kottke.org posts about lists
The Super Bowl is old news at this point and I have a love/hate thing with Bill Simmons going on, but I loved his ranking of the top 10 coin flips in history, which in typical Simmons fashion, crosses a bunch of different boundaries, from technology:
10. The Wright Brothers. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville flipped a coin to see who would attempt the first airborne flight. Wilbur won … and couldn’t keep the plane in the air. They repaired the plane and three days later Orville nailed the second flight, leading Skip Bayless to tweet, “I know this is Orville’s day but I can’t get over that choke job by Wilbur!”
3. Secretariat. Remember when Penny Chenery and Ogden Phipps flipped a coin for the first pick of two foals that Bold Ruler had sired? And Phipps won and picked a foal born from Bold Ruler and Hasty Matelda? And Chenery settled for Secretariat, the eventual Triple Crown winner that became the most famous race horse who ever lived? And then Diane Lane played Chenery in Disney’s Secretariat movie that was 25 minutes too long? Poor Ogden Phipps.
…to the #1 pick from the musical world (which you might guess but will have to click through for).
You can’t control what the stock market does, who the President is, or what your partner wants to do with their life. So why not focus your energy on stuff you can control? From Lori Deschene at Tiny Buddha, a list of 50 Things You Can Control Right Now. Here are some that jumped out at me:
Your level of honesty.
How often you say “thank you.”
Whether or not you give someone the benefit of the doubt.
Whether or not you compete with people around you.
Whether you think positive or negative thoughts.
How much time you spend worrying.
How much exercise you get.
How many risks you take.
The type of food you eat.
The list isn’t perfect — e.g. it’s more difficult for some people to control what they eat than others — but the point is that worrying about things outside of your control can burn a lot of energy that you can use in more productive ways to make your life better.
BTW, this is a reminder to myself more than anything. There are three things I’m super-anxious about right now that I have zero control over and I am desperately trying to convince myself that focusing on things I can do something about is the only way through.
In 1960, saxophonist Steve Lacy wrote down a list of advice from jazz pianist Thelonious Monk on how to play music. Among the items on the list:
Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!
Always leave them wanting more.
What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!
Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
As is the case with most thoughtful advice, many of Monk’s points apply to things other than music. (via swiss miss)
Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.
Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.
Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:
Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.
Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.
Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.
Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo urges us that when it comes to figuring out what Donald Trump’s up to, we should keep it simple. The media has covered Trump for more than 30 years, he appeared weekly on television for several years, and the coverage of his campaign over the past two years was unprecedented. That, says Marshall, means that we know Trump and his motivations quite well at this point and offers a list of five things we should keep in mind:
1. Trump is a Damaged Personality
2. Trump is a Great Communicator
3. Trump’s Hold on His Base Is Grievance
4. Trump is Possible Because of Partisan Polarization
5. Trump is Surrounded By Extremists and Desperados
Trump is an impulsive narcissist who is easily bored and driven mainly by the desire to chalk up ‘wins’ which drive the affirmation and praise which are his chief need and drive. He needs to dominate everyone around him and is profoundly susceptible to ego injuries tied to not ‘winning’, not being the best, not being sufficiently praised and acclaimed, etc. All of this drives a confrontational style and high levels of organizational chaos and drama. This need for praise and affirmation and a lack of patience for understanding the basic details of governing are a volatile and dangerous mix. They catalyze and intensify each other. Perhaps most importantly, the drive to be the best and right drives promises, claims and policy pronouncements which may contradict his already existing positions or be impossible to fulfill.
Marshall also calls out something I’ve been thinking about recently, the Make America Great Again branding:
‘Make America Great Again’ may be awful and retrograde in all its various meanings. But it captured in myriad ways almost every demand, fear and grievance that motivated the Americans who eventually became the Trump base. It is almost certainly the case that MAGA is entirely Trump’s invention, not the work of any consultant or media specialist but from Trump himself. The Trump Trucker baseball cap, a physical manifestation of Trumpite branding, is similarly ingenious.
As much as I came to admire Pentagram’s work on Hillary Clinton’s campaign branding and loved the Obama campaign’s branding (complete with beautiful typefaces from Hoefler and Frere-Jones), I think the MAGA design easily beats them both. Marshall nailed it…it was exactly right for who it was designed to appeal to. It’s perhaps unlikely to happen, but the Make America Great Again hat should be added to the permanent collections of design museums as an exemplary example of branding, right alongside Got Milk?, Think Different, and Just Do It. (Also, you know who else came up with an extraordinarily effective design for his fascist authoritarian movement?)
Back in November, former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein came up with a list of five books that conservatives should read to in order to learn something about contemporary progressivism. On the list is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank:
In Frank’s view, we overstate the role of individual merit and underestimate the massive role of luck in producing individual success or failure — being born into the right family, finding oneself in the right place at the right time, having a good mentor. He makes “there but for the grace of God go I” into a rallying cry.
A month earlier, Sunstein offered a similar list of books liberals should read to learn something about conservatives, including Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind:
Do conservatives have moral commitments that progressives may not even recognize? Haidt says yes, and he identifies three: authority, loyalty and sanctity. If, for example, someone has betrayed a trust, or treated a boss or a parent disrespectfully, conservatives are far more likely to be outraged than progressives.
Haidt is not himself a conservative, but he offers a sympathetic explanation of why progressives often fail to understand their political adversaries. He also shows that the moral commitments that resonate among conservatives have deep roots in human history — and that it is a form of blindness not to acknowledge and respect those commitments.
President Obama is a reader. NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani interviewed Obama about his reading just before he left office.
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
During his tenure in office, the President publicly recommended 86 different books, compiled into one list by Entertainment Weekly. Here are several of them, some of which I have also read and recommended on this very site:
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro
Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Working, Studs Terkel
Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow
The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin
What Is the What, Dave Eggers
Our most widely read US President, for sure.
Update: I’m getting some pushback on my assertion that Obama was “our most widely read US President”. Since “widely read” seems to have multiple meanings, I should have been more explicit on what I meant. I didn’t mean that he had written the most books read by the most people (that is perhaps Teddy Roosevelt) or had read the most books (George W. Bush and Roosevelt were both voracious readers, as were Jefferson, Clinton, and Lincoln). I meant that compared to previous Presidents, Obama has read books from the widest spectrum of viewpoints and authors. Among the list of 86 (which are not the books he read in office but just the ones he publicly recommended) are books on politics (of course), science, economics, sports, and medicine, some classics, children’s books, plenty of fiction, and science fiction. Most importantly, the list includes many books written by women and persons of color. Judging by this (partial) George W. Bush reading list (which includes only two books written by women (one of whom is his daughter)), outside of Clinton and perhaps Carter, I would wager very few Presidents have read many books by women and no more than a token few books by black authors.
Last month, game designer Elizabeth Sampat took to Twitter to share some life lessons she’d learned. Perhaps you’ll find some of them as interesting and useful as I did.
The maximum amount of work you can ever possibly do in a relationship is 50%.
When someone says they can’t do something, 75% of the time it means “There are things not worth sacrificing to make this happen.”
Never feel bad for dropping people from your life. Friends, family, whoever.
Don’t rely on a single person for all your emotional needs, even if monogamous. It’s not a poly thing, it’s a diversification of assets.
Brussels sprouts and spinach are delicious, it’s just that your mom couldn’t cook.
Mallory Ortberg’s “what an odd thing to say!” is the world’s best polite response to someone saying something insulting.
You can’t self-control your way out of sadness.
The American Library Association maintains a list of Frequently Challenged Children’s Books, books that people try to get banned from libraries due to their “inappropriate” content. The list includes Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, Dr. Seuss’s Hop On Pop (???), Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, as well as the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series. Perri Klass writes about what children can learn from these banned books.
“I think it happens in the U.S. more than in some other countries,” said Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and critic. “There’s a squeamishness in the U.S. about body parts I think that goes back to the Puritan tradition, and has never completely died out.” He pointed to the controversy around Maurice Sendak’s 1970 children’s book “In the Night Kitchen,” which centered on the illustrations showing the naked — and anatomically correct — little boy whose nocturnal adventures make up the story.
In the Night Kitchen? Seriously? Seriously?! That was one of my favorites as a kid and so we bought it for our kids. Come on, America…we’ve got worse things to worry about. Klass’s point here is exactly right:
When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling.
We’ve definitely had to do that with the Harry Potter books, the Little House books, and many other books we read together. Reading any book published before the 70s, for instance, is a great opportunity to discuss how the past and current roles of women in society.
According to a report by Oxfam, the world’s 8 richest men are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world’s population. That’s 8 men with the same combined wealth of 3.6 billion people.
As decision makers and many of the super-rich gather for this week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, the charity’s report suggests the wealth gap is wider than ever, with new data for China and India indicating that the poorest half of the world owns less than previously estimated.
Oxfam, which described the gap as “obscene,” said if the new data had been available before, it would have shown that in 2016 nine people owned the same as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest half of humanity, rather than 62 estimated at the time.
The gap between the super-rich and poor is widening: in 2010, it would have taken 43 of the richest people to equal the bottom 50%. The eight men in question are Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg.
Five of the men on this list — Gates, Buffett, Ellison, Bloomberg, and Zuckerberg (all Americans) — have signed the Giving Pledge, a public promise to give away the majority of their fortunes while still alive (or upon their deaths). They are essentially agreeing with Oxfam that their wealth should be redistributed. When five men who control, say, as much wealth as 25-30% of the world’s poorest are saying, by their actions, that the wealth inequality gap needs to be narrowed, shouldn’t the government take that as a sign that something needs to be done about it?
Update: The way Oxfam is calculating wealth here takes debt into account:
If you look at the numbers that the statistic is based on, from Forbes and Credit Suisse, you’ll see that the equality here is that the eight richest people in the world have a combined net worth of roughly $426 billion, or 0.16% of all the world’s wealth.
Is it really true that the bottom 50% of the world’s population accounts for only 0.16% of the wealth on the planet? Well, not really. The bottom 50% comprises five different deciles. Of those deciles, the fourth has 0.17% of the world’s wealth, and the fifth has 0.32%. Those are both very small numbers — but they’re both bigger than 0.16%.
So something funny is going on here — and that something funny is debt. When Oxfam looks at net worth, it adds up your assets, and then subtracts your liabilities. And when your liabilities are bigger than your assets, that means you have negative net worth. According to Oxfam’s methodology, the bottom 10% of the world’s population has a net worth of one trillion negative dollars — an almost inconceivably large sum.
The inequality is there, and growing, but Oxfam’s formulation is misleading without the proper context. (thx, everyone)
Cinefix takes a look at what makes ending credit sequences effective, the different techniques used to end movies, and picks a number of films with the best end credits.
The shape of the narratives movies tend to tell lend themselves to an emotional climax that hits right as the screen fades to black for the last time. Be it triumphant, tragic, bittersweet, or thoughtful, the most important feeling is often the last. So, wisely, one of the most common functions of the creative end title sequence is what we’re going to call the coda credits. They grab on to the final emotional note and let it ride out in a long sustain, letting the audience hold onto the final feeling and carry the echoes out with them as the credits roll.
From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:
1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.
2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.
3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.
5. [Later.] OK, OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.
6. [Later.] Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more interesting and pays more!
7. [Later.] I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.
I predict that getting to #6 will be challenging for many people.
Each year, Edge has asked a group of scientists, philosophers, musicians, writers, and designers a simple but provocative question and collects the answers on their website. Past questions have included:
What do you think about machines that think? (2015)
What have you changed your mind about? Why? (2008)
What do you believe true even though you cannot prove it? (2005)
What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years? (1999)
This year, the question is: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?
Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.
Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory-and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge.
Here are some of the responses. Alison Gopnik chose “Life History”:
“Life history” is the term biologists use to describe how organisms change over time-how long an animal lives, how long a childhood it has, how it nurtures its young, how it grows old. Human life history is weird. We have a much longer childhood than any other primate-twice as long as chimps, and that long childhood is related to our exceptional learning abilities. Fossil teeth suggest that this long childhood evolved in tandem with our big brains-we even had a longer childhood than Neanderthals. We also rapidly developed special adaptations to care for those helpless children-“pair-bonding” and “alloparents.” Fathers and unrelated kin help take care of human children, unlike our closest primate relatives.
And we developed another very unusual life history feature-post-menopausal grandmothers. The killer whale is the only other animal we know that outlives its fertility. The human lifespan was expanded at both ends-longer childhood and a longer old age. In fact, anthropologists have argued that those grandmothers were a key to the evolution of learning and culture. They were crucial for the survival of those helpless children and they also could pass on two generations worth of knowledge.
Jessica Flack chose “Coarse-Graining”:
In physics a fine-grained description of a system is a detailed description of its microscopic behavior. A coarse-grained description is one in which some of this fine detail has been smoothed over.
Coarse-graining is at the core of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of the universe is increasing. As entropy, or randomness, increases there is a loss of structure. This simply means that some of the information we originally had about the system has become no longer useful for making predictions about the behavior of a system as a whole. To make this more concrete, think about temperature.
Temperature is the average speed of particles in a system. Temperature is a coarse-grained representation of all of the particles’ behavior — the particles in aggregate. When we know the temperature we can use it to predict the system’s future state better than we could if we actually measured the speed of individual particles. This is why coarse-graining is so important — it is incredibly useful. It gives us what is called an effective theory. An effective theory allows us to model the behavior of a system without specifying all of the underlying causes that lead to system state changes.
And physicist Nigel Goldenfeld chose “The Scientific Method” itself:
There’s a saying that there are no cultural relativists at thirty thousand feet. The laws of aerodynamics work regardless of political or social prejudices, and they are indisputably true. Yes, you can discuss to what extent they are an approximation, what are their limits of validity, do they take into account such niceties as quantum entanglement or unified field theory (of course they don’t). But the most basic scientific concept that is clearly and disturbingly missing from today’s social and political discourse is the concept that some questions have correct and clear answers. Such questions can be called “scientific” and their answers represent truth. Scientific questions are not easy to ask. Their answers can be verified by experiment or observation, and they can be used to improve your life, create jobs and technologies, save the planet. You don’t need pollsters or randomized trials to determine if a parachute works. You need an understanding of the facts of aerodynamics and the methodology to do experiments.
There are 200 more contributions from bold-faced names like Richard Dawkins, Hanna Levin, Brian Eno, Kevin Kelly, and Danny Hillis. Have fun!
Here are some things I liked this year: Arrival. Halt and Catch Fire. Hamilton. Swiss Army Man. Kurzgesagt. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. kottke.org. Westworld. The San Junipero episode of Black Mirror. Seveneves. Gravitational waves. Museums with friends. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Hillary Clinton. The Neapolitan Novels. Game of Thrones. My kids. OJ: Made in America. Flat water with ample skipping stones. The Americans. Bruce Conner’s Crossroads at The Whitney. My baby momma. Wait But Why. Mad River Glen. Sunsets. Zero Days. Fleabag. My local (which is not so local anymore). Fall foliage. Transparent. Instagram. Swim holes on hot summer days. Lemonade. the lemons. The Power Broker by Robert Caro. The Obamas. Force Majeure. Snap peas from the farmer’s market. All of the kottke.org members, each and every damn one of you beautiful people. Reading Harry Potter to my kids. Jumping waves in Mexico. Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Steak for two. Dope. A bunch of stuff I’m forgetting. Picasso’s Bull’s Head at MoMA. A Moon Shaped Pool. The Crown. Journalism. Carol. The Auralnauts. Wonderland by Steven Johnson. SNL’s Black Jeopardy. Twitter. Epoch by Tycho. Every Frame a Painting. My friends, old and new, you know who you are.
Here are some things I didn’t like this year: Brexit. Trump. The media. Finishing reading the Harry Potter books to my kids. The 2016 election, every single fucking second of it. Leaving New York. Nino Sarratore. The continued retreat of the American public from reality. The demise of Gawker and sale of Gawker Media. Twitter. The unprecedented warming of both poles. Shutting down Stellar. Too many dinners for one. The continued inaction on gun deaths. Misogyny. Xenophobia. Fascism. Racism. White nationalism. Authoritarianism. Religiously motivated terrorism. Climate change denialism. Here’s to fewer isms in 2017.
From psychotherapist Amy Morin, who expanded this list into a book of the same name, a list of 13 ways mentally strong people avoid negative behaviors.
1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
2. They Don’t Give Away Their Power
3. They Don’t Shy Away from Change
4. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
5. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
6. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks
7. They Don’t Dwell on the Past
8. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
9. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success
10. They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure
11. They Don’t Fear Alone Time
12. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything
13. They Don’t Expect Immediate Results
That’s all fine and those are worthy goals — and the book probably gets into more detail about this — but do you become more mentally strong by not doing these things or do you already need mental strength? Some of this seems to come down to personality or temperament, things that are difficult to change under even the best circumstances. And self-help lists like this always make me think of Simpsons pitchman Troy McClure’s introduction to a self-help video he’s hosting:
Oh hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from such self-help videos as Smoke Yourself Thin and Get Confident, Stupid!
It’s simple, just get confident! Just draw the rest of the fucking owl!
The annual list of media errors and corrections by Poynter is always worth a read. Some favorites:
Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about a theological battle being fought by Muslim imams and scholars in the West against the Islamic State misstated the Snapchat handle used by Suhaib Webb, one of Muslim leaders speaking out. It is imamsuhaibwebb, not Pimpin4Paradise786.
No wonder people think the NY Times is untrustworthy. Another from the Times:
An article on March 20 about wave piloting in the Marshall Islands misstated the number of possible paths that could be navigated without instruments among the 34 islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands. It is 561, not a trillion trillion.
This one was only slightly wrong:
CORRECTION: Boris Johnson’s award-winning limerick about the Turkish president referred to Erdogan as a wanker who performed a sex act with a goat. A previous version of this article included the prompt for the poetry contest, which included a different sex act, also with a goat.
When in doubt, blame technology:
Correction at 9:58 a.m. on 3/09/2016: Due to an oversight involving a haphazardly-installed Chrome extension during the editing process, the name Donald Trump was erroneously replaced with the phrase “Someone With Tiny Hands” when this story originally published.
I look forward to David Ehrlich’s video countdown of his favorite films of the year and 2016’s installment does not disappoint. Nice to see Beyonce’s Lemonade, the weirdo Swiss Army Man (which I loved, Daniel Radcliffe 4eva!), and the excellent OJ: Made in America on there. Still puzzled by Hail Caesar…I love the Coen brothers but was bored by this one. No Arrival though…this was the only movie I saw in the theater twice this year. For those looking for upcoming or recently released films to watch, Ehrlich includes Jackie, La La Land, and Scorsese’s Silence on his list.
Consultant Tom Whitwell shared 52 things he learned in 2016. Here are three:
Call Me Baby is a call centre for cybercriminals who need a human voice as part of a scam. They charge $10 for each call in English, and $12 for calls in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. [Brian Krebs]
Twitter has enough money in the bank to run for 412 years with current losses. [Matt Krantz]
Intervision, the 70s Soviet answer to the Eurovision Song Contest, was judge by electricity grid voting: “those watching at home had to turn their lights on when they liked a song and off when they didn’t, with data from the electricity network then being used to allocate points.” [Nick Heady]
It was hard to whittle the list down to just three, so a bonus one:
Instead of batteries, the ARES project in Nevada uses a network of train tracks, a hillside and electric trains loaded with rocks to store wind and solar power. When there is a surplus of energy, the trains drive up the tracks. When output falls, the cars roll back down the hill, their electric motors acting as generators. [Robson Fletcher]
The Economist did a piece — “Sisyphus’s train set” — on ARES this summer.
It’s just the beginning of December and the lists of the best books of the year are already starting to stack up like so many clichés about nightstand book piles. Here’s what book editors, voracious readers, and retailers have to say about the year’s top books.
Tyler Cowen almost never steers me wrong, so I’ll lead with his best fiction of 2016 and best non-fiction books of 2016 lists. Cowen seems more enthusiastic about the year’s non-fiction than fiction, recommending The Age of Em by Robin Hanson and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. He also recommends Atlas Obscura, which arrived in my book pile and was immediately commandeered by my 9-year-old who has read it straight through three or four times now.1
The NY Times somehow narrowed down the entire year’s output to The 10 Best Books of 2016. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad made this list and many others for good reason: it was an excellent and essential read. Also on the list is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.
From Buzzfeed, The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2016. Includes The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.
Amazon’s editors selected their top 100 picks for the year. Included are The Girls by Emma Cline, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a book that came out very early in the year and was well-regarded but got lost in the shuffle a little as the year went on.
For their list of the best books of 2016 (part two), The Guardian asked writers what they had enjoyed reading during the year. Yuval Noah Harari (whose Sapiens I’ve been yapping about all year) recommends Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie picked Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, and Taiye Selasi “adored” Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Oh and my fave Hilary Mantel (where’s that next Cromwell book?!) recommends Ian McGuire’s The North Water.
The Telegraph’s top 50 books of the year is a wider-ranging list than most, with picks ranging from the Man Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty to several books about sports, including an autobiography by FC Barcelona’s star midfielder Andrés Iniesta called The Artist.
On its list of the Top 20 Fiction Books of 2016 The What recommends Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie.
See also 2015’s best books. Ferrante and Ta-Nehisi Coates were the clear favorites last year. I haven’t read Between the World and Me yet, but the Neapolitan Novels were fantastic.
Update: Shane Parrish of Farnam Street offers 5 Noteable Nonfiction Books of 2016, including Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.
Update: At the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada shares his picks for the most surprising, hopeful, and overrated books of 2016. Among them are Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.
Update: Bill Gates just released his annual list of some of his favorite 2016 books. The first book on the list is David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his writing about tennis — here’s his full review.
When it comes to books, it’s pretty rare that I get intimidated. I read all kinds of books, including ones that only the harshest college professors would assign. And yet I must admit that for many years I steered clear of anything by David Foster Wallace. I often heard super literate friends talking in glowing terms about his books and essays. I even put a copy of his tour de force Infinite Jest on my nightstand at one point, but I just never got around to reading it.
If you’re a long-time reader, I’m not sure if there’s anything more I can say to convince you to read Wallace’s tennis writing, but just give his piece on Roger Federer a try.
Update: They just keep coming! For their Year in Reading 2016, The Millions surveyed a number of contributors for their favorite books of the year — Annie Proulx highlights Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. The Globe 100 Best Books of the Year list includes Nicholson Baker’s Substitute. NPR built a Book Concierge to help you find the perfect 2016 book — I found White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg by applying the Seriously Great Writing filter.
Update: From Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, The Greatest Science Books of 2016. On the list are Time Travel by James Gleick and Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game.
Update: The NY Times book critics selected their top books of 2016, including Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich.
A bunch of New Yorker writers selected books they loved in 2016. Among the picks were Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Works and Days by Bernadette Mayer.
Update: The WSJ asked some notable people what their favorite books of 2016 were. Stephen Curry read Dan Brown — calling him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy” — but also Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — but failed to call him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy”.
The readers of Goodreads chose their favorite books of 2016, including Hamilton: The Revolution and Adulthood Is a Myth by Sarah Andersen.
Every year, the New York Public Library picks the Best Books for Kids and Teens. Their 2016 lists include Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer and Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings.
Update: The NY Times also asked many notable people what they read in 2016. Bryan Cranston read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Update: From Buzzfeed, The 18 Best Nonfiction Books Of 2016 including Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography.
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder took to Facebook to share some lessons from 20th century about how to protect our liberal democracy from fascism and authoritarianism. Snyder has given his permission to republish the list, so I’ve reproduced it in its entirety here in case something happens to the original.
Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by V’aclav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
A great thought-provoking list. “Corporeal politics”…I like that phrase. And I’ve seen many references to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in recent weeks.
See also Five Steps to Tyranny and The 14 Features of Eternal Fascism.
Note: Illustration by the awesome Chris Piascik.
In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.
Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.
[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”
The five steps are:
“us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
“stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)
To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).
The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?
65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:
But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.
Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.
But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.
Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:
For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.
Time Magazine has selected the 100 most influential photos of all time, from the first permanent photograph taken (in 1826) to the heartbreaking photo of the body of a 3-year-old refugee washed up on a beach from last year. As you might expect, many of the images are tough to view, but history and our good conscience compels us not to look away.
I was pleased to see Josef Koudelka’s photo Invasion of Prague included (it’s the one above with the wristwatch); it’s one of my favorites.
Josef Koudelka, a young Moravian-born engineer who had been taking wistful and gritty photos of Czech life, was in the capital when the soldiers arrived. He took pictures of the swirling turmoil and created a groundbreaking record of the invasion that would change the course of his nation. The most seminal piece includes a man’s arm in the foreground, showing on his wristwatch a moment of the Soviet invasion with a deserted street in the distance. It beautifully encapsulates time, loss and emptiness — and the strangling of a society.
The photos are also available in book form.
Over at Literary Hub, Emily Temple offers a “reading list for resistance”, a list of 25 Works of Fiction and Poetry for Anger and Action.
Included are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:
This is the book women will be whispering about to one another in Trump’s America-an all-too-real vision of our country under a totalitarian theocracy where women are stripped of their rights and kept around only as breeders or servants.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real.
And of course, George Orwell’s 1984:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic…
1984 was my favorite book for a long time — I first read it when I was about 10 years old and reread it every year or two well into my 20s. I haven’t read it in more than 10 years…perhaps it’s time for another go.
In 1995, Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books on fascism.1 As part of the article, Eco listed 14 features of what he called Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism. He began the list with this caveat:
These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
Here’s an abbreviated version of Eco’s list:
1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
8. The humiliation by the wealth and force of their enemies. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
I found this list via Paul Bausch, Blogger co-inventor and long-time MetaFilter developer, who writes:
You know, we have a strong history of opposing authoritarianism. I’d like to believe that opposition is like an immune system response that kicks in.
It difficult to look at Eco’s list and not see parallels between it and the incoming Trump administration.2 We must resist. Disagree. Be modern. Improve knowledge. Welcome outsiders. Protect the weak. Reject xenophobia. Welcome difference. At the end of his piece, Eco quotes Franklin Roosevelt saying during a radio address on the “need for continuous liberal government”:
I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.
And Eco himself adds: “Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”
The editors of GQ have selected their picks for The 21 Documentaries from the 21st Century Everyone Should See. Ones I’ve seen and recommend: The Fog of War, No Direction Home, The Two Escobars, Grizzly Man, Going Clear, Capturing the Friedmans, The Jinx, Citizenfour, and O.J.: Made in America. I would consider adding Zero Days and Making a Murderer to the list.
Rolling Stone polled actors, critics, producers, and showrunners about their picks for the greatest shows ever to air on TV and aggregated the responses. Some random results:
87. Doctor Who
57. Fawlty Towers
43. The Americans
27. Arrested Development
12. Game of Thrones
That’s really high for Thrones, isn’t it? It’s no spoiler to say that the top two picks are The Wire and The Sopranos…you’ll have to click through to see which order they put them in. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about what my list of favorite shows would look like, but just off the cuff, maybe (in no particular order):
The Wire, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Transparent, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Simpsons, Iron Chef, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Doctor Who, The Americans.
A couple of those are definitely not great shows, but they are favorites all the same.
Over at Vulture, Kathryn VanArendonk ranked 36 Netflix original series from worst to best. It’s not a spoiler to say that Orange is the New Black is #1 (I haven’t seen it yet and guessed that it would be right at the top). Personally, I would rank Stranger Things and Kimmy Schmidt lower and Narcos, Making a Murderer, and Chef’s Table higher.
6. Narcos. An appealing, gripping, smart drama. The first episodes of Narcos sweep across decades and spend way too much time waving the exposition wand, but it somehow makes those tropes feel confident rather than tiresome. Yes, the story of Pablo Escobar covers well-trod Difficult Man territory, but Wagner Moura’s performance is charismatic and layered, and Narcos’ deadpan tone is a bracing way to frame Escobar’s often gruesome life.
What’s interesting is that Amazon’s best original show (Transparent), several of HBO’s original series, and at least 2 AMC shows are better than anything on this list (aside from possibly OITNB).
From Nylon, Kristin Iversen compiled her list of the best pieces of nonfiction — books, essays, memoirs — from every state in the US (plus DC and NYC). Here’s a sampling:
Alaska: Coming into the Country by John McPhee.
Connecticut: The Story of How, and Why, Martha Stewart Became the Queen of Living Well by Margaret Talbot.
Florida: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. (Love this choice!)
Illinois: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Strong runner-up here is the amazing The Warmth of Other Suns (which I reviewed here).
Vermont: Where the Roads Have No Name by Geoff Manaugh.