June 21, 2024

I’m trying something new this month: putting in some photos to kind of designate different sections or topics. I’d like it if these were always somehow thematically relevant, but I doubt I’ll be able to manage that consistently.

Starting, as I did last time, with some music:

“The Collective,” by Kim Gordon

This is very definitely not what I, at least, would have expected from a Kim Gordon solo album; at the same time, as soon as she opens her mouth there is no way it could be anyone else.

“All Life Long,” by Kali Malone

Probably about as far as one could get, sonically, from the Kim Gordon record, this one is made up of beautiful, minimal vocal, brass, and organ pieces.

Not a music recommendation per se, but perhaps leading to some discoveries is “How Reggaeton Became the Sound of Global Pop”, By Bethonie Butler, Luis Velarde, Artur Galocha and Leslie Shapiro. I love a good music genealogy. Tracing the influence of a song, or a sound, or—as in this case— a beat always feels to me like a decoding, opening music up to be understood in a different way. The idea that one song in the right place at the right time can pull together genres and traditions in a way that inspires a global phenomenon still seems sort of magical. Anyway, even if all that sounds a little mystical for you, you should still read (and listen to) this; unless you’ve been following developments in Latin music since the 1980s really closely, you will probably learn a lot.

“‘It’s a Silent Fire’: Decaying Digital Movie and TV Show Files Are a Hollywood Crisis”, by Gary Baum and Carolyn Giardina

I recently read Dana Stevens’s excellent Camera Man, about how the life and work of Buster Keaton reflected and intersected with the culture of his time (that description doesn’t at all do it justice, you should read it). One shocking fact, at least to me, in the book was that seventy-five percent of all the films of the silent era are lost (105). I knew it was a lot, and I knew generally why— flammable nitrate film stock combined with no sense of movies as something worth preserving— but I had no idea it was such a large proportion.

This is, presumably, a fairly well-known fact among people working in film today, so it is pretty startling to read about how much film and television made more recently is also in danger of being lost, this time because of the careless handling and storage of data. For indie filmmakers, in particular, file formats and backups are a much lower priority than finding distribution and earning enough from their work to eat, but even big studios and production companies have startlingly lax procedures for backing up data, and making sure that file formats and storage media are up to date.

“Thomas Heatherwick: The Architect of Our Neoliberal Hell”, by Andrew Russeth, and “The Global Danger of Boring Buildings”, by Bob Reddick.

I was very struck by the contrast between these two takes on the work of the architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick, and his recent book Humanize: A Maker’s Guide to Designing Our Cities. Heatherwick is probably best known, at least in the U.S., for designing Vessel, the remarkable building/sculpture that is the showpiece of the Hudson Yards development in New York. Russeth sees this as a kind of city-scale Instagram wall— pure novelty without lasting significance— and puts much of Heatherwick’s other work in the same category. He therefore dismisses the book, which argues for the importance of more interesting, less boring building design, as trivial and oblivious to the economic dimensions of trying to build as Heatherwick suggests. But he doesn’t say anything at all about the focus of Reddick’s interview with Heatherwick, which is that boring buildings get torn down sooner because people have no attachment to them, and this is bad for the environment because construction is a major contributor to carbon emissions, among other things. Building things that people will like and care about, then, isn’t merely an aesthetic matter. I tend to share Russeth’s view of things like the Vessel (though I do still want to go through it, so add as many grains of salt as you see fit), but I think the idea that aesthetics are necessary consideration if we’re hoping to build more sustainably is at least interesting.

The work of Koen Olthuis exemplifies another way of trying to build for the future. “A Dutch Architect’s Vision of Cities that Float on Water”, by Kyle Chayka, describes some of these projects, and some of the obstacles to making the approach more widespread. A starkly different approach, and really different mentality, is described in “Doomsday Design: The Reality of Disaster Preparedness in America”, by Sarah Archer.

“Behind F1’s Velvet Curtain”, by Kate Wagner

This article got a lot of attention for a very bad reason, which is that Road and Track magazine pulled it from their website very soon after publishing it, with only a vague explanation from the editor, long after the fact. That’s really too bad; on the one hand, it creates the impression that the magazine pulled the article under pressure from powerful companies afraid that it made them look bad— though the ones mentioned in the piece deny doing this, or even knowing that the piece had been published. On the other hand, it’s just a very good piece of writing, which, yes, is critical of Formula One racing and the thick atmosphere of money and entitlement that surrounds it, but also manages to beautifully communicate what it is that people love about it. So, yes, she describes people in the stands wearing “outfits worth more than the market price of all the organs in my body,” but also how the cars evoke the “technological sublime,” each representing “a feat of engineering so vast it breached the realm of magic.” Describing the race itself, she says,

The driver is the apotheosis of quick-moving prowess, total focus and control. The car is both the most studied piece of human engineering, tuned and devised in lab-like environments and at the same time a variable entity, something that must be wrestled with and pushed. The numbers are crunched, the forms wind-tunneled. And yet some spirit escapes their control, and that spirit is known only by the driver. Yes, we watch this perfect blend of man and machine, but we speak of the machine as though it were not of human origin, as though the machine, being born from science could—eventually, through its iterative processes—sublimate human flaws. The driver, being human, knows this is false. His intimacy with the machine is the necessary missing connection, and even if the machine were perfect, it was made for imperfect hands. But it is never perfect. The gaps in its perfection are where disasters transpire, but also miracles

One mark of a great piece of journalism is that it can show you why people care about something, even if you don’t. Wagner manages to do that, even as she remains clear-eyed about what kinds of compromises are inevitably involved in bringing together the vast resources that F1 is built on. That is an achievement, and precisely the kind of thing that a magazine should want to publish.

And, another piece about a journalist invited into a realm where she doesn’t quite belong: “An Age of Hyperabundance”, by Laura Preston. At the end of last year, I posted about Preston’s earlier N+1 piece, HUMAN_FALLBACK, about a job she had supplementing the responses of a chatbot on a real estate company’s website. That article apparently got enough buzz for her to be invited to a conversational AI conference as the “honorary contrarian speaker.” This is, as she is painfully aware, an awkward and deeply compromised position; she is there as a critic, but it is unlikely that she would be invited if the organizers really expected her to say anything that would challenge what they are doing in any serious way, as opposed to making the industry look like it is taking the concerns of its critics seriously. And, indeed, she realizes well before her presentation that her chosen subject— algorithmic bias— is a problem that the attendees will in fact be very comfortable with her calling out: they’ve heard it before, and they have responses ready. More fundamentally, perhaps, it’s a problem that is solvable within existing approaches to AI, since what is needed is just more data, a better training corpus. Preston’s growing sense through the course of the conference that her only moves are bad ones mirrors the way I think a lot of us feel about the development of AI in general.

Also about AI, but from a very different angle, is “8 Google Employees Invented Modern AI. Here’s the Inside Story”, by Steven Levy, which describes the creation of the so-called “Transformers Paper,” a description of a new way of approaching artificial intelligence that is right at the center of all the recent advances, including ChatGPT—notably, the “T” in ChatGPT stands for “transformer.” (You can read the actual paper here). Basically, it gets the system to pay attention to more of the context of a statement, making it much more accurate in interpreting any given word or phrase. Put in that (certainly over-simplified) way, it sounds obvious, but, for one thing, it more or less rejected the previously-dominant kind of AI model, and for another, it requires significant parallel processing power, at a level that had only recently become available at a reasonable cost. In any case, the new approached worked better than previous ones, and was more efficient, pretty much right out of the box. That Google is widely seen as having fallen behind in AI development may be due largely to the fact that, despite the paper being written by Google employees, the company was much slower to adopt this approach than Open AI or Microsoft.

A little less directly related is “The End of the Mr. Beast Era”, by Patricia Hernandez. Full disclosure: I have never watched one of Mr. Beast’s videos. My general impression of his popularity, from that admitted remove, is that it sounds like there are far worse things that people could be paying attention to online— and far worse ways that a wealthy YouTube celebrity could dispose of his money— but also that it is not something I have much interest in actually watching. According to Hernandez, Mr. Beast’s dominance is due to a large extent to his relentless tailoring of content to algorithm; she also suggests that this is ultimately unsustainable, both for him as an individual and for YouTube as a platform.

“The Last Days of Mezcal”, by Rowan Jacobsen

A big spike in the popularity of mezcal, especially in US, has created new pressure to increase production, but mezcal has long been made by small, family operations that cannot easily be scaled up.
It is made from agave, a desert plant that blooms only once, and then dies, and it can take several years, depending on the variety, to mature to the point where it can be used to make mezcal. To make more of it, you either have to harvest the plants before they are really ready, or adulterate it with other sources of sugar (as is often done with tequila, also made from agave).

It’s a good example of the incompatibility between industrial production and an artisanal product— and really, between that scale of production and nature, more generally. It’s also an example of how, when it comes to the environment, you can’t mess with anything without messing with everything. There is a whole ecosystem dependent on agave, which feeds bats which then scatter its seeds. To over-harvest it will undermine that ecosystem, with effects that are both hard to predict and, on another level, entirely predictable.

Indeed, I have to say that it would be nice to read a story about the natural world that doesn’t include a warning that whatever it describes may soon disappear. Sadly, “The Eider Keepers”, by Devon Frederickson, is not that story, but it does also exemplify the real possibility of human beings living within the world, rather than in opposition to it. Again, scale is a problem here; the model of producing eiderdown described here is not something that you could have millions— or even hundreds— of people doing. Still, though; just the idea of people seeing themselves as in cooperation with the natural world, rather than trying to control it, is refreshing.

On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is “Should We Change Species to Save Them?”, by Emily Anthes, which is about just how much control we can and should try to have. There are more and more species around the world in decline— some with such small numbers that even if you can put them in a protected area and get them to breed, the danger of inbreeding makes viable offspring less and less likely. So, some conservationists advocate “genetic rescue”— crossbreeding the most endangered species with closely related animals to add “fresh DNA to the breeding pool.” This is, not surprisingly, controversial, since it violates the basic idea of conservation as interfering with species as little as possible, but advocates say that more interference is better than letting a species die out altogether.

In addition to the narrower risks of doing this— spreading disease between populations or creating a new, invasive sub-species— it seems to me that this idea introduces a Ship of Theseus problem. At what point have you simply transformed the species, rather than changed it? When has the species actually disappeared, as a result of your efforts?

And, finally, this collection of root system drawings, illustrating the underground root structures of different kinds of plants, is amazing in the level of detail, and the care that obviously went into producing them.

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