What I've been reading, featuring my vote in the 2016 election and the mediocrity of “Vice”

“By now it should be obvious that Facebook’s so-called pro-democracy rhetoric has been fundamentally damaging to real democracies and to democratic movements around the world. It has also directly benefited authoritarian regimes, which have relied on the platform to spread untruths in order to control and manipulate their citizens. In the Philippines, as content moderators busily remove posts and pictures according to a bespoke metric developed by “mostly twenty-something-year-olds” in Menlo Park, California, the president, Rodrigo Duterte, is busy on Facebook too, using paid followers to spread falsehoods about his critics and his policies. The journalist Maria Ressa, whose news organization, Rappler, has been keeping a database of the more than twelve million Facebook accounts that have attacked critics of Duterte and have been traced back to the president, has been a target of those accounts as well, at one point getting as manmy as ninety hate messages an hour via Facebook—messages like ‘I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death.’

“…in countries like the Philippines and Myanmar, where the vast majority of people access the Internet through Facebook, not using the platform is likely not an option. Indeed, establishing an equivalence between Facebook and the Internet is one of the payoffs of Free Basics, an app Facebook created that provides purposefully limited Internet access—there is no stand-alone e-mail server and Facebook is the only social media platform—to people in developing countries who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go online.”

There was a special futility in my mailing my overseas ballot against Duterte in 2016 when I lived three minutes from Facebook’s East Palo Alto–gentrifying campus. Like even though I could well have been the only voter in the Philippine elections living in this historically disenfranchised American city still suffering from its legacy of redlining, racial segregation, crime, violence, and public neglect, the net contribution of my small neighborhood to my home country 7000 miles away was nothing less than the corrosion of its democracy.

“Hatred might not come into it for Finnis, but there is little doubt that hating, disliking, maligning gay people – and creating the conditions under which gay people come to loathe themselves – follow from his proposals…

“When I read my straight colleagues telling everyone else to give Finnis the ‘respect’ of engaging with his opinions, to ‘make arguments’ in response, I wonder how many times they have had to ‘make the argument’ for their happiness, for their home and their partner, for the life they’ve built with the people they love. At times, I’m not even sure what I am meant to be making the argument for. It does not matter if my gayness was innate or chosen, it is so deeply a part of me, such a root cause of any fulfilment that I feel and any good that I do, that it becomes clear that what really follows from Finnis’s view is that I should stop existing as me. I should retreat into some other Sophie, who lives without the woman who makes her a better teacher, listener, thinker. Finnis thinks my good would be actualised in an unhappy marriage with a man. But almost everything I know about the virtues, I learned from my experiences as a gay woman: courage, constancy, generosity, love. I can engage, certainly, I can make arguments in response, but there is also a sense, at a deeper level, in which there is nothing I can say.”

  • I didn’t really like “Vice” (2018), the Adam McKay film about Dick Cheney

    • As with McKay’s previous film “The Big Short”, which I enjoyed, the movie is defined by its narration, dark comedy, and hyper-stylized editing. I’m all for that and bought in the instant the trailer was released. It just wasn’t done nearly as well in the final product. Definitely some highlights, but if you take on Cheney and the neoconservative world order on this large a platform, you have a responsibility to do so thoughtfully. That’s not a criticism of the stylization or comedic take of the film; I just mean that if you’re going to take on this subject and license the recency, pain, and footage of real events, you should submit a product that demonstrates more effort went into its formulation. Everything about this felt unfinished .

    • For one thing, the 2-hour, 12-minute movie didn’t decide whether it was going to be a biopic or an exploration of the cruelty of the Bush-Cheney Iraq War. The first half runs through Cheney’s life, but he’s already a diabolical opportunist from the outset: early scenes include him unbothered by a colleague’s shattered leg and only choosing to identify as a Republican for its career advantages. This isn’t a character study then. Similarly, if the second half of the movie is about the cruelty of the Bush-Cheney administration during the Iraq War, why did we spend the entire first half on a mostly-irrelevant overview of Cheney’s career path? The movie’s “Where Are They Now?” epilogue suggests McKay’s movie is ‘about’ the cost of the unnecessary Iraq War; if that’s the takeaway of the movie, then humanizing Cheney and spending time on anything more than the broad strokes of his non-political life story shouldn’t occupy nearly as much time as it did.

    • Also it used its ending monologue to accuse the audience of complicity in Cheney’s empowerment. That would be OK if there were any lead-up to it, but the movie showed he was unelectable whenever he ran at the front of a ticket and entered the private sector because of it. Cheney’s power came from unprecedented diminution of a president behind the scenes and away from public scrutiny. How then is Cheney’s foreign policy the public’s fault? Just felt completely out of left field for that to be presented as the message of the movie.

    • The narration is awful. It’s somehow indignantly sanctimonious and condescending while also not explaining enough what was wrong. It spent a lot of time re-emphasizing the same point about the Unitary Executive Theory—not that hard a concept from what I can tell—while glossing over the exact details of how it was exploited. We had a very cool montage of Cheney installing his men in different sections of government, but we never actually see how he used the machine he built to create the war he wanted other than when they mention he had a lot of offices. Yes, we see that Halliburton influenced his Iraq policy—very subtle: on election night, Cheney reads his wife a text saying they got “double what we expected” as their exit bonus—but other than a map of oil wells and a spreadsheet of energy companies, we don’t know what the administration actually did for them in Iraq. At one point, Rumsfeld asks Cheney whether they’d be indicted and the audience doesn’t even really know what the hypothetical charges would be.

    • Sam Rockwell in the wake of last year’s Oscar win turns in a bad SNL impression as George W. Bush. Similarly lazy: at some point McKay asked himself how to convey Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld’s evil and decided the answer was to have someone ask him what his values are and have him laugh and shut the door on them. Come on now, how are you going to spend all that runtime on Cheney’s pre-political years but not spend time on Rumsfeld’s brand of evil?

    • “Vice” as in ‘vice president’ and “Vice” as in ‘bad’ because the vice president was bad

    • Rare instance where the Reddit comments are generally on point

    • All in all, my frustration stems from seeing an argument I sympathize with being made poorly and without focus or sense of story-telling, which I feel is almost more devastating to an argument than a good counterargument.

    • If you wanted a ridiculously over-the-top challenge to the moral corruption of the crony capitalist elite, the WWE did it better:

 
 
 
 

“When people of color enter elite spaces, they make those with unearned advantages conscious of how they’ve been favored by the system. That poses a choice to those whose access to such cloistered communities is unquestioned: They can recognize that others might also succeed given the right circumstances, or they can defend the inequities of that system in an effort to preserve their self-image, attacking the new entrant as a charlatan or the group they belong to as backwards.”

  • Spotify’s revenue-sharing model is dumb

  • Book club selection #3: “Pnin” (h/t Lucy) by Vladimir Nabokov (whose last name I learned to mispronounce from Sting). The theme of blissful ignorance made this tweet a somewhat apt unintentional summary:

  • Have aliens found us? The interview is a mess but even more enjoyable when you imagine Dr. Avi Loeb as the scientist in a B movie whose calculations correctly predict an incoming alien invasion but everyone ignores him because his hair is messy and whenever he tries to explain his theory, he keeps dropping papers of printed-out spreadsheets and then a high-ranking bureaucrat who’s in cahoots with the aliens sneeringly tells him that they’re cutting his funding and confiscating his desktop computer.

  • Conan O’Brien contemplating his legacy as his late-night show restructures into a 30-minute format (h/t Junho)

“Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think that’s what separates me from the other hosts.

“I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.”

Relevant: his recent appearance on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. The style of the podcast is often absurdist, fast pace, and highly improvisational. Associating Conan with the late-night monologuing format that I’ve long found trite, I was really impressed by his ability not just to keep up with host Scott Aukerman, but to outwit him with ease. It’s a strange duality that I frequently confront with Conan, Late Show-era Stephen Colbert, and the best SNL alumni: their undeniable innate talent and intelligence contrasted against the mediocrity of their TV shows.

 
 
  • Two-time Oscar-nominated director Jonah Hill and Tony-nominated Broadway star Michael Cera in conversation for the A24 podcast. Apparently they co-starred in a movie together when they were teenagers.

 

What I've been reading, featuring cardiac and social network problems

  • “I need Squirrel Hill to return to its right size.”

  • A brief history of artificial hearts, which I learned are not nearly as well-developed as I had thought; they are described as “[challenging] the binary characterization of therapeutics as either successes or failures.” It reads like some of the middle chapters of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s excellent history of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies”, in that it has a practitioner framing the egos and recklessnesses of researchers as driving medical advancement:

“In the old days of medicine… that’s the way these guys did things. It was, ‘Well, I have an idea, and I’m the one that knows best, and by golly, I’m going to do it.’ And did that advance the field? Maybe. Is it the right thing to do? Absolutely not.”

“While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”

  • The restraint of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  • A very peculiar review of a book. What kind of book? Well, it’s 1153 pages long, it interrupts itself midway with a 400-page essay on young Adolf Hitler, it’s the sixth volume of a series and takes place in the real-life aftermath to to the first volume, and beyond that, its readers can’t seem to agree on any more specific a descriptor.

“I believe [the book’s readers] cannot tell you whether they think it is good or not either, but also that they all agree it exercises a certain fascination that keeps you reading. This fascination is what a proper reviewer would have to analyse. Otherwise, you are reduced to the status of the art teacher, moving from pupil to pupil and saying, this part is really good, there is something wrong with the anatomy of this figure, there’s something missing in t he lower left part of the picture, that part has an interesting colour combination, etc. I’m afraid I will have to do that too, since I agreed to review this book.”

  • AskReddit: “No-longer-deaf people of Reddit, what’s something you thought would have a certain noise but were surprised it doesn’t?” The top answer has been deleted but had expressed surprise the sun doesn’t constantly make a background humming sound.

    • “I had a friend who was surprised to find out that people have different sounding voices.”

    • “I had a deaf girl ask me if ice cream made a sound when it melted.”

  • The pre-midterms NYRB long-form on Nancy Pelosi

  • Get well soon, Caris LeVert

  • No relevant link here, but the new movie in the Harry Potter spinoff series comes out this weekend and has the title “Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald” despite apparently not featuring any titular fantastic beasts. Also screening this week is the sequel to the movie adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, which has the full title of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story.”

    OK, one link here:

 
 

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:

 
Purity Timeline.jpg
 

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.