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Depressing News of the Day

Juho Sarvikas is the chief product officer for HMD Global, the company producing “classic” mobile phones like the Nokia 3310. In 2019.

Why is anyone still making dumphones, you ask? Because people are buying them. “Digital well-being is a concrete area now,” says Sarvikas. “When you want to go into detox mode or if you want to be less connected, we want to be the company that has the toolkit for you.”

So, basically, when you’re ready to say “No more” to our over-reaching tech overlords, there’s a $1 billion company ready to monetize your decision.

Surprisingly, though, that’s not the most worrisome thing about this article.

Quote of the Day

“Art” and the “artist” – by which we mean an autonomous realm of art and a specialist practitioner in music, painting, literature, whatever – are the historical creation of the division of labour and the existence of surplus value within the host society. Subsistence economies may have individuals who tell stories, sing songs, draw drawings, but they don’t have artists.

Ian Bostridge, from Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (2014)

Public Service Announcement

Because I can’t think of anything in particular to write about today – and I have approximately 386 deadlines to meet before the end of the week – I’ll just list some random things I’ve been enjoying of late, in the hope that maybe you’ll find some pleasure in them as well:

Rob the Mob is streaming on Netflix, and it’s delightful. Likewise The Kominsky Method.

You haven’t had a croissant until you’ve had a Grain Shed croissant. It really is that simple.

Ozric Tentacles – specifically Strangeitude and Erpland – are blowing my mind.

Like a good podcast? You’ll love Aquarium Drunkard’s Transmissions.

Terraforming Mars is the perfect antidote to our current statewide Snowpocalypse.™

Snow Days

“It’s time to share the spotlight, Midwest,” writes Jonathan Glover in yesterday’s Spokesman-Review. “Frigid temperatures, heavy snow and biting winds are coming to the Inland Northwest.”

What do do this weekend, then? Why, pour yourself a nice single malt (or whip up an Irish coffee), cozy on up to the fireplace, and head over to CNN for some investigative reporting that will blow your mind. Here’s how Part 1 – “The Circus Singer and the Godfather of Soul” – begins:

Two years ago, I got a phone call from a woman who sang in the circus. She said she could prove that James Brown had been murdered. I met her on a hot day near Chicago, where the big top was rising and the elephants were munching hay. The singer’s name was Jacquelyn Hollander. She was 61 years old. She lived in a motor home with two cats and a Chihuahua named Pickles. She had long blond hair and a pack of Marlboros. She said she was not crazy, nor was she lying, and she hoped I would write her story, because it might save her life.

Or maybe it would get her killed.… 

I mean, how could you not want to read this?

And points to CNN for creating a really well-done multi-media experience: In addition to some compelling writing, there are scads of photos, audio and video clips, and links to some 50 supporting documents. Sixteen people contributed to the production, and it shows.

Swissted Santa

One of my favorite gifts from this past Christmas was Swissted: Vintage Rock Posters Remixed and Reimagined. The creation of New York graphic designer Mike Joyce, this compendium contains 200 ready-to-frame posters. Joyce masterfully blends vintage rock, punk, and alternative show flyers from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s with the visual sensibilities of the International Typographic Style pioneered in the 50s and 60s by such Swiss design luminaries as Armin Hofmann and Josef Müller-Brockman. “To see these posters all together,” writes Steven Heller in the foreword, “en masse in this book, in one pleasing eyeful, is to be totally fooled.”

It’s interesting to see posters for punk bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys – and more, many of which I’d never heard of – typeset in lowercase Akzidenz-Grotesk medium. (Helvetica was developed in the late 50s to compete with Akzidenz-Grotesk, which was released in 1898.) “[I]t’s also interesting,” writes Joyce, “to consider the common threads between the two art forms. The Swiss modernists purged on extraneous decoration to create crystal-clear communications, while punk rock took on bloated self-indulgent rock and roll and stripped it to its core. Both created something new, powerful, timeless.”

Visit Mike Joyce’s website to see how he incorporates his minimalist style into all of his work.


“[O]ver the past few decades, scientists have gotten significantly—even staggeringly—better at predicting the weather.”

“It’s like salmon,” says the inventor of the waterbed, who’s hoping millennials will buy his next-gen version. “They’ll return to the place where they were spawned.”

“The best prose poems take some of the characteristics of prose, and some of the characteristics of poetry, and combine them to do something beyond the reach of either.”

This is amazing.

“Having weathered more than one social-­media shit storm,” writes Lionel Shriver, “I’m one column away from the round of mob opprobrium that sinks my career for good.”

Quote of the Day

“We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.”

Penelope Lively, from Moon Tiger (1987)

Yet Another Entry in the “Writing Is Hard” Category

Russell Baker, the longest-running columnist in the history of The New York Times, on his profession:

“I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good. If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”

Baker died last week at 93.

Support Your Local Democracy

Breaking news: Social media is a cesspool.

But at least Twitter – that wretched hive of scum and villainy – isn’t all bad. Check out this thread from Lehigh University journalism professor Jeremy Littau on the latest media layoffs.

If you value accountable democracy, Littau says, we all need to step up. “[L]ook for ways to invest in local news because that is where it matters most,” he writes. “Good god, you think Washington is corrupt? Try City Hall. Some of the worst stuff I saw as a reporter happened there.”

So I did. Just this morning I re-upped my subscription to the Spokesman-Review, my local newspaper. It’s a solid paper, with good writing and fair reporting.

I know, I know – everyone likes to complain about “the media,” as if it’s some monolithic beast controlled by a cabal of socialist (if you’re a Republican) or alt-right (if you’re a Democrat) operatives hell-bent on world domination. But, as Littau points out, “The people in [the] industry, those still there and even those getting laid off, are trying like hell. They really are.” I believe him.

So hey – if you’re not “investing in local news,” maybe now’s a good time to start. I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

Sex, Drugs, and TPS Reports

“The history of rock groups” writes Ian Leslie, “can be viewed as a vast experimental laboratory for studying the core problems of any business: how to make a group of talented people add up to more than the sum of its parts. And, once you’ve done that, how to keep the band together.”

So forget that MBA. Study up on the Beatles, Tom Petty, REM, and the Rolling Stones.

Side note: When reading the anecdote with which Leslie begins his article, imagine CK as Mick Jagger and me as Charlie Watts, and you have a pretty good idea of our working relationship.


Last November, I experienced Death Valley for the first time. I say “experienced” because, well…one does not simply visit Death Valley. There’s a scale to the seeming desolation that’s mind-boggling; a splendor that’s not at all obvious at first; a nagging sense that death is always just one stupid decision away.

More than anything, though, it’s the silence of the place – a silence you can actually feel. When I was in elementary school, our class took a field trip to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, where, in their anechoic chamber, you couldn’t hear a thing, even the kid sitting right next to you yelling your name. But that was the absence of sound, not the presence of silence.

Turns out there’s a big difference. One morning on that November trip, the missus and I hiked out on the salt flat at Badwater Basin. The sun was just coming up, and, as the Panamints to the west began to glow first pink, then orange, we both felt it: a heavy, crushing silence descending onto the valley floor.

None of this has anything to do with anything, really, other than it’s what came to mind as I was reading this article on the late Thomas Merton, who chased “both the purity of silence and the need to break it.” We didn’t chase it; nevertheless, we found it. And it’s as terrifying as it is beautiful.

A Political Page-Turner

Before I became jaded and cynical (read: old), I actually cared about politics and politicians. I convinced myself that it was important to engage with Big Ideas; to understand the ideological arguments for and against pretty much everything; to be a civic-minded citizen and all that. What can I say? I was young.

Among all the biographies, histories, memoirs, and philosophical treatises I read back then, there are relatively few I’d recommend today. If pressed, I’d probably put Whittaker Chambers’s Witness near the top of that rather short list, along with maybe a couple of titles by William F. Buckley, Jr.

But for sheer storytelling mastery, nobody beats Robert Caro. Nobody. Case in point: I devoured the first installment of his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson – and I had zero interest in the subject. Still don’t, really. Am I going to read the remaining three books (or four, if he manages to finish the final volume)? Damn right I am.

Anyway, in the latest issue of the New Yorker, Caro reveals what it takes to be a good investigative reporter – and, in a roundabout way, why his books make for such compelling reading.

Things I Learned Today

Thing one: Despite its appearance, the word contumely* is not an adjective. It’s a noun, and, according to my copy of the OED, it means “(An instance of) contemptuously insulting language or treatment, scornful and humiliating rudeness.” Or, you know, how CK usually responds to my first drafts.

Thing two: The British equivalent of “knock on wood” is “touch wood.” Curious about its origins? Here’s what Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable says:

An old superstition to avert bad luck or misfortune or to make sure of something good; also when feeling pleased with one’s achievement or when bragging. Traditionally, certain trees, such as the oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn and willow, had sacred significance and thus protective powers, Properly these should be the ones touched, but this detail has largely passed into oblivion and any wood to hand is now used. Often, jocularly, the head is touched.

Thing three: The phrase “spitting image” is incorrect. It’s actually “spit and image.” Its origins are a little murky, with some claiming that it has roots in black magic and voodoo, others that it refers to God using spit and mud to create Adam in his own image.

Thing four: Radiohead’s OK Computer is a masterpiece; quite literally a perfect album. (Kidding! I’ve known that all along.) But maybe this is your opportunity to learn something new today. Give it a listen.

*Be sure to look it up to discover all the various and sundry ways to pronounce it.

Stop! Grammar Time!

This one came up just today: Is majority singular or plural?

Well…yes. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples, both of which were overheard in the corporate break room here at helveticka world headquarters.

“Skooch isn’t an anomaly. After all, the majority of men are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.”

“The majority is with me. I have the support of the trade unions, the executive officers, and the board of directors. CK is out – and I will rule this company with an iron fist!”

In the first example, majority describes a collection of individuals, and is therefore plural (“majority…are”). In the second, it refers to a group, making it singular (“majority is”). Not convinced? Try switching the verbs, and you’ll see what I mean.

This Is How It’s Done, Kids

Speaking of critiques and criticisms (see yesterday’s post if you’re late to the party), I really do believe that there’s value in this kind of writing – when it’s done well.

Like, say, Molly Brigid McGrath’s thoughtful take on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers’ latest, which hit Netflix in November. I found the movie to be a remarkable piece of film-making; what’s even more remarkable, however, is the way so many people seem to get it completely and utterly wrong. McGrath pinpoints the problem – critics “seeing the world through culture-war-colored glasses” – then gets right down to business in explaining exactly why Buster Scruggs is such a “thoughtful, funny, and exquisitely crafted film.”

It’s a masterful work of criticism – cogently argued and beautifully written. So, you know, pretty much the opposite of my oeuvre.

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