• Missed our celebration of George Scialabba at the Brattle Theatre last month? No worries, the appreciations of George’s critical gifts keep rolling in. Here’s a lovely one from The Chronicle of Higher Education. If that whets your appetite, you’re in luck: you can read George’s Baffler essays any time.
• The news about Peeple earned a little of our spare ire last week, but the award for really horrifying us goes to new reporting on China’s “social credit system,” a plan to incorporate information about citizens’ work-lives, consumer habits, and internet usage into a sort of deluxe credit score. Don’t worry, the Chinese government assures that the plan
has an important significance for strengthening the sincerity consciousness of the members of society, forging a desirable credit environment, raising the overall competitiveness of the country and stimulating the development of society and the progress of civilization.READ MORE
• If you passed by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Monday, you likely would have heard the clamor of protestors raising a fuss about the long-dead French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Donning signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and Treacle Harms Society,” protestors called for the MFA’s curators while asserting “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” The struggle may seem slightly dated—after all, impressionism is a nineteenth century art movement. But as our friends at Dangerous Minds noted, citing a Baffler salvo from issue no. 8, our propensity to fawn over the movement has created a quite profitable scam. It keeps museum prices high while providing art so dull it’s appealing to the crowd that most artists seek to agitate: the bafflingly boring.
• Don’t let the fact that torts have empowered a whole class of insufferable personal injury lawyers fool you. Torts, emphasizes Ralph Nader, are the “weapon of the weak”—and not because some shady firm with a catchy 1-800 number has predatory business practices. In fact, it’s because of torts’ protection of the downtrodden, the less fortunate, that Nader has opened the United States’s first tort museum in Winsted, CT.
• Today, in the distant 2016 election that already has birthed too many takes: why the Washington Post thinks Hillary is more progressive than Bernie in one sentence and how to make your own Donald Trump-style hat.READ MORE
• “I’m sorry I can’t spin right now. I’ve won the Nobel Prize,” and other homely reminiscences of genius, lovingly collected by the Times, remind us of Tom Frank’s piece about the “Parable of the Phone Call,” which he calls “a cheap, lowbrow way of humanizing these people who otherwise stand so high above the rest of us.”
• The rich have long used disastrous events to their advantage. Rachel Riederer reviews John Mutter’s Disaster Profiteers in The New Republic, which reports that
of the nearly 1500 contracts awarded as part of the Haitian relief project, only 23 went to Haitian companies. Haitian companies received only 2.5% of the $195 million; much of the rest went to US contractors based in and around Washington DC, often through no-bid contracts.
• Today in billionaires: well, they’re in your presidential races, your global financial markets, your social media—and now even your lighthearted prime-time procedurals. Fox has announced its plans to produce “a comedic procedural about a socially inept billionaire who helps the LAPD solve crimes.” Sounds riveting.
• In the Guardian, Cory Doctorow asks, “Why is it so hard to convince people to care about privacy?” Doctorow warns that “Ashley Madison and OPM were tremors, not quakes. There are bigger, scarier databases with more info on more people, and they aren’t any better (or worse) protected than any of the ruptured databases we’ve seen this year”—and that every tiny tech company is in on the game of recklessly gathering your data, as Jacob Silverman cautioned on the Baffler blog. Pretty compelling arguments, coming as they do alongside news of the T-Mobile hack that exposed the data of 15 million customers.
• In case you weren’t among those caught up in the recent high-profile hacks, technology has found another way to intrude on your life—it’s called Peeple. The new app that the Washington Post is calling “the terrifying ‘Yelp for people’” will allow you to rate those you interact with—on dates, in job interviews, at the post office—on a numerical scale.READ MORE
• Our friends at Pacific Standard question the ethics of sending manned missions to Mars. In light of our responsibility for climate change, “our tendency to plunder frontiers to destruction,” and our historical callousness toward the folks we send hurtling into space, Alana Massey writes, “we must consider the possibility that going to Mars is just as much an act of grief in denial as an act of triumph in achievement.”
• Over at Guernica, our own Ann Neumann has a piece on Texas’s DIY execution drugs. “Good execution drugs are increasingly hard to come by,” Neumann writes,
putting wardens tasked with capital punishment in a hard place. Enterprising wardens in the state of Texas have taken the matter into their own hands by formulating the execution drugs themselves, complete with Department of Criminal Justice labels, a lawsuit on behalf of a death row inmate, Richard Glossip, has charged.READ MORE
• “The twenty-first-century university is a super freak, in fact—the kind you don’t take home to mother,” Siva Vaidhyanathan noted in our latest issue, no. 28. If that’s the case, then the for-profit university system is a super freak that would bamboozle your entire family—immediate and extended—out of their current and future wealth, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their back. Thankfully, when it comes to the for-profit racket, there’s a coalition of for-profit alumni fighting back.
• If you’re seeking clearance from Steve Albini to use a vocal sample in a kitschy EDM song, expect disgruntled apathy. One electronic group has even gone so far as to use an email from Steve about his deep hatred of EDM for marketing purposes—specifically a billboard in London. We’re not surprised; Steve outlined his problems with the music industry for us years ago.
• Leave it to digital marketing firms to find a way to capitalize on a video of a rat carrying a piece of pizza, or any dopey viral video for that matter.READ MORE
A version of this essay was published at Salon.com in 2014.
It’s genius season again. From NPR to the New York Times, they’re talking about where people were when they found out they had won the MacArthur Fellowship, our society’s most prestigious honor. Twenty-one of these so-called “Genius Grants” were announced two weeks ago by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago; they carry with them a prize of $625,000, to be spent over the course of five years however the Genius in question wishes.
Over the years, stories on the subject have always seemed to start with the phone call from MacArthur HQ in Chicago. Where was the Genius when he or she got the call? What was it like to find out that someone was giving you all that moolah? The famous critic, it was reported, finds she must sit down. The Southerner lets rip with a yell. The cellist thinks it’s a wrong number. The bioengineer thinks it’s a prank. The radio pioneer, who’s visiting a remote Mexican village, has to make his way to the town’s only phone. Their lives have been changed! Here is my favorite, from a 1992 article about the Genius Grants in the New York Times:READ MORE
• Of “secular Satanism,” the “Dark Enlightenment squid monster,” and anti-democratic techies, Park MacDougald has this to say on The Awl:
Valley oligarchs don’t need to be convinced that democracy is the root of all evil, they just need to think that our existing democratic institutions are illegitimate or just not sufficiently optimized.
Corey Pein wrote about the fascism swirling around our islands of libertarian innovation here.READ MORE