Sunday Diversions: April, Part Two
I shared some anecdotes about Prince and his impact on my life a few days ago, but here’s another one that just came to me:
We now live in London, a medium-sized town in southwestern Ontario, just a two-hour drive from Toronto. One of the first times I ever visited London, however, was five years ago, with my brother. We came for a Prince concert.
I had attended the concert a week earlier in Toronto, but had managed to get tickets for the London show as well, so my brother and I borrowed my parents’ car, drove down the 401, had dinner at Garlic’s, and then went to the show. He played three encores; the show was almost five hours long. We drove back that night happy, exhausted, exhilarated.
Now, I live here, in London. That concert, five years ago, was a great introduction to my future home.
Here are some of the (non-Prince-related) pieces of writing that have made me smile, think, cry, or reflect these past two weeks:
Global money is boosting Vancouver’s prices, and local dollars can’t compete. Most troubling is that many homeowners are now selling directly to buyers in China, listing their homes in real-estate exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai. Vancouver realtors are helping them and making a fortune. Average-earning buyers are being entirely cut out of the purchasing loop. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Ottawa-based agency that tracks housing data, is so concerned that it has reportedly accelerated its collection of figures on foreign investment, especially in Vancouver. For years, Tsur Somerville, director of the University of British Columbia Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate (which one writer dubbed the “academic wing” of Vancouver’s real-estate industry) blamed xenophobia for concerns about offshore investing. But in February, he abruptly acknowledged that real-estate prices were inflated by “a massive change in the official currency reserves in China”—more specifically, wealthy individuals and companies moving money out of China and into Vancouver.
Vancouver isn’t an isolated example. With China’s economy slowing, the wealthy have increasingly looked elsewhere to park their cash safely. They’ve focused on gateway cities in North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom, including New York, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Sydney, and London. An unprecedented $1 trillion (US) flooded out of China last year. In 2014, $16.6 billion was invested in Canada, largely in Toronto and Vancouver. But buyers are now branching out into smaller cities as well, where they can find better deals. In BC’s north, for example, Chinese enterprises have invested heavily in resource land around proposed mines and pulp mills. Foreign investment has caused house prices to spike above the $1 million mark throughout Burnaby, Richmond, Port Moody, Coquitlam, South Surrey, Tsawwassen, Vancouver Island, and other areas in the region.
Consumer protection and anti-vice run along in the same vein: It is all paternalism, and in particular, paternal regulation of the poor.
And when it comes to anti-vice in particular, the poor suffer the most—they are held to a higher moral standard than others, and are policed and punished for straying from it. Welfare recipients must undergo invasive and time-consuming drug testing. Women (often women of color) walking in areas “known for prostitution” are hassled or even arrested for simply carrying condoms in their purse.
A cashless society promises a world of limitation, control, and surveillance—all of which the poorest Americans already have in abundance, of course. For the most vulnerable, the cashless society offers nothing substantively new, it only extends the reach of the existing paternal bureaucratic state.
Try describing a few of the most wildly successful pop albums of the twentieth century without mentioning the artist and title. A concept rock album about a fictional Edwardian military band, featuring musical styles borrowed from Indian classical music, vaudeville, and musique concrète, its sleeve design including images of Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe, Carl Gustav Jung, Sir Robert Peel, Marlene Dietrich, and Aleister Crowley? That’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, one of the biggest selling records of all time. How about a record exploring the perception of time, mental illness, and alterity? Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which has to date sold around 45 million copies worldwide. Ask any of those 45 million who bought a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon if they thought themselves pretentious for listening to an album described by one of the band members as “an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy,” and the answer would almost certainly be no. Queuing for the bag check at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I once overheard a young man complain bitterly to his girlfriend, “I hate modern art. I hate all that Picasso two eyes on the same side of a blue face shit.” “What do you like then?” asked the girlfriend. “I like putting on my headphones, turning out the lights, and listening to Pink Floyd.” Popularity ratifies cultural authenticity; if it’s popular, it surely can’t be pretentious.
Pop music has never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious. It has joyfully complicated the terms of pretension, which is built into pop’s DNA, even when it shouts loudest about its authenticity.
Total Noise and Complete Saturation — Christine Gosnay
A question that comes up in almost every interview with a writer goes like this: “What do you listen to when you’re writing?” Some writers reveal that they listen to music. They tell us their favorite bands and songs so we can steal some inspiration. These writers are cool—maybe even too cool. I picture big money, big headphones, and small packs of cigarettes on their desks. Some say they can’t listen to anything until they’re deep in the revision process; these writers seem reasonable enough, I guess, and might also be modest, responsible drinkers. The author who is said to require complete silence comes across as saintly and chaste. This writer must have a clean desk, drink tea, and make money very slowly.
What that question actually means is “how do you avoid the distraction of noise so that you can hear your own thoughts?” Writing about how noise disrupts thought has been going on for a very long time. In the 1850s, Schopenhauer published an essay “On Noise” in his larger collection Studies in Pessimism. In it, he wrote about the torment he suffered at the sudden and the static sounds of the city, where he moved in order to be close to the vital stimuli that would provoke his writing. Like the rest of us, philosophers cannot reliably predict the outcome of their choices. All they can do is examine them until everyone involved is exhausted. “Hammering, the barking of dogs, and the crying of children are horrible to hear; but your only genuine assassin of thought is the crack of a whip; it exists for the purpose of destroying every pleasant moment of quiet thought that any one may now and then enjoy.” Yes, you can be sure that Schopenhauer did not like whips at all.
It’s disorienting and frightening to realize how hard you can come to love something without thinking for too long about its existence in the first place. Here is one way to fall in love with an idea.
First, feel a twinge in your abdomen and left breast while watching a terrible horror movie, and despite having never felt the need to, pull out a pregnancy test because you’re horrified by a new and distinct awareness of what’s happening in your own skin. When the test comes up positive, cry on a couch for an hour until your husband comes home, and take the four more tests that he afterwards picks up at your request just to be sure. Go to a doctor for yet another test. Start taking vitamins.
Call your mother, who immediately starts crocheting cottony, white receiving blankets and makes plans to retire early. Freak out about the interminable graduate degree you’ve been working on. Scour the city for prenatal yoga classes that don’t cost you the firstborn you’re taking the classes for in the first place. Sign up for email newsletters that mark the growth of your baby in food metaphors, despite having despised the cartoonification of prescribed women’s narratives all your life.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 39. They rank in the top five killers for Americans 65 and under (behind cancer, heart disease, accidental poisoning, and suicide). And the direct economic costs alone—the medical bills and emergency-response costs reflected in taxes and insurance payments—represent a tax of $784 on every man, woman, and child living in the U.S.
The numbers are so huge they are not easily grasped, and so are perhaps best understood by a simple comparison: If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. Seriously: Annual U.S. highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. When all of the injuries from car wrecks are also taken into account, one year of American driving is more dangerous than all those wars put together. The car is the star.
Golden State and the Mathematical Magic of Seventy-Three — Charles Bethea
So what does Professor Ono think of seventy-three? “I really like the number seventy-three,” he said. “It is the sixth ‘emirp.’” An emirp, he explained, is a prime number that remains prime when its digits are reversed. (Emirp, of course, is “prime” spelled backward.) “Seventy-three and thirty-seven are both prime, so both are emirps.” In an episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” the character Sheldon Lee Cooper says that this is one of several properties that make seventy-three “the best number.” As for the other properties: “It is the twenty-first prime number. Its mirror, thirty-seven, is the twelfth. And its mirror, twenty-one, is the product of multiplying—hang onto your hats—seven and three.” He goes on to add, “In binary, seventy-three is a palindrome: 1001001.” Seventy-three is also, it turns out, a star number (meaning it can be plotted on a centered hexagram, or Chinese checkers board), the largest minimal primitive root in the first hundred thousand primes (you can find an explanation for that one elsewhere online, if you must), and the smallest number with twelve letters in its name when it’s spelled out. To mathematicians, like Ono, it is more interesting than the average integer. Seventy-three is also the number of books in the Catholic Bible and the titular number of one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, about old age, which concludes: “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong / To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Perhaps more important to the young people of today, it is the atomic number of tantalum, a rare chemical element used in mobile phones that was named after Tantalus, an antihero in Greek mythology, who suffered hunger and thirst for eternity.
The conventional wisdom among podcasters like Blumberg is that, in 2016, listeners want audio programming that makes them feel as though they’re getting to know a person or a topic intimately, whether through the familiar banter of beloved panelists or through lovingly produced works of storytelling. Whereas the parents of the elusive Lara turned to NPR because they wanted someone trustworthy to tell them the news, younger generations seem to find satisfaction in the velvety bedroom voice of 99% Invisible host Roman Mars as he murmurs about furniture and the self-consciousness of Serial’s Sarah Koenig, who makes the method of her reporting part of her story.
NPR News reporters usually can’t get that personal, in part because, as Gimlet’s Adam Davidson puts it, they are in the impossible position of having to simultaneously “appeal to 80-year-olds in Alabama and 20-year-olds in Brooklyn.”
Obama was a mainstream Democratic politician. He was accustomed to this kind of coalition-building. For most of his congressional career, Sanders has been a gadfly—an ideologue pressing his colleagues from the left, with a base in one of the least diverse states in the union. The same qualities that make him exciting to so many Americans—his passion, his bluntness, his uncompromising views—make him ill-suited for the transactional politicking that you need to pull off a coup against an establishment figure like Hillary Clinton. And the absence of rigid racial politics in Vermont meant he didn’t have to learn those politics, at least not to the same degree as other left-leaning politicians.
Also, check out this stunning, striking photography from Sebastião Salgado: “Twenty-five years ago, as the United States-led coalition started driving out Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s troops responded by setting ablaze hundreds of oil wells, creating one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory.”
Oh, and one more thing: this “Histomap,” created by John B. Sparks, was first printed by Rand McNally in 1931 and claims to be a visual depiction of the entirety of human history.