The Roundup for March 1-31, 2020 Edition

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(Curves by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


We are living in the midst of particularly chaotic times. I won’t bore you with my thoughts on them—you have lots of your own, and there are millions of others you can avail yourself to—but, instead, offer a few questions that Neil Postman reflected on in his lecture, “The Surrender of Culture to Technology”:

  1. What is the problem to which technology claims to be a solution?
  2. Whose problem is it?
  3. What new problems will be created because of solving an old one?
  4. Which people and institutions will be most harmed?
  5. What changes in language are being promoted?
  6. What shifts in economic and political power are likely to result?
  7. What alternative media might be made from a technology?

It strikes me that, as a society and species, we may need to ask these questions frequently to better appreciate the implications of using different classes of technologies to mediate the spread and consequences of the disease current ravaging the world.


Inspiring Quotation

“The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”
— Carl Sagan

Great Photography Shots

I was really struck by the modernist architecture that Bogdhan Anghel has captured in Budapest. I can say I’ve ever thought much of visiting that city, but now I’m starting to reconsider that position.
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Music I’m Digging

I’ve been home for a lot of this month, which has meant I’ve had lots of time to listen to music on my home-speakers which, honestly, has been pretty terrific. There’ve also been a ton of great albums that have come out, many of which contributed tracks to my favourite tracks of March 2020 list.

  • Bones UK—Bones-UK // The mix between the guitar riffs and vocals are absolutely delightful; this almost has a Garbage vibe at points, which almost immediately endears the band and album to me!
  • Dirty Projectors—Windows Open (EP) // As a longtime lover of all things Dirty Projectors, this short EP is everything I’ve come to expect from the band. Lovely music to relax to in these routinely anxious times.
  • Run The Jewels—Ooh LA LA (Single) // Classic RTJ sound, with the sounds of DJ Premier mixed throughout. This track bridges some of my favourite hip hop groups, and while it’s a little slower/relaxed than my favourite RTJ tracks, it’s a solid contribution to their ongoing corpus of work.
  • Jay Electronica—A Written Testimony // I hadn’t previously come across Jay Electronica but having now come across this album I’ve subsequently listened to everything I could find that he’s done. The mixing of his work alongside the sampling from Jay-Z is just terrific.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • The Documentary-North Korea’s celebrity defectors // I had no idea that there was a subset of Korean society that put North Korean defectors on near-daily TV, where the defectors will talk about the hardships of living in North Korea. Of note, the exploitative nature of the episodes stood out, as did the like fabrication of many of the stories so that the persons presenting stories retain their jobs.
  • The Axe Files-Gerald Butts // Gerald Butts is the former chief advisor and strategist to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Axe does a great job unpacking some of the things that Butts has been involved in; beyond the usual discussion of his past, the discussion also outlines some of Butts’ assessment of the Trump era and its impacts on Canada/US relations.
  • 99% Invisible-This is Chance! (Redux) // This rebroadcast episode is a story about an earthquake that struck Anchorage in 1964. The earthquake was terrible, but what’s genuinely heartwarming is how the community came together. What perhaps struck me the most was how valuable journalists were in this period, and how they (like with first responders) run towards danger as opposed to race away from it.
  • Lawfare-How Do You Spy When The World Is Shut Down // The CIA is in a challenging situation given the country lockdowns occurring in the face of COVID–19: how can CIA officers engage with, or recruit, spies in an era where they can’t physically meet with people? On the whole the discussion was insightful, though the failure to recognize that the CIA’s Internet-based communications and modes of recruitment are unreliable in light of the agency’s loss of its China-based spies was a notable gap in the conversation.

Good Reads

  • How computational power—or its absence—shaped World War naval battles // In this special piece published by Ars Technica, Huang outlines the importance of naval plotting and how it transformed both fleet deployments and conflicts, as well as its roles in major battles in the 20th century. It’s notable because it both showcases the increasing value of intelligence collection to mobilize forces and resources around the world, and for appreciating the difference between tactical versus strategic situational awareness.
  • Why Birds Are the World’s Best Engineers // I loved this long, and in-depth, assessment of the novel characteristics of birds nests and how challenging it is for scientists to even determine how they develop their strength and integrity, let alone replicate such characteristics. Once more, we see that animals that surround us are ingenious in ways that was struggle to fully appreciate, let alone mimic.
  • Forget that tired-old coffee ring effect: “Whiskey webs” are the new hotness // Really cool research reveals that there are different chemical properties between American and non-American whiskeys, to the effect that the former manifest ‘webs’ that are unique to specific brands whereas the latter only do so when fatty composites are also added to proofed-down whiskey. While the authors talk about how this technique could be used too sniff out counterfeit whiskey, my mind went to something a bit different: in theory, it might be possible to determine if, say, a Japanese whiskey was just something that was rebadged Canadian whiskey or scotch.
  • Pablo Escobar’s Hippos Fill a Hole Left Since Ice Age Extinctions // I find it moderately amusing just how much attention Escobar’s hippos attract, but this this article was a novel way to consider how introducing large herbivores can restore ecological links that have been broken for thousands of years. While the authors of the underlying study are not calling for deliberate introductions–and recognize that humans may be less willing to introduce top predators into their environments, as well–the research showcases the prospective positive effects of animals taking root in environments far from home.
  • A 7-Eleven in Japan Might Close for a Day. Yes, That’s a Big Deal. // It’s stunning that attempting to take a single day off causes such consternation for a major franchise, and speaks to the failure of corporate executives to recognize that their franchises are owned and operated by humans and not robots. One set of facts that I thought was fascinating from the article was that, “[t]he government considers convenience stores part of the country’s infrastructure, like highways and sewers. They are expected to help promote regional tourism and to help with local policing by offering a safe place for people to flee to. Its stores can be called on to help distribute aid and supplies during a natural disaster.” It’s so foreign to me that convenience stores would be so important to society given how they operate in North America, and speaks to how subtle cultural differences can be between different countries with similar businesses.

Cool Things

The Roundup for December 1-31, 2019 Edition

Alone Amongst Ghosts by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This month’s update is late, accounting for holidays and my generally re-thinking how to move forward (or not) with these kinds of posts. I find them really valuable, but the actual interface of using my current client (Ulysses) to draft elements of them is less than optimal. So expect some sort of changes as I muddle through how to improve workflow and/or consider the kinds of content that make the most sense to post.


Inspiring Quotation

Be intensely yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success; don’t try to do pictures for others to look at—just please yourself.

  • Ralph Steiner

Great Photography Shots

Natalia Elena Massi’s photographs of Venice, flooded, are exquisite insofar as they are objectively well shot while, simultaneously, reminding us of the consequences of climate change. I dream of going to Venice to shoot photos at some point and her work only further inspires those dreams.

Music I’m Digging

I spent a lot of the month listening to my ‘Best of 2019’ playlist, and so my Songs I Liked in December playlist is a tad threadbare. That said, it’s more diverse in genre and styles than most monthly lists, though not a lot of the tracks made the grade to get onto my best of 2019 list.

  • Beck-Guero // I spent a lot of time re-listening to Beck’s corpus throughout December. I discovered that I really like his music: it’s moody, excitable,and catchy, and always evolving from album to album.
  • Little V.-Spoiler (Cyberpunk 2077) (Single) // Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most hyped video games for 2020, and if all of the music is as solid and genre-fitting as this track, then the ambiance for the game is going to be absolutely stellar.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible-Racoon Resistance // As a Torontonian I’m legally obligated to share this. Racoons are a big part of the city’s identity, and in recent years new organic garbage containers were (literally) rolled out that were designed such that racoons couldn’t get into them. Except that some racoons could! The good news is that racoons are not ‘social learners’ and, thus, those who can open the bins are unlikely to teach all the others. But with the sheer number of trash pandas in the city it’s almost a certainty that a number of them will naturally be smart enough and, thus, garbage will continue to litter our sidewalks and laneways.

Good Reads

  • America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions // Ismay’s longform piece on cluster munitions is not a happy article, nor does the reader leave with a sense that this deadly weapon is likely to be less used. His writing–and especially the tragedies associated with the use of these weapons–is poignant and painful. And yet it’s also critically important to read given the barbarity of cluster munitions and their deadly consequences to friends, foes, and civilians alike. No civilized nation should use these weapons and all which do use them cannot claim to respect the lives of civilians stuck in conflict situations.
  • Project DREAD: White House Veterans Helped Gulf Monarchy Build Secret Surveillance Unit // The failure or unwillingness of the principals, their deputies, or staff to acknowledge they created a surveillance system that has systematically been used to hunt down illegitimate targets—human rights defenders, civil society advocates, and the like—is disgusting. What’s worse is that democratizing these surveillance capabilities and justifying the means by which the program was orchestrated almost guarantees that American signals intelligence employees will continue to spread American surveillance know-how to the detriment of the world for a pay check, the consequences be damned (if even ever considered in the first place).
  • The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later // The combination of the (re)telling of the first Russia-Chechen War and photographs from the conflict serve as reminders of what it looks like when well-armed nation-states engage in fullscale destruction, the human costs, and the lingering political consequences of wars-now-past.
  • A New Kind of Spy: How China obtains American technological secrets // Bhattacharjee’s 2014 article on Chinese spying continues to strike me as memorable, and helpful in understanding how the Chinese government recruits agents to facilitate its technological objectives. Reading the piece helps to humanize why Chinese-Americans may spy for the Chinese government and, also, the breadth and significance of such activities for advancing China’s interests to the detriment of America’s own.
  • Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach: There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory // Benhabib’s essay showcasing how the history of European political philosophy over the past 60 years or so are in the common service of critique, and the role(s) of Habermasian political theory in both taking account of such critique whilst offering thoughts on how to proceed in a world of imperfect praxis, is an exciting consideration of political philosophy today. She mounts a considered defense of Habermas and, in particular, the claims that his work is overly Eurocentric. Her drawing a line between the need to seek emancipation while standing to confront and overcome the xenophobia, authoritarianism, and racism that is sweeping the world writ large is deeply grounded on the need for subjects like human rights to orient and ground critique. While some may oppose such universalism on the same grounds as they would reject the Habermasian project there is a danger: in doing so, not only might we do a disservice to the intellectual depth that undergirds the concept of human rights but, also, we run the risk of losing the core means by which we can (re)orient the world towards enabling the conditions of freedom itself.
  • Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai // This very curious article explores the recent problem of ships’ GPS transponders being significantly affected while transiting the Yangtze in China. Specifically, transponders are routinely misplacing the location of ships, sometimes with dangerous and serious implications. The cause, however, remains unknown: it could be a major step up in the (effective) electronic warfare capabilities of sand thieves who illegally dredge the river, and who seek to escape undetected, or could be the Chinese government itself testing electronic warfare capabilities on the shipping lane in preparation of potentially deploying it elsewhere in the region. Either way, threats such as this to critical infrastructure pose serious risks to safe navigation and, also, to the potential for largely civilian infrastructures to be potentially targeted by nation-state adversaries.
  • A Date I Still Think About // These beautiful stories of memorable and special dates speak to just how much joy exists in the world, and how it unexpectedly erupts into our lives. In an increasingly dark time, stories like this are a kind of nourishment for the soul.

Cool Things

  • The Deep Sea // This interactive website that showcases the sea life we know exists, and the depths at which it lives, is simple and spectacular.
  • 100 Great Works Of Dystopian Fiction // A pretty terrific listing of books that have defined the genre.

The Roundup for November 19-30, 2018 Edition

Explore by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee, make a tea, or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


Inspiring Quotation

Hope requires action.

  • Barrack Obama

Great Photography Shots

Ugur Galenkus’ work is not easy to look at, but constitutes an important artistic intervention by juxtaposing the lives of those in war torn parts of the world with those in the West.

Music I’m Digging

  • 2018 – Tracks I Liked in November // A new addition to my music lists, I’m starting to pull together the different tracks that I liked in a given month. This month sees some tracks from 2018 but just as many from earlier in the decade. It’s a diverse collection of pop, R&B, rap, and alternative, and electronic, with a bit of orchestral thrown in here and there.
  • American Gods (Original Series Soundtrack) // Having just watched the first season of the show — which was excellent! — I had to get and listen to the soundtrack. It’s got an eerie mix of jazz, electronica, and classical undertones. While merging all three genres is somewhat novel it works incredibly well throughout the album and stands up well without needing the show to support the music.
  • Jean-Michel Blais – Il (Deluxe) // Blais plays classical piano, and the album he’s created is absolutely beautiful. The title track of the albums, il, is a treat to listen to as he flies over the keys to create a truly spellbinding moment.
  • Lavnia Meijer – Glass: Metamorphosis, The Hours // This is a really impressive set of classical music; I’ve listened to it throughout the past couple weeks when passing through the city so as to just reflect on what is near and far, in the past and in the future.
  • If you like these albums then you should follow me on Apple Music!

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Heavyweight – Gregor // I hadn’t heard of Heavyweight until last week. It’s a curious concept: the host attempts to bring a resolution to a personal conflict of some sort between two people. In this episode it is between Gregor — a guy who feels like his life has passed him by — and Moby, to whom Gregor has loaned a CD box set in the 90s. Moby sampled from the disks and created some of his most iconic breakout hits but never returned the CDs nor really spoke to Gregor again. This episode resolves some of that historical conflict between the two men.
  • The House – Midweek pod: Millennials’ money habits // In this episode of The House the highlight exploration is of a study into the actual financial status and security of millennials in Canada. The assertion is that most millennials are in about the same status or better than their parents. The assessment seems to pass over what generates anxiety: for those living in Canada’s big cities, debt from student loans are slowing progress into home ownership while home prices skyrocket and (correspondingly) renters are always in a situation of being forced from their homes, attitudes of employers means that it’s hard to trust that you’re going to have a long-term job which impacts an ability to engage in long-term fiscal planning, and there are lingering concerns amongst some millennials about the status of their parents and what will happen when they retire with limited savings. Moreover, the analysis is based on millennial perceptions around the country: the status of those in the big cities is very different from those in other parts of the country, which raises the question of whether such cross-cutting analyses that arrive at holistic ‘understandings’ for the entire country are really fitting given the significant economic and social variation across the entirety of Canada.
  • The Sporkful – Carla Hall Isn’t Going Back To The Frozen Food Section // I remember Carla from when she was on Top Chef and was the ‘quirky’ one; this episode rewrites much of that perception by extending the depth of her experiences before, during, and after the show. Throughout I was struck with how her joy is communicated in some of her stories about her youth, and also the struggle and pain that came from recognizing that for her entire life she had been struggling against the structures of racism and not really realized their presence. Her honesty and candour, along with the host’s probing questions, turned this into one of the best episodes of the show to date.
  • The Daily – The Human Toll of Instant Delivery // By investigating the conditions in major shipping warehouses it becomes apparent just how inhumanely people are being treated so that goods which are ordered online arrive quickly to doorsteps. That some warehouses push women to work to the point of miscarriage, and have broad-brush misogynistic policies, is repugnant and speaks to the absolute need for workers rights to be better protected. All people deserve respect and dignity in their workplaces, regardless of the type of work, and this episode shows how poorly some employers will treat their employees in the absence of strong, and well defended, labour laws.

Good Reads

  • What to do about the Olympus Problem // I’m not going to lie: I think all the camera nerds saying one camera type or another is ‘dead’ or ‘useless’ fails to recognize that the worst cameras today are better than those used by the greats of photography 10, 15, 30, or 40 years ago. That said, this is probably one of the better ways to think about how Olympus might diversify its camera line to make clear which cameras are for which group of consumers. In this way, what Rammell is proposing is less reforming the cameras themselves — though there is a little of that — and more how to reform the public relations of Olympus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though if companies like Apple are any indication I don’t think we should expect brand clarity anytime soon.
  • Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe // In this long-form article, the New York Times’ Abrahm Lustgarten outlines how American efforts to adopt biofuels to combat climate change have, instead, promoted climate change. By converting palm oil into biofuels the forests and peatlands of Indonesia and Malaysia are being ‘converted’ into oil-palm tree groves that have their seeds converted into biofuels. The problem is that these old-growth forests and peatlands act as massive carbon sinks: by destroying them, often by burning away the peat, more carbon is being released into the atmosphere than any time in the past millennia. Once more, human hubris concerning our knowledge of the complex environment we exist within has led to poor policy choices, in an era when such choices move us ever closer to ecological crisis and collapse.
  • Heritage beyond a building’s walls // What was most striking about this editorial was how heritage can be preserved in a multitude of ways, such as creating museums of key elements of an older location or building, within the new building itself, or otherwise honouring or relocating materials from the heritage site and into the new site. But, also, that heritage extends beyond the physical space itself: it may also mean establishing affordable housing to continue to legacy of a boarding house, or otherwise support the community that was essential to why a heritage site possesses a heritage in the first place.
  • You Don’t Have to Be a Journalist to Want to Keep Chats Private // I really appreciated how this interview with the New York Times’ Kate Conger walks through her process: while she’s mindful of security and privacy she still needs to be very social in order to do her job. So the technologies she’s using reflect her current decisions around security, and they’re ones that she regularly evaluates. The interview both surfaces some tools that others might be curious in trying out while, simultaneously, making clear there is no perfect, and that perfect is the enemy of good enough.
  • Period-tracking apps are not for women // Vox’s deep-dive into the world of period-tracking apps reveals an ecosystem dominated by men, and wherein women’s bodies and data is used principally to collect personal information so as to sell ads and products. These aren’t apps to empower women but, instead, ignorant applications designed by men to spy on women and profit from the spying. They are, in effect, creeper apps.
  • Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight // This is a complex essay: it notes how those willing to entertain dialogue with fascists tend to be in positions of privilege, whereas those most targeted are most disinclined to engage in debate and instead actively work against fascism not with words but with actions. While perhaps the most dangerous thing that liberal democracies can be is tolerant to intolerance, the author’s disassociation of action and ideas seems ill-conceived. Fascism exists as an idea, an ideology, and as a set of practices. What is required to combat it is, similarly, an idea set and series of practices; some may be discursive in nature and others more tactile. But shunning a diversity of tactics seems to be alienating allies with different skills and fundamentally turns into an intolerance of parties who are actively working against fascism but using different tactical means.
  • What the UAE’s arrest of Matthew Hedges means for political science research in the Middle East // The threats facing academics studying politics are rising throughout the world, and perhaps nowhere as quickly as in the Middle East. While this article raises questions about the safety of conducting research in the Middle East it also raises questions about Western governments which condone the sale of surveillance technologies used to track and round up academics and activists, as well Western governments’ broader support for autocratic regimes. It’s not sufficient to just warn scholars: governments themselves need to re-engage more aggressively to advocate for human rights and democratic reforms around the world.

Cool Things

Link

Freelancers are second-class journalists—even if there are only freelancers here, in Syria, because this is a dirty war, a war of the last century; it’s trench warfare between rebels and loyalists who are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other. The first time on the frontline, you can’t believe it, with these bayonets you have seen only in history books. Today’s wars are drone wars, but here they fight meter by meter, street by street, and it’s fucking scary. Yet the editors back in Italy treat you like a kid; you get a front-page photo, and they say you were just lucky, in the right place at the right time. You get an exclusive story, like the one I wrote last September on Aleppo’s old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, burning as the rebels and Syrian army battled for control. I was the first foreign reporter to enter, and the editors say: “How can I justify that my staff writer wasn’t able to enter and you were?” I got this email from an editor about that story: “I’ll buy it, but I will publish it under my staff writer’s name.”

FJP: A fast-paced, fiercely heartfelt essay on the downsides to freelance work abroad and the madness of war.

(via futurejournalismproject)

This speaks volumes about contemporary war reporting: not only are ‘dirty wars’ outsourced to freelancers, but the credibility linked to successfully covering them is either denigrated or obviated to the public.