nothing here but an enormous sensor

issue 054 - 12th July, 2020

CJW: Welcome to another edition of the nothing here newsletter. Three of the four of us are writing to you from the lands of the Wurundjeri people, meaning we’re caught inside the Melbourne Metropolitan lockdown for another 6 weeks.

I’ll be honest - it’s not easy, the fear and uncertainty of being in a virus hot-spot. But at the same time, even Australia’s worst hot-spot is better off than a lot of places in the US. So, let’s keep being sensible, maintaining social distancing, listening to scientists, and all the rest. We’re in this together, and we can do this, even if our elected leaders don’t want us to because they’d rather we were back at work for the great god Economy. Anyway

As ever, you can become a supporter and get access to bonus letters, including the full archive. If you want a preview, here’s a list of our unlocked bonuses.

DCH: Their Loved Ones Died Of COVID-19. They May Never Recover Their Bodies.

“I feel humiliated. We were doubly hit: not given medical attention and not given the body of our father,” she said. “Imagine how I felt on Father’s Day.”

This is a story about the mismanagement of the Covid response in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. From bodies piling in the streets to rotting in homes and then worse still yet, bodies going missing. It is one of the most heartbreaking stories on the pandemic I’ve read recently.

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CJW: “Welcome to Chechnya” Reveals the Killing of Gay People

Chechnya is a small Muslim-majority republic in southwestern Russia. It is also a place where gay people live in terror. Since 2017, there have been a series of state-sponsored anti-gay purges across Chechnya, in which hundreds of gay men have been arrested and detained in secret prisons.

I knew how hostile Russia was to the LGBTQ community, but the situation in Chechnya is horrifying. I could have used some more "evocative" pull-quote above, but didn't want to dump anyone right into the midst of the violence and dehumanisation people in Chechnya are experiencing.

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CJW: Hundreds of elephants found dead in Botswana

Mystery surrounds the "completely unprecedented" deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana over the last two months.

Dr Niall McCann said colleagues in the southern African country had spotted more than 350 elephant carcasses in the Okavango Delta since the start of May.

No one knows why the animals are dying, with lab results on samples still weeks away, according to the government.

Botswana is home to a third of Africa's declining elephant population.

We live in apocalyptic times, and we’re the only ones to blame for that.

MKY: -the longest sigh-

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DCH: Humans left behind a record amount of e-waste in 2019

“It starts with toys, if you look at what is happening around Christmas, everything comes with a battery or plug. And it goes on with the mobile phones, with TV sets, and computers,” he says.

Last year 53.6 million metric tons of gadgets hit landfills, incinerators, and such. Only 17% of it was officially recycled. This problem is only going to escalate. By 2030 it will double. We should all buy less of this shit. 

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MKY:  What if climate activists turn to terrorism?

Honestly, I was worried for a second that someone writing for the Economist might have scooped out some scenes from my novel-in-progress, but this is pretty basic stuff. Cyber attacks on oil companies, leaking internal docs and straight out murdering execs in the streets --  and good ole fashioned FBI infiltration and escalation of fringe groups. There’ll be nothing so banal and obvious if I ever finish this book, but it’s still good to know what gives them nightmares rn.

Related, the current state of the ‘fight’: Oil majors gear up for wave of climate change liability lawsuit [since paywall’d, emphasis mine]

“We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address the global challenge of climate change,” said Shell, while Exxon commented that. “Addressing climate change in a meaningful way requires global participation and actions by governments, corporations and consumers.”

Chevron said that similar suits had been “consistently dismissed” and that it was focused on “real solutions and meaningful actions such as investing in technology and low carbon business opportunities”.

Despite the challenges, the plaintiffs do have one advantage: whereas the energy companies have to fight every case, the plaintiffs only have to win one, said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Centre for Climate Integrity, a non-profit that supports plaintiffs in climate litigation.

Cue the inspirational quote:

And the circle is complete. :D

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DCH: Our Ability to Process Information Is Reaching a Critical Limit

A growing body of research highlights the strain on our ability to read, understand, process, and take action on the flood of news with which we’re confronted. Some of the biggest events in 2020 have demanded more of our time, more direct action, and have been more emotionally taxing than we’re used to. The result feels like a mental DDoS attack that drags down our mental health, allows misinformation to thrive, and even makes the job of delivering news more difficult.

I’m always wary of metaphors that techno-fetishize and dehumanise but “mental DDoS” is certainly effective at getting it’s point across. This is the effect #doomscrolling is having on all of us. We definitely feel it here chronicling the end-times for y’all. 

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MJW: Look, I know this is a weird thing to put into this newsletter. Like, it’s all edgy, brainy stuff that honestly half the time I am embarrassed to admit I kinda don't understand. I feel deeply uncool adding this, and like I’m exposing myself to be the silly vague bitch that I actually am. But, this morning I was in a fucking pit of misery, thinking black, black thoughts about the future, wondering if I should give up now and take up something obliviating, like fulltime hermiting in a cave somewhere, ultramarathons to whittle my life down to the two simple elements of pain and endurance, or, you know, synthetic opiates. I saw the headline in a sidebar ‘Tom Hanks on surviving coronavirus’ and thought, wonder how America’s dad got through the ‘rona. And shit, that fucking headline is stupid because there’s so much more to it than that.

To cheer him up, I ask if he has any words of wisdom for other people out there struggling right now. “Wisdom from a guy like me? I wouldn’t give that on a bet. Because I’m the answer on Jeopardy I have some wisdom somewhere?” he asks.
Come on, Tom, I say, I know you can do it.
He shifts a tiny amount in his seat and – I swear to God – I see him switch it on. “It’s funny how this stuff blends into the art you hope to create. When we put together Castaway, we knew there was a card missing from that deck of 52, and the consternation over what was missing from that movie drove us insane. It was that elusive kind of beat, and it was what we’re talking about right now: how do you go on? In Greyhound, Krause has a little card that says: ‘Yesterday, today and forever.’ That’s all we have as human beings and that’s all we have in the midst of the 19 different crises that we’re facing right now, between Covid-19, worldwide economic disaster, what happened to George Floyd – the great reckoning that we’re all going through. What do we have that we can have faith in? Well, we can have an understanding of yesterday, we can have a plan for today and we can have hope for forever, and that’s it. That’s my wisdom. It ain’t much, Hadley, but is there anything else?”
We’re both quiet for a beat.
Damn, Tom, I say, and he laughs.

Thanks, dad. That’s exactly what I need to hear right now.

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CJW: Essay On Valorant and Transition - Renata Price (via RPS)

One of the randos asks me to say “I am so proud of you.” I’ve seen this on TikTok. I get it, sometimes you need to hear something said with care. I oblige and when I say it I mean it. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because they had the confidence to ask. They say “Thanks for my serotonin for the day,” and I hear the smile in their voice. For a moment I am exorcised. There is no ghost, just me — brittle boned and dreadful, a bird so strong her wings shatter with every flap.

This is a really great and touching piece about a trans woman finding her voice through the video game Valorant.

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DCH: Court Rules Facebook Widgets Can Be Considered Wiretaps

Plaintiffs were not communicating with Facebook but instead communicating with other websites. Plaintiffs then alleged (and Facebook does not dispute) that Facebook code embedded on those sites secretly directed Plaintiffs’ browsers to copy the communications in real time (to “intercept” them) and send the copies to Facebook

Seems like the bench is finally starting to get fed up with Facebook’s bullshit. 

CJW: Related: Facebook creates fact-checking exemption for climate deniers

Facebook is more interested in courting climate deniers than science, truth, or doing anything to secure a better future for humanity. Fuck Facebook and every service associated with it.

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DCH: A plan to turn the atmosphere into one, enormous sensor (paywall)

Such observations have led David Lewis, a programme manager at America’s military-research organisation DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), to wonder just how much information can be wrung out of the atmosphere in this way. 

DARPA wants to turn the atmosphere into a sensor to detect earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and missile launches. I wonder what else they might be able to surveil? 

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CJW: Is DNA Hardware or Software? (via Sentiers)

You want seven fingers? You got it. You want gills? Fine. I don’t find that promise very compelling. 

You could spend all your time drilling down into the molecules that it’s made of, but at some point, you have to ask yourself, what are they in a cybernetic sense? What’s the function of this thing? What are the control loops? What are the internal capabilities? Is it reprogrammable? Is its structure modular?

This is a fascinating interview with Michael Levin, one of the researchers working on the xenobot project you probably read about earlier this year. Must read for any sci-fi writers, I daresay.

And this bit is very reminiscent of a short story I wrote recently (and still need to edit):

At some point, when we really know what we’re doing — when we actually know how morphology is handled — you will be able to sit down in front of a kind of a Computer Aided Design (CAD) system, and you will be able to draw whatever living creature you want, in whatever functional anatomy you want.  It might be for something with an application here on Earth. It might be an organ for transplantation. It might be a creature that you’re going to use in colonizing some far off world. Whatever it’s going to be, you are going to be able to sit down and specify at the level of anatomy, the structure and function of a living creature at the high level, and then this will sort of compile down and let you build the thing in real life.

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DCH: Supreme Court Rules That About Half Of Oklahoma Is Native American Land

"The Supreme Court today kept the United States' sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation," the tribe said in a statement. "Today's decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries."

Finally.

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Cutting Room Floor:

CJW: PREGNANT Newsletter (via Austin)

If you, like me, have been missing the “terminally online” discoveries that Austin once shared in these hallowed pages, this is the newsletter for you. A little bit of theory, and a lot of weirdness from various fringes of online culture.

Issue 1 looks at QAnon cultists, dung worship, and more. Issue 2 is all about Kaliacc, the vaporwave aesthetic, gooning, and, uhh, related stuff. 

Look, it’s weird, and kinda gross, and won’t be for everyone, but if you like vicariously keeping tabs on the bizarre bits of the internet, this is going to help.

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CJW: METAFOUNDRY 73

We haven’t talked about Deb Chachra’s newsletter before, but it is always interesting and well-worth a subscribe.

In this issue she talks about society as a cyborg collective (as opposed to a collective of cyborgs):

Three years ago, I wrote this in the Atlantic:

Besides these physical networks, there are a host of other systems that exist primarily to contribute to the common good by taking on responsibility for safety, access and planning. I don’t have to know where my breakfast eggs came from to know they’re safe to eat, because of the United States Department of Agriculture. When I fill a prescription, the pills I’m given will be efficacious, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration. The Center for Disease Control tracks and responds to outbreaks before they become epidemics. I’ve been known to get on a plane and fall asleep before takeoff; my security is because the Federal Aviation Authority regulates air traffic. And these are just a handful of ways these systems affect my daily life.

[This is an essay from the Before Times; in the US, of course, we are now living the tragic consequences of what happens when some of these systems that we rely on fail, are ignored, or are deliberately undermined.] 

The infrastructure researcher and science fiction writer Paul Graham Raven has offered up a surprising and insightful way of thinking about our infrastructural systems: he describes them as making us a 'cyborg collective'. Not an individual cyborg, in the 'Ellen Ripley operating a power loader' sense, and not a collective of individual cyborgs, but a single cyborg collective:

Infrastructures are a sort of tool: they’re a prosthesis, an extension of baseline human abilities. … But it’s not just you that’s dependent on infrastructure, the way an earlier you was dependent on being able to knap flint and whittle bone. No - you’re dependent on infrastructure as a community. The prostheses upon which your life now depends are augmentations not of your own body, but of the collective body of your tribe or village.

It’s incredibly interesting stuff.

MKY:Wira [Netflix]

The big action movie outta Malaysia last year, now on Netflix for the world to see. Finally. It’s a pretty familiar plot... to begin with: a man [Hairul Azreen (Paskal)] gets outta the military, comes back home to help his family out of a bad sitch, and, with his kid sister, kicks the shit outta the petit bourgeoisie. The action is solid, the final battle between Hairul and Yayan Ruhian [Mad Dog from The Raid] is -chef’s kiss-. And then there’s the epilogue. (Spoilers) The final scenes flash forward to show the kid sister looking less like a punk, mma-fighting bad ass, and more like a good Malaysian girl, now in the military - presumably following her big brother’s example, and advice - and apparently a jet fighter pilot, being watched by members of the Paskal special forces. It seems they’re building a cinematic universe there, but it’s one where, it seems, salvation is found through service. It’s a totally different vibe to what’s coming outta Hollywood, and thank Allah for that.

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CJW: America, Online

From id Software’s launch of gore-soaked first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 it is a short hop to the POV shoot-out in Virtuosity, or the apotheosis of insipid play-throughs like Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry (2015) and Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019). And from there to the police bodycam that allows you to live and re-live University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing murdering unarmed citizen Sam DuBose in cold blood, or the massacre at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, captured and livestreamed by killer Brenton Tarrant’s helmet-mounted GoPro. 

This is a deep dive essay into online culture as depicted in various 1995 films that were screened as part of 1995: The Year the Internet Broke, and other related films, including The Net, Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, Ghost in the Shell, and Strange Days.

When we look back at the culture of previous decades, this is what we need. Not vapid nostalgia and aesthetics over context, but a recontextualisation that takes into account a longer/broader timeline that extends both further into the past and up to our present moment.

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CJW: How “Starship Troopers” Aligns with Our Moment of American Defeat

For most of “Starship Troopers,” humanity, in every possible facet, gets its ass kicked. A culture that reveres and communicates exclusively through violence—a culture very much like one that responds to peaceful protests with indiscriminate police brutality, or whose pandemic strategy is to “dominate” an unreasoning virus—keeps running up against its own self-imposed limitations. Once again, the present has caught up to Verhoeven’s acid vision of the future. It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: their society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.

The world is finally coming around to Starship Troopers

On this level, it’s a mindless blockbuster that’s easy to ignore, which is precisely the problem. It’s been easy to ignore our society’s very obvious ills. The atrocities of 2020 are not abnormalities or acts of God; they’re the logical conclusion to decades of careful work on the part of some and negligence on the part of others.

I love to see people rediscovering and reconsidering this sci-fi classic.

MJW: Time for another Verhoevenfest!

DCH: The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States

I keep an eagle-eye out for propaganda. This is a fantastic and thorough paper by Oxford and Graphika on various US election interference campaigns run by Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA) from 2013 to 2018. It’s a quick read (38 pages) for an academic paper. 

Some highlights:

• IRA activities focused on the US began on Twitter in 2013 but quickly evolved into a multi-platform strategy involving Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube among other platforms.

• The highest peak of IRA ad volume on Facebook is in April 2017 — the month of the Syrian missile strike, the use of the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, and the release of the tax reform plan.

• IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the 2016 election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity.

DCH: Shut up. I’m not crying. You’re crying.

DCH: New tracks from IDLES

There's nothing brave and nothing useful
You scrawling your aggro shit on the walls of the cubicle
Saying my race and class ain't suitable
So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful

Do you hear that thunder?
That's the sound of strength in numbers

IDLES have recently released two new tracks -- Grounds and Mr. Motivator -- from their upcoming album, Ultra Mono. Their hearts bleed as hard as they rock. This is music that gives a damn. 

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DCH: New album from Dream Wife

I like the way you soothe me
Each touch got me calling out for the
Tongue, cheek, nip, clit
Take a peak
Then come up for air

I’ve gushed about Dream Wife previously when the preview track Sports was released. Alice Go, Rakel Mjöll, and Bella Podpadec are back with their second studio album,  So When You Gonna​.​.​.. The infectious power-pop / riot girl hooks and riffs you’d come to expect are still present. While their debut album veered more punkish with total bangers like FUU and Hey Heartbreaker, the new album skews more New Wave with standout tracks like Homesick. I can’t wait to see them tour in support of this album.

MJW: I did a bunch of press this month for my new book (Money For Something, written pseudonymously but not anonymously under Mia Walsch) but I’ve been far too unhinged by Melbourne’s Lockdown 2.0 and also the entire world to remember to post anything about it. So, here’s a few things: an interview in Penthouse (?), an interview on Radio New Zealand. I got two reviews that were good (in The Age/SMH and Sydney Arts Guide) and one that was middling (do you post middling reviews?

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CJW: Thanks for joining us once again. Look after yourselves, and each other.