Chad Comello

Libraries, culture, typewriters

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From defeat, not victory

In his book Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fisher writes about how the colonists responded to the dark days of the American Revolution in 1776:

This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote. “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”

Rush, a sort of honorary Founding Father and very distant relative of mine, was speaking to his present times but I think he also speaks to ours. I’ve said before that if we make it out of our current darkness alive, we’ll be better for it.

The Death of Stalin

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like The Death of Stalin, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s new film about the farcical machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at his sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its subject.

In the film, Stalin’s surprising death sets his cronies scrambling on how to appear to honor their beloved leader while also scheme to seize his power. One contender is future Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), probably the most well-known name of the group. The other is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the Soviet secret police and power-hungry instrument of the widespread purges, executions, and violent repression of that era. Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin are other highlights of the excellent cast, and Jason Isaacs nearly steals the movie as Georgy Zhukov, the brash Red Army commander.

Shot and lit almost like a stage play, the film is a black comedy of manners, with men trying to save face and save their own lives while jockeying for position. As all this happens in Stalin’s country dacha or palatial government buildings, when we do venture outside the halls of power we see the brutal reality of life in a totalitarian regime for regular people: being tortured in a gulag, say, or being forced to reenact an entire symphony for Stalin’s pleasure.

This juxtaposition—“slapstick horror” as Manohla Dargis called it—is jarring but somehow sings. It’s like an extended episode of Veep if Selina Meyer had been a repressive dictator. The laughs don’t come at the expense of the true victims but in response to how the Committee members struggle with their darkly absurd circumstances, like what to do with Stalin’s soiled, unconscious body, or how to communicate with each other while standing guard during Stalin’s funeral and trying to appear stately while doing so.

Though Stalin himself isn’t a prominent character in the film, even in death he looms over everything and everyone, affecting every choice or non-choice these bureaucrats wrestle with, the way the paranoid authoritarian and his regime of senseless violence really did.

The real Khrushchev later reflected in his memoirs about the horrors of this time:

Stalin called everyone who didn’t agree with him an “enemy of the people.” He said that they wanted to restore the old order, and for this purpose, “the enemies of the people” had linked up with the forces of reaction internationally. As a result, several hundred thousand honest people perished. Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal … [P]eople not to Stalin’s liking were annihilated, honest party members, irreproachable people, loyal and hard workers for our cause who had gone through the school of revolutionary struggle under Lenin’s leadership. This was utter and complete arbitrariness. And now is all this to be forgiven and forgotten? Never!

We’ve heard about the banality of evil, but the capriciousness of evil, to me, is just as destructive, if not more so. Regimes that rule through fear and paranoia and unpredictability create a living nightmare for everyone, not just the people thrown in jail.

The Death of Stalin enters that nightmare and tries to expose it with the harsh light of humor. Iannucci does stretch his artistic license to the max, condensing the factual historical timeline and giving the main characters a variety of English accents. But by doing so he’s able to honor the absurdity of this true story and bring it into the 21st century in a seriously funny way.

How I’ve made my social media better

Here are some browser extensions and tools I’ve been using to make my experience on the Big Three social networks better:

Twitter

Since 2012 I’ve been using Fix Twitter to swap the right and left columns to put the feed back on the left, as it was pre-2012. Mostly cosmetic, but for me preferable.

Make Twitter Great Again hides two things that have made web Twitter nearly unbearable recently: other people’s liked tweets popping up in my timeline and promoted tweets.

Twitter Demetricator hides all the site’s metrics for followers, likes, retweets, and notifications in order to, per its creator, “disrupt our obsession with social media metrics, to reveal how they guide our behavior, and to ask who most benefits from a system that quantifies our public interactions online.”

I recently enabled Tweet Delete to automatically delete tweets older than two months.

Facebook

I’m not deleting my account, not yet anyway. For work and other reasons it’s just more convenient to have one. The next best thing to do in response to the company’s rolling malfeasance is to deny them their power source, so I’m using Social Book Post Manager to bulk-delete my old posts and plan to post a lot less. It’s a little clunky, and you have to do the process repeatedly to actually get all the posts, but seems to be working.

I’m starting with the earliest, from the summer of 2006 when I first joined, and working forward. Since you get to watch it work through your posts in real time on your Activity Log, you get to quickly reminisce—or cringe—at all of your status updates and comments of olde (common topics for a while there: Lost, the Oscars, The Office, and the Packers). Once all your posts are removed from a given year, the updates that remain—Life Events, your friending history, photos you’re tagged in—reflect an interesting kind of online anthropological history.

I also use Stay Focusd to limit my time on Facebook.

Instagram

I like Instagram generally, but I don’t like how easy it is to waste time scrolling mindlessly. I also don’t like the feed showing me whatever the Almighty Algorithm decides to show me rather than what was posted chronologically.

My hack for this is to delete the Instagram app from my phone after each time I post a photo. This cuts me off from the mindless scroll, from obsessing over my likes and follows, and forces me to decide whether posting a photo is worth the extra time to download the app and sign in again.

Magazine Mashups: Am I human?

Mashups from Scientific American, March 2017. (See more magazine mashups.)

Grandma’s dressers

It’s been a year since my Grandma Helen died. I inherited several things from her before and after her death, including a Selectric typewriter and typewriter desk. But of these heirlooms, what I now notice most frequently, and what most often remind me of her, are the dressers.

One horizontal and one vertical, they are massive and sturdy things made of solid wood. We had to rent a U-Haul to get them home. They are properly worn in (but not worn down) by decades of previous use. My grandparents were frugal, but when they made big purchases they were of high quality.

Though I usually notice the distinct burnt orange color first, it’s the smell that triggers the memories. The dressers lived with her for so long that inevitably the aroma I associate with her—a melange of perfumes, deodorants, and who knows what other products that made up her graceful cosmetic presentation—seeped deeply into the wood and now wafts its way to me at random times throughout the day.

Then I think of the time we spent in her apartment baking and talking and laughing at eating grapes together in the final years of her life, and I smile.

The point of coffee is to suffer

I can’t stop laughing at this comic:

I started drinking coffee after college, and when I did I went straight to black, sometimes with sugar. It took me that long because my taste buds weren’t ready for the bitterness of black coffee. And yet when I did try to start drinking it regularly, it never occurred to me to use sweeteners, beyond a little sugar. I figured if I was going to drink coffee, I should like the taste of the coffee itself and not try to mask it with cream. Admittedly this logic is faulty, but it’s why this comic struck a nerve.

My wife, who’s part Swedish and embraces all things hygge, cherishes the coziness of the whole coffee drinking experience, special cream included. But I, embracer of my Finnish heritage and its concept of sisu, enjoy the pure, raw burn of good black coffee.

Magazine Mashups: Hunger after cyberattacks

Wired, January 2017 issue. (See more magazine mashups.)

Jumping for Jordy

Sad to hear Jordy Nelson will no longer be a Packer. He’s been a highlight machine, connecting with Rodgers for a franchise-record 65 touchdowns over 10 years:

It’s hard to pick a favorite Jordy play, but one fond memory of mine is of his toe-tapping, game-tying TD on 4th and goal against Atlanta in 2010. I was living in Colombia and had to find a *cough* unsanctioned TV feed online to watch Packers games. I projected the game onto a wall in my host family’s house and tried to explain the rules of American football to my Colombian friends. (Nothing brings home how strange American football is when you have to explain it to foreigners.) My explanations got increasingly animated as I paced the floor for the thrilling finish.

Godspeed, Jordy. Here’s hoping the Packers won’t have to play against you.

Which movie changed you?

On Being—a top-5 podcast for me—has a new offshoot podcast called This Movie Changed Me, with “one fan talking about the transformative power of one movie.” So far they’ve featured Star Wars: A New HopeEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and You’ve Got Mail.

It made me think about what mine would be. The quick and easy answer would be Back to the Future, if only because of how much I’ve written about it on this site. But I think there are other candidates. Some that come to mind, all for different reasons, include It’s a Wonderful LifeHigh FidelityOnceToy Story, and Unbreakable.

I don’t know. I have to think about this. What’s yours?

Update: I want to include some of the replies I’ve gotten to this query:

  • “Oddly enough, Snowpiercer. While it’s a terribly chaotic movie, man, it haunts me every day. The ignorant frivolity of the front car compared to the ruthless survival of the back cars…way too real. I probably think about it every day. Because I’m one of the front car a**holes.”
  • “It’s A Wonderful Life. Each Christmas Eve we watch it I learn something from the movie that is applied to my life; courage through hardship, wisdom of God, love of family and friends, mystery of life. It’s amazing how this movie has been intertwined with me on a small yet profound level.”
  • “Cloud Atlas. I frankly had a spiritual experience in the theater. It articulated my worldview in a way I hadn’t really seen before (or at least to that extent). Uneven as it may be, it floored me.”
  • “While I look at it quite differently now, Chasing Amy had a huge impact on me. Her monologue about sexual freedom and independence is feminist AF and it was like finally having my thoughts and feelings validated.”
  • Do the Right Thing made me aware of how I process anger as a white person.”

Magazine Mashups: Google searches its fortune

My library has shelves of free discarded magazines, so I grabbed a few that looked visually interesting and thought I’d have some fun with collage. And I really did. These are all from the February 2017 issue of Fortune. (See more magazine mashups.)

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