A trio of tangents
email no. 2
Has anyone else found their thoughts are more scattered than usual this month? I can’t seem to hold onto a topic long enough to shape it into something useful. On the plus side, that’s made it an excellent month for tangents and digressions, so that’s what this second mailout will focus on.1
tangent 1: of swarms and murmurations
This video from animator Brian Smee is a couple years old now, but it’s just been re-released as part of a new science communication platform from Pioneer Works, and I’ve already watched it at least three times today. The idea of swarm intelligence has always been fascinating to me; it’s amazing that simple organisms following straightforward rules can result in behaviours as complex and coordinated as the tunnel-building, war-waging, aphid-farming of the humble ant. Infrastructure, agriculture and even global conquest, without a single individual in the colony having any capacity for understanding the collective project they’re involved in.
As much as I love the idea of the hive mind, it’s a pretty unnerving idea in its own right. After all, it isn’t the lack of intelligence of ants and bees that makes their collective behaviour possible, it’s the fact that they’re social and plentiful, two words that apply just as well to us. If ants are better understood as being part of a larger entity, who’s to say the same isn’t true on some level of humans, on a scale as invisible to us as the colony is to an ant? The sudden rise and fall of a meme on Tik Tok doesn’t much look like the coordinated swells and swirls of a starling murmuration, but from a certain angle, well, they aren’t really worlds apart.
PS - The caption for that National Geographic video says the most mysterious thing about the starling is “how it flies in murmurations, or flocks, without colliding.” All I can think of is how scientists used to ask the same question about bats, until a high-speed camera showed that they actually crash into each other all the time, and it just isn’t a big deal. Sometimes the answer really does spoil the magic a bit.
tangent 2: getting into harmony
Earlier this week I got to speak with John Colapinto, author of This Is the Voice, a look at the miraculous complexity of human speech. While most of the book is about normal speech, it starts and ends with song, which seems to be a bit more of a mystery in evolutionary terms. Colapinto quotes Steven Pinker’s often-criticized quote about singing being “aural cheesecake,” a byproduct of speech that is pleasurable but essentially just empty calories.
Colapinto clearly disagreed with that description, and I do, too. Many of the most powerful experiences of my life have been musical—too many to write it off as mere fluff. After all, if singing is meaningless, why are so many people so afraid of it? Why is duet such an intimate act, even when it’s just a cheesy karaoke tune? Why do we clam up when someone asks how a song goes, even if we’ve sung it to ourselves dozens of times? That fear and hesitancy is proof of something powerful.2
It wasn’t until the actual interview that the most unique aspect of singing actually hit me, though. Any conversation, no matter how collaborative, is still an exchange, alternating between the participants. Singing is the only time we make sounds simultaneously, in unison or in harmony. Doing that requires incredible empathy: you’re constantly listening to the people you’re singing with, matching their pitch, synchronizing your breathing. Some of our hokiest metaphors become literally true: you’re picking up someone else’s vibrations, getting on the same wavelength. It connects in a way that can feel deeper and more primal than any conversation. Recordings don’t really do it justice—it needs to be felt to be understood.
One of the concert experiences that truly convinced me of that power was seeing Akron/Family live (and in particular, seeing them five times at SXSW in a single year, which I realize sounds ridiculous). I can’t explain it, and I’ve tracked down videos of the performance and listening back doesn’t do it justice. Whatever it was they were doing, it was somehow beaming out pure joy and connection.
They broke up a few years back, but I was still shocked to hear about the passing of band member Miles Cooper Seaton. I can’t claim that I knew him, but I had a chance to meet him a handful of times, and even played in a drone installation he hosted in a run-down car wash at Sled Island a few years ago, and he seemed as dedicated as anyone I’ve met to that ideal of music as an act of connection. If you’ve never listened to their music, Love is Simple is still my favourite of theirs; it’s freewheeling, genre-hopping freak folk with lyrics that are steeped in Buddhist transcendence. It’s good stuff.
tangent 3: ancient anxieties
Talking Politics’ History of Ideas series is one of my absolute favourite podcasts right now, with thoughtful introductions to thinkers whose names I’ve encountered many times over the years but who I only have the most basic, at-least-a-little-misinformed understanding of.
The most recent entry introduced me to Samuel Butler’s Darwin Among the Machines, a letter to the editor written a handful of years after the release of On the Origin of the Species and probably one of the first published applications of evolutionary thought to machines. Honestly, it’s a little disorienting to read predictions about artificial life and the dominance of machines a decade before the emergence of electric light, let alone the transistor or machine learning algorithms, but there it is:
We take it that when the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state.
I guess it’s healthy to remember that people have always been afraid of the same things. Movies treat Skynet like a new-ish idea when the machine invasion was already a worry 150+ years ago. Pundits talk about how far cultural standards have fallen when the inevitable decline of society was already cliche over 2,000 years ago. We worry smartphones are making us forget basic skills, just like Socrates believing that written language would lead to forgetfulness and ignorance. That doesn’t mean any of them are wrong, necessarily, but it’s at least a little humbling to think about how long these concerns have been floating around.
Glasgow post-punk band Nightshift are releasing their second album today, and if the first three singles are anything, it’s going to be chock full of hypnotic grooves and abstracted songwriting
Also from Glasgow, Mogwai are one of those bands that are easy to take for granted, but their latest is a good reminder of why that shouldn’t be the case—25 years in, their music is as majestic as ever
Another brand new release: Adrian Younge’s The American Negro is a jazz-inflected, lushly orchestrated, soulful concept album that doubles as “an unapologetic critique, detailing the systemic and malevolent psychology that afflicts people of color”
And an older one for good measure: He’s mostly remembered these days for writing “This Christmas,” but holy cow Donny Hathaway’s 1971 live album is a stone soul classic
I found a lot to love about Lapsis, a sci-fi gig economoy satire set in a “parallel present” where quantum computing has led to a new industry involving lugging cables through the woods. The ending is a bit abrupt but the first two thirds are like a more lighthearted Outer Limits episode written by Philip K. Dick
For a bit of head-spinning science, try this piece on quasiparticles from the always-fabulous Nautilus Quarterly—“clumps” of light, magnetism, or even just holes that can be manipulated to act like physical particles
Haley Nahman’s Substack makes an interesting distinction between being nice and being kind
A bit of a downer to end on, but this MIT article on the faulty software that traps people in poverty shows how much is at risk as we hand more and more decisions over to opaque algorithms
I host a weekly radio show on campus/community station CJSW, playing offbeat easy listening, experimental electronics, cosmic jazz, dream pop, shoegaze and other songs that sound good to wake up to. The most recent episode is embedded below (I think it’s a pretty good one), and older episodes are available at https://theam.ca or https://cjsw.com/the-a-m
Each week, I write about an independent animated short for the Quickdraw Animation Society. Here are the most recent selections, with links to the short essays.
Kapaemahu, by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson: Recently shortlisted for the Best Animated Short Oscar, a retelling of a long-lost (or actively forgotten) story of queer Polynesian history. (The animation was directed by Daniel Sousa, who made the fantastic 2012 short, Feral.)
Black Soul, by Martine Chartrand: Paint-on-glass animation from a Haitian-Canadian animator exploring Black culture and Canada’s own troubled history. There’s a higher resolution transfer on the NFB site that’s a much better way to experience the film.
The New Exhibition, by Jonathan Djob Nkondo: An art heist that plays with perspective in fascinating ways.
Plus, it feels much too early to lock into a format, and this is as good a reason as any to see what else a Substack could look like.
It always strikes me as odd that singing used to be something everyone just did—or at least that’s how images of families gathered around the piano make it seem—and now 90% of people you meet are convinced they can’t carry a tune. I’m not sure if it’s that we’ve professionalized singing to such an extent that amateurs are all the more self conscious, or if it’s a lack of practice, or what. But also, in my experience, most people who believe they can’t sing do it perfectly well when they think no one’s listening.