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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 27, 2015
The question of what will become of the humans behind Facebook's "M" doesn't seem to be plaguing tech writers much. / Still from the 1936 film More Than a Secretary, Columbia Pictures

• Facebook’s new tool, ominously called “M,” claims to differentiate Facebook Messenger from other chat apps by offering you a built-in personal assistant, powered—for now—by actual human beings. Facebook has avoided the slow advances in artificial intelligence holding back competitors’ digital assistants by employing live workers to complete M’s tasks, like making purchases and arranging travel, while programming the technology to do these things unprompted in the future. While these folks are enabling their own replacement by computers, tech critics are speculating on the many ways Facebook could find to profit off “M.”

• For Pacific Standard, Evan Fleischer compares the truly dangerous political satire of countries like Egypt and Iran to the tepid, co-opted brand of political humor on offer in the United States. Quoting our own Ben Schwartz, whose salvo on the appropriation of satire by the state appeared in Baffler no. 27, Fleischer agrees that contemporary American comedy makes the medicine go down a little too easily.

• NASA scientists report this week that sea levels are rising more quickly than previously imagined, so it may be time to stock up on “I ♥ New York” t-shirts or start looking into oceanfront property in the midwest. For more apocalypse-themed fun, BBC Earth has introduced a new interactive tool to help you “grasp the impact we’ve had on the planet in your lifetime; from how much fuel and food we’ve used to the species we’ve discovered and endangered.”


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 26, 2015
The Ostrich pillow is perfect for burying your head in the sand. / John Lester

• There’s something familiar about the new features that Uber is rolling out—“pre-determined routes with fixed pickup points and continuous passenger pickups—it sounds remarkably like a gently optimized version of currently existing mass transit.” Indeed, Matt Buchanan writes on The Awl, “What Uber and Lyft are building toward, in other words, is best understood as a privatized mass transit system built on top of public roads.” As a result, in this brave new Ubertopia, “The people left riding public transit become, increasingly, the ones with little or no political weight to demand improvements to the system.”

• The backlash to the Internet of Things is a series of products that valiantly—and expensively—stand between the e-addicted and the Internet. Behold the Offline chair, IKEA’s “logged out” placemats with pockets to banish your phone from your eye line, and the paint and bags that block WiFi signal.

• Today in billionaire gazettes: Billionaire Magazine tweeted a photo of a Bentley with the self-congratulatory quotation “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” which it attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Tastelessness aside, it’s more likely this phrase comes from trade unionist Nicholas Klein.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 25, 2015
John Galt has been located by Slavoj Žižek. / Greg Palmer

• “Now we finally know who John Galt is,” Slavoj Žižek writes of Ayn Rand’s individualist, “the idiot responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and, consequentially, for the threat of the shutdown of state apparatuses.” Remember, Žižek once told Baffler editor John Summers and contributing editor David Graeber to bring bureaucracy—of all things!—into seduction

• Pushed for time? This live feed will return to you the hours you spend speculating about what is happening at Andy Warhol’s grave. And these Yelp reviews of National Parks will save you ever stepping out of your home.

• Nellie Bowles and Lauren Greenfield offer portraits of the neighborhoods and buildings that startups are colonizing.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 24, 2015
Ushers at Banksy's Dismaland./ Florent Darrault

• Banksy has opened a “Bemusement Park” called Dismaland, replete with a water-cannon fountain, a castle with a dead Princess Diana inside, and two rounds of security (one real, one joke). It falls flat. “All the graffiti in Dismaland is official graffiti,” writes Jonathan Jones

Dismaland is a kind of consummation, for me, of all that is false about Banksy. It claims to be “making you think” and above all to be defying the consumer society, the leisure society, the commodification of the spectacle… But it is just a media phenomenon, something that looks much better in photos than it feels to be here.

• Looking for a laugh? Why not talk to Uber’s CEO! One of Stephen Colbert’s first choices for The Late Show, apparently, is Travis Kalanick, bringing to mind Ben Schwartz’s salvo in Baffler issue 27: “In 2014, comedy was stolen from the professional jokesters by their traditional targets and became, unexpectedly, the new language of power, policy, and politics,” he wrote. Perhaps, in 2015, comedy will be dictated by VC valuations.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 21, 2015
A manufacturer of virtual reality headsets is slurping up venture capital from investors who bet you'd rather not see things quite as they really are. / Nan Palermo

• Today in billionaires: over $1.6 billion has been promised for unbuilt apartments at 220 Central Park South, a building that’s been nicknamed the “Billionaire’s Bunker.” One of these apartments might set you back anywhere from $30 million to $160 million. We suppose it’s better if they congregate, rather than reaching their tentacles into many disparate neighborhoods at once, or—as we learned yesterday—renovating their own places with children’s gravestones.

• Glyph, the maker of a virtual reality headset, has secured $24 million in venture capital to start manufacturing and shipping the product before the end of the year. Why invest money in improving the world, when you can just replace it instead? We can’t wait to learn how many of these puppies are shipped to 220 Central Park South.

Fast Company brings us news of carefully planned “innovation districts” springing up across America. Will they save our poor cities? Not if they look much like the one that’s already sprung up in The Baffler’s backyard, explored by editor in chief John Summers.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 20, 2015
British developer Kim Davies has been fined for leaving children in unmarked graves to commit what a judge has deemed crimes against good taste. / Liz West

• Today in plutocrat interior design: one British property developer is under fire for decorating a historic Welsh mansion with the one-hundred-fifty-year-old gravestones of small children, culled from a nearby cemetery. Kim Davies faces fines of up to £300,000 for cementing the stones to the mansion’s interior walls and paving a patio with them.

• Stuart Whatley takes on the social-media acrobatics of the current presidential primary, and the swooning of the news media to cover each candidate’s latest Vine video or Instagram photo, citing Evgeny Morozov’s Baffler no. 27 salvo on the failures of tech criticism.

• Speaking of tech criticism, re/code offers the latest take on Google’s rebranding as “Alphabet”: it’s hard to get old in Silicon Valley. As much as we feel for Larry and Sergey, it’s much harder to get old without their piles of money, so we’re happy to point out that organized labor is slowly rolling into the Valley, from Apple bus drivers to digital media companies like Gawker, Salon, and now Vice.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 19, 2015
Some Hugo trophies. / Cory Doctorow

• This year, a slew of white, male, right-wing writers have been nominated for the World Science Fiction Society’s prestigious Hugo awards—and they’re complaining that in recent years the Hugos have become “an affirmative action award.” They call themselves “Sad Puppies,” an even further gone contingent is dubbed “Rabid Puppies,” and rabid and sad they certainly are. Take one puppy describing what he hates about women writing sci-fi: “Pink SF is the girls coming to play in the boys’ sandbox and then shitting in it like cats.” Charming! Gene Seymour wrote about grappling with sci-fi writers’ views on race in Baffler no. 24.

• On the occasion of the Ashley Madison free-for-all, let’s revisit Heather Havrilesky’s salvo in the current Baffler. “Information doesn’t want to be free, as it turns out,” Heather writes, “but these days, information wants to embarrass you, get you fired, cut you off from the power grid, bankrupt you, drive your children to suicide, kill you, and then take over the world—which is about to be too hot, flat, and crowded to inhabit anyway.”

• Jeff Bezos called his company “Amazon” not for the ancient, one-breasted archers, but because the previous name “Cadabra” sounded too much like “Cadaver.”


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   August 18, 2015
Victims of the flower war between the Netherlands and Russia./ candiche

• Is it time to close the Vatican bank, whose ATMs flash options at users in Latin? And that’s the least of its problems: “Much of the money is sent covertly to churches and voluntary groups in poor countries and failed states without functioning banking systems. All this means that transparency and accountability have never been high on the IOR’s list of desiderata,” writes Paul Vallely. Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about “Roman Catholic bureaucracy and its corruption” but were afraid to ask.

New research shows that “People who commit violent terror attacks, it turns out, are not identifiable by the ideas they hold, but rather by the things that they do. The violence comes first, the thinking second.” (Thanks, The Globe and Mail!)

• As punishment for investigating the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, Russia is stepping up its inspections of Dutch flowers and torching many, which they say are “infected with western California flower thrips.”

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