CJW: Welcome to another edition of nothing here.
I usually do a good chunk of my newsletter reading on a Saturday, so I’m feeling a bit behind this issue (even as I prepare to hit send) after spending last Saturday visiting my 98 year-old grandfather. I couldn’t imagine having another 59 years on this Earth, but the genetics are there, apparently. It’s only recently that he’s actually started to seem properly old, which is itself a blessing.
Anyway, let’s get on with the show.
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Lidia Zuin (LZ) - Journalist, MA in semiotics, and PhD in Arts. Sci-fi writer, futurology researcher and essayist. @lidiazuin
DCH: The Jackson Water Crisis Is a Disaster Created by Austerity by Ryan Zickgraf, Jacobin
The crisis was kicked off when heavy rain flooded the Pearl River and knocked out the pumps at Jackson, Mississippi’s water treatment facility for a week. Many commentators have rightly focused on climate change, identifying Jackson as a sign of disasters to come when increasingly extreme weather inevitably damages core infrastructure. But Jackson’s water problems can’t be blamed on the climate crisis alone. They’re also the result of decades of disinvestment, dysfunction, and systemic racism at every level of government.
Jackson is one more city to add to the litany of places struck by climate disasters this summer. Of course it’s not just down to climate change but also systemic racism meaning Mississippi is ground zero for eco-apartheid in America. Potable water, it was nice knowing ya. One more impending casualty as we get closer and closer to dangerous tipping points. One more vision of our planetary future.
CJW: Watching the world burn - Marlowe Hood at AFP
There is a growing literature on the topic, which goes by several names: climate anxiety, eco-anxiety, or in extreme cases, “doomism”. Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist who travels the US and the world to help people worried about climate change find solace in activism, says the preponderance of her haters on social media has abruptly shifted from climate deniers to doomsayers enraged by her message of optimism and hope.
These so-called doomists have been excoriated by climate scientists and activists who see them as more dangerous than old school climate sceptics. But since these same experts shout from the rooftops that we’re facing an extinction-level crisis, they shouldn’t be surprised if some people lose their shit. If nothing else, it means they’re listening.
Surely by “doomist” they mean “doomer.” Anyway, a long and interesting read on climate despair and hope from a journalist who has covered the beat for years.
In the piece he mentions XR induction, which “means allowing oneself to be emotionally overwhelmed, and to “grieve” for what has and will be lost.” I don’t think I’ve ever really let myself grieve because I worry how deep into despair I would fall. I worry I wouldn’t ever re-emerge. One day I will, I’m sure, and then I’ll see what waits on the other side of that grief, but until then I’ll be bouncing between hope and despair with every article and book I read on the topic…
How sustainable are fake meats? by Bob Holmes, Ars Technica
Fresh wave of sewage pollution hits Britain’s beaches by Claire Marshall, BBC
Appalachian, Indigenous pipeline foes protest climate deal By Ellie Silverman, The Washington Post
Why It’s Time to Make Cities More Rural by Matt Simon, Wired
The Sick Society by Malcolm Harris and Kathryn Olivarius, N+1
CJW: Destructive Myths - Jeff Faux reviewing Elizabeth Samet’s Looking for the Good War, at Dissent Magazine
“The great thing about the American empire,” observes historian Niall Ferguson—a fan of that empire—“is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence.” [Elizabeth] Samet argues that a major reason for this disbelief is the collective misrepresentation of America’s triumph in the Second World War. Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Steven E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan are only some of the better known evangelical texts of American exceptionalism. A sea of popular culture—books, movies, newspapers, radio and TV shows, comics, and social media campaigns—has transformed the war into what Samet calls an enduring “testament to the redemptive capacity of American violence.” This, she writes, “leads us repeatedly to imagine that the use of force can accomplish miraculous political ends even when we have examples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to tell us otherwise.”
According to the review, a lot of the book is spent detailing American war films, but the summary offered here of the historical and political aspects of America’s post-WW2 self-mythologising is really interesting.
CJW: Sanctions are Destructive, Illegitimate, and Totally Bipartisan - Jacob Batinga at Current Affairs
In 2020, an economist from Virginia Tech estimated that [US] sanctions took the lives of 13,000-25,000 Iranians within the first six months of the Coronavirus pandemic. The sanctions on Iraq under the Clinton Administration led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, primarily children. And as economist and sanctions expert Mark Weisbrot pointed out earlier this year, “Sanctions currently imposed on [Afghanistan] are on track to take the lives of more civilians in the coming year than have been killed by 20 years of warfare.”
A powerful look at US sanctions and hypocrisy.
DCH: Let the Descendants of Britain’s Empire Have Their Glee by Nitish Pahwa, Slate + The British Monarchy Has Woven Itself Into the Fabric of Capitalism by Richard Seymour, Jacobin + Queen Me by Akim Reinhardt, 3 Quarks Daily
Hey, did you hear? The country, nay the world, has been shocked by the death of a 96 year-old woman of natural causes. Apparently the mix of shock and mourning is supposed to mean that it’s impolite to point out some pretty obvious bits of history…
The vibe of such tweets shifted dramatically over the course of the day. At first, when news arrived of the queen’s “medical care,” simple and snarky tweets abounded, anticipating the official announcement and ensuing fallout. Those upset at the prospect of losing their queen began Thursday directing their ire toward Americans mocking British grief, but then the bereaved moved on to targeting the much more widespread colonial diaspora. When the acclaimed academic and author Uju Anya referred to Elizabeth II as the “chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire” and wished that “her pain be excruciating,” none other than Jeff Bezos called her out for it, eventually leading to Twitter suspending her account. Then, as the clock hit 1:30 p.m. and the royal family officially declared the queen’s death, anti-monarchy tweeters adopted an even more serious tone. They doubled down on their lack of grief and highlighted not only the bloody history of British rule, but the queen’s own role in perpetuating it—whether through history-obscuring initiatives, direct orders for violent military crackdowns on colonial dissent in Yemen, and her other efforts at halting the mass independence movements that took place, and succeeded, under her reign.
When I hopped into my car just before 2:00 PM, East Coast time, I found that my local National Public Radio station had effectively turned itself into a BBC affiliate, suspending its own programming to offer up a nonstop feed of BBC coverage. I could not even get a top of the hour news break, lest the sincere, baritone, English bleating about “Her Mgesty’s” death be briefly interrupted. Apparently, there was no other news of the world worth reporting. Even here in Baltimore, where I’m quite confident that a sizeable percentage of us can tell you next to nothing about her or her goofy family.
Yet, the Firm’s apparently antiquated racism, formed during a time when British royalty triumphantly bestrode the globe, is not incidental to its political function. Its message to Markle is essentially the same as its message to all of us. Yes, capitalism is in crisis. Yes, the ruling ideology is in crisis. Yes, the conditions of civilizational survival may be disintegrating around us. Yes, millions have recently died from what is likely to be the first of a series of plagues. Yes, tumultuous, rising democracy and the forces of neofascism will likely meet in a river of blood. Yes, the falcon turns in the widening gyre, and the four horsemen are loose, and the earth is dying. But for all that, the message states, the Firm is eternal. It is not stamped with temporality. It reproduces itself, through birth (bloodline), and through marriage (property), each spawning a proliferation of imperial bunting as the media pipes patriotism into the mainline, and that is our image of the everlasting.
MJW: Pakistan and the Fight for Climate Justice by Jeffrey D Sachs at Project Syndicate (via James Bradley)
Pakistan contributed roughly 5.2 billion tons of CO2 between 1850 and 2020 – roughly what the US emits each year. Its share of historical responsibility is therefore around 0.3% – far below its share of the global population (2.9%) and its burden of climate-related damage. While the US and other high-income countries are “net exporters of climate damages,” Pakistan and most other low-income and lower-middle-income countries are unwilling net importers.
As Taiwan Tensions Build, Concerned Okinawans Push for U.S. Military Base Closure - Maia Hibbett at The Intercept
Toward a Queer Theory of the State by Samuel Clowes Huneke, The Point
The Risk of a New American Civil War by David Remnick, New Yorker + The Storm Is Here by Luke Mogelson review – America on the brink by Julian Borger, The Guardian
Ignoring Gorbachev’s Warnings - Branko Marcetic at Current Affairs
Zelensky is literally selling Ukraine to US corporations on Wall Street - Benjamin Norton at Multipolarista
DCH: SpaceX Starship Prototype Belches Superhot Debris, Causes Literal Dumpster Fire by George Dvorsky, Gizmodo
Insert tobey maguire smirk.gif here.
A tiny particle can travel through concrete. It could save many lives - Geoff Manaugh at Financial Times
Was This Viral UFO Photo a Hoax Generated By an AI? by Chloe Xiang, Vice
What on earth is a xenobot? By Philip Ball, Aeon
SETI Pioneer Frank Drake Leaves a Legacy of Searching for Voices in the Void by Lee Billings, Scientific American
CJW: The Push of a Button - David O’Reilly
It’s reasonable to assume that the more granularity AI tools offer, the more skill will develop around their use and the more responsible we will be over their output. The process may involve exploring and manipulating this accident space; aligning intention with output—but will otherwise be like any other medium—a back and forth process of iteration, a dance where we take the lead, allowing its particular motions while keeping it from veering off course.
However, we are left with a conundrum, because in the end, human participation will always be indistinguishable from that of AI. If our input amounts to curatorial negations, those can easily be automated too. We will then be paying monthly for the privilege of automating ourselves.
The artist (and animator and video game creator) David O’Reilly on AI art tools. A few interesting points here I’ve not seen expressed elsewhere.
Austin put me onto O’Reilly’s short film The External World years and years ago, and ever since it has sat nestled in the back of my brain (it’s weird, fucked-up, and amazing, go watch it). I revisited it recently and discovered that O’Reilly now has a newsletter and signed right up for it.
So people are paying for good prompts to use on tools like Dall-E and Midjourney now.
Just as niche internet communities are banning AI art because it’s becoming too prevalent and ruining engagement metrics
This is Loab:
But returning to that * above - perhaps it is the method by which these models are created - all that stolen data, the primary accumulation of dreams, hothoused in corporate systems for profit, which also produces such nightmares. Hallucinations not of humanity, but of capital.
DCH: On the Cult of AI Doom by Bill Benzon 3 Quarks Daily
I conclude, then, that belief in AI Doom is best thought of as a millennial cult. It may not have a charismatic leader like Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple, much less be located in an isolated jungle compound. But its belief system closes it off from the world. Its vision of AI is a fantasy that is useless as a guide to the future.
Paraphrasing my friend Matt Webb, we’re way closer to The Jackpot than The Singularity. That said there are more immediate and obvious and real dangers to unchecked AI and taking an anti-facist approach to resisting it is vital.
This is a long essay in which Rao uses some (relatively) simple philosophical ideas to argue against the over-the-top AI fears that are often bandied about. A major part of his argument is based around the idea that anything intelligent must have something it is like to be - as in Thomas Nagle’s “What is it like to be a bat?” paper, which is a fascinating piece on non-human phenomenology.
Interestingly he also ties this into embodiment - something that a robot has, but not a disembodied AI - which is territory also I went into in Repo Virtual, because to me it seems a fundamental part of becoming/recognising a self.
Anyway, there’s a lot here, which is why I didn’t bother with a pull quote. But if you are interested in phenomenology/ontology, AI, and the gap between current “AI” and one you might fear (or worship), this is a must read.
CJW: Facebook Engineers: We Have No Idea Where We Keep All Your Personal Data - Sam Biddle at The Intercept
Facebook’s stonewalling has been revealing on its own, providing variations on the same theme: It has amassed so much data on so many billions of people and organized it so confusingly that full transparency is impossible on a technical level. In the March 2022 hearing, Zarashaw and Steven Elia, a software engineering manager, described Facebook as a data-processing apparatus so complex that it defies understanding from within. The hearing amounted to two high-ranking engineers at one of the most powerful and resource-flush engineering outfits in history describing their product as an unknowable machine.
Hard to say if this is an obvious side-effect of the “move fast and break things” mentality, a deliberate strategy to avoid exactly this sort of judicial oversight, or just good old fashioned perjury.
India’s Sudden Reversal on Privacy Will Affect the Global Internet - Justin Sherman at Slate
Uber Agrees to Pay N.J. $100 Million in Dispute Over Drivers’ Employment Status - Cade Metz at The New York Times
Google loses appeal over record EU anti-trust Android fine - at BBC & S.Korea fines Google, Meta billions of won for privacy violations - Soo-Hyang Choi at Reuters
Apple, the Ad Critic, Now Embraces Ads - Shira Ovide at The New York Times
Twitter had a new plan to fight extremism — then Elon arrived - Casey Newton and Zoe Schiffer at The Verge
Here Is the Manual for the Mass Surveillance Tool Cops Use to Track Phones - Joseph Cox at VICE
Dress Code: The Future of Fashion in the Metaverse - Tim Maughan at Esquire (DCH: a brutal takedown on the current pitch for the metaverse-as-mall)
DCH: The Myth of the Public Good by Protean Magazine
Many argue that these and other related crises—crises involving debt and the provisioning of goods and services necessary for public and individual health—result directly from the austerity regime imposed under neoliberalism. The solutions that Buttigieg and Warren offer, however, follow a blueprint for provisioning public goods that was established by the federal government long ago, since the era of the New Deal. Rather than directly fund education or healthcare, federal policy delegated the administration of goods and services to private and/or locally supported entities.
On the twinned tyrannies of for-profit education and healthcare.
How to Fight Mass Incarceration and Win by Mark Engler and Paul Engler, In These Times
The super-rich ‘preppers’ planning to save themselves from the apocalypse by Douglas Rushkoff, The Guardian
‘Date Me’ Google Docs and the Hyper-Optimized Quest for Love by Lauren Goode, Wired
Texas State Police Deflect Blame, Downplay Their Role in Uvalde Shooting Failures by Lomi Kriel, The Texas Tribune & Propublica
St. Louis’ Private Police Forces Make Security a Luxury of the Rich by Jeremy Kohler, Propublica
Satanic panic is making a comeback, fueled by QAnon believers and GOP influencers Brandy Zadrozny at NBC News
DCH: The mystery of why some people don’t catch COVID by Grace Browne, Wired
We all know a “Covid virgin,” or “Novid,” someone who has defied all logic in dodging the coronavirus. But beyond judicious caution, sheer luck, or a lack of friends, could the secret to these people’s immunity be found nestled in their genes? And could it hold the key to fighting the virus?
A good long read on two current theories being explored about potential natural immunity: one genetic and one about t-cells. The hope being that if we can discover why some rare few seem to be “superdodgers” that we can help the rest of us.
CJW: I’m not a superdodger, just a recluse.
MJW: 4 Dead Infants, a Convicted Mother, and a Genetic Mystery by Oscar Schwartz at Wired
In the span of 10 years, he told her, four babies in one Australian family had died in their sleep. The oldest was just a year and a half. No one had found evidence of violence. But in 2003, the babies’ mother, Kathleen Folbigg, was convicted of smothering all of them to death. The 36-year-old, now considered the most prolific female murderer in Australian history, was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
A great piece on the notorious Australian case of Kathleen Folbigg and the genetic discovery of immunologist Carola Garcia de Vinuesa that may explain the death of her four children.
Fascinating piece on the (mostly) men who go through a surgical procedure to lengthen their legs either 3 or 6 inches to make themselves taller. The description of the procedure is some straight-up body horror shit.
According to the article, most patients don’t tell people about the procedure. Now, maybe people generally aren’t that observative, but I know I’d notice - not just that someone’s height changed, but the new slightly-off proportions too.
US Life Expectancy Has Declined Again. Neoliberalism and Antidemocratic Rule Are to Blame. - Nick French at Jacobin
Doomscrolling linked to poor physical and mental health, study finds - Caitlin Cassidy at The Guardian
Minnesota Set to Become “Abortion Access Island” in the Midwest, but for Whom? - Jessica Lussenhop at Propublica
A Judge Let Employers Exclude HIV Prevention From Workers’ Insurance. That’s Not Even the Worst Part. - Mark Joseph Stern at Slate
How a Pregnant Woman in Alabama Got Stuck in Jail for Months Despite No Arrest - Molly Olmstead at Slate
New malaria vaccine is world-changing, say scientists - James Gallagher at BBC
Democrats Could Codify Roe by Deconstructed at The Intercept & The Woman Who Became a Company Has Lessons for a Post-Roe World - Charlotte Kent at Wired
New York Declares State of Emergency Over Polio Spread - Joshua Espinoza at Complex
From “stop the spread” to “you do you”: NY mask policy has experts facepalming by Beth Mole, Ars Technica
DCH: Politics and Expertise by Luke Herrine, Phenomenal World
A form of expertise worthy of a left-liberal coalition that could move us past neoliberalism must be one that does not hold itself apart from base-building organizations or from political calculation. It must be one that breaks down subject-area silos that press for narrow specialized reforms and instead aims to find ways to build power and agendas that combine multiple issues into a mutually agreeable vision. Of course, there is always a risk that incorporating strategic and political considerations will degrade expertise into hackery. But part of the lesson of these books is that even purportedly disinterested policy advice can function as hackery in a given context. Being able to critically assess the complicated political valences of one’s analysis—and acknowledge one’s epistemic limits—is a superior way to manage this tension than pretending at disinterestedness.
A massive look at the tangled throughline of neoliberalism. Connecting dots from the New Deal to Reagan to Naderite Public Interest Groups to RAND and The Chicago School.
DCH: Why Isn’t Everybody Rich Yet? by Jovana Mugoša, New Republic
Part of this story was progressive taxation. It was an old idea, but it didn’t really take root, Piketty writes, until early in the twentieth century. The United States led the way in 1913 with its progressive income tax, followed by progressive income and inheritance taxes in Europe. The two world wars drove taxes higher—especially the second—and after World War II, taxes fell only somewhat. Piketty trumpets the societal benefit of imposing “confiscatory” (his unapologetic term) top marginal rates of 80 to 90 percent in the United States. These put an end to “the most astronomical remunerations.” There was no reason for companies to push a top executive’s wages above the threshold for the top marginal tax bracket, because the federal government would collect nearly all that additional cash in taxes. That helped prompt companies to spend any surplus on the rank and file instead. Conservatives today argue that when marginal tax rates rise too high, that chokes off innovation. But through the 1950s and 1960s, “confiscatory” taxes choked off only excessive wage growth at the top. Productivity climbed briskly anyway, and so did per capita income.
A decently thorough review of Slouching Towards Utopia by J. Bradford DeLong and A Brief History of Equality by Thomas Piketty. Potshots fired at Keynes and Malthus along the way.
CJW: China crime gangs use cyberslaves across SE Asia - Cezary Podkul with Cindy Liu
Tens of thousands of people from across Asia have been coerced into defrauding people in America and around the world out of millions of dollars. Those who resist are facing beatings, food deprivation or worse.
Pretty sure I recently shared an episode of the Underground podcast on this same story that MKY put me onto, but this is a long read detailing both aspects of the crime ring - the ways people find themselves in the slave ring, often being sold between criminal organisations, and the nature of the scams they are forced to enact on people in other parts of the world.
The Same Problem on Repeat by Sarah Schulman, The New York Review of Books on The Viral Underclass by Steven Thrasher
This Labor Day comes amid the biggest jump in union activity in decades by Jasmine Kerrissey and Judith Stepan-Norris at The Washington Post
Why the dollar is strong and why that is a problem at The Economist
Every billionaire is a factory for producing policy failures - Cory Doctorow
More Than Half Of All Bitcoin Trades Are Fake - Javier Paz at Forbes + What Happens to Bitcoin After All 21 Million Are Mined? at investopedia
How Poverty Programs Aided Children From One Generation to the Next by Jason DeParle and Maddie McGarvey, nytimes (DCH: one from West Virginia where my dad’s side of the family is from.)
Hunger advocates want free school meals for all kids. It’s tough sell in Congress by Bridget Huber, npr + Opinion: Universal School Meals Should Be Extended Indefinitely by Lauren Bell, undark (DCH: +1 coming from the guy who grew up on free school lunches)
CJW: Campfire Tales - James Hennessy
In a prescient 2017 article for WIRED titled “Face It, Meatsack: Pro Gamer Will Be the Only Job Left”, writer Clive Thompson sketches out a future where displaced workers from industries experiencing pressures from automation and other shifts in the global order will serve to populate online communities experienced by a superstrate of wealthy gamers who crave “vibrant communities” to spend their money in. “Rich players don’t want to play with bots,” he writes. “They crave the social fellowship of real humans. And they also enjoy the thrill of lording their socioeconomic status over others.”
Despite the consultant in the Rest of World article pitching it as a bold new future for NFT gaming, this sort of perverse class system has already existed for a very long time in online games. […]
[…] What is interesting is a new generation of metaverse developers making a class system part of the living texture of their worlds, making it more believable and enjoyable for the section of the playerbase who reliably spend money.
Austin recently put me onto the Down Round podcast, and while I’m still not sure about the podcast, it put me onto James Hennessy’s The Terminal newsletter (boo, substack).
A few interesting bits in this issue, but the pull-quotes come from a section on MMO labor economics and the encroachment of crypto-bros into this space. These “advances” just make me think more and more that the film Gamer was awfully prescient.
LZ: The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein
I think I first saw a video of Sandra, the one biographed here, some years ago and found her work very interesting – cleaning up the houses of hoarders and crime scenes. I wondered what would make someone work with something like this. It turns out Sandra was not only peculiar for the work she did, but also because she was a woman who lived many lives — the gender transition was just one of the many things that happened to her. I’m not very used to biographies, but this one is mostly interesting for all the experiences that the biographed had and because you can see the duality of human nature: you would expect to feel pity or even empathy for someone like Sandra, but even the writer Sarah weighs in the decisions that Sandra took throughout her life and doesn’t paint her as a saint.
LZ: Engel + Joe
After years, I watched again what used to be one of my favourite romantic flicks when I was younger. Here’s the adaptation of a book with the same name, written by Kai Hermann, the same guy who worked on the book about Christiane F. So you’ll find a subcultural depiction of Berlin and the story of a runaway girl who falls in love with a punk orphan. I didn’t remember that, but by the beginning of the movie, you see the punks asking for change money for people on the streets. It turns out that when I went to Nuremberg in 2019, I saw the exact same scene: people wearing spiked leather jackets and mohawks asking for “Kleingeld”.
Though the movie is kind of naive (typical of teenage romance), the soundtrack is great and it’s tinged in teenage angst. Something you would watch if you’re feeling nostalgic and particularly warm-hearted, I’d say.
MJW: ‘Fall’ 2022
Is it a bad movie? Is it a goodbad movie? I don’t know, but the premise is a good one and I had fun. A survival/horror film, Fall is about two rock climbers who climb to the top of a 2000 foot tower for shits, giggles, catharsis and clicks. Anyone who hates heights as much as I do will feel a little sick as they reach the top, stunt, and then lose the ability to get back down when the ladder breaks. Things get desperate, and increasingly silly, as the movie unfolds. Ridiculousness aside, there’s something really interesting to me about survival stories where the big bad is global positioning - at the top of a TV tower or on a mountain, etc. I just listened to an audiobook about the Donner Party (do NOT ask me why, it just happened) and their situation was similar. When civilisation is right there, so close but you just can’t reach it.
Found out about this video that is supposed to feature a generative AI creating a dance scene. It immediately made me think of Code 46’s iconic dancing scene with Samantha Morton, but we have other things being addressed here. Imagine a future in which you can use generative AI in AR filters and how this could be a way to present yourself as the world: a true fluid individual, with no particular face or feature, but constantly changing. It would require a lot of processing power, of course, but I would love to see something like that. Kind of like the Ghost in the Shell’s Stand Alone Complex logo avatar, but even cooler.
What a delightfully chaotic video with the most precise description ever. If Fortnite has grown to be this hot mess where you have Naruto doing a kamehameha, no wonder the so-called metaverse could grow into something as crazy as that. Although I guess most big cities are weird like this when you go to the most touristic/central spots? It used to be a bit like that when I lived near one of the biggest avenues in Latin America, Paulista Avenue.
After recommending this game in the past issue of the newsletter, I had the chance to talk to the developers and learn a bit more of what’s coming next. Really looking forward to playing this!