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Current Topic: Society

No Birdsong
Topic: Society 7:39 am EDT, May 28, 2013

Jon Lanchester:

In Westeros, seasons last not for months but for years, and are not predictable in duration. The climate change aspect of this is obvious to the contemporary audience, but there's something more subtle and subtextual at work here too: another economic metaphor, another kind of difficult climate. Westeros is like our own world, in which hard times have arrived, and no one feels immune from their consequences, and no one knows how long the freeze will last. It's a universe in which nobody is secure, and the climate is getting steadily harder, and no one knows when the good weather will return.

The Guardian:

What everyone remembers about that morning: it was a beauty. A beautiful, calm, clear Tasmanian summer morning. A cloudless sky; no wind to speak of. Not too hot, yet. Something else they remember: there were no birds. At least, none they could hear. No birdsong. That was odd. Eerie, even. Like something was holding its breath.

Christopher C. Burt:

The summit of Mt. Washington is also enjoying a pleasant opening to summer with a high of 29° on Saturday accompanied by freezing rain and snow.

Rachel Monroe:

On the last night of our course, we firefighter trainees put on our bunker gear and stood in a field as our instructors set real things on fire -- a strange metal tree, a propane tank, a beat-up old Lincoln -- which we then tried to extinguish. The event had been advertised in the local paper, so families came out to watch. There were bleachers, and a taco truck.

As far as I can tell, most of the work of a small-town Texas fire department consists of filling out forms, testing hydrants, giving stickers to second graders, rolling up hoses, putting old pumps on new trucks, and learning how to refill tanks using water from a stock trough. Actual fires are rare, and when they do happen—when something in a dumpster ignites, or when a hay bale catches, or when lightning strikes a patch of freeze-dried grass and someone’s ranch is suddenly burning—putting them out is business, not pleasure.

Which is a shame, because controlled fire is one of the best-ever things for looking at.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

When I was about 6 years old, I started collecting model trains with my father. I had books on model trains, and books on actual trains. Both kinds showed pictures of big mountains parted by trains, small towns bisected by trains, and trains adorning white Christmas-scapes.

It is from those books that I built an imagination and acquired my earliest notions of heaven -- a highland where it snows often and when it doesn’t snow, it rains, where summer seems always in retreat. There is a big lake. Behind that lake is a mountain. Between the lake and the mountain, there is a village.

The village exists. Its name is Corseaux. It sits in the Riviera region of Switzerland, sandwiched between Lake Geneva and the Bernese Alps. I was there in April, reeling at how the postcards of my childhood fantasies had materialized into fact. On a clear day, across the still, black water, I could see France demarcated by white, snowy mountains. There was only one clear day.

More Bomb Shelter Than Bomb
Topic: Society 6:39 am EST, Mar  5, 2012

George Dyson:

The way to truly understand something is to understand how it began.

Abigail Zuger:

Soon a person's precise genetic data will be augmented by an extraordinary wealth of other digital data ... The outcome will be nothing short of a new "science of individuality," one that defines individuals "at a more granular and molecular level than ever imaginable."

Some may be exhilarated at the prospect of their physicians' knowing them so intimately. Others may be moved to reflect that just as they are more than their demographics, they are also far more than the sum of their various granules.

Alexis Madrigal:

The great downside to this beautiful, free web that we have is that you have to sell your digital self in order to access it. That's the game, and there is substantial money in it.

Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized.

If and when that wall breaks down, the numbers may overwhelm the name. The unconsciously created profile may mean more than the examined self I've sought to build.

Theo Anderson:

For all the trillions of dollars spent in the name of freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only freedom we really seem to want is the freedom to choose our own form of slavery.

David Foster Wallace:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

Teju Cole:

Drone warfare and the IMF are variations on a theme: decisions taken from a great height, with disregard for consequences on the ground.

The question is this: those people down there, are they really people? It's a question about for whose sake this world exists.

Someone in soft, casual clothes in a featureless building in Nevada presses a button, and the question disappears.

Will Wilkinson:

Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that "what you see is what you get," a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in "the little things" that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.

A lot of country music these days is culture war, but it's more bomb shelter than bomb.

Nothing Fools You Better Than The Lie You Tell Yourself
Topic: Society 7:53 am EST, Feb 27, 2012

Howard Schmidt:

I don't have to get a credential if I don't want to.

Kamala Harris:

The majority of mobile apps sold today do not contain a privacy policy.


Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.

Barack Obama:

As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That's why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important. For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure.

Arvind Narayanan:

While the Internet was conceived as a decentralized network, the most widely used web applications today tend toward centralization. Control increasingly rests with centralized service providers who, as a consequence, have also amassed unprecedented amounts of data about the behaviors and personalities of individuals.

Kevin Kelly:

The main lesson ... is to beware of large numbers in social media. The larger the number, the more fluffy it is.

James B. Stewart:

Apple is now such a large part of the S.& P. 500 and the Nasdaq 100 indexes that it has buoyed millions of investors who own shares of broad index funds and mutual funds. These investors account for an estimated half of the American population.

Apple is so big, it's running up against the law of large numbers.

A New Future of Positive Forgetting
Topic: Society 8:16 am EST, Feb 24, 2012

Richard Thaler:

Many people love lotteries.

Adam Davidson:

Hollywood is, in some ways, the model lottery industry. [But] even glamour-free industries offer economic-lottery systems. Part of the American post-World War II economic miracle was that most people didn't have to choose between a high-stakes-lottery job or a lousy dead-end one. Strivers were able to dream bigger because they had a solid Plan B. Now, many economists fear that the comfortable Plan B jobs are disappearing. It's not clear what today's eager 23-year-old will do in 5 or 10 years when she decides that acting (or that accounting partnership) isn't going to work out after all.

Dennis Overbye:

The universe will revert to nothingness.

Nothing to nothing.

One day it's all going to seem like a dream.

But who is or was the dreamer?

Matt Heusser:

By the time you turn thirty-five, you'd better have a plan.

Lauren Clark:

It's good to have a plan, but if something extraordinary comes your way, you should go for it.

Jenny Diski:

Eternal sunshine requires a spotty, not a spotless mind. Keep the good stuff, snuff out the bad. So where the Victorians believed in hard experience building character, and the 20th century put its faith in facing demons, we may be looking at a new future of positive forgetting.

David Clark, on Victor Mayer-Schoenberger:

If the gathering, storage, and processing of information puts us all in the center of a digital panopticon, the failure to forget creates a panopticon crossbred with a time-travel machine.

Don't forget about forgetting.

Pay No Attention to Salary Parrot
Topic: Society 8:06 am EDT, May 19, 2011

Catherine Rampell:

Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.

Carl Van Horn:

It's like a parrot on your shoulder, traveling with you everywhere, constantly telling you 'No, you can't make that much money.'

Till von Wachter:

If you don't move within five years of graduating, for some reason you get stuck where you are. That's just an empirical finding.


Living in the north Perimeter area for 6 odd years now has told me that everybody makes way, way more money than I do. It's not inspiring so much as it makes you sympathize with class warfare.

Is our curse the endless pursuit of a happiness which can never be attained?

Judith Warner:

We're all losers now. There's no pleasure to it.

The Economist's Washington correspondent:

I thought I was unlucky graduating into the tech bust. I had no idea.

David Foster Wallace:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

Anne Frank:

As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you'll know that you're pure within and will find happiness once more.


If you look carefully you can see large objects that were picked up and are spinning around in the storm.

Pay No Attention to Salary Parrot

Why Bother?
Topic: Society 8:11 am EDT, Apr 19, 2011

Nicholas Dames, in n+1:

If the ethics or the histories of humanities education are not quite helpful in regaining some collective nerve, perhaps a less abstract genre would work better -- something, that is, that would tell us in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the ways one feels. If that is what is wanted, Terry Castle's The Professor could scarcely be bettered. Not quite a biography, it is a witty phenomenology of humanistic life; it opens up what such a life feels like from the inside. One of its happy paradoxes is that its essays, each seemingly written as a jeu d'esprit, elegantly perform the public service of articulating the claims of the humanities.

Take, for instance, the question of why one devotes a life to such a pursuit. The budding graduate student has no Paper Chase, no ER, no thrilling fantasy of the intellectual rigors and erotic enticements of professional initiation that would mitigate the shame involved in gaining entry (or re-entry) to middle-classness. Even the few official bureaucratic hoops of a doctoral student -- the oral exams, the reading lists -- are anticlimactic, presented with a dully comforting reassurance that they're not really all that frightening. And of course the stories of unpaid rent, half-employment, and the neo-Victorian social struggles of men and women past their first youth have no glamour about them. What is left is a culture of defensive shame: shame about so many things, but mostly about the tremendous gap between exalted goals and humble everyday routines.

Why Bother?

We Just Live In It
Topic: Society 11:18 am EST, Dec 23, 2010

Joyce Wadler:

Instead of using phrases like "clean up this mess," "restore order" or anything that involves the words "barn" or "sty," you might say, "Hey, kids, how about I remove this wrapping paper and we build a cool Mies van der Rohe skyscraper with your new Legos?"

Philip Gourevitch:

The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there's no apolitical way of responding to them -- no way to act without having a political effect. Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.

Monster Supply Store:

With spine-shuddering pleasure we hereby announce the grand reopening of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies. After extensive refurbishment, we now stock a pharmacopoeia of different types of fear, a complete range of edible human preserves and everyday household essentials like Fang Floss and Zombie Mints. So we invite clients old and new, living and dead to come and discover why we've been the store of choice for discerning monsters for over two hundred years, and will be the same forevermore.

Kalpish Ratna:

It's not just the Nepalis who shit in the water in Haiti. Everybody does. The 1.3 million homeless send their excrement scudding into the water.

Haiti, with its vast displaced population and its misery of want and despair, was cholera waiting to happen, ever since the magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake of Tuesday, 12 January 2010.

One money manager, on Goldman Sachs:

Of course we do business with them. We have to. It's like the Mob who picks up the garbage. You pay their fees, because you need your garbage picked up.

Chuck Klosterman:

A lot of modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies. The Internet reminds of us this every day.

This is the zombies' world, and we just live in it. But we can live better.

Fear Must Change Sides
Topic: Society 9:55 am EST, Dec 22, 2010

Fouad Ajami:

In hindsight, we can grasp the cold-blooded and chilling efficiency of the Algerian military. The war to which they summoned their men was in truth a war against the population. There were standing orders for army units to stay in their barracks even as massacres were being committed nearby. The military said that it was important to terrorize the terrorists--which they did, and the Algerian population as a whole in the process. And there were also the "dirty tricks"--the killer squads of the army and the special forces and the Departement du Renseignement et de la Securite (DRS) donning the attire of the Islamists, false beards and all, and taken by helicopter to targeted towns and villages to perpetrate frightful massacres. "Fear must change sides," the commanders exhorted their men. A killer colonel, surveying his command by helicopter, summed up the attitude of the cabal: "We are to spare no dog, no cat, no mules, no donkeys, and naturally, no Islamists. Each one of our soldiers is worth ten Islamists, be vigilant and merciless."

Ian Ayres:

It's good to destabilize your cherished beliefs now and again.

Justin B. Smith:

What would we do if the goal was to aggressively cannibalize ourselves?

James McGirk:

Perhaps the closest analogue to juggalos might be the Tea Party. And perhaps if a collective political consciousness ever blossoms among the juggalos they may find some common ground with the Tea Party and evolve to be the shock troops of a coming proletarian revolution.

Charles Arthur:

This generation of Anonymous members is going to grow up. But the idea won't go away.


John Weinman, professor of psychiatry at King's College London, monitored the stress levels of a group of volunteers and then inflicted small wounds on them. The wounds of the least stressed healed twice as fast as those of the most stressed.

A TSA Full-Body Scanner:

Please know: I'm just here to measure your penises. And I'm very, very good at it.

For nearly a decade, lightly-trained TSA employees have been forced to estimate -- to guess, really -- your penis size, based on such factors as height, weight, walking style, and disposition. Frankly, that's asking them to do the impossible. It gratifies me to think that millions of travelers will now be able to fly just a little bit easier, secure in the knowledge of their newly complete and accurate TSA profiles -- all thanks to my precise genital scans. Length, girth, heft, and any major identifying characteristics. Everything but the color; this is America, and we don't do that here.

Everybody Reads With A Lens
Topic: Society 9:55 am EST, Dec 22, 2010

David Pogue:

Things don't replace things; they just splinter.

We want it easy.

Everybody reads with a lens.

The trick is to accept your gadget's obsolescence at the time you buy it.

Michael Becker of the Mobile Marketing Association:

In the world of mobile, there is no anonymity.

Julia Angwin And Jennifer Valentino-Devries:

Advertisers no longer want to just buy ads. They want to buy access to specific people.

Ann Blair:

A new technology does not act alone, after all, but in concert with our ambitions for it. Overload has long been fueled by our own enthusiasm -- the enthusiasm for accumulating and sharing knowledge and information, and also for experimenting with new forms of organizing and presenting it.

Early modern compilers were driven by this enthusiasm, even beyond their hopes for acquiring reputation or financial gain. Today, we see the same impulse in the proliferation of cooperative information sharing on the Internet, such as the many designers and programmers sharing new ways to visualize and efficiently use huge quantities of data. In democratizing our ability to contribute to a universal encyclopedia of experience and information, the Internet has shown just how widespread that long-running ambition remains today.

An exchange with Tom Scocca and Eliza:

TS: My primitive little heart is troubled, Eliza.

Eliza: Why do you say your primitive little heart is troubled eliza?

TS: I have been reading Twitter.

Eliza: Can you elaborate on that?

TS: On Twitter, I am having a hard time telling the bots from the humans.

Eliza: How long have you been having a hard time telling the bots from the humans?

TS: Weeks and weeks now.

Eliza: Please go on.

TS: It is not because the bots are fluent or facile.

Jeffrey Rosen:

Facebook has more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the globe than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president.

Steve Steklow and Paul Sonne:

"If I come online and I'm in work mode, I will show up as a very different character than when I go online Saturday morning and I'm in recreation mode," says Mike Gassewitz. The targeted ads would reflect which "character" is online.

Suddenly There Is No Stick
Topic: Society 5:53 am EDT, Jun 30, 2010

David Petraeus:

Mr. President, this isn't double-down. ... This is all-in.

Ryan Crocker:

It's all hard, and it's hard all the time.

Matthew Yglesias:

Petraeus could be just the man to do for Obama what he did for Bush: help reframe the problem and walk away from unrealistic goals while projecting determination and making things better in some small concrete ways.

Timothy Ferriss:

A person's success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.

Charlie Brooker:

Suddenly there is no stick. There's just you. You are the stick.

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