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Have you ever listened to a podcast? Then likely you might have heard some podcasters imploring you to leave a review. Because it really makes a difference! They even read their reviews! After listening to so many podcasts, I finally felt the urge to express myself in this way and wrote a review for If Books Could Kill. But it seems that the big place for podcast reviews is Apple Podcasts, and I’m not in that particular walled garden. An interesting way to learn people aren’t really interested in your opinion. So instead I left my review on some strange podcast reviewing site. And now I’m leaving it here.

I grew up in England, but came of age as Youtube became ascendant. As a result I was the among the first generation of British youth to be suddenly consuming unpasturized American culture. I can think of no more heightened example of this than bingeing highlights of the NBA slam dunk contest. Total exposure could not have lasted more than an hour. The worlds greatest b-ballers performed all manner of dunks from incredible heights, through flaming hoops, in the final stage of High Altitude, Low Opening parachute jump. But all dunks are pretty much the same, however you dress them up. The spectacle is forever wrestling with the hollowness of the exercise.

If Books Could Kill constantly feels like it is in danger of becoming the Slam Dunk Contest. The premise of the show is that our all star cast of based, lefty, bien pensant podcasting hosts, Michael and Peter review the most popular non-fiction titles that have shaped our discourse and inevitably done a great deal of damage along the way. Because, as it turns out, most of these books are bad. There is the long line up of air-port self-help, pop-psychology, pop-economics, and sub-business school business books laid out for said hosts to, well, dunk on.

I am not misleading you when I say that we have an all-star pair of podcasting hosts. Each have respectively had their previous podcasts receive major press, plaudits, and followings. So does this podcast achieve the sum of its parts? While their other podcasts — You’re Wrong About, Maintenance Phase, and 5-4 — all had clear, coherent theses that were deeply important that roughly fall into a revisionist movement in journalism that has blossomed in journalism, IBCK mostly has to grasp at the claim to understanding a broader conservative project. Fair enough for some of the books they cover. But I once heard two people in a car park complaining that prisoners live rent free and get TV. I wouldn’t say that I stumbled upon part of the “conservative project”.

The fact is that I like books. I listen to the NYRB Classics podcast. I listen to the 99% invisible episodes where they are going through the Power Broker. I’m working my way through ReJoyce, the forever incomplete Ulysses close reading podcast. I have listened to multiple Gene Wolfe podcasts. I’ve listened to a lot of the podcast where they read through all of Infinite Jest, and now Inherent Vice. I cannot emphasize enough that the premise of IBCK is forever putting the podcast in danger of total doom because they are dealing with the least interesting books in the world. It is a breath of fresh air when there is a writer featured who either can write, has written interesting things, or just defies any kind of expectation.

The big open secret in non-fiction is that there is no fact checking aside from what the author has commissioned themselves. There is some residual idea that we all got from somewhere that things being in books confers some authority, but for anyone paying attention, that has never been true. There is a wide net that could be cast here, beyond the Conservative Project. But whatever. Five stars. There was dunking.

Vienna Diary, July 23rd

Tram, bus, and hike up Kahlenberg. Walked in the sun among vineyards overlooking the city. The top of the hill offers cafes, restaurants, concession stands, and Catholicism. It’s a Sunday morning and there was mass. A long line of cars trundled past to accept the Eucharist drive-thru style. Holy water was flung across the windshield. Shame they didn’t offer the sign of the cross with a squeegee.

On the way back there was an issue with our tram. We vacated to the platform to watch some kind of logic puzzle play out in from of us involving a small loop of track as one tram was brought in to replace another.

The Fall of Novgorod

I recently had an hour or two free in Madison, Wisconsin and was able to visit the Chazen Museum of Art. They had an exhibition of contemporary African art, which was interesting, but as I often find, rather undermined by the commentary given to the work. It was all rather overdetermined; paintings are doing things like making an argument for liberation. Maybe they are, but the writing certainly doesn’t help me see that.

In the permanent collection I found the following painting, presented without commentary, that I found compelling enough to go to the Wikipedia to work out what was going on:

The Fall of Novgorod (1891) — Klaudii Vasilievich Lebedev

The Fall of Novgorod is a striking scene of dispossession. The woman, just off to the right center, garbed in rich red, stares right at the viewer, as if to convict the viewer. She is among those being dispossessed, yet in her bearing remains dignified and above the humiliation. There is the bell in the background being dragged away on a sled. Men sit tied in the snow. Others watch on. The sky is darker than the snow.

I find a painting like this powerful in ways that photographs aren’t. In part, it’s because there simply aren’t photographs of the time being depicted. But also there is a craft in the richness of the painting, its composition, it’s saturation that is quite different from what you’d get in a photograph. They are multi-character dramas, rich in detail and expression.

Consulting the Wikipedia to understand the painting misled me. Googling “The Fall of Novgorod” led me to the Massacre of Novgorod in 1570, instigated by a paranoid Ivan the Terrible. This seemed reasonable to me, until I realized that the museum webpage put the scene almost 100 years prior:

The Fall of Novgorod depicts the capture of the City of Novgorod by Ivan III in 1478. Ivan had the city bell—a symbol of self-governance by the citizens—taken down and transported to Moscow. In the painting Marfa Boretskaya, the mayor’s widow and leader of the resistance, stands in silent outrage as Ivan’s troops remove the bell and shackle her partisans.

The Fall of Novgorod

Back in Vienna I was reading The Radetzky March by Joeseph Roth, which was about the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Habsburgs ruled a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-religious entity, which was the case for many of these large European empires. The painting I saw in Madison depicts the dawn of this era. This is the forcible adoption of an independent city state into a nascent Russian empire; an empire that — like the Austro-Hungarian — would last until the beginning of the 20th century and the outbreak of World War One.

A year end list

It is time for a year in review list. Unfortunately, I have been very far from comprehensive in my cultural consumption. For me this has not been the year of the Eras tour, or Barbie, or Oppenheimer. It has been a year of other things.

1) Ctrl-w. This has been the year of keyboard shortcuts. I am engaged in professional development, and there is nothing more professional in my line of work than staying the hell away from the mouse or trackpad — tools that are really crutches in disguise. Does that sound like a little much? Just be glad that I’m not going to talk about editing config files. There are so many keyboard shortcuts to choose from, but there is only one which I can say will transform your computer usage, Marie Kondo style.

Ctrl-w is a statement about how you mean to live your life, if we accept that how you operate your web browser is a statement about how you live. Ctrl-w is a statement about how you think, how you learn, how you make sense of this world. Ctrl-w will close the current tab.

Nothing is more basic than having a thousand tabs open on your browser. Once you are done with a tab, and lets face it, you are probably already done with it, press that keybinding and it will be gone. Are you truly afraid of losing that webpage? Are you going to let that fear dominate your life? Are you going to let that fear dominate your computer’s RAM? Learn the bookmark shortcut, learn to open a new tab and start typing to search through your bookmarks. Satisfy yourself will find whatever it was you were looking for. The only way you’ll internalize a shortcut is through use, and this year was the year I started putting that shortcut to use.
Do it right now. I fucking dare you. After you have bookmarked this page.

2) Goodreads.
An objectively bad app and site. But nowhere else can I find readers like me, reading the books I am interested in hearing about, giving their thoughts. Book Twitter, while it existed was good. Writers were there, but like Substack now, it was always in danger of being ruined by the tiresome talk of craft, as if we were all doing a mfa on the side. Forget the review aggregation; its all about reviews written by those freaks who read relentlessly. Some strange books have been published in the last century or so and we’re on a grand voyage together to sort through it all.
But, again, the app and site are deeply deficient.
(It’s possible to download your data, so a future project, whenever I get the time, will be to write a little script that can generate a nice static webpage that allows you to navigate your various books and reviews, in the sytle of The Complete Review.)

3) The Last Samurai by Helen deWitt.
Was this the best book I read this year? Possibly, although this isn’t a best of list. It’s just a list.
In case you haven’t heard, it has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie, aside from the fact that the release of the movie coincided with the release of the book, and was part of a long series of misfortunes that the book and its author suffered. The novel itself concerns Sibylla, a single mother in London who has an obsessive interest in languages and culture that she passes on to her son, Ludo. Ludo is an almost supernaturally equipped vessel for her instruction, and soon demonstrates the hallmarks of a child prodigy who demands that his mother teach him Japanese the way most kids I grew up with demanded an Xbox. Somehow The Last Samurai combines deep ideosyncracy with a very conventional aspirational theme: that we should inspire and educate our very youngest children. It wants to be challenge us as a society, yet at the very same time, isn’t this every striving middle class parent’s aspiration to have their infant reading before the reality of child-rearing crashes into reality? Montaigne’s parents were at it back in the 16th Century, raising little Michel as a native Latin speaker in a Francophone world. What elevates the novel is that the book itself is imbued with the love of language that Sibylla embodies, along with the suggestion that perhaps Sibylla’s devotion to her child’s intellectual development isn’t entirely uncomplicated.

4) Punschkrapfen.
And really Vienna itself. I spent a sweltering summer month in the city and if you have been reading this blog you will see that I have very slowly been working my way through a write up of the diary I kept during that time. But for all the art that I saw, the history I absorbed, the books I read, and the streets I walked, it is this sickly stodgy desert that I must place on the pedestal. I imagine that if you condensed Klimt’s gold phase into a cake, but made it pink, this would be the cake. I have an entire diary entry still to come on the subject.

Vienna Diary — July 21st

A Thomas Bernhard novel would feel like a singular reading experience, had I not read two in a row. The Loser overlaps so heavily in style, substance, theme, and even detail with Wittgenstein’s Nephew that I felt somewhat disoriented; Wittgenstein’s Nephew was supposed to be the autobiographical one, and The Loser, I assumed, the work of some old fashioned fiction. But both fact and fiction are drawing from the same well.

The narrator of The Loser once set his sights on becoming a piano virtuoso, but arrives at the brink of such an achievement in the company of none other than Glenn Gould, real life “most important piano virtuoso of the century” and decides there is little point in even trying. He sells his piano and begins a twenty-seven year “deterioration process”. His friend Wertheimer did likewise only to go as far as to ultimately commit suicide. It’s a little intense.

At least there is the afterward so at least I could reorient myself with the fact that Bernhard himself had spent time pursuing his own “piano radicalism”, studying at the Musik-Akademie in Vienna, and in terms of age was a close contemporary of Gould. The afterword explains that the novel is a love story, which I think is the kind of ironic take that is both enlightening and obviously too cute. I also discovered the following paragraph:

In a way, what Bernhard says about art in The Loser is what stopwatches say about sport: there are winners and there are losers. He scratches at Austria’s dark history but does not say: there are stringer and more gifted specimens of humanity. However, he situates his three music students in a house once occupied by a Nazi sculptor. He has Gould laugh and laugh and hurl a bottle of champagne at the head of one of the artist’s remaining marble hulks. There is a contrapuntal Mobius strip of the `idealized’ at work here. Bernhard does not appear to believe in winners — certainly not the triumphal kind.

Afterword to The Loser — Leanne Shapton

Contrapuntal means for something to be in counterpoint. In music, this takes the form of two or more independent melodic lines. I Googled it. I did not have to Google what a Mobius strip is because I am a mathematician with a specialization in topology. I have been places with Mobius strips, but I have no idea what the fuck that sentence means. You can remove the sentence from the paragraph and then it becomes clear that there is some bridge missing from the first half of the paragraph to the conclusion being reached in the rest of the paragraph. If that Mobius strip sentence is supposed to be that bridge, you would think I — of all people — might have some intuitive sense of how the bridge offered could be traversed. And I guess everyone else involved in the process that brought the paragraph to the press, to the page, to the bookstore, and into my hands in Vienna simply assumed it made sense. How the fuck can a Mobius strip be contrapuntal?

Vienna Diary, July 20th

The Freud family were able to flee Austria — and Nazi persecution therewithin — with almost all their possessions, and those possessions have since had little inclination to return. So the rooms of the Freud museum where this family once lived and Sigmund himself worked remain denuded, save one bravely reconstructed room. In the void new kinds of stuff have arrived: museum cabinets crammed with artifacts and reams of museum text offering commentary. I saw the very fountain pen Sigmund used in maintaining his mammoth correspondences. I eyed the pen, envious. How I wish I could be maintaining even a modest correspondence in ink. What I wouldn’t give to be tearing open envelopes each morning. How wonderful to have friends who could write in cursive!

In one cabinet I read a postcard from Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund). Dear Paula, the apple strudel is excellent. I had little idea that my own postcards, bearing their own droll commentary on strudel, were in fact something between a cliche and a tradition.

Exploring my curiosity

Would you believe that this LinkedInfluencer’s curiosity does not extend to understanding anything about Ricci flow or Geometrization?

Perturbing microbes

I can’t remember when I first heard about the bacteria that could eat plastic. I now know that they were first discovered in 2004 so it could have been at any point in my adult life. But it was only relatively recently that I began to get impatient. I was reading headlines, and sometime the actual articles, about the mountains of recyclable plastic, the big lie of recyclable plastic, and the pervasive omnipresence of microplastics.

It felt like I was existing in two different worlds. One with plastic eating bacteria, and one without. Thank a higher power (or a commissioning editor) that we have exactly the article I needed to read. Why aren’t they just dumping plastic in a vat full of bacteria? They are! But only in France, and only certain kinds of plastic that has been through a certain kind of preprocessing. Why isn’t all of out plastic rotting away? Because the bacteria aren’t that successful at what they do. When will we have pills we can wash down with a swig of cherry Dr Pepper that will release these bacteria into our guts to clear away the accumulated crust of microplastics? Probably no time soon, based on the dose of reality this article gives.

It is impressive how well the article seemed to anticipate my own questions.

Aside from the market problem, there is also a legal one. Once a microbial species has been genetically engineered, almost every country restricts its release back into the wild without special permission – which is rarely granted. The reasons for this are obvious. In the 1971 science fiction story Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater, a virus with the ability to instantaneously melt plastic spreads across the world, knocking planes out of the air and collapsing houses. It is unlikely any plastic-eating bacteria would become that efficient, but perturbing microbes can have devastating consequences.

‘We are just getting started’: the plastic-eating bacteria that could change the world by Stephen Buranyi

Vienna Diary, July 12th

The Vienna Globe Museum has the pleasing quality of delivering more or less everything of what it promises: globes. It is globes from start to finish, from all across the ages. I learned about celestial globes and then was reminded of lunar globes. My Dad had a lunar globe up on the shelf of his study that predated my arrival in the world. Quite likely it is still there. It was an impressive token of Dad-sophistication to my young eyes, suggesting some tenuous but valid connection in my mind between my father and the men involved in the moon program.

Globes are revealing of our ability to understand the world. There was a time when the globes themselves were used as sophisticated instruments of astronomical calculation, allowing the user to forecast the night sky, and at some point those calculations were done without such globes. There was also a period of time when the general understanding was that California was a peninsula. This understanding became a reality on the surface of many old globes I saw — north America with this additional isle appended to it. A shock to see, like realizing an abstract painting has been hung upside down.

Spotted on Craigslist:

To me, this is pure and uncut contemporary Americana: