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Nostalgia 2.0

Dale Lately   January 30, 2015
Photo by Alan Cleaver

If there were one thing that we could never outsource, it would have to be our memories. Personal, intimate, and unique, memories are a part of us that not even the ruthless efficiencies of computer code can improve. Nor could these precious memories be commodified in any way.

Or can they? A niche tech industry is seeking to give memory a twenty-first-century spin by “automating” nostalgia—and the results are already appearing in our Facebook timelines. “A daily replay of your past” is how the Timehop app is described. It surfs the user’s old photos and posts from his or her social networks, and serves them back up as a personalized “today in history”—a kind of tailor-made time capsule.

Until now, the digital revolution has been commonly characterized as a place of speed and transience; now, as software starts to rewire every aspect of our lives, some companies are cashing in on the idea that it can just as easily be the opposite. Like ’60s-style Insta-filters for our digital photos, retro gaming consoles, or wireless speakers shaped like gramophones, Timehop is part of a trend of emerging tech that tries to collapse time, to create an ongoing “historic present.”

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   January 30, 2015
A private cigar lounge is a must. / Photo by Alex Brown

• Today in Billionaires: Unfortunately for the Qatari royal family, a city councilman in London has denied their proposal to knock down houses in order to combine two mansions into a “super-mansion” with “17 bedrooms, 14 lounges, four dining rooms, a swimming pool, a cigar lounge, a cinema and a juice bar.” A spokesman for Westminster explained that “Houses containing a number of flats or homes shouldn’t be knocked through…. We need as many homes in central London as we can possibly get.”

• Today in Upward Mobility: A new study by sociologists at Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell University asks, “Is this the year you join the 1 percent?” Apparently “there’s a 1 in 9 chance that a typical American will hit the jackpot and join the wealthiest 1 percent for at least one year in her or his working life.” But, on the other hand, “very few get to stay among the ranks of the super rich for very long.”

• Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post asks, Why don’t Internet journalists unionize? And then answers it pretty thoroughly: “One [reason] is the loss of leverage, with more aspiring journalists than there are jobs and an environment in which content is becoming increasingly commoditized. The other is a shift in identity, with a generation of younger workers less familiar with unions who’ve built personal brands that they can transfer to other media companies.”

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Iowa Doesn’t Matter

Scott Beauchamp   January 29, 2015
(No offense.) / Photo by Kris.

The Iowa presidential caucuses are only a year away, and so it’s fitting that the 2016 GOP primary would kick off in earnest in Des Moines. Congressman Steve King’s “Iowa Freedom Summit” last weekend featured nine hours of speeches from almost twenty-four Republican politicians.

The cast of characters, while colorful on the surface, were ultimately pretty predictable. They were all true GOP believers, nursing desperate dreams of running dark-horse campaigns that might first catch fire in an early state like Iowa, and then propel them to a nail-biter against whomever the establishment candidate might be. Poor rubes. Don’t they know that the moneymen, not the base, decide who gets to be president?

Parades of delusion aren’t necessarily boring, though; there were some highlights. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker talked about Union thugs threatening to gut his wife “like a deer.” Chris Christie successfully restrained himself from bullying anyone. (No educators in the crowd?) Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson did a weird call-and-response thing about securing our border with Mexico. Rick Perry reiterated his disdain for the federal government.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   January 29, 2015
Photo by Paul Roberts

• Excited for the Super Bowl this weekend? We hate to be a buzzkill, but, participation in youth football now appears to have long-lasting neurological effects. Alan Neuhauser in U.S. News & World Report writes on a study showing that NFL players who also played the sport as little kids “appear ‘significantly’ more likely to suffer memory loss and mental health issues than those who begin playing later.”

• “Seneca, ancient hypocrite without peer, never let philosophical commitments interfere with his devotion to conspicuous consumption,” writes Arts & Letters Daily of Elizabeth Kolbert’s new piece in The New Yorker.

• You’ll never guess what a new San Francisco start-up that purports to modernize consumer lending with data science is called. Okay, we’ll tell you: it’s “Earnest.” Another start-up featured in the same New York Times piece, one that uses similar technology on student loans, is called “Affirm.”

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Flint’s Dirty Drinking Water Conundrum

Mike Bivins   January 28, 2015
Photo by Mike McCullough

If you’ve seen Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger & Me, you know the outlines of the story of Flint, Michigan. It’s a city that was devastated by the decline of the American automobile industry, and it never really recovered. Twenty-six years on, things have only gotten worse.

In the past few years, several news outlets have declared Flint “America’s Most Dangerous City” by virtue of its extremely high murder rate: there were 64.9 murders per 100,000 people in 2012. The following year, Flint’s population dropped below the 100,000 mark necessary to keep it in the running, so it no longer lays claim to that unfortunate title.

But now it has a new distinction to be ashamed of. According to a memo from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (PDF), Flint has been in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act as of the fourth quarter of 2014, due to excessive levels of trihalomethane (a byproduct of chlorination) in the city’s drinking water.

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Paying Tribute to Yet Another Petro-Tyrant

Jacob Silverman   January 28, 2015
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) training session. / Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

It’s been a rough week in Middle East policy for the Obama administration, though they don’t seem to realize it.

Consider recent events: Iranian nuclear negotiations are threatened by Republicans and Democrats who want to force through new sanctions, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu looming in the background like your drunk right-wing uncle demanding to give a toast at your wedding. The current Egyptian government—essentially a military junta that Secretary of State Kerry insists is democratic—used some of its American-supplied weaponry to kill at least eighteen protesters and arrested 400 more. In Yemen, the weak, American-backed government succumbed to Houthi rebels, who are widely seen as close to Iran, but are also tangled in battles with Al Qaeda and an on-and-off again relationship with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Finally, the most theatrically embarrassing of recent developments is the administration’s response to the death of the 90-year-old King of Saudi Arabia, Ali Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz. (In my betting pool, I had 92/stroke/in the arms of a German nurse, but what are ya gonna do.) U.S. officials are practically elbowing one another out of the way to pay tribute to their favorite petro-tyrant. Twenty-seven(!) American officials, past and present, are part of the official delegation to Saudi Arabia. Those who missed the plane can submit to an essay competition established by Gen. Martin Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in tribute to “a man of remarkable courage and character.”

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   January 28, 2015
Photo by L.C. Nøttaasen

• Today in Oh Really?: British researchers at the University of Warwick “have for the first time provided strong evidence for what conspiracy theorists have long thought—oil is often the reason for interfering in another country’s war.”

• Per New York magazine, one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, East New York, “is suddenly the focus of both private speculators and City Hall, which wants to build thousand of units of affordable housing there—and by announcing its plans is fueling a land rush.”

• New York may get more national attention, but meanwhile, there seems to be an epidemic of excessive use of force by cops in Cleveland; the Plain-Dealer investigates. (Via The Marshall Project.)

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The Utopian Vision of Pawnee, Indiana

Sady Doyle   January 27, 2015
The cast of Parks and Recreation / Photo via NBC.com

Parks and Recreation, now entering its final season on NBC, has always represented a very particular, very liberal fantasy about how government should work.

Though the city of Pawnee, Indiana is broadly drawn to the point of caricature—every branch of government seems to have its own set of quirks, from the stoned dudes of Animal Control to the sleazeballs who work in Sewage—it’s also, in its way, a utopia. In the world of Parks and Recreation, government bureaucrats are all good people who passionately love their town and its citizens. They may disagree, but at the end of the day, nothing can stop them from working together to make Pawnee a better place to live.

In the show’s new season, this vision is laid out more explicitly than ever. It seems to be planning to close its run with one big, final (and weirdly anti-capitalist) statement about what government should be.

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