Recommendations, 6/21

HOT: Spooky radio stories, pop bands with funny names, old ball players. NOT: Google Glass.

Darryl

Do you ever wish A Prairie Home Companion involved more light occultism? Think a community radio station would have improved Twin Peaks or The Twilight Zone? I am never sure how to describe something truly unique in a way that doesn’t make it sound derivative, but if you like weird fiction in podcast form (or really either of those two things) you would enjoy Welcome to Night Vale.

The wonderful thing about Welcome to Night Vale is that you get the best parts of weird fiction — the sheer wealth of crazy storylines about, say, hooded figures or cloud-dwelling monsters — plopped down in the middle of a small desert town. The hooded figures hang out at the dog park; the cloud-dwelling monsters run the local law enforcement; the mayor (who has the power of invisibility) is facing a strong electoral challenge from a multi-headed dragon/felon. This is the sort of place where Leslie Knope would thrive, assuming she could levitate and summon giant scorpions with her mind.

Give it a shot:

Also, Welcome to Night Vale turned one year old earlier this month. Well done. May you continue to escape notice from the sheriff’s secret police.

Jonathan

Paul Ford’s excellent new article “The Strangeness of Facebook Home” on the MIT Technology Review site contains a stationary box that sticks to the top of your screen while you scroll down. The box is labeled WHY IT MATTERS and is featured on all MIT TR articles. According to the MIT TR editors, Ford’s review of Facebook Home MATTERS because “Facebook’s vision of the internet differs from those of other big companies.” Fine. But the extreme bullioning of Ford’s great think-piece into a one-sentence slug line doesn’t do justice to the content. It’s like those old TV Guide listings where something like Jaws became “Beach-goers discover shark.”

Ford is on to something important (something that MATTERS) in this article that won’t quite fit in a box. The “difference” Ford is writing about is this: Facebook doesn’t aim to augment, improve or simplify your life. Rather, Facebook aims to become your way of living. Put another way: every human interaction that remains un-Facebooked is a potential revenue loss for Mark Zuckerberg. Walking in the woods without a technological tether is a bit like cheating on Facebook.

Ford alludes to the particularly American moral notion that gets to the heart of the Facebook conundrum, what he calls the “Emersonian ideal” to be free to “read and experience things privately.” Facebook’s desire to turn our social lives into data points runs counter to this ideal. To paraphrase Emerson, it takes a truly exceptional person to maintain the “independence of solitude” in the midst of a crowd. The Facebook Home user carries the crowd in her pocket and is relentlessly ping-ed as she circles her version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Her transcendence is transformed to a check-in on the News Feed.

Kevin

If making electro-pop was easy, everyone would do it. Well, actually, a lot of people do it, but very few do it well. CHVRCHES enters such a crowded field of similar sounding bands that it’s amazing this Scottish trio stands out without messing with the formula. These songs follow conventional pop structures and lean heavily on familiar synth-and-drum interplay. Even Lauren Mayberry’s voice could draw many comparisons (Purity Ring, Grimes, sometimes Ellie Goulding).

But CHVRCHES manages to do all of these things flawlessly. Mayberry’s singing is deceptive. Her notes are sweet, but there’s something biting and bitter behind them. In “Recover,” which appeared on the band’s first EP earlier this year, the chorus slows the beat and opens up into a dreamy synth that envelopes the space with a warmth; during the chorus of their new single, “Gun,” the opposite happens: the tempo picks up and the synths push everything forward at a sudden pace, like some newly discovered sense of direction. They’re simple tricks, but they’re lovely.

CHVRCHES just announced that their debut full-length The Bones of What You Believe will be out this September. But this is the perfect time to listen to them. They have so few songs available — all of them great — and each new song the band releases is better than the last. It’s a wonderful feeling, hearing a band and realizing that you’re unsure of the limits of their potential.

Nathan

Like most people who aren’t Jonathan Franzen, I’m a big fan of the Internet. I mean what’s not to like? You can use it to watch a supercut of John Goodman screaming AND order food to be delivered to your house. We’re living in the lazy future no one imagined.

That said, I’ve never owned a smart phone, and I think I’m better for it. I’ll likely succumb at some point. But for the time being I’m happy to walk places deprived of the opportunity to check Twitter or email or anything else on the Internet that vies for my attention while I’m within arm’s reach of my laptop. It’s nice to try and remember stuff and experience the world and figure things out — like whether there’s a sushi place within walking distance or what time the sunset will happen or who played the lead in “The House of the Devil” (which is amazing; you should watch it, if you haven’t yet, seriously; also, it’s Jocelyn Donahue). For someone less Internet-addicted, none of this would be a problem. But if I had a smart phone, I know I’d be unable to tear myself away, and I’d rather delay becoming an entirely digital person for another year or two.

However, I will never, ever subject myself to these newfangled Google Glass contraptions, which are clearly evil. If anyone ever sees me wearing it, I give that person permission to kick me until I’m dead. So I guess more than this being a recommendation of not owning a smart phone, it’s an anti-recommendation of Google Glass, which is the ethos of the smart phone gone mad and/or brought to its logical conclusion, depending on whom you talk to and how insane that person is.

Nick

Even after his final shot of the year clanged off the back of the rim and sealed the Miami Heat’s second straight NBA championship, the most remarkable thing I saw in the epic seven-game series was Tim Duncan’s first-half performance in game six. The 37-year-old scored 25 points on 13 shots, missing just two, while looking utterly dominant against much younger men. When I first really got into the NBA a few years ago, I didn’t care much about the enigmatic big man, but as I’ve paid closer attention to the game, I’ve come to appreciate him more and more. A big part of that was Chris Ballard’s long profile of Duncan for Sports Illustrated last May, and as we may have just witnessed the Big Fundamental’s bittersweet swan song, now seems like a good time to revisit it.

Ballard gets the notoriously private Duncan to open up a little bit, like this bit on why he emotes so little on the court:

Duncan has said he uses silence to “destroy people’s psyches.” He explains, “The best mind game you can run on someone is just to keep going at them and at them until they break.” Don’t respond, don’t show emotion. Just keep playing. “Eventually,” he says with a grin, “you’ll piss them off.”

But the real humanity of the profile is found in the little stories that Ballard hears from Duncan’s teammates and especially his coach, Gregg Poppovich. The section about their first meeting shows as much emotional warmth as you’ll ever see from either man, and it’s quite a treat.

Jane

Hi guys, it’s me. The person who endorsed Candy Crush last time. This being my last week in Oakland, everything has been kind of a MESS so…

If you can walk, and you can read, it’s highly probable that you can do the two at the same time. Now that it’s summer, I’ve been doing both simultaneously a lot! Outside! Sometimes even baring skin. It might feel a little awkward at first, but my advice is: the smaller the book, the better (more room for peripheral vision to catch uneven sidewalk, goose shit, other shit). I often walk and read with my Kindle, but it’s possible to do with the real codex deal as well.

In a few long walks you can read the entirety of, say, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (which I did this week — recommended!!). The novel is about a young American poet abroad in Spain on a fellowship, post-Brown. It’s grand and hilarious, irreverent and touching. (Kind of a modern, more self-aware version of Hemingway’s “22,” if you think about it. Nevermind, just read it.) There’s an IM conversation that will destroy you. And afterwards, you might enjoy reading Sheila Heti’s review of Lerner’s book over at the .