Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. Sean Penn, Novelist

The actor Sean Penn has written his first novel. The Washington Post argues he should not write a second:

Penn is relegated to being a maker of sentences. May he never quit his day job; Penn delivers prose as if he were gunning for a prize from the American Alliteration Association. “Dreams died like destiny’s deadwood,” he writes. And: “Scottsdale’s dry climate contradicts the clammy calescent of New Guinean condensation.” Something prompts Bob’s “provision of personal protocols”; an investigative journalist named Spurley is on his tail, and “Spurley sloppily slurps” a Popsicle. Police are accused of “racial rancor by Ruger in a country rife with rule of law.”

So, sadly, soporifically on.

2. Don’t Mess with Tex-Mex

Eater’s incomparable Meghan McCarron has written the definitive piece on Tex-Mex. Part food history, part socio-economic take, McCarron paints a vivid picture of why, despite its popularity, Tex-Mex is under siege:

The standard narrative about Tex-Mex is that it’s an inauthentic, unartful, cheese-covered fusion, the kind of eating meant to be paired with unhealthy amounts of alcohol or to cure the effects thereof. There’s a lot of easy-melt cheese, the margaritas are made with a mix, and the salsas come from a bottle. In our snackwave food moment, Tex-Mex receives the same amount of affection and respect as a Doritos Locos taco or a microwaved burrito — a processed, comforting, lovable American monster. Those assumptions are entirely wrong.

McCarron also elaborates on the essential, different roles of both Tex-Mex and BBQ in Texas life: “Barbecue is, for most people, a long Friday lunch or weekend drive out to the country, a three-hour wait with a cooler full of beer, a tailgate for meat. Mexican food, especially Tex-Mex, is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

3. The Myth of This Golden Age of Television

Sonny Bunch makes a masterful, irrefutable case that no new TV series can be timeless. The problem is the sheer volume of competition:

Why would I watch an episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix’s hilarious sitcom, more than once when I have 10 hours of The Handmaid’s Tale to catch up on? Aren’t I just wasting my time if I flip on TBS and zonk out to 25-year-old Seinfeld episodes? What would possibly be the point of watching a random episode of ER or Hill Street Blues or Miami Vice?

If you doubt him, Bunch has the statistics: “2017 saw 487 scripted series air on networks, cable, pay cable, and streaming services—up from 455 in 2016, which was up from 422 in 2015…Overall, the total series output on television since 2002 has grown by 168 percent. By way of comparison, America’s population is up about 13 percent in the same time. The number of hours in the day has remained static, at 24."

4. Gerrymandering Should Be Boring

Eric Boehm offers both terrific history and sharp analysis about the long-standing, partisan, and contentious fights over the shape of Congressional districts. His solution: take the human equation out and stop all groups – politicians, judges, citizen commissions – from drawing political boundaries, because computers do it much better. He quotes one of the leading software engineers studying the recent battles in Pennsylvania:

Redistricting should be a bureaucratic, boring process where you get the census data, you turn the crank, and you get new maps for the next decade.

Evidence of the human hand just outside of Philadelphia:


5. The Phony Science of Psychographics

Wired has published the most skeptical – and most persuasive – article about Cambridge Analytics “psychographic analysis” of Facebook data. According to Wired, it’s more astrology than data science:

The aspiring psychograficist (if that’s even a thing) is making two predictive leaps to arrive at a voter target: guessing about individual political inclinations based on rather metaphysical properties like “conscientiousness;" and predicting what sort of Facebook user behaviors are also common among people with that same psychological quality. It’s two noisy predictors chained together, which is why psychographics have never been used much for Facebook ads targeting. 

6. The (Very) High Price of Wellness

Sunday Times columnist Josh Glancy brings his British cynicism and imperial condescension to Los Angeles, where he encounters Erewhon, the high-end, much-mocked natural food market. It’s a soft target, but Glancy has no mercy, particularly for the $24 Austrian pumpkin seeds:  

Places such as Erewhon have remystified food to devastating effect. They are apothecaries masquerading as shops…The lack of self-awareness on display at Erewhon is staggering. In fact, I found just one glimmer of irony in the entire shop: the company that makes the exorbitant Austrian pumpkin seeds goes by the name of Gold Mine. So at least somebody knows what’s really going on here.


Websites Worth Reading

Literal World Map A map of what country names mean

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica 101 Bibliography for the Facebook reckoning

Lawfare National security and the law


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