Monday 27 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

“Among the unvaccinated, the virus travels unhindered on a highway with multiple off-ramps and refueling stations. In the vaccinated, it gets lost in a maze of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs.”

  • Craig Spencer, writing in The Atlantic

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

I never see a pastoral scene with sheep grazing (like this, seen last Saturday on a cycle ride) without thinking of a particular Bach cantata.

J.S.Bach | “Sheep may safely graze” | Cantata 208 | Susanne Rydén & Voices of Music


If you prefer a purely orchestral version, there’s this recording by the Academy of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and Neville Marriner.

Long Read of the Day

The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book

Lovely essay by Steven Johnson, in which this passage struck a chord:

Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters — just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period — Milton, Bacon, Locke — were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

In some ways, this is why I started blogging in the mid-1990s. I saw it as a way of keeping a kind of lab notebook. And then I found that one could put a search engine on it and I was off to the races.

But the thing about commonplacing is that you’re not pretending that what goes into your book makes sense to anyone except yourself. It’s just a place for half-formed ideas that you write down in the hope of not losing them. So I thought of resurrecting the idea in this blog — which is why there will be occasional ‘commonplace’ observations at the end from now on.

Zuckerberg’s total control of Facebook is part of the problem.

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Facebook is one of the most toxic corporations on the planet. Its toxicity has two roots. The first is its business model: intrusive and comprehensive surveillance of its users in order to compile profiles that enable advertisers to target messages at them. This business model is powered by the machine-learning algorithms that construct those profiles and determine what appears in the news feeds of the company’s 2.85 billion users. In large measure, it is the output of these algorithms that constitutes the focus of congressional anger and inquiry.

The other source of the company’s toxicity is its governance. Essentially, Facebook is a dictatorship entirely controlled by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Do read the whole thing.

Is Biden as unTrumpian as people think?

Frank Bruni is beginning to have doubts about Joe Biden.

France’s foreign minister described himself as “angry and bitter.” He called what President Biden had done “brutal.”

But those harsh adjectives (in their English translation) meant nothing next to something else that the diplomat, Jean-Yves Le Drian, uttered late last week. He said that Biden’s decision to negotiate a secret submarine deal with Australia that nullified a lucrative French arrangement reminded him “a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do.”

And nothing about Biden is ever supposed to remind anyone of Donald Trump.

Biden was elected president primarily because he held himself up as the antithesis of Trump.

Commonplace booklet

Food for thought

This from a lovely New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik in 2007 about literary recipes…

The recipes in these books are not, of course, meant to be cooked; they have literary purposes, and one of them is to represent the background of thought. Every age finds an activity that can take place while a character is meditating; the activity surrounds and halos the meditation. In Victorian fiction, it is walking; the character takes a long walk from Little Tipping to Old Stornsbury and, on the way, decides to propose, convert, escape, or run for office. But the walk as meditational setting and backdrop came to an end with Joyce and Woolf, who made whole walking books. In recent American fiction, driving was recessive enough to do the job; in Updike and Ann Beattie, characters in cars are always doing the kind of thinking that Pip and Phineas Finn used to do on walks. Driving and walking, however, do seem to be natural “background” actions. But you cannot have characters thinking while cooking; the activity is not a place for thought but in place of thought.

We need these devices in books, because we do not, in life, think our thoughts over time. Since our real mental life is made in tiny flashes in the midst of our routines, we have to stretch it out, taffy-like, in literature to cover a span of time worthy of it. If we accurately represented our mental life as it takes place—sudden impulses on the way to the washroom, a spasm of neurons unleashed over coffee—no one would believe it. Consciousness is not a stream but a still lock that suddenly drops into little waterfalls. The lengthy descriptions of cooking that we find in modern literature are a way of artfully representing, rather than actually reproducing, our mental life—a modelled illusion, rather than a snapshot of the thing.

That last paragraph rings a bell. Much of what I am pleased to call my ‘thinking’ happens when I’m in the shower, or washing up. I once had the idea of keeping a notebook in the bathroom, but gave up because the paper always got wet.

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