Why is this interesting? - The Monday Media Diet with Steve Bryant

On rental car rallies, Chaucer, and triangles

Steve Bryant (SB) has been a longtime friend and contributor to WITI. He’s a seasoned editorial strategist and has worked at and built publications like Thrillist, Insidehook, among others. Here, we peer into his wide-ranging media and consumption habits, and his penchant for pushing rental cars to their limits and beyond. - Colin (CJN)

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a writer and strategist and merry prankster. I work with brands and agencies on marketing strategy and content operations, and I publish a delightful newsletter about using frameworks to make better creative and strategic decisions. I’m also the founder of Rental Car Rally, a ridiculously fun overnight road rally in costume that has been, on at least once occasion, suspected by the Department of Homeland Security for nuclear terrorism (don’t take photos in front of reactor silos while wearing a ninja costume, noted). When I was a young man in short pants I was one of the first editors of Thrillist and the founding editor of InsideHook. Once upon a time, I created Wiimbledon, the world’s first Wii tennis tournament which, according to NYMag's Approval Matrix, was “brilliant and lowbrow”. Tbh it’s all been downhill from there. 

Describe your media diet.

I read widely and indiscriminately and with no plan whatsoever. This is my way and I enjoy it. Many highly impressive, get-shit-done’rs I’ve encountered have IFTTT-powered, Rube Goldbergian systems for tagging and routing content to various digital hobbit holes. I do not. But in defense of my shrug emoji-like way, it’s called a browser, not a supply chain manager. These days I read a healthy amount of newsletters. People who love newsletters love them for their voice and relative intimacy, being in the inbox and all. I love them for that, and also because they enforce a kind of supply scarcity. They come one a time. They’re not in a feed. There are few social signals about their popularity. And y’know, you can always reply and have a conversation that nobody else can see. Which is the way the world used to be, but we forget that.

Some quality favorites: Samuel Arbesman’s Cabinet of Wonders, Vaughn Tan’s Uncertainty Mindset, Patrick Tanguay’s Sentiers, Edith Zimmerman’s Drawing Links, Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart, Anjali Ramachandran’s Other Valleys, Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk’s Margins. Oh and Messy Nessy Chic.

I also love reading what people recommend me to read because then you learn something about a) that thing, b) that friend, and c) how you relate to that thing and that friend. Such a pretty triangle.

What’s the last great book you read?

I wanna say Tyll: A Novel (recommended by Edith, linked above). Amazing historical fiction about a European jester during the Thirty Years' War. 

What are you reading now?

The Secrets of Triangles and 5,000 Years of Geometry, but only like parts of them, because I’m obsessed with triangles at the moment. Also: The Double by Jose Saramago, which became that spooky movie with Jake Gyllenhal, because of book club. I’ve been picking at Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas for a few months. 

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

Start in the back. Anybody who approaches a relationship from the front terrifies me. 

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

I dunno, Chaucer?

What is the best non-famous app on your phone?

Oblique Strategies, the card system developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt to help artists solve creative challenges through lateral thinking.

Plane or train?

Ah. Well. This is really a trick question, isn’t it? When you talk about flying you talk about boarding zones and reward points and WiFi above 10,000 feet. You talk about status and first-class. Above all, you talk about airports, those sprawling Vaticans of duty-free perfumes. I love it. I love that world, the thin nowhereness of it, the brightly-lit margins of non-existence. But it’s also, like, hermetically sealed? A non-world. Because the language of airports and airplanes is the language of teleporting. It’s the language of trying to forget that you are, in fact, traveling. On a train, all that matters, as cliche as this sounds, is the journey. The rattling feeling that you aren't just getting to somewhere you’re going through something. Don’t get me wrong, that passage can be gross. Feet, cigarettes, stale blankets. On the overnight Texas Eagle from Chicago to Dallas once, I felt like I was being digested by a prodigious steel worm. But at least on the train, bless it, you can’t deny that you’re traveling. Trestle to trestle, track to track. The doors will open at the front of the car. 

What is one place everyone should visit?

The Salton Sea. It’s one of our favorite checkpoints on Rental Car Rally. It’s a man-made lake in the hinterlands of SoCal. Created by accident in 1905 (recommended: the book Cadillac Desert, about America’s catastrophic water planning). Was a WWII army training ground—the remnants of that are now called Slab City. It was a resort that rivaled Palm Springs for a while in the ‘50s, but the fertilized runoff from the surrounding areas made the sea increasingly fetid. It’s gross now. Abandoned suburb street grids. Abandoned resort. A friend of mine lives at Bombay Beach and frequents its one lonely bar. Nearby is the desert art commune of East Jesus. Salvation Mountain is right down the road. A fun documentary on the area, by KQED and free on YouTube, is The Pain and Pleasures of the Salton Sea.

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell into. 

Oh god. I have an unhealthy obsession with triangles. It started when I read The Delta Factor, by Walker Percy. He attempts to explain mankind’s use of symbols to refer to phenomena. By way of example, he explains how Helen Keller learned sign language by her tutor drawing symbols on her hand. Keller didn’t understand the symbols, Percy explains until her tutor poured water over her hand while also drawing the symbol for “water” in her palm. Signifier (sign) + Referent (water) + Helen = irreducible linguistic triangle of understanding phenomena via their symbols. This struck me as delightful so I kinda got hyped on this triangle thing. There’s the math, and then the symbolism, and then the wackadoo new age crap. I read up on the classics (Euclid’s Elements, Islamic mathematics, Plato’s Timaeus) and was taken with the fact of the triangle being the simplest way to enclose planar space in Euclidean geometry. And how trigonometry is the study of triangles. And how it’s just the most elegant form. Some people will say “well what about a circle” they’re elegant too, but you really don’t know where you are in a circle unless you use a triangle now, do you? And then I started seeing triangles everywhere. The Bermuda Triangle and the Culinary Triangle and Rene Girard’s memetic desire (we only desire what someone else desires—triangle!). The Irish poet Sean Lucy argued that all literary aesthetics could be reduced to triangles. Johan Galtung argued that human conflict is a triangle. Journalists tell you they use the upside-down pyramid, but that shit’s just a triangle. There’s Maslow’s hierarchy (triangle), the nutrition pyramid (triangle), Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric (triangle). Not to mention dopy stuff like the Masonic Eye of Providence and the religious stuff like the Shri Yantra and Christian trinitarianism. And They Might Be Giants, can’t forget them, Triangle Man hates Particle Man. Hell, the first trademark was a triangle! Anyway, I am still burrowing in this hole and have promised Noah and Colin a “whole WITI” about triangles soon.

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Steve (SB)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).