Smells like lockdown

Antonym No. 4: Misinformation, anosmia and lots more fun!

Dear Reader

The newsletter writing process is beginning to shape up. And then we get to Sunday, and I blow it by spending an hour stitching together a promotional video for something that I don’t intend to promote. But it was fun. Plus, I got to learn how to use Adobe Premiere Rush, which could be useful.

The project was to use Yarn, a search engine for phrases and quotes in movies and TV services, to construct a sentence, which worked pretty well, although Quicktime was not up to the job for creating. Premiere Rush, which you can get desktop and mobile versions of is really easy, though.


The Readwise app, which serves you a selection of your Kindle highlights every day if you want it to, got an update this week. I’ve been using it since it was in Beta, and use it all the time (it’s also a lot more efficient than Kindle / Amazon for searching through highlights).

The app presented me with this quote from Smarter Than You Think, by Clive Thompson:

“It’s not the outright lies that you have to teach them to watch out for,” Harris tells me. “It’s just this vast sea of mediocre stuff. But I see them start to get really paranoid. They keep on asking, ‘Wait, wait, is this a content farm?’ And this is what you want. Most people in their lives aren’t going to be writing term papers, but they’re going to be looking for information their whole lives.”

It’s almost quaint that at the time of the book’s writing (2013) the crap–detection skills we were all worried about were content farms rather than far-right and hostile powers’ dezinformatsiya programmes. Beyond that though, it’s still an everyday task to filter mediocrity and low-grade information media, mainstream and otherwise.

In her Other Valleys newsletter, Anjali Ramachandran linked to a lovely anti–misinformation initiative in Africa – WhatsCrap:

The best way to fight misinformation on a platform is to use it against itself: enter WhatsCrap Africa on WhatsApp, a podcast with information can be shared as an audio file within WhatsApp by subscribers on the continent who want to debunk any claims.

Missing my sense of smell 

When I contracted Covid back in March 2020, there was so much uncertainty and misinformation about the disease that it was only when a friendly GP said lack of a sense of smell was probably one of the symptoms that I knew for sure I had it. I ran to the fridge and opened a jar of Branston pickle and could smell nothing at all.

It might sound strange not to be sure of whether or how much you have lost your sense of smell – but senses aren’t quite as separate as we think. Philosophy professor, Barry C Smith, says:

What we call “taste” is one of the most fascinating case studies for how inaccurate our view of our senses is: It is not produced by the tongue alone but is always an amalgam of taste, touch, and smell. Touch contributes to sauces tasting creamy and other foods tasting chewy, crisp, or stale. The only difference between potato chips that “taste” fresh or stale is a difference in texture. The largest part of what we call “taste” is in fact smell in the form of retronasal olfaction, which is why people who lose their ability to smell say they can no longer taste anything. Taste, touch, and smell are not merely combined to produce experiences of foods or liquids; rather, the information from the separate sensory channels is fused into a unified experience of what we call taste and what food scientists call flavor. (1)

Accordingly, I was grateful this week for Alice Thomson’s Times column about losing and regaining her sense of smell. I’d suspected for some time that mine had never fully come back (morning coffee doesn’t smell of much, for instance) and I didn’t know what to do about it.

Resources Thomson mentions are:

Revising Annihilation

I love it when authors publish highlights and notes of their own books on Goodreads, as Jeff Vandermeer did for the first his Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation. (In the story one character is infected by something in the mysterious Area X that heightens her sense of smell, the exact opposite of what’s happened to me in the last year.)

Vandermeer’s work is sometimes included in a sub-genre, or literary movement called the New Weird. There’s something of the nihilism and impossibility of understanding things that fans enjoy about HP Lovecraft’s writing. It’s not horror exactly, although it shares tropes with that genre. 

For example, here a beautiful passage is built upon expanded on with beautiful comment:

There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you.

And Vandermeer’s comment:

Just like the world is filled with the invisible pheromone trails of insects, there is also the power of human relationships and how we form commitments and connections. And this is a brightly shining, radiant pattern that we cannot see but is always there. When the pattern breaks in some way, we feel it deeply.

It was interesting to hear where the inspiration for scenes and themes came from, and that in a way, the mystery that is the core of the book is there for the author as much the reader. Annihilation’s about the strangeness of nature, but also about our forever-slippery sense of self. Some characters become dramatically disconnected from who they think they are – ”hollowed out” – but all of them are in some way unsure of who they are, who others are from moment to moment. 

Vandermeer’s comments and highlights led me back into the book at just the right moment in lockdown and in an echo of the characters’ experiences, I see his imagined world with fresh eyes. I thought it was a great book the first time I read it, but pushed back into it like this, reading from within the Actual New Weird of living through a global pandemic it is utterly appropriate and oddly profound. 

Annihilation is exactly the book I needed to read this week. Not just for the nostalgia for a missing part of my senses, but for the strangeness of this pandemic moment. While I am not part of a mission into a weird anomaly, I am part of a mass of people for whom time and experience are less anchored than they normally are. More than one person has commented to me about the surreal vibe of repetitive days passing, confined to the same space and the same kinds of activities. 

Quick links

A trio of media and marketing links this week:

  • Kate Kallot, Head of Emerging Areas at NVidia on the excellent Agency Dealmasters podcast series. She talks about inclusion, companies keeping their BLM promises and Nvidia’s work in artificial intelligence. 

  • In his newsletter, Brian Morrisey says that training courses are the hot new 2021 trends for publishers making money out of their brands.

  • [[Tim Sparke]] and Derek Hill have produced a nice one-page guide to digital marketing, which is part of a series. I’m hugely admiring of people who can clear out the jargon and explain these things.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading.