Syllabus: January 29th

A list of interesting things new and old that I’ve read or experienced this week. I do not endorse or even necessarily agree with anything on the other side of these links.

Articles

Broderick, Ryan. “Happy Birthday, Guy Fieri,” at Garbage Day. — Because after I had read or heard about eighty GameStop and wallstreetbets explainers this week I was thrilled to read: “It is both terrifying and liberating to look clear-eyed into the meaningless void at the heart of modern life and accept it for what it is.” This looks like a decent mailing list, actually.


Cho, Adrian. “The cloak-and-dagger tale behind this year’s most anticipated result in particle physics,” at Mel. — If the wild intro that uses the R.E.M. song about the beating of Dan Rather in 1986 as a way to start an article about particle physics doesn’t grab you, perhaps the science will. Bonus: fans of Bruno Latour and the anthropology of science will definitely nerd out on the breathless description of laboratory heroics.


Grimm, David. “Ice age Siberian hunters may have domesticated dogs 23,000 years ago,” at Science. — Fuck it, I like dogs and I wanted to include this one.


Klee, Miles. “Everything you Never Wanted to Know about the ‘Sigma Male.'” — Machines turn inputs into outputs. The internet is a machine that transforms time into ever more toxic forms of masculinity.

Video

Pahokee. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan. 2020. A beautiful documentary on four high school students in the titular town, a small (by South Florida standards) farming community down on Lake Okeechobee. The link goes to Kanopy. If you have a library card you can probably watch the film for free and then choose a few more to watch gratis, too.


Vast of Night. Directed by Andrew Patterson. 2020. — Look, this isn’t Spielberg, but it captures a little tiny bit of the magic from Close Encounters while imparting its own awareness of space, pace, and light. It’s a memorable film on Amazon Prime.

Music

If you like the ’90s you will probably enjoy this playlist of songs from a 1996 compilation called This Is… Trip Hop. I found this CD at Goodwill and love it.

Art

Florida landscapes by Eleanor Blair at Signature Art Gallery in Tallahassee.

Aryo Toh Djojo’s “Transmission” @ Wilding Cran Gallery.

Books

Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.


Cheryl Dumesnil, Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

Other

If you were struck by the ineffable urge this week to point your phone out into the cold, lonely void and project an image of Bernie Sanders sitting in a chair somewhere out there, you might like this Sitting Bernie AR Meme. Use your phone and press “AR” to enjoy yourself for a few seconds.


I was inspired by Nicely Small, a curated list of small businesses in Vancouver created by the design firm Engine Digital. Tallahassee needs something like this.

Adding Flavor

Often when I’m cooking I think about something my friend, chef Adam Browne, said in passing a couple of years ago when we were walking around the campus at work. We were talking about barbecue and he said, “you should be adding flavor at every step.”

Hear, hear. I think that applies to more than just barbecue.

Anyway, I was just making dinner and that popped into my head.

M.F.K. Fisher by Book Light

“Any normal man must nourish his body by means of food put into it through the mouth.”

M.F.K. Fisher, “When a Man is Small”

It is a cold winter night–cold for these parts, anyway–and I am lying in my bed, cringing my feet to escape the little insidious tendrils of icy air creeping under the blanket and reading M.F.K. Fisher by the miserly glow of a little reading light. I’ve progressed through thirty-five years of a reading life, somehow, without once encountering Fisher’s name. That all changed a few weeks ago, when an essayist I was reading mentioned her in passing. Since then I’ve seen her name again and again, as though a magical door opened from some parallel universe into this one and out stepped Fisher, master of the essay. 

When I read the sentence with which I opened this little anecdote, it was like another light, warm and simple and welcoming, began to glimmer from the opening of that door. I had to turn off the light, set the book down. I’m done. It is an extraordinary sentence. To set it down on the page and move on, as though nothing happened, must have felt like flying. It is a remarkable thing and I love it. I love it the way an artist loves a deft turn of the brush. The way a chef loves a surprising flavor. 

Perhaps one day, if I read and write hard enough, I may enjoy a glimpse through the door at a master like Fisher. Until then, I’ll try harder to stay out of the cold.

Simple Design

I’m really inspired tonight by this page, “Design Like It’s 1999,” published by the Dutch designer Vasilis van Gemert. Van Gemert uses the Dutch documentary website 2Doc–which looks pretty cool, incidentally–to demonstrate what it’s like for a blind person to use a modern, javascript-driven website. It’s objectively awful: 

“”One hundred and fourty nine links. And one of them is the one Simon is looking for. I’ve watched him trying to find a link to the archives. The screenreader started reading elements, one by one. Navigation! List! Six items! Home, link! Documentaries, link! To him, every link, and every item on the page seems to be screaming: I am the most important thing on this page! With every single link he has to wonder if this is the one he’s looking for, or if it is one of the other 148 links.””

Van Gemert solves the problem by developing an extremely simple version of the website. His version is too extreme (which is why he develops it into a fully-baked idea on the rest of the site) but it was good to find a post this morning that made me think about accessibility and design instead of social distancing. 

Maybe it’s time to ditch the default theme here and strike out on my own.

Roman Generals

Reading tonight and thinking about what a bunch of dickheads Roman generals were.

Listen to this nugget, from Colin Wells’s history of the Empire:

“Another of Octavian’s successful generals, Lucius Cornificius, took to arriving at his host’s house on an elephant when he went out to dinner.”

Colin Wells, The Roman Empire

Or this bit from Suetonius, describing a thin-skinned Julius Caesar:

“he had ridden past the benches reserved for the tribunes of the people, and shouted in fury at a certain Pontius Aquila, who had kept his seat: ‘Hey, there, Aquila the tribune! Do you want me to restore the republic?’ For several days after this incident he added to every undertaking he gave: ‘With the kind consent of Pontius Aquila.'”

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (trans. Robert Graves)

What a bunch of jerks.

Late Night Passage

No, listen, what happened was this: they lied to you, sold you ideas of good & evil, gave you distrust of your body & shame for your prophethood of chaos, invented words of disgust for your molecular love, mesmerized you with inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotions.

Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone

Elegance

Just came across this quote in C.J. Date’s Database Design & Relational Theory, which is a more interesting book than the title might suggest.

“In computing, elegance is not a dispensable luxury but a quality that decides between success and failure.

Edsger W. Dijkstra

Watching problems that could have been solved years ago by thoughtful design cascade now one upon the other in the systems at work drives this point home. Spend more time thinking than doing.

The Open World

I’m inspired by Niels Bohr’s thoughts on openness this morning:

“An open world where each nation can assert itself solely by the extent to which it can contribute to the common culture and is able to help others with experience and resources must be the goal to put above everything else.”

Niels Bohr, “For an Open World,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 6,7 (July, 1950): 217.

Bohr was thinking about openness in the years just after the Second World War, when the advent of devastating nuclear weapons made it seem like a far worse war was looming just over the horizon. We don’t live in quite such grave times–even if it feels like it sometimes–but Bohr’s solution to the problem is just as prescient today as it was in 1950. Unlike 1950, we have the tools to make information accessible to everyone, everywhere, at any time. Do we have the will? Do we have the courage to give up our secrets and work together?