Tuesday, August 20, 2013

We are the washing machine

The future as projected by American advertisers of the 20th century was of course bright and sparkling. But what gadgets and appliances made that possible? And were they "automatic" as advertised? What the hell do we mean when we say that word?
Over at Gizmodo, they ask the million-dollar question: what does "automatic" mean? It's safe to say that mid-century advertising culture didn't invent the concept and that it was, in some fundamental sense, an instantiation of a wider twentieth century fascination with with the automatic in its many guises. What is advertising, after all, but an attempt to generate reactions from consumers automatically. Edward Bernays, the "father" of public relations, explained the goal of PR and advertising this way: “Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.”  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Punk beyond fashion

In the 37 years since a good mass of people decided “punk” was a flag worth waving, we’ve seen countless versions of it, most at odds with one another. There’s punk that’s dissolute and nihilist, and punk that’s earnest and abstemious; punk as attitude, as economic model, as ideology, and as an ordinary subgenre of music; punk that’s funny and punk that’s humorless; Fascist punk and anti-Fascist punk; punk that sounds like 1977 and punk that can’t imagine repeating the past; you name it. If there’s any reason the stuff’s stayed in the bloodstream of rock, it’s that the idea is flexible enough to put anything into it, take anything out, and feel like you’re fighting the good fight—the word itself is mostly just permission to get into the ring.
Nitsuh Abebe in NY Magazine on the enduring (and vexed) appeal of punk in 2013, amid the Met's show on punk fashion,“Punk: Chaos to ­Couture.” 

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Moral Supremacy of Capitalism

The New York Times reports this week that megabank HSBC has escaped criminal prosecution for money laundering that probably funded terrorists and narcotics traffickers. Why? Because regulators and prosecutors were petrified that an indictment would undermine the entire financial system. TheTimes quotes anonymous government sources who confessed fears about bringing formal charges because doing so would be a “death sentence” for the bank. So they let it off the hook.
That’s right, HSBC is officially above the law. Too-big-to-fail has become too-big-to-prosecute.
Salon reports. Via GC.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Expertise and Politics

The shadow contest of the 2012 election was waged between two elements of the American news media.  On one side stood a pundit class, whose currency has always been oracular.  On the other stands a new class of data-based prognosticators, whose currency is empiricism.  The arguments between these two classes in the last weeks of the election, for me at least, have framed an important subtext of recent American politics as a whole.  It is not, as defenders of Nate Silver will say, a question of math.  It is, rather, a question of expertise--finding real, empirical answers to real, empirical problems through innovative, empirical methods.  This shadow contest is meaningful because it underscores in dramatic fashion a division between a traditional way of doing politics that is grounded in rhetoric, and one that address broad political problems unencumbered by those political narratives that would deny the reality of problems and solutions.

So, it was nice to see Rachel Maddow calling this election what it is--the failure of an ideological bubble that would mistake science for rhetoric, and expertise for punditry.  Problems beget paranoia--easy to sustain in the short term, but a clear underdog in any contest with the real.

Skip to 12:50:

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Monday, November 5, 2012

I dream of hidden doorways

Mostly in bookcases.  Everything about Secret Bookcases is a Tumblr to just that. Via BB.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


In case you missed it, two members of the Russian punk protest group, Pussy Riot, have been sentenced to hard labor.  Via the Guardian:

Two members of the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot have been sent to remote prison camps to serve their sentences, the group has said. 
Maria Alyokhina, 24, will serve the rest of her two-year term at a women's prison camp in Perm, a Siberian region notorious for hosting some of the Soviet Union's harshest camps. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, has been sent to Mordovia, a region that also hosts a high number of prisons. 
"These are the harshest camps of all the possible choices," the band said via its Twitter account on Monday. 
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing an anti-Putin "punk anthem" in a Moscow cathedral in February. They argued that their conviction was part of a growing crackdown on free speech and political activism in Russia. 
They are expected to serve the rest of their sentences, which end in March 2014, in the camps, where conditions are reportedly dire.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

NPR is a pack of gum

Let's talk about NPR.

As the Lede reported this week, Mitt Romney's targeting of the NPR budget reflects a widespread misunderstanding of how little the US government gives to public broadcasting.  While $500 million dollars sounds like a lot of money, this is only the case because most of us (myself included) don't easily differentiate between a million, a billion, and a trillion.

So, what is $500 million dollars in the grand scheme of things?  I have occasionally returned to a little economic metaphor that I posted last year, from Harvard economist Philip Greenspun. He cancels out some zeros and explains the US debt in these terms.
If we divide everything by 100,000,000, the numbers take on more sensible proportions.

We have a family that is spending $38,200 per year. The family’s income is $21,700 per year. The family adds $16,500 in credit card debt every year in order to pay its bills. 
At the time, he explained that the "historic" budget cut of $38 billion dollars was actually nothing at all.
After a long and difficult debate among family members, keeping in mind that it was not going to be possible to borrow $16,500 every year forever, the parents and children agreed that a $380/year premium cable subscription could be terminated. So now the family will have to borrow only $16,120 per year.
Putting aside the suitability of the family or the household as a metaphor for the economy, I find this method of understanding large numbers very helpful.  In this context, how much does NPR cost the government?  The massive figure of $500 billion is the equivalent of $0.50.  Cutting funding for NPR is the equivalent of foregoing a pack of gum when your house is underwater.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Thursday, September 6, 2012


The Atlantic has a nice list up of 19th century British slang for "sex."  Here are the best ones:

  • Amorous congress: 
  • To say two people were engaged in the amorous congress was by far the most polite option on the list, oftentimes serving as the definition for other, less discreet synonyms.
  • Basket-making: 
  • "Those two recently opened a basket-making shop." From a method of making children's stockings, in which knitting the heel is called basket-making .
  • Bread and butter: 
  • One on top of the other. "Rumor has it he found her bread and butter fashion with the neighbor."
  • Face-making: 
    Aside from the obvious, this also comes from "making children," because babies have faces.
  • Blanket hornpipe: 
  • Green gown: 
  • Giving a girl a green gown can only happen in the grass.
  • Lobster kettle: 
  • A woman who sleeps with soldiers coming in at port is said to "make a lobster kettle" of herself.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Breaking Badder

Gag real from Season Four.

Happy Wednesday.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Turns out, I'm not the only one.

The NYT documents the triumphant return of the Rubix Cube.  Here's an image of my cube, bought last summer in the depths of dissertation writing.  I can reliably solve it in about two minutes.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Friday marked the 43 anniversary of the first lunar landing.  Here, in commemoration, is the long lost audio: