The notes here are short updates that will also be cross-posted to Twitter.
17 October 2019
This excerpt from 24⁄6 by Tiffany Shlain makes the case for setting aside a day to go tech free: ditching phones and laptops and screens for the day. It’s come along just at the right time for me, as I’m generally shrinking away from tech outside of my work life more and more.
I like the way the article describes what you might need a tech-free day: a basic watch, a pen, and a little notebook containing some emergency phone numbers. Slightly idealistically it argues that the day then becomes about the basics: seeing friends, hanging out and chatting, playing games, cooking meals.
I’m going to try it this weekend, my phone left at home in a drawer. I’ll see how it goes.
1 October 2019
I read the Penguin Classics translation of Wasps by Aristophanes the other day. It’s a satirical play about how an older generation of Athenians who fought in the Peloponnesian War were taken in by a pandering demagogue called Cleon. To grasp what’s happening and get the jokes, you have to know a little bit about the context of Athenian politics at the time and how the jury system worked. But all of that is explained in a very quick note at the beginning of the edition.
The point of this note though is that it’s funny, really funny! It’s broad humour, some of it aimed as sly political aside, some of it just laughing at a slapstick servant in the mould of Blackadder’s Baldrick, at the foolishness of the old jurors. There’s a real revival of the classics being democratised in things like Mythos by Stephen Fry and reimagined in things like Circe by Madeline Miller. There was a lot of buzz around Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, for its readability and relevance. I think there’s a place for a lot of these modern translations of Greek comedies to enter more popular circulation too. I would have loved this in school.
5 August 2019
Eugenics & Statistics
There were lots of interesting and terrible things in Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini but here’s something that stood out. Eugenics was a widely respected field of study around the time of the turn of the 20th century, well before the rash of state-sponsored genocide programs we now associate with Nazis etc. University College London established a Eugenics Record Office, that aimed to study races of man and conct the best ways to hone the (presumably white) superior race to perfection. Of the many people who were both active in the field then, and still respected now: Karl Pearson, inventor of the field of statistics but also the first Professor of National Eugenics at the UCL unit.
5 August 2019
The Académie Française
I was vaguely aware that the French language is basically policed by the Académie Française, but I’d never seen this statistic that really shows how small the base French vocabulary is. Aptly enough I saw it in this article about the French propensity to say… no.
there are 500,000 words in the English language, but only 70,000 in French
— The Culture Map by Erin Meyer via BBC
31 July 2019
Jacob Rees-Mogg Profile
James Meek (author of Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else) did a great profile of new Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mog. It sums up the argument incredibly well that the stuffy all-English persona he affects in Parliament is at odds with his source of income in a transnational investment firm. Meek goes deep on the problematic network of offshore financial instruments used to shroud Mogg’s investment firm in secrecy, which makes sense given his work on Private Island.
In 2007, a few years before Jacob Rees-Mogg became, as the Labour MP Jack Dromey put it, ‘the honourable member for Downton Abbey’, his alter ego Jacob Rees-Mogg set up Somerset Capital Management with two friends.
Meek goes beyond that oft-bandied about analysis, though. He argues that these “two Jacobs” are two sides of the same coin. They’re two aspects of a type that has appeared everywhere in the Faragist era of British politics: the vocal patriot (nationalist) that benefits from the free movement of hoarded capital across the world.
On the face of it, this kind of full-throated neoliberalism is the perfect expression of that original Thatcherite flaw: you can speak as patriotically as you like, but if your patriotism involves throttling your country’s hospitals with spending cuts and standing idly by while better educated, lower paid, worse-treated workforces overseas trash your farmers and lay domestic industry to waste, people are bound to ask: ‘Remind me how this is patriotic again?’
31 July 2019
Madame Tussaud's Tall Tale
I started reading Little by Edward Carey without knowing what it was about. Soon it emerged that it’s a fictionalisation of the life of Madame Tussaud based on her memoirs. It is typical of a revolutionary French narrative in that it involves a exploited child orphan, the beautiful disarray of Paris at the time, and finally: no shortage of chance encounters with significant historical figures that begin to stretch the reader’s credulity.
I haven’t finished the book yet but the young orphan has already had personal interactions with:
- Jean-Jaques Rousseau
- Louis XVI
- Élisabeth of France
I’m sure that Madame Tussaud had a fascinating life that brushed up against the roiling world events of the time, but we have to suppose much of her memoir was embellished quite incredibly. Perhaps the artisan who taught her wax-working was at the Bastille, but perhaps she did not sit on the roofs of Versailles with the disguised King of France.
I’ll probably just enjoy the ride for now, and get to the bottom of it afterwards.
24 July 2019
The Sinking of the USS Fitzgerald
For some reason I feel really compelled by accounts of the crash involving the USS Fitzgerald that killed sseven crew members. It’s a really interesting case of how the build up of lots of little decisions, shortcuts, putting crew under pressure, can lead to something dreadful.
I first heard about it in detail from this amazing This American Life segment by Stephanie Foo. More recently though, ProPublica published this incredibly detailed and moving account of the incident. I love things that dig into awful events so meticulously. Another example is The Death of A President by William Manchester, Secret Service agent posted on the occasion of the assassination of JFK.
24 July 2019
William Carlos Williams on love and cruelty
I’ve been reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson and there’s tons of great extracts and references. One that caught me in particular was this excerpt from The Ivy Crown by William Carlos Williams, which (I think) disputes the rosy typical notions about love but reaffirms it as a wilder, more brutal thing:
The business of love is
by our wills,
we transform to live together.
It’s a nice disputation of the oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
Love is patient, love is kind… blah blah
22 July 2019
Bob Fosse, Joseph, and Rihanna
I was watching Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) the other day. It’s the height of camp, and I was trying to work out what the elements were and what they reminded me of. Then it came to the introductory Potiphar number and it clicked.
The Rich Man’s Frug is a dance number that appears in Sweet Charity (1969), a musical comedy directed by the choreographer Bob Fosse. It typifies Bob Fosse’s style: absurdist elements, people-as-stage, and intense camp. It had to have inspired that Potiphar number, right?
There’s one more place it popped up recently: in Rihanna, DJ Khaled, and Bryson Tiller’s great performance of Wild Thoughts at the Grammys in 2018. Same bizarre movements, elegant and camp dress, same dept of staging and silhouetting.