Cooked

I found out about the recent decision by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal about the deregistration of a Sydney psychiatrist for running a QAnon blog on his practice’s website via Liam Hogan, who’s written a good post about the case on his blog. QAnon is a conspiracy theory popular among Trump’s supporters, which seems like a fractal of every awful idea anyone’s had about the Secret Rulers of the World for the past few centuries, accelerated by social media into something like one of those ARG (alternate reality games) which were used to market video games and movies a decade ago: it’s also, like its immediate ancestor Pizzagate, been associated with criminal activities, albeit so far on a small scale.

It’s a long while since I read a lot of the law around mental disability, but the court’s discomfort with having to make a call about Dr McGregor’s mental state in the absence of a positive diagnosis comes through in paragraph 93:

Dr McGregor has not admitted that he has an impairment, but that conclusion is supported by Dr Wright’s evidence with which we agree. It is not necessary to identify a diagnosis in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) or otherwise. It is sufficient to note that we agree with Dr Wright that he has impaired reality testing. His perception is not the reality. Alternatively, he may have a delusional disorder or paranoid personality disorder. He has a psychiatric impairment, disability, condition or disorder.

What I’m interested in examining here is the distinction between a delusion in the sense which a psychiatrist would use the word, and belief in weird ideas. I don’t recommend looking up Dr McGregor’s blog – he’s still posting on it, and if you want to get an idea of the content, there’s an excerpt in the case – but the thing which strikes one about it is its extremely stereotyped nature, like most conspiracist material. This isn’t a hallucination or private delusion of his own which Dr McGregor came up with during a psychotic episode, but acceptance of a corpus of already existing material.

As Liam points out, major religions make many bizarre truth claims which, if they have enough collective social support around them, are not seen as evidence of insanity. (The sometimes vexed boundary between a cult and a religion can, in this light, be seen as an analogy of the sorites paradox.) But there are all sorts of ideas which fall between unquestioned fact and private psychosis:

  • letting someone down gently when you don’t want to date them
  • telling your kids about Santa Claus
  • one’s own self-image, estimations of one’s talent, attractiveness, etc
  • tenets of mainstream religions
  • tenets of fringe religions
  • unspecific metaphysical beliefs, like a vaguely non-denominational afterlife
  • personal communion with dead loved ones
  • mild personal religions experiences (the comfort of prayer or the presence of God)
  • severe personal religious experiences (believing oneself to be a prophet)
  • the contents of fiction
  • liking weird art
  • making weird art
  • being extremely online
  • unorthodox political beliefs
  • conspiracy theories
  • extreme political beliefs leading to radical action
  • orthodox political beliefs (about the inherent benignity of the state, social institutions, etc)

These ideas don’t really fall on a continuum and their truth-value, and the social and cultural forces which inform our opinions about them, are all very different. We all have weird ideas, and – contrary to what people sometimes seem to think – there is no educational process which can inoculate us against them.

One of my own weird ideas is that a certain inflexibility about epistemology is becoming more widespread because of the internet: I privately refer to this as Houyhnhnmism, after the race of rational horses who were forced to resort to the circumlocution ‘the-thing-which-is-not’ when Gulliver was attempting to enable them to understand the English word ‘lie’. Houyhnhnmism is the spirit of the well-meaning parent who thinks that maintaining the fiction of Santa Claus will sap their children’s honesty later in life, and of the world-building nerd whose takeaway from “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is not “oh right, this is a fairy story with lasers and robots” but rather “ah these events clearly do not take place in the Milky Way galaxy”.

I have sympathy for the judges in the case of Dr McGregor, because the law long ago decided that mental impairment is a call best left to medical professionals: I think that they were on much stronger ground when they relied on the harm he was doing to potential patients by posting his nonsense on his practice’s website, and the abusive behaviour he exhibited when the Medical Council started to investigate him. (The blog came to the Council’s attention only after another doctor had reported McGregor for unprofessional behaviour with regard to a colleague who he believed to be having an affair with his secretary.) QAnon, like all conspiracy theories, attracts people with genuine mental illness, but I feel that for someone like Dr McGregor to fall for such a pile of transparently evil bullshit is an ethical, not a cognitive, failing.

Online life is, of course, full of people like this, and we generally talk about them using the language of mental illness, or use borderline euphemisms like ‘cooked’ or ‘broken’, none of which are really satisfactory, because they neglect the fact that these are social movements, sharing the nature of what was once called mass hysteria and political radicalisation without really being the same as either.

I have even more sympathy for one Dr Wright, who was assigned the unenviable task of meeting up with Dr McGregor for an informal assessment. One of the incidental pleasures of the law is when a well-drafted sentence can pack the understated emotional punch of a good novella, as in para 85:

Dr Wright denied that he was not empathetic, was robotic or irritated. He admitted that he was anxious about the interview, but said that he was pleasantly surprised when Dr McGregor engaged fairly easily. He described the conversation as “collegial”. Dr Wright noted that Dr McGregor was upset when he made it clear that he was not going to discuss the content of a 600 page document Dr McGregor had brought with him, expressing political views.

The Unseasoned Traveller’s Guide to New York

This post is the result of a braindump I did on the weekend about stuff I learned when we were in New York last September. Disclaimer: I’m one of the least seasoned travellers I can think of.

Phones

Don’t get a pre-packaged SIM from a no-name electronics shop in Midtown. It will likely be expired or faulty and the staff will blame your phone, not give you a refund and try to sell you a dodgy phone. Yes, we were jetlagged, and, yes, this was an archetypal NYC tourist experience, and there’s no reason you should go through it too. My gut feeling is that SIMs from vending machines would have a chance of beeing dodgy too.

We got one from the T-Mobile store on Broadway near Times Square, which is what a work colleague had suggested we do. They have cheap 30-day plans. They will still try to upsell you.

Banks

Australian PayWave cards work where there’s PayWave. We have chip cards, which worked fine in modern bank ATMs, but did not work in older wall-ATMs or the small free-standing ones in bodegas. There are also even smaller ATMs bolted to building walls that look kind of like condom dispensers: we weren’t game to try those.

Tipping

Almost everywhere puts a recommended tip amount on the bill. In restaurants with table service, you fill out the tip amount on the bill after they’ve taken your card and then it gets charged to the card (this is weird to Australians, here we add the tip and then do the credit card amount after that).

Most counter-service places with credit card payments have some sort of touch-screen where you choose a tip from a range of pre-calculated options. If it’s cash, tip 20%.

Leave $2 in the hotel room for housekeeping each night, and about the same for the guys who look after your luggage at the hotel.

Transport

The subway is good: we used it every day for two weeks and only had one major screwup. Avoid wearing open-toed shoes because you can get stepped on or have a shopping trolley roll over you on a ramp. If your card doesn’t work and the station officer tells you that the card’s faulty, hang on to it and try at another station. This happened to me and the card was fine.

Our chip debit cards didn’t work in the subway ticket machines so we had to use cash.

Getting from JFK to Manhattan was a bit of fuss – there’s an airport train which connects to the Long Island Rail Road and the subway. We took the former because we were zonked and thought it might be easier than learning how the subway worked when jetlagged, but it probably would have been much the same. We came out at Penn Station, which is terrible. Getting a cab or an Uber might have been easier.

Food

We didn’t eat at nearly as many restaurants as I’d planned – I had a whole spreadsheet – but really only went to the three we’d booked from Australia: Enoteca Maria ($$), Le Bernardin ($$$$) and Osteria 57 ($$), all of which were good. We seemed to run out of time to book more when we were there, and often ended up eating things like Fresh & Co (a salad bowl chain) because it seemed cheap and healthy. That’s how I learned that eating salad bowls for two nights does not provide me with enough protein and carbs to be an energetic or happy tourist.

Eighth Avenue in Midtown has decent, cheap places to eat that don’t need a reservation.

It’s customary for Australians to gripe about American coffee but what we really missed was Australian cafe breakfasts. We’re both used to having big, low-GI morning meals – muesli or oats or something – and an everything bagel doesn’t cut it. Many cafes don’t have anything other than pastries until brunch. We started relying on Pret-a-Manger and Le Pain Quotidien, which are two chains that open early and have relatively healthy breakfasts. The Great Northern food court in Grand Central Station opens early and is excellent. There was also a really good breakfast buffet in downtown Brooklyn which sold food by the pound.

The coffee was fine, except that americanos are almost exactly like long blacks but upside-down and terrible, they actually turned me off coffee without milk permanently, so I drink lattes now.

Bodega sandwiches are good.

Three very different but equally good places to get Jewish comfort food: B&H Dairy in the Village, Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side and Juniors in Times Square.

Ole and Steen is an outstanding Danish cafe not far from Grand Central.

Peaches in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn was near our bed and breakfast: really delicious modern Southern-style cooking.

All the food we got in Central Park was good, if not too cheap.

The museum cafes were pretty bad.

Attractions (Free)

Movie and TV Locations

We didn’t do this other than visit the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (twice) because it’s in Angels in America. Manhattan probably has more places to do this than anywhere else on the planet, but we decided after a bit of research to not go down that road because even though it’s dense, it’s still really big, and you could spend a lot of your time on the subway getting to places just to take a selfie. And you don’t have a lot of time.

It’s worth emphasising that Manhattan will mess with your sense of scale and wear you out. It’s both walkable and enormous: from top to bottom is about the same distance as Sydney’s CBD to Parramatta.

What’s really, really, cool, though, is the reverse: just spending time there and then watching all the NYC films and TV shows you can find, and recognising little parts of the city which aren’t especially famous, but which you’ve been to.

Grand Central Station

Don’t miss it, it really is amazing, and the Great Northern Food Court is a good spot for breakfast, although it gets busy.

Central Park

Bigger, better, more beautiful than I expected. Even the buskers are good.

The Chrysler Building

OK, I lied, this was another location visit, because Matthew Barney staged a demolition derby in it in one of the Cremaster films. It’s lovely. They will politely ask you to stand in a little rectangle taped to the floor once they figure out that you don’t work in the building.

The Brooklyn Bridge

Brilliant, crowded with tourists taking selfies and local cyclists and joggers getting annoyed at the tourists, doesn’t matter because it’s spectacular.

The Staten Island Ferry

We took this because we had a restaurant booking at Enoteca Maria in Staten. (The meal was great: it’s old-fashioned slow Italian cooked by actual nonnas.) People talk it up because it’s a free boat ride and you can see the Statue of Liberty but honestly, she looks tiny from the ferry, and the rest of the scenery is not good. The trip is half an hour each way and they don’t let you ride the same boat back so unless you have a restaurant booking or want to go shopping at the new factory outlet they’ve built next to the ferry wharf, it would be a waste of an afternoon. It’s also crowded, because it’s full of people who work in the City and faintly disappointed tourists.

As a hip-hop fan, I enjoy the fact that I’ve been to Shaolin, and was thinking of visiting the newly inaugurated Wu-Tang district, but it’s a twenty-minute subway ride from the ferry. We didn’t have time before our dinner, so I bought a polo at Banana Republic instead.

The ferries are amazing if you like huge public transport boats (the biggest ones make a Manly ferry look like a bath toy) and the inside was plastered with ads for the new HBO miniseries about the Clan, so that was fun, but you can just hang out at Battery Park and watch them from there.

The New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library

Both of these are beautiful and worth seeing if you’re a bookish person and in their neighbourhoods (Midtown and Prospect Park). Bryant Park, next to the NYPL, is also really good.

Washington Square

In Greenwich Village, almost festively busy on a fine day just with people hanging out.

Times Square

The locals complain about it, because it’s awful, like an alien spaceship made out of nuclear-powered shopping malls crashed in Midtown and started assimilating everything in sight. The only place we ate there was Juniors: it’s pretty good if you like cheesecake and diners and big hamburgers.

If you’re stuck there and you’re not hungry but want somewhere to sit in peace for a while, the clothes stores are good for that (Levis is comfy and relatively quiet).

We were staying in a hotel very near Times Square, which wasn’t great and I wouldn’t do it again. We did it to be near the Theatre District but it would have been better to stay downtown and get the subway.

Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Harlem

We went to the earliest of one of their two Sunday services and it was really good – it gave us the kick we needed when we were quite travel-fatigued Some of the Harlem churches have a congregation service and a tourist service but Convent Avenue is mixed and very friendly.

The High Line

An elevated railway line planted with garden beds that runs from Chelsea up between the buildings to Hudson Yards at midtown. It’s a long walk but you don’t have to do the whole length (there are exits at intervals along it) and the vistas of the city are great. It gets insanely crowded on weekends.

Attractions (Expensive)

We got 7-attraction CityPasses, where you pay something like $US180 up front and then get to pick seven things from a big list which includes most, but not all, of the museums and galleries and the big tourist bus things. I don’t know if we saved that much money, but it felt thrifty because we didn’t have to pay when we were there. Here’s what we did:

The Met

The Met – everyone says this – is A Lot, and if you like museums you should go, but plan ahead and decide what you want to see, and then trim that list down a bit, because it’s huge.

The Breuer is much smaller and focused and modern, and do-able in an afternoon.

The Cloisters is not as good as a museum (I’m not a medievalist but my medievalist friend makes fun of it) but the location is amazing, it’s worth the relatively long subway ride uptown. We saw a groundhog!

The Guggenheim

I loved it but I was so jetlagged and starstruck by being in NYC that who knows. If you’re a modernism fan or an architecture fan, it’s worth it.

The Frick Collection

A Gilded Age mansion on the Upper East Side with a small but beautiful collection of European paintings and interiors, including Hans Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

The Big Bus (midtown and downtown loops)

The guides felt like they’d come from a casting call to get the Most New Yorkers and it’s touristy as hell but a good way to get a sense of the city.

Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise

We were tipped off not to go to the Statue of Liberty itself – you’ll just stand around in queues – but to see it from a sightseeing cruise, which was a good move. At low tide this cruise goes all the way around Manhattan: at high tide, when we went, it goes up the East River, down again, then up the Hudson, because the bridges on the Harlem River are too low. The guide’s knowledge of New York architecture and urban infrastructure eventually wore out my patience, and that’s saying a lot, but it was still fascinating, and it’s a city that looks incredible from the water.

The more touristy a thing you do in New York, the more the people around you are Americans rather than other folks from overseas. I kind of exasperated a lady from Wisconsin by pointing out things like the UN building and noting that we were near Spanish Harlem — “how do you know all these things and you’re not even American?!?”

The Brooklyn Museum

This was great although it felt like we didn’t have time to do it justice. Really strong on African-American, gay/lesbian/queer/trans and feminist history. The pass included entry to the botanical gardens, which are also lovely, but Prospect Park (just up the road) is free, bigger and better.

The Color Factory

An art installation / Instagram trap in SoHo which was honestly a lot of fun, but we may not have bothered had it not been on the pass.

The 9/11 Museum

This was good, but it took much longer than the two hours recommended for it, and it’s sad, in both the obvious ways and in strange, hard-to-articulate ones.

Skyscrapers

We didn’t go to the Empire State Building or One World Trade: instead we booked a table at Bar Sixty-Five in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which isn’t up quite as high but has great views, is a beautiful space and doesn’t have an entry fee. We just had an expensive drink, rather than an expensive meal. Even if you have an inside table, you can go outside to take selfies.

The outside tables have a minimum spend of something like $80 a head. It rained a bit when we were there and the staff ordered all the outside customers in and kept them there: I don’t know if they still insisted on the minimum spend but I hope not.

Theatre

Don’t get cheap tickets in Times Square, you’ll waste half a day in a queue in Times Square. There’s a far better cheap tickets place at the Lincoln Center with the same shows as Times Square but no lines, the queues are inside, and it’s a much nicer area.

But the best way is TodayTix, which is an app you buy tickets on and then pick them up from a concierge outside the theatre.

Going to the theatre in NYC is far less leisurely than it is in Australia: there’s much less hanging around in foyers and many theatres don’t have one to speak of. You show up, you go in, you see the show, that’s it, get out. This is good! You’re a tourist, you don’t have time to dawdle! We saw no curtain calls but everything got a standing ovation, which is the opposite of Sydney crowds.

The audiences are ON THEIR PHONES ALL THE TIME. I say that to Sydney people and they roll their eyes and go “like in Sydney” and I say, no, you have no idea how much worse it is. But the are also very friendly and chatty, especially if they hear an Australian accent, and will ask you what you’ve seen and what they think you should see. Everyone told us to see Oklahoma! and they were right, it was terrific.

Music

If you know who John Zorn is and like his sort of stuff, The Stone is his curated venue: the main location is now at the New College in the Village. No bookings, $20 cash on the door, a very friendly crowd, and even if the show doesn’t come off (as improv/experimental often doesn’t) the chat from the regulars will make it worthwhile. I didn’t see as much music as I’d planned to but the show I saw here (Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori and William Winant) was amazing.

The Hush Birthplace of Hip-Hop Harlem and the Bronx tour was not too cheap but an absolute highlight of my trip: they also do bus and walking tours of Brooklyn.

Miscellaneous

The way Australians pronounce the letter ‘a’ is inaudible to Americans. You have to say “water” in an American accent for them to have any idea what you’re asking for.

Compared to Australian capital cities, New York is a friendly town, but it moves faster.

New York City doesn’t have enough public toilets. I thought the ones at the Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd would be awful, but they were surprisingly good. Toilets in parks were all surprisingly decent although the older ones in Central Park are really old, so they’re pokey, if clean. The worst I used were in Penn Station, but no-one would try using them unless they had to go inside Penn Station.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

Adam Phillips, Picador, 2012

I had never heard of Adam Phillips until I picked up this book in a remainder store. I have an ambivalent reaction to psychoanalysis, in the strict sense: I find it fascinating, but I’ve always been a little repelled by it, and have only really engaged with it as literature rather than in clinical practice. Once, about a decade ago, a psychologist gave me a referral to what turned out to be a very strict Freudian in an impressive wood-paneled practice on Macquarie Street, who told me that he generally dealt with executives who were working out issues arising from private school educations. He seemed like a sincere man but we did not click and I couldn’t afford him anyway.

I started Phillips’ book expecting something much more self-help-y but found it full of illuminating and serious writing about Shakespeare, particularly King Lear and Othello, and some interesting ideas on how we might be kinder to ourselves about our regrets and our frustrations. When I was drafting this I found the following lecture (45m plus another 20m of Q&A) called “Against Self-Criticism” which should give you a better idea than I can of what he’s about. Mostly, when I read this sort of literary psychoanalytical work, I’m just distracting myself (scowls at Žižek) but I am a very self-critical person, and so reflecting on why that’s not good, and what I can do about it, is very pertinent to what I’m going through at the moment. So I suppose it did end up being self-help-y after all.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert A Caro, 1974, Vintage

I got this as a Christmas present and ploughed through it over the break: it’s over 1200 pages but was a joy to read. I noticed that the argument about cutting thick books down the spine got started up again by some Guardian columnist – a bit anachronistically, when we have Kindles and can download audiobooks – and I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted to do the same to my copy of The Power Broker, but given the monumental nature both of the subject matter and the style, this would have seemed improper. (Has anyone related the book-slicing fad to eroticism? Some French author, I can’t remember who, published a work a few years ago where the reader was obliged to slice the quires apart before and a similar frisson of possessive violation underlies the idea of cutting a book into more handy chunks.)

Robert Moses was the urban planner who did more than any other single figure to bring the automobile to New York City, and Caro’s biography – written at the final stages of his career, which lasted for forty years and ended in the late sixties – is one of the best books about power, history and cities I’ve ever read. I already knew about some of the more infamous chapters, like the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which tore that borough in two and which has been blamed for its subsequent devastation. On the guided hip-hop tour I took in September, Grandmaster Caz proudly announced, as we walked down the Grand Concourse, “Bet y’all didn’t think it’d look like this!” We all, of course, were picturing the Bronx from the 70s and 80s, when it looked like a warzone. Caz’ sign on the Bronx Wall of Fame is outside a thriving furniture warehouse, and when I got back I read a column of locals reflecting on the last decade in NYC in which a Bronx local notes that the borough’s population just returned to its 1970 levels. This isn’t distant history.

A photograph of the Bronx Walk of Fame on the Grand Concourse: Grandmaster Caz is pointing at his sign on an old-fashioned street lamp, outside Bed City, a furniture warehouse.

There seems to have been a low-key culture war since the publication of Caro’s book about Whether Moses Was Good, Actually. Most of which I’ve read of this revolves around whether he was racist (yes), more racist than other men of his generation (also, for his class and background, I think, yes) or simply more able to literally cement his racism in stone than other people, as in the other episode I already knew about, when he had the overpasses on the parkways to Long Island’s new beach resorts built so low that buses, and therefore the African-American and Puerto Rican people who were too poor to own their own cars, wouldn’t be able to use them. (Hell, yes.) The other awful aspect of Moses’ public career, the fact that he was able to amass power on a vast scale without being elected or even being able to be dismissed from his multiple offices, and did so with the connivance of most of the power bases in the city and state, doesn’t seem to have spawned this sort of debate, I suppose because it’s too complicated, and is not just about Moses but also the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Wall Street, the unions, every level of government in the United States, the petrochemical and automotive industries and the Archdiocese of New York.

The book’s blurbs and much of what I’d read about it play up its character as a classical tragedy, the story of a gifted idealist whose sheer success at building both roads and bridges, and the political power base behind them, was his fatal flaw. And it works on this level (I cried at the end) but is also worth reading just as a history of the city and state. Moses’ early power base was built under the Tammany governor Alfred E Smith, who’s a fascinating figure in his own right, and much of the first half of the book can be read as a history of how the machine gradually, with much back-and-forth, lost its grip on the city.

The book is also incredible at evoking the work of coordinating projects: the strategising and marshalling and finagling which was, I think, where Moses’ true genius lay. Caro’s description of the financing of the West Side Improvement project which resulted in the Henry Hudson Parkway running more than half the length of Manhattan is a miracle of bravura writing, counting down the remaining miles and millions of dollars as the road slowly makes its way north. For all of Moses’ faults, I doubt that anyone who’s been involved in any kind of budget or review process for a project of any size in a bureaucratic organisation could read this without a few gasps of admiration for the sheer nerve of the man.

A photo of a toasted reuben with a stone wall, the Hudson River and the Palisades in the distance
I’ve already blogged this sandwich once. It was a very good sandwich.

The same project is why the walk up to the Cloisters is slightly marred by the roar of traffic from the freeway which Moses tore through some of the last forests on Manhattan between the river and the hill. But, if the road had taken the alternate and in some ways more sensible route, on the east side of the hill, along Broadway, the bodega at which we bought the sandwiches we ate halfway up the hill wouldn’t have been there. It’s a very good book to read after a visit to the city. And it will also give you someone to blame if you’re annoyed at what a pain it is to get from JFK airport to Manhattan (guess who wouldn’t allow mass transit lane corridors on any of his expressways!)

If you want a taste of the book without having to lug it around, Episode 6 of Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film is worth a watch (the whole series is really good) as it includes interviews with Caro and a fair bit of detail about the highway program. Moses shows up around the 45m mark and when we were watching this I joked that it was like Darth Vader walking onto the bridge. The book has a lot less than I expected about Jane Jacobs, who’s usually cast as the Luke in the urbanist pop-fantasy version of Moses’ fall from grace: apparently, one of the chapters Caro was forced to cut was about the battle to save Greenwich Village.

New York City

One of the first places we visited in New York was the Bethesda fountain in Central Park.

Bethesda Fountain

I started having dreams about the city again last night, after rewatching the first episode of the Netflix documentary Hip Hop Evolution. It’s strange how actually having walked around a city changes the way you see it on screen, even things which you’ve seen before, and even parts of it which you only visited briefly, like the Bronx. More about that below.

For about three weeks after we got back, I dreamed about New York almost every night. Sometimes they were travel-anxiety dreams about the subway or getting to airports but mostly they were just about the buildings and people and the energy, which I still miss. I’ve been putting off blogging about the trip because I still feel quite overwhelmed by the experience of America and don’t feel like I’ve digested it enough to put a lot of words around it, so this post is mostly photos.

Toynbee Tile

I didn’t want to be a pain and go on some long quest to try and find a minor obsession like a Toynbee Tile, so it was great that I noticed this one on 43rd St when we were roaming around Midtown trying to buy SIMs.

Bar 65

We didn’t go up One World Trade or the Empire State: instead, we booked a table at Bar 65 in the Rockefeller Center, where you can get fancy cocktails as well as a view.

Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur at the Met, which has a weird Federation of Planets vibe, as if you’re on a starship which scooped up an ancient relic to save it. (It was going to be flooded when they built the Aswan Dam, so that’s kind of what happened.)

Sandwich by the Hudson

The best meal we had was lunch at Le Bernardin, which I didn’t take photos of, because that would have wrecked the experience. The second-best lunch was this bodega reuben, halfway up the path to the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Hush Hip-Hip Tour

I booked my spot on the Hush Birthplace of Hip Hop tour a couple of months before the trip, and it was brilliant. This is is where Kool Herc held what’s agreed to be the first hip hop party, in the Bronx in 1973.

Hush Hip-Hip Tour

I’d like to point out that I was oldest person on the tour – there was another white dude there who was celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and I’m not fifty until the end of this month – but I was also delighted that Grandmaster Caz kicked off the tour like this:

“Most days I’m the only one on this bus who can remember a time before hip hop existed. [points at me] NOT TODAY!”

Middagh St

W H Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles and Gypsy Rose Lee shared a house in Brooklyn Heights during WWII: I knew that the building had been demolished by Robert Moses, so I didn’t try to make a pilgrimage to it. But when we were walking up from DUMBO to the subway stop I thought Middagh St sounded familiar, and I was right: this is the part of the street which wasn’t cut in two by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Brooklyn Public Library

I didn’t know that these lines from one of my favourite Books tracks were taken from the facade of the Brooklyn Public Library, but it makes sense. It also made me a bit teary. The contrast between this building and the New more famous New York Public Library in Manhattan is interesting: one is modernist, austere, almost science-fictional, and the plaques on the inside are all about civic government: the other is ornate, beaux-arts and based on private philanthropy, with enormous lists of donors on the walls.

Sankofa Aban

For our second week we stayed at Sankofa Aban, a brownstone B&B in Bed-Stuy, which was a complete and refreshing change of pace from the hotel near Times Square we’d been staying at. (If there was one thing I’d do different about the trip, it would be staying at Times Square: I didn’t like it.)

23rd Regiment Armory

This is the 23rd Regiment Armory in Crown Heights, a spectacular and enormous structure – this is just the front third, it looks like George R R Martin’s personal zeppelin hangar – which now houses the worst homeless shelter in New York City.

Sean Price mural

Sean Price is my brother’s favourite MC, and the mural which appeared after his death in 2015 was twenty minutes’ walk from Sankofa, so we went there on our last full day in the city.

It was a big day: we then went to the Color Factory, walked the High Line, had lunch at Le Bernardin, went for another walk to Central Park, and then went to see the revival of Oklahoma! We had already seen a lot of theatre, especially once Christine worked out the best way to get cheap tickets, and I had to be talked into Oklahoma! because yes I know that it’s important in the history of musical theatre but it’s also the corniest show, there’s literally corn in the first verse of the first song, but two theatregoers had recommended it to us – New York audiences are very chatty – and I’m glad we went, because it was the most radical piece of theatre we saw, and capped off one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

Bought the t-shirt

It also had this great t-shirt.

There are a lot more photos on my Flickr, although in putting this together I’ve realised that I forgot to upload a bunch from the Color Factory and the High Line. New York, I miss you, see you again soon.

SoHo

The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War

Jaroslav Hašek

I bought a cheap second-hand copy of this a couple of years ago and only just got around to reading it, taking a break from obsessively reading books about American history and New York City in advance of our holiday, and it was a good move, because it’s one of the most entertaining novels I’ve ever read. Švejk became a byword for passive resistance and a kind of sly obstinacy in the face of militarism and bureaucracy but he’s also the patron saint of shitposters.

And then there’s this sublime moment when Hašek’s countryman, Karel Čapek, the founding father of European science fiction who coined the term robot, surfaces in one of Švejk’s limitless supply of anecdotes and gets dragged for being a big nerd:

Lieutenant Lukáš only waved his hand and said: ‘You’ve dropped so many pearls of wisdom, Švejk.’

‘Not every man can have wisdom, sir,’ said Švejk convincingly. ‘Stupid people have to exist too, because if everyone were wise then there would be so much good sense in the world that every other person would be driven crazy by it. If, for instance, humbly report, sir, everyone knew the laws of nature and could calculate the distance of the heavenly bodies, then he would only be a trouble to those around him like a man called Mr Čapek who used to come to The Chalice, and whenever he went out of the pub on to the street at night he looked at the stars in the sky and when he came back went up to everyone and said to each of them, “Today Jupiter is shining beautifully. You’ve got no idea, you bastard, of what you’ve got over your head. Talk about distances! If they were to shoot you out of a gun with the speed of a shell, you lousy brute, you’d still have to fly for millions and millions of years to get there.” When he said this he was so coarse and rude that afterwards he himself usually flew out of the pub with the usual speed of a tram, sir, at about ten kilometres an hour. Or take, for instance, sir, the ants…’

This was me at every party I attended when I was an undergraduate and it’s still a mood I’m never far away from. I haven’t felt quite as personally called out by a work of world literature since I read a passage in one of Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories where an old rabbi says to the narrator, ‘Forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart.’

How to pour piss from a boot: a Vox explainer

A reaction I’ve been having a lot to media reports lately is that they seem to be explaining psychological or emotional phenomena using elementary concepts, as if the journalists and their intended audience lacked some basic insights into how people relate to one another and were building it up with a sort of jargon which I find strangely dehumanising. The latest example was an interview on Radio National with a marketing psychologist about people boycotting George Calombaris’ restaurants, in which she very carefully broke down the process of people becoming angry at his wage theft and deciding to take their business elsewhere, as if explaining to someone to whom this was an entirely novel concept. Not wage-theft, but the idea that “moral shock” (this is the jargon the psychologist used) could influence people’s purchasing decisions at all. The presenter responded in a similar manner, bringing up the Coopers’ boycott over its involvement in an anti-marriage-equality video and asking, “do these sorts of boycotts work?” As if every question has to be reduced to its most elemental components and then slotted in to an overarching principle, which is then interrogated on a level which is so general as to be useless. Obviously, some boycotts work, and some don’t, and the question of whether a particular one will or not is not going to be answered by this sort of thing.

A lot of this is the bones of journalistic structure showing through the skin. As in the formula for academic debate which Levi-Strauss made fun of, all professions have their labour-saving devices — a “cliché” was originally a literal chunk of print, a ready-made phrase which typesetters could click into the press to save the time required to set it letter by letter. The irony here is when the stock formula is the very act of spelling things out, or taking things back to first principles, which in many fields right now seems like a waste of everyone’s time — do we really need more explainers about the far right or climate change? — and is also deathly dull.

There’s an echo here of the processes of modern corporate IT: a business analyst’s job is to break down processes and entities in which they have no particular expertise, and then build models which can be passed on to technical staff who, by temperament and training, are a body of professionals who both need things put into the most basic terms, and also already think that they know everything about everything. It’s justified, but even in the kindest light, it’s like orchestra rehearsals. Necessary if everyone’s going to work together, possibly interesting if you’re a specialist, but also mind-numbing.

But IT, by its nature, is a bit dry and disembodied. In journalism, this cultural movement has lead to a sort of soothing but frozen void, emptied of all possible forms of knowledge and expertise: the writer as a person without qualities, not just a generalist but a sort of middle-brow vacuum.

It’s the opposite of shitposting, which, like all forms of irony, depends on an unspoken awareness shared between poster and audience.

It might also be a kind of panic response. We’re going on a trip to the USA in a month and I’ve been dealing with my own anxiety by swotting up, reading as many books and websites about the US and its history that I can lay my hands on, to stop myself freaking out, so I can hardly criticise the impulse to deal with the present moment in history in the same way.