One of the most mind-bending articles I read this week was Ethan Wattersâs piece âWe Arenât the World  ,â from the Pacific Standard. Watters writes about a team of researchers whose work indicates that cultural difference is not just a matter of varied manifestations of universal human qualitiesâ"it actually influences basic decision making and cognitive patterns. Their studies have found that subjects from different cultures react in widely differing ways to simple tests, like games based on the prisonerâs dilemma. The real catch of this research is that Westerners, and particularly Americans (who are the subjects of the vast majority of studies in the psychological literature), turn out to be outliers by almost any measure the team examined. This means that most of what we think we know about how humans think might apply only a small minority of people. Watters is concise and engaging in his description of Henrichâs research and its ramifications. By the end of the piece, you have the shaky feeling that you live in a world full of what Donald Rumsfeld would call unknown unknowns.
Hereâs something else that I didnât know that I didnât know: Auto-tune, the pitch correcting software that many music purists consider a major culprit in the ruin of modern pop, was invented by a classical flautist and geophysicist who developed it from technology that is used to find oil reserves. In The Verge, Lessley Anderson writes a comprehensive history of Auto-tune  , from its oil-field days, to that Cher song, to the artists who use it without sounding like T-Pain. Conventional opinion, Ã la Jay-Z  , holds that Auto-tune is an affront to musical authenticity, but Anderson explores the question of whether Auto-tuned vocals are all that different from any other manipulation in music production, and whether musical authenticity is even a meaningful value in an age when we walk around with thousands of bands and performances in digital form in our pockets.
In Fortune, Matthew Shaer tells the story of Ilya Zhitomirskiy  , who killed himself in 2011 after struggling to get his open-source social-networking site, Diaspora, off the ground. Zhitomirskiy was a free-culture idealist who aimed to liberate information from monetized structures. Diaspora, which set crowd-funding records in 2010, was lauded as the anti-Facebook and Zhitomirskiy as the peopleâs Zuckerberg. Shaerâs piece looks at the last year and half of Zhitomirskiyâs life, and how his idealistic aspirations went hand-in-hand with fragility and self-doubt. The story invites comparisons to the life and death of Aaron Swartz (Larissa MacFarquhar wrote about him for this magazine). Are thwarted information sharers the emblematic tragic figures of our time? The romantic poets had Thomas Chatterton  , who died for his artâ"or maybe from syphilis, which was the less-romantic plague of his moment. We have Swartz and Zhitomirskiy, who died for free-informationâ"or maybe from depression, too-high expectations, and neglected mental illness, which are often-ignored plagues of our own era.
For a story that sometimes feels like it could have happened last week, although it actually took place a hundred years ago, read Bill Donahueâs account of the early-twentieth-century celebrity, Naked Joe Knowles  in Boston Magazine. In 1913, Knowles decided he would test the ability of man to survive in nature, so he went into the Maine woods, taking nothing with him, to survive there by his wits. Thereâs a wonderful image of him walking into the forest, to the wonder of an admiring crowd, and then throwing his one piece of clothing, a cotton jockstrap, over his shoulder in a gesture of absolute primitivism. He wrote dispatches to a Boston newspaper on birch bark for the next two months, then emerged from the woods, draped in the skin of a bear he claimed to have killed with a club. Donahue calls Knowles the âreality star of his day.â And all the elements are there: the visually arresting stunt, the gimmick press releases, the large but less-than-heroic personality, and, finally, the revelation that the whole thing might have been faked.
And finally, in another story of a man living out-of-time, Ariel Sabar writes in the Washingtonian about Kigeli V. Ndahindurwa, the former king of Rwanda  who had to flee his country and now lives on public assistance in Virginia. At seven-foot-two, the king has an outsized presence that fits his larger-than-life story. His long limbs and his regal habits are both cramped by his present life, which is, in many ways, the life of much of the colonialized world, writ small. But one of the most surprising things in this extraordinary story might have been the mention of the Monarchist League, âa 70-year-old British group that campaigns for the preservation and restoration of kingdoms the world over, largely through receptions and newsletters.â Thereâs another great magazine piece in the making.
- ^ We Arenât the World (www.psmag.com)
- ^ a comprehensive history of Auto-tune (www.theverge.com)
- ^ Ã la Jay-Z (www.youtube.com)
- ^ the story of Ilya Zhitomirskiy (tech.fortune.cnn.com)
- ^ Thomas Chatterton (en.wikipedia.org)
- ^ account of the early-twentieth-century celebrity, Naked Joe Knowles (www.bostonmagazine.com)
- ^ Kigeli V. Ndahindurwa, the former king of Rwanda (www.washingtonian.com)