I’ve been gradually expanding my newsletter diet to include some lighter (but still substantial) fare. A few recommendations:
The Department of Salad, by Emily Nunn, is, yes, about salad and salad lore, but is also just a very chatty, very funny from an excellent writer. If you haven’t made Spicy Cherry Salad (aka Israeli Cherry Salad), you must do so immediately, before cherry season is over for good.
How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, “philosophical and practical advice for anyone who’s ever looked into a mirror,” is written by Valerie Monroe, who was the beauty editor at O magazine for almost 16 years. She’s on an extended stay in Japan right now, and I’ve been enjoying her reporting on the local scene, from Japanese toilets to “love hotels.”
The Unpublishable, by Jessica DeFino, a freelance beauty journalist. Subtitle: “The beauty industry’s least favorite newsletter.” DeFino covers topics like “how the ‘5-minute face’ became the $5,000 face” and why the words “THAT ACTUALLY WORK” are so common in beauty headlines. (It’s because most beauty products don’t work.)
“Potent, powerful skin care that works”? Probably not. (My photo; Walgreens.)
All three of these newsletters are published on the Substack platform, which means you can read them for free but paid subscriptions are what keeps the updates coming.
Few science stories have delighted me as much as the one that appeared in the New York Times on April 29 (online) and April 30 (print). The story, by Sabrina Imbler, is about an extinct sea creature that may be a missing link between fish and four-legged mammals—a fishapodconnection to our very own species.
The news hook isn’t the creature’s discovery; that happened in 2004, in the Nunavut Territory in the Arctic. Nor is it the animal’s name, Tiktaalik (tic-TAH-lick), which departs from traditional scientific naming conventions—Latinate, possibly honoring a scientist—in that it’s an Inuktitutword that means “large freshwater fish that lives in the shallows.” (The full name, Tiktaalik roseae, does have a Latin component: The second element “cryptically honors an anonymous donor”—someone named Rose, maybe?—according to a Wikipedia entry.) A council of Inuit tribal elders worked with a team of paleontologists to develop the name.*
Ukrainians who loathe their aggressor neighbor refer to it as “Rashka.” Benjamin Moser writes that the word is “derived from the English pronunciation of Russia, complete with the diminutive suffix to convey extra venom.”
I’m about halfway through Virginia Postrel’s 2020 book The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, and the only reason I haven’t finished it is because I keep stopping to take notes, usually punctuated with exclamation marks. Postrel is a journalist and independent scholar who has written very good books about style and glamour; here she elegantly blends centuries of research and her own investigations (she learned to spin thread, spent a week at a traditional Indian dyeing school, and visited weavers of Guatemalan huipiles) into a highly readable and compelling history. The glossary alone is worth the investment in the book. As Postrel writes:
We drag our heirloom metaphors—“on tenterhooks,” “towheaded,” “frazzled”—with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibers. We repeat threadbare clichés: “whole cloth,” “hanging by a thread,” “dyed in the wool.” We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We speak of life spans and spinoffs and never wonder why drawing our fibers and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language.
“The Internet Is Rotting,” reads the headline, and it’s no overstatement. The article beneath the hed, published in The Atlantic on June 30, 2021, was written by Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard who has spent a lot of time thinking about the World Wide Web and its discontents. He’s worried, as we all should be, about the alarming impermanence of our digital artifacts. And he’s proposing solutions.
This is a story that began in Oakland, in a neighborhood adjacent to mine, and spread around the Bay Area, up into Canada, and all the way across the Atlantic. It is a story with many key performance indicators of 2020: aggression, fear, suspicion, threats, shaming, displacement, conspiracy theories, a public-space shutdown, and a Change.org petition.
Fittingly enough for this turkey of a year, it’s a story about a turkey. A three-foot-tall turkey named Gerald.
This may be Gerald, or it may be a lookalike who just happened to be strutting near the Rose Garden on Grand Avenue—a major urban thoroughfare—in March 2018, when I took his picture from a prudent distance.
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.
That was the phrase in a tweet sent on May 28 from the @realDonaldTrump account—and retweetedby the official White House account—that caused Twitter to append a notice of rule violation: “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible” (capitalization sic). If you want to see the original tweet, you need to click “View.” Replies to the tweet are hidden.
Twitter’s action provoked a lively discussion of First Amendment protections (which don’t apply to private companies, even publicly traded ones) and the source of the rhyming threat (a statement in 1967 by Miami’s chief of police, about which the president claimed ignorance—possibly because a staffer with greater historical knowledge had suggested the line).
But historian Peter A. Shulman had something else on his mind.
Curious about the once again omni-present word "looter," I looked up the etymology.