Categories
Media diet

My media diet

Books read

I don’t spend as much time as I would like reading books as I find longform journalism often filling this space. That being said, books do provide a depth you can’t hope to get from a newspaper column or magazine article. You can find my incomplete reading list over on Goodreads.

Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored

by Jeffrey Boakye: A personal look at the language used by and about black people in the UK by a South London born teacher. Far from providing a definitive account but interesting to hear his take from the position as a first generation Ghanian in the city I now live in.

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

by Jace Clayton: I’ve been a long standing fan of Jace Clayton both as a DJ (his Solar Life Raft with Matt Shadetek being a particular favourite) as well as a writer. Uproot brings together a collection of his writings acting as something of a travelogue as he visits various music communities looking particularly where technology has re-shaped  music particularly from non Western creators. 

Nobber

by Oisín Fagan: I tend to favour fiction written in the present or the future so a book set in 14th century Ireland during the Black Death is something of an outlier. I appreciated the prose but didn’t find it a particularly easy read.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

by Gretchen McCulloch: inspired by an interview with Gretchen on the Ezra Klein Show. It’s great to hear how language has been shaped by communities on the internet and also provided the opportunity to brush up on my own digital etiquette.

Films

Find below films that I’ve seen relatively recently that I have appreciated even if it hasn’t necessarily left a smile on my face. You will find a more complete picture of what I have watched now and in the past on my Letterboxd profile.

Parasite

It seems almost another era when I was able to catch Parasite at the cinema but I would still describe it as a classic and something I am looking forward to revisiting. There’s some great explainer videos on YouTube which point to why the film makes such a great impact including ones from Thomas Flight and Nerdwriter.

Beanpole

I have had a growing fascination with the old Eastern Bloc helped along by occasional visits, the work of the Calvert 22 Foundation and representations on the silver screen (Leviathan,
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Tangerines spring to mind). Beanpole definitely fits at the bleaker end of the cinematic spectrum following the lives of a couple of women in Leningrad soon after the end of World War II.

Come and See

Another film that’s probably best not viewed if you’re on a downer. A Belarusian film set in World War II that is now considered something of a classic. Whilst the film definitely ticks some of the usual boxers associated with a war film, it also has an ethereal quality at times that definitely left a strong impression.

A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers are long standing favourites of mine with the wood chipper scene from Fargo remaining indelibly imprinted on my memory. A Serious Man isn’t as flashy as some of their other films but definitely has a healthy dose of black humour.

Dark Waters

The film brought to mind Michael Mann’s The Insider with a David versus Goliath battle (in this case with DuPont rather than the tobacco industry). Mark Ruffalo puts in a strong performance as a lawyer who switches sides from corporate defender to consumer plaintiff.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I’m not the greatest fan of French cinema or period drama but I read enough recommendations to persevere and the film impressed with its beauty.

Dheepan

Another French film that like La Haine, focuses on the experience of some of the marginalised that inhabit Paris’ banlieue. Dheepan focuses on a trio of Sri Lankan refugees thrown together in an environment that appears almost as toxic as the country they fled.

Queen & Slim

It’s interesting contrasting this film with Green Book. Both are road movies looking at racism in Southern America but Green Book is set in 1962 whereas Queen & Slim suggests there’s still plenty of need for #blacklivesmatter.

Memories of Murder

Watching Parasite inspired me to take a closer look at one of director Bong Joon-ho’s earlier works. You definitely a sense of Bong’s feel for the absurd but Parasite feels like a more accomplished work.

The Assistant

Drama following the experiences of a young graduate in a film production company with strong echoes of accounts from The Weinstein Company. Julia Garner cements her position as one of my favourite actresses with scene stealing role in Ozark.

Television

If there was one thing I’d like to see changed with Letterboxd, it would be the inclusion of television as well as film. Whilst I understand purists arguments for the uniqueness of film, in the age of streaming media I would argue the delineation between between the two mediums is tenuous at best.

Babylon Berlin

I have a something of a crush on Berlin which I put down to growing up there for a period with a particular fascination with the city’s Cold War history. Babylon Berlin is actually set in the earlier Weimar Germany and provides a much more fraught environment than you associate with many British period dramas. The production is stunning and the rising tide of fascism definitely provides something to reflect on as we see the growth of the far right around the world.

Ozark

For those of you looking to fill the slot left by Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, this series follows a family involved in laundering drug money in the American Ozarks. Series three recently went live on Netflix and reflects a return to the earlier form with some great acting and character journeys.

The Plot Against America

HBO series based on an adaption of a Philip Roth novel in an alternative reality where Charles Lindbergh is elected president and tilts USA towards fascism and antisemitism. The series doesn’t match up to creator David Simons’ strongest work (The Wire, Treme, Show me a Hero), but it provides another warning of how easily politics can be derailed in the wrong circumstances.

Homeland

I haven’t always got on with Homeland sometimes coming across as islamophobic and at times preposterous. That being said said the series often quickly responded to issues of the day. Series eight represents a return to form for the series centring on a potential peace process in Afghanistan with the usual mix of spycraft and international politics.

Normal People

I’ve seen too many fawning reviews of this BBC adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel with Jessa Crispin’s takedown echoing many of my own thoughts. That being said, it makes for easy escapist viewing with half hour episodes making for bite sized morsels.

Podcasts

I’m struggling to keep up with my podcast feed now that I’m no longer commuting to work. That being said, I find podcasts provide an important respite from the here and now of more traditional online news sources.

regular shows
Anthropocene Reviewed

A look at the world with John Green’s idiosyncratic view of the world.

Worldly

A regular review of international relations from Vox.

Guardian Audio Long Reads

A chance to catch up with The Guardian’s more cerebral journalism.

Reset

A look at the impact of technology on society.

Flash Forward

Part science fiction, part sociology looking at where our world is heading as well as reflecting on the present.

Stephanomics

A look at the world through the lens of economics from Stephanie Flanders.

Planet Money

Long running series from NPR taking a deep dive on economic issues through a consumer lens (US).

The Indicator from Planet Money

Bite sized spin off from Planet Money looking at different economic indicators through the week (US).

More or Less: behind the statistics

BBC show taking a critical look at statistics reported by the news media.

interview podcasts
The Ezra Klein Show

Interviews led by Vox founder Ezra Klein

Conversations with Tyler

Interviews led by Marginal Revolution author Tyler Cowen.

Longform Podcast

Interviews with high profile journalists from the team at Longform.

limited run series
Floodlines: the story of an unnatural disaster

A series looking at the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans from the team at The Atlantic.

1619

A look at the lasting impact of slavery on contemporary American society from the New York Times.

Nice Try!

Avery Trufelman looks at different attempts to create utopian societies from around the world and across history.

Dolly Parton’s America

This series uses Dolly Parton as a filter to look at American culture wars.

The Missing Crypto Queen

BBC series where focus is more on greed and deceit rather than cryptography.

The Chernobyl Podcast

Series best consumed as a companion to HBO’s much loved Chernobyl programme.

Running from Cops

Series that pulls apart the Cops television series providing a valuable antidote to this pioneer in reality television.

Header image: Akumulator by Marcin Dudek at Edel Assanti gallery.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: coronavirus, the Republican Party, sensory deprivation and other matters

The following is a collection of articles and commentary that has caught my eye over the last week. Coronavirus still dominates news although fortunately there’s more to what I’ve read than talk of social distancing and estimates on fatalities. I hope you enjoy…

While Britain wasted the opportunity to get ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, it is America that really dropped the ball as Jay Rosen aptly makes clear :

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence. 

Getting a clear understanding on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is complicated by the fact that it is associated with particularly affecting those with pre-existing health conditions. Despite this, research reported in The Economist estimates that many of those people whose deaths has been attributed to coronavirus would have been otherwise had many more years of life:

Estimated years of life lost from covid-19 deaths by age group and long-term conditions

The coronavirus pandemic presents challenges in many cases where the business as usual approach simply doesn’t work. Susan Athey, Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder and Alex Tabarrok point to the need for the right incentives to ensure that vaccines aren’t simply invented but also get produced in quantities needed:

Usually, to avoid the risk of investing in capacity that eventually proves worthless, firms invest in large-scale capacity only after the vaccine has proved effective. But in the middle of a pandemic, there are huge social and economic advantages to having vaccines ready to use as soon as they have been approved. If we leave it entirely to the market, we will get too little vaccine too late.

The coronavirus pandemic is a health problem that can readily be mitigated or compounded by the distribution of the right information in a timely manner. Anne Helen Petersen reports on Montana based Dr. Annie Bukacek’s questioning of the severity of the coronavirus nd how it has exacerbated political divisions:

Bukacek and others like her frame their opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, now and in the future, as part of a larger spiritual, political, and ideological battle. Their resistance is local, and, even here in Montana, still very much in the minority. Which perhaps explains the feeling of discombobulation, watching and hearing about the protests in the news or in your feeds: They’re such a small percentage of an otherwise largely compliant whole. But in a state of emergency, it only takes a handful, speaking to people’s deepest and darkest fears, to destabilize an entire society.

China adopted a rather different approach as the crisis became more apparent. Chinese state took a tight grasp on what information could be shared by the press and social media as reported by Shawn Yuan:

As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.

Coronavirus and the associated social distancing has brought forward all sorts of experiments which might otherwise have taken years to come forward. One of these is Universal Studios’ decision to release Trolls World Tour directly into homes at the 48-hour rental price of $19.99, earning a healthy $77m in revenues before marketing expenses. It will be interesting to see if this represents an outlier based on an unprecedented circumstances or a sign of the declining importance of the cinematic experience.

Taking a more far reaching approach, author Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that the coronavirus pandemic may be enough to wake us from complacency and the status quo:

We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.

Donald Trump is often perceived as something of a roughneck that rubbed more traditional elements of the Republican Party the wrong way. Given this, it’s interesting to read Evan Osnos’ detailed read on how Trump furnished support from the wealthy enclave of Greenwich Connecticut.

On the ground where I grew up, some of America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embraced a fable of self-reliance (except when the fable is untenable), a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit. In the long battle between the self and service, we have, for the moment, settled firmly on the self. To borrow a phrase from a neighbor in disgrace, we stopped worrying about “the moral issue here.”

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that has appeared just around the corner for quite some time. An indication of the still limited uptake can be found in Steam’s release of figures that point to just 1.9% of their users owning VR headsets…still very niche.

Many of us are on the lookout for the next big thing in digital media which is likely to unseat Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tik Tok…Nathan Baschez gives a pretty detailed look at Clubhouse which he describes as “halfway between a podcast and a party” in what is being described as an emerging wave of spontaneous social apps.

It’s sometimes hard to visualise the income inequalities we face not only between nations but also within them. Matt Korostoff’s data visualisation of the average median US household income in comparison to the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos makes a good start.

Comparison median US household income with wealth of Jeff Bezos

In a rather different world to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon is Sirin Kale’s exploration of the world of dropshipping which begins to sound more and more like a Ponzi scheme:

This year, his Shopify records show he’ll clear about $90,000 (£69,000) in personal profit. He describes dropshipping as a “real-life video game”, albeit one he doesn’t seem to enjoy an awful lot. “When you do dropshipping and Facebook ads, it’s like going to the casino and pressing the slot machine, and based off what happens, that’s how your emotions are going to be,” he says.

Tom Lamont uses Sam Winstons experiment with sensory deprivation in his exploration of how we are all responding to a world of over stimulation and information overload:

Winston went into the dark for a month in a bid to escape the digital bell-chimes, the bouncing icons, the bulletins and info-blasts – our exhausting daily scroll. “But when you go into the dark for a long time,” Winston admitted to me, recently, “you’re not going into a void. You’re going into yourself. And good luck finding blissful empty quiet there.” There was nothing to compete with the loud, incessant inner monologue or drown it out. I wondered, then, whether we’d created and refined all our sparkly informational distractions because on some level we knew the relentlessness of the subconscious had the real power to overload.

Kevin Kelly pulled together 68 pieces of unsolicited advice on his birthday. You will probably have heard a number of them before but it’s hard to fault them for providing advice for life.

Header image: Home by Gordon Cheung from the Tears of Paradise exhibition at Edel Assanti gallery.