Content Consumption

August 21, 2019

Today, I write my first "listicle," a truly genius form. Taking other people's content, repackaging it with the hottest "hot takes" and serving it back to you, lukewarm. Here’s a small window into my thinking through the books, podcasts, and articles that have stuck with me over the past months.

Bangalore, India

I apologize for the email woes and delays. I really thought this Mailchimp thing
was going to be more simple, especially considering that they advertise it all
over the podcasts I listen to! And people (like me) who listen to such podcasts
are always thinking our opinions are important enough to blast through the SMTP
ether. Anyway, I have heard your concerns loud and clear! So we are going to
change things up a little bit.

After today's note, I’ll stop sending entire posts via email. They never
appeared properly, and people couldn’t read them. Instead, every other Sunday,
I’ll send out an overview of all of the posts from the past two weeks. You can
browse the title, read a short description, and then click through to the blog
itself if you are interested in reading the whole thing. Maybe some weeks
there'll be lots to choose from! Sometimes there'll only be one. If you don't
receive an email—don't fret—I'm fine. I'm just being lazy.

Rest assured, I have been busy with both work and play, but I haven’t finished
writing about it yet. But I'm no fool. I know how this business works, having to
placate the incessant demand for content. Publish or peril, so they say! Here’s
something to hold you over.


Random Family

February 2004

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent well over a decade essentially living with the
protagonists of Random Family. For years, she met with them daily, and even
stayed in their homes in the Bronx, in New York City and Troy, in upstate New

LeBlanc’s subjects sold drugs, did drugs, committed murder, went to prison,
had sex, fell in love, got pregnant, fed their children. They shared ambitions
and fears with a writer who was by their side for a decade. The book that
resulted is an urban epic...

Anna Altman and Katia Bachko, 2013

What makes Random Family so powerful and heartbreaking is precisely the
matter-a-fact manner in which it’s written. Every conceivable type of trauma,
betrayal, abuse is described as just another day. The conspicuous absence of
impassioned writing is far and away the loudest stylistic choice.

That summer, Serena started to cry whenever she peed, and after a few weeks,
Lourdes threatened to hit Jessica if she didn't bring Serena to the hospital
to be checked. When Jessica and Elaine finally took her to the emergency room,
the doctors discovered that she'd been sexually abused. She was two years old.
Jessica was detained. A police officer interviewed her and explained that he
could not release Serena into her custody. Lourdes had to sign for her…
Lourdes blamed Jessica; Jessica blamed herself. And somehow, Serena got lost
in the noise. All the women in Serena's life had been sexually abused at one
time or another, and their upset seemed to be less about the child's trauma
than the overwhelming need, precipitated by the crisis, to revisit their own.

Taken in isolation, each episode shocks the conscious. But when a new horror
appears every paragraph, the individual scenes begins to lose their outrageous
nature. As the reader, I found myself becoming as inured to the characters’
conditions as they themselves seem to be.

Then periodically, I would remember that I had never once experienced a loss
remotely similar to the hundreds I had just read about. Closing the book left me
with a feeling I simply could not comprehend; not like the pre-packaged outrage
offered readily online, or the feel-good empathy engendered by “learning across
difference.” Random Family is a forced reckoning—an insistence that tragedy
and hardship the likes of which I cannot conceive is real. So real—in fact—it is
almost banal.

Reading about heartbreaks like baseball statistics creates a strange disconnect.
The book prompted many thoughts about the theoretical elements of journalism
as a medium and reporting’s complicated relationship to truth. But I need more
time to understand my own thoughts there, so I’ll save that for later.

Regardless, read Random Family. I can’t promise exactly what you’ll take away,
but it will trouble both your heart and mind.


Breaking News

July 2017

It is safe to say that listening to “Breaking News” is when I decided on my
Watson project. I was listening on a long, solo drive, somewhere between
Birmingham, AL and Asheville, NC. The episode centers on what are now
colloquially known as “Deep Fakes,” or digitally altered videos convincing
enough that they seem real.

The entire episode is worth listening to, but the following exchange is what has
stuck with me two years later. The interchange happens between the episode’s
reporter, Simon Adler, and Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman a professor of computer
science at The University of Washington. For context, Kemelmacher-Shlizerman
develops programs that animates individual’s faces to speak any text fed into
the machine.

SIMON: Like, the timing of you guys making this thing, and then this
explosion of fake news. Like, how do you guys think about -- about how it
could be used for nefarious purposes?

IRA: Yeah, it's a good question.

IRA: I feel like when every technology is developed, then there is this
danger of with our technology, you -- you can create fake videos and so on. I
don't want to call it fake videos, but like, to create video from audio,

SIMON: But they are fake videos.

IRA: Yeah, yeah. But the way that I think about it is that, like
scientists are doing their job and showing -- like, inventing the technology
and showing it off, and then we all need to, like, think about the next steps,
obviously. I mean, people should work on that, and the answer is not clear.

SIMON: But like, a man in North -- I think he was from North Carolina,
believed from a fake print article that Hillary Clinton was running a sex ring
out of a pizza parlor in DC, which is, like, insane. This man believed it and
showed up with a gun. And if people are at a moment where they are willing to
believe stories as ludicrous as that, like, I don't expect them to wonder if
this video is real or not.

IRA: So what are you asking?

SIMON: I'm asking -- well, I'm asking, do you -- are you afraid of the
power of this? And if not, why?

IRA: Just -- I'm just giving my -- I don't know. It just -- I'm answering
your questions, but I'm a technologist, I'm a computer scientist. So not
really, because I know how to -- and I know that -- because I know that this
technology's reversible. I mean, nobody -- well, there is not -- not worried
too much.

By the middle of this exchange, I was yelling in frustration and banging my
hands on the steering wheel. It felt like the perfect exemplification of a fear
that had been brewing inside me ever since I started taking computer science and
political science courses side-by-side.

Kemelmacher-Shlizerman was subscribing to the belief that scientists are not
responsible for the way their discoveries and/or inventions are used. It struck
me as both tone deaf and painfully naive. Is Facebook not responsible when it
abets the ethic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims out on its platform? Are the
Sacklers not responsible for the pandemic of preventable opioid deaths across
the USA? Does Kemelmacher-Shlizerman really believe she has no responsibility
for fake news when she’s built a program specifically designed to rewrite

Then again—she might actually not be responsible. Is Albert Einstein responsible
for the United State’s massacre of the Japanese with two atomic bombs? The
politics of technology is complicated, and this episode of RadioLab dives into
the mess head on.


Neil Young’s Lonely Quest to Save Music

August 2019

This strange, meandering piece by Jim Goldberg won’t teach you much about Neil
Young, barring fun examples of his eccentricity and irritability. It does,
however, put Young’s recent escapades in the context of a larger narrative:
voicing concern with the modern condition.

But Young hears something creepier and more insidious in the new music too. We
are poisoning ourselves with degraded sound, he believes, the same way that
Monsanto is poisoning our food with genetically engineered seeds… Substituting
smoothed-out algorithms for the contingent complexity of biological existence
is bad for us, Young thinks.

The article is really not about music at all. It is about raising a new
generation in a troubled new millennium. As it turns out, both Young and
Goldberg have children with sensory disorders, and both have sought
auditory-based treatments.

In that moment, talking about our sons, I realized how all of Young’s
obsessions fit together: They are centered in a common understanding of
experience and how it shapes us. Human development is led by our senses. Our
senses exert a formative and shaping pressure on our brains. So if our
experience of the world around us can damage our brains and our souls, it
makes a kind of intuitive sense that music can also help us feel better. Every
musician, and every music fan, believes that.

Using music—and sound more broadly—as synecdoche for experience, Goldberg tries
to argue that Young’s obsession with fidelity is really about preserving our
humanity. What creates high fidelity sound? It’s not loud volumes, not instant
streaming, not universal availability, and certainly not compression. It’s the
exact opposite; the incongruences, imperfections, and inexplicable complexities.

If we allow the rest of our world to go the way of digital music, squashing all
the outliers into a more comfortable range, we’ll sow the seeds of our
dissatisfaction, sacrificing wonder at the altar of convenience.

It’s strange to imagine that Young might be a prophet of sorts — but maybe
not. His lesson is that everything human is shot through with imperfection.
Filtering that out doesn’t make us more perfect; it is making us sick.

If you get the chance to explore any of these three pieces in full, I’d love to
hear from you! Please send me recommendations as well. As always, respond to the
email newsletter, and I’d be happy to chat.