What I've been reading, featuring vicarious patriotism about the NHS, re-visiting Avril Lavigne's debut, and post-9/11 pop culture

 
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  • A response to a troubling passage in Michelle Obama’s new memoir: “Jeremiah Wright knew what America was becoming. The Obamas can’t see what it is.”

  • “This is Going to Hurt” by Adam Kay (h/t Helena)

    • Immersive and powerful read that contains a common-sense appeal to protect socialized healthcare made all the more convincing by its brevity (a few pages).

    • It weirdly made me feel patriotic about and protective of the NHS even though I’m Filipino and grew up up in Indonesia and Vietnam. I was moved to talk to my dad today about healthcare, which hasn’t really factored into our lives largely due to good fortune health-wise but also coming from not having a national health program to speak of and living in areas with sketchy quality of service. I’ve lived in the West for the past almost-eight years and have only seen a doctor once and even then only under the insistence of my supervisor. Most of my European friends, who aren’t to my knowledge any less healthy than me, all seem to make a habit of going multiple times a year. To me, this speaks to a cultural adjustment that, against my own interests, I still have not learned to make. From my perspective, the American philosophical resistance to universal coverage comes across as a shocking squandering of opportunity and morally criminal neglect of their most vulnerable. If affordable, insuring against illness and injury is a top-three reason to even have a government.

    • Side note: I generally dislike books that pack punchlines this densely, but this was fun to read. I still found myself impatiently yearning for the earnest bits so maybe too many anecdotes and footnotes for my personal taste, which is admittedly weird. Must be something about the book as a medium for comedy because dumb tweets like this or this or this can make me cry.

  • Pitchfork revisits Avril Lavigne’s debut album “Let Go”. Contains this description of “Sk8er Boi”: “It sounds like Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ as if written by a normal teenager instead of a precocious musical cyborg.”

Let Go is the foundation of her surprisingly considerable legacy. Her feelings about it might be, well, complicated: She’d grown up enough by its release to know it wasn’t the album she wanted to make, and she never quite escaped its shadow. But you can imagine her listening to Let Go like she’s flipping through a yearbook or watching some long-forgotten DVD from a high-school talent show. It feels like a true dispatch from the frontlines of a teenager’s brain: unsure of itself, inelegant and occasionally inane, crackling with nervous energy.

My dad moved to Iowa from China in the ’90s. He felt that Barkley and him had similar experiences.

"So, to me, as an Asian in the U.S., I felt as long as I do a good job, people will respect me," my dad said.

Barkley and my dad both worked hard — so hard, they believed, that the color of their skin didn’t matter. In Chinese, we’d say that dad sometimes would 胡说八道(hú shuō bā dào) — that meant that sometimes he was known for spewing rubbish. I know that basketball fans might say Barkley often does the same.

  • A sensitive and earnest yet humorous two-part series on how pop culture has depicted 9/11 (both parts also embeded below). Summary: “Awkwardly, for the most part.” Terrifically researched, edited, and narrated. The channel is full of high-effort material and is sponsored by a Patreon.

 

Part 1

Part 2

 

A request for raw data from the corresponding authors of 771 animal biotelemetry-focused manuscripts, published between 1995 and 2015, highlighted a difference in data sharing practices across researcher career levels. Responses were positive in only 11% of requests made to corresponding authors that were senior researchers, while 72% of responses were positive when CAs were early career researchers.

  • McKinsey & Co. respond to the New York Times article linked to in my last post.

    • A good thread critical of the hand-waviness of some parts of the Times piece but also relating the validity of the controversy to the firm’s public image and idealistic recruitment strategy. (h/t Marginal Revolution, though I did not find much value in Tyler Cowen’s Bloomberg column on the topic, which read mostly as a proxy defense of the thesis of his new book)

    • Management consulting firms employ around 10% of the Ivy League’s graduating classes, usually by appealing to young people’s idealism. More so for business undergrads like the one I did my bachelor’s in.

  • Final note (will try to have a stand-alone post on the topic at some point soon for posterity):

 
 

What I've been reading, featuring problematic art and Jonathan Franzen's "Purity"

  • Writers Nikil Saval and Pankaj Mishra correspond on how they reckon with the legacy of VS Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Man Booker and Nobel Prize-winning author whose influential writing conjured neocolonial, fascist, racist, and misogynistic sentiment. I’m not familiar with Naipaul, but the subject of reconciling influential work with its problematic creator is doubtlessly relevant. They artfully call this exercise “the painful sum of things”.

    Choice excerpts with some editing:

NS: Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful—in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it—as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.)

PM: For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world... In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example—that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort—was a great boost.

NS: The question is whether this recognition, this fundamental dissonance in his existence, had to find the sorts of toxic resolutions that it did: his Islamophobic comments that gave succor to Hindutva; the current of anti-blackness that courses through his work; the consistent disregard for women writers and editors... it has taken me some time to come around to feeling in Naipaul what Adorno recognized in Wagner: that what is damaged and wounding and reactionary in him is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguring.

PM: There is an incandescent essay by Vivian Gornick on Naipaul and Baldwin—why the latter opens up new places for reflection and action while the former closes them down. She concludes that Baldwin’s unavoidable engagement with the tormented history of African Americans saves him from the sterile despair she identifies in Naipaul’s nonfiction writing… Naipaul did not have an equally profound stake in any society he knew—or the societies he condemned for failing to be more like the civilized West. He was embraced early in his career by Britain’s white literary establishment; he retreated to the countryside but took little interest in British politics and indeed professed disdain for the political struggles and intellectual endeavors of people like Stuart Hall. He was embarrassed about his origins in the small island of Trinidad and hoped to achieve a generous identity through his ancestral country.

NS: When Naipaul received the knighthood, the cycle of humiliation had made its final turn. He praised the universal civilization that had granted him one of its highest, most nostalgic honors. There was the heir to Conrad and Dickens—Dickens who had proposed, in response to Indian killings during the 1857 rebellion, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested”—receiving the sign of grace from the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

It is the nature of the societies we live in never to let you forget your luck, to point to any success as a sign of its ultimate justice; to make your rage against them seem like ingratitude. In the end, to an extent that I find debilitating, Naipaul was grateful. I know that the sense of personal injury, of grievance, that I feel in recalling these fundamental aspects of his life and art are disabling—feelings that one day might be transmuted into something different; a necessary distance. But I have yet to manage it.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was 18 and that he was 41… It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair witht he milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.”

  • I’ve just finished “Purity” by Jonathan Frenzen (h/t Eszter), the inaugural selection for our unofficial grad-student book club here at Nuffield College. I didn’t like it and not knowing Franzen outside of this work, I found myself distrusting him with the subject matter. I couldn’t help thinking of this tweet from the @GuyInYourMFA novelty account run by @danaschwartzzz:

 

I’m not prudish about what I read, but I didn’t feel nearly enough reward for indulging 560+ pages of exhausting characters. I can appreciate the choice to use a cast of unlikeable in a novel called Purity, but the unlikeability of the author seeps through too much to justify the length.

Spoiler alert, I also made this chart trying to chronologize the sequence of events in this novel, which jumps abruptly between chapters across space, time, and character perspective:

 
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EK: …99.99 percent of all the humans who’ll ever live have yet to be born. If that’s true, then even very small reductions in the danger of those future lives not happening begins to outweigh large improvements in the value of life now.

BG: Well, the people in the future will have more knowledge and more resources than we have today. They’ll understand what those emerging problems look like.

If you said there was a philanthropist 500 years ago that said, “I’m not gonna feed the poor, I’m gonna worry about existential risk,” I doubt their prediction would have made any difference in terms of what came later. You got to have a certain modesty…

If somebody thinks there’s a magic thing they can do today that helps all those future lives, in a free economy, they have a chance to build whatever it is they think does that. We do have a few things like climate change where you want to invest today to involve problems tomorrow. I’m always a little surprised there’s not more engagement on that issue. Pandemic risk, weapons of mass destruction.

But… there’s not many that we really understand with clarity, and so somebody who says, “Okay, let’s just let a million people die of malaria because I’m building this temple that will help people a million years from now,” I wonder what the heck they’re building that temple out of.

EK: A lot of people have become very focused on the question of AI risk. I’m curious how you weight that as a risk to future human life?

BG: And so they think that’s more important than kids dying of malaria?

EK: …I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths, but as I understand it, the idea is there are a lot of good people working on malaria, and AI is so dangerous that it’s better for people on the margin to be working on AI risk now than to be—

BG: But most of those people aren’t working on AI risk. They’re actually accelerating progress in AI… They like working on AI. Working on AI is fun. If they think what they’re doing is reducing the risk of AI, I haven’t seen that proof of that.