shirley yin

Notes No. 1

August 4, 2019

A casual post rounding up interesting or impactful things I’ve read lately, presented mostly without context or commentary.



If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Thanks to expanding global inequality, we’re constantly seeing new bifurcations in the experience of rich people and ordinary people. At amusement parks, the rich can pay to go on rides sooner. They can hire people to stand in line for them. Their communities are gated, their schools are private, their airport lounges are roped off. All of this is going to continue to get worse: the number of everyday situations in which “we’re all in this together” will disappear. They will drive on traffic-free private toll roads and use members-only “public” parks. The things we hold in common will deteriorate, because they are no longer subsidized by the wealthy. Public schools are the most obvious example—instead of giving money that will be used to educate poor children, the rich simply retreat to their own segregated communities where the schools are magnificent.

Luxury can feel strangely austere, as when rich people remodel old Victorian houses to prune all of their funky bits and human touches and turn them sleek and minimalistic. Look at Hudson Yards, the new “billionaires’ playground” in New York City. What strikes me about it is that it’s so empty. You’d think that if you had so much money to spend, you’d build a place overflowing with life, with colorful birds everywhere and gardens with hedge mazes. Instead, they build these dead places where you can do little but buy watches and handbags.

These seem like “win-win” transactions: a small lefty magazine needs money, which it can use to pay for reporting and editing. A company offers to sponsor a feature, and allows the magazine to have approval over the content, and doesn’t say anything obviously controversial. The magazine’s editors tell themselves that as long as they don’t agree to print anything they wouldn’t have wanted to print in the absence of the money, they’re ethically in the clear. They look at the copy the company sends over, it looks fairly neutral and unobjectionable, and into the publication it goes.

Except: the magazine’s editors are delusional, because they don’t understand how thought control works in a democratic society. What is not talked about is just as important as what is, and what companies are buying is the avoidance of uncomfortable questions. Shell’s article is about all the things the company is trying to do to improve emissions-reduction technology and create a greener economy. Does it mention that they are the ones responsible for the existence of the problem in the first place? Does it mention that climate change is rightly understood as a colossal act of theft for which many of their executives should be criminally charged? It does not. Shell’s advertorial is meant to convince the public that it is just as surprised about climate change as you, and that as soon as it found out about the problem it immediately began working on solutions, because Shell cares. The New York Times is giving space for a company to tell an ass-covering lie about itself.

That is the idea that there exists a sphere of life that should remain outside public scrutiny, in which we can be sure that our words, actions, thoughts and feelings are not being indelibly recorded. This includes not only intimate spaces like the home, but also the many semi-private places where people gather and engage with one another in the common activities of daily life—the workplace, church, club or union hall. As these interactions move online, our privacy in this deeper sense withers away.


A characteristic of this new world of ambient surveillance is that we cannot opt out of it, any more than we might opt out of automobile culture by refusing to drive. However sincere our commitment to walking, the world around us would still be a world built for cars. We would still have to contend with roads, traffic jams, air pollution, and run the risk of being hit by a bus.

Similarly, while it is possible in principle to throw one’s laptop into the sea and renounce all technology, it is no longer be possible to opt out of a surveillance society.


A truly sophisticated system of social control, of the kind being pioneered in China, will not compel obedience, but nudge people towards it. Rather than censoring or punishing those who dissent, it will simply make sure their voices are not heard. It will reward complacent behavior, and sideline troublemakers.

Several pieces from his years as an organ virtuoso practice a kind of sonic terrorism. The Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor feasts on dissonance with almost diabolical glee, perpetrating one of the most violent harmonies of the pre-Wagnerian era: a chord in which a D clashes with both a C-sharp and an E-flat, resulting in a full-throated acoustical scream.