Slightly looser theme than usual. I got sick this weekend and botched up my usual reading/writing rhythm. It may be a day or two before another post.


I. Downton Abbey

I finished the new season of Downton Abbey with my girlfriend this week (it premiers in the US next month, but it’s finished it Britain except for the customary Christmas Special). It’s kitschy but I’m not afraid to say that it was entertaining.

The only thing that I can’t really look past is that every protagonist, even the most reactionary one, has an absolutely 21st century stance on the many controversial issues. Oftentimes, it’s as though their opinions on social issues are contemporary but some invisible system constrains them to have to consider acting against their conscience.

It’s too obviously wrong. Spoilers ahead.

It’s like a weird historical re-writing where the oppressors reveal that they’ve been on the right side of history all along, they just had to tangle with such heavy burdens as tradition and what will our conservative society think of us now. These characters converse with (and marry!) their underlings, they don’t freak out about interracial relationships, have attitudes towards homosexuality and rape and abortion that would be too liberal to get them elected in many states in current-day America. I guess it wouldn’t be terribly palatable television if we really did have to deal with early 20th century political and social norms. I suppose it’s something to be expected, just as we should expect that the Grantham family seems to have a connection to every major historical event that high school students might recognize from that period.

One other odd note: They seem to be aware of which side of history is the “right” one, in real time. The most common phrase in the whole of the series is something to the effect of “the times are changing” or “the old ways just won’t do anymore” or “this is a new world now”. I’m no historian, but I almost would’ve expected phrases like these in the Post World War I era to be sighs of resignation more than breathless anticipation.

I’m not demanding purity of portrayal for every show, movie, and book. It just struck me especially hard with this series and its drama, perhaps because I don’t watch many shows like this.


II. 101 Objects


A few poor souls trod for an instant on this rock, and it has become famous, it is prized by a great nation; fragments are venerated, and tiny pieces distributed far and wide. What has become of the doorsteps of a thousand palaces? Who cares for them?

Alexis de Tocqueville, on Plymouth Rock (he visited 1830-31)


I listened to one of the Long Now Foundations most recent SALT seminars, Richard Kyrin on the Smithsonian’s “101 Objects that Made America“. Great stories. Plymouth Rock was first ever mentioned in historical record in 1775, over a century after the actual landing of the separatist pilgrims (1620). It’s an odd and arbitrary sacred object in the American founding myth.

The story of Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick was also humanizing and interesting.

My favorite story (that I heard, anyway,) was of a use of the early telegraph, for what could be the world’s introduction to the power of modern crowdsourcing/”citizen science”. Apparently, early telegraphs printed out their results (it wasn’t until later that it was primarily used to transmit the familiar auditory signals- those were unintentional at first).

Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, began to construct what would become the national weather service, sending telegraphs and instruments across the agrarian nation to map out weather patterns:

When Henry came to the Smithsonian, one of his first priorities was to set up a meteorological program. In 1847, while outlining his plan for the new institution, Henry called for “a system of extended meteorological observations for solving the problem of American storms.” By 1849, he had budgeted $1,000 for the Smithsonian meteorological project and established a network of some 150 volunteer weather observers. A decade later, the project had more than 600 volunteer observers, including people in Canada, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Its cost in 1860 was $4,400, or thirty percent of the Smithsonian’s research and publication budget.

The Smithsonian supplied volunteers with instructions, standardized forms, and, in some cases, with instruments. They submitted monthly reports that included several observations per day of temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind and cloud conditions, and precipitation amounts. They also were asked to comment on “casual phenomena,” such as thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, meteors, and auroras.

I’m not sure I’ll find the time to read the actual book anytime soon, unfortunately, but the lecture was fun.


III. “Spraching”

In college, my roommates and I (the same party behind the “narrative escape velocity” concept) had this odd idea for a verb we witnessed a lot but couldn’t quite name. We’d call it spraching, bastardizing the German word for speech. Spraching overlaps somewhat with Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit (a disregard for truth, without particular focus on truth/falsity- as opposed to the knowing and deliberate subversion, the lie.) But the connotation/angle is a little different.

But to have “thus sprach” is a big deal. It’s not just bullshitting to advance oneself. It’s already assuming the authority, and speaking as if your words are actually accomplishing something by merely speaking them, as if you fully expect your words to go down in history as the pivotal moment in… something. Yahweh says “let there be light” and we don’t hear about the mechanism that let’s light be there. His words are all we need to know about. In a literal sense He’s the ultimate spracher.

A manager who has decided that something is already done (without any particular regard to whether that’s true) to end a discussion, for example, is spraching. He is using his words to openly suggest a reality that may not even be so, (and this fact might be readily apparent to the listener!) and he doesn’t care. Anyone who has ever presumed that by being overheard expecting something to simply be because he just said so is spraching. The most impressive spraching, though, is done by those who don’t actually have authority to make things so. Pharoahs can be forgiven for believing that if it is said, it shall be done. 

The bullshitter is deliberately disregarding truth to impress others. The troll brazenly disregards truth to disrupt others. The spracher brazenly disregards truth to impress his words upon others, usually with a comical, unwarranted authority.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not sure I can help you understand this concept much further.


IV. “Smarm”


“What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”


“The plutocrats are haunted, as all smarmers are haunted, by the lack of respect. Nothing is stopping anyone—any nobody—from going on a blog or on Twitter and expressing their opinion of you, no matter who you think you are. New media and social media have an immense and cruel leveling power, for people accustomed to old systems of status and prestige. On Twitter, the only answer to “Do you know who I am?” is “One more person with 140 characters to use.””


“Anger is upsetting to smarm—real anger, not umbrage. But so is humor and confidence. Smarm, with its fixation on respect and respectability, has trouble handling it when the snarkers start clowning around. Are you serious? the commenters write. Is this serious? On Twitter, the right-thinking commenters pass the links around: Seriously?”