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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   July 28, 2015
Some party-loving mastiffs, enhancing business productivity. /

• Using the cuteness of dogs to encourage people to “self-profile”— are you a party-loving mastiff or a sheepdog who “loves to plan”?—in order to maximize company productivity is probably considered a brilliant idea within the sacred field of marketing. Who could resist these “Packtypes”? Well, the Packtypes founder, for one. Instead of identifying himself as a retriever (likes being busy) or a terrier (likes doing things), Will Murray draws his own parallels: his work can be compared to “Carl Jung’s ‘Type Theory,’ Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs,’ Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ and Howard Gardner’s concept of ‘Multiple Intelligences’.”

• Fiat made a bespoke convertible for a Monaco Boat Company-organised Human Rights gala. The vehicle’s calfskin exterior and the picnic basket perched atop its tailgate clash horribly with its “I have a dream” numberplate.

• Do you need art to teach you about the one percent at this time of particular financial inequality? Or does the one percent need to be taught about art, so that it may perpetuate this state of affairs?

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   July 27, 2015
With the name AmazonFresh, the company has managed to make even a rainforest sound somehow airless. / CIAT

Now that the Greek fire sale is on (anyone want to buy the Hellenic post? How about Athens’s water supply?), it’s worth noting that selling off services hasn’t worked out for Greece in the past. In the LRB, Tariq Ali writes: “the largest tax avoider in the country is Hochtief, the giant German construction company that runs Athens airport. It has not paid VAT for twenty years, and owes 500 million euros in VAT arrears alone.”

• Does the butcher have it in for you? Fallen out with the cashiers at your local store? Well, Amazon’s dream-vision of shopping without ever encountering any other living soul might be of use to you: just “order grocery items online, then schedule a pickup at a dedicated facility.” One source pointed out that groceries have the benefit (for Amazon) of being literally what everyone needs to have to survive: “They’re trying to win that consumables trip.” 

• Pearls of wisdom from an Instagram comedian: “because we live life in fast forward,” says Josh Ostrovsky (who calls himself the Fat Jew), “for a joke to be funny, it has to be fast.” Twitter, that other unpaid-labor platform and arbiter of humor, has started deleting plagiarized jokes. So a joke now has to be both fast, and your own.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   July 24, 2015
Rescind old messages any time with Dmail, an invasive new email service. /

• Dmail, a new email service, offers to self-destruct those emails you regret as soon as you hit send. Unlike Gmail’s “unsend” feature and others like it, Dmail offers you the option to revoke your missives at any point in the future, leaving the recipient with a head-scratching “message unavailable.”

• re/code wonders if venture capital is dead. (Dare we hope?)

• Today in billionaire techies: Stephen Hawking has announced a $100 million initiative to search for alien life, and Paypal founder cum space explorer Elon Musk thinks he’s finally solved his pesky rocket problem.

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How to Move an Island

Fergus McIntosh   July 24, 2015
Out with the old, in with the new. / CTBTO

Time was, the military stuck to blowing things up—just ask the spirit of Elugelab, part of Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Elugelab was vaporized by the first ever test of an H-bomb on All Saints’ Day 1952, ascending to heaven and leaving behind only a deep crater filled with seawater. It must have been quite impressive for the insouciant Americans lucky enough to be watching from the other side of the atoll. The local people had all been evacuated and were unable to enjoy the show—or indeed any of the run of forty-three explosions that left Enewetak permanently contaminated. They did, however, receive an original goodbye gift: a 350-foot-wide blast crater creatively recycled into a container for nuclear waste, with a flaking and increasingly insecure concrete cap. Today it threatens to displace the atoll’s residents once again.

But any wonk with a few pounds of plutonium and some heavy-duty goggles can make things disappear; more impressive is how quickly land is appearing from the South China Sea. Raising a new island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is no easy task, but that hasn’t stopped China from magicking several over the course of the last year, with shoals of long-hosed dredger ships corralling the seabed into shapes it never dreamed of.

Though the Spratly archipelago is claimed in whole or part by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as the persistently non-existent micro-nation of Morac-Songhrati-Meads, it’s the US’s recent involvement that has made the islands famous in name, despite the term island being largely a misnomer. Although the sea is awash with names in several different languages, many of them refer to reefs and rocks, and not to islands at all. The Spratly Islands may be at the centre of a growing territorial dispute (even Japan is getting belligerent), but their problems up until now have been more existential than geopolitical. The disappointingly un-swashbuckling U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an island as being naturally formed and above water at high tide, and very little, if any, of China’s new real estate fits the bill.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   July 23, 2015
Pity the poor horses of the one percent: Alice Walton gets out of the cutting business to focus on other absurd pastimes. / Paul VanDerWerf

• After The Huffington Post announced its decision to cover Donald Trump’s campaign only under the banner of entertainment news, the mogul faced another bump in the road when border patrol agents refused to accompany him on a planned trip to the Texas-Mexico border. The Trump camp released responded with a statement saying that “it can only be assumed that there are things the politicians in Washington do not want Americans to see or discuss. It shows that we are not even safe in our own country.”

• Today in billionaires comes the depressing news that the one percent are growing younger and richer than ever. Elsewhere, Wal-Mart heiress is selling off the cutting horses from her Texas ranch. Apparently, Walton’s interest in breeding pales in comparison to her interest in the fine arts, chronicled by Rhonda Lieberman in Baffler no. 24.

• Like everywhere else, the public library has become a hotbed of “innovation.”

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The Novel in Analog: Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers

Jacob Silverman   July 22, 2015
“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off,” writes Joshua Cohen in Book of Numbers. Tobias Myrstrand Leander

Reviewers are having a hard time with Book of Numbers, the latest novel from the incorrigibly ambitious and graphomaniacal Joshua Cohen. Responses have ranged from dismissive to enraptured, with most both at once. The book is “a mess,” writes the New York Times’ usually even-keeled Dwight Garner, but also “more impressive than all but a few novels published so far this decade,” a mashup of David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth. Garner toggles between unvarnished admiration and a more wary posture, as if confronting a dangerous animal. Other reviewers eye Cohen like a young flamethrower on a baseball mound; his talent is spectacular, they suggest, but he prefers to light up the radar gun rather than hone his repertoire of pitches.

Cohen, who at thirty-four has already published half a dozen books, has received this treatment before. Just as critics didn’t seem to know what to do with Witz, his eight-hundred-page novel about the last Jew alive (its title means “joke” in Yiddish), they now dole out extravagant praise for the author (the word “genius” has been batted about) while caviling about the work itself.

It could be that structural conceits are to blame. As Book of Numbers offers up its nested tale of digital doppelgangers—the protagonist is one Joshua Cohen, a middling novelist tasked with ghostwriting the memoir of yet another Joshua Cohen, the mercurial founder of Tetration, a Google-esque tech giant—it risks seeming over-conceived. More likely, though, Book of Numbers confounds because it promises to capture the way human beings live with the Internet, the novel’s lifeblood and executioner.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   July 22, 2015
Who will buy The Baffler this flying car? / LotPro Cars

Progress in the manufacture of flying cars is agonizingly slow! One Massachusetts company has announced it might take another few years of testing miniature scale models in the MIT Wright Brothers wind tunnel “to measure drag, lift and thrust forces while simulating hovering flight, transitioning to forward flight and full forward flight.” Well, we’re jealous. Meanwhile David Graeber’s salvo “Of  Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” from Baffler no. 19, has a few years’ air-mileage in it yet.

• Lay down your hopes. “We’re at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology,” said John Markoff in conversation with Edge. “I’ve been thinking about Silicon Valley at a plateau, and maybe the end of the line . . .When the conversation turns to Uber for ‘x,’ you can tell there we’re out of ideas, that people are basically just trying to iterate and get lucky.”

• In contributing editor Heather Havrilesky’s salvo “Apocalypse Soon,” from The Baffler’s current issue, she raises the fact “data mining is one giant, thriving, multibillion-dollar exercise in the shared, worldwide suspension of disbelief.” Cue the Ashley Madison hack, in light of which Heather asks, in New York Magazine: “Do we really want to live in a world where no one is allowed to make mistakes?”

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   July 21, 2015
Glass blowing

• The Desert Sun reports that the Tex Wash bridge that tumbled to the ground in southern California over the weekend received an A “sufficiency rating” last year: “There are 45 bridges on Interstate 10 that have received lower ratings than the bridge that collapsed Sunday near Desert Center,” it comfortingly continues. “There are also 119 obsolete and 79 structurally deficient bridges in all of Riverside County.” Helaine Olen gave an account of the downward slope in transportation infrastructure spending in the US on the blog in May: “The most recent grade for our overall infrastructure? A D+.” So that’s hopeful.

• Innovators! Take heed of alchemy’s cautionary tale and don’t innovate to get rich. After all, until scientists learnt to manufacture glass, it was considered a scarce material that only Venetian glassblowers could work with, but its value has since depreciated—this is the alchemist fallacy, the cursed law of irony that states that working out how to turn lead into gold would just reduce the value of gold. Besides, argues the FT, “Our intellectual property system gives too much protection to ideas that would have been created anyway, such as simple software, business methods and Mickey Mouse.”

• “The cultural mood is very accepting of interference,” said Baffler contributing editor Heather Havrilesky on Saturday, on the This is Hell! podcast, speaking of our generalized tolerance in the face of corporate interests mining our personal data. Find this timely exchange online (Heather comes in around 3:02:40).

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