The politics of fonts, shifting baseline syndrome, #NoDAPL

A Letter

Last week, Breitbart covered Trump’s visit to Mexico with an unfortunate headline—the “ñ” in Peña Nieto’s name displayed in a small, alternate font, making it look extremely odd. For the uninitiated, this is a common problem with font usage on the web, but it is also easily avoidable. Most well-designed fonts come with extensive language support, and even poorer quality ones generally support the entire Latin character set, which includes the “ñ.” But it’s common practice to not load unnecessary character sets in order to speed up page performance. So someone, or maybe several someones, elected to load a minimal character set that excluded the “ñ,” either out of ignorance or a belief that Spanish language characters wouldn’t be necessary. That decision may have been made entirely with web performance in mind, but it belies a set of assumptions about Breitbart’s audience and coverage that says a lot more. If it wasn’t already clear, it should be now: fonts are never not political.

Lena Groeger overviews the many ways that design creates or perpetuates discrimination, from racist Snapchat filters to Robert Moses’ infamous overpass designs. (The overpasses were too low to permit city buses to pass under them, preventing people of color from using public transportation to go to the beach.) Other common examples: “hostile architecture” such as arm rests that prevent people from sleeping on benches, and spikes that make sitting on a curb impossible. And of course, there are many examples of web sites or applications that fail basic accessibility standards. If you are a designer and think your work is free from politics or activism, you are mistaken.

At Olin College, Sara Hendren and Deb Chachra are teaching what looks to be a spectacular class on engineering, design, and activism: “What happens when design and engineering research results in activism, human rights work, politics, or matters of equity and justice? Engineers and designers are often thought of as ‘problem-solvers’ in mostly technical, practical, and formal senses. But this class explores the equally compelling history of engineering and design projects that raise difficult questions, aid marginalized communities, address urgent social issues, or create new conditions.” I don’t often pine to go back to school, but this class is making me jealous. I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

With cases of Zika rising, and in parts of the world where reproductive rights are significantly curtailed, David Perry and Elizabeth Picciutto write about the complex intersections between abortion and disability rights. “Rather than limit women’s rights, we believe we must build a more understanding, accessible society that supports people with disabilities and provides services to parents. That’s how we can safeguard access to abortion while ensuring that it isn’t the only feasible option following a prenatal diagnosis.”

I will never be possessed to watch a Werner Herzog film all the way through, but I loved reading Ingrid Burrington’s review of his most recent film, Lo and Behold. “Herzog makes films about humans trying to actualize dreams—about people in pursuit of something far greater than themselves, and the contradictions and calamities endured in that pursuit.” What’s the German word for finding the criticism of an artist more compelling than the artist’s work?

Archaeologists employ a new technique and discover dozens of elaborate tattoos on a 3,300 year old mummy. Unlike other fossilized tattoos, which often represent simple shapes and lines, these tattoos depict plants and animals: a lotus flower, a cow, and a snake among them. I’m simultaneously fascinated by what these tattoos could mean and also certain we will never really know.

An 88-year old judge offers to trade places with a refugee on Manus or Nauru, the infamous detention camps maintained by the Australian government. “I understand this is an unusual request but I offer it in complete sincerity. My reason for making this proposal is simple. I can no longer remain silent as innocent men, women, and children are being held in appalling circumstances.” Sandra Zhao writes from a refugee camp in South Sudan, where women-run restaurants serve businessmen who travel through the camps. “A restaurant like Rosa’s relies on those outside business owners to bring literal currency into the economy. Cash is scarce in Yida, and most of the settlement’s residents are largely self-sufficient. Beyond the outsider entrepreneurs, only those who work in cash businesses as traders or vendors—or those who happen to luck into an NGO position and earn a stipend—have money, and can shop or dine in the market. When I visited, all the money Rosa earned went directly back into supplies and ingredients for her fledgling operation, but she hoped to eventually earn enough to improve her family’s quality of life.”

Georgetown University makes the unusual decision to admit its history of slavery and to create opportunities for the descendants of those slaves. Tressie McMillan Cottom notes that, while laudable, Georgetown’s actions are not reparations: “But if reparations were merely acknowledging harm, the word would be redundant. What does reparations mean if it means something that includes acknowledgement but is also something more than acknowledgement?” Here as in many other situations, what we call a thing matters.

By now, everyone knows of Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem, a seemingly small protest that shows no signs of slowing down. Megan Rapinoe joined Kaepernick, saying, “It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.” Among the many great things I read on this: Jon Schwarz explains how the national anthem celebrates victory over the slaves who fought for the British: “The reality is that there were human beings fighting for freedom with incredible bravery during the War of 1812. However, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ glorifies America’s ‘triumph’ over them—and then turns that reality completely upside down, transforming their killers into the courageous freedom fighters.” Adam Serwer deconstructs the idiotic stance that Kaepernick has no right to protest given his adoption by a wealthy, white family: “The notion that Kaepernick’s proximity to whiteness renders him less ‘oppressed’ is less a rebuttal of Kaepernick’s point than an unequivocal affirmation.” Lonnae O’Neal notes that the story of Kaepernick’s protest was broken by a black reporter and raises perennial questions about newsroom diversity: “They’re questions about why the country is more brown than ever but mainstream journalism is so white, and all the stories we might be missing because of it.” And finally, Bomani Jones locates Kaepernick’s protest among those of many other black sports players: “And if someone struggles to see the merit in standing for the black and brown people who have been continually mistreated in this country, perhaps it is that person’s patriotism that should be questioned, not the man willing to stand before his country and take whatever comes next.”

This extensive analysis of a recent study on renewable energy sources is very optimistic about how far renewables can go. Of note is that the size of the grid matters: smaller, state-sized grids suffer from seasonal or weather variations that make relying on renewable energy challenging. But a continent-sized grid can get around those problems: “The wider the area that solar and wind are integrated over, the more reliable they become. Going from a grid the size of Texas or Germany (the models used in many studies) to a grid the size of the continental US or EU changes the game.”

Another study takes a nuanced look at the yields of organic versus conventional agriculture, also considering whether or not higher yields prevent habitats from being converted into cropland. “In the end, as Kniss and others conclude, the most environmentally and socially beneficial farming of the future—in terms of yields, pollution, and many other factors—will mix practices from both [organic and conventional farming]. And that’s where we find my biggest reservation against organic farming: its current restrictions—as defined by USDA certification—forecloses some of the ways by which farming could evolve to not only raise yields but also achieve other environmental and social goals.”

Justin Gillis writes about rising sea level—and the fact that it’s no longer a hypothetical concern for many. “Ultimately, we give up and we leave. That’s how the story ends.” Geoff Manaugh responds, noting that adapting to floods and other consequences of sea level rise will, soon enough, be ordinary. “In other words, the Anthropocene will look perfectly normal: people will simply vacuum-pump seawater out of their carports and garages, scrub encrusted salt from the walls of the homes, give each other waterproof boots for Christmas, and otherwise go on as if the world hasn’t changed.” The ordinariness of climate change brought to mind the concept of “shifting baseline syndrome”—the process by which each new generation adjusts to the new baseline, never quite understanding how much has changed. In The Once and Future World, J.B. MacKinnon writes, “Three biologists concluded...that biomass—the total weight of living things—off North America’s east coast may have declined by 97 percent since written records began. The failure of coastal residents and scientists to recognize such a shocking diminution seemed to Pauly explainable only by a long-term pattern of amnesia. Each generation of people saw the coast they grew up on as the normal state of nature and measured the declines of sea life against that baseline. With every new generation, the baseline shifted—‘a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance,’ Pauly said. We are forgetting what the world used to look like.”

In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has organized to prevent an oil pipeline from snaking through their lands, sprouting the hashtag #NoDAPL for No Dakota Access Pipeline. Over the weekend, the response took a grotesque turn, with dogs and pepper spray deployed against the peaceful protestors (many of whom are children). Phil McKenna reports that the Army Corps of Engineers approved the pipeline over objections from three separate federal agencies—the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Mark Sundeen makes even more clear how the location for DAPL was chosen: “In 2014, the proposed route of DAPL went through Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, with roughly 61,000 residents, 92 percent of them white. After the Corps determined that the pipeline could contaminate drinking water, it was rerouted to pass by Standing Rock. ‘That’s environmental racism,’ said Kandi Mossett.” Black Lives Matter issued a statement in solidarity with Standing Rock: “As there are many diverse manifestations of Blackness, and Black people are also displaced Indigenous peoples, we are clear that there is no Black liberation without Indigenous sovereignty. Environmental racism is not limited to pipelines on Indigenous land, because we know that the chemicals used for fracking and the materials used to build pipelines are also used in water containment and sanitation plants in Black communities like Flint, Michigan. The same companies that build pipelines are the same companies that build factories that emit carcinogenic chemicals into Black communities, leading to some of the highest rates of cancer, hysterectomies, miscarriages, and asthma in the country. Our liberation is only realized when all people are free, free to access clean water, free from institutional racism, free to live whole and healthy lives not subjected to state-sanctioned violence.”

“We say the Earth has a circular orbit around the sun, but of course it doesn’t. You never come back to the same place, you just come back to the same point on the spiral.”

Related books

The Once and Future World

J. B. MacKinnon

MacKinnon calls for a “rewilding,” bringing the wild back into our lives rather than carving out a separate place for it. A compelling and beautiful read.