Sunday, January 13, 2019

What I'm Consuming #4


Listening 

Joe Rogan Podcast with Jonathan Haidt - Here's a good talk on giving kids the freedom to roam in their neighborhoods, make mistakes, skin knees, and grow into more hardy adults. Haidt's worries about giving preteens phones and access to social media seem spot-on, and his suggestions are reasonable and helpful (no social media before high school, no phones in the kids' bedrooms, get together with parents and suggest sensible rules for the school principal to implement). 


WTF with Steve Coogan - Coogan is probably my favorite British comedian, and I look forward to both Stan and Ollie and the latest Alan Partridge series.

The Rewatchables (The Godfather)  



Reading 


The End of the End of the Earth: Essays by Jon FranzenFranzen may well be my favorite living fiction writer and essayist, and his beginning essays (notably "The Essay in Dark Times"), in which he asks deep questions about our place in a warming world, are superb. He uses his birding hobby as a sort of colorful segue into the deepest darkest of questions about our existence in an increasingly frightening world, and when he does this, his essays feel at once significant, moving, and relatable. They're so good because it's clear that Franzen's asking himself a question he's deeply interested in, and we get to enjoy the fruits of his research and thinking.  

Some of the later essays are more purely about birding, or simply the travel experience, and they feel less significant. Franzen’s essays gave me a small epiphany: Any travel essay worth its while should not be a travelogue; it should be a question, which the author will then think through over the course of the essay. The travel portion of the article should only be used as a background setting for the answering of the question, and the travelogue is only useful if it provides emotional resonance or insights into the intellectual question. 

This past summer I started writing travel essays about my first visit to the UK and my summer living with grizzlies at Lake Clark National Park. I lost heart and gave up several times, and I think I lost heart because I was writing these essays as start-to-finish travelogues. I should have started with a question I was interested in finding the answer to through the writing of the article. That would have kept me going, and it would have given something to the reader. 

This book also made me wonder: When should all of our artworks touch on climate change? It seems like this big giant force is slowly approaching us and most all of us are turning away from it. But Franzen, in many of this essays, links the mundane (birding) to climate change, and I'm wondering if we should all be doing that. Should we all begin to move what's looming in the background to the foreground? 

The Woolly Mammoth Lumbers back into View / The New Yorker by Rachel RiedererCount me as a fan of de-extinction, so long as the obvious questions have good answers (is there suitable habitat?). One could argue that we have bigger fish to fry (climate change, yes) and that we already have more than enough ongoing extinction problems, but as the article insinuates, through the re-creation of many long-gone animals, we could be creating tools to bring back the species we're presently saying goodbye to, perhaps at a future date in a more sensible age. But my romantic side speaks the loudest: a world with mammoths, passenger pigeons, and chestnuts would further enchant this world for me.

The Insect Apocalypse Is Here / NYT Magazine by Brooke Jarvis - Maybe the most depressing thing I've ever read. 



Watching 

Black Mirror / episode Bandersnatch - This is about a video game programmer in the 1980s, creating a choose-your-own-adventure game. It’s also the first-ever “choose your own adventure” TV show, in which you, the viewer, decide some of the character's actions. I think this is an admirable attempt at novelty, but the story just seems to fall apart and make little sense. None of the multiple endings are satisfying (and I am capable of being satisfied by a bleak Black Mirror ending, but this one just doesn't get it right, perhaps because a story can only have one proper ending). Still, this might be worth a watch for the experience of it, and because this could very well be the historic beginnings of more interactive viewing experiences.

Brexit: An Uncivil War - What begins as a stylish political-techno thriller (√† la The Social Network) quickly becomes a bloated docudrama with too many character introductions and dragging focus group scenes that attempt to give a comprehensive portrait of the leave-or-remain perspectives of the British electorate. It suffers from what is either excessive ambition or inadequate focus. The narrative would have been more compelling if it focused on Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) the way The Social Network always kept its eyes on Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Instead, Brexit tries to be the end-all-be-all story of Brexit by introducing 20+ characters, the “Remain Team,” and various focus group subcharacters. [Side criticism: I think Cumberbatch is a perfectly adequate actor, but also one of the most overrated, and I think (and I’m being serious here) that this is due in part to his at-once hip and old-sounding name.]

That said, its weakness as a movie is its strength as a docudrama: the viewer (especially a foreign one like myself) comes away with a solid understanding of the Brexit mess: the behind-the-scenes politics, the influence of foreign money, the game-changing data collecting technologies, the sophisticated propaganda, and even the resentment, hopelessness, and perceived disempowerment of the British people. 

While the flames of this resentment were, with precision and skill, fanned by shadowy figures with an agenda, the resentment, nevertheless, is at least partly real and justified (just as it is in America). But one comes away thinking, that in both of our countries, this reservoir of resentment has been mischanneled by a group of opportunistic and destructive wrecking-ball-wielding charlatan-clowns, who, conveniently for them, don’t have to bear any responsibility for the messes they’ve made.

The ingenious slogan of Team Leave (“Take Back Control”) carries the same sense of resentful and racially-loaded nostalgia of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Even if this nostalgia has in part been fabricated and manufactured by dark corporate forces playing a decades-long game of slow propaganda (read Democracy in Chains), there is enough truth and realness in voters’ resentment that Democrats and Remainers must take notice.

What are the most effective ways we can “take back control” of our lives, our communities, our countries (without blowing everything up)? Whenever I hear about “taking back control,” I think of some of the island communities here in Scotland. For the past twenty years, communities have been given rights to purchase and collectively manage the land around them. Here, people have votes, jobs, and roles that give everyday citizens a sense of responsibility that they probably wouldn’t have elsewhere. I don’t know how replicable this is for the U.S., but something must happen to give us all access to such roles and the feelings they generate.

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