This month, I mainly wanted to do some kind of end-of-year roundup thing. I actually really like list season, when everybody’s publishing their best-ofs and favorites; I think’s its a useful way to round up the year, reconsider what you’ve seen and heard and read, and maybe catch up on some things you’ve missed. More generally, list making is also an exercise in reflection. I don’t think I’m unusual these days in that the urge to keep taking in new stuff, the urge to discovery, undermines the desire to think about or reflect on any of the things you’ve already taken in. For me, list making and list reading are a way of counteracting that, to some extent.
At the same time, though, I also had kind of a bumper crop of interesting new things to read in the last couple of weeks, so I’m going to start with those.
“Where Does All the Cardboard Come From? I Had to Know.” By Matthew Sheer
The title here more or less tells you what to expect here, but it turns out that I knew nothing about how much cardboard we use (spoiler: a whole lot), how it is made, or even what exactly it is.
“The Secret Lives of MI6’s Top Female Spies,” by Helen Warrell
Despite being underrepresented and underestimated in general, 3 of the 4 directors-general at Britain’s MI6 (a rank just below the agency’s chief, known as “C”) are now women. Improbably, Warrell talks to all of them, though with predictable restrictions on what she can say, pseudonyms, etc. The piece is about both what it means to be a spy, in general, and what it means for women, in particular; everybody is at pains to say that it’s nothing like the Bond movies but, in all honesty, it sounds a lot closer than I would have expected. There are some obstacles for women that are wearyingly familiar— the assumption that mothers will refuse to travel, for instance— but also some surprises, like the lack of provisions for carseats in armored cars. Interestingly, there are also some advantages women may have over men, in particular in male-dominated, patriarchal countries, where they are unlikely to be seen as a threat or taken seriously. (There’s also a great story about using a dirty diaper to prevent dogs from picking up the scent of an agent hidden in the trunk of a car).
“Mumbai Embraces its Booming Flamingo Population,” by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar
File under: nature is complicated. Untreated sewage from the rapidly-growing city of Mumbai is funneled into Thane Creek, the narrow waterway that separates the city from the mainland. You’d expect this to be an environmental disaster (and in some ways, it is— I’ll come back to that), but it’s had the effect of stimulating the growth of algae, which is a primary food source for flamingos, who have begun showing up in very large numbers in the mud flats outside the city. In 2007, there were about 10,000 of these birds; in 2022, it was 130,000. This has allowed scientists to tag many of the birds to study their migration paths, among other things. But, unsurprisingly, this is not good for every species; the fish population in the creek has crashed over the same time period, for the same reasons. On the other hand, the algae are also good for mangrove trees, which are a protected species because they are an effective shield against flooding, and their roots provide shelter for breeding fish— but if the mangroves spread, they will narrow the waterway, reducing the feeding area for the flamingos. So, stopping the sewage flow would be good for some species, but bad for others; protecting the flamingos requires cutting back new mangrove growth, which could keep fish populations from increasing, as well as limit the protection they provide to the city’s human population. Even if everybody involved agreed that the environment is a priority (which is unlikely), what does protecting it mean here? (Though it pretty clearly does not mean draining the wetlands for housing developments, which activists have been fighting).
“Secrets of the Christmas Tree Trade,” by Owen Long
I can’t outdo Long’s own intro to this piece, so I’ll just note that, at this point in the story, he is in the emergency room.
Underneath the ribbons and the tinsel, the New York Christmas-tree business is a complicated and sometimes dangerous game with a sordid history. In a little over a century and a half, getting a Christmas tree has gone from an oddity to a timeless tradition in Manhattan thanks primarily to the efforts of those who sought to profit from them. Theft, sabotage, and at least one murder have been committed in the Christmas-tree game. I almost died myself, selling them.
After what seems like a long time, a nurse approaches my bed and examines the wound above my right eye. She picks a pine needle out of my hair and asks, “What on earth were you doing?”
I tell her I was selling Christmas trees and things got out of hand.
This, if anything, is actually underselling it (although it is also deceptive). One long-time “tree man” in the piece is described as “a Keyser Söze of Christmas,” just to give you a little bit more of the flavor. Partly a history of the Christmas tree and of the business of selling them, and partly a piece of immersive experiential reporting on the business as it is run today, this is one of my favorite articles of the year. I can’t resist just one more quotation:
One day, I woke from a nap and found a loaded handgun lying on the ornaments table, pointing at the sidewalk, where mothers were pushing strollers. None of the customers had noticed.
Panicking, I covered the gun with stuffed snowmen and roped the area off with red ribbon. When the police arrived, an officer picked up the gun with two fingers and requested a box. I asked how big.
“Oh, gun-sized,” he said.
You know: gun-sized. I don’t know what awards there are that this piece might be eligible for, but whatever they are, it should win all of them.
“HUMAN_FALLBACK,” by Laura Preston
Between finishing her graduate degree and getting a “real” job (whatever that means anymore), Preston worked as a human backup for a chatbot “called Brenda, a conversational AI that could answer questions about apartment listings.” He job was to supplement Brenda’s answers to make them sound more human, and occasionally take over entirely when there was a question that Brenda didn’t know how to deal with. This story touches on just about every concern we have with artificial intelligence (except that Brenda never begins spewing racial slurs). One the one hand, leasing agents are “freed up for other tasks” by the system, but of course there’s a thin line between automation that eases your workload and automation that makes you redundant. A machine learning system of this kind is supposed to adapt to human behavior, but— since her job is essentially to improve the continuity of communication, not signal to users that a human has taken over— Preston finds herself adapting to Brenda’s habits in equal measure, emulating her style. ” I wasn’t so much taking over for her as I was turning cranks behind the curtain, nudging her this way and that. Our messages were little collaborations. We were a two-headed creature, neither of us speaking on our own, but passing the words between us.”
More generally, the piece makes one think about the circumstances that make such a system desirable in the first place. Why would anybody want to both remove human labor from the process, and prevent anyone from knowing that this has happened? That’s a rhetorical question, to an extent; the answer to both parts is obvious (save money; avoid alienating potential customers). But there’s something unnerving about the whole thing, all the same. Preston says:
Many of the properties that used Brenda were similar in a way that unnerved me: blocky, polychrome behemoths located near transit hubs and composed entirely of glass and vinyl siding, their facades as flat as iPhone screens. There was something heedless about these constructions. They didn’t seem aware of what cities they were in. No matter the culture or the clime, there they were, with their keyless locks, pet spas, and smart appliances, each one like a candy-colored app icon the size of a monument. As I clicked through virtual tours, I encountered variations on the same minimalist fever dream: gray sectionals, gray laminate floors, a fiddle-leaf fig tree that cast no shadow. The kitchens had islands, the islands had barstools, the rugs looked like they had been drawn with the polygon tool in Microsoft Paint. I suspected that like Brenda herself, these images were hybrids, cobbled together from real and simulated elements.
The buildings are a kind of metaphor for the business as a whole— one in which the scale demands uniformity, automation, and simplification, but in which none of these things are what anybody thinks they want.
“Aristocrat, Inc.,” by Natalie So
In 1990s Silicon Valley, the big money was still in hardware, rather than software (or user data, which is actually how most of the big companies make their money today). The market for personal computers and related devices was booming, and parts suppliers often had trouble keeping up with demand, which meant that a savvy person could make a lot of money in memory, processors, or hard drives if they managed to buy at the right time. It also meant that the companies that did this were targeted in a series of robberies that are largely forgotten today. This piece is about So’s mother, who was in the business at the time and whose company was robbed in 1995, but there’s a lot more to it: Chinese triads, drug cartels stealing chips to finance heroin buys, police who didn’t know enough about computers to recognize parts when they saw them, and the many different versions of the immigrant experience.
Now for the end-of-year lists:
Albums of the Year, in no particular order:
Marina Herlop: Pripyat
Maybe Fratti: Se Ve Desde Aquí
Burial: Streetlands EP
Hatis Noit: Aura
Danger Mouse and Black Thought: Cheat Codes
Huerco S.: Plonk
Lucretia Dalt: ¡Ay!
Colin Stetson: Chimæra I
Maya Sheffield: In Free Fall
I made a list for most of these at Buy Music Club, which links to them on Bandcamp. Unfortunately, “Motomami” and “Cheat Codes” are not on Bandcamp, so it’s not quite complete.
I also made a Spotify playlist with all of the albums in it.
Favorite Books Read in 2022 (not necessarily published this year, though most of them are):
Activities of Daily Living, by Lisa Hsiao Chen
Cold Enough for Snow, by Jessica Au
When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamin Labatut
The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
Modern Instances, by Stephen Shore
And some end-of-year lists that are maybe a little off the beaten track:
Nature’s Best Science Images has some amazing stuff, from a gecko’s foot to a black hole to, of course, that Pillars of Creation image from the James Webb telescope. Their list of Ten People Who Shaped Science includes someone who worked on the Webb telescope, as well as folks working on infectious diseases (including COIVID and monkeypox), climate change, and organ transplants, plus…the UN Secretary General?
Pew Research Center’s 15 striking findings from 2022 has some really interesting public opinion data, including that nearly half of teens in the U.S. say that they use the internet “almost constantly.” I have to admit, though, that some these are NOT very striking, or at least not surprising— but all are interesting and worth knowing about.
If you don’t mind having to hunt a few of them down, Film Comment’s list of the best movies of the year has lots of interesting stuff.
For music, there are lots of good lists, but I always like the idea of a list filtered through a particular sensibility. There are few people with more open ears and broader, more interesting taste in music than Jace Clayton (aka DJ/Rupture), and his list of the best music of the year at ArtForum runs the gamut from Nigeria Afrobeats to an hour-and-a-half synthesizer piece.
In a similar vein for books, I always enjoy both the Paris Review‘s look at what their staff read over the year, and The Millions‘s Year in Reading feature, in which a bunch of writers, editors, and artists sum up their year. Both are lists from specific people of what they read in a given year; both are therefore idiosyncratic and a little random, in the way that one’s reading tends to be. They both also include a short (often very short) write-up, so it’s not just a list, but a kind of map of what led them from one book to another. Since the readers in both cases are talking about the whole year, they also often talk about things they didn’t like, and why, which is interesting as well. And, finally, they are generally both pretty distant from the year’s bestseller lists (neither is limited to books written this year), so they’re good if you’re looking for ideas and recommendations that you won’t see elsewhere. I just discovered it this year, but the White Review also does something similar— and one of their contributors is Jessica Au, whose Cold Enough for Snow is one of my favorite books of the year
Finally, always interesting is Tom Whitwell’s 52 Things I Learned This Year list. It’s really just a list of odd or surprising facts, with nothing connecting them except that one person happened to come across them in the space of a year.
And that’s it for 2022. Happy holidays, and a happy new year.