Joshua Rothman: Ted Chiang’s Soulful Science Fiction (New Yorker)
In the course of our conversations, he and I discussed various theories about his writing—about what, in general, his project might be. At lunch, he proffered one theory—that his stories were an attempt to resist “the identification of materialism with nihilism.”
Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination to reproduce, but, because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree.
There are more than seven hundred species of fig, and each one has its own species of wasp. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing wasp mummies, too.
Our pre-human ancestors probably filled up on figs, too. The plants are what is known as a keystone species: yank them from the jungle and the whole ecosystem would collapse. Figs’ popularity means they can play a central role in bringing deforested land back to life. The plants grow quickly in inhospitable places and, thanks to the endurance of the fig wasps, can survive at low densities.
Maria Bustillos: Less Human Than Human: The Design Philosophy of Steve Jobs (Popula)
Steve Jobs was, in short, too much a plutocrat and too little an artist or craftsman to produce an ultimately satisfying appropriation of the warmer, more humane minimalism of the mid-20th century, which had been rooted in a vision of a more egalitarian and fairer world. To what degree do “good design,” or “taste,” depend on human values?
Noah Yoo: How Artist Imposters and Fake Songs Sneak Onto Streaming Services (Pitchfork)
Ultimately, the problem at hand is greater than the risk of lost royalties. The prevalence of leaks on established streaming services has a significant impact on an artist’s sense of ownership over their life’s work. The lines become blurred as to whether something actually “exists” in an artist’s canon if they never gave permission for it to be released. So while diehards might feel a thrill, circumventing the system and listening to unreleased songs by their favorite musicians, the leaks ultimately hurt those same artists.
Akilah Johnson: Medicare-for-All Is Not Medicare, and Not Really for All. So What Does It Actually Mean? (ProPublica)
Some candidates use Medicare-for-all to establish themselves as bold progressives or moderate pragmatists. The Trump administration uses it as a point of attack. But voters don’t know what it actually means, and none of the candidates explain it.
Making national health insurance a reality would mean redesigning the country’s health care payment infrastructure. It would involve going from a diffuse network that includes private insurers for those who can afford it and public services for a limited number of those who can’t into a single government-administered system. The role of insurance companies would be vastly reduced. By one estimate, as many 2 million people who are paid to process insurance claims or argue about them would lose their jobs.
Would people get to keep their doctors? Unclear. Would prescription drug costs decrease? Uncertain. Would wait times increase? Unknown. Copays? No, depending on the plan. Increase in taxes? Almost certainly, but again, it depends.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Lost Cause Rides Again — Don't Give HBO's 'Confederate' the Benefit of the Doubt. (The Atlantic)
HBO’s Confederate takes as its premise an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day: What if the Confederacy wasn’t wholly defeated?
For over a century, Hollywood has churned out well-executed, slickly produced epics which advanced the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. These are true “alternative histories,” built on “alternative facts,” assembled to depict the Confederacy as a wonderland of virtuous damsels and gallant knights, instead of the sprawling kleptocratic police state it actually was. From last century’s The Birth of a Nation to this century’s Gods and Generals, Hollywood has likely done more than any other American institution to obstruct a truthful apprehension of the Civil War, and thus modern America’s very origins.
Luke O'Brien: The Nazi-Puncher's Dilemma (Huffington Post)
Inside the antifa movement's struggle to continue its long, colorful legacy of cracking white supremacist heads without alienating, well, just about everyone.
A report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that from 1990 to 2012, far-right extremists were responsible for 670 fatalities, 3,053 injuries and 4,420 violent attacks in the United States. No such data exist for antifa, but in the three decades of antifa’s organized existence in America, only one known fatality caused by a member of an antifa group has been recorded, when in 1993 a multiracial skin shot a Nazi skin during a fight at a gas station in Portland and was convicted of manslaughter.
Maia Szalavitz: There’s Been a Secret Safe Injection Site in the US for Three Years (Vice)
Why do sites that apparently condone drug injection actually encourage recovery? The paradox dissolves if you understand the real drivers of unsafe drug use and addiction: stigma, criminalization, mental illness, despair, and trauma. When people with addiction are provided with a safe, caring, and nonjudgmental atmosphere, they can slow down and engage in practices that allow safer injection, they have better access to clean equipment, and basically, time to think.
Siobhan Leddy: We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin (The Outline)
Her novels imagine other worlds, but her theory of fiction can help us better live in this one.
Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history. But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another.
As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account. The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?
We will not “beat” climate change, nor is “nature” our adversary. If the planet could be considered a container for all life, in which everything — plants, animals, humans — are all held together, then to attempt domination becomes a self-defeating act. By letting ourselves “become part of the killer story,” writes Le Guin, “we may get finished along with it.” All of which is to say: we have to abandon the old story.
We are still learning how to tell stories about climate change. It is fundamentally a more-than-human problem, one that simultaneously affects all communities of people, animals, plants — albeit asymmetrically. The kind of story we need right now is unheroic, incorporating social movements, political imagination and nonhuman actors. In this story, time doesn’t progress in an easily digestible straight line, with a beginning, middle and end. Instead there are many timelines, each darting around, bringing actions of the past and future into the present. It collapses nature as a category, recognizing that we’re already a part of it. In a climate change story, nobody will win, but if we learn to tell it differently more of us can survive.
Shuja Haider: Nancy Pelosi Is In Denial: Socialism Is Where It's At In 2018 (Buzzfeed)
It's hard for Red Scare language to stick when socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing popular policies like universal health care.
The liberal center has emphasized an opposition between racial and economic justice, succinctly expressed by Hillary Clinton: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” For Ocasio-Cortez, this is a “false choice.” As she told Vogue, she sees socialism as a means of addressing all kinds of inequality. “Even if you wanted to separate those two things, you can’t separate the two, they are intrinsically and inextricably tied,” she said. “There is no other force, there is no other party, there is no other real ideology out there right now that is asserting the minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.”
A medical study says that only 5 percent of Ambien users are fortunate enough to experience what it calls “zolpidem-induced somnambulism and amnesic sleep-related behavioral problems.” Given the proliferation of anecdotal evidence about Ambien’s psychotropic effects, that number is surprisingly small. It’s still unclear what yields results showing such a strange experience for a minority and no experience for everyone else. Do you have to be a neurotic to enjoy Ambien? Or are most people just too desperate to get to sleep to see what happens next? I have no idea, and neither, I think, does medical science.
Dan Nosowitz: CBD, the super-popular cannabis compound, explained (Vox)
A $3 squirt of CBD oil on your ice cream or coffee? Probably right around 10 mg. You’d need 30 times that amount to get to the levels at which researchers have found stress-relieving results.
it wouldn’t be fair to say that 5 or even 20 mg of CBD oil in your coffee is proven to do nothing; that hasn’t been proven. It’s more accurate to say that 20 mg of CBD oil in your coffee has never been proven to do much of anything, and related research indicates that’s probably way too low of a dose to have any measurable effect.
One study found that placebos sometimes work even when the subject knows it’s a placebo. Another, using that same public speaking setup that CBD studies have used, found that anxiety treatments are particularly susceptible to the placebo effect, with 40 percent of placebo-treated patients showing a decrease in anxiety symptoms while tasked with speaking to a crowd.
So is it possible that despite all this anecdotal evidence, low-dose CBD is a placebo? Sure, because, say it with me: We don’t know anything about CBD.
There are big companies and small companies, companies that provide elaborate chemical charts and companies that have no online presence at all. There are companies that run their goods — either as raw materials or as consumer-stage final products — through lab tests. There are those that say they do but provide no information on what the labs found or which labs tested their products.
Everyone wants a piece of CBD, and nobody is watching. Remember: There’s no regulation by the FDA or anyone else.
In 2016, the FDA tested several “CBD oils,” ultimately issuing warnings to eight companies. Some of those oils were found to contain no or barely any CBD, and many contained illegal quantities of THC.
CBD, though wildly understudied, is not bullshit. In fact, the FDA just approved its very first cannabis-derived drug, a CBD-based epilepsy treatment called Epidiolex. The dosage for Epidiolex starts at around 2.5 mg/kg and is increased to 5 mg/kg, so a 150-pound adult would settle onto a dose of just over 340 mg per day, though the diseases it targets start in childhood.
Even some of the claims made by recreational CBD sellers aren’t bullshit, in the abstract. CBD really does show some anti-inflammatory properties. It really does have anxiolytic effects, in certain situations. Of course, it’s the scammy nature of herbal supplements that a seller can say something like “CBD has been indicated to reduce anxiety” (a true statement!), even though the actual product you’ve got in your hand has never been indicated to do so. Nutmeg, for example, will act as a dangerous psychoactive drug at high levels, but it would be deranged to put “scientific research has shown that nutmeg can get you high as hell” on a pumpkin spice latte. It’s correct, but it’s also incredibly misleading.
We don’t know how CBD affects the brain in any kind of depth. We don’t know which doses and delivery methods are best for different outcomes. We don’t know how CBD interacts with most other drugs or foods. We don’t know the differences between the effects of isolates and full-spectrum preparations. We don’t even know how many cannabinoids there are. California, for what it’s worth, seems aware and concerned about this whole thing.
But a lack of data does not hinder capitalism; it is, rather, a huge help. When nobody knows anything, you can say — or imply — anything. More importantly, you can sell everything.
Zachary Siegel: Hating Big Pharma Is Good, But Supply-Side Epidemic Theory Is Killing People (Longreads)
New books about the opioid crisis — “Dopesick,” “Fight for Space” and “American Fix” — have different ideas about who’s to blame and what to do next. Our critic says regulating supply can have deadly consequences, and we need to address users' pain.
Purdue Pharma did not invent addiction in America. Especially true in Appalachia, where families have generations of substance use. Meth and alcohol have long had a grip on rural America. Opioids are merely the newest iteration in the pursuit of oblivion, a more effective reliever of emotional and physical pain. As reprehensible as it is, Purdue exploited, profited, and even targeted this vulnerability. To be sure, growing up in a financially stable and supportive family didn’t immunize me from addiction. It’s not just poor people in despair who get addicted. Opioids muted the harsh voice in my head, a relentless critic attacking me from within, that told me I was undeserving of love. I quickly learned that I could synthesize and manufacture warmth and connection by self-administering opioids.
This company is no doubt both culpable and rotten. But the effect of their patent maneuver (that activists advocated for!) meant that the reformulation forced those of us addicted to OxyContin to start using much more dangerous heroin, which has lately been spiked with super potent, illicit fentanyl — often referred to as the third wave of the opioid crisis. The mass exodus of users from black market pharmaceuticals to black market heroin was documented in a 2017 study by the RAND Corporation and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance, which connected the reformulation to thousands of heroin overdoses. The researchers conclude that supply-side efforts are not achieving their intended effects, chief among them: reducing overdose deaths.
Unfocused anger at Big Pharma also winds up harming a different vulnerable group, one that’s typically an afterthought in stories about opioids: chronic pain patients. In the name of “battling the epidemic,” patients who need opioids are being abandoned by their doctors. With Jeff Sessions and the DEA breathing down their necks, they’re afraid of prescribing any narcotic. In response to the opioid crisis, the prescribing pendulum has rapidly swung. Doctors who treat pain are receiving threatening letters to prescribe fewer opioids, patient outcomes be damned. As a result, some of these patients are killing themselves, which has caught the interest of investigators at the Human Rights Watch, who are documenting patient abandonment in the new, restrictive climate. A sweeping package of opioid legislation recently passed by the Senate will also be studying whether opioid prescribing limits have led to patient suicide.
America’s cold, hyper individualistic culture of “personal responsibility” might be slowly melting. Sympathy for addiction (partially thanks to American society’s greater credulousness when it comes to white, rural victimhood) is growing. Drug users and recovery activists are finally being seen in this country, and their needs are being heard. Cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Seattle are close to opening supervised injection facilities. Family physicians practicing rural medicine are obtaining waivers to prescribe buprenorphine, and doctors are convincing their field to treat addiction like any other chronic illness they see everyday. Cops are saying, “we cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic,” and activists like Hampton are holding them to their word. America’s drug crisis hasn’t reached its peak. But the activists, families, and the people supporting them, who are fighting for space, are just getting warmed up. Policy and political will lag far behind knowledge. Do 72,000 more people have to die before it catches up?
Martin Lukacs: Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals (The Guardian)
Stop obsessing with how personally green you live – and start collectively taking on corporate power.
While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant. The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%. You tinker with those pens or that panel; they go on torching the planet.
The freedom of these corporations to pollute – and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response – is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action. Devastatingly successful, it is not too late to reverse it.
Of course we need people to consume less and innovate low-carbon alternatives – build sustainable farms, invent battery storages, spread zero-waste methods. But individual choices will most count when the economic system can provide viable, environmental options for everyone—not just an affluent or intrepid few.
If affordable mass transit isn’t available, people will commute with cars. If local organic food is too expensive, they won’t opt out of fossil fuel-intensive super-market chains. If cheap mass produced goods flow endlessly, they will buy and buy and buy. This is the con-job of neoliberalism: to persuade us to address climate change through our pocket-books, rather than through power and politics.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Why Don't Black People Protest 'Black-on-Black Violence'? (The Atlantic)
I came up in the era of Self-Destruction. I wrote a book largely about violence in black communities. The majority of my public experiences today are about addressing violence in black communities. I can not tell you how scared black parents are for their kids, and whatever modest success of my book experienced, most of it hinged on the great worry that black mothers feel for their sons.
There is a kind of sincere black person who really would like to see even more outrage about violence in black communities. I don't think outrage will do it at this point, but I respect the sincere feeling.
And then there are pundits who write more than they read, and talk more than they listen, and prefer an easy creationism to a Google search.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye (Popula)
There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity. But for black artists who rise to the heights of Jackson and West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions. Kurt Cobain’s death was a great tragedy for his legions of fans. Tupac’s was a tragedy for an entire people. When brilliant black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone. The story of West “drugged out,” as he put it, reduced by the media glare to liposuction, is not merely about how he feels about his body. It was that drugged-out West who appeared in that gaudy lobby, dead-eyed and blonde-haired, and by his very presence endorsed the agenda of Donald Trump.
There is no separating the laughter from the groans, the drum from the slave ships, the tearing away of clothes, the being borne away, from the cunning need to hide all that made you human. And this is why the gift of black music, of black art, is unlike any other in America, because it is not simply a matter of singular talent, or even of tradition, or lineage, but of something more grand and monstrous. When Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes, they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America. The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it. Michael Jackson did not invent the moonwalk. When West raps, “And I basically know now, we get racially profiled / Cuffed up and hosed down, pimped up and ho’d down,” the we is instructive.
West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.
Maria Bustillos: Amazon’s Endangered Species: World Culture (Popula)
It might not sound like much, but text-string searches represent the lowest impediment to the free flow of information. To be able to search a whole giant corpus at will for the needle of your desire in the Brobdingnagian cultural haystack means that your personal interests needn’t take a back seat to corporate imperatives of any kind. Full, absolute text searches should be the goal for all searchable databases.
American business practice in our time consists not only in offering an attractive product, but also in throwing as many spanners as possible into the works of your competitors. The goal is not to become one among many, but to crush all alternatives. This may explain why, in the first dot-com boom that began in the mid-1990s and ended in April of 2001, so much money went to the acquisition and eventual strangling of so many promising mom-and-pop online startups. These businesses must not be allowed to grow, or they must be acquired, in order that markets might be captured by those who’d attracted the most power in the form of capital—not through any particular excellence of product, or of management. With the results that you see all around you.
In the opinion of this former bookseller, Amazon represents a threat to the commons; a threat to libraries; a threat to independent publishing; a threat to an informed, intelligent public.
Vivian Host: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Vogue and Ballroom (Red Bull Music Academy Daily)
Technically, ballroom refers to all the music played at vogue balls, from house and disco classics like MFSB’s “Love is the Message,” Todd Terry’s “Bango,” and Ellis Dee’s “Dub Break” to hard house staples like Junior Vasquez “X” and Kevin Aviance’s 1995 anthem “Cunty” [whose incendiary title happens to be the highest form of praise in the ballroom scene]. It’s a mix of these – plus the influences of hip hop, R&B, deep house, and the more aggressive sounds of Baltimore and Jersey club – that have spawned the first wave of dedicated “ballroom” producers: names like Vjuan Allure, Angel X, MikeQ, Divoli S’vere, Kevin JZ Prodigy, B.Ames, and DJ Chip Chop. And like almost every true underground dance scene, proper releases are almost non-existent, with the producers mostly releasing tracks via homemade CDs or file-share links.
James Somers: The Coming Software Apocalypse (The Atlantic)
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
“The problem is that software engineers don’t understand the problem they’re trying to solve, and don’t care to,” says Leveson, the MIT software-safety expert. The reason is that they’re too wrapped up in getting their code to work. “Software engineers like to provide all kinds of tools and stuff for coding errors,” she says, referring to IDEs. “The serious problems that have happened with software have to do with requirements, not coding errors.” When you’re writing code that controls a car’s throttle, for instance, what’s important is the rules about when and how and by how much to open it. But these systems have become so complicated that hardly anyone can keep them straight in their head. “There’s 100 million lines of code in cars now,” Leveson says. “You just cannot anticipate all these things.”
Programmers were like chess players trying to play with a blindfold on—so much of their mental energy is spent just trying to picture where the pieces are that there’s hardly any left over to think about the game itself.
“Human intuition is poor at estimating the true probability of supposedly ‘extremely rare’ combinations of events in systems operating at a scale of millions of requests per second,” he wrote in a paper. “That human fallibility means that some of the more subtle, dangerous bugs turn out to be errors in design; the code faithfully implements the intended design, but the design fails to correctly handle a particular ‘rare’ scenario.”
Lakin Starling: Key Tracks: ‘The Ha Dance’ (Red Bull Music Academy Daily)
A look at the curious history of the quintessential vogueing hit.
These musical renderings speak to the innovative spirit of ballroom culture, and while the “Ha” came from a movie with offensive commentary – similar to Eddie Murphy's vulgar jokes in his famous 1980s stand-up sets like Delirious – MikeQ feels that it’s important not to center that aspect of its origins. “I want to say that the film had nothing to do with its [“The Ha Dance”] entering ballroom. The credit goes to Masters At Work for simply making a hot dance beat – for years you didn’t know that’s where it came from,” he says. The moral clash is ironic, but the evolution of the “Ha” and its longevity is symbolic of the importance of personal agency in the scene. Ballroom’s palette is enriched by the community’s authority over elements like space, identity, bodies and sound. DJ Byrell believes it’s in range for a track with a story like “The Ha Dance” to go off at the balls. “It’s not ironic to me that something with a problematic start would be turned into something good. Ballroom itself is built on problematic experiences and trying to escape them, mainly racism,” he says.
That sea change in the track’s current significance echoes the genius of marginalized generations and black and brown people who’ve built cultural empires despite oppression or lack of sanctuaries and resources. “It shows that we work with what we are given and create gold from that. Like ‘The Ha Dance,’ much of ballroom is borrowed ideas that are turned into our own,” Byrell continues.
John Timmer: Tracking online hate groups reveals why they’re resilient to bans (Ars Technica)
Given the behavior seen here and in the previous study of ISIS groups, the authors built a model of the formation of connections among hate groups. They used this to try out a few different policies in order to see how they might reduce the robust networks formed online. The result is a series of suggestions for any platform that decides to get serious about tackling hate groups that use its service.
To begin with, they argue that the first thing to do is focus on banning the small clusters of hate group members that form. This is easier, since there are far more of them, and it's these individual clusters that help provide the resiliency that dilutes the impact of large-scale bans. In association with this, the platform should randomly ban some of the members of these groups. This both undercuts the hate groups' resiliency, and, because the total number of bans is relatively small and randomly distributed, it reduces the chance of any backlash.
Their last suggestion is that platforms encourage groups that are actively opposing the hate groups. Part of the reason that people form these insular groups is because their opinions aren't welcome in the wider society; groups on social networks allow them to express unpopular opinions without fear of opposition or sanction. By raising the number and prominence of groups opposed to them, a platform can reduce the comfort level of those prone to white supremacy and other forms of hatred.
Sarah Jeong: No, Facebook Is Not Secretly Listening to You (NYT)
(Except when it is.)
Being upfront about the humans who operate behind a curtain of artificial intelligence would mean looking less ingenious, less innovative, less omniscient. But users deserve to be in the know and able to make informed decisions about what devices to allow in their homes and on their persons
Musical trends produced in the streaming era are inherently connected to attention, whether it’s hard-and-fast attention-grabbing hooks, pop drops and chorus-loops engineered for the pleasure centers of our brains, or music that strategically requires no attention at all—the background music, the emotional wallpaper, the chill-pop-sad-vibe playlist fodder. These sounds and strategies all have streambait tricks embedded within them, whether they aim to wedge bits of a song into our skulls or just angle toward the inoffensive and mood-specific-enough to prevent users from clicking away. All of this caters to an economy of clicks and completions, where the most precious commodity is polarized human attention—either amped up or zoned out—and where success is determined, almost in advance, by data.