The Fourth Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend
Good morning and Happy New Year! This is the fourth edition of Hmm Weekly, and the beginning of the fifth 12-year zodiacal cycle since the editor of the Hmm family of publications, a Pig, was born. Lego, it turns out, makes a truly impressive Chinese New Year set, complete with little Lego hongbao and a table overflowing with Lego banquet food, but it does not sell it in the United States.
Consumer capitalism is reliably bad at delivering consumer products. Alex Pareene wrote for the Baffler about "how quietly crummy" the cheap abundance of post-industrial, post-employment life is:
We live in a secretly janky future. Everyone not employed by a gadget blog can see that the self-driving cars are about as ready for prime time as the automated kitchen appliances in that phony fifties home. Household furnishings and clothing have become cheaper by becoming shittier and less durable. Moore’s Law, the driver of technological advancement for half a century, is dead, and each new generation of gadgets can no longer promise to astound us. Everyone can afford a TV that is larger and sharper than even the most expensive TVs of the past, but that is in many respects worse at being a TV.
Meanwhile, for the second time in recent weeks, I opened a half-case of plain seltzer and opened a can of seltzer and poured it into a glass and got...flavored seltzer. Or not fully flavored seltzer, but semi-flavored seltzer, flavor-tainted seltzer, plain seltzer with a creepy ghost of flavored-seltzer compounds haunting it: a not quite identifiable artificial fruitiness floating up into the nose and clinging to the tongue, so that it registered only after the first swallow, too late.
This should be nothing in the greater scheme of things, a 45-cent beverage made unpleasant. Pour it down the drain and move on. But the misplaced flavor felt like a chemical tracer injected into a system, emerging to mark the breakdown of something deep and out of sight. If you can't trust a can of plain seltzer, what can you trust? What other things, odorless and colorless, might be getting into the works? Where else is the process going wrong?
It's like the two-factor authentication problem: now and then, logging into this or that secure system, I'm supposed to get a confirmation code sent to my phone (I know, I know, this is not the truly secure way to do it anymore). And but the code just doesn't show up. Or maybe a whole stack of sent and re-sent codes arrives later in the day.
Who can even say why it fails? I asked the bank once, and they professed to have no idea. It's like Penn Station, where a whole bunch of different transportation authorities come together and none of them are responsible for the main thing, as a whole. I click something in my browser to tell the bank (or Twitter, or whoever) to send me a code. The bank or Twitter is supposed to give the code to my wireless data service provider. The service provider is supposed to deliver the code to my phone. My phone is supposed to receive it.
Every step of this is an automated black box, with no human oversight. There's no reason to expect any of these entities to do its piece of the job correctly, or to cooperate properly with the next entity down the line. Mostly, as with the seltzer, it's a fleeting annoyance, or if the Twitter code doesn't show up, a potential benefit (though, in truth, while I'm waiting for the Twitter code to come to my phone, I can just use Twitter on my phone). But also as with the seltzer, it's merely one perceptible part of a bigger unseen system—an inconceivably bigger system, in this case, under the surface of everything we do. Who knows how many handoffs are being fumbled between one robot and the next, how many feats of necessary coordination are botched every day, every hour, every nanosecond? We just pretend the system works.
LAST WEEK ON HMM DAILY
Russia's Tatyana Lysenko poses with her gold medal for the women's hammer throw. Photo illustration, AP Photo/Matt Slocum Russian Hackers Shared Tainted Results With Me
Everyone Knew the Lorena Bobbitt Story
Some Things That Were Found in America This Week
Unexpectedly Effective Stew
Two pounds of fatty pork stew meat, from what they say were the fancy pigs.
Two shallots, minced
One and a half carrots, purple and yellow, minced
One tomato and then another tomato, skins removed by putting them in a mug of boiling water, each chopped
One medium-large yellow beet, cut in chunks
One can cannellini beans
One scallion, chopped
When the older boy gets home from school, around 2:30, salt and pepper the pork, and start browning it in a dutch oven over lowish-medium heat, in two batches so it doesn't get crowded. Remove the browned pork to a plate.
Make sure the oven rack is low enough to fit the pot and its lid, and start the oven warming to 350 degrees. Keeping the heat where it is, use the minced shallots to get the brown stuff from the pork off the bottom of the dutch oven. Add the carrots and stir them around. Salt what's in the pan, crumble in a few big pinches of rosemary, throw in a couple of bay leaves, and shake cumin over it. Keep cooking and stirring till it's all well softened, then add the chunks of beet and stir intermittently for a few more minutes.
Put in the first tomato and stir it around till it's warmed up and releasing liquid onto the other things. Dump the pork back into the pot and splash enough water on the plate to rinse the juices into the pot after it.
Stir it all together, put the lid on the pot, and stick it in the oven.
Check it around 5, see that some of the pork is tender but some has a little ways to go, and turn the heat down to 325 while going out to get a loaf of bread and then to pick up the younger boy from afterschool.
Get home to a very strong smell of things cooking, pull the pot from the oven, and see that the liquid has cooked off and what's left is sticky and very dark. Is it scorched? It might be scorched. Set the pot back on the stovetop, put in the second tomato, and pour a little water from the kettle in there with it to try to get things unstuck. Taste one of the blackish-brown bits as it comes loose and decide it doesn't taste burnt. Stir it around over low heat, gently, as the pork is now soft enough to break apart with a silicone spatula.
Open the can of beans and put about two-thirds of them in the pot, enough so the beans are thoroughly represented but in no way threaten to have a majority over the pork. Simmer it all together, stirring now and then, for another 10 or 15 minutes.
Stir in the chopped scallion, then turn off the heat. Cut the lemon in half and give one half of the lemon a single good squeeze over the pot. Stir it around. Serve with rice. Watch with moderate disbelief as even the people who usually complain about beans get multiple helpings and announce how much they like it. Serve the surviving leftovers for lunch the next day.
Nineteen Folktales: A Series
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]
4. The Wolf, the Bear, and the Leopard
A wolf, a brown bear, and a leopard were arguing among themselves as to who was the fiercest. "With my brethren," the wolf boasted, "I have run down the indomitable elk. It stood as tall as a young birch tree and its antlers were a brutal array of slashing points, yet I ate my fill of its meat."
The bear snorted. "I," said the bear, "have brought down the wild ox of the forest, spear-horned and as heavy as a small hillock. With a stroke of my paw I broke its thick back, and dined upon it."
"Indeed?" scoffed the leopard. "I have walked soft-footed through the edge of men's firelight, into their very houses, and dragged one from his bed out into the night. I have eaten man-flesh."
A harsh laugh broke in on their conversation from above. Looking up, the three saw on a tree branch a large old crow. "Have you?" said the crow. "Have you eaten such things? I too have eaten of the elk and the wild ox alike. I have feasted by daylight on the eyes and the tongues and the innards of men, the strongest of men, still armed and armored for battle. Wolf, bear, leopard: I have torn the meat of your fathers and your mothers from the bone. None that walk the earth are safe from me."
Still laughing, the crow flew off. The wolf and the bear and the leopard parted without another word, and went their separate ways.
Hmm Daily is a website in the Civil Network, offering commentary and news and other things. This email newsletter is written by Tom Scocca, the editor of Hmm Daily, and Joe MacLeod, the creative director.
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