August-November, 2023

I haven’t managed to get together a post in quite a while, so I have a big pileup of stuff. I’ve tried to keep each piece short, but occasionally failed.

First, a few of recent albums that I’m excited about:

Bolted, by Forest Swords

One of my favorite artists of recent years, with his first new album in quite a while.

Integrated Tech Solutions, by Aesop Rock

If you like rap that makes you want to sit down with a lyric sheet, this is your guy. At the same time, he sounds like he’s having more fun here than he has in a while, and the production is excellent. “Kyanite Toothpick” is one of my songs of the year.

Death is Home, by Aisha Devi

I feel like Aisha Devi is just slightly too weird to make real hits. Like, couldn’t “Prophet Club” here almost be a Weeknd track?

And Ash, by Emptyset

These guys are nowhere near making real hits, unless you mean literally striking objects together, very very hard.

And now for things to read:

“The Secret Life of the 500+ Cables That Run the Internet”, by Stephen Shankland

I’m fascinated by infrastructure, in general— the vast, complicated networks and systems that provide the most basic and essential goods and services, but which, if they are working properly, we almost never think about. For just about anyone likely to be reading this, internet connectivity is something we think about only when it is unexpectedly absent or inadequate. But obviously, moving vast quantities of information of all kinds all over the world involves a lot of complex bits of technology working together, so really its surprising how often we are able to take it for granted. This is about the undersea cables that carry international internet traffic, and are an essential piece of that system. Cables are also an example of how the internet relies on a weird cobbling together of the new and the old:

And yet subsea cables are low-tech, too, coated in tar and unspooled by ships employing basically the same process used in the 1850s to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. SubCom, a subsea-cable maker based in New Jersey, evolved from a rope manufacturer with a factory next to a deep-water port for easy loading onto ships.

In the same way that, even today, 90 percent of all global cargo is transported in gigantic, slow-moving ships, 99 percent of intercontinental internet traffic passes through these glorified garden hoses. Apparently a cable somewhere in the world gets cut every three days, though, which seems alarming, except that it means that the network is robust enough to keep working most of the time anyway. And the process of laying them is still pretty fraught. Sometimes weather and other factors require changing the order in which sections of cable are laid, which in turn may require transferring it from one shop to another. At SubCom, according to the company’s CEO, there is “one guy in particular that’s just a savant at this,” but he “has to be able to solve it with his hand with string first, because we found the computer modeling never works.” So, the most advanced technologies in the world rely on one guy, playing with string. There are at least 552 such cables, which is a lot…but also not very many, really? For all the data that is moving around, and for how much we have come to rely on our ability to do that?

There are trends both toward and away from centralization when it comes to these cables. On the one hand, the majority of the traffic they carry— two-thirds and growing— comes from a few very large “hyperscale” companies, like Google and Facebook. Moreover, as many of the companies, like AT&T, that used to lay cables have moved away from the business, those hyperscalers are increasingly laying the cables themselves, meaning the own both the infrastructure and the data traveling through it. On the other hand, where undersea connections used to be limited to a handful of major urban areas, they are increasingly linking more remote, less populated areas, like “the west coast of Greenland, the volcanic island of St. Helena west of Africa, the southern tip of Chile, Pacific island nations, the 8,000-person town of Sitka, Alaska.” This means that more of the world has access to the internet, but that access is increasingly mediated by and handful of very large and powerful companies.

There’s a lot more here, including details about the structure of the cables themselves— how it varies with different ocean conditions, and how it has evolved with the transition from copper wire to fiber optics— how they are laid down and repaired, and their position in international conflicts.

Related: this interactive from the Washington Post about the digging of a massive new tunnel to help keep waste water out of the Potomac River during storms, similar to Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project.

Also related: this issue of the newsletter Construction Physics provides a really clear, concise history of the U.S. electrical grid. (That’s part one of four; here is part 2, part 3, and part 4.

The biggest source of electricity globally in 2022 was coal, still.

And also related: Deb Chachra, an engineering professor at Olin College, has a new book out called How Infrastructure Works, which I haven’t read yet but which, based on the shorter pieces that have already come out of it, is going to be great.

“How a Tiny Mexican Border City Built a Budget Dental Empire”

I often think that magazines are doing their writers a disservice with this kind of headline, which sometimes ends up promising a larger or more complicated story than is actually there. In this case, the town built its “empire” by having well-qualified dentists offering services at a fraction of US prices; there really isn’t anything especially surprising about it. What’s more interesting to me is the question of why this obvious demand isn’t getting met in the U.S. Some of the people traveling to Los Algodones to get care might be able to afford U.S. prices and just want to save money, but a larger portion are people who can pay something for dental work, but not as much as they would have to at home. That is a demand the market isn’t meeting, so why? Do regulations keep prices higher, or is it a lack of dentists, or what?

“The Decomposition of Rotten Tomatoes”, by Lane Brown

The basic problem with Rotten Tomatoes seems really obvious: every review is coded as positive or negative, even when the author’s opinion is really mixed; there’s no room for nuance or qualification. As the filmmaker Paul Schrader says here:

I read some reviews of my own films where the writer might say that he doesn’t think that I pull something off, but, boy, is it interesting in the way that I don’t pull it off…To me, that’s a good review, but it would count as negative on Rotten Tomatoes.

On the other hand, the virtue of the site— such as it is— is also obvious: it provides a simple, clear, up or down verdict on a movie. In a time when going to the theatre has gotten pretty expensive, and there are effectively infinite options for things to watch at home, people want some assurance that a film is worth it. That has led to Rotten Tomatoes having an outsized influence on the fate of a film, leading studios and production companies to try to game the system. For example:

Another problem — and where the trickery often begins — is that Rotten Tomatoes scores are posted after a movie receives only a handful of reviews, sometimes as few as five, even if those reviews may be an unrepresentative sample. This is sort of like a cable-news network declaring an Election Night winner after a single county reports its results. But studios see it as a feature, since, with a little elbow grease, they can sometimes fool people into believing a movie is better than it is.

Here’s how. When a studio is prepping the release of a new title, it will screen the film for critics in advance. It’s a film publicist’s job to organize these screenings and invite the writers they think will respond most positively. Then that publicist will set the movie’s review embargo in part so that its initial Tomatometer score is as high as possible at the moment when it can have maximal benefits for word of mouth and early ticket sales.

All of which, to me, suggests that nobody should pay any attention to Rotten Tomatoes at all, but clearly I am in the minority on this. The site has taken steps to try to remedy some of these problems, but I still think the main problem is inherent in the design.

Speaking of movies: Martin Scorsese made a list on Letterboxd of “companion films” to his own movies— essentially, films that are linked with his own in some way in his own mind. Really interesting, and many, many that I have not seen.

And speaking of things rotting (I know): In the Himalayas, a parasitic fungus that infects the caterpillars of the ghost moth is valued in Chinese medicine, and competition among sellers is fierce. Attempts to cultivate it in captivity have thus far been unsuccessful; the author’s research explains why.

“What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us About Grief”, by Teju Cole

If Teju Cole has a new piece out, odds are that I am going to post it here. His work makes the strongest possible case that art is important and necessary, not simply for pleasure but to help make sense of and respond to the world around us. Here, he uses Ancient Greek tragedy to think about the ongoing refugee crisis in Greece and the rest of Southern Europe. What it provides is not precisely consolation, as might perhaps be expected; it is more an affirmation of the feeling that some things are simply wrong, and that sometimes this should, indeed, be overwhelming: “I could feel now what before I had known only in theory: that suffering is sometimes too much, that there is no limit to pain.”

Cole, by the way, has a new novel‚ his first since 2012, out now.

“A Hand from One Page, a Bomb from Another: Rethinking Spy vs. Spy, by Gyasi Hall

I associate MAD magazine with field trips in junior high school. On the bus, you could count on somebody having an issue or two, and they would get passed around, helping to keep us entertained on long drives. (We went on a lot of field trips in junior high, and we lived a long way from anything). Spy Vs. Spy was always one of my favorite parts of the magazine, although I don’t think I could have told you why; it didn’t have any of the quotable jokes or puns from the TV and movie parodies, which took up the bulk of an issue and were what we talked about talked after reading (if we talked about anything).

Looking back, I think the apparent simplicity was probably the attraction, and the fact that it looked like nothing else in the magazine. This quality, Hall suggests, makes it easy to underestimate how much Spy Vs. Spy had going on.

Even those who understand comics as a unique literary genre see a plotless, virtually wordless screwball strip like Spy vs. Spy and see nothing but clever fireworks. It’s a mindset that’s corrosive to a comic’s integrity. Within this kind of reading, style and storyline are the only things worth taking away from any graphic narrative.

This actually makes sense to me as a partial explanation of why comics, in general, have had so much trouble getting taken seriously as a form of either art or literature: they are seen as simply plot plus spectacle, neither of which is what capital-A art or capital-L literature is supposed to focus on. In any case, a comic like Spy Vs. Spy is easy to dismiss, to file away as a Cold War parody without thinking much about how it does what it does. Hall points out that the minimalism of Spy Vs. Spy prevents it from being mapped too easily onto any particular side in the Cold War, so that even though the satire is obvious, it’s impossible to identify either Spy as any particular country or ideology, and, since neither one is ever smarter or more admirable than the other, you’re never really rooting for anybody to “win” (whatever that would mean). By providing no clues or context to allow the reader to locate the characters or their actions in any kind of larger narrative, their rivalry becomes its own explanation— they’re fighting because they’re fighting, because that’s what they do. The conflict remains as inexplicable and apparently pointless after many decades as it was at the start— just like the real thing.

Also, I was apparently reading it after the creator’s retirement, when, according to Hall, the strip had lost a lot of its wit. I don’t know if that speaks to the durability of the concept, or to my own lack of discretion as a 12-year old.

“Where Do Fonts Come From?”, by Sara Friedman

Fonts and typefaces are something I am interested in, but about which I feel like I know nothing. Case (no pun intended) in point: a single company, Monotype, which was founded (no pun intended) over a hundred years ago, has come to dominate the online font marketplace, buying up both other famous type foundries (like Linotype and Hoefler & Co.) and online sales venues like MyFonts until it owns most of the most popular fonts and the main means of distribution. Indecent font makers can sell their work on MyFonts, but Monotype takes a 50% cut of all sales, so unless your font is very popular it is hard to make any real money. But the website is so dominant that it is also hard to get attention anywhere else, and selling on MyFonts gets you legal support in case your work is used without permission— something which happens a lot. So, it’s kind of a rock and a hard place. (That Monotype’s dominance arose only recently, after it was purchased by a sequence of private equity firms beginning in 2004 only reinforces the sense of a corporate behemoth crowding out or consuming the competition.)

“‘Going Shopping’ is Dead”, by Whizy Kim

The title here again overstates the case, but the piece does a good job of explaining the difficulties facing brick-and-mortar retail stores. Although— shockingly, at least to me— only 15% of retail shopping was done online in the first part of 2023, the experience of shopping in physical stores is, by and large, a lot less pleasant than it used to be. Competition drives stores to cut costs, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to have fewer employees— which makes it harder of customers to get help when they want it— and to pay them very little, which makes them less inclined to be helpful or invested in the customer experience. Add to that increasingly abusive and even violent customers, unpleasant working conditions, and inconsistent or unreliable schedules, and employees have no incentive to make the shopping experience enjoyable. (Except, of course, wanting to keep their jobs, but, as we know from Office Space, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired). This line sums it up: “The dissonance between cutting costs — a perennial directive of a profit-seeking business — and providing the kind of store where people want to shop is only growing.”

“The Man Who Invented Fantasy”, by Dan Sinykin

I read a lot of Del Rey paperbacks in junior high and high school, but (probably not surprisingly) gave little thought to whose name was on the spine— in all honestly, I doubt I had much of a sense that different publishers specialized in particular things. But Del Rey is named for Lester Del Rey, who had worked for years as a write of Science Fiction when his wife, who worked at Ballantine, brought him in as an editorial consultant.

A big manuscript had come in over the transom, a work of epic fantasy by Terry Brooks. Judy-Lynn didn’t know much about sword-and-sorcery books, but Lester did. She passed The Sword of Shannara to him. He read it: It was a page-turning Tolkien rip-off. Many editors might have been dissuaded by the derivative imitation—many critics later were—but not Lester. He saw possibility. He saw a whole new genre to populate. Lord of the Rings stood alone in the marketplace. The Narnia books were for children. “There’s nothing else out there for them to read,” he told Publishers Weekly, about Lord of the Rings fans. “They just have to reread their Tolkien.”

Lester Del Rey’s great insight, in other words, was that fans of J.R.R. Tolkien tended to be big fans, ready and willing to dive into the the minutiae of his world. He realized that these people would probably want to read more books like Tolkien’s, if someone were selling them. He tapped into an unrealized market, and made lots of money— eventually not only for Del Rey, but for other publishers, like Tor, who followed their lead.

It’s hard to imagine fantasy not being a major fiction genre, so it seems strange that we can point a specific point when it became one. It’s also funny, and a little sad, to read about a time when Waldenbooks and B. Dalton could be said to “rule the world.” Everything has an origin, and everything has an end, I guess.

“A History of Moquette”, from the London Transport Museum

The dense, wooly fabric found on the seats of many public transit systems around the world has a name, and it was used first in London beginning in the 1920s. Made with 85% will and 15% nylon, “Moquette was chosen for public transport for two reasons. First, because it is hard wearing and durable. Second, because its colour and patterns disguise signs of dirt, wear and tear. On top of this moquette had the advantage of being easy and cheap to mass-produce.” All very practical reasons, and yet they’ve still put a good deal of time and energy over the years into the look of the material, bringing in “established artists and designers to create stylish, contemporary patterns for the Capital’s transport system.” I think for most of us, these kinds of choices are largely invisible— they don’t really register as choices at all, but simply as the way things are. Logically, you know that can’t be the case, but I like knowing more, specifically, about the process.

Related: Flanelette was an inexpensive substitute for flannel, and became popular in Victoria Britain for women’s and children’s clothing. The problem was that it was extraordinarily flammable, and finding a way to treat it that would last without changing the look or feel of the fabric was challenging.

And, speaking of knowing more about the process, here is how one Japanese manufacturer makes rubber bands. It seems like a lot of skilled labor and capital to produce such a simple thing, but they have been doing it for a century, so it must work somehow. Also, I love that the boxes say, in English: “Neater! Quicker! Cheaper! Than String.” I imagine an intense industrial battle between rubber band and string manufacturers to dominate the global binding market.

And this is a video about a man in India who makes vehicles that look like other things.

I will stop there before this gets even more excessive than it already is. Getting end-of-year roundups ready for, I hope, next month.

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