January 9, 2017

Reading with the Enemy

Do you know about logistics and supply chain management? I started reading the literature on this horrible science after hearing the remarkable Kay Dickinson give a talk on Dubai’s bid to become a film production hub. She recommended Deborah Cowan’s The Deadly Life of Logistics. If you haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so. If you spend a lot of time online and find reading books increasingly difficult, then take a look at this snippet, a screenshot from an article on “intelligent infrastructure,” written by two specialists in the field.


January 7, 2017

Brexitland Diary

I had a real wtf experience on January 2nd. It was a damp day and I was walking back from the shops to my mother’s flat. She lives by herself in a village–a suburban sort of village, on the outskirts of a small port town on the East Anglian coast.

Now, for context, let me explain that the units in my mother’s block of flats are set aside for retirees. it is a form of social housing known in British English as sheltered accomodation. That phrase sounds awful, but these flats are ideal if you are an independent-minded octogenarian. People known as carers visit often to assist with life’s routines. There’s also a specially trained live-in manager, known until recently as the warden. This nomenclature has never seemed to bother my mother, so I try not to let it bother me.

So anyway, it was almost raining. I trudged along. Ahead of me a frail man in a thin jacket was walking with a cane. He halted on the corner by a litter bin, as if waiting to cross the road. Then he bent down and pulled up his trouser leg. I saw surgical tubing taped to his calf. A gush of urine flowed out, pooling on the wet asphalt by his shoes.

Poor old boy. I assumed he was one of my mother’s neighbours, and so walked past with averted gaze. But then, glancing over, I realized he was not an old man at all. At most he was in his fifties. I noticed too–knowing that it was a very English kind of noticing–that his sleeves had ridden up to expose badly inked blue curlicues winding around the slack skin of his arms. He gave me a look that said, don’t look.

I continued on with images of heavily tattooed Scythian mummies in my mind. As it happens, just that morning I’d been reading a book on the history of the Eurasian Steppes by Barry Cunliffe, my favourite archaeologist. But what put these esoteric pictures in my head was not the sight of the man’s decorated arms, it was the patterns made by the icy mist on the windshields of all the parked cars. The frost’s feathery whorls shared a florid kind of intricacy with the ancient marks on skin preserved first by the Altai region’s permafrost, and now by the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. I enjoyed contemplating the comparison, until it struck me that I was doing so to avoid thinking about the man with the catheter shuffling behind me.

Why begin my Brexitland diary with this disturbing story? It seems so bleak, a too apt illustration of the tiny recognitions and misrecognitions that define the English class system in public. An encounter with the reality of bodily decline, as unexpectedly raw as that day’s weather.

I suppose I want to begin here because, of all the instances of misunderstanding that have presented themselves in the ten days since my arrival, this one seems the most suggestive, the most open and undecideable. I could have begun with another story–the tale, say, of my interaction with a stranger on the train up to Durham, where I’ll be living and working for the next three months. At first I thought it was a casual exchange. My six-year old had found a grubby old ticket on the floor and was playing with it. I told her to put it down. When it was time for us to go, the woman sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me she wanted to see me put my rubbish away. I looked at her, uncomprehending, the dropped ticket long forgotten. She looked back at me, her face so blank I was unable to detect the rage and affront she was holding inside her until finally she said to me and my daughter, in a voice of utter contempt, “it’ll do you good to learn some manners.”

I still have no idea why she was so angry. I hope it had nothing to do with the fact that I am white and my daughter is black.

But why start out with even the suspicion of such ugliness, especially as moments like this are a set piece of travelogues based in these islands–I’m thinking of the stories Paul Theroux recounted, in a bemused-but-melancholic tone, after walking around the United Kingdom in 1982. Or the sectarian bile Colm Toibín recorded a few years later, as he walked along the Northern Irish border. There is no shortage of anecdotes illustrating the smallness of the British mind, the pathological sort of Englishness that foams up in muttering resentment, a decrepit despair that seems, often, to transcend divisions of class and creed.

And anyway, I’m not qualified to tell this kind of story. I left England for the United States as a teenager. It has been thirty five years since I last lived here, and I can never be sure my interpretations of social life are correct. When I arrived, I expected that this long absence would have endowed me with some deep longitudinal vision. As it turns out, such maturity remains out of reach. Again and again, it’s the absurd and the incongruous, the inexplicable, that catches my eye. Perhaps this way of seeing is inevitable among repatriated persons. The returning native must adopt a peripheral point of view, looking beyond the standard malaise anglaise in search of something positive, or at least comic, on which to base new attachments.

In that spirit, let’s close this first entry of my Brexitland Diary with the juxtaposition of two images. Together, they seem to suggest an equivalency between the Roast and the British. What comes to mind is the saying the west and the rest, spoken with a funny accent.


It will be difficult, but I’m going to keep these absurdist ethnographic images to a minimum in subsequent entries. They encourage cleverness, which is fatal in a world engulfed with suffering and sadness, with violence and dislocation. Fear and greed are the essence of power today. For circumstances such as these, I do not have any images to share.

December 21, 2016

Social Text Holiday Gift Guide

The darkest week has come to an end. Greetings to all on this day of Solstice. Coming up next: the potlatched commodity binge called The Holidays.

The time of the giving.

But who has time to think of other people right now? The empire is crumbling. In the US, people are seeing their Social Security benefits garnished to pay back student loans. Canada, the goody goody of international relations, turns out to be not quite so nice after all. And it just snowed in the Sahara for the first time in forty years.

For readers who need help developing their giving sides, here is the first ever Social Text Online Holiday Gift Guide.

1. The gift of not having to exchange gifts.
Christmas is Capitalism. Refuse to participate.
Tip: This is the way to go with adult siblings and frenemies. In the latter case, just be sure to initiate the conversation about a day or so before you meet for the end-of-year-catch-up date.
Bonus Tip: The gift of not giving also works with spouses.

2. Truth Paste, a revolutionary product for fighting truth decay!

NB: item not yet available.

3. Some Classics

For the opera lover: Boris Godunov. For the history buff: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

4. A User’s Manual for the Future

Here we can only suggest one book, a book that should be on the wish list of every American citizen: Dare to Succeed: How to Survive and Thrive in the Game of Life by Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor, The Apprentice, and the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. With a publication date of September 12, 2001, how can this book not be relevent to The Present Emergency?
Sample Sentence: “It sounds crass to use this term, but I knew I had come to a time in my life when having balls counted for everything.”

5. Compassion is free.

*Image credit: Jacob Zaborowski

December 12, 2016

A Memorandum to Life, the Government, and the Global Economy

The following lines were composed after reading two online articles in quick succession. The first was The New Yorker’s profile of Martha Nussbaum, a moral philosopher concerned with matters of human flourishing. The second was this piece on how much it costs to lose weight.

At forty-nine, more than half of my life is over. The best half, arguably. Have I flourished?

Well, the first fourteen or so years were only okay, most of the time. There were certainly times when I flourished. Occasionally, this flourishing was ecstatic; most of the time it was just adequate. This is probably true of my twenties, too. Then there were about three years in my thirties and five in my forties that really were not very nice at all. Rounding up to fifty (because time flies), let’s say that it adds up to about twenty crappy years and thirty okay-to-good ones. The twenty had some good stretches, and the thirty had many bad bits. Still, for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the inconsistencies on each side cancel the other out.

Having performed this calculation, I hereby inform life, the government, and the global economy that they owe me six okay-to-good years. That is the minimum amount necessary for me to be able to say that I have lived a flourishing life. And instead of taking an immediate settlement, I would like to bank those years for use after I retire (eighteen years from now).

From the perspective of The Present Moment, what I’m proposing is a good deal. It’s not as if the years leading up to retirement will all be good. The election of Donald Trump ensures that trouble lies ahead. On top of this, I have a child who will reach puberty in five or six years. I have one living parent and four siblings. I may one day have what the booklets in the oncologist’s examining room call “a recurrence.”

So, although I’ll do the best I can, it’s a safe bet that quite a few of the next eighteen years will fall on the negative side. If the government and the global economy were to guarantee me six good years of post-retirement life, there’s a very good chance they will still end up profiting from this deal.

Given this possibility, let me suggest a solution to current global deficits in human flourishing. It starts with a simple calculation like the one above, with all the upper-middle-class individuals in the first world making a personal tally of their Total Life-to-date Flourishing. Their TLF.

From this modest start, we might discover that we have quite a surplus of flourishing on our hands. Assuming the government and the global economy help us out a bit, I don’t see why we middle-class first-worlders can’t pool all our extra pieces of the good life and redistribute them to the world’s less flourishing peoples. I’m no philosopher, but surely that would make everything okay.

December 11, 2016

Bringing work home


What a delightful activity for a children’s birthday party. Give each kid a paper cup. Supply materials for decorating it and–note the wires and batteries–some elementary electrical circuitry to make the cup spin.


And weirdness. The parent who hosted the party where my daughter made this spinning paper cup works in counterterrorism.

November 28, 2016

Things They Did In Order To Write

In the language of content creation, a listicle is an article in the form of a list. Some have argued that the listicle’s ancestry lies not only in journalism but also in literary works, such as poems. The following listicle exemplifies this hybrid history. It is composed, or rather crowdsourced, from solicited contributions. In a few cases I have enhanced an item using an algorithm called “my imagination.”


Married the guy with the ponytail
Pretended her side effects were worse than they were
kept her laptop in a cupboard by the stove
gave up looking for her vibrator, returned to her desk
borrowed some Adderall from the twins
acted in a quite unfriendly way
agreed to a weekly sex quota
sabbatical at three quarter pay
Became a woman
became a man
cut ties with a loving friend
refused facebook
missed parties
stopped exercising
started exercising
could not stop exercising
could not start exercising
Ignored the knocks.
Ignored contractions.

Got pregnant
ordered in
checked into a Motel 6 alongside a Florida highway.

Acquired debt
frequented coffee shops & stayed too long
lived in an economically devastated city for many years
ate many chocolate croissants
adopted cats
closed the cats out of the room
“ambiently emailed at all hours”
bit her nails ferociously.

Gained weight.

Found her vibrator in her desk drawer and left it there.
Stocked up on blue bic pens and yellow legal pads.
Stopped being tortured by an eating disorder.

Stayed in bed.

Worked beyond dark
Worked beyond sense
Scattered her children to the four corners of the earth

Ignored the voices in her head
Ignored the voices outside her head
Then listened to them and started all over again

Googled “mindfulness.”
Googled “Mila Kunis plastic surgery.”
Googled “mindfulness” again.

The Order of Things on Ebay


Why do some people buy one item in all the colours? I have always been curious. This eBay seller may be one of those people. Having purchased, and worn, these seven Boden tank tops, it seems that she–or someone acting on her behalf–has now decided to get rid of them all at once. Has she changed her look? Has she undergone a gender transition? Has she died?

In the absence of answers, all one can do is ask more questions. I wonder about the way the seller has chosen to display these garments. What determines the order of things? The prints go in the back, the solids in front. I can see the logic to this display: it’s easier to grasp the cut of the garment without the distractions of a print. But still, within each line, there is the choice of how to sequence the items. I’m no visual display expert, but I think the appeal of these tank tops would be heightened if the prints were interspersed with the solids.

November 21, 2016


Did you know that sharing existed before the internet? Sharing is as old as society! The instinct to share things led the hunter-gatherers to band together and settle on the land.

If sharing ignites the spirit of communal living, in urban communities it takes on a special character. Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, residents of apartment buildings have exchanged books and magazines with each other anonymously, removing any labels or stamps that might identify the original owner before setting them out on the book share shelf, to be enjoyed again.

In my own building, the trash room is a sharing place. I’ve found a lot of books there over the years and, some time around 2004, a sturdy wooden bookcase. Sometimes, even if I don’t take an item, I’ll photograph it for my archive of discarded objects. This collection of refuse imagery has served as a primary research corpus. It’s no exaggeration to say that my academic career has been built upon photographs of discarded or unwanted things.

Others also feel a documentary impulse when faced with the discards of their neighbours. Sometimes, a friend will share with me a photograph of something someone has left out. Here’s one from an apartment building with a very active sharing spot.


The person who left these potatoes probably wasn’t thinking about the history of sharing. Still, as it happens, it’s a history in which potatoes play a big role. In Scotland and Ireland, potatoes became staple crops after the mass displacement of tenant farmers by landowners in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. There was plenty of land, but the lords and ladies didn’t want to share. With the farmers out of the way, the rich, wild highlands could be used as game preserves.

The people who were cleared off the land had to make their living on its margins. They were known as crofters. You could also call them sharecroppers. Potatoes were the only things that grew in the stony soil. So potatoes became their primary food. You can still see the remains of potato beds, fertilized with heaped seaweed, in parts of Scotland and Ireland today.

When the potato crop failed, Irish and Scottish people starved. This, at least, is well known. But it was not a famine. Landlords grew grain in Ireland for handsome profits throughout the famine years. The supply chain remained secure. Wagons carried wheat from Anglo-Irish estates to British ships waiting at the docks, passing hundreds of dying people on their way. Some crops are too valuable to share.

This shameful history seems far removed from the inviting clutch of potatoes pictured here in their brown paper bag. They came out of the ground and went straight into a cardboard box with other items of organic produce, as part of a Community Supported Agriculture package. Such schemes, also known as farm shares, are not cheap. These spuds are special. They have made the transition from subsistence crop to artisanal produce. You don’t boil these potatoes, you curate them.

November 17, 2016

February will be too late

France holds elections in the spring. Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party is unified and organized. (That much, at least, was clear from a recent soft pedaling BBC interview)

Le Pen’s party will issue its manifesto for the election season in February. This is not the time to stand by.

But what should we do?

comments? webeditor.socialtext@gmail.com

November 1, 2016

On Hotel Coffee Makers

A Courtyard Marriott, but where?
A Courtyard Marriott, but where?

When I go somewhere to give a talk I have a tendency to dither over what I’m going to say until the very last minute. This leads inevitably to a lot of writing in hotel rooms. It helps to be an early riser–you can get a lot done between the hours of four and seven in the morning–but there’s not much you can do about the coffee. I’m talking about the stuff you make in the room yourself. It supplies barely any caffeine and has an unpleasant flavour, but that’s all there is until breakfast opens. Until six or six thirty at the very earliest.

Deprived of a nutrient as crucial as coffee, the brain needs extra stimulation. I make a habit of starting my hotel writing process with exercise. Not yoga or stretching. A purely mental exercise, one best performed with laptop in queen-sized bed. I open a file and start to describe, as clearly as possible, the coffee maker in the room. Writing about the coffee maker turns out to be a great way of warming up the mind.

And–as this first editor’s blog post for Social Text Online surely proves–it is a perfectly legitimate method for generating content. When I began describing the hotel room coffee maker I was not yet aware of the intense passages focusing on a teasmade in a bedsit in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. Nor did I know that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts sketches every hotel room he stays in and has done so for decades. I certainly wasn’t thinking about what to say in a first Editor’s blog post.

Yet the fruitless character of the task and the insipid qualities of the object seem only appropriate. Is there any non-event less momentous than a blog launch? Assembling the following observations on appliances was a useful way to learn about blogging as a practice. It helped me understand the difference between posting something and writing. Cutting and pasting these estranged pieces of text from my journal, I felt as if I could be fashioning an artisanal form of Lorem Ipsum, a fancy pants filler text, a trade test transmission, a document people aren’t expected to read. A first blog post, in other words.

Writing this way–writing for digital platforms–makes you very aware of the ways that the work of writing and reading are changing. Appropriately enough, all the talks I was giving during these coffee maker studies had to do with these kinds of changes. In the contemporary culture of words, the transformation is most palpable in the commonplace applications of the word content. It has come to describe a kind of highly communicative stuff, a cut-rate version of art, or writing, or work, that has been fashioned to be consumed online and, in its consumption, to make money for someone other than its creator.

In “curating” the following items, which are essentially journal entries, I’ve edited them only slightly. Most of the edits eliminate troubling personal qualities such as hypochondria and mean spiritedness, along with various overly crazy thoughts. In all other ways, the capsules of thought offered below are testaments to the moment in which they were written down.

Saturday March 29, 2014
Albany. The Holiday Inn Express. A microwave and a fridge in the room. This kind of place is designed for Per Diem living.

A woman checking in ahead of me was a regular. The clerk seemed to know her. When her credit card was declined they kept on talking like it was no big thing.

There is a coffee maker in the bathroom of my room, and beside it a stack of styrofoam cups, each individually wrapped in plastic. Hanging on the towel rack is the ubiquitous sign asking guests to help the hotel save the environment by reusing towels. The sign is decorated with a vivid photograph of a snowy owl.

Friday April 4, 2014
Nashville. The Courtyard Marriott. A new generation of hotel coffeemaker has arrived. It is designed to work with individual styrofoam cups (wrapped in plastic, naturally). The pouch of ground coffee is about the size of a teabag and, as usual, comes in its own plastic package. It rests in a small plastic tray that slides into the drip part of the appliance. This tray is disposable, but otherwise the same as the filter holder in any coffee maker. This disposability is the key innovation in the hotel coffee makers of today. There is a disposable tray inside every single-serving plastic bag along with the coffee pouch.

The disposable plastic tray
The disposable plastic tray

On the packaging, a picture of a frog. It is part of an official-looking symbol, a green seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. The coffee is “minumum 30% certified content,” the packaging tells me.

This language, and particularly the use of a singular noun where one would expect a plural, makes me wonder whether this guarantee refers to the coffee at all. Perhaps it refers to some aspect of the text on the packaging–which is also, in today’s usage, content.

Thursday, May 1, 2014
The coffee maker at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Providence, RI, is the same model as the coffee maker in the Courtyard Marriott, Nashville. But the coffee is a different brand, and unlike the sachets of coffee in Nashville, the one I’m holding now bears no marks indicating that the creatures of the rain forest feel okay about me drinking it.

The cups are paper and not styrofoam, but as everywhere, they are wrapped in plastic. A plaque set under the drip tray explains the benefits of the apparatus:

The one cup system eliminates concerns about the cleanliness of traditional guestroom coffee pots, brew baskets, and coffee mugs. It is the most sanitary way to provide you with a great cup of coffee in the comfort of your room

I am drinking coffee from the downstairs. It’s not very strong. I am tempted to go down for another cup, but have taken my eyebrows off.

Vendredi le treize juin, 2014
How delightful it was to discover a Nespresso maker in the Continental Hotel, Lausanne. There are two Nespresso pods costing 1.50 CHF each in the minibar. I used one this morning. But then, at breakfast, I saw a whole basket of them, made available for free. So I took a bunch. The theme from Frasier was playing on the stereo.

Samedi le 14 juin 2014
At first I thought there was no coffee maker in my room here in Genéve, but upon returning from a chocolate run to Migros I discovered a Nespresso machine in the closet, along with a selection of capsules. This was supposed to be a standard room. Does the “standard” secretly convert to the higher rate “executive” room?

A nice idea, but I don’t think so. The machine was dirty. The liquid dripped out slowly and had a funky taste. So perhaps I’m staying in an abandoned executive suite. A ruin, with a cupboard that was supposed to be kept locked.

Friday October 3, 2014
The coffee machine in the Inn@USC Wyndham Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina is a Cuisinart. A few things distinguish it from the no-name single cup coffee makers I saw in the spring of this year, but it is essentially the same thing: a drip machine that sends mildly hot water through a small pouch of coffee set in a disposable plastic tray. And as was the case with the ones I wrote about before, each plastic wrapped cup sits in a custom built stand alongside plastic tubes of sugar. Plastic stirrers. The cups are cardboard, not styrofoam, and the Cuisinart design signature speaks in the modern accent of the stainless steel. Also, in this case the tray is a fixture of the appliance itself, not another disposable item.

The individually-wrapped plastic cup
The individually-wrapped cup

Wednesday November 5, 2014
The Westin Bonaventure’s Presidential Suite, room number 3280 at the very top, is high enough to challenge the glass elevator in windy conditions. On the plus side, we have at least three coffee makers. All are the same model, and all are comparable in design to the hotel coffeemakers described in previous entries. Comparable, but not identical. They have the styrofoam cups wrapped in plastic. The coffee is Starbucks, because after all this is the Presidential Suite, but still it comes as the usual paper sachet contained inside a plastic sachet.

The most novel thing about the Bonaventure coffee maker is the blue light, which indicates that the machine is working. I don’t recall seeing this color on the previous hotel coffee makers I’ve described. This makes me think that perhaps blue carries classier connotations than other colors when it comes to appliance lighting. No, not classier, more digital, more designed and perhaps, even, more responsive to the needs of the user. Blue is the color of the light on my router at home when it’s working properly. And all my wireless speakers and other peripherals glow with blue lights, no doubt because they use bluetooth technology.

So perhaps the coffee makers here use blue lighting to capture the connotations of progress, efficiency, productivity that the color signifies in the cyber world.

Saturday April 11, 2015
Here I am, having to produce a talk, another content talk, in another hotel room. Coffee maker is the Cuisinart model, with its own flimsy tray. It’s a double-sized one. This is the Midwest.