I am absolutely taken with The New Yorker’s new tech/science blog Elements. Just a month old, the site strikes the perfect range of voices while maintaining a thoughtful, humanistic approach in each of its essays. While some of the content is newsy, Elements is more interested in a breadth of topics, from federal wiretapping to supernovas to indie videogames.
My favorite piece so far has been Vijith Assar’s history of the web browser. It’s essentially a write up on what it means that Google Chrome is switching from its current rendering engine, WebKit, to a new Google-made engine called Blink. This sort of announcement, on the surface, appears to be something that only affects web developers; but as Assar accurately asserts, “rendering engines determine the shape of the Web as we perceive it.” With rich historical and modern context, Assar uses the <blink> tag as his focal point (a web element that ironically will not be supported in Blink) to explain why this change should matter to everyone.
And I suppose that’s what I like best about Elements. Some topics I’m more familiar with than others, but everything I read feels like it matters.
Once you commit to reading things regularly—books, periodicals, longform websites, whatever—you start to live in a constant state of anxiety. Are you reading widely or deeply enough? When is it okay to put this book down in favor of that one? Why aren’t there more of a genre/a type of writer/classics on your reading list? And so on.
There will never be a good answer to any of those questions, since there are too many books out there to read a representative sample over the course of a lifetime. But Francis Bacon gave us permission to just have a taste of most books, and, to that end, I have been getting daily tastes of a variety of stuff by way of Delancey Place.
Delancey Place e-mails an excerpt of a few hundred words from a variety of books—some new, many not so new—every day. Over the last few weeks the excerpts have covered topics as varied as the structure of the eye, the assembly line and its effect on the average line worker, Nietzsche, and the art of pretending to be a psychic. Most of this stuff piques the interest without demanding a week of reading time. But occasionally you’ll want to go deeper. And also, if you happen to like a book enough to buy it through their affiliate links, they donate the proceeds to a children’s literacy fund.
An easy way to alleviate all those reading worries—what’s not to like?
Just in time for tick season, I read David Quammen’s latest book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Quammen investigates recent instances of diseases jumping from a host species to humans. The book is not quite as engorged with wonder as his other books (The Song of the Dodo is my favorite). However, there is one section of Spillover that stands out. The final quarter of the book concerns the search for the original spillover event for the HIV/AIDS virus. Here Quammen weaves a compelling narrative out of twenty years of scientific theory and debate. He incorporates his own travels, to Cameroon and Congo and to the laboratories of scientists (who he always paints as cool nerds), into a thrilling investigation for the source of the most devastating recent pandemic. As he leads the reader through each step, Quammen’s evidence is persuasive and his prose is eloquent.
Gosh, guys, I’m on hiatus this week. The truth is I started playing Candy Crush yesterday and am previously occupied trying to browbeat all my friends into sending me free lives. Could I give you an anti-recommendation? Anyone who hasn’t started playing Candy Crush should preserve their sanity and just, like, not. Don’t do it!!!!!
I hate hate HATE the summer, but if it means we get a new Eleanor Friedberger album, I guess I can live with it. Her latest, Personal Record (best album title ever?), released earlier this week, and I can’t get enough of it. It retains the brazen attitude, throwback instrumentation, and playful lyrics of her 2011 debut, while veering in a more consistent and accessible direction. And as ever, her songs are structured as stories, but this time, I find myself caring about what happens in them.
The song I’m particularly stuck on at the moment is “Other Boys,” the album’s longest track. It opens with dreamy doo-wop guitar and plodding drums, and Eleanor sings small, intimate sketches of various women. (I agree with Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz—they’re the “other girls” in the singer’s begrudging open relationship.) The song is beautiful and melancholy, and you can hear the futility in the brave face Eleanor puts on as she sings, “there are other boys too.”
But the song is also full of wonderfully bizarre and genuinely funny wordplay. In my favorite moment, as the song surges to its emotional climax, Eleanor begins “and the chick who writes songs and then insists/on playing them, yes she’s persistent,” which may be postmodern self-loathing, I can’t tell. Then she delivers the knockout, “how could any man resist/a girl with such a big set list?” I mean, that’s gold. I can’t remember the last time I really cared about lyrics, but fittingly enough for something called Personal Record, here they’re essential.