April 10, 2016

Sunday Diversions: April, Part One

I have been unemployed for a week now, which is the longest stretch of unemployment I’ve had in a long time. There’s a certain freedom that comes from unemployment—including the freedom to spend time catching up on Better Call Saul and reading my never-ending Instapaper queue—but for the most part, this past week has been revelatory. I have learned that I am good at giving myself tasks and jobs even when they are not assigned to me, and I have learned that I still find myself drawn to topics and issues that I worked on in my professional life, even though they are no longer part of the work that I need to do.

I’ll be spending some more time exploring this headspace in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some good, mostly-quick, things to read next week, the list below is a good place to start.

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

The Future of Language: Considering the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for translation, emoji, and pop culture — Elisa Gabbert:

My reticence, my infelicity with emoji, could of course be a fluency issue. The Japanese, I don’t doubt, are capable of subtle emoji nuance. But I came to emoji late and don’t expect to achieve fluency. What I want when I write — even in email, even on Twitter — is clarity. Language maps less sloppily to ideas than emoji map to language, but complex ideas are still difficult to explicate, even in one’s native tongue.” If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” is one of those apocryphal Internet quotes often attributed to Einstein. He probably didn’t say it, but the physicist Richard Feynman reportedly said, after being asked to prepare a freshman lecture on why spin-1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics, I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” This has a whiff of Sapir-Whorf to it, suggesting thoughts that don’t convert readily into language aren’t thoughts at all, but something illusory that crumbles at the touch, like dreams you never retell or write down.

You have to assign your ideas to language (or equations, or musical notation) if you want to convey them to others, but it does more than make them communicable—it seems to reify the ideas, as though we’re translating them back to ourselves, turning raw data into something we can read. This happens automatically with other systems; we have no conscious awareness of our brains converting the eyes’ input into an approximate world model. In comparison, thought-into-language processing can feel exquisitely slow.

Instead of either/or, I discovered a whole world of and.” — Mehnaz Thawer

Life is full of compromises that feel like net losses. This has more to do with our perception of the compromise than the actual situation. Humans are fragile and susceptible to psychological biases like confirmatory bias. If we sense loss, we find information to confirm that sense of loss.

So what can we do when we are faced with a choice that leaves us feeling a net loss? Well, there is always turning the idea on its head and looking at the compromise as a gain. So you yelled out a dish that you didn’t really want at the restaurant. There’s always dessert (and you already made that decision before you left home). A net loss in one area is sometimes a net gain in another. It is an opportunity to exercise some creativity and stretch open the idea of a stringent set of rules.

Women Do What They Need To Do To Survive: Our preconceived notions about sexual assault have far-reaching, dangerous consequences — Jade Blair

When the inalienable right that your body is your own is not respected, it’s isolating and terrible, to an absurd degree. There’s something dark and baroque about being unmoored from your physicality, from having part of your selfhood denied. And there are a few things you’re not supposed to say or feel in the aftermath of sexual violence. You aren’t supposed to be confused, for one. You aren’t supposed to be okay” after, you aren’t supposed to be okay with sex again, or want to go out. The complicated number of shoulds and musts, should-nots and don’ts, in regards to sexual assault may match up with or butt up against lived experience. For example, one should not shower. An instinctive response for so many makes it next to impossible to file a rape kit. A rape kit is, despite multiple-year backlogs, one of the few concrete pieces of evidence that make a rape trial winnable.

There are further ephemeral shoulds about the psychological effect a crime of sexual violence is supposed to have on a woman. As a victim, you should be plaintive and serious, perfect, sad and strong. But your memories are often not the graspable sort to immediately inspire a firm position. We assume the truth comes all at once, with perfect clarity, but experts maintain that trauma buffers long term memory processing. The recollections are not hard and concrete, but flowing like water—the details progress like waves, and are in turn muddy, or intensely clear.

Laugher doesn’t scale — Paul Ford

It’s not that people don’t get the jokes you make; they don’t even get that there is a joke at all. To them you are not funny, and never will be. They are the ones who are perfect for the medium, because they will repeat the same nostrums over and over, while funny people just drift away. (This is the market gap that Slack fills. It is a product that lets less funny people feel hilarious, successfully marrying enterprise groupware to local improv groups.)

This factor is rarely considered by product people, or by anyone, but it’s real. Humor is an amazing means of reaching a large audience, jokes are naturally viral—but there is a powerful immune system that kicks in with any successful joke. The Internet is the world’s greatest joke killer—and yet everyone thinks they are funny.

I’ve investigated Hillary and know she likes a zone of privacy’ around her. This lack of transparency, rather than any actual corruption, is her greatest flaw — Jill Abramson

I can see why so many voters believe Clinton is hiding something because her instinct is to withhold. As first lady, she refused to turn over Whitewater documents that might have tamped down the controversy. Instead, by not disclosing information, she fueled speculation that she was hiding grave wrongdoing. In his book about his time working in the Clinton White House, All Too Human, ABCs George Stephanopoulos wrote that failing to convince the first lady to turn over the records of the Arkansas land deal to the Washington Post was his biggest regret.

Clinton distrusts the press more than any politician I have covered. In her view, journalists breach the perimeter and echo scurrilous claims about her circulated by unreliable rightwing foes. I attended a private gathering in South Carolina a month after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Only a few reporters were invited and we sat together at a luncheon where Hillary Clinton spoke. She glared down at us, launching into a diatribe about how the press had invaded the Clintons’ private life. The distrust continues.

An act that rarely involves blowing and only occasional labor, blow job” sounds like something created by a thirsty Marxist, a guy as alienated from his own pleasure as he is from his work — Chelsea G. Summers

Words, slang included, ring with psychic resonance, and job” is not a value neutral term. Most of us do our jobs with reluctance. Sure, there’s a payoff, and there’s satisfaction in a job well done, but if we’re honest with ourselves, our jobs tend not to bring us as much joy as we’d hope. We are all thirsty Marxists, somewhat alienated from our labor and definitely wanting more. And this is the issue with the whole family of job” sex slang. As much as violent terminology shapes our thinking and the ways in which we talk about fucking, so too do capitalist terms. It says something about our relationship to sex when we think of sex in terms of labor.

We can’t simply relegate blow job” to the commercial heap. An interrogation of slang reveals our values, our identities, and our worldviews—and blow job” is revelatory. Whether gay, straight, or something somewhere in between, we love blow job” (and we’re pretty fond of finger job, lube job, and knob job), so what gives? What does it say about us that no matter who we are, when it comes to sex slang, we’re never off the company clock? Are we at such a remove from our own pleasure that we need to use work as a linguistic crutch? Or has productivity become such a preoccupation that even fucking needs a gloss of efficiency?

The Fear And Guilt Of Being A Muslim After A Terror Attack — Sarah Hagi

For years, Muslims have been lumped together with the minority extremist groups who sully our beliefs for their own political gain. We’ve suffered for it, we’ve been interrogated about it, we’ve been hurt or killed because someone assumed all Muslims are alike. So we’re choosing to be seen as a community on our terms, using our own voices. Islam teaches us to see other Muslims as an ummah, a community bound together as brothers and sisters in Islam. In 2016, we have the tools to allow the ummah to connect, organize, and commiserate together in a way Muslims were never able to in 2001. Muslims are joined together. On Twitter, we can make our ignored stories of assault go viral—almost forcing people to listen and open their eyes. I’ve seen it happen when Muslims have been denied services, watching their stories then reach major news outlets.

I’m sure that, for some bigots, seeing Muslims who are proud, love each other, and openly reject blame only infuriates them more. I’m sure other, moderately biased people wish we would wait to talk about Islamophobia until the terrorists have been dealt with. But why should we? The backlash didn’t wait.

Allen Iverson’s Crossover Appeal: The player has been enshrined in basketball’s hall of fame. But what does his legacy really mean? — Vann R. Newkirk II

Basketball was black––but not too black. Jordan’s brand was propelled by hip-hop, but he kept a distance from it himself and maintained a studied sense of apathy toward most cultural issues. The NBA, then as now, steered clear of big social concerns and crises. Party rap was all fun and good, but as more and more musical ground was ceded to hardcore tales of life in the American wastelands, mirroring the country’s obsession with incarceration and violence, the cracks began to show.

Iverson’s generation of artists and athletes represented the first group of black people who had been raised entirely on the phenomenon of hip-hop in all its diverse forms, and their emergence on the scene made those cracks chasms. His contemporaries—Shaq, Kobe, Chris Webber, Ron Artest—all represented some aspect of this new paradigm, but Iverson, with his durags, tattoos, baggy clothes, jewelry, braids, and crossovers, embodied it in a form that couldn’t be denied. It was impossible to pay attention to Iverson and ignore the deep history of poverty and inequality that animated his every step. His flashy superhero alter ego of AI was glitzy gold over sandpaper, a facade of panache and pride laid over a foundation of pain. Iverson was the avatar of the tough gristle of black America that the NBA machine couldn’t digest.

The History of the Burpee: The six-count bodyweight movement we know as the burpee didn’t start out of grueling as it is today — Sally Tamarkin

Although the original burpee was far less punishing than the move we know today, it was nevertheless considered especially taxing, so much so that the military adopted it in 1942 as part of its fitness test for men enlisting in the armed services during World War II. As part of the overall test, soldiers were required to perform squat thrusts” (as Burpee’s burpee was known at the time) for 20 seconds straight. By 1946, however, the military required burpees for one full minute — performing 41 reps in that time was considered excellent, while fewer than 27 was considered poor.

But Burpee never intended his movement to be performed in such high volumes. In fact, Dluginski says that her grandfather rewrote the foreword to the 1946 edition of his book to explain that he believed that the military’s modification to his fitness test is strenuous and suitable only for those already in good cardiovascular health. According to Dluginski, her grandfather didn’t like how burpees came to be used — he believed that high reps of the movement could be bad for knees or dangerous to the back, especially for anyone who lacked core strength.

The Japanese author’s guide to tidying up” promises joy in a minimalist life. For many, though, particularly the children of refugees and other immigrants, it may not be so simple — Arielle Bernstein

Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.  

It’s particularly ironic that the KonMari method has taken hold now, during a major refugee crisis, when the news constantly shows scenes of people fleeing their homes and everything they have. A Vice article, All the Stuff Syrian Refugees Leave Behind During Their Journey to Europe” shows discarded things ranging from trash to toys to ticket stubs. Each items looks lonely and lost: like evidence of a life left behind. For a project titled The Most Important Thing,” the photographer Brian Sokol asks refugees to show him the most important thing they kept from the place they left behind. The items they proffer range from the necessary (crutches), to the practical (a sewing machine), to the deeply sentimental (photographs of someone deeply loved, treasured instruments, family pets).

Against this backdrop, Kondo’s advice to live in the moment and discard the things you don’t need seems to ignore some important truths about what it means to be human. It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones. That we can only guess at the things we’ll need in the future and that we don’t always know how deeply we love something until it’s gone.

The web isn’t neutral after all, and the lives we live online are as real as any other. It’s up to us to build a web that takes a stance on how we should treat each other. — Eric Meyer

Some say that the medium in which these things happened is like a road, neutral to its uses—but roads are not neutral spaces, and neither is the internet.

While a ribbon of asphalt is neutral to its uses, we are not neutral to the uses of that asphalt. We decide where the road should go, which includes deciding who will have access to that road and who will not. We determine speed limits, caution areas, rules of the road. We don’t let people drive on whatever side of the road they feel like, or endanger pedestrians and other drivers. We establish laws and enforcement mechanisms. We even require licensing of the people who drive, to try to make sure that they understand at least a bare minimum of the rules before we allow them to use the road.

This is not an argument that we should license internet use. It’s pointing out that roads are not nearly as neutral as we all too often pretend. We set much lower speed limits around schools; we paint lines to indicate where passing is permitted and where it is not; we hire police officers and judges to penalize those who disregard the rules. Nothing about a road is neutral except for the raw material itself.

Detroit didn’t fail. It was sabotaged”: on the decades’ long collapse of America’s industrial colossus — Eli Day

To state the obvious once more: policy authored the maps that organised communities in a way that left them ripe for plunder during the housing boom, when as many as 75 per cent of mortgages originating in Detroit were subprime. In those same communities, widespread social misery is treated by the mutilating barbs of American criminal justice policy, banishing scores of men and women from what remains of the city’s democracy.

And in November 2013, Detroit became the largest city in the nation’s history to file for municipal bankruptcy — a bankruptcy, as the think-tank Demos has thoroughly documented, based on a falsified record of history.