thursday, june 18, 2020

the sky turns heavy all afternoon
the cheap hardware store thermometer on the front porch
drops 20 degrees in a few hours

in the evening, it rains for a long time
we're out walking when it starts, halfway through
a habitual loop down to the river, past the labyrinth
and the parking lot full of deputies and the post office

it rains while i chop vegetables,
while we sit on the couch eating stir fry,
while we stand in the kitchen washing dishes,
and while i sit again at my desk, scratching notes
in ink and thinking that i ought to be thinking
something that weighs something

p1k3 / 2020 / 6 / 18
tags: topics/poem

Friday, June 5, 2020

fragmentary notes from a bad time getting worse (3)

Back on the 25th of May, four police officers in Minneapolis murdered a black man named George Floyd on camera.

In 2018, on a list of guesses to check after 5 and 10 years, I wrote:

No meaningful reforms of policing in America will have gained any traction. When I go to look at this list again, I will be able to recall one or more killings of an unarmed black civilian by law enforcement within the previous 2-3 months.

It’s only been two years, but the pattern has held and in a basic way I expect that it will continue to hold for years and decades to come: Because American law enforcement is a violently racist system. A system that both reflects the racism of the society it operates within and actively works to entrench that racism.

George Floyd isn’t the first black person I’m aware of being murdered by on-duty cops or cop-affiliated parties this year. He wasn’t even the first one that I learned about in May.1

I’m a work-from-home white desk-job professional living in one of the whiter places on the planet, surrounded by entrenched wealth. In my small-town neighborhood, the cops speed-trap tourists on their way to a national park and are otherwise largely ignorable. How many cop murders would I have known about this year if I lived in that enormous swath of America where the police function day-to-day as a hostile occupying force?

What if the pattern didn’t hold?

This time feels different than the last n iterations of this grim cycle. There’s been, as best I can tell, an explosion of police violence in response to a wave of protest that seems vast and not yet remotely contained. As I write this, people in my family are are marching. Cities like Lincoln, NE have seen actual unrest.

It’s long seemed to me that, for the most part, America knows how to neutralize street protest as a political force. The machinery contains, suppresses, deflects, and misinforms. Structures within government, law enforcement, news media, and activism itself all function to render it a kind of theater that mostly plays out for its own participants.

Whenever it feels like that machinery is breaking down, something is up.

Maybe it feels that way in part because the vicious, bullying, riot-inciting brutality of the cops is on such unguarded display right now. A display that might satisfy the longing to inflict pain and fear that fuels so much of our politics, but also throws the hypocrisy and complicity of authority into sharp relief and must put an incredible strain on the quiet consensus that usually keeps these things so manageable.

Don’t mistake this for hope. I’m not hopeful. All the same, it’s possible to imagine this as the moment it becomes thinkable to cut police department budgets, restrict police unions, end qualified immunity, scrap a bunch of surplus military gear, fund alternative forms of emergency response, and fire a lot of overt white supremacists.

And then meanwhile: The pandemic.

It’s been well over a month now since I first felt like social distancing efforts had pretty well ended where I live. There’s been almost a kind of weird sense of stasis since then. Things are more open than they were. The bar across the street is having bands in again. The road’s full of cars. But I think I underestimated the degree to which people were still laying low in late April, and even now it’s clear that things are far from normal.

  • WHO: 6,535,354 confirmed cases and 387,155 deaths globally
    • Late April: 2,804,796 and 193,710 deaths
  • NY Times: 1,883,033 cases and 108,194 deaths in the US
    • Late April: 938,590 cases and 48,310 deaths
  • 27,615 cases and either 1,524 or 1,274 deaths

It doesn’t seem, here, like there’s been the wild spike in cases I feared as things loosened in April. Nor does it seem like it’s anywhere near over. Talking to friends scattered around the country about this recently, a rough consensus: America ran out of attention span, now we wait and see how much of a tragedy that is. Of course that’s flippant and doesn’t really acknowledge the crushing economic and social pressures to reopen, but it’s not exactly wrong.

How does the state of the pandemic interact with mass street protest? I guess we’re going to find out.

How does the pandemic’s function as an ideological pivot point interact with mass protest? We’re going to find out, but I already know I don’t like the answer.

1 wp: Shooting of Ahmaud Arbery

p1k3 / 2020 / 6 / 5
tags: topics/colorado, topics/covid19, topics/george-floyd, topics/policing, topics/politics

Monday, May 25, 2020

feeds: linkblogs

Background: I’m writing some posts linking to feeds that I like.

Today’s theme: Blogs that curate interesting links.

Linkblogs were once a really common form, and if done lazily can be a formulaic waste of time, but there are a few people with a real knack for sifting out the good stuff who I find worth tracking. Three examples:

I do some linkblogging of my own. You can see stuff I’ve shared lately in the “linkdump” sidebar on the front page of this site, or subscribe to:

The Pinboard one in particular is strictly “stuff I want to remember”, not “stuff I think anyone else cares about”. It informs a lot of things I write here or work on elsewhere, and stands a fair chance of being deathly boring for readers who aren’t me.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 25
tags: topics/feeds

Friday, May 22, 2020

feeds: stuff that makes me think

Background: I’m doing some short posts linking to feeds that I like.

Today’s theme: Some stuff that complicates how I think about the world in a useful way.

BIG by Matt Stoller is technically an e-mail newsletter, I guess, but Substack provides RSS feeds so that's how I subscribe. The tagline is "[t]he history and pollitics of monopoly power". Stoller is a thinktank type at something called the American Economic Liberties Project. I'm not actually sure I have much of a bead on his politics as such, and I'm frankly not smart enough to evaluate a large chunk of the claims made here, but I've found its take on monopolies pretty striking.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe is a blog on medieval history that talks about stuff like coinage, charters, architecture, and administrative matters. A special kind of drily fascinating, and a window into the kinds of deep research that you don't seem to get from a lot of popularizing works.

Feed URL:

Kiwi Hellenist offers detailed breakdowns of all sorts of stuff in classical antiquity and its footprint in modern culture.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

Snakes and Ladders - A while back, I made an effort to follow more conservative (religious or otherwise) outlets and writers, consciously trying to get outside of my filter bubble. A lot of it didn't stick, but I kept reading Alan Jacobs in various formats. He's a writer, an academic, and the sort of person who publishes in places like The American Conservative.

You should read that last as a disclaimer of many of his probable views, because he keeps intellectual & cultural company with some people I find it pretty hard to stomach. Once in a while I come pretty close to unsubscribing. All the same, I often read his work with some interest and find that it makes me more aware of a conservative Christian intellectual culture that, while super messed up about all kinds of things, is more complicated than the American talk radio / Focus on the Family / Fox News / beat-your-children side of things would suggest.

Feed URL:

Granola Shotgun has some rich-guy-prepper-landlord vibes, which might be offputting here and there, but also a ton of interesting thoughts and background on housing, urban planning, regulation, etc. I take this one with a substantial grain of salt, but it's filtered into my thinking about the dynamics of the American built landscape and how much dry goods I'd like to have on hand. Also uses just piles of photos, which while often individually mundane do an effective job of conveying a story or idea when taken in the aggregate.

Feed URL:

Sample posts:

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 22

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

meta meta

Opening my notebook to where I left off, I notice that the most recent pages are full of the distracted scrawl and half-hearted jottings that result from leaving it open on my desk while I work. There’s a scratchpaper quality to all of it. Random TODOs, unfinished lists, scraps of conversation, doodles, context-free exclamations. It was probably useful for thinking earlier, but it doesn’t tell me much now.

Musing about this in writing — writing about an act of writing, its materials, etc. — is a particular kind of thing. Let’s call it meta. Meta-whatever:

  • Metawriting
  • Metaprogramming
  • Metaprocess

Writing about writing. Programming about programming. Meetings about meetings. The mind reflecting on its own function.

Meta-whatever can be both potent and dangerously tempting. It’s not for nothing that it shows up so many places, and at times it yields deep insights or significant gains in power. It’s also striking how often it seems to trap people in localized loops and hopeless ruts.

Methodology cults like Agile, Getting Things Done, and the recently emerging nerd-frenzy over the Zettelkasten method are rife with process obsessions, semi-stable patterns of recurring inquiry/argument, and people who mainly use their methods of choice to refine their methods of choice. You don’t have to spend much time around any given large organization to notice how much effort is burned on recursive bureaucracy, or how many contemporary jobs have collapsed into closed-loop no-external-reality meta-work.

This is all frustrating both to observe and to experience, when it gets out of control.

Maybe part of the reason it gets away from people is the high from when it pays off. Runaway metaprogramming might turn into such a nightmare because it starts with sharpening your tools to a keen edge, or with an act of leapfrogging tiers of abstraction. Automating your automation can feel like the purest response to that age old imperative of the hacker, that you make the computer do the stupid shit.

Of course, follow that impulse too far, angle it the wrong way — and pretty soon you’re Mickey Mouse trying to bail while the ensorceled brooms flood the whole joint.

Writing about writing might not have quite the same potential for nested, generative dysfunction, but it often produces artifacts just as unintelligible. Self-referentiality in fiction can be a real punch in the brain pan sometimes, but stories about stories get tiresome sooner or later. Taking the framework apart and putting it back together can be amazing; it can also become deeply annoying when a reader’s looking for a framework that contains something.

Sure, all narrative is a sort of trick — but artifice that’s purely interested in its own mechanics eventually leads to boring tricks. It’s like painting that’s purely about how paint adheres to a surface without any particular interest in or reference to external objects and context: There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing, but there’d be something kind of depressing about a world where it was the only kind of painting.

To circle back to notes about note-taking, because that’s where this started: It’s a fruitful line of inquiry, up to some limit of circularity, some moment where you risk crawling up your own asshole about refining a System instead of using it to learn other things and think other thoughts.

This is a reminder I need, periodically.

p1k3 / 2020 / 5 / 20
tags: topics/notes, topics/systems, topics/technical, topics/writing, topics/zettelkasten


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