September Reading

My September reading was not quite as strenuous as last month, given that I read Middlemarch in August, from which I am still feeling the glow of accomplishment, a loathing of Casaubon and a sense of infinite depths.

Here you’ll see just one masterpiece–Austerlitz–and two books I didn’t quite finish, that I skimmed and eventually put down. Those are How to Disappear and Torpor. I had enjoyed the quirky, downbeat, pathetic style of Kraus’s other books, I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia, but the grimness of the times we’re living through made it impossible for me to make it through this one, which included a tour through Romania to adopt an orphan, and an accounting of the horrific abuse and neglect babies and children suffered under the Ceausescu regime. But though A Girl Returned was also the story of an abandoned child–in this case an adopted child “returned” to her birth family, which also had its horrific moments—it was redeemed by the love she found with her birth sister Adriana, a childhood friend, Patrizia, and a reconciliation of sorts with her adoptive mother. And the girl’s insistence on taking her own life back after she had been thrown among strangers.

Austerlitz is a book I read often. Sometimes I linger in bookstores, browsing the “S” section, hoping a new Sebald book would appear, like manna. Since it won’t, I read the existing ones over and over and over and each time they seem as if I had never read them before. Except The Emigrants, my favorite, which I almost have memorized.

Weather, much lauded, much recommended, had been partly derived from other people’s work. I recognized some of the (unattributed) podcasts and articles she’d gotten the material from. As such, I couldn’t ally myself with the book; I was already allied with the original material. But I liked the paragraph – paragraph – paragraph style.

And the rest of September’s reading? art criticism and Jungian psychology. Now, I am reading myths.

Freedom Colonies

 

As I was reading about Andrea Roberts’ research into “freedom colonies”,  the name bothered me. Freedom ––as I’d always understood it from elementary school, from the Pledge of Allegiance we recited every day, facing the flag and with our hands over our hearts, from Woody Guthrie songs and the Star-Spangled Banner–freedom should be general across the nation, from sea to shining sea, from the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters, one nation, liberty and justice for all–and not confined to a colony. The word “colony” (per my trusty Barnhart) means “a settlement dependent on another country”–though further back it’s found to derive from cultivation, tilling, inhabiting

Andrea Roberts is a Vassar graduate, and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Texas A and M University. She is researching the thousands of historically black settlements, often called “freedom colonies,” that emerged across the United States after the Civil War. There are hundreds of these kinds of communities, these colonies, formed for mutual care and support and protection after the Civil War. “These weren’t places where [African American families] were pushed to,” Roberts said. “They were created on purpose and had ‘anchors,’ such as schools and churches and cemeteries around which the settlements were built.” There are hundreds of communities like this, based on race or religion or gender or just shared values–formed by groups distinct from the dominant culture.

And the dominant culture during restoration the Ku Klux Klan also rose during Restoration in the South. The Freedom Colonies rose during this fraught period and protected their inhabitants against the generalized racism, violence and hostility of that time, which is still with us today, and rising. History and the past are not the same, and it’s important to bring them closer together. But when I see efforts like this one to restore a lost past, I think of what Toni Morrison said about racism:

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art. So you dredge that up. Somebody sats that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. 

If you’re black, or queer, or female, or a member of a group that is not the group controlling the story , you’re used to mentally rewriting or actively resisting/ignoring/correcting history as it is told. History and the past are not the same. Do your work! And if your work is history, and the history shows your kingdoms, so be it. 

A significant fight to preserve African-American history is playing out through the auspices of the National Trust and the National Historic Preservation Act, which through its criteria of “architectural significance” has blocked the preservation of modest buildings such as slave quarters, tenements and cabins. Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, is leading the charge on preserving much of this history, including Nina Simone’s childhood home, Joe Frazier’s gym, and John and Alice Coltrane’s home

——————

In my other alumnae monthly, from Smith, I was struck by a related quote from Deborah Archer (Smith ’93): “My parents…understood that access to opportunity meant entering spaces where we were not expected and were not welcome. And, of course, we were met with resistance.” You need to go places you’re not wanted, and say things that the people there don’t want to hear. Archer was a student at Smith a few years after I was–I spent my freshman year there. Even at Smith, Archer had a note slid under her door that said “N—— go home”. She was not surprised. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut “KKK” was once sprayed on the side of her house.

Should This Exist?

It’s live! The preview of my upcoming podcast Should This Exist! Go subscribe and listen to the preview, and if you like it, please leave a rating!

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Here’s the official blurb about it:

About Caterina Fake

Caterina Fake is Silicon Valley’s most eloquent commentator and dot-connector on technology and the human condition. As a humanist with a deep passion for history, literature, arts and culture, she has a unique perspective on the myriad unforeseen ways technology can impact our world. And as a celebrated tech pioneer herself, Caterina brings a deep knowledge of technology and an optimistic enthusiasm for entrepreneurs. In the early 2000s, Caterina co-founded Flickr and introduced many of the innovations — newsfeeds, hashtags, “followers,” “likes” — that laid the foundation for modern social media. (Though she’s quick to point out where social media has gone wrong). As an angel investor, advisor and board member, she helped build companies like Etsy, Kickstarter and Stack Overflow — which defined and nurtured new types of human-centered online communities. She’s now co-founder of Yes VC, an investment fund focused on early stage startups. For Caterina, hosting Should This Exist? reflects her career-long dedication to help technology fulfill its promise.

About ‘Should This Exist?’

Premiering on Thursday, February 21, Should this Exist? leads a new conversation to answer the question of our times: How is technology impacting our humanity? On each episode, an entrepreneur or scientist with a radical new technology will join Caterina on a journey to peer around corners, and glimpse their technology’s wildest potential to change human lives for the better — and the hidden forces that might send their vision sideways. A sneak preview of the first season is now available on the Should this Exist? page on Apple Podcasts.

The show’s first season will include the visionaries behind a headset that hacks your brain with electric fields so you can learn like a kid again; a fully automated chatbot that offers one-on-one therapy; a next-generation supersonic plane; a device that can read the expression on your face and know how you’re feeling; software that will translate between human and animal languages; and a scientific approach that allows humans to modify entire species of animals in the wild —among other unprecedented firsts.

Should this Exist? models a new kind of conversation between the entrepreneur or inventor and the world. Drawing on a wide range of fields — history, psychology, philosophy, the arts — Caterina leads the inventor through a conversation that sets aside the business model and examines the human case more closely. 

Reducetarian, not vegetarian

I like a good steak. I really, really like a good steak. I order it rare. Other members of my family order it blue. And my grandfather used to eat his almost raw, instructing the griller, “just restore the body heat”, which, let’s be honest, is a really gross way to order food. That’s the kind of carnivores I come from. Tartare? Yes. Oh yes.

And I love animals, really really really. Animal rights? Makes me sick. My first exposure to the ghastliness of the industrial meat issue was Sue Coe’s terrifying book Dead Meat, which I read in 1996. More recently we watched the documentary Food, Inc. with the kids, probably the first horror movie they’ve seen. As the years have passed we’ve become more and more aware of the terrible things required to produce industrially farmed meat–through movies, articles, books the rise of various organizations promoting animal rights, even The Smiths album Meat is Murder.

As investors, we’ve looked at– and sampled–a lot of alternative protein products: classics like Tofurkey, Garden burgers and Boca Burgers. Second wave meat alternatives like Soylent, Beyond Meat, and we always get an Impossible Burger at Gott’s at the airport before boarding flights. We’ve eaten crickets, witchetty grubs, a vast array of soy products pretending to be meat, fake meat comprised of mushrooms and beets, and bland, frightening and generally unidentified frankenfood.

I am a failed vegetarian. My efforts to eliminate meat from my diet made me realize how anemic I was: I wasn’t good about taking my vitamins or making sure I had a good source of iron. I fainted several times, and ended my stint as a vegetarian when I entered a kind of fugue state and found myself sitting at the counter of Jackson Hole Burgers eating a 7 oz. burger. That is not a small amount of meat. But what’s a woke carnivore to do?

Reduce. Our kids call themselves not vegetarians–they still like the occasional slice of bacon–but reducetarians. Say it out loud: it sounds better than it looks. And it makes sense doesn’t it? I remember the short TED talk by Graham Hill in which is proposed to be a “weekday vegetarian” which is along reducetarian lines. Just eat less.

This is the future of food. Millennials are all on board, and leading the charge. 70% of the world population reportedly is either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether, according to market research from GlobalData, who works with 4000 consumer brands.

I really struggle with this, I’m a true carnivore. Some people have told me it’s my blood type, and maybe I need to take my vitamins. But it’s getting easier and easier for us woke carnivores to

like we’ve wanted to.

The Environmental Cost of 2 Day Shipping

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Worth emphasizing the environmental cost of 2 Day shipping, which comes with Amazon Prime, is huge, when compared with 3-5 day shipping, per this article on Grist. When I realized this, I started checking the box that says “No-Rush Shipping”.

Free two-day shipping — the hallmark of Amazon’s plan to squeeze out traditional retailers — burns through significantly more emissions than standard shipping or traditional in-store shopping.

When you wait three to five days for shipment, Jaller explains, Amazon has time to find the most efficient (and cheapest) way to deliver goods. Aviation is by far the most carbon-intensive transit option, and with more time the company can route your package by land, instead of by air…and group your package with other, similar deliveries.

“The concept of Amazon Prime pushes us towards more emissions…and makes the marginal cost of purchases very small, so you have motivation to buy more. And of course, that’s what Amazon wants.”

And the more shipments, the more packaging. The more packaging, the more waste. Go “No Rush”!

Arrival in San Francisco, 1989

On the first day I arrived in San Francisco, I wandered down to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I bought a sandwich, and sat on a bench with my book, reading, eating it and enjoying the salt air. A small black man, ragged, seemingly homeless, approached me, and asked for my sandwich. Which I refused to give him. So he started shouting, at the top of his lungs, “RACIST! RACIST” and all the tourists waiting on line to catch the boat to Alcatraz stared at me angrily, racist that I was. He wouldn’t stop, so I walked briskly away, and he continued following me, screaming “RACIST! RACIST!”, until I started running and ran up a hill and finally lost him and settled in at a nearby cafe where I had a cup of tea and caught my breath.
As I was sitting there, addled by this distressing experience, and trying to calm down, a man came up to me and without preamble said:

If you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.
A soft bodied dog, a hen­­––
feathers and fur to begin it again.
When the sun goes down and it gets dark
I saw an animal in a park.
Bring it home, to give it to you.
I have seen animals break in two.
You were hoping for something soft
and loyal and clean and wondrously careful­­––
a form of otherwise vicious habit
 can have long ears and be called a rabbit.
Dead. Died. Will die. Want.
Morning, midnight. I asked you
if you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.

And then smiled, bowed, and left the café. What an extraordinary city, I said to myself, and looked out the window into the overcast sky, a sky I would come to know so well. And I tried for a long while to find the poem, which I did, finally. It turned out to be by Robert Creeley, a poet from San Francisco and environs, and it was called If You.

I know it by heart now, and it was difficult to fathom. What was so unsettling about it? Why was it so rich in meaning?  It starts off so innocently, like a question by a grandmother to a child: the world is gentle and kind, and in order, and in the world are pets, so dear to us, and one can choose one as a friend. Suddenly you’re presented with a hen, which is not a pet at all–disconcerting–and then the author tells of animals breaking in two. Pets are animals, after all, and what is an animal? Hoping is introduced, and it fails by force of vicious rabbit. Death comes, finally, in all its forms, but then–the bliss of returning safely to the question again–a recovered innocence, and back again to the safety of being able to choose, and not have things happen to you.

Oh it is a magnificent poem. I was profoundly struck by it then, and every time I think of it. What a gift the stranger gave me, my first strange day in San Francisco.

Harassment, Redress & Roman Law

It seems as if, on the internet, harm can be done to others immediately, continuously, thoughtlessly, and unceasingly, and worse, without consequence to the perpetrator, who enjoys only satisfaction, righteousness, and immunity. It seems that a willingness to participate in conversations online is an implicit agreement to be subjected to harassment and abuse. Countless people–let me just say, most people I know with active online lives–have suffered this. People have committed suicide because of this abuse, old and young, but especially the young; countless people have withdrawn from both the online and offline world after having been subjected to online bullying; the victims, most often coming from the most vulnerable, protected groups, continue to suffer and retreat further from the full embrace of the world and its possibilities.

Those who suffer from racism, sexism, harassment and a daily parade of micro-aggressions have no recourse under any company’s Terms of Service, not to mention the law, unless an actual assault has taken place–and as is well documented, few of those cases are prosecuted, and of those, a vanishingly small number result in conviction. The punishments mostly accrue to the victim reporting the crime.

Online, in the various communities I’ve participated in, built and managed, I’ve written a half dozen Community Guidelines, and spent countless hours thinking through this problem. I’ve kicked countless perps off a dozen web sites, banned, muted and used secret troll-thwarting ninja techniques to perma-ban awful people using robust, well designed admin interfaces. I’ve even reported bad actors to the FBI.  I couldn’t think of how, under the law, the people who suffer from these agonies could be protected from, or receive redress from the thugs whose wrongs they had endured.  But today I happened upon an article about sexual harassment and Roman law, which presented a vision of the law that I hadn’t thought possible: Here’s what it said.

From its earliest codification in the Twelve Tables of 450BC, Roman law gave people a right to recover damages for personal injury.

The law expanded over the centuries to protect an increasingly wide range of personal rights by means of an action known as the actio injuriarum (or action for injuries). By the time of the publication of the Digest of Justinian in 533AD, the action protected three groups of rights:corpus (bodily integrity), fama (reputation), and dignitas (dignity).

This is where the major difference lies between our English-based law of torts and Roman law: although the law of torts allows a plaintiff to sue for bodily injury and defamation, it offers no protection for dignity and therefore no right to sue for verbal insult, no matter how offensive.

The actio injuriarum lives on in modern legal systems. A good example is South Africa, whose legal system is based on Roman law. There, the action has been used to recover damages for sexist verbal insults, unwelcome propositioning for sexual intercourse, and unwelcome exposure to pornography. The action also protects privacy, so it has been used to recover damages in cases involving peeping Toms, stalking, and the publication of intimate facts about people’s private lives.

 

Great Things, and “The Everglades”, by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

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From a review by Michael N. McGregor in Tin House of The Everglades: River of Grass, a book by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whose name is probably familiar to you now, because of the massacre of students at the school which bore her name. I was struck by this passage, which McGregor quoted, of the men who came to drain the Everglades:

Before that, in all those years of talk and excitement about drainage, the only argument was a schoolboy’s logic. The draining of the Everglades would be a Great Thing. Americans did Great Things. Therefore Americans would drain the Everglades. Beyond that–to the intricate and subtle relation of soil, of fresh water and evaporation, and of runoff and salt intrusion, and all the consequences of disturbing the fine balance nature had set up in the past four thousand years–no one knew enough to look. They saw the Everglades no longer as a vast expanse of saw grass and water, but as a dream a mirage or riches that man men would follow to their ruin.

To do Great Things. It has a powerful, irresistible appeal, but is almost always interpreted wrongly, and used to justify waste and destruction. In its name the Everglades were sold to conquistadors who made fortunes selling the plumes of ibises to society ladies for their hats, and hides of alligators for their shoes; the wildlife died off, the fires came, and the salt intrusion of the oceans.

David Bull & Ukiyo-e

Through my online pal Gripper’s Findery post, I learned of the YouTube channel of David Bull, who practices the traditional art of Ukiyo-e. I grew up in a house full of Japanese woodblock prints, and, as an artist and as an early member of the Etsy team, I have a love of the handcrafted. One of the best things the internet has done is made it possible for people like David to make a living practicing ancient arts.

David runs a YouTube channel, which has videos of him and his team carving the wood blocks, painstakingly laying down each color, talking about new editions from his collaborator, Jed Henry, and telling stories about his experiences meeting elderly masters of the art in his friendly, impassioned and charming way.

I sent away for one of the prints, which I received today. It is gorgeous.

David Bull Print 2