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Posts Tagged ‘Silicon Valley’

TV Is Better Without People, and Other News

July 28, 2016 | by

A still from How It’s Made.

  • James Alan McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has died at seventy-two. An obituary in the New York Times quotes his memoir, Going Up to Atlanta, in which he writes about reading comics at the library in Savannah, Georgia: “At first the words, without pictures, were a mystery … But then, suddenly, they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other peoples’ lives. After a while, I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while, I no longer believed in the world in which I lived.”
  • If we watch TV mainly as an exercise in escapism, then a show devoid of people—or even trace elements of the anthropomorphic—would offer the greatest escape of all. We’re in luck, because there’s How It’s Made, a half-hour paean to manufacturing that is, as Alexandra Kleeman writes, closer to full-on post-human than anything on television: “The show begins to take on a post-­apocalyptic flavor. Its images of manufacturing, you realize, are oddly depopulated … Humans are so scarce, in fact, in this world of throbbing, gleaming machines that when part of one comes into view, the first reaction is not recognition but confusion. ‘What is that pink thing?’ you might ask yourself, before realizing that it is a hand. Against the swift exactitude and raw power of machinery, the human anatomy—with its soft, squishy shapes and nerve-riddled interior—looks vulnerable at best.”
  • And why not surrender to the conveyer belts? There is much to escape from in this world, especially as an enclave of elite technocrats begin to rebuild it from the ground up, finding ever more novel ways of infantilizing us in their quest to monetize. “I have been obsessed with figuring out why I hate the Seamless ads in the New York City subway,” Jesse Barron writes. “ ‘Welcome to New York,’ one reads. ‘The role of your mom will be played by us’ … We’re in the middle of a decade of post-dignity design, whose dogma is cuteness. One explanation would be geopolitical: when the perception of instability is elevated, we seek the safety of naptime aesthetics … We cannot find food on our own, or choose a restaurant, or settle a tiny debt. Where that dependency feels unseemly in the context of independent adult life, it feels appropriate if the user’s position remains childlike, and the childlikeness makes sense when you consider that Yelp depends on us to write reviews, and therefore must, like a fun mom, make chores feel fun, too.”
  • Maybe you’d been hoping that literature could offer some solace from all this. Should you attempt to write in your effort to flee from despair, proceed with extreme caution: there is only more suffering ahead. Robert Fay writes, “One occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called ‘writer’s life,’ where writing is both an act of self-abnegation—with all of its consequent anxieties—as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism … The daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories—precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget—serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety.”
  • Might as well bookend this one with obituaries. The cartoonist Jack Davis—known for the defining style he brought MAD Magazine, where he was one of “the Usual Gang of Idiots”—has died at ninety-one. “Davis’s final cover for the magazine came in 1995—a picture of magazine-mascot Neuman plunging radio-presenter Howard Stern in a toilet bowl, which the spokesman said ‘remains a MAD classic.’ ”

Finally, a Phone Book on CDs, and Other News

June 8, 2016 | by

Photo: Museum of Intellectual Property

  • As the Soviet Union fades into the rearview mirror, it’s becoming harder to find reliable, intimate accounts of life in the USSR. A new graphic novel is trying to change that: “The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. ‘Word by word I listen to the account of an existence that has become an undigested mass,’ he writes, at the beginning of one section. ‘It pushes its way out from the gut. The following is a faithful transcription of that story’ … These phrases sum up everything that is good and everything that is not so good about The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule … The translation, sadly, is often tone-deaf and downright sloppy—the peculiarly unappetizing language in this passage is just one example. But the stories he has collected are indeed an undigested mass, often a mess, and this is a good thing.”

The Year in Odd Book Titles, and Other News

February 29, 2016 | by

  • Another year, another volume of My Struggle, another news cycle rich in Knausgaard. Here he reflects on the shame of writing about himself: “Building a fiction room requires either great strength or great ignorance … To me all writing is blind and intuitive, either it works or it doesn’t, and the explanation as to how a novel turns out the way it does is always a rationalization after the event. What works always wins over in the end, seemingly of its own accord. So when, after ten years of trying, I sat down one day and wrote a few pages about something that happened to me, something I felt so ashamed about I had never mentioned it to a living soul, and did so using my own name, I had no idea why I went there, nor did I to begin with connect it in any way to the novel I wanted to write, it was just something I did.”
  • Voting is open for the Oddest Book Title of the Year. This is direct democracy in action, people. Will it be Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus? Or perhaps Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers? Or the dark horse, Paper Folding with Children? Get out there to the polls and make a difference.
  • Today in role models: Remember when Mark Zuckerberg started his “book club” and it seemed as if the very act of reading was doomed to serve as part of the Silicon Valley lifestyle-guru agenda? Well. It was. And it gets even worse, Matt Haber reports: “Mr. Zuckerberg’s efforts have made him the object of fascination and emulation among a subset of millennials in and around the tech industry … ‘I run three experiments each year inspired by Zuckerberg,’ said Dave Fontenot, 22, a San Francisco resident who used to be an agent for engineers, but who said he is currently ‘focusing on myself.’ This year, Mr. Fontenot aims to improve his posture, meditate and spend more time alone. He also trained himself to send thank-you notes, either handwritten or as voice recordings via text, inspired by Mr. Zuckerberg. ‘For a period of time, I wasn’t thanking people at all, but then, for one of the most powerful person in the world to do it, I was like, Wow,’ Mr. Fontenot said.”
  • Today in Pearl Jam: Eddie Vedder’s unlikeliest contribution to the culture has been an enduring image of the archetypal school shooter: Remember the music video for “Jeremy,” in which a teenager raises a gun at the front of a classroom? The song was about teen suicide, but because MTV censored the original video, it’s become part of “the cultural script of school shooters.” Daniel Wenger writes: “I asked the director, Mark Pellington, who went on to direct many other videos and films, about this misreading of his work. He said that people were responding to a ‘Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox,’ as the story was translated from life to song to screen … Eddie Vedder identified ‘Jeremy’ as part of a lineage of ‘teenage death songs.’ The music biographer Graeme Thomson has written that the genre marks ‘the first time in modern musical culture youth equates with introspection and unhappiness.’ One of the early anthems was ‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,’ recorded by the Cheers, in 1955.”
  • And today in reminders that George Plimpton was a helluva guy—“George Plimpton—he didn’t disappoint me, aye? I was really taken by him, Timmy. He was sort of an exaggeration of himself. With his big hair, his suit, his accent. But what I will remember about this day is that he was so kindly. And he loved you. He stopped doing what he was doing to pay homage and respect to you and I liked that because I love you, too. Me, I would always pay homage and respect to you. But who am I? I’m just Sunny. The fact that he did it—this is George Plimpton. I know he’s not better than I, not worse than I, but he wasn’t full of himself, aye?”

On Homesickness

November 2, 2011 | by

'The Soldier's Dream of Home,' a Currier & Ives lithograph produced during the Civil War, was one sign of the great attention that soldiers' homesickness received. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A few weeks ago I found myself accidentally enacting the drama of a book I was reading. The book was Homesickness: An American History, and I was reading it on the subway, somewhat embarrassed by the title, which, held up right in front of my face, was like a sign saying: Here in New York, I can’t cut it. I comforted myself with the idea that I was only a few stops from home, where I could read safe from potential pity. But when I got to my door, I discovered that I’d locked myself out.

I looked up at my windows. I wished I could use the bathroom, foreign bathrooms costing at least a coffee. But it struck me that I didn’t long to be in my apartment. My place, with its card table in the kitchen and mattress on the floor, is unsettled—I would feel as dislocated inside of it as out. I can’t imagine what feeling settled here would look like; the only settled place I’m familiar with is the home where I grew up.

How long does it take to cultivate the feeling of home? I’ve been in New York for three years, on the East Coast for eight, and I’ve never suffered from acute homesickness. But still, when I’m called to define “home,” I think of El Granada, a town of 5,436 that staked itself twenty-six miles south of San Francisco down the coast. I mean staked quite literally: between 1906 and 1909, Ocean Shore Railway, which was building tracks from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along what is now Highway 1, planted thousands of fast-growing, blue gum eucalyptuses with the hopes of flipping El Granada into a seaside resort for train-traveling San Franciscans. The railroad company also commissioned the eminent architect and city planner Daniel Burnham (famous for the Flatiron building) to plan the streets. They go in two directions, up the hills and around them, so that it looks from above as if a four-square-mile spider web has been draped over the thousands of trees. But the dream of El Granada was not to be. Two years later the railway company collapsed. The tracks were abandoned. Some speculators bought land, but the place never really caught on until computers did in the late eighties and nineties, and intrepid commuters from Silicon Valley bought BMWs and began building houses. Read More »