May 22, 2016

Sunday Diversions: May, Part Two

I had my first overt experience with racism here, in London, just over a week ago. The subtle, systemic racism exists, as it does anywhere else, but I did not anticipate a blatant, direct slur to be thrown at me so quickly, just two months since moving here.

The boy on the sidewalk, surrounded by four of his friends, who uttered the racist slur at me, couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. His racism was probably one that was borne through his upbringing: his claim that no matter how dressed up you are, you’ll never belong here in my city, you light-skinned n***er” was uttered with a vitriol that felt years in the making. It was a not a slight utterance, but one that came with depth; he spit it at me as though he had said it before, and was emboldened by the power of those words every time they came out of his mouth.

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps I will never belong. I have been a minority all my life, but here, in London, my cultural differences are not just visible, but glaring; I stand out in the crowd, no matter how much I may try to blend in. I will, however, not shirk away after his heartless, vitriolic words, but instead forge my own sense of belonging, among people who want me to be here, and who understand that difference and diversity is strength.

I hope, one day, that young boy is able to understand that as well.

Here are some of the pieces that have made me smile, think, cry, or reflect these past few weeks:

So, you don’t think you directly benefit from nonprofits? The work of nonprofit organizations touches upon every facet of our lives. — Vu Le

The challenge is that nonprofit work is often like air: people take it for granted because we do not see it and we don’t take much time to think about it until it is no longer there. You don’t think you’ll lose your job and your home, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that provide employment services, or that build low-income housing, or that run food banks. You don’t think your parents will ever age and feel lonely, so you don’t appreciate the senior centers. You don’t think you’ll end up with a disability, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that work tirelessly to make sure buildings are accessible. You don’t think your kids will ever get bullied, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits working to end bullying. You don’t think you’ll lose a loved one, and so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that do grief counseling. You don’t think you’ll be wrongly convicted of a crime and jailed, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits working to prove people’s innocence.

It is human nature to take things for granted. Nonprofit work is like air, and for-profit stuff seems more like food: You can touch food, and smell it, and taste it. It’s in your face. There are foodies,” but no one ever claims to be an airie.” But guess what, you benefit plenty from air, just as you benefit from the work that we nonprofits do each day, and you may not even realize it. Yes, not all of us are perfect; there are irresponsible nonprofits, just like there are irresponsible for-profits. If you look down on nonprofits, think about what kind of society we would have if we didn’t have nonprofits taking care of the above challenges, and ask yourself if you want you or your kids to live in that world.

Basic income: a solution to which challenge? — Brenton Caffin and Indy Johar

So, what if we started by reframing basic income as citizen equity ? A collective investment by all of us, in you and every citizen.

What if we understood it as a new architecture of sovereignty and freedom? Economic sovereignty was a fundamental cornerstone of participation in democracy of the 19th century. We now have an opportunity to reframe this economic sovereignty and with it democratic participation fit for the 21st century. The impact of this sovereignty can significantly empower massive labour market liquidity. An unlocking of latent potential and innovation which is currently locked up by a lack of opportunity. Democratising the purpose-rich economy where everyone can pursue their vision for a better world, thereby supporting the economy to better align capability and need with value creation.

What if we understood citizen equity as a massive extension of the Californian start-up economic model ? A new model to unleash innovation capacity and with it a new typology of innovation. Beyond innovation for basic subsistence and survival (or ostentatious luxury to publicly prove independence from poverty); instead focusing our innovative capacities beyond the bottom half of Maslow’s pyramid toward a fuller sense of self actualisation and all the benefits that come when citizens are achieving as Maslow put it What a (wo)man can be, (s)he must be.”

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump — neoliberalism has played its part in them all. Why has the left failed to come up with an alternative? — George Monbiot

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

If we’re only going to have journalism jobs in expensive cities, then that means only rich kids get to become journalists. — Adam Ragusea

Ask yourself if you’ve ever texted or messaged someone who was in the next room, rather than walk five steps to talk to them in person. I’ll bet the answer is yes. If communication over the Internet is so easy that you would use it to talk to your spouse or roommate, then it’s certainly easy enough to facilitate seamless collaboration between colleagues across time zones.

And yet, most of the new digital-first news organizations — Gawker and BuzzFeed, or the podcasting start-ups where I might want to work, like Gimlet and Panoply — have headquarters in New York where most of their employees live, work and spend a ridiculous percentage of their salaries on rent.

All of these people work in New York despite the fact that, for the first time in human history, they could theoretically do their jobs from anywhere. Again, why?

Donald Trump and the Authoritarian Temptation: The candidate has exposed the tension between democracy and liberal values—just like the Arab Spring did. — Shadi Hamid

America hasn’t faced a large-scale terrorist attack on the homeland since September 11, 2001. Democratic systems produce self-perpetuating norms, because they are accountable to a voting public. It’s this very responsiveness, though, that can be a source of vulnerability, if enough citizens, in the grip of fear, decide to prioritize security” over liberty. As the legal scholar Christopher Kutz writes in the suggestively titled article How Norms Die,” democracy can be at the same time both fertile and toxic: fertile as a source of humanitarian values and institutions, but toxic to the very institutions it cultivates.”

This is something we can measure. As Daniel Bush observed, after analyzing Pew survey data from 2002 to 2014: During each campaign season, respondents reported having a higher negative impression of Muslim Americans than in non-election years.” This is a bit more mild than the link between elections and religious riots in India. As the historian of religions Michael Cook notes, There is no doubt that Hindu nationalist politicians believe that communal riots can get out the Hindu vote for them. … Under the right conditions the communal riot is a winning [electoral] strategy.”

Plato isn’t that great, he was just born first: In the canon of Western philosophy, those regarded as the greatest” philosophers tend to live far in the past. — Gregory Lewis

Even though Plato may not have been as naturally” able as the best philosophers today, and labored under several disadvantages for developing his philosophical ability, being born in the distant past gave him several advantages for his posthumous reputation. First is low-hanging fruit. In fields like science and mathematics, one may suggest it is easier to make earlier breakthroughs versus subsequent ones: with a high school education I can solve some basic problems in Newtonian mechanics—I can’t do any basic” problems in general relativity without many more years of study, and I may not be clever enough even then. Whether philosophy makes progress” in a similar way is controversial, but insofar as it does, being born early—with more (and relatively easier) great breakthroughs” yet to be made—is an advantage.

Fancy Starbucks Drinks and the Special Snowflakes Who Order Them: Food customization is more than a craze in America—it’s a reflection of identity. — Julie Beck

American culture is also notoriously individualist. We tend to define our personal identities as separate from our communities, which sociological research contrasts with the collectivism seen in other cultures, such as in East Asia or Kenya, where people tend to think of the groups they belong to as equal to or more important than their personal characteristics.

This craze of mass customization,” Egan says, makes people feel both unique and catered to when they are able to have it their way. It’s a desire within our hyper industrialized food system to have something that feels like it meets my personal taste profile. We have access to customized and personalized food experiences at the restaurant level, at the fast casual level, and at the packaged food level and it has only increased.” People can personalize their order at Starbucks or wherever else, and they can also purchase whatever weirdly precise flavor of chips they prefer. (For example, Barbecue, Honey Barbecue, Sweet Southern Heat Barbecue, Hot n’ Spicy Barbecue, and Mesquite Barbecue are all available from Lay’s.) Some fast-food chains have secret menus” which offer both more options and a supercharged opportunity to signal how special you are for knowing about them.

In the soon-to-open extension of London’s Tate Modern, a majority of the ten new levels won’t contain art at all. — Tom Rachman

Those who advocate a more traditional, contemplative museum sound outmoded, élitist, and narrow-minded—precisely the attitude that museums are running from. In Britain, the matter bumps into class consciousness, because many museums were founded in part to elevate the citizenry, regardless of station in life (that is, very mindfully indeed, with the particular goal of raising the lower orders). A museum leader like the Tate organization’s chief, Sir Nicholas Serota, would be condemned were he not punctilious about creating spaces where all are ostentatiously welcomed, encouraged to hang out, act up, chillax. The critic Hal Foster, the author of The Art-Architecture Complex,” among other works, has raised concerns about the ongoing museum boom. For one, all this giddiness about stylish new buildings can overshadow the art inside. The logic seems to be to build a container and then leave it to artists to deal with it, but the result on the art side is likely to be a default form of installation work,” he writes, in a piece published last year in the London Review of Books. Foster also cites a tendency to patronize audiences. Another reason for this embrace of performance events is that they are thought to activate the viewer, who is thereby assumed, wrongly, to be passive to begin with,” he writes. Museums today can’t seem to leave us alone; they prompt and prod us as many of us do our children.”

What Donald Trump Actually Wants: It’s not to make America great. — Jill Filipovic

Trump wants to draw crowds and get applause. He does not actually want to manage a vast democratic and bureaucratic government with multiple branches that serve as checks on each other. That requires doing boring stuff like constructing complex, intelligent policy. That requires recognizing that even executive power has its limits.

Trump wants to be seen as a leader without doing the work of leading and serving. Which is why it doesn’t matter to him that the crowds he draws come from, and whip into a frenzy, some of the foulest people in the United States. He just wants the whoops and the cheers. He wants to win again — not to make America great, but to make Donald Trump feel great.

They can break up the monotony of the grid, provide the backdrop for social protest and change, spook you and mystify you—hard to define, city squares are indispensable. — Catie Marron

A city square is a physical pause in the urban landscape. It’s a deliberate gap that interrupts the mass and clamor of buildings and streets, breaking up the flow of daily business and creating a space where people can come together, by design or happenstance. City squares are planned absences—they’re defined, first of all, by what they’re not. A city park already has a definition (grass, trees, paths) that tells you how it’s to be used: for leisure, for recreation, as a withdrawal from the city, with the illusion of being in nature and often alone. Squares, unlike parks, don’t take you out of the city. As an extension of urban life, neither natural nor solitary, they’re of the city as well as in it, but with a function that alters through history. Because of their very emptiness, they are full of possibility.

Their essential feature is open space, and their essential function is sociability. Where much in the modern city is private and inaccessible, squares are for the public. People gravitate to them in order to yak, kibitz, palaver, gossip, argue, show off, watch, eavesdrop, play, protest, hustle, con, love, fight. In the case of Italian piazze, French places, and Spanish plazas, the restaurants, cafés, and shops that line the perimeters encourage the ease of human encounters.

The Lobster understands the haunting misery of modern dating. — Chandler Levack

Love, in the world of The Lobster, is when two people with corresponding unique characteristics find each other. And the mechanics of the process are not so different from the multitude of algorithms and clickable interests that dating apps employ to pair us all off. It’s about proving your lovability on a mainstage. Winning The Lobster means meeting a mate with a corresponding trait and graduating to a shared hotel room for a further trial period of compatibility (i.e. terrible sex from behind). Being in a couple means that you may return to society again, unencumbered of your loneliness. When you are no longer single, you are free.

How often do we twist and punish each other just to make ourselves more like the other person in a relationship? What is the price we pay just so we don’t have to be alone? I have so much empathy for animals. My favourite images in The Lobster are when a character waits in isolation in the forest as a majestic peacock, camel or flamingo passes by. Flat light and wide compositions lend these scenes an air of complete banality. It gives me comfort to think that all the birds in the sky and all the fish in the sea might be the souls of people who sucked at Tinder. Swipe left, swipe right. Turn me into a platypus already.

How Typography Can Save Your Life: What words look like matters — in some cases, a whole lot. — Lena Groeger

U.S. road signs have been set in a typeface called Highway Gothic since the 1950’s, and it was the dominant typeface in use until the early 2000’s. But it had problems. Whether people noticed it or not, it was hard to read in rainy weather, from a distance, and at night. When light hit the words, they appeared to blend together in a glowing, blurry mess, something known as halation. This may be annoying to an average person, but if you’re an elderly person driving at 70 miles an hour with bad vision, it can be deadly. So highway engineers struggled to find a solution. They thought maybe making the letters 20 percent bigger would solve it, but bigger letters would require bigger signs and end up costing billions of dollars. So they turned to two designers: an environmental graphic designer and a type designer. Those designers created Clearview, a new typeface that was designed to take up the same space as Highway Gothic but be much easier to read.

Against the Crowdfunding Economy: Crowdfunding websites marketize goodwill. — Keith A. Spencer

Perhaps it’s fitting then that Patreon describes its affiliates as creators” making content,” rather than artists” making art.”

Art and content are not the same. Content is produced with a specific, marketable goal in mind. Patreon turns artists into content-makers whose creativity is moderated by their patrons. Patrons with more money have more clout, and the ability to withhold funding shapes what creators make.

In this sense, Patreon reproduces key elements of the old patronage model, in which the power to commission and influence artists rests in the hands of those who can pay.