Nota bene: Mass shootings

My friend Manu Saadia has a thing where he starts a bunch of his tweets with the phrase “I am going to say something very controversial but”. Once you get the joke it’s very funny; before you get the joke it can be a bit befuddling.

Recently, the American press seems, in unison, to have taken a leaf out of Manu’s book. You can’t swing a cat on #MediaTwitter without seeing a cover or a column which dares to declare: “I am going to say something very controversial but terrorism is bad.” Even the Trumpist New York Post has got in on the act!

This ubiquity of mass-shooting coverage is not entirely harmless. The phenomenon is a form of terrorism, after all, and it is increasingly effective at making Americans feel unsafe in public places. The vector for that terror — the mechanism by which Americans get scared — is the media. The more coverage that mass shootings receive, the more scared the country becomes.

While the media is doing a slightly better job at not turning the shooters themselves into antiheroes, it’s still flooding the zone every time one of these events happens. Mass shootings have become, in the public mind, the most salient way that Americans get killed. That’s on the media.

A typical column from the latest tranche of coverage comes from WSJ sports columnist Jason Gay. His headline is “Sticking to Sports vs. Being a Person in the World”; underneath that is the sub-hed “Thoughts after a harrowing weekend in America”.

Gay’s theme is simple. Normally, he writes about sports. He would love nothing more than to write about sports. But “it’s hard to avoid what’s happening in America right now. It’s difficult to gloss over a story like this, this kind of pain.” And so he writes about American’s pain, and its “vacuum of leadership,” and explains why he can’t ignore the pain to write about sports:

I don’t think we have the luxury of such detachment today. Not when extreme gun violence feels commonplace.

The curious thing is that of all the major issues facing America and the planet, this one — extreme gun violence — is the only one that could realistically find its way into that sentence.

That’s not because mass shootings are high up on the list of avoidable deaths. The fruit is hanging much lower, if you want to save lives, in areas like road safety, alcohol and tobacco use, prescription drug protocols, broadly accessible mental health services, improved maternal care, and much, much more.

Neither is addressing mass violence unique in its urgency and necessity. Race relations are hitting new lows in America every day, a pointless war is devastating Yemen, the entire planet is warming at a catastrophic pace. All of them are drivers of gun deaths, and would present a compelling need for action even if they weren’t.

Mass shootings are a relatively small phenomenon even by the standard of American gun deaths. Gun suicides kill many more people than mass killings, mostly with handguns, but you don’t see the editor of Time devoting multiple covers to the crisis of suicide, counting up how many lives banning handguns would save.

So, what is it about mass gun violence that uniquely sends journalists rushing for the moral high ground? Why is it this issue that causes Time editor Edward Felsenthal to admonish “leaders with the power to effect change”? Is there something specific to assault weaponry that induces NYT columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin to diagnose “an epidemic that law enforcement and politicians are unable or unwilling to manage,” and demand that the CEO of Walmart use his corporate power to “solve” the mass-shooting crisis?

One possible answer — considered and rejected — is that mass gun violence is particularly easy to prevent. Just ban assault weapons, and mass shootings will be reduced dramatically if not eliminated entirely. If you believe this, I’m not going to try to change your mind. But even if it’s true, it doesn’t really explain the media phenomenon. Normally, the US press is perfectly happy to simply report on possible solutions, without crossing the line into outright advocacy.

A second theory is that what we’re seeing is best understood as a reaction to a sustained terrorist campaign. After all, the one thing that terrorism is very good at, wherever it appears, is uniting people against it. America is a deeply divided nation, and is only going to become more so as the 2020 election approaches. Set against such a fractious and febrile backdrop, terrorism does exactly what it says on the tin — it creates the feeling that no one is safe. In doing so, it acts as a rare unifying force.

I’m going to reject this theory too. For every voice calling out white-suprematist terrorism, there’s another voice shouting about gun rights, or claiming that racism really isn’t a problem in America, or saying that it’s the anti-racists who are the real racists, or something like that. In order for terrorism to be a unifying force in America, there first needs to be a broad consensus that America is under terrorist attack. So far, that consensus has yet to form.

Which brings me to my third theory, which is that the media reaction to mass violence is in reality a sublimated and socially acceptable reaction to Trump.

Back in 2004, Daniel Okrent, then the public editor of the NYT, wrote a column under the headline “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” — and famously answered the question, in his opening line, by saying “of course it is”. Today, he might say the same thing about Time, or the Washington Post, or even the news operation of the WSJ.

To be a journalist — to speak truth to power, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — is at heart a liberal vocation, and there’s always something a bit unconvincing when editors in chief swear that their publications have no ideological ax to grind. Sure, they might not have an institutional position on, say, optimal trade policy, or whether or not the latest nuclear submarine should be funded. But it’s fair to say that, broadly, they’re anti-hate. That alone, in the era of Trump, is enough to give them a partisan bias.

There’s a very common form of marital argument which starts with one partner saying something ostensibly innocuous, and then the other partner getting very cross, and then the first partner putting on their best innocent face and saying that they didn’t say anything objectionable. Which might narrowly be true, even when both of them know what the fight is really about.

The media coverage of mass shootings feels similar, to me. It’s extremely good at pressing conservative buttons, because conservatives look at it and see an anti-Trump agenda. Then the liberal media can claim that they’re not targeting Trump at all, they’re just writing about domestic terrorism. Which, of course, only serves to annoy conservatives even further.

At the bottom of this email I’ve posted a striking page from Sunday’s WaPo, listing 1,196 victims of mass shootings since 1966. It’s worth noting that if the paper had decided to print instead the names of all the homicide victims in its home town of Washington DC just since 2010, the list would have been longer. I am going to say something very controversial, but there’s a reason why the paper chose to print this list rather than that one. And he’s currently the president of the United States.

To put it another way: Journalists have to maintain the appearance of objectivity. They can’t campaign directly against Trump or his policies. When they campaign instead against mass shootings, they get to vent their anger and frustration, while retaining a level of plausible deniability with respect to their own partisanship. The problem is that in doing so, they also play into the hands of the terrorists they’re campaigning against.

Nota bene: The Axios era begins!

Hi friends! I ended up taking a break from this newsletter for the summer, at the end of which I got a job as the chief financial correspondent for Axios. I’ll be writing a weekly newsletter, coming out on Sundays, please sign up for it here. The first one is coming out this Sunday, which happens to be the tenth anniversary of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

(A quick warning: If you don’t sign up now, you’ll get another request to subscribe from the Axios folks tomorrow. But then I won’t pester you any more.)

I’m still doing the Slate Money podcast, and I’m not giving up Nota bene either. Axios will be home to my newsy writing, but other stuff will live here. I already have a couple of future newsletters up my sleeve.

Finally, one request: I plan to end every Axios newsletter with a great piece of architecture. If you have any requests, especially if you have great photographs I can use or there are great photographs which I can get permission to use, please let me know!

-Felix

Nota bene: Nota bene

I don’t love talking about myself, or what I’m up to. (That’s why I created @felixbot, separate from my main @felixsalmon feed, just to tweet myself: if you just follow me, and not my bot, you’ll get relatively little self-promotion.)

But after a fair few of these Nota bene emails, and a few incoming queries, I guess I should try to explain what I’m up to. Even though I’m not 100% sure of that myself.

I started this iteration of my email newsletter back in February, sending it out to the former recipients of my old Counterparties newsletter, plus a few randomly-picked others. If you haven’t unsubscribed, and you’re still opening these emails, thank you!

Part of the reason for setting up the newsletter was to see what my natural writing cadence was, after four years hidden away doing mostly post-text stuff at Fusion. Another part was an experiment: If I started a newsletter, would people subscribe?

I think I’ve managed to answer both of those questions, at least tentatively. I’m writing pretty much daily, which is roughly what I thought I’d do when I started doing this in February. That writing appears in a bunch of different places. Most of it is at Slate, some is at Wired, and some of it is at other places like Artnet or Vinepair. And, yes, some of it is right here on my Substack newsletter.

As for the subscriber base, that’s been mostly steady, but basically trending downwards. (No hard feelings!) There are a lot of email newsletters out there, and while there are certainly people out there who are interested in what I have to say, it takes more than that to want to fill up your inbox with yet another newsletter. If I was interested in building a successful email product, I would have to have a much more focused subject matter, just for starters.

Perhaps it’s the software I’m using. This latest iteration of this newsletter is on the wonderful Substack platform, which is incredibly user-friendly, I’d recommend it to anybody. That said, Substack is focused mainly on generating paying subscribers, rather than just subscribers, and so it can be hard for people to realize that it’s entirely possible (and welcome!) to sign up for free.

I’ve never asked anybody to pay to subscribe to these newsletters, although I’m deeply thankful to everybody who’s done so. If you want to convert to a paid subscription, that would be amazing. For the time being, however, my income from newsletter subscriptions is tiny — my paying subscriber base is in the low double digits.

That’s why I haven’t written anything yet for subscribers only. So long as almost no one pays for this newsletter, it feels silly for me to send out an email for just, um, 18 people. Those 18 people are supporting me (thanks, again!), rather than paying for exclusive content (which, there isn’t any). But if there’s been any confusion on that front — if you handed over a credit card because you thought you were going to get exclusive newsletters, and now regret that purchase — then please just say the word and I’ll personally pay you back everything you can’t get refunded from Substack.

I like the idea of writing something of value, which people pay for insofar as they value it, rather than because of some paywall. Maybe that’s naive. Maybe I’ll start actually asking people to subscribe. And maybe, if that’s successful, I might start writing some things just for subscribers. Everything’s still pretty fluid right now, I’m still trying to work a lot of different things out.

All of which is to say: Thanks for bearing with me. And, as ever, all feedback and suggestions and requests are welcome. You can reach me on this email, or directly at felix@felixsalmon.com.

Nota bene: Tabular figures

Numbers appear on top of each other in all manner of contexts, from sports scores to menus to those incomprehensibly dry data tables at the back of academic papers which you always wish would be graphs instead. But it doesn’t matter: no matter the context, you always need to use tabular figures.

Tabular figures are a bit like riding a bike. Once you know about them, you’ll never forget, and you’ll harbor a desire to use them at every opportunity. But in reality you’ll do so much less frequently than you’d like.

For a fantastic introduction to tabular figures, go here, for Jonathan Hoefler’s crystal-clear explanation of how important they are and also how type designers have really thought of everything. But the short version is, simply: Tabular figures are numbers (1, 2, 3…) which all take up the exact same amount of horizontal space, even if they’re in bold or italics or both. Pretty much any time you’re using numbers outside a regular sentence, you should be using tabular figures. And, chances are, you’re not.

Hoefler has tried to rectify this a little bit with his set of office fonts, where all figures are tabular by default, but, well, you’re not using one of those fonts. And whatever font you are using, it probably has tabular figures if you look hard enough, but you don’t know how to look, and in any case they’re probably only part of a “pro” version of the font which you don’t have access to.

Some of the blame here lies with the low-level innumeracy of most graphic designers, although I should note that the latest versions of Microsoft Word have been pretty good about defaulting to tabular figures. Still, because you guys are special and numerate, you’ll understand my favorite reason why tabular figures are so important. Which is Benford’s Law.

Basically, in most fonts, most numerals are pretty much the same width, and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between tabular and normal figures — if it wasn’t for the pesky number 1, which is typically significantly narrower than all the others. And, wouldn’t you know it: The number 1 is the most significant digit about 30% of the time. The most significant digit is, naturally, the one that people pay the most attention to, so it feels off when it’s not properly aligned with the numbers below it.

So, next time you’re putting a table on the internet, remember the magic words. I’ll leave them here, so you don’t forget:

font-feature-settings: 'tnum';

Nota bene: Habitat 67

I had two indelibly memorable experiences the last time I traveled to Montreal, just over a year ago. One was a truly spectacular meal at Joe Beef; the other was a pilgrimage to Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s brutalist residential masterpiece.

I’ve written a bit about my own love of brutalism, but I’ve never attempted a piece on a single building. The fact is that smart and interesting journalism on the subject of individual buildings is very rare, and trying to find good writing on non-new buildings is, well, good luck with that.

Do, then, please tell me about any such writing you know and love. It’s a genre I’m a complete sucker for, alongside any and all book reviews of translations of much-translated works. I can certainly recommend Christopher Hawthorne’s amazing evaluation of Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, and now I can also, happily, point you to an insightful essay from Tim Abrahams on Habitat 67.

Abrahams doesn’t really nail the feeling of walking and living in Habitat 67; for that you really need to just go there yourself. But he does give some hugely valuable context, including the fact (which I never really appreciated) that the complex looks completely different when viewed from the east, looking towards the city. This is the honest view of Habitat 67, the one which, in good brutalist style, truly reveals how the madcap jumble of prefabricated concrete boxes has been assembled.

Abrahams also locates Habitat 67 in its proper suburban context. It’s a long way from Montreal proper, as I can attest after having made the desolate walk there from the city; we ended up taking an Uber back, and even that took a long while to arrive. According to Abrahams, Canada is 67% suburban, and most of those suburbs are significantly denser than Habitat 67’s own neighborhood. A higgledy-piggledy apartment building doesn’t create density on its own, and Habitat 67 remains, half a century after its construction, bereft of the kind of schools and shops and other facilities that would help to kickstart a genuinely livable suburb.

That said, as Abrahams notes,

What Habitat 67 does most successfully is resist the lazy distinction of high-rise inner city and low-rise suburbia. The drift of history may have been against it in terms of city-centre dwelling, but it still acted as an exemplar of how apartment buildings might operate in a suburban setting… Habitat 67 shows what a suburban core might look like. 

In other words, this is what Silicon Valley is lacking. Abrahams notes that Habitat 67 falls short of its utopian egalitarian ideals when you start looking at its residents, who are largely drawn from Montreal’s creative elite. But for suburbs rich and poor which are struggling with both an undersupply of housing and a feeling that there’s no visual center to their town, Safdie has provided a largely ignored architectural blueprint for the future.

Abrahams also notes that Safdie has solved the “backyard problem,” whereby upper-middle-class families don’t want to buy into apartment complexes because they want to own their own backyard. One solution to the problem, it turns out, is to create a “market where the use of gardens has become performative and spectacular, rather than personalised and discrete”. The individual mini-gardens at Habitat 67 aren’t big, but they’re just as much status symbols as any half-neglected backyard.

It’s also incredibly heartening to see that Habitat 67 is in fine structural shape, the brutal Montreal winters notwithstanding. Brutalist buildings often age badly; Habitat 67 is proof that they don’t need to, not even when they’re built in a rush out of pre-fabricated units.

All that said, Abrahams does over-egg his pudding a little bit. For instance:

One should remember that the model for incorporating industrialisation into buildings was Corbusian Modernism which found its apogee in the USA in the Miesian tower. In the Americas, no other building confounded that model more than the Habitat and, after it, extruding the plan was no longer the default architectural means of capitalising on Fordian economies of repetition.

What he’s noting here is that if you want to build residential housing on an industrial scale, the default thing to do is to come up with a floor plan, and then just repeat it, floor after floor, vertically, over and over and over again. Think Hong Kong, or, for that matter, just about any modern Chinese city.

According to Abrahams, that model is “no longer the default,” thanks to Habitat 67. I wish he were right, but the fact is the repeat-the-floor-plan model is very much the default, still. Even when big-name architects are deliberately trying to follow the Habitat 67 model.

I’m thinking here of 56 Leonard Street, the Herzog & DeMeuron “Jenga tower” which was meant to be an updated luxury urban version of Habitat 67. In the end, the top few stories retained their asymmetrical vivacity, but the rest of the building got value-engineered into something boring and repetitive.

Which is really why the Habitat 67 model never took off. It’s a much-loved building, but it’s simply too difficult, practically, to try to construct apartments like that on a budget and at scale. Which is why Habitat 67 remains a unique masterpiece. Go to Montreal, and check it out. It’s well worth the trip, even if you don’t eat at Joe Beef.

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