Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric and writing.
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free and forever

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I want to write here about something I don’t understand.

My friend Robin Sloan alerted me to this post by a passionate advocate of crypto/blockchain’s power to … well, something awesome, I guess, though no matter how many times I read posts like this I can never tell exactly what is supposed to happen.

Now, that may be because writers like this fellow, Jacob, are writing for insiders – people who already know the details, who already have clear use cases in mind, who are already excited about the future of blockchain and crypto and web3. But when I ask knowledgable people about these matters, I always get pointed to posts just like this one, which are, you know, right there on the open web for all to see. So I think questions like the ones I am raising here are legitimate to raise.

So: Jacob is particularly excited about what he calls “hyperstructures”: “Crypto protocols that can run for free and forever, without maintenance, interruption or intermediaries.”

Wow, for free! But hang on a sec … Later, expanding on that definition, he says, “there is a 0% protocol wide fee and runs exactly at gas cost.” So when he says that hyperstructures can run for free, what he actually means is that no additional cost is imposed over and above the cost of making transactions, which is something that fluctuates, fairly dramatically, according to supply and demand.

But they run forever! Well … let’s look at the expanded definition of “forever”: “It runs for as long as the underlying blockchain exists.” Okay, so how long is that? “Hyperstructures … can continuously function without a maintainer or operator, and they can run for as long as the underlying blockchain is running — which can be at the very least a decade.”

So “forever” means “at least a decade” and “free” means “whatever the gas cost is when you make an exchange of any kind.”

See, this – along with the seemingly complete inability of anyone involved with this stuff to tell me one thing I could use it for – is what makes people call crypto a big con game. Maybe it isn’t! But I can’t find any of the advocates for it who can, or are willing, to explain why it’s not. 

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Weekly Review

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The underwater volcano Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai erupted with a force 500 times stronger than the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, sending a plume of ash and water vapor beyond the earth’s stratosphere, producing the loudest sound in over a century, and severing the nation of Tonga’s sole fiber-optic cable.1 2 3 4 New Zealand’s largest navy ship brought emergency supplies and fresh water to the ash-stricken island; an Australian aid flight turned around midair because a crew member tested positive for COVID-19.5 6 The pastor of an Oklahoma church apologized for massaging his spit into the face of a parishioner.7 “Receiving vision from God might get nasty,” he had prefaced. The British native Malik Faisal Akram held a rabbi and three congregants hostage inside a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue for 11 hours and demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-educated neuroscientist imprisoned in Fort Worth, Texas, who has been the subject of many hostage release demands from ISIS and the Taliban, as well as from moderate Muslim advocacy groups like the Council on American–Islamic Relations; all four hostages were unharmed and Akram was shot dead by the FBI, who first said Akram’s act was not anti-Semitic, then said that it was.8 9 10 11 While presiding over the year’s first legislative session maskless, the president of the Utah Senate said he had twice tested positive for COVID-19 the day before, then said that he was just kidding and had twice tested negative, then later conceded that he had indeed twice tested positive.12 A Czech folk singer who intentionally contracted COVID in the hopes of acquiring a “recovery pass” to the local sauna died.13

As Russia expanded its military presence along its borders with Ukraine, British intelligence warned that Vladimir Putin planned to replace Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with a puppet ruler.14 15 “If this will be war, it’s going to be a very strong war, and everyone will lose,” Zelensky told a reporter.16 Russian officials dismissed the claim and canceled the visas of those in the U.S. diplomatic service, including the private chef for the deputy chief of the Moscow embassy.17 Nestlé, who along with Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey, and Mondel?z was sued for child slavery in the Ivory Coast, announced that they intended to “focus on [the candies’] personalities rather than their gender.”18 19 “I think we all win when we see more women in leading roles, so I’m happy to take on the part of supportive friend when they succeed,” said the green M&M.20 A plan to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt—the largest plan in U.S. history, written by an unelected board helmed by the former Ukrainian minister of finance Natalie Jaresko—was approved.21 22 New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, committed to converting his first mayoral paycheck into Bitcoin and Ethereum and reinstating a unit of plainclothes police officers.23 24 The cryptocurrency market crashed.25 To ward off a “moderate” murder of crows occupying Sunnyvale, California, city employees were, for an hour every night, agitating them with green lasers and a boom box.26

“There are some 16-year-olds you would feel comfortable with and others you wouldn’t,” said a public health professor about an Australian plan to ameliorate supply chain issues by letting teenagers drive forklifts.27 A former member of the Royal Protection Command alleged that Andrew Edward, whose mother took away some of his royal titles because he has been accused of serially sexually assaulting a teenager, required dozens of stuffed animals to be arranged nightly on his bed per a laminated diagram.28 “I implicitly thought [that this] was a work event,” said Boris Johnson about one of the bring-your-own-booze garden parties he lied about then apologized for attending at his home during Britain’s 2020 lockdown.29 30 During a virtual congressional hearing about the widespread health issues caused by burn pits on military bases, research about which was suppressed for over a decade by Veterans Affairs, Representative Madison Cawthorn spent several minutes cleaning his pistol.31 32 Marlon Bundo, the Pence family rabbit, died.33 Paleontologists determined that the first preserved dinosaur cloaca, although “shaped in its perfect, unique way,” was likely not used for sex.34 After overrunning its budget 10-fold, avoiding 344 potential points of failure, and flying almost a million miles, the James Webb Space Telescope arrived at a point of perfect balance between the earth and the sun.35 36 37 —Jordan Cutler-Tietjen 

The post Weekly Review first appeared on Harper's Magazine.
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on Wells

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Stefan Collini’s review of Claire Tomalin’s book on H. G. Wells is very strange indeed. For one thing, he only mentions the book under review in the final paragraph. But more odd still is the refrain with which he begins and ends the review: “It​ can be hard, from this distance, to see what all the fuss was about,” he says in the first sentence; and then he concludes, “Tomalin is a weighty advocate, and her admiration may help to spark a revival in Wells’s reputation, though perhaps even her noted empathy and artistry still cannot quite re-create for us, now, what all the fuss was about.” 

I can easily understand a reader today not thinking highly of Wells’s fiction. But if you can read The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and Tono-Bungay and Ann Veronica and fail “to see what all the fuss was about,” I don’t know what to say to you. Wells’s fiction touches on most of the major themes and concerns of British culture in his lifetime, and a failure to grasp this is a failure of readerly and historical imagination. You don’t have to think him a great writer to see that he was a ceaselessly dynamic and provocative figure, even if his ever-more-pompous predictions, warnings, and commandments ended up making him look somewhat ludicrous (as in the caricature of him as Horace Jules in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength). 

I haven’t read Tomalin’s book — devoted just to the first half of Welles’s career — but I have read Adam Roberts’s “literary life” of Wells, which masterfully puts all of Wells’s voluminous writing into proper context. I’ll leave you with a passage from that book: 

As the world has grown bigger and more complex, as well as more complexly interconnected, a kind of socio-technological sublime increasingly threatens to overwhelm our individual subjectivities like Hokusai’s great wave. Steampunk is, inter alia, an attempt to dress technological advance in the habiliments of a more elegant and refined age, and Wells is one of the ways of focalising that. More, this cultural representation — the boyishly mobile and inventive Wells, the Wells of diverting scientific romances and sexual liberation — speaks, in part, to an ill-focused desire to assert ‘the little man’ (less so ‘the little woman’) in the teeth of this intimidating vastness. There is enough of Wells actual life-trajectory in this to give it bite: the physically small individual from small-scale roots who created himself as a world-class writer and thinker. He takes his place alongside other pervasive cultural myths of the small-man who effects great things in a baffling and alarming world — heroic hobbits, magical schoolboys: contemporary iterations of a fundamentally infantalising legendarium of underdoggishness. One need not deprecate these contemporary myths, any more than one need look down on Wells’s extraordinary achievements in the field of science fiction, to think this sells his larger achievement short. If there has been one through-line in the present work it has been that Wells was a literary artist of immense, underappreciated talent, a writer whose literary genius, whilst it must of course be central to a literary biography, deserves to be resurrected in a much broader cultural context too. 

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A strange day in politics – and what needs to change

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19th January 2022

Well, that was a strange day.

The Prime Minister was in defiant mood – as voters and his own backbenchers deserted him.

The Prime Minister was facing a leadership challenge –  but not one quite yet.

And the Prime Minster was unable to tell the House of Commons that, as a matter of general principle, a minister who lies to the House should resign.

So a strange day – but also an in-between day.

The sort of day that will be soon forgotten in-and-of-itself, especially compared with some dramatic event that will no doubt soon come.

But.

The real problem, as this blog has previously averred, is not really the person of Boris Johnson.

The Boris Johnsons of this world are, like the poor, always with us.

The Donald Trumps are also always with us.

They are what they are, and they do what they do – the only difference is now that they are able to have political power.

And this is because of two things.

The first is the failure of various small-c conservative gatekeepers – politicians and media figures and others – who should and did know better.

The sort who clap and cheer at such authoritarian populism, when the populists should instead be checked and kept away from positions of power.

And the second was (and is) the complacency of the liberals and progressives.

Those who think that being dismissive of authoritarian populists is enough to somehow defeat them.

It is not – and that is how in just a few years we went from Obama and Blair/Brown and the sentiments of the 2012 Olympics and ‘Yes We Can’ to the world of Brexit and MAGA.

Tutting is not enough – authoritarian populists need to be taken on and defeated.

And small-c conservative need to not be enablers.

Whilst there is this fundamental system failure where conservative gatekeepers and liberal-progressives fail to check authoritarian populism then, even if we get rid of Johnson, there will be another Johnson.

The problem is upstream.

And that is the cultural change that is needed – and the culture war that needs to be won.

******

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albeit

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WIRED: Why do you call the metaverse dystopian?

John Hanke: It takes us away from what fundamentally makes us happy as human beings. We’re biologically evolved to be present in our bodies and to be out in the world. The tech world that we’ve been living in, as exacerbated by Covid, is not healthy. We’ve picked up bad habits — kids spending all day playing Roblox or whatever. And we’re extrapolating that, saying, “Hey, this is great. Let’s do this times 10.” That scares the daylights out of me.

Whereas you want people to actually experience daylight, albeit with a phone in their hands. 

I really got into this idea of using digital tech to reinvigorate the idea of a public square, to bring people off the couch and out into an environment they can enjoy. There’s a lot of research that supports the positive psychological impact of walking through a park, walking through a forest — just walking. But now we live in a world where we have all this anxiety, amplified by Covid. There’s a lot of unhappiness. There’s a lot of anger. Some of it comes from not doing what our bodies want us to do — to be active and mobile. In our early experiments, we got a lot of feedback from people who were kind of couch potatoes that the game was causing them to walk more. They were saying, “Wow, this is amazing, I feel so much better. I’m physically better, but mentally I’m way more better. I broke out of my depression or met new people in the community.” We said, “Wow, like, this is good we can do in the world.” 

How about not having the phone in your hands. Hanke says, “AR is the place where the real metaverse is going to happen.” How about it not happening at all

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The Homebound Symphony

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Much of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, set largely in Michigan some twenty years after a global pandemic kills 99% of humanity —  focuses on the experiences of the Traveling Symphony: 

The Symphony performed music — classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs — and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter [the leader of the Orchestra] said. 

Later we learn that “All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.” Dieter says, “That quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek,” but not everyone agrees that the quote’s origin is a problem. Take wisdom where you find it, is their view. 

In his dyspeptic screed of fifty years ago, In Bluebeard’s Castle, George Steiner talks about living in a “post-culture” — a society whose culture has died even if its monuments may remain: 

At great pains and cost, Altstädtte, whole cities, have been rebuilt, stone by num bered stone, geranium pot by geranium pot. Photographic ally there is no way of telling; the patina on the gables is even richer than before. But there is something unmistakably amiss. Go to Dresden or Warsaw, stand in one of the exquisitely recomposed squares in Verona, and you will feel it. The perfection of renewal has a lacquered depth. As if the light at the cornices had not been restored, as if the air were inappropriate and carried still an edge of fire. There is nothing mystical to this impression; it is almost painfully literal. It may be that the coherence of an ancient thing is harmonic with time, that the perspective of a street, of a roof line, that have lived their natural being can be replicated but not re-created (even where it is, ideally, in distinguishable from the original, reproduction is not the vital form ). Handsome as it is, the Old City of Warsaw is a stage set; walking through it, the living create no active resonance. It is the image of those precisely restored house fronts, of those managed lights and shadows which I keep in mind when trying to discriminate between what is ir retrievable — though it may still be about — and what has in it the pressure of life.

A powerful passage; but, while I agree with Steiner that we are living in a kind of post-culture, I reject his language of the “irretrievable,” or as he says elsewhere in that essay, “irreparable.” I’ll explain why. 

First the bad news. I don’t know a statement more indicative of the character of our moment than this by J. D. Vance: “I think our people hate the right people.” It’s what almost everyone believes these days, isn’t it? That they and their people hate the right people. And it seems to me that that is a pretty good definition of a post-culture: a society in which people have no higher ambition than to bring down those they perceive to be their enemies. I couldn’t agree more with my friend Yuval Levin that our moment is A Time to Build, but when you’re only concerned with hating the right people, who has time to build anything? 

There are a lot of people out there doing good work to expose the absurdities, the hypocrisies, and the sheer destructiveness of both the Left and the Right. I myself did some of that work for several years, but I’m not inclined to keep doing it, largely because that work of critique, however necessary, lacks a constructive dimension. There has to be something better we can do than curse our enemies — or the darkness of the present moment. If I agree with Yuval that this is indeed a time to build, then what can I build?

And as regular readers of this blog know, my particular emphasis is not on building from scratch but on restoring, renewing, and repairing. As Steiner notes, the remnants of Culture Lost surround us — still more so than when he wrote those words: the great benefit of the Internet is its ability to preserve cultural artifacts that very few people have any use for today. But such preservation is not automatic and inevitable. On the Internet, things get lost, links stop working, even the Wayback Machine is not able to rescue everything, though it rescues a hell of a lot. My task, as I now conceive it, is not to engage in critique but rather to bear a small light and keep it burning for the next generation and maybe the generation after that. I want to find what is wise and good and beautiful and true and pass along to my readers as much of it as I can, in a form that will be accessible and comprehensible to them.

That last point is worth emphasizing. Great works of art and of wisdom cannot always speak clearly for themselves: they often need an interpreter. And sometimes they need to be revised to some degree to make them useful to us. This is why I have talked about vendoring culture: the creative activity of making accessible and vivid what otherwise could be inscrutable and might therefore seem pointless. It is a teacherly thing to do, I suppose, and that makes sense for me, because I have never been able to think of myself primarily as a scholar or a writer but rather as a teacher who writes. Wordsworth famously wrote “what we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how” – but if we don’t teach them how, then there is very little chance that they will indeed love what we have loved.

Station Eleven had the Traveling Symphony: I’m trying to be the Homebound Symphony. Just one person sitting in my study with a computer on my lap, reading and listening and viewing, and recording and sifting and transmitting – sharing the good, the true, and the beautiful, with added commentary. The initial purpose of this work is to repair, not the whole culture, but just my own attention. On a daily basis I retrain my mind to attend to what is worthy. It is the task of a lifetime, especially in an environment which strives constantly to commandeer my attention, to remove it from my control, to make me a passive consumer of what others wish me to look at or listen to. 

So first of all I’m doing this work — this blog; my essays; my books; my newsletter, which is all about praise and delight — for myself, but one of the reasons that I can be disciplined in redirecting my attention is that I’ve learned that if I do so it can be helpful to others. That’s really been the great lesson for me of the last few weeks — since I started my Buy Me a Coffee page: I’ve learned that a few people appreciate the ways in which I can help them redirect their own attention. 

As David Samuels has said in a memorable essay, “My problem is how to escape from it all in order to continue being me. The aim of any sane person in an age like this one is to be free to love the people you love and secure the freedom of one’s own thoughts, the same way you step out of the way of an oncoming truck.” But it’s not only about continuing being myself, or even about loving my family and friends (though that love should always be my first priority). Survival is insufficient. I also feel an obligation to cup my hand around a candle to shield its flame in the strong winds. As the book of Proverbs teaches us, “The spirit of man” — including the manifestations of that spirit in art and music and story — “is the candle of the Lord.” My job is to keep that candle burning and pass it along to those who come after me. I don’t think anything that we’ve lost or neglected is irretrievable or irreparable, not even if I fail in my duty. I think often about what Tom Stoppard’s Alexander Herzen says near the end of The Coast of Utopia: “The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”

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