ISSUE 23 • AUGUST 4, 2019
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Due to unrelenting summer travel, and some shroomy Boundary Waters action, we missed an issue of Recs last week. Did you notice? Aww shucks. Well, let's just pretend we're a magazine and call this a Double Issue



Because Internet

Gretchen McCulloch

In those moments when the ship of humanity tips its sails toward oblivion, I have a tendency (a near-pathological one) to remind myself of times when society has corrected course. It's an easy history to neglect, but our childhoods are surprisingly stuffed with successful public crusades — to reduce smoking, to buckle up, to discourage drunk driving, to eliminate littering and to increase recycling, and, of course, to eradicate satanism. (Shout at the devil! Surely the Law Enforcement Guide To Satanic Cults, a 73-minute police training video from 1994, damped the scourge of ritualistic goat sacrifice in midwestern parks!)

When I was a kid, during a precambrian period colloquially known as "the '80s," one of the largest public policy challenges involved a menace that today sounds quaintly anachronic: illiteracy. During that forsaken era, everyone knew kids who graduated without basic reading skills, and a common statistic, cited like a refrain, asserted that 1 in 5 adults are illiterate. To combat the problem, broadcast channels beamed literacy PSAs from celebrities — Alex Trebek, Stephen King, Betty White. And an iconic poster series implored the public to READ, using endorsements from renowned book enthusiasts — Nic Cage, Elvis, Yoda. (C-3PO and R2-D2 were already conscripted for PSAs against the Dark Side — big tobacco.)

This era of literacy hyper-awareness came to mind while devouring Because Internet, a new book about how language works online, from linguist Gretchen McCulloch. Today, it's almost comical to imagine a kid who has not mastered speed typing and instantaneous skimming. In some cases, parents expend immense energy to get kids to use keyboards less. Why? Because... internet!

As McCulloch describes at the outset, linguists — a cohort who relish their taxonomies like no other — often distinguish between formal and informal modes of communication. Most speech is classified as informal language, unless performed in an official setting, like a TED Talk. Writing, meanwhile, is almost exclusively formal, except for the occasional love letter or postcard. For centuries, the distinction between formal writing and informal speech has been codified into linguistic bylaws. Today, human civilization is coming to terms with an eruption of a divergent mode of communication — informal writing. Why? Because... yep, internet!

Given a subject as broad as internet discourse, Because Internet could go in many directions, and McCulloch goes there, with forays into SpOngEboB TyPE and ~sarcasm tildes and...

...ah heck, there's so much good material here. Let's skip the formality of comma-delimited sentences and instead deploy a classic internet form — the bulleted list. In this book, you will find investigations of:

  • ✧・゚: *✧・゚:* sparkle type *:・゚✧*:・゚✧
  • 🍑 and 🍆
  • how LOL usage has changed over time (LOL)
  • statistical analysis of character frequency in keysmash
  • whether ending a sentence with a period make you a jerk.
  • the inordinate effort required to create lowercase text on phones
  • the complex significance of multiple exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!
  • the failed history of irony punctuation (⸮, /sarcasm, etc.)
  • why young women trailblaze language innovation
  • how "popcorn.gif" and "🍿" differ
  • why less professional-looking memes go viral
  • how to understand emojis as linguistic gestures and emblems
  • Columbusing — white people "discovering" nonwhite language, like "bae"
  • expressive letter repetition (yesssss)
  • expressive letter repetition in syllabic languages, like Japanese, with approximations using cute wavy tildes (あ〜〜〜)
  • Arabizi, a form of written Arabic that uses numerals to mimic certain letters (3 for ع‎)
  • weird topics like zalgo, also known as glitch text, which you have prolly seen, but maybe didn't know had a name, and looks like this:

Underlying all these investigations, McCulloch has a theory — that informal writing is an unconscious project "to restore our bodies to our writing." Which is a big idea! Especially after decades of being told that texting is ruining language, that leetspeak is imbecilic, that chat abbreviations are rotting minds, that tweets represent the end of language, and that emojis are ruining civilization. Finally, someone has arrived to celebrate this messy corpus of improvised, sloppy, thrilling blather we call interneting.

In retrospect, the decades-long campaign to deride internet banter is, well, 😭😭😭. "All our texting and tweeting," writes McCulloch, "is making us better at expressing ourselves in writing." Of course it is — it's so obvious now. We haven't entirely eradicated illiteracy, but like smoking (and satanism? ugh: /sarcasm), it is on steep retreat.

If "illiteracy" is invoked today, it is likely preceded by a modifier, like "media" or "digital." Reading and writing have improved, unfathomably so, and not because Mel Gibson implored us, but because typing dorky messages to each other became an essential human skill.


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino

Recommending the most-discussed movie of summer hardly seems worth your time, but for the handful who haven't seen it, count this as yet another imprimatur in the wall.

Given the enormity of content already published about this movie, writing a review would be futile. Instead, here are a few small things (no spoilers) I noticed:

  • Gags. There are several intra-film jokes, including a wilhelm scream.
  • Technology. Might we call this the first wink-wink use of a deepfake? There are two: Leonard DiCaprio's mug replacing Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and Margot Robbie faceswapped with Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew.
  • Montages. I hate montages. I loved these montages! (Especially the one where they just drive around Hollywood and the radio flips songs, which is super corny, but awesome.)
  • Music. This soundtrack will be discussed for years (here's one deep dive), but I'm stuck on the Jose Feliciano cover of "California Dreamin," which is almost a call-back to the original being used in Chungking Express. Also, the sheet music to another Mamas and Papas song, "Straight Shooter" (the song in the trailer), was actually found at the Polanski residence on the night of the murders. (Finally: The most obvious song to have in the soundtrack, "Helter Skelter," is nowhere to be found, which is kinda interesting?)

When you read about this time period (or listen to Karina Longworth's magnificent podcast about the Manson family), Los Angeles is always depicted as an eerie layered city, where cliques unexpectedly collide, and anything could happen. Charles Manson could befriend Dennis Wilson. Sharon Tate could take martial arts lessons from Bruce Lee. Anyone could cross paths at the Playboy mansion. In a movie, Sharon Tate could play a pregnant woman who marries a celebrity and is murdered by a cult of devil worshipers — and then that happens in real life.

I need to let it settle, but as this point, this is my favorite Tarantino since Pulp Fiction.

EXTRA: Lotsa bonus links in this issue...


You can tell autumn is nigh, because the calendar is bulging. Good stuff coming this week:

The Week Ahead

Sunday, August 4
tv Serengeti (Discovery)
lupita nyong’o narrates new nature doc
Monday, August 5
podcast Tabloid (NYMag / Panoply)
new podcast on the making of ivanka trump, hosted by vanessa grigoriadis
tv Enter the Anime (Netflix)
documentary on the origin of anime
Tuesday, August 6
book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino
debut collection from the beloved new yorker essayist
tv Hard Knocks (HBO)
this year, it's the oakland raiders, which will be bonkers
tv Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation (PBS)
boomer content never dies, it just goes to pbs
book Barnum: An American Life, Robert Wilson
great review in the new yorker
Friday, August 9
movie Brian Banks
maybe-controversial biopic of star football player wrongly accused of rape
tv Free Meek (Amazon Video)
docu-series about meek mill's arrest; produced by jay-z
concert Smashing Pumpkins & Noel Gallagher (Jones Beach, NY)
surely someone who reads this newsletter will care
movie The Kitchen
starring elisabeth moss, melissa mccarthy, tiffany haddish
festival Outside Lands (San Francisco)
day one: twenty one pilots, lil wayne, counting crows, lumineers, etc.
Saturday, August 10
festival Outside Lands (San Francisco)
day two: childish gambino, flume, santigold, etc.
Sunday, August 11
festival Outside Lands (San Francisco)
day three: paul simon, kacey musgrave, leon bridges, etc.
tv The Food that Built America (History Channel)
food titans miniseries: henry heinz, milton hershey, kellogg bros, etc.
tv Succession (HBO)
the best show on tv is back!
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