Friday 12th June 2020

Topical articles, technology and world events.

I’ve always been a bit reluctant to write topical pieces. Something about the pressure of the immediate I think. I chew over ideas in my head before reaching any conclusions or thoughts and I find that difficult to do in the shock of the moment. As things are happening I struggle to form any opinions about them other than to say: these things are happening. My thoughts are slow cooked, rather than microwaved.

Something else as well. There’s a gap between writing something and publishing. Let’s go behind the curtain here. I write a weekly article on OneZero, published on Fridays. Before it gets to that point, an editorial team at Medium review it, come up with title ideas and graphics and format it to the house style with pull quotes. They look at the schedule of content they have upcoming and organize them all. This means I have to submit the article on Monday for publication on Friday. And, as I let my ideas stew (or fester) for a bit before writing, that means I start writing the week before. So the words you see published were probably written about two weeks before.

This is just me of course. Other writers can come up with insightful things to say on the spur of the moment, as things are happening. But that often feels like a stretch for me. If it was very topical when I wrote it, it’s old news when you read it.

All of that is to say: last week there was no weekly article on OneZero. Protests across the United States dominated the news, and a slightly wry article about technology didn’t seem to have any place in the world. It felt like a political statement to not talk about Black Lives Matter. As someone said on Twitter (forgive me, I can’t now find the exact tweet - it’s lost in the waterfall of messages): saying “everything that is happening right now” is a political statement. It disguises the reality, and coats our culpability with a thin sheen of polish. We should say, loudly, and frequently: there has been years of institutionalized racism in America and across the world. It’s not okay. Right now we’re at a moment where a significant number of people have come together united in that goal. We have a chance to join them and do something about it.

I am back on OneZero this week, despite all of the above, with an article that is somewhat topical. You can read that piece here: What a Bad ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Tweet Teaches Us About Black Lives Matter Twitter Activism.

In the midst of protests over widespread institutional racism, triggered by the murder of George Floyd, a Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account put out a tweet. “For those who think we have no business as a Sonic site covering what is happening in the U.S.,” it began…


Elsewhere

There’s a great piece on Medium about the reality of policing: Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop. I always enjoy pieces that show the what a profession is really like, although “enjoy” is perhaps the wrong word for this piece, which is well written, thoughtful and a reminder that system is profoundly broken.

We used to have informal contests for who could cite or arrest someone for the weirdest law. DUI on a bicycle, non-regulation number of brooms on your tow truck (27700(a)(1) of the California Vehicle Code)… shit like that. For me, police work was a logic puzzle for arresting people, regardless of their actual threat to the community. 

The cops are wrong and bad. But also… they are responding to incentives. That is what people do. This is not to let them off the hook, but to give us another route to fixing the problem.


It’s always fun examining someone’s metaphors. Recently, I’ve seen people unpicking the “few bad apples” metaphor. It’s an incredible piece of an inversion, since it comes from “a few bad apples… spoil the barrel”. It literally means the opposite of how police defenders are using it, and, ironically, is very relevant to the current situation. There’s something sweetly meaningful about people’s language undermining their position. This lyrical piece in the New Yorker caught my eye How Apples Go Bad:

The whole bunch quickly begins to exemplify what the artist Claes Oldenburg called “the brown sad art of rotting apples”: a swamp of ferment, infecting the air with the hideous sweetness of decay. Chaucer was likely the first to write a version of the now commonplace proverb: “A rotten apple’s better thrown away / Before it spoils the barrel.” But I’m partial to Benjamin Franklin’s version: “The rotten apple spoils his companions.” The saying is often used to refer to the corruption of select individuals within a group. But the point is the fruit’s susceptibility to collective rot.


On the subject of non topical writing, this week I really enjoyed this article by Kathryn Schulz from 2014: The Meaning of Ping: Electric Signals and Our Search for Connection.

What is a ping? As a word, it already seems partial, like a suffix: beeping, keeping, hoping, gaping, dropping, stopping, ___-ping, ping. In fact, though, it is an onomatopoeia; it has no linguistic origins, no etymology but noise. It comes from the sound of things that go ping. In recent years, those things have mostly been electronic, and we now use the word to mean, basically, “get in touch via gadget”: “Ping me in the morning.”


Take care. I hope you all have great weekends.

Simon