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Christopher Hitchens, the Case Against Local Bookstores, and Elf on the Shelf

The week’s most interesting Slate stories.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens Remembered: Tributes to the journalist and intellectual from Julian Barnes, Anne Applebaum, James Fenton and others,” by Slate staff. Christopher Hitchens, the prolific and brilliant essayist who wrote Slate’s “Fighting Words” column, died on Thursday after a battle with esophageal cancer. In honor of his life, Slate has compiled a series of tributes from Hitchens’ colleagues. These anecdotes recall  the joys of editing and debating a man famous for his strong opinions and sharp wit. Hitchens’ colleagues remember him as friend, critic and intellectual. 

Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you,” by Farhad Manjoo. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are user unfriendly, bad for the economy, and expensive for consumers argues Manjoo.   Amazon, on the other hand, offers a comfortable browsing experience, customized recommendations, and hardcovers at half the price of local bookstores. Most importantly, Manjoo claims, Amazon also contributes to our “literary culture” by making it easier for people to both read and publish more.

Meat is Music: A remarkable album made from a pig,” by Andy Battaglia. Ah, the mellifluous sounds of… an oinking pig? British musician Matthew Herbert compiles the sounds of a pig’s life from birth to its final journey in his newest album. Battaglia describes the album One Pig as “eerie” and “transporting.” The work challenges listeners both to reconsider the possibilities of music, and their relationship to pigs. Check out the surprisingly melodious excerpts. 

Killer Clowns, Tough Old Nuns, and a Really Randy Messiah: Ten movies you didn’t see in 2011, but should have,” by Grady Hendrix. Hendrix highlights ten films that won’t appear on other critics’ lists. The picks include a traditional crime flick set in Congo, a critique of current mumblecore trends, and a truly gruesome post-apocalyptic vampire movie. There’s no excuse to miss these films—they’reall  out on DVD, video on demand, or Netflix streaming.

The Miracle Noodle: My experiment with shirataki, the zero-calorie pasta from Japan,” by Annie Lowrey. Love pasta but hate the calories? You may be tempted to try Shirataki, the yam-based calorie-free noodle. But beware—it’s  a poor substitute for pasta, Lowrey writes. Though it is al dente like perfectly cooked pasta, shirataki’s flaky texture doesn’t square with traditional pasta recipes. Nonetheless, Lowrey discovers that shirataki makes a good meal doused in soy, sesame oil, garlic, peanuts, and chili.

You Did Not See Mommy Kissing Santa Claus: I spoiled Santa for a classmate in third grade and have felt guilty about it ever since,” by Elizabeth Weingarten. As an 8-year old, Weingarten spilled the beans about Santa to an unsuspecting classmate. Over a decade later, she reached out to both her teachers and classmate to seek redemption. It turns out that the classmate didn’t even remember Weingarten’s gaffe. She discovers that it’s the parents who often get the most upset by the Santa reveal. Seems like they just  want to protect their children’s innocence a while longer.

 “The Awesomest Vintage T-Shirt Ever: The secret history of ‘Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010,’” by Bryan Curtis. From the company trash to fabric recycler to boutique shop, the vintage t-shirt travels a long way before appearing on a hipster’s torso. Curtis identifies ten types of vintage tees on his journey to track down the history of one. Part of the vintage tee’s appeal, Curtis learns at last, is that they allow their wearers to travel to different times and places.

He Sees You When You’re Hitting Your Sister: Is the Elf on the Shelf a miracle for parents or preparation for living in a surveillance state?” by Torie Bosch. Elf on the Shelf is a doll that makes kids believe Santa really will find out whether they’ve been  naughty or nice. How does it work its magic? Parents place Elf within sight during the day, hide it at night, and relocate it in the morning,  This creates  the illusion that it’s all-seeing and omnipotent, watching behavior during the day and reporting back to Santa at night.   Bosch worries that the product’s increasing popularity will make kids immune to the idea of constant surveillance. But in an age of Twitter and Facebook, is that really so bad? 

In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves: The racist Christmastime tradition Dutch people have begun fighting about,” by Jessica Olien. Since 1845, the Dutch have celebrated Christmas by dressing up as Zwarte Piet, Santa’s black servant. Now, the Dutch of African descent are rebelling against the tradition. Some were even  arrested for speaking out. What’s at stake in this battle, argues Olien, is more than a holiday tradition: It’s the Dutch acceptance of immigration.

 “Siri Baby: As Apple’s use of an obscure Nordic nickname shows, we’ve started naming our kids like products—and our products like kids,” by Laura Wattenberg. Wattenberg touts Siri as the perfect name for Apple’s new artificial intelligence system. It’s spare, elegant, and approachable—just the image Apple would like to project.  While companies try to make their products more personable by giving them human names, parents are starting to name their kids based on the image they want their kids to project. From Sienna to Skyy, brand names and people names are converging.