My Information Age: weekly varia 11/20/22

One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about as Twitter lists toward the waterline is how I receive my information about the world. For better and for worse, tapping into Twitter feels like connecting into a larger hive mind and thus has become my primary source of information about any number of topics. What I see is absolutely filtered through a particular information bubble because I aggressively mute both topics and accounts that I believe are not worth my attention, but the accounts I follow do a much better job of curating information for me than I could ever do for myself. Sometimes this information came because I was able to lurk in conversations I would otherwise never have been in a position to hear, as David Perry recently wrote on CNN. Sometimes it was in long threads by a single author. Frequently, though, Twitter was a platform where people would link to and discuss stories from a whole range of outlets.

I have other sources of information, of course. Several places in my RSS feed bring me a healthy dose of information and commentary, including three (Keith Law, Bill Caraher, and Joy the Baker) that do weekly roundups up things that they read, for instance, and I am in several Discord groups that share links. Nor am I opposed to trekking into the wilds of the internet to hunt down my own stories. What Twitter offered was the convenience of having a diverse selection of information brought into one place. Finding stories of note from a range of outlets represents a significant time commitment that I rarely feel that I have these days, even when those stories are not found behind a paywall (I understand the need for paywalls as a business model, but I can only subscribe to so many things).

The question I have is not whether this is a habit I need to develop, but whether I should commit to doing some sort of weekly roundup of essays and articles that I discover in the process. In some ways this would mark a return to my roots, since, years ago I did regular roundups in this sort. The last of those posts went up nearly a decade ago, with links to five stories about topics that ranged from the diary of Franz Ferdinand to a profile of King Abdullah of Jordan to an Onion story that I found amusing. I stopped writing these posts for a few reasons, including that they didn’t get a lot of traction, which made writing them seem like a futile exercise, and that Twitter had come to fill that role in my media engagement. It doesn’t help, that I tend to skim this sort of post that other blogs put out.

And yet, thinking out loud here, I am warming to the idea of a weekly wrap of some sort with a short reflection, links to stories worth reading from the week and a short-form update on articles and books that I’ve read. Such a post would give me motivation to read more widely to curate my list and provide another low-stakes chance to talk about things that I have been reading even when I won’t be writing a full review. In fact, my primary hesitation is over whether writing this post will be something that gets lost in the wash of the other things I have going on.

But there is only one way to find out. For now I’m going to mimic Bill Caraher in calling these posts “weekly varia” that go up either Saturday or Sunday, but I also expect the format, content, and timing of these posts will evolve as I find my groove.

Without further ado, here are the varia for 11/20/2022.

  • Climate change has been a significant factor behind the malaise I have felt this year and, despite the general advice to PhDs in my position to apply for every opportunity, there are jobs I have opted not to apply to for environmental reasons. Reuters published a lengthy piece (with pictures) about how one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia, is drying up. Climate change in this case is being compounded by water usage upriver.
  • From NPR, the FDA approved a safety study from Upside Foods for no-kill meat—that is, meat grown in vats and a feature of speculative fiction stories like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I am skeptical that this innovation will save humanity, but it is absolutely necessary. This week an Environmental Science professor shared an infographic on Twitter about the distribution of mammalian biomass on earth. Wild animals represent 4%, compared to 34% for humans and 35% for cows.
  • The Guardian has a long read about infrastructure challenges of coastal West Africa, where a booming population is leading to a boom of urbanization. I find it hard to read stories like this and not think about climate change.
  • The New York Times has an article about the minister Rob Schenck, who alleges that the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s decision in the Dobbs decision from earlier this year is not the first time that the outcome of contentious cases were leaked to allow Christian groups to prepare their messaging campaign. He goes further, too, claiming that he had exploited access to influence justices during his time as an anti-abortion activist. The Times says that they found gaps in his story, but also a trail of corroborating evidence. For a branch of government whose authority rests almost entirely on the perceived legitimacy of precedent, the current conservative majority seems hellbent on burning the entire institution to the ground. The only question seems to be how much damage will they do before that process is complete?
  • NPR had a story about how culture war issues are creating a teacher shortage. The article correctly identifies the rise in harassment of teachers and points to the numerous bills that have been introduced to punish them for addressing current issues, but it does not identify any of the other issues behind the teacher shortage (e.g. pay, burnout). I also hate that there is a cursory attempt at making this a “both sides” issue when only one ideological position is misrepresenting what happens in a classroom and introducing bills that criminalize teaching.
  • Jonathan Malesic writes in the Atlantic ($) about how employers moving from “sick” days to “wellness” days is a good thing, but that “mental-health days” are no substitute for changing the structures of work that actually cause burnout. This piece is an addendum to his excellent book that I reviewed earlier this year. I have found mental-health days hard to justify, despite an encouraging email from my employer at the start of the semester. Taking a day simply puts me one day further behind on grading and cancelling class periods creates work of reorganizing schedules and coordinating with the students that takes nearly as much time as the cancellations save. Then again, I have also been dragging myself to the finish line. Suffice to say, I am quite persuaded by Malesic’s arguments.
  • The Dig podcast from Jacobin Magazine has been running a very long listen five-part series on the history of modern Iran with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour. I am an intermittent listener to this podcast, but this series has been a can’t-miss for me these past few weeks.
  • Another podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra has one final episode to go. The series is a dive back into the archival footage of 1940 that explores the plots to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist regime in its place, and how sitting members of congress working with German agents were complicit in these conspiracies. These agents were particularly effective at finding the preexisting fault lines in this country and fanning the flames.
  • The French Olympic Committee has chosen the bonnet rouge for the Olympic mascot in 2024. The brand director offered some platitudes about the power of sport to change the world before saying “The mascot must embody the French spirit, which is something very fine to grasp. It’s an ideal, a kind of conviction that carries the values of our country, and which has been built up over time, over history.” Which political cartoonist will be first with a smiling Phryges operating a guillotine? Then again, Gritty seems to make it work.

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes.

Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade City; Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.

Assorted Links

Some articles that caught my eye in the last few days, including one about higher education that touched a nerve.

1. Why the Scientist Stereotype is Bad For Everyone, Especially Kids – An article that addresses the white, male, bearded, bespectacled, and awkward/deranged stereotype for scientists, as well as the misconception that science is boring. As usual, he argues for a paradigm shift that makes science fun and interesting and results in a better educated workforce.

2. Why Would We Want a Less Educated Nation/ Defending the PhD – A blog post by Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, that discusses some of the many issues of Humanities and Social Sciences PhD programs. Among them include the attrition rates, job markets, and resistance to change while also maintaining the insistence that those who do not achieve a tenure-track job are failures. In many ways, she is trying to appeal to education and intellectualism for its own sake as a way to create and perpetuate an educated society. Commenters universally critique her for being naive here, and the post does come across that way. Perhaps more insidiously, despite the (I believe) well intentioned nature of the post, it also comes across as somewhat condescending and as a self-help session for those people who already seek post-graduate degrees in the humanities. It does call for an expansion of the fields that hire PhDs, but not really encouraging more people to attain those degrees (at least right now). I am sympathetic to the plight–I am, after all, in it–but other than removing stigma of non-academic jobs and, to an extent, changing what is taught by PhD programs, most of the changes are on sectors not in academia.1

The case can be made that there would be a trickle-down effect that would eventually result in more people going to graduate school and yes, a better educated nation is an admirable goal. Yet, I suspect that there are a wide range of environmental and societal issues that must be addressed in order to lay the foundation for the changes that she calls for. So, yes, removing the stigma of non-academic work is necessary, but focusing on the highest level of education, without even looking at whether or not people actually want to go (particularly since we have been conditioned to consider school a drag) is naive.

1 She does manage to write the post without directly attacking Republican legislators, Fox News, or any of the other usual suspects for a case like this, but the attempt to stay high-minded actually feeds into the charges of naivete and condescension.

3. ‘Me too, Me too!’ – A look at some of the dedicated educational centers abroad that are trying to forge professional connections with the top universities in the world.

4. Spoiled Rotten – An article from the New Yorker that looks at the spoiled manner of “American” kids. There are some thought-provoking points here, but there are also some underlying assumptions that are not laid out.

5. A Few Words About Breasts – A piece written for Esquire in 1972 by the late Nora Ephron, republished online.

6. Men Can’t Have it All Either – A Response in the Atlantic to the story by Anne-Marie Slaughter that questions some of proposed changes that Slaughter proposes and points out that what Slaughter identifies as a woman’s issue is really an issue that affects both men and woman in the modern world.

7. Europe is on Big ATM, and Only the Few Know the Code – A post by Charlie Pierce that compares the formation of a central European Treasury to a system with no nations, but only banks.

8. EU Unveils its vision for the future of monetary union – A story about the future of the Monetary Union that sparked Pierce’s comment.