Hmm Weekly for February 18, 2020

Now is the Tuesday of our discontent

Hmm Weekly for February 18, 2020

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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I’M CONCERNED ABOUT Pablo Escobar's hippos. The hippos surface into the news coverage now and then, an ever-renewable story about the strangeness of this world: how the drug lord put them in a pond in his homemade zoo and then, after his downfall, nobody wanted to deal with them, and they made a break for it and got loose into the waterways of Colombia and began to thrive. It's not hard to see the hippos as a jolly revisitation of the story of Escobar himself—something objectively violent and dangerous, treated (with various degrees of success) as folklore and folk property, with the contradictions between the factual and the mythic viewpoints probably most easily reconciled through the recognition that we live in a world that creates opportunities for bad things. Escobar blew up a whole plane full of people; hippopotamuses kill more humans each year than any other large land mammal does. Escobar's estate is a tourist attraction, and the public is roused to protest against efforts to cull the hippos.

The hippos are probably—but not certainly—bad for the environment in the near term. They tear things up and defecate everywhere, feeding algae blooms and most likely causing fish kills. I want to root for them anyway. I'm irresistibly attracted to the idea of rewilding our poor depleted planet, even if it's a foolish fantasy, even if the primeval landscape was long gone everywhere before anyone even thought about trying to reinvent it. Did you know that the soil in thousands of square miles of the Amazon rainforest is apparently technological, filled with charcoal and pottery fragments by agriculturalists? Had you considered the possibility that the sky-obliterating flocks of passenger pigeons and herds of bison stretching to the horizon, before they were slaughtered to extinction or the brink of it, may not have been the natural bounty of the North American continent but an accidental ecological eruption, filling the empty space left when millions of human beings were killed off all at once by imported disease? (I rely here on Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.)

Further back, still, there's the fact that something or someone did a number on the Western Hemisphere's entire selection of Late Pleistocene megafauna, taking out the mammoths and glyptodonts and ground sloths, leaving only the puny little moose and bison and grizzly bears—along with the avocado, waiting forlornly for something with a gullet big enough to swallow its pit. Why not back off a little and reboot the system? Let some elephants roam the southern Great Plains. It's getting warmer all the time, right? Give a few Siberian tigers a shot at the Rockies before Canada's feral hogs get settled in there.

From this point of view, the hippos should be a hopeful sign. They are flourishing and multiplying. Nobody's sure how many there are, but it's well into the dozens, and they're reportedly breeding faster than usual, possibly inspired by the lack of a dry season. What if the new version of the Americas has hippos in it? What if they unlock some potential that's been missing ever since the last big animals went away?

Long-term optimism about the hippos, however, runs into the unfortunate fact that Escobar had only four of them—three cows and a single bull. The waters in their new home may be abundant, but the gene pool is alarmingly shallow. If members of the first Colombian-born hippo generation wanted to mate with each other, they had to pair with half-siblings at best; there's only one Y chromosome to be found in the whole population.

All the breeding, then, is inbreeding. The Escobar hippos will live without competitors or predators, but they'll be steadily weakening from within. They'll end up with hips like German shepherds, or the world's largest Habsburg jaws. Giants will stride the riverbanks once more. But in the future we've created, they'll be sickly giants.


A visit to the Progressive Baltimore Boat Show

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VALENTINE’S DAY MORNING. Wind is blowing and ice is forming on the puddles. Two homeless men in heavy coats sit by a wall at the corner of 72nd Street and Amsterdam. At the stoplight is a glistening gray Ferrari, low and wasp-waisted, with yellow brake calipers. The light changes and the Ferrari pulls out with a lurch and a series of booming revving noises. One of the homeless men yells after it: "You gotta TURN OFF TRACTION CONTROL! IDIOT!!"


Spam Filter Letters to the Awl

WHILE WE MULL over what to serialize next, here's yet another installment of Spam Filter Letters to the Awl, from the 80,000-word collection of dummy-text cover letters I wrote to make sure that when I emailed that site a photograph of the sky, the filters would allow it to go through.

Subject: Where did the day go
To: Awl notes
The day, where has it gone? It was just here a minute ago, before it was time to enroll in the benefits, to re-enroll, correctively, after discovering that Chris Christie had effectively squeezed New Jersey benefits to such an extent that, in concert with Nick Denton's increasing generosity, trend lines that had seemed uncrossable had in fact crossed. It is now better to be a web logger than to be a state employee. America! We are doomed. Here is a photograph of the sky and the review is in the system.

Subject: covert ops Inbox
To: Awl notes
When did Secret Santa take over the world? Why is there now Secret Santa in preschool? Why do I have to go out this evening and buy a toy suitable for surprising some three-to-four-year-old I've never met? There is enough work already in celebrating Overt Christmas. This is infuriating nonsense.

Here is a photograph of the sky, and the review is in the system.

Subject: The season
To: Awl notes
There is always this terrible compression that happens, between when it's too early for any reasonable person to start getting ready for the holidays and when only an asshole would not be ready for the holidays. The window for doing it right is as brief as the daylight, and as easily lost. And then one realizes that one has chosen not to mail out cards this year, simply by virtue of not having thought of it in time.

Here is a photograph of the sky and a review is in the system.

Subject: holiday music
To: Awl notes
Huh it looks like the Holiday Choral Concert is tomorrow, not to be confused with the Second Grade Concert, which was earlier in the month, nor to be confused with the class dance performance, which is some other day yet to happen, none of which should be confused with the preschool Christmas party, which may or may not feature music, and which is something like Friday. Friday? Friday. Look, I have enough trouble just not dropping the children on the pavement.

Here is a photograph of the sky, and the review is in the system.

Subject: And the tree!
To: Awl notes
Here at least I come from a tradition that says you don't put the tree up till like the 23rd, because you also don't take it down till Epiphany, because that is when Christmas is; it's not a Just Finished Thanksgiving Tree or an Advent Tree. But that ideology is also grounded on being able to drive up the road to the tree farm and walk through the muddy rows and cut down a tree and bring it home in the car, a nice stable reliable set of logistics every year. Sometimes there would be a bird's nest in the tree, and the nest would end up holding the old long-tailed velour "partridges" or "calling birds" or whatever the shiny creatures were supposed to be, and would then be put away with the decorations when things were over. Waiting till the last minute to negotiate with a couple of sketchy Quebecois on the sidewalk outside the CVS seems less prudent. Although also for what it's worth the tree farm up the road had been sold off and planted with a housing development last time I drove that way, and only a few feral pines around the edges showed where it had been.

Here is a photograph of the sky, and the review is in the system.

Subject: Running late
To: Awl notes
Buying piano. Getting back to computer from Steinway Hall in the next 30 minutes.

Subject: illumination
To: Awl notes
There is no brightness in the night in the city to rival the brightness of the canopy of One57. It's utterly disorienting: one moment you're walking down 57th Street in the normal illumination of Manhattan, the next moment your mind believes you must be indoors. The light comes glaring out of the canopy, commandeering the sidewalk, sharpening the edge of the lapels of the waiting doormen—and for whom are they waiting? The plutocrats don't even live there. What's being blast-illuminated isn't the way into the building; it's the idea of a way into the building.

Here is a photo of the sky, and the review is in the system.

Subject: the season
To: Awl notes
Is ever more heavily upon us, yet somehow the tree eludes me still. It seems so simple and is not at all. The thing about staging Christmas with children is: where does the time away from the children come from, without which the staging is impossible? Already the preschool has shut down for the break.

Here is a photograph of the sky, and the review is in the system.


IT SEEMS AS if we will never cease presenting a selection of recipes for ancient but reproducible sandwiches, found in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, by Eva Greene Fuller; 1909; McClurg and Co., Chicago, now in the public domain for the delectation of all.

Chop figs fine and rub to a smooth paste; add a dash of orange juice and spread on lady fingers; press two fingers together and garnish with a spray of smilax.

Split twelve figs, scrape out the soft portion and rub this to a paste; butter thin slices of fresh white or brown bread, remove the crust, spread on the fig paste and roll the bread carefully; press for a moment, then roll it in a piece of tissue paper, pressing the ends as you would an old-fashioned motto, or it may be tied with baby ribbon of any color.

To two cups of dates with stones removed, add one cup of washed figs, also one cup of seeded raisins; chop very fine and add enough water to make a paste to spread easily. Let this boil one minute, and when cool spread between thin slices of buttered white bread, cover with another slice and garnish top with a sugared date.

If you make one of these sandwiches, before you eat it, please send a picture to

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