“A Story of America in Three Scams”

A blend of a whodunnit, art appreciation, and political analysis, Richard Warnica’s Hazlitt piece Rothko at the Inauguration traces the history and repercussions of one of New York’s biggest art scandals, its connection to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the lasting impact of the battle over Rothko’s legacy.

As much as I appreciated the art scene intrigue, it’s Warnica’s own obsession with Rothko that really stuck with me. Describing the impact of those paintings is no easy task. Seeing a photo doesn’t do them justice; there’s an emotional power to them that only really comes with seeing them in person, a combination of their scale and some mysterious aspect of their technique. You can feel that struggle in the way Warnica talks about the paintings, a mix of straightforward description and pure emotion:

“There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why.”

“Rothko at the Inauguration” is about institutional rot and the corrupting influence of “easy” money, along with the way the financialization of fine art has played into those stories. Where some writers approach that subject with academic detachment, Warnica never forgets how art gained that power in the first place. Before it became just one more financial vehicle, a faceless asset in a tax-sheltered storage facility, it was a gateway to transcendence.

How A.I. Conquered Poker

The NYT Magazine looks at how sophisticated AI has completely changed the way professional poker players approach the game. As the article says, finding tools and tricks to override human instinct and understand probabilities has always been part of the game, but it’s still a bit eerie reading about top players finding ways to turn themselves into extensions of a computer algorithm, memorizing decision trees and developing tricks for generating random numbers in order to emulate the program’s preferred strategy.

20 favourites from Instapaper

Not all of these articles are from 2021. I’m not even sure if the majority of them are. But, looking back on the last year, these are the articles I read that made the biggest impression on me, whether it’s for the quality of the writing, the ideas they inspired, their timeliness or other, unexpected twists and turns. Looking back on my last year of reading, it isn’t as diverse as I’d though. Most of the sources I’m reading are still pretty mainstream, and most of the topics are far from esoteric. Climate and COVID, politics and polarization; a little more on the nature of self or on the end of the world, a few more entries from blogs and substacks, but pretty overwhelmingly Western, white, and male, and pretty overwhelmingly sourced from a handful of major publications. That’s a habit I’d like to break out of in the new year; we’ll see how that goes.

Instapaper TitleLinkKeywords
A sci-fi writer got meta about gender. The internet responded by ruining her life.https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22543858/isabel-fall-attack-helicoptergender, sci-fi, literature, social media
Babelhttps://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-40/essays/babel-4/language, technology
Beauty Will Save the World | Reality Sandwichhttps://realitysandwich.com/beauty-will-save-the-world/art, philosophy
Dada on Trial | Colby Chamberlainhttp://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/45/chamberlain.phphistory, art, philosophy, politics
Darwin Among the Machines — [To the Editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 13 June, 1863.] | NZETChttp://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-ButFir-t1-g1-t1-g1-t4-body.htmltechnology, history
Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny – Blood Knifehttps://bloodknife.com/everyone-beautiful-no-one-horny/pop culture, psychology
Fungi’s Lessons for Adapting to Life on a Damaged Planethttps://lithub.com/fungis-lessons-for-adapting-to-life-on-a-damaged-planet/nature, climate
Horsehistory study and the automated discovery of new areas of thoughthttps://interconnected.org/home/2021/06/16/horsehistorylanguage, philosophy
I Miss It Allhttps://longreads.com/2021/07/22/i-miss-it-all-devin-kelly/covid, relationships
I Want My Mutually Assured Destructionhttps://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/my-mtv-cold-war-retrospective/618812/apocalypse
Love the art, hate the artist? How a popular Chicago college class
is reexamining Kanye West, Michael Jackson, Picasso and others in the
era of cancel culture
https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-saic-cancel-culture-class-20210505-p5cttxjf4vcsbgla3stp5zkoxy-story.htmlart, pop culture, cancel culture
Meditations On Molochhttps://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/culture, philosophy, society
Opinion | The Road to Oceania (Published 2003)https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/25/opinion/the-road-to-oceania.htmlpolitics, literature, sci-fi
The Cold War Over Hacking McDonald’s Ice Cream Machineshttps://www.wired.com/story/they-hacked-mcdonalds-ice-cream-makers-started-cold-war/business, technology
The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the worldhttps://capnews.ca/news/satanic-ritual-abuse-michelle-remembers-lawrence-pazder-victoriaconspiracy theories, urban legends
The Math of the Amazing Sandpile – Issue 107: The Edge – Nautilushttp://nautil.us/issue/107/the-edge/the-math-of-the-amazing-sandpilemath, sceince
The Methods of Moral Panic Journalismhttps://michaelhobbes.substack.com/p/moral-panic-journalismjournalism, urban legends, groupthink, cancel culture
The Truth, by Stanisław Lemhttps://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-truth-by-stanislaw-lem/short fiction, sci-fi, weird fiction
Urban Fish Ponds: Low-tech Sewage Treatment for Towns and Citieshttps://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/2021/03/urban-fish-ponds-low-tech-sewage-treatment-for-towns-and-cities.htmlclimate, urban planning, degrowth
Welcoming the Stranger as an Act of Delighthttps://www.sprawlcalgary.com/welcoming-the-stranger-david-goacommunity, philosophy, politics

All generalizations are false

I definitely first came across that phrase as a sort of joke, one of those self-contained paradoxes that used to entertain me endlessly as a kid exploring the strangeness of language and logic. But it’s been one of the thoughts I’ve been spending the most time with over the past couple years, today’s prompt being the third episode of Sharron Kraus’ Preternatural Investigations podcast. It’s a paradox, but it’s also true (sort of), and I think important in ways that I haven’t fully grasped yet.

A better formation of it would be “all generalizations are fictions,” although that makes the paradox a little less direct. Essentially, though, the idea is that all categories are useful fictions that humans (and likely other sentient creatures) have created to more efficiently navigate the world.

“Fish” is a go-to example, in that there is no way to create a category that uses our current phylogenetic mapping to include everything we commonly think of as fish and exclude everything that we don’t think of as fish. That’s not to say “fish” isn’t a useful category in daily life; it just isn’t an objectively definable category based on the currently-agreed-upon system for understanding how to group species. But then, even “species” is a blurry category, with debate as to its precise definition, so particular groupings of species are also bound to be troublesome.

I’m not just talking about gaps between common-usage terms and scientific categories, though. The point is, the world itself does not generalize. Each entity in the universe is only itself. (It might be fairer to say there’s no such thing as entities, only the universe, given that even boundaries between objects get fairly fuzzy at subatomic levels, but that may be going to far for this post). The point being, something as straightforward as “rock” isn’t a category that exists in the universe, there are only distinct collections of atoms that have properties similar enough to one another that it’s useful for us to lump them together as the conceptual group “rock.” There is no physical law to distinguish between rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, nor between planets and comets and stars. There are individual objects, and we find it easier to talk about them based on the similarities we see between some of them, and the differences we see compared to others.

This is a fairly obvious semantic point. Maybe it’s obvious to the point of being uninteresting. But I think there are at least two reasons that it is important. One is that it can serve to remind us of the uniqueness of everything. Generalizations are a way for us to avoid having to process each individual thing we perceive in its own particular fullness. If we had to consider every leaf, every blade of grass, every bird call or human voice as a completely discrete phenomenon, we would be paralyzed. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of them are, in fact, unique. Each of them is as intricate, as special, as beautiful as the first one you saw, or heard, before your mental mapping of their sense memory was simplified into something your brain could process more easily.

J.F. Martel has written and spoken about how one of the roles of art is to force us to see the uniqueness of whatever is being depicted, and how moments of awe and beauty come from us seeing things as they actually are, as opposed to how we assume them to be. Recognizing that categories are only useful shorthands can act as a reminder to look for that uniqueness, at least from time to time, and to focus on your present experience as the precious thing that it is, instead of something to be tolerated until some imagined future event where you’ll finally get to experience something truly special. In a way, the only thing between the mundane and the marvelous is a perceptual filter that strips away the specificity of the moment.

The second reason I think this is important is that it makes it easier to challenge your own assumptions. If you can internalize that “fish” is a fictional category and “Tuesday” is just a word to make it easier to communicate about future points in time and not a thing that exists in the physical universe, then you can also recognize that much broader conceptual terms (including the whole of politics and economics) are also just useful shorthands. They are attempts to describe complex recurring patterns of cause and effect, and are worth paying attention to for as long as they are actually useful, meaning as long as the things they describe have some sort of predictive or descriptive power, or create positive outcomes. And, importantly, they can be dropped when that’s no longer the case.

It’s a testament to the power of the human mind and its ability to recognize patterns and describe relationships that we are so inclined to think of those patterns and relationships as inherent to the universe. But it also leads us to cling to ideas well past their expiry date, and to fail to question the reason certain beliefs and practices arose in the first place. If we can manage to internalize the idea that all generalizations are fictional to at least some extent, and that all descriptions are generalizations (in that they have to translate something unique into language that can be understood in terms of its similarity to certain concepts and experiences), it makes it easier to try out new models of understanding, because the old ones become a little less precious.

One more reason it’s important, maybe: it’s a way of reminding myself how powerful the force of collective imagination can be. This is basically the inverse of the second reason, which is more about weakening the reality claim of things that can seem all too real. Instead, it’s recognizing the ability of shared imagination to alter the world in absolutely incredible ways. If we can wake up every morning and enact things as elaborate as capitalism and nation states (and it’s well commented on how those are products of collective action and collective belief), then it’s hard to imagine the limits of what realities we could manifest, what dreams and hyperstitions we could bring about.

It’d be an interesting challenge to think about what worlds we could have tomorrow, using existing technology and infrastructure, just by changing how we use the things we have. I don’t know that it would be enough to reach the goals of the latest IPCC report, but… most utopias rely either on technological breakthroughs or a reversion to pre-industrial ways of living that completely abandon the comforts of civilization. I’d be very curious to try to imagine a third way, where the big changes that need to happen are more memetic than physical, where it’s our desires and aspirations that shift rather than using new technology to sustain the current dream. I have no idea what it would look like, but there’s at least a germ of an idea there.