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The May Newsletter

Anohni, Beyoncé, Eno, Iain Tait, Jenny Diski, Warsan Shire, Blockchain, Reality, Diane Williams


Anohni At Boiling Point

"Bloodlust is one of the key concerns of Hopelessness, Anohni’s debut solo album without her band Antony and the Johnsons, and her first made using the name her friends and family have been calling her in private for some time. We’re at the zoo for this interview at her suggestion; now 45 and based in New York, where she’s lived for the past two decades, she’s made a habit of visiting animals whenever possible. (Recently, the Bronx Zoo, showed its solidarity with Anohni’s decision not to attend the Oscars by sending her a photo of two tiger cubs, along with a handwritten note from the staff.)

Anohni has long looked to Mother Nature’s joyful chaos as a model for making sense of the world, more so than any religious or political belief—systems she perceives as stern and prescriptive. One of her earliest memories, she says, is a field of bluebell flowers she saw as her father carried her on his shoulders through the South Downs, a stretch of rolling hills that runs along England’s southeast coast. She smiles at the recollection,midnight-black hair falling in soft waves around her pale, open face. “The thing I like more than anything else is laughing,” she tells me. “In my old life, I used to live from cigarette to cigarette. Now I live from laugh to laugh.” Link

The Loneliness Of The Nearly Inaudible Bass Player

"I am a double bassist who came up in a scene of improvisers in Oxford during the first decade of this century. I still do a great deal of improvising, but over the last five or six years I've also become increasingly active in the contemporary composition world, in what the saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton would describe as the "post-Cage continuum." This has included playing a lot of music by—and with—the members of the Wandelweiser composers' collective and the musicians associated with concert series such as Music We'd Like to Hear in London. So it was in this latter capacity that I was invited to perform at last November's installment of the Huddersfield festival. I'd performed at the festival in rather minor contexts twice before, but this time I had the pleasure of a more extensive contribution involving three different solo double bass performances, one of them part of a concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. I was only able to attend the festival for three days, most of which was occupied by activity related to the concerts I was participating in, so what follows is in no way an overview of or even a reflection upon the festival itself as a whole, but rather some personal musings about my experiences and the thoughts they gave rise to." Link

Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Makes a Statement. Discuss.

"JON CARAMANICA I think from a musical perspective, the most interesting transition on this album is that Beyoncé is no longer a genre artist. When she was at her conventional pop peak — not her fame peak, which I would say is probably now — but her pop peak in terms of chart success, which is five years ago maybe, you could say she’s a pop-leaning R&B artist; she’s a genre artist. But this is a Beyoncé album. This is its own stand-alone thing. It has country, it has funk, it has New Orleans jazz. She has elevated beyond genre boxes and I think that’s part of why the narrative feels so much more specific this time around. Even if you were trying to dig out clues on the last album, you would say these are stories within a genre framework. And now I feel like this arrives number one, without a genre framework and number two, with the receipts.

WESLEY MORRIS For me, the thing that’s fascinating about this project is that she is thinking beyond herself. She is connecting her pain to the pain of millions of other women." Link

Brian Eno: Ambient Sounds, but Political, Too

"Mr. Eno, who turns 68 on May 15, has had a prolific and influential career as a producer, songwriter, musician, visual artist and thinker. Along with his own solo albums of songs and instrumentals, he has produced landmark rock albums with Talking Heads, U2 and David Bowie and collaborated extensively lately with dance-music figures like Karl Hyde, from Underworld, and the producer Jon Hopkins. His catalog has something for every attention span. He composed the evocative six-second start-up sound for Windows 95; he is also a pioneer of sustained, nearly motionless ambient music and of computerized video art like “77 Million Paintings,” a title that undercounts the number of slowly evolving images it can eventually display.

As usual, Mr. Eno has multiple projects in the works: recordings, lectures, an art gallery show in London and an app that will create what he calls a “truly generative” piece of music. “It will play differently each time you listen to it. It relates to time of day and season as well,” he said. “It’s a piece that changes its color according to the time.”

“The Ship” pulls together for the first time two persistent threads in Mr. Eno’s music. It meshes ambient music and songs with words, in tracks that move amid meditation, disquiet, desolation and uplift. Its cornerstones are two lengthy tracks, far removed from pop songs — “The Ship,” which runs 21 minutes, and the 18-minute opening section of a suite called “Fickle Sun.” Link

Warsan Shire, the Woman Who Gave Poetry to Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

“She reads like how Nina Simone sounds,” said Milisuthando Bongela, a South Africanculture writer who helped arrange the gathering. “Everyone in the audience started reciting with her as she read, as if we were fans at a music concert singing along to our favorite songs.” She added: “It was church.”

In addition to being named Young Poet Laureate, Ms. Shire won the Bunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013. A judge, the poet Kwame Dawes, said of the decision, “This was actually easy for me.” In 2014, she lived in Australia for a six-week stint as Queensland’s Poet in Residence. Her work has been featured in the anthologies “The Salt Book of Younger Poets” and “Long Journeys: African Migrants on the Road.”

Her new fame poses challenges. “My frustration and my fear is that people will reduce her to a pop phenomenon,” Mr. Parkes said. “As the work is cut and pasted and passed around, you can lose the context, the line endings, the tensions. There’s a great deal of craft in her work, and I’m keen for people to remember that.”

In “Lemonade,” Ms. Shire’s work was tailored for Beyoncé. The adaptation switches up pronouns (“you” becomes “I”), cuts lines, expands metaphors and swaps an “Allah” for an “oh my God.” But within hours of the release of “Lemonade,” had sold out of paperback copies of “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” and “The Salt Book of Younger Poets.”

Mr. Parkes had expected that demand, but because he could not disclose the project ahead of time, was unable to advise booksellers to fortify their stock. Now, Mr. Parkes said, flipped eye is currently in talks with American publishers to print “Extreme Girlhood” in the United States." Link


There is a better way to parent than the nuclear family

"The pressures and pace of modern life has made parents and children stressed and miserable. With the rise of dual-earning families, mothers, and increasingly, fathers are struggling with work-life issues, forcing many to lean in or opt out. But is it truly modern life that’s at fault or is it our expectation that two people – whether hetero or same-sex – can do it alone and do it well? Is the nuclear family all it’s cracked up to be?

Despite the belief that monogamous male-female bonding is how mothers and children were supported and thrived, the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and others believe it was actually female cooperative breeding, or alloparenting – ‘sharing and caring derived from the pooled energy’ of a network of ‘grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, distantly related kin, and non-kin’ – that shaped our evolution.

Shared parenting is likely in our genes. It works. So why do we cling to the idea that the nuclear family is the best way to raise children?

The nuclear family can be extraordinarily dangerous for children. Some – often children of educated and privileged families – are buckling under pressure to succeed and are committing suicide at alarming rates. Those in the United States who experience parental divorce are overwhelmingly being raised in poverty, which has lifelong ramifications on their health, wealth and education. At the extreme, some 500 children a year are murdered by their parents in the US, and millions more are abused and neglected, with inadequate systems to help them until damage is done.

But even in so-called ‘normal’ families, children can’t escape some sort of dysfunction, whether they’re being raised by a parent who is depressed, adulterous, emotionally cold, smothering, absent, angry, passive-aggressive, narcissistic or addicted. The moral philosophers Samantha Brennan and Bill Cameron suggest that love-based marriage, with the ‘instability, tension, and even violence that too often forms a central part of romantic conflict,’ doesn’t always offer children the stability and security they need.

Parents, too, struggle. It is a lonely, isolating and exhausting business, especially for mothers, who still typically do the bulk of childcare. They pay a huge price for it. Not only do many forsake career opportunities and income, but they also are subject to societal idealisation of motherhood and then shamed and blamed for any perceived failings, most often by their own children." Link

Creative brains need time off. By Iain Tait

No emails in the evening, meeting-free work hours: Wieden + Kennedy London ECD Iain Tait explains why the agency is making some changes to the way it works:

"We’ve just started something that I’m rather proud of (note: this is specifically a thing we’re trialling in the London office of Wieden+Kennedy).

A few weeks ago we announced a bunch of changes to the way we work, some of the most significant are:

  • We’ve asked people not to email in the evenings (between 7pm and 8am).
  • If we ask people to work evenings or weekends they can claim the time back.
  • You may now only book meetings between 10am and 4pm. This means early birds can come in early, and night owls can stay later. And everyone has at least a bit of their day completely free from meetings.

Depending on where you work these things may not look like much. But if you work in an ad agency (or similar company) they might seem pretty significant.

But so far it feels like everyone outside the company who’s asked me about it, or any comments that I’ve seen ‘out there’, have missed the point somewhat.

So, I’m going to have a go at explaining a couple of things. (This is by no means an exhaustive overview of the programme, so please don’t take it as such).

Firstly…" Link

Jenny Diski, 1947–2016

"Jenny Diski died yesterday. You might have discovered that fact if you happened to visit the London Review of Books, where Diski published essays, reviews, and blog posts for nearly twenty-five years. Or maybe, like me, you learned it on Twitter, where, hours before the obituaries arrived, old tweets of Diski’s, some of them years out of date, started swirling back into circulation. They joined a tumble of appreciative links and quotations, an accumulation whose size quickly disqualified the possibility of happy coincidence. This is how death announces itself now, at least for the artists who don’t rate a breaking-news alert on our phones: a surge of mentions on social media, a collective attempt to plug up the vacuum of absence with digital abundance. For a moment you think you’ve lucked into an outpouring of spontaneous enthusiasm. Finally! you tell yourself. We’re talking about her now! But then quickly enough the rational brain reasserts itself and begins working down the checklist: Are they handing out Nobels today? A genius grant, maybe? Was someone quoted by Beyoncé? No? Oh. Oh, no. more

This momentary suspension of belief worked again on me yesterday, even though Diski’s death could hardly count as a surprise. She was not old—sixty-eight—but we’d known that her death was coming soon, because she’d been telling us so, in a series of remarkable essays in the LRB, for more than a year and a half. In the fall of 2014, Diskiannounced that she had an inoperable cancer in her lung. She’d written more than a dozen books, including novels, short stories, and travelogues, and her decision to chronicle her dying was simple. “I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too.”


Stuck In Sicily

"On a sound file sent to me via WhatsApp, a teenage girl sobs, and an older woman says: ‘Don’t worry, the white people will help you.’ The girl is 17, from a village in Edo state in Nigeria. A family friend came to her house, she says, and asked her parents if they’d like to send their daughter to work in Europe. The friend didn’t say what kind of work she would be doing, only that she would earn money she could bring home, after she had paid back a bond of €5000. They made her swear an oath that she would honour the debt, then sent her north, through Niger and across the Sahara to Libya. The journey took several months. By the time she reached Libya she had discovered that when she finally arrived in Europe she would be forced into sex work.

F, the older woman on the recording, is also from Nigeria and lives in the same reception centre for asylum seekers as the girl, in a small town near Sicily’s east coast. Since F arrived in Italy last year, she has been collecting evidence of the conditions inside local reception centres and sharing it with me. When she tells the girl that the white people – by which she means the various state agencies and private associations that make up Italy’s asylum system – will help her, she is only half right. They may help her. They may recognise her as a survivor of human trafficking; temporarily house her in a place where the ‘madam’ she was assigned to can’t reach her; grant her asylum and provide the education, psychological support or job training that will help her to build a new life in Italy. Or they may not. They may leave her in a poorly run reception centre, where the funds for her upkeep are embezzled by the manager. Her asylum case may take years, leaving her with few means of supporting herself.

The crisis in the Mediterranean is talked about as an issue of European concern, yet maintaining a functioning asylum system is largely treated as a problem for national governments. Although the situation in Greece has come to dominate people’s attention, Italy remains a major point of entry for irregular migrants. Last year, according to UNHCR, more than 150,000 people arrived in Italy after being rescued off smugglers’ boats sailing from the coast of Libya or Egypt. Another 25,000 have arrived so far this year. Many will have continued their journey towards northern Europe, but the country is currently home to some 80,000 people with active asylum claims." Link

Thinking In Systems: The Business Of Blockchain

"As a teenager, I used to obsessively read SSD reviews on AnandTech back when the technology was still new, unknown, and prohibitively expensive. Having no formal electrical engineering degree, the reviews were hard to get through at first, but after a few years I kind of understood most of the concepts and the technology (since mostly forgotten). But the truth is, all of that nerdery wasn't needed to exploit the benefits of SSDs. Sure, read/write times matter, but should you also care about the quantum tunneling process NAND goes through, or the tunnel oxide degradation, or maybe theJEDEC endurance standards? I would hope not! A technology graduates to a product when its benefits can be understood by many. Do you really need to know how your car operates under the hood in order to be able to drive it? 

The same analogy can be extended to new technologies. You don't necessarily need to understand the stack on a technical level (your company has great engineers for that, remember?). As a non-technical person, you should be asking the right questions on how it will impact your business. One such new technology is the blockchain (aka distributed ledger). Assuming you're working with a technical team who can do the implementation, here are some other questions you should be thinking about internally:" Link

The Case Against Reality

"As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.

Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.

Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a three-pound lump of gray matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to first-person conscious experience. This is the aptly named “hard problem.” Link

Who Will Debunk The Debunkers?

"In 2012, network scientist and data theorist Samuel Arbesman published a disturbing thesis: What we think of as established knowledge decays over time. According to his book “The Half-Life of Facts,” certain kinds of propositions that may seem bulletproof today will be forgotten by next Tuesday; one’s reality can end up out of date. Take, for example, the story of Popeye and his spinach.

Popeye loved his leafy greens and used them to obtain his super strength, Arbesman’s book explained, because the cartoon’s creators knew that spinach has a lot of iron. Indeed, the character would be a major evangelist for spinach in the 1930s, and it’s said he helped increase the green’s consumption in the U.S. by one-third. But this “fact” about the iron content of spinach was already on the verge of being obsolete, Arbesman said: In 1937, scientists realized that the original measurement of the iron in 100 grams of spinach — 35 milligrams — was off by a factor of 10. That’s because a German chemist named Erich von Wolff had misplaced a decimal point in his notebook back in 1870, and the goof persisted in the literature for more than half a century.

By the time nutritionists caught up with this mistake, the damage had been done. The spinach-iron myth stuck around in spite of new and better knowledge, wrote Arbesman, because “it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.” Link

Beauty, Love and Vanity Itself: An Interview With Diane WIlliams

"Williams’s mood is warm and impending. We sit across from each other at the kitchen table. This, it strikes me, is in contrast to our customary relation. Williams was the first to rescue sections from my forthcoming novel and print them. I remember getting the call from her one day as I was driving to Massachusetts. “It’s grand,” she’d said. “I think I’ve found some sections we might publish.” Praise from Williams, as her authors will attest, is rare. She’d once accepted a story of mine and then rejected it several months later saying she’d read it over and realized, “There was nothing there.” To be edited by her is to work with an exacting chess player intent on moving words and phrases until they find their power. Often in a five-page submission she exhumes five to 10 lines which, reassembled, might make a relevant story. What she produces from her writers is inarguably excellence. There is little that gets by her. Every comma and break is deliberated over with a careful sense that the page itself is a stage which must jointly surprise and inflame.
“Wait!” she says. “Let me tell you something first. I may not look you in the eye. That may be disturbing to you.” “It’s not disturbing,” I promise. “I may have to look away in order to focus my attention. Because I am captivated by your bracelets, your expression, the pattern of your dress.” Life, it seems to Williams, is an exercise in three goals: excitement, ambition, and composition. She returns to these themes over the course of the conversation, circling back to them like a kind of mantra." Link

Williams' latest book "Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is available here.

Thanks for reading!

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