Thursday, March 31, 2016
The Hypnotic Clamor of Morocco
Adam Shatz at The New York Review of Books' Daily site:
In 1931, a twenty-one-year-old American composer in Paris named Paul Bowles visited Morocco at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. His travel companion was his composition teacher, Aaron Copland. They rented a home in Tangier, where Bowles, a composer of svelte, jazzy music in the Poulenc mould, wrote one of his first scores, an impressionistic piano piece called “Tamamar,” after a village in the Atlas mountains. Copland was unsettled by the clamor of drums during wedding season, and thought Tangier a “madhouse,” but Bowles was enraptured. He collected 78s of local music, just as he had collected old blues recordings back home, and sent copies to Béla Bartók. “When I first heard Arabic music on records,” he recalled later, “I determined to go and live where I could be surrounded by sounds like those, because there seemed to be very little else one could ask for in life.”
By the time Bowles finally moved to Tangier, with his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1947, he had refashioned himself as a novelist, and was busy writing The Sheltering Sky, the tale of American expatriates in Morocco that remains his best-known work. Yet it was in large part the music of Morocco that led him to make his life there. A decade later, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles travelled throughout Morocco, recording traditional music of a startling variety—Berber, Arabic, Andalusian, and Jewish—for the Library of Congress. For years known mostly to specialists, the recordings from that remarkable project have now been re-edited and re-released in a meticulously prepared box set by Dust to Digital, Music of Morocco.
Morocco was rich in hypnotic sounds, and in his novels Bowles described them with a composer’s precision. In Let It Come Down (1952), he recreated a scene he had witnessed at a concert in Chefchaouen, where a man went into a trance, slashing his arms with a long knife and covering himself in blood, as he danced in “perfect rhythm with the increasing hysteria of the drums and the low cracked voice of the flute.” John Stenham, the hero of The Spider’s House (1955), imagines that he can find his way blindfolded through the old city of Fez merely by listening to the sounds of footsteps and water:
taut, metallic reverberations…shuddered between the walls like musical pistol shots. There were places where his footfalls were almost silent, places where the sound was strong, single, and compact, died straightaway, or where, as he advanced along the deserted galleries, each succeeding step produced a sound of an imperceptibly higher pitch, so that his passage was like a finely graded ascending scale, until all at once a jutting wall or a sudden tunnel dispersed the pattern and began another section in the long nocturne which in turn would disclose its own design.
As Bowles saw it, Morocco’s sounds were forms of experience that had yet to be contaminated by Western influence.
‘Minimal’ cell raises stakes in race to harness synthetic life
Craig Venter’s creation comes as CRISPR gene-editing methods provide alternative ways to tinker with life’s building blocks.
Ewen Callaway in Nature:
Genomics entrepreneur Craig Venter has created a synthetic cell that contains the smallest genome of any known, independent organism. Functioning with 473 genes, the cell is a milestone in his team’s 20-year quest to reduce life to its bare essentials and, by extension, to design life from scratch.
Venter, who has co-founded a company that seeks to harness synthetic cells for making industrial products, says that the feat heralds the creation of customized cells to make drugs, fuels and other products. But an explosion in powerful ‘gene-editing’ techniques, which enable relatively easy and selective tinkering with genomes, raises a niggling question: why go to the trouble of making new life forms when you can simply tweak what already exists?
Unlike the first synthetic cells made in 20101, in which Venter’s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, copied an existing bacterial genome and transplanted it into another cell, the genome of the minimal cells is like nothing in nature. Venter says that the cell, which is described in a paper released on 24 March inScience2, constitutes a brand new, artificial species.
“The idea of building whole genomes is one of the dreams and promises of synthetic biology,” says Paul Freemont, a synthetic biologist at Imperial College London, who is not involved in the work.
'Queen of the curve' Zaha Hadid dies aged 65 from heart attack
Caroline Davies, Robert Booth and Mark Brown in The Guardian:
Dame Zaha Hadid, the world-renowned architect whose designs include the London Olympic aquatic centre, has died aged 65.
The British designer, who was born in Iraq, had a heart attack on Thursday while in hospital in Miami, where she was being treated for bronchitis.
Hadid’s buildings have been commissioned around the world and she was the first woman to receive the Royal Institute of British Architects gold medal.
A lengthy statement released by her company said: “It is with great sadness that Zaha Hadid Architects have confirmed that Dame Zaha Hadid DBE died suddenly in Miami in the early hours of this morning.
“She had contracted bronchitis earlier this week and suffered a sudden heart attack while being treated in hospital. Zaha Hadid was widely regarded to be the greatest female architect in the world today.”
Speaking from Mexico, Richard Rogers, the architect of the Pompidou Centre and the Millennium Dome, told the Guardian the news of Hadid’s death was “really, really terrible”.
“She was a great architect, a wonderful woman and wonderful person,” Lord Rogers said.
George McArdle On Staying at Youth Hostels
Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: a masterpiece
Jane Austen’s Emma, on the other hand, is an interesting novel, full stop – a masterpiece, if not the masterpiece, of the genre. Emma’s opening line is not as famous as Pride and Prejudice’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged”, but provides just as much to mull over. Of Chapter One’s first six words, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich”, the critics ask why is the heroine handsome not beautiful, clever not intelligent, rich not wealthy? Austen famously quipped that Emma was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. This unusual novel – about a privileged, matchmaking, misreading but redeemable young woman whose story may teach us to be better readers ourselves – is celebrating its bicentenary. The question is: when?
The title page of Emma is dated 1816, but the book first appeared in print on December 23, 1815. Such post-dating is briefly mentioned by Jan Fergus in Peter Sabor’s Cambridge Companion to “Emma”. But it is in the OHNE that one learns of the banality of the practice. As OHNE’s James Raven argues, in a tour-de-force chapter on “Production”, “post-dating was common, designed to extend the currency of the novel . . . . Novels printed and published in August or even as early as April carried the date of the following year”. Bicentenaries of Emma are rightly celebrated in both 2015 and 2016, something likely to remain confusing to all but diehard Janeites.
The OHNE attends to very different bicentenaries. In his “Afterword: The rise of the ‘rise’ of the novel”, Clifford Siskin calls attention to two of them – “the shared anniversaries of the novel and Literature”. He marks the moment of the novel’s securing a place in the canon, alongside the emergence of the first English Department and the establishment of a body of texts that comprised Literature (with a capital L) in Britain. Siskin dates these twin phenomena to the 1810s and 20s.
nostalgia and authenticity
In my childhood, Hollywood films played at three cinema halls in the city of Kolkata. Grand destinations of the British era—marble staircases, red curtains which parted before the screen—these theaters sought contact with a world of which, we already knew as children, we occupied a filthy periphery. We were still a colony, in thrall to the west. Even the names of the cinemas declared it: Lighthouse, New Empire, Globe.
With the obsessions of a colonized people taught that we were unclean, we noticed the cleanliness and comfort of the west. On screen, the streets of America were so pristine that people could come home and jump into bed with shoes on. Americans had silent, efficient machines for everything—curling hair, cleaning carpets, chopping onions, washing clothes. We had nasal-voiced maids who slapped and punched our worn garments on the bathroom floor as if on riverside rock, after which we clipped dripping dresses, in summer, winter, and monsoon, to ropes strung from the verandah.
Our lives were terribly unsophisticated, even coarse. The lanes flooded every July, drowning roaches whose brown shells floated in the water. In all seasons, beggar children touched our elbows and whined with upturned palms until we gave them a rupee, and uncles on the minibus pinched our breasts.
Ireland: ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’
R.F. Foster’s Vivid Faces is a study of the “backgrounds and mentalities of those who made the revolution” in Ireland in 1916. On the morning of Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist military organization, and the Citizen Army, a group of trade union volunteers, numbering in all about four hundred, marched into Sackville Street—now O’Connell Street—in Dublin and seized the most notable public building, the General Post Office. Uncertain in number, they were certain in aim: to declare a sovereign Irish republic that was independent of Great Britain. In another part of the city, then allies Éamon de Valera, Éamonn Ceannt, the Countess Markievicz, and other nationalist leaders assembled their troops close to various buildings, such as Boland’s Mills, and took possession of them.
Shortly after noon, Patrick Pearse, in effect the leader of the insurgents, came out of the General Post Office and read a one-page statement, headed (in Irish) “Poblacht na hÉireann,” followed by “The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland.” The statement, addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” began:
In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
Five brief paragraphs followed. The first called upon the support of Ireland’s “exiled children in America” and “gallant allies in Europe,” these last unnamed but evidently referring to the German government, which was expected in feeble theory to invade Ireland with troops, artillery, and ammunition on behalf of the new Irish government.
Runs in the Family
Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:
In the winter of 2012, I travelled from New Delhi, where I grew up, to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni. My father accompanied me as a guide and companion, but he was a sullen and brooding presence, lost in a private anguish. He is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his firstborn nephew—the eldest brother’s son. Since 2004, Moni, now fifty-two, has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill (a “lunatic home,” as my father calls it), with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept awash in antipsychotics and sedatives, and an attendant watches, bathes, and feeds him through the day. My father has never accepted Moni’s diagnosis. Over the years, he has waged a lonely campaign against the psychiatrists charged with his nephew’s care, hoping to convince them that their diagnosis was a colossal error, or that Moni’s broken psyche would somehow mend itself. He has visited the institution in Calcutta twice—once without warning, hoping to see a transformed Moni, living a secretly normal life behind the barred gates. But there was more than just avuncular love at stake for him in these visits. Moni is not the only member of the family with mental illness. Two of my father’s four brothers suffered from various unravellings of the mind. Madness has been among the Mukherjees for generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in a grim suspicion that something of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself.
Nonstop Metropolis: The Remix
The Queens Museum is crowdfunding an art project, Nonstop Metropolis, by Rebecca Solnit & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. (There's a day remaining, and they are very close to their target.)
Organized on the occasion of the release of Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s forthcoming New York City Atlas, Nonstop Metropolis, the Queens Museum’s “Remix” takes inspiration from the book’s maps and essays. The New York City Atlas is the third in Solnit’s series, following Atlases for New Orleans and San Francisco. With our very own, one-of-a-kind, 3-D map here at the Museum—the Panorama of the City of New York—as well as a deep commitment to the many issues Solnit raises in her books, the Queens Museum has commissioned two new projects by New York-based artists Duke Riley and Mariam Ghani in anticipation of the book’s launch at the Museum...
Nonstop Metropolis reinvents the traditional atlas. Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro work with visual artists, cartographers, and writers to combine cartography and storytelling to illuminate how New York City is a place where different forces clash, come together, and cross-pollinate. Drawings, paintings, and photographs adorn twenty-six maps revealing the fascinating histories of the City that never sleeps. The book’s full-color maps will explore the Big Apple through dozens of lenses, ranging from the Wu Tang Clan’s Staten Island, to a re-imagining of the entire NYC Subway system with the stations named for prominent yet often overlooked women. The third in the Infinite trilogy, Nonstop Metropolis will be the most ambitious, expansive, and influential Atlas to date!
If so moved, donate here at Kickstarter.
Our ancestors may have mated more than once with mysterious ancient humans
Lizzie Wade in Science:
It looked like an ordinary finger bone. But when researchers sequenced its DNA in 2010, they uncovered the existence of a group of ancient humans no one had seen before: the Denisovans. Then came an even bigger surprise. Some modern humans also carry Denisovan DNA, meaning that at some point in the ancient past, Denisovans and modern humans mated and had children. Now, a new study concludes that all that free love had some dark consequences, including male offspring that were likely sterile.
In the absence of much fossil evidence, the best way to study Denisovans is through the genes they left behind in modern humans. So population geneticists Sriram Sankararaman at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, and David Reich at Harvard University sifted through 257 genomes of present-day people from 120 non-African populations around the world. (Africans, whose ancestors didn’t leave Homo sapiens’s original home, do not have any Denisovan heritage.) They confirmed an earlier finding that among humans living today, people from Papua New Guinea, Australia, and other parts of Oceania have the most Denisovan ancestry, between 3% and 6% of their genomes. This compares with about 2% from Neandertals for all non-African genomes. Sankararaman and Reich found another hot spot of Denisovan ancestry in an unexpected place: South Asia. “It’s about 10% of what we see in the Oceanians,” Sankararaman explains. That’s quite a small contribution—which allowed it fly under the radar in previous studies—but it’s more than researchers expected to find based on their best models of population mixing. East Asians, in turn, have more Denisovan ancestry than Europeans but less than South Asians, the team reports today in Current Biology.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Will This New Book Change the National Debate on Poverty?
Eyal Press in The Nation:
n the spring of 2008, a graduate student named Matthew Desmond began renting out a trailer in a mobile-home park on the south side of Milwaukee. Like much of the south side, the park’s population was predominantly poor and white, with an outsize number of its residents addicted to drugs or working as prostitutes. After four months, Desmond moved to an equally impoverished, predominantly black neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee, into a duplex bordering an alley covered in gang graffiti. Unlike most of his neighbors, Desmond didn’t live in these places because he had no better options. He was an ethnographer interested in studying the dynamics of eviction, a familiar ritual at his fieldwork sites, where movers arrived seemingly every day to dump the possessions of another evicted tenant on the curb. How often did this actually happen? No one knew. When Desmond searched for data on the eviction rate in Milwaukee, he couldn’t find much.
The dearth of information might have discouraged some researchers. Desmond took it as a sign that he was onto something. Countless studies have traced the way factors like jobs, wages, and mass incarceration fuel urban poverty, but the role of housing had been curiously overlooked. Since no good data existed, he decided to oversee a survey of his own. When Desmond crunched the numbers, the results were astonishing. As it turned out, eviction wasn’t a daily event in Milwaukee; it was more like an hourly one. In a city with less than 105,000 renter households, 16,000 adults and children were being evicted every year, amounting to one in eight renters between 2009 and 2011. The movers were especially ubiquitous in black neighborhoods, where female renters were nine times as likely to be forced out of their homes as women in poor white neighborhoods.
Physicists at the Gate: Collaboration and Tribalism in Science
Veronique Greenwood in UnDark:
Did you know that most animal species have roughly the same number of heartbeats over the course of their lives? Short-lived creatures’ hearts beat faster, using up their allotment more quickly — mice before humans, humans before elephants — and this universal quality may be the result of the fact that all of our bodies depend on networks of vessels with similar physics. Did you know that as cities grow, the rate of business transactions grows faster than their population, while the number of miles of roads grows slower? Or that building a network of mysterious genes could help reveal the history of malaria?
All of these findings and more have been made in recent years by researchers reaching across the boundaries of their scientific fields. They are the focus of physicists collaborating with biologists, archaeologists, sociologists, and others, forming teams to look for questions to answer and new ways to describe the world. “Physics is not conceptually super-interesting anymore, not as interesting as biology and evolution and all things social — at least for me,” says Luis Bettencourt, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who once studied the origins of the universe and now studies the growth of cities.
In many cases, these new collaborations have been fueled by an explosion of data pouring in from DNA sequencing, cellphone records and other sources, filled with latent patterns that could reveal more about the systems that created them. “It’s an opportunity for people that are fluent with dealing with data, and modeling data” — in other words, certain kinds of physicists — “to come in and say something,” Bettencourt says.
But as physicists sink their teeth into the data, many are finding that entering another field is not simple. As Bettencourt puts it: “Physicists come at it and say, ‘What’s wrong with these people, biologists and social scientists? There’s all this data … Why don’t you just look at the data and see what it tells you about these systems?’
Six Fairy Tales for the Modern Woman
Renee Lupica in The Hairpin:
Once upon a time a woman never got married, but had many fulfilling relationships, a job that kept her comfortable, an apartment that she got to decorate just for her, and hobbies that stimulated her mind.
Once upon a time a woman and a man tried having babies, but it didn’t work, so when they were past the age of trying, they decided that they had enough disposable income to travel the world, and so they did, and it was awesome, and both of them felt okay about it, and no one gave them any grief over it, either.
More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]
Sean Carroll tells the funny and inspiring story of his career in science: "What would Steven Hawking do?"
UNFINISHING SCHOOL: When is a work of art finished?
Tom Shone in More Intelligent Life:
Sitting for the painter Alberto Giacometti was a time-consuming business. Starting at around 3pm, a session would continue until midnight, at which time Giacometti would break for dinner at a nearby brasserie before returning to put in another hour or so. An average portrait took 20 meetings. “Because I was able to go on sitting, he was able to go on painting,” wrote David Sylvester in “Looking at Giacometti”, in which he records the artist layering his canvas with impasto so thick, he would then have to scrape some off in order to proceed. “Cezanne never really finished anything,” said Giacometti. “That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.”
What were the reasons for his inability to finish? The 20th century is famous for its prolonged assault on the Renaissance notion of art as a finished artefact – the diligent end-product of a master craftsman. “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned,” said W.H. Auden, in a nod to Paul Valéry. With “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot replaced classicism with an aesthetic of fracture; Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, which collapsed figurative painting, was left deliberately unfinished; Rodin made a fetish of Michelangelo’s incompleteness, which in turn became the defining aesthetic of the 20th century, the messy, sometimes explosive exploration of process supplanting the fruits of that process: a polished, finished product. Ours is the era of the smudge and scuff, rip and blur – the artistic equivalent of pre-distressed jeans.
Can a video game company tame toxic behaviour?
Brendan Maher in Nature:
League of Legends has 67 million players and grossed an estimated US$1.25 billion in revenue last year. But it also has a reputation for toxic in-game behaviour, which its parent company, Riot Games in Los Angeles, California, sees as an obstacle to attracting and retaining players. So the company has hired a team of researchers to study the social — and antisocial — interactions between its users. With so many players, the scientists have been able to gather vast amounts of behavioural data and to conduct experiments on a scale that is rarely achieved in academic settings. Whereas other game companies have similar research teams, Riot's has been remarkably open about its work — with players, with other companies and with a growing collection of academic collaborators who see multiplayer games as a Petri dish for studying human behaviour. "What's most interesting with Riot is not that they're doing it but that they're publicizing it and have an established way of sharing it with academics," says Nick Yee, a social scientist and co-founder of Quantic Foundry, a video-game-industry consulting firm in Sunnyvale, California.
Riot's findings have helped to reveal where the toxic behaviour comes from and how to steer players to be kinder to each other. And some say that the work may translate to digital venues outside the game. "The work they do is extensible to thinking about big questions," says Justin Reich, an education researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, "not just how do we make online games more civil places, but how do we make the Internet a more civil place?"
on Impressionism versus Realism
Michael Fried observes that Realism in the Western painting tradition has long involved “a tacit or implicit illusion of the passage of time, of sheer duration”. Absorbed in their labours, the peasants of Millet and Courbet seem to exclude the viewer. Indifferent to our presence as spectators, oblivious to the existence of the urban world of art whence we come, they go about the rituals of life with slow, unselfconscious determination. Such paintings “compel conviction”, Marnin Young explains in Realism in the Age of Impressionism, because they appear “uncontrived, natural, real”. In the mid-19th century such images articulated a thrilling new verisimilitude, which it was painting’s special mission to reveal.
Young has taken up Fried’s challenge of sustained critical attention to the Realist tradition. However, he explores artists of a later generation than Millet and Courbet. From Jules Bastien-Lepage to the young James Ensor, he is interested in a moment of crisis in the late 1870s and early 1880s when Realism confronted Manet and Impressionism and the powerful new allure of instantaneity. How to maintain slow time and deep absorption in its minutiae as privileged realms of painting? How to resist the compelling illusion, fostered now by a Monet or Renoir, that what we see on canvas has been captured in a moment, can be understood by the spectator just as quickly, and as quickly evanesces?
Young traces the confrontation between the two modes. Bastien-Lepage’s Hay Making of 1877 shows two peasants, one asleep on the ground, the other slack-jawed and suspended in torpor as she sits up in the minutes before they head back to afternoon toil. It is a moment suspended, and in that way like Impressionism, but at the same time elemental.
Terry Southern’s life in letters
Terry Southern collapsed on a bright Wednesday afternoon in 1995 while climbing a staircase on the campus of Columbia University, where he taught screenwriting. His girlfriend, Gail Gerber, was parked across the street and watched him stumble backward and fall, his glasses and backpack scattering around him on the steps. He’d recently suffered a mild stroke and a bout with colon cancer that left his hair white and his vision blurred. He walked with a cane. He was seventy-one years old, though Gerber would later write that he “looked like he was 140.”
Not long before, Southern had been forced to remortgage his farm in East Canaan, Connecticut, where he spent most of his days sleeping, eating meals in bed, and talking to his two orange cats. Gerber taught ballet classes to supplement their income—Southern hadn’t had a script produced since 1988’s The Telephone, starring Whoopi Goldberg (“As dull [as] it is exhausting to watch,” claimed the New York Times). Sometimes students would stop by as a kind of pilgrimage, and he’d sit on the porch with them and drink wine. In his last days, he’d also developed a compulsive hatred of flies and would stalk the house spraying them with Raid. Gerber had resorted to hiding the Raid cans under the sink, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
terry castle meets the hildebeest
Eventually, an organiser bustles into the tent from the big house to give us the lowdown. Her most excellent HRC, we learn, is hobnobbing in the Garden Room with local luminaries and special guests, but will soon begin readying herself for us. When the time comes, we will be asked to form a crocodile leading into said Garden Room, where each of us will be introduced to Herself and have our pictures taken with Her. (O sweetest of moral and political unguents!) After that, we will assemble again in the tent and have the pleasure of hearing our new friend Hilldebeest deliver a rousing speech. In the meantime, we are invited to network with other fine Clinton dudes and babes and enjoy the gourmet canapés!
Alas – given that we’ve skipped our evening meal and now feel distinctly peckish – these delights turn out to be of two kinds only: green frondy things made of kale and quinoa (a strange new Californian food otherwise known as cardboard) and greasy devilled eggs with brownish spots. A cadre of white-jacketed Palo Alto High School students have been delegated to tote these dire nibbles around on trays, which they do, with growing surliness and teenage angst. As night advances and temperatures continue to fall – soon an hour will have gone by – the young people are obviously trying to keep warm by motoring round the tent at high speed and foisting their dainties on us every twenty seconds or so. Should you demur, say, at your 19th devilled egg, they give you a pouty, recriminatory look: we’re doing our bit – why aren’t youdoing yours?
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Jim Harrison, Poet, Novelist and Essayist, Is Dead at 78
Margalit Fox in the New York Times:
Jim Harrison, whose lust for life — and sometimes just plain lust — roared into print in a vast, celebrated body of fiction, poetry and essays that with ardent abandon explored the natural world, the life of the mind and the pleasures of the flesh, died on Saturday at his home in Patagonia, Ariz. He was 78.
The cause was heart failure, his publisher, Grove Atlantic, said on Monday.
A native of Michigan, Mr. Harrison lived most recently during the summers in the wild countryside near Livingston, Mont., where he enthusiastically shot the rattlesnakes that colonized his yard, and during the winters in Patagonia, where he enthusiastically shot all kinds of things.
In both places, far from the self-regarding literary soirees of New York, for which he had little but contempt, and the lucre of Hollywood, where he had done time as a dazzlingly dissolute if not altogether successful screenwriter, he could engage in the essential, monosyllabic pursuits that defined the borders of his life: to walk, drive, hunt, fish, cook, drink, smoke, write.
The result was prodigious: 21 volumes of fiction, including “Legends of the Fall” (1979), a collection of three novellas whose title piece, about a Montana family ravaged by World War I, became a 1994 film starring Brad Pitt; 14 books of poetry; two books of essays; a memoir; and a children’s book.
Eleanor Rigby - Sachal Studios Orchestra
Uber, Ayn Rand and the awesome collapse of Silicon Valley’s dream of destroying your job
Steven Hill in Salon:
The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo recently wrote an oddly lamenting piece about how “the Uber model, it turns out, doesn’t translate.” Manjoo describes how so many of the “Uber-of-X” companies that have sprung up as part of the so-called sharing economy have become just another way to deliver more expensively priced conveniences to those with enough money to pay. Ironically many of these Ayn Rand-inspired startups have been kept alive by subsidies of the venture capital kind which, for various reasons, are starting to dry up. Without that kind of “VC welfare,” these companies are having to raise their prices, and are finding it increasingly difficult to retain enough customers at the higher price point. Consequently, some of these startups are faltering; others are outright failing.
Witness the recent collapse of SpoonRocket, an on-demand pre-made meal delivery service. Like Uber wanting to replace your car, SpoonRocket wanted to get you out of your kitchen by trying to be cheaper and faster than cooking. Its chefs mass-produced its limited menu of meals, and cars equipped with warming cases delivered the goods, aiming for “sub-10 minute delivery of sub-$10 meals.”
But it didn’t work out as planned. And once the VC welfare started backing away, SpoonRocket could not maintain its low price point. The same has been happening with other on-demand services such as the valet-parking app Luxe, which has degraded to the point where Manjoo notes that “prices are rising, service is declining, business models are shifting, and in some cases, companies are closing down.”
Yet the telltale signs of the many problems with this heavily subsidized startup business model have been prevalent for quite some time, for those who wanted to see. In July 2014, media darling TaskRabbit, which had been hailed as a revolutionary for the way it allowed vulnerable workers to auction themselves to the lowest bidders for short-term gigs, underwent a major “pivot.” That’s Silicon Valley-speak for acknowledging that its business model wasn’t working. It was losing too much money, and so it had to shake things up.
TaskRabbit revamped how its platform worked, particularly how jobs are priced. CEO Leah Busque defended the changes as necessary to help TaskRabbit keep up with “explosive demand growth,” but published reports said the company was responding to a decline in the number of completed tasks. Too many of the Rabbits, it turns out, were not happy bunnies – they were underpaid and did a poor job, despite company rhetoric to the contrary. An increasing number of them simply failed to show up for their tasks. As a results, customers also failed to return.
The New Fiction of Solitude
Nick Dames in The Atlantic:
This past september in Des Moines, President Obama conducted an unusual conversation with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. The transcript, published in The New York Review of Books, touched on high-minded topics such as the troubled relationship between Christianity and democracy, the durability of small-town values, and the importance and fragility of public institutions. The discussion was pitched abstractly, never descending into specifics that might inspire significant disagreement. Still, it was an impressive display of two very different minds—the guardedly optimistic leader habitually wary of strident assertions, the writer candidly admitting to darker worries—trying to think through, collaboratively, what it feels like to be an American now.
You might ask, why a novelist? The event had a touchingly antique feel: Think of Hyannis Port in 1960, when the presidential candidate and senator John F. Kennedy charmed Norman Mailer in order to rouse the discouraged liberal elites who were Mailer’s audience; or Manhattan in 1963, when Robert Kennedy asked James Baldwin to convene a private discussion on race that turned out to be an explosive exchange rather than a quiet policy debate. Obama’s motive cannot have been to seduce Robinson with his glamour or to solicit her as the representative of a constituency; novelists no longer command that kind of on-the-ground authority. His choice of a novelist suggests considerations both broader and narrower. Obama addressed Robinson not as a shaper of opinion but as someone with powers linked to her vocation, with a stature he sees as unique to a writer of fiction. He conferred with her as a specialist in empathy.
They Made Him a Moron
Evgeny Morozov offers a masterpiece of an a**-spanking in the form of a review of Alec Ross's The Industries of the Future in The Baffler:
At times, the book reads like an extended college admissions essay, with the student, prompted to reflect on his most memorable experience, desperately trying to relate something very trivial he did last summer to lofty questions of globalization and democracy. Ross reflects, for example, on his time working as a janitor after his freshman year in college, linking it to his experiences as an innovation adviser to the Secretary of State. On another level, The Industries of the Future can be read as an extended effort to prove to the world that Ross does belong in the very center of that bizarre Venn diagram—right at the intersection of technology, foreign policy, and the Democratic Party—that had secured him his original job at the State Department.
Such books are normally written before a person is appointed to a high-level advisory position within the government; they are meant to attest to one’s intellectual credentials and articulate a grand strategic vision of the future, which can then guide the person’s advisory work. Ross, however, got his career backwards: he got his advisory position based on his campaign work for Obama, though he had few academic or intellectual credentials to his name. Then, after he left the State Department in 2013, he pursued the well-trodden path of aspiring pundits-cum-lobbyists: a fellowship at an Ivy League school (Columbia), seats on half a dozen corporate boards (FiscalNote, Kudelski Group, Leeds Equity Partners, Telerivet, AnchorFree, 2U), and now, finally, a book.
Given Ross’s career trajectory—from a supposed “big thinker” without any big thoughts to a power broker between industry and government—this book appears eight years too late. While his publisher blurbs him as a “leading innovation expert” whose book “belongs on the shelf alongside works by Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria” (pretty faint praise, this), The Industries of the Future reads more like a love letter to a few more unexplored corporate boards, preferably in industries that will last longer than Alec Ross’s career as the next Tom Friedman.
Trump’s Tomatoes: The story behind the billionaire’s fast food of choice
According to the Washington Post, guests on Donald Trump’s luxurious personal 757 jet—gold-plated seat-belt buckles!—who get peckish and order a burger are served Wendy’s. It would have to be Wendy’s. No other food chain strives so hard to avoid buying tomatoes from Florida, where they are almost guaranteed to have been picked by immigrants, a policy surely appealing to Trump. Admittedly, the tomatoes in question are quite possibly picked by a worker confined in conditions of near slavery, paid minimal amounts and forced to scavenge for food, but at least he or she is not an immigrant working in this country.
To understand the background to the Wendy’s guarantee, we have to go back to the beginning of the century, when a workers’ rights group in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, pioneered an innovative and effective strategy. Agricultural workers are a traditionally exploited group, excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, the New Deal law enshrining basic workers’ rights such as collective bargaining. Conditions have been especially dire for the men and women, almost entirely immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who picked the Florida fruit and vegetable crops. In 2001, tomato pickers were still being paid the forty cents per thirty-two-pound bucket of tomatoes that they were two decades earlier. (Some received nothing at all. When I visited Immokalee in 2001, the C.I.W. had just uncovered a slave camp nestled between a Ramada Inn and a retirement community in the little town of Lake Placid, the fifth such operation busted by the Coalition in the past six years. Inmates who tried to escape risked beatings or worse.