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Links: November 2018

Hello, dear reader!

November is gone, but its links remain.

I published a couple of nerdy blog posts in November: one about how I’m using my Letterboxd data to address my cinematic blindspots, and one about a common convention of editorial design that’s currently incompatible with CSS Grid.

Lots of interesting stuff in the links this month; for what it’s worth, my favorites are Earworm’s series of videos about jazz.

As usual, you can get many of these links in real time by following me on Twitter. See you in 2019!

The Problem With Being Perfect

I did a lot of wincing while reading this.

Goodbye to FilmStruck

So to see FilmStruck’s death sentence come so quickly is utterly heartbreaking. It also seems terribly shortsighted. The service’s operational cost can’t possibly represent anything more than a rounding error to its corporate parents, especially given how it serves as a beacon not just for quality, but also as a commitment to cultural history. I would’ve thought that you can’t put a price on that kind of cachet, but apparently I was wrong.

What the FilmStruck team did was truly special: a destination that you could point your browser, phone or tablet to that was truly wonderful and legitimately enriching. Its impending demise makes for a terrible comment on the current state of our culture.

Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight

If Bannon were to be called as he is, a fascist, the marketplace of ideas would have to confront the fact that the American government is being rapidly radicalized, that things unimaginable might be around the corner, and that there are many tempting paths to full collaboration. The idea that we’re all in this together and that we must keep talking is dangerous, just as my commitment to friendship was, because we might find ourselves wasting time and anger on a fundamentally unbalanced dialogue, where one side is armed with ideas, and the other is armed with weapons.

Why Trump Is the Favorite in 2020

As a candidate, he perfected the art of making outrageous and often false statements and then quickly changing the focus by replacing them with new, outrageous, and often false statements. This means that no story ever got full scrutiny, but that Trump was constantly the center of attention. According to one media-tracking firm, Trump captured the equivalent of $5 billion in advertising in the 2016 election. There’s no indication the mainstream press has solved the problem of how to cover Trump without playing into this ploy. If anything, it’s harder than ever to avoid taking his bait now, because he’s the president of the United States.

The Democratic primary will likely be expensive and bruising. While there are many potential candidates, all have major possible flaws: too old (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren), too young (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris), too boring (Kirsten Gillibrand, Eric Garcetti), too exciting (Michael Avenatti), too liberal (Sanders, Warren), too moderate (Joe Biden), and so on.

How American Racism Influenced Hitler

“Thinking about the end of Weimar democracy in this way—as the result of a large protest movement colliding with complex patterns of elite self-interest, in a culture increasingly prone to aggressive mythmaking and irrationality—strips away the exotic and foreign look of swastika banners and goose-stepping Stormtroopers. Suddenly, the whole thing looks close and familiar.”

The Nazis were not wrong to cite American precedents. Enslavement of African-Americans was written into the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to “eliminate” or “extirpate” Native Americans. In 1856, an Oregonian settler wrote, “Extermination, however unchristianlike it may appear, seems to be the only resort left for the protection of life and property.” General Philip Sheridan spoke of “annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction.” To be sure, others promoted more peaceful—albeit still repressive—policies. The historian Edward B. Westermann, in “Hitler’s Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars” (Oklahoma), concludes that, because federal policy never officially mandated the “physical annihilation of the Native populations on racial grounds or characteristics,” this was not a genocide on the order of the Shoah. The fact remains that between 1500 and 1900 the Native population of U.S. territories dropped from many millions to around two hundred thousand.

“Race Law in the United States,” a 1936 study by the German lawyer Heinrich Krieger, attempts to sort out inconsistencies in the legal status of nonwhite Americans. Krieger concludes that the entire apparatus is hopelessly opaque, concealing racist aims behind contorted justifications. Why not simply say what one means? This was a major difference between American and German racism.

When Hitler praised American restrictions on naturalization, he had in mind the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed national quotas and barred most Asian people altogether. For Nazi observers, this was evidence that America was evolving in the right direction, despite its specious rhetoric about equality. The Immigration Act, too, played a facilitating role in the Holocaust, because the quotas prevented thousands of Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, from reaching America.

Brian Crim’s “Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State” (Johns Hopkins) reviews the shady history of Wernher von Braun and his colleagues from the V-2 program. When Braun was captured, in 1945, he realized that the Soviets would become the next archenemy of the American military-industrial complex, and cannily promoted the idea of a high-tech weapons program to ward off the Bolshevik menace. He was able to reconstitute most of his operation Stateside, minus the slave labor. Records were airbrushed; de-Nazification procedures were bypassed (they were considered “demoralizing”); immigration was expedited. J. Edgar Hoover became concerned that Jewish obstructionists in the State Department were asking too many questions about the scientists’ backgrounds. Senator Styles Bridges proposed that the State Department needed a “first-class cyanide fumigating job.”

These chilling points of contact are little more than footnotes to the history of Nazism. But they tell us rather more about modern America. Like a colored dye coursing through the bloodstream, they expose vulnerabilities in the national consciousness. The spread of white-supremacist propaganda on the Internet is the latest chapter.

Are I Peep?

A “real” or living art being one more closely attuned to the urgency of what it feels compelled to say than it is invested in its own status as an art object. Art like this may, and often enough will, arrive at beauty or greatness, but the forms it takes are shaped by the inner pressures of what its creator must communicate or risk incoherence. It thinks of itself primarily not as art but as speech.

Observing all this racial and gender osmosis, I can’t help reflecting—with pride as an American, with pleasure as a human being—on one of the delicious ironies of American pop music, one that has obtained for more than a century now, which is: If you’re good, you get to trespass. Q-Tip put it best in “Award Tour” 25 years ago: “You can be a black man and lose all your soul / You can be white and groove, but don’t crap the roll…” Don’t half-step, in other words, and thereby dishonor the tradition.

Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?

Amazon also insisted on nondisclosure agreements from the 238 cities bidding for HQ2. Scandalously, American cities and states now spend some $90 billion a year in cash and tax incentives to attract companies, money that could go for infrastructure, schools and police, and that usually doesn’t pay off, as Derek Thompson pointed out this week in The Atlantic. Amazon’s nondisclosure clause set up a process that allowed it, in effect, to crowdsource vast swaths of information about cities while preventing their citizens from knowing what their elected officials were doing to entice the $860 billion company.

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

These Americans Are Done With Politics

Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard University, said the influence of the Exhausted Majority might play out in 2020 in another way: Fatigue with the noise of politics is so deep, he said, that it might strengthen the chances of candidates offering to be less nakedly partisan.

“For the last two years it’s been impossible to go to a bar on a Monday night and not have to talk about politics,” he said. “Most Americans are sick of that. I think you can win in 2020 by promising that if you become president, people can go back to talking about football.”

Joseph Lee Art

Gorgeous, abstract impasto portraits by Joseph Lee.

A Visual History of Computing 1945–1979

Awesome photographs of Cold-War-era tech as art objects.

A 46-Foot-Tall Minotaur Roams the Streets of Toulouse, France in La Machine’s Latest Urban Opera

Like it says on the tin.

Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer

JetBlue distinguished itself by providing decent, fee-free service for everyone, an approach that seemed to be working: passengers liked the airline, and it made a consistent profit. Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.”

for the past decade it is fees that have been the fastest-growing source of income for the main airlines, having increased by twelve hundred per cent since 2007.

Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

Ultimately, the fee models and the distinctions they draw make class inequality, which may be felt less in other places, painfully obvious. The conditions of carriage may lack the importance of other, more pressing social issues. But when an airline like JetBlue is punished for merely trying to treat all of its passengers decently, something isn’t right.

For 4,000 Years, Termites Have Been Building Something Incredible in Brazil

The local termites create extensive subterranean labyrinths of tunnels, and they eject whatever soil they don’t need on the surface. The process is slow and gradual, but the termites have been at it for millennia. They’re more like a geological force than an organism. Just as rivers or glaciers sculpt the landscape around them, so too have these tiny insects sculpted some 90,000 square miles of Brazil into a junkyard that’s visible from space.

Why Exorcisms Are On the Rise in America

Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.

The Church has been training new exorcists in Chicago, Rome, and Manila. Thomas told me that in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists. Today, he said, there are well over 100.

Nearly every Catholic exorcist I spoke with cited a history of abuse—in particular, sexual abuse—as a major doorway for demons. Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors. According to these priests, sexual abuse is so traumatic that it creates a kind of “soul wound,” as Thomas put it, that makes a person more vulnerable to demons.

The exorcists—to be clear—aren’t saying sexual abuse torments people to such an extent that they come to believe they’re possessed; the exorcists contend that abuse fosters the conditions for actual demonic possession to take hold. But from a secular standpoint, the link to sexual abuse helps explain why someone might become convinced that he or she is being menaced by something sinister and overpowering.

Vox’s Earworm: Jazz

A great pair of videos explaining the significance of a few bits of jazz history:

  • The most feared song in jazz, explained: How music theory’s circle of fifths works, and how John Coltraine’s virtuosic use of it made “Giant Steps” an improvisational rite of passage for jazz musicians.
  • The greatest album covers of jazz: Behind the sights and sounds of Blue Note records, from the production of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder to the photography of Francis Wolff to the design of Reid Miles (one of my all-time design heroes).

The Mystery Font That Took Over New York

Great read from Rumsey Taylor investigating the prevalence of Choc, a French typeface from the 1950s, on NYC storefronts.

Warp and Weft

Is it the overwhelming presence of an individual’s personality then, that marks something out as being more of the web? And if that’s true, might it follow that only sites entirely crafted by an individual can be considered a valid contribution?

Such notions of craftsmanship can soon lead us down a dangerous path, raising questions around elitism and discrimination. These are accusations you could level towards the IndieWeb. For all its promise of giving people the tools to regain ownership of their online identity and content, to do so fully and effectively requires a proficiency for coding and familiarity with an endless barrage of acronyms. Encouraging participants to selfdogfood only exacerbates the near-impenetrability and narrowness of this movement.

That WordPress powers over 30% of web speaks to a desire for people to publish online, but it also suggests a failure of the medium that doing so requires the services of intermediaries who, powered by network effects, soon find themselves consolidating power and influence.

Is the rapid manufacture of humdrum products at low cost what the industry now aspires to? Of course it is – that’s capitalism!

I think for the web to maintain its material strength, its cultural weave needs to include a healthy mix of the random, the bizarre and the novel alongside its more sterile and streamlined ventures. And sometimes I worry this is getting harder to achieve without empowering the middlemen who are undermining the fabric of the web in the first place.

Why every social media site is a dumpster fire

Punishing individual bad actors doesn’t change the incentives that brought them to the platform in the first place.