean? Among many, many other things: flat-screen TVs, fireworks, IKEA furniture, French perfume, gym mats, BMW motorbikes, hockey gloves, printer cartridges, lithium batteries, toilet seats, Christmas decorations, barrels of arsenic, bottled water, cannisters that explode to inflate air bags, an entire container’s worth of rice cakes, thousands of cans of chow mein, half a million cans of beer, cigarette lighters, fire extinguishers, liquid ethanol, packets of figs, sacks of chia seeds, knee pads, duvets, the complete household possessions of people moving overseas, flyswatters printed with the logos of college and professional sports teams, decorative grasses on their way to florists in New Zealand, My Little Pony toys, Garfield telephones, surgical masks, bar stools, pet accessories, and gazebos.

I’m sure the gazebos required some kind of assembly, but I like to imagine them settling, intact and upright, on the ocean floor, and bringing the kind of variety of decor that the fish we keep as pets have come to take for granted.

The Magic of Alleyways” by Will Di Novi

Urban alleys are generally thought of— when they are thought of at all— as the place where the dumpsters go, and where only the foolhardy venture in the dark. Di Novi makes a compelling case for the alley as under-valued and, in modern cities, under-utilized space; a respite from the relentlessness of the city, and a fertile border region between public and private, where the anomie of urban life is ameliorated in small, shared spaces.

Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire.

That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the ‘castra’ alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory.

But, under-valued urban space is easily interpreted as having unrealized economic value, as well; the same characteristics that make alleys appealing as community spaces can also make them appealing as commercial ones. Recent efforts at making the alleys of Toronto, where Di Novi lives, into green spaces for the whole community have begun to contribute to gentrification.

But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage.

This is in some ways the story of the 21st century city; the desire to make every cubic foot count raises questions of what “counting” means. When space is at a premium, as it is in any growing city, there will always be pressure to put it to the most economically productive use, which will of course serve some interests more than others.

This also made me think of the story of Cortlandt Alley, in New York City (it’s not the top story there, so scroll down a little). Many scenes from movies and TV shows set in New York, especially Law and Order, feature alleys where, for instance, bodies are discovered. However, New York City doesn’t actually have many alleys— that’s why people put garbage out for collection on the sidewalk. As a result, nearly every alley scene is filmed in the same place.

Also under appreciated: manhole and storm drain covers, like those made for Chicago (and other cities) by the Neenah Foundry in Wisconsin. Manhole covers are cast iron, still made by pouring the metal into a sand mold; they weight 150 pounds, and in Chicago alone there are about 148,000 of them. They’re made almost entirely of recycled metal, and last long enough that Neenah occasionally finds them with the company’s former name, which was changed in 1922.

The Closing of the Chinese Mind,” by Cindy Yu

I first became interested in Chinese film in college, when so-called Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were making the movies that made them famous. Yu is looking at that period as a kind of brief golden age, a moment of (relative) cultural and political openness between the end of the Cultural Revolution and the more recent crackdowns following the ascent of Xi Jinping. Hers is a more pessimistic view than my own; Zhang Yimou’s recent film One Second, while not approaching masterpieces like To Live or Ju Dou, is also a long way from the kind of brainless action movie or near-propaganda she points to here as characteristic of Chinese film today. (It also managed to upset censors enough to be withdrawn at the last minute from the Berlin Film Festival, so he must still be taking some risks). That said, it would be hard to argue that any of these directors are working at the level they were in the mid-late 1990s, or that anyone else has appeared to take their place, and equally hard to imagine that the more aggressive approach of the current regime doesn’t have something to do with that.

Case in point: this New York Times investigation illustrating the breadth and ambition of China’s government surveillance.

If I had known what a Foley artist was when I was a kid, there is no doubt whatsoever that I would have tried to become one. The first couple of paragraphs of “The Weird, Analog Delights of Foley Sound Effects,” by Ann Wiener— which describe two Foley artists going through a salvage yard, looking for things to bang and scrape together to get specific effects— perfectly illustrate why. Does anything sound more fun than this?

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