comment (newsletter #02)

Last weekend I spent a few days in and around Joshua Tree National Park. I planned the trip several months ago, before I knew that the U.S. government would be in the midst of one of the stupidest shutdowns in geological history.

Fortunately, the park was mostly open during my visit (despite the apparent flood of assholes that had spilled into the park throughout the previous weeks), and none of my flights were delayed by security or air traffic issues. But that didn’t stop Trump’s tantrum from casting a pall, especially with the Mexico border just a few miles south. There was a sense of dread hanging in the air (much like the botulistic haze of the Salton Sea, another toxic testament to American superiority and great fodder for #ruinporn). This must be how the villagers in the Dark Ages felt whenever the king came down to the town square and publicly executed another editor from the Failing New York Times.

This constant, latent dread adds the suspicion of superfluity to intellectual exercise. What’s the point of reading a book, asking a question, suggesting an idea, or sparking a conversation, if the garrote twists tighter around the throat of common sense every fresh day? What’s the point of feeding the mind if sensibility, like history, becomes nothing more than a myth agreed upon?

Exercise is about knowledge, and in dark times, knowledge is the lodestar. Even if the accrual of knowledge leads to the revelation that true knowledge is unattainable, it at least teaches us towards humility, which some say is where wisdom begins.

That’s Proverbs, by the way. From the Bible, which has more to say about where wisdom begins but less to say about where it ends. Which brings us to the beginning of this week’s #linkdump:

What People Actually Say Before They Die
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words
By Michael Erard @michaelerard

“Famous last words” are the cornerstone of a romantic vision of death—one that falsely promises a final burst of lucidity and meaning before a person passes. “The process of dying is still very profound, but it’s a very different kind of profoundness,” says Bob Parker, the chief compliance officer of the home health agency Intrepid USA. “Last words—it doesn’t happen like the movies. That’s not how patients die.” We are beginning to understand that final interactions, if they happen at all, will look and sound very different. (Read the whole, fascinating essay in The Atlantic.)

Also worth your time:

  • The Covington Scissor
    Welcome to another controversy algorithmically designed to tear America apart
    By Ross Douthat @DouthatNYT“In a short story published last October, “Sort by Controversial,” Scott Alexander imagines a Silicon Valley company that accidentally comes up with an algorithm to generate what it calls a “Scissor.” The scissor is a statement, an idea or a scenario that’s somehow perfectly calibrated to tear people apart — not just by generating disagreement, but by generating total incredulity that somebody could possibly disagree with your interpretation of the controversy, followed by escalating fury and paranoia and polarization, until the debate seems like a completely existential, win-or-perish fight.” (Read the rest in the New York Times)
  • Native American Leader: ‘A Wall Is Not The Answer’
    By David Greene @nprgreene and Ashley Westerman @nprashley“For one Native American tribe whose land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, President Trump’s proposed border wall would, literally, divide its people. The Tohono O’odham Nation stretches through the desert from just south of Casa Grande in southern Arizona to the U.S. border — and then beyond, into the Mexican state of Sonora. This means that if Trump gets his $5.7 billion border wall, it would cut right through the tribe’s land.” (Read or listen to the rest at NPR)
  • The Boy’s Club
    On the myths and enigmas of Philip Johnson’s life and of a supposedly egalitarian architectural culture
    By Kate Wagner @mcmansionhell“Johnson was a historicist who championed the new, an elitist who was a populist, a genius without originality, a gossip who was an intellectual, an opportunist who was a utopian, a man of endless generosity who could be casually, crushingly cruel.” This is how Mark Lamster’s new book, The Man in the Glass House, introduces its subject, setting the stage for a biography that not only raises the bar for writing with nuance about difficult historical figures, but also offers an eye-opening glimpse into architecture’s transformation from a staid and upwardly mobile white-collar profession to the deeply unequal and star-studded spectacle it is today. Glass House tackles the myths and enigmas of Johnson’s life, and of a supposedly egalitarian architectural culture, in one fell swoop. As Lamster concisely puts it: “We cannot not know Philip Johnson’s history because it is our history—like it or not.” (Read the rest in The Nation)

And in other news, for anyone interested in research, InterNations has released their 127-page 2018 Expat Insider survey – also begging the question, what’s the difference between an expat and an immigrant, anyway?

Finally, an oldie and a goodie.


By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan