What I've been reading, featuring our blindnesses, Tony Romo's vision, and Theranos' blind vision

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members.

…I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

….Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.

I’m disheartened by the defensiveness of the NYT reader comments; there is value in the type of introspection these challenges evoke. This week, I was called out by a caring friend for what they considered half-hearted allyship and I tried to take it as an opportunity to step back and re-assess. I hope others have done the same when I worked up the same courage to share my pain with them. Critically revisiting our shortcomings and identifying our blind spots are the purposes of events like Black History Month (this month in the States) or LGBT month (this month here in the UK). Addressing ongoing struggles should be uncomfortable; let’s not sterilize and misremember the details for palatability and peace of mind. Sorry if this paragraph reads as trite, but I’ve been feeling this a lot lately and wouldn’t mind erring on the side of trite enunciation.

I hold with Wordsonfire from Minneapolis who wrote:

I'm struck by all the defensiveness and whataboutism in the responses to this column. Cloaking responses in "what was possible at that time," and "black men did it too only worse," suggests that it's harder to just accept history and those flawed individuals who came before us as they were.

Few are willing to say what needs to be said: "That was wrong. Let's strive to do better."

So little was required of the readers of this column and yet they were unable to demonstrate even the smallest bit of remorse or solidarity with black women.

Photo taken from  this Filipino-American morning-show panel discussion  on the legacy of American colonization

Photo taken from this Filipino-American morning-show panel discussion on the legacy of American colonization

Those who want to change the world can’t shape their ideas according to the conventional wisdom about what the public will accept, whether on refugees, climate change or anything else.

Who does the most to make people richer, healthier, happier, and less likely to be killed by lightning? Is it those who accentuate the positive or those who accentuate the negative? Rosling notes that progress in human rights, women’s education, catastrophe relief, and many other matters is often largely thanks to activists who believe things are getting worse, though he speculates that they might achieve even more if they were readier to recognize improvements. Bill Gates, in his call to optimism, acknowledges that to improve the world, “you need something to be mad about.” Focusing on bad cases is indeed no mere cognitive malfunction. Voltaire would hardly have waged his campaign against clerical abuses of power if he had been struck by the fact that, statistically speaking, most priests were perfectly decent chaps.

When he coined “the new optimism,” George Patrick argued that dissatisfaction with the state of the world was not a defect. It was instead “the voice of progress proclaiming its discontent with the present and demanding improvement.” Perhaps new optimists should not forget to thank old pessimists for the fruits of their discontent.

I find these optimists usually don’t define a meaningful counterfactual and that when they are convincing, the change in perspective is usually that things were worse before not that things seem better now. In that framing, new optimism would seem an argument for complacency and usually a validation of the (neoliberal) status quo. We don’t evaluate, say, civil rights movements this way by asking oppressed people to be grateful for the gains they’ve made; we ask why they couldn’t be afforded them sooner and why injustices persist today:

 
 

Also would like to see a new-optimist response to the finding by Alesina, Stantcheva, and Teso (2017) that “pessimists [about social mobility] are far more supportive of redistributive welfare policies” because to me, new optimism comes from a place of privilege.

I also haven’t seen one meaningfully approach the topic of the coming climate refugee crisis that could imperil billions. But do let me know if you come across a new optimist from a developing country. Here’s The Nation on Steven Pinker’s perspective on climate change:

But even if we grant that in many domains human life has indeed improved enormously over the past two centuries, there remains a simple question: Can we count on the progress continuing? What, for instance, about climate change? Pinker is no climate-change denier, and admits that “the challenge is daunting.” But then he quickly pivots from his position that things are getting better and better to say that we can avoid the looming doom if only we start taxing carbon emissions, increase the use of nuclear power, and engage in deliberate climate engineering to lower global temperatures.

He largely disregards the fact that the political will to move in any of these directions is wholly lacking and will remain so as long as the party that controls the White House and Congress refuses to admit that a problem even exists. When it comes to his favored technological solution, nuclear power, Pinker also seems determined to ignore the problem that the people who manage plants do not always follow their own safety procedures and cannot plan for every possible natural disaster (as Fukushima showed all too dramatically). The industry, he insists, has learned from its mistakes.

Until they were ready to go public, Holmes ruled that Theranos was to operate in ‘stealth mode’: no published papers open to peer review, no demonstrations to anyone who hadn’t signed a non-disclosure agreement. All visitors had to be accompanied at all times, even to the loo. Holmes’s corner office – modelled on the Oval Office, and with the same arrangement of desks, sofas and armchairs – had windows made from bulletproof glass… To reporters, to investors, Holmes would say that her technological breakthroughs were a ‘trade secret’, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

…But as for how it all worked, Holmes would only say that ‘a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.’

There is also a brutal invokation of Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” at the end. An Adam McKay adaptation of the book is already in development.

  • I was finally able to watch “If Beale Street Could Talk.” I’m still processing my thoughts, but the music:

 
  • Tony Romo’s sensational color-commentary genius. I don’t think an NBA player could replicate Romo’s intuition for basketball broadcasts—the pace of a football game lends itself to these pre-action analyses and I think it’s a skill quarterbacks need to hone more than do point guards. But even if there were, it would go against ESPN and TNT’s propensities to promote inane under-informed voices in place of intelligent analysts. I wasn’t able to find the tweet I read a while back that bemoaned the massive gulf in quality of basketball analysis between television announcers and (a select few) writers and bloggers, but it rings very true.

 

What I've been reading, featuring carbon dividends, Robert Caro's research process, and a breakthrough in non-line-of-sight imaging

  • Guillermo Del Toro reflects on “Roma”, his countryman and friend’s masterpiece now nominated for Best Picture:

Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

Caro is famous for the obsessive research underlying his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter has been a four-volume project (publications in 1982, 1990, 2002, and 2012) with a fifth and concluding volume characteristically overdue. His next book, “Working”, is a memoir and is due out in a few months:

Why am I publishing these random recollections toward a memoir while I’m still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography, when I haven’t finished it, while I’m still—at the age of eighty-three—several years from finishing it? Why don’t I just include this material in the longer, full-length memoir I’m hoping to write?

The answer is, I’m afraid, quite obvious.. I am well aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.

I also recommend listening to his appearance last year on the New Yorker Radio Hour (embedded below), which he at the end calls the best interview he’s ever had. Read also this interview with the New York Review. I have not read any of his books.

  • This is California, the creepy progressive dreamland of contradictions dominated by the real-estate lobby

“I have interviewed a number of the characters Mark Lilla cites in his essay' ‘Two Roads for the New French Right’. Lilla’s account fails to confront the white supremacy at the heart of a movement he ultimately describes as a ‘coherent worldview'.’ Although he is correct that there are important evolutions underway on the French and European right, he overlooks an implacable bigotry that remains the essence of the project. Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.”

And Lilla replies:

“Writing about the political right has never been harder. Different kinds of right-wing ideologies and political formations are proliferating and shaking liberal governments around the world… This makes it difficult to keep track of all the developments, distinguish them, and establish the connections between them. At the same time, liberal and left forces that want to resist these developments are increasingly hostile to learning anything that does not conform to their settled ideas about the right.

“…a reader of McAurley’s letter who had not seen the piece might come to a different conclusion: that it was intended to whitewash Marion [Maréchal ] (or her grandfather, or right-wing forces everywhere; it’s unclear which) and ignore the real animating forces on the right, which are ‘white supremacy,’ ‘hatred of the other,’ ‘bigotry,’ and ‘an ideology of exclusion,’ all whipped up by the phantom of immigration. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, forget the writings about family and sexuality, forget all the talk about organic community, forget the lashing out against neoliberalism and tech giants, forget Pope Francis. It all comes down to hatred: ‘Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.’”

  • Questions that have been weighing on my mind ever since I’ve thought about working in development:

Figure 1: “Controlled by a laptop PC, the standard digital camera obtains a snapshot of the irradiance distribution on a visible imaging wall, which is induced by the penumbra of an occluding object owing to light emanating from a scene of interest. The scene of interest is displayed on an LCD monitor for ease of performing experiments with many scenes. The snapshot is fed through a computer algorithm to recover an image of the scene of interest and an estimate of the position of the hidden occluder.”  From: “  Computational periscopy with an ordinary digital camera   ”, Nature   565 , 435-436 (2019)

Figure 1: “Controlled by a laptop PC, the standard digital camera obtains a snapshot of the irradiance distribution on a visible imaging wall, which is induced by the penumbra of an occluding object owing to light emanating from a scene of interest. The scene of interest is displayed on an LCD monitor for ease of performing experiments with many scenes. The snapshot is fed through a computer algorithm to recover an image of the scene of interest and an estimate of the position of the hidden occluder.”

From: “Computational periscopy with an ordinary digital camera”, Nature 565, 435-436 (2019)

What I've been reading, featuring les gilets jaunes, notes on trap music, and the revelation that was "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

“Trap is a form of soft power that takes the resources of the black underclass (raw talent, charisma, endurance, persistence, improvisation, dexterity, adaptability, beauty) and uses them to change the attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others, usually by making them admit they desire and admire those same things and will pay good money to share vicariously in even a collateral showering from below. This allows the trap artist to transition from an environment where raw hard power dominates and life is nasty, brutal, and short to the world of celebrity, the Valhalla of excess, lucre, influence, fame — the only transparently and sincerely valued site of belonging in our culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that insofar as you’re interested in having a good time, there’s probably never been a sound so perfectly suited to having every kind of fun disallowed in conservative America.”

  • Esquire rebukes the New York Times bubble and their inadvertently self-incriminating headline “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism and How We Missed It” (which has since been changed slightly). Some choice tweets taking exception:

 
 
  • Not really a thing I "read” (I should change the name of this blog series), but I watched “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” this week. It turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve watched from this year and easily the most fun. I can’t remember the last time a movie positively defied my expectations this much; I was expecting it to be a direct-to-TV production based on its title and its featuring a talking-pig character, plus this is the studio (Sony) that bungled the live-action Spider-Man franchise and last year gave us the “Emoji Movie”. This blew me away, so much so that I’ll bullet-point some superlatives below:

    • It might be the funniest movie to come out this year. The only other contender to me would be “Date Night”, another movie that defied genre expectations. I found the humor in “The Death of Stalin” to be far beneath Armando Iannucci’s other work. Keep in mind I have not seen “Vice”, “Sorry to Bother You”, “Girls Trip”, “Eighth Grade”, or “mid90s".

    • It’s the best superhero movie since “The Dark Knight” (2008) if you don’t count the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy (which I would; it’s the topic of a heated debate I’ve had with several friends which I’ll spare you but essentially I will not back down from my claim that Caesar is the greatest superhero ever put to screen) and maybe the freshest Hollywood take on the genre since “Chronicle” (2012).

    • It’s the best animated movie since either “Rango” (2011), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011), or “Toy Story 3” (2010). I loved “Zootopia” (2016) and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), but this year’s “Spider-Man” is just better and visually more creative. For all the praise Pixar gets for its increasingly realistic animation, “Spider-Man” (and to a lesser extent, the “Kung Fu Panda” series) makes a compelling counter-argument for animation that doesn’t pretend not to be animation.

More soon, but this post was long enough.

What I've been reading, featuring NK Jemisin inventing and changing worlds

Who did get into Oxford back then? A small group whose upholding of the old traditions of Englishness can no longer prepare a British Isles – made up of all its various peoples – for the forces of modernity. For our real place in the world, for the consequences of Empire.

This is the shrinking Kingdom of the English, who subjugated Wales and Scotland and Ireland. The biggest problem of elite cliques is myopia. The country is far more brittle and divided than they can see. They are the believers who still, somewhere, think that the map of the world is pink. But they forget their Classics lessons; what happens when an empire falls? With no one else to dominate, the establishment turns on its own people. We become subjects, not of the British Empire, but of the last dregs of the English upper classes. A report into undergraduate admissions earlier this year found that in 2017 Oxford admitted more pupils from Westminster School than black students, a glaring piece of evidence about how the knot is being tightened even more firmly around the bag of family silver.

I wonder now about all the other kids like me, the ones at odd angles, the queer and working class and black, or even just Northern, or Welsh, or provincial. This is not a place for them, however loudly they might be knocking on the door.

“In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.”

Part of why Jemisin is viewed as “political” is the mere fact that she writes about things like dragons and planets at all. Since at least the early 1900s, when people began using “fantasy” to signify a certain type of literature, the genre has been dominated by white male authors and their nostalgia for the pastoral European past, a time of kings and queens and wizards, all of them white. The heroes in these tales are often intent on saving that traditional order from some alien force — an invading army of orcs, an evil sorcerer. Jemisin flips that formula on its head. The Broken Earth, her latest and most famous trilogy, begins with an oppressed man, an escaped slave of sorts, setting off an earthquake that rips the land in two, toppling cities and covering the realm in a cloud of ash that will linger for thousands of years. In Jemisin’s telling, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As one character tells another, ‘Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.’”

 

From August, Jemisin accepting her third consecutive Hugo Award: "This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wanna-be who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage; that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor; and that when they win, it's meritocracy, but when we win, it's identity politics. I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.”

 

“I had seen trauma before, but never an entire traumatized nation. I reminded myself regularly that all the adults I met were survivors or former killers, who now had to try to live with what they had seen or done. Almost everyone, survivor or killer, had lost family members. They carried around inside themselves millions of tiny worlds of suffering.”

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

It is this need, this desire to render blackness in hues of dread and sorrow, that leads some to reject rapturous renderings of black life as inauthentic. This misconception would be trivial if it didn’t trivialize an unquestionable fact about black life, for who else has wrested as much beauty from abject pain? Who else has manifested such joy despite outsized suffering? Somewhere, an Earth, Wind & Fire song is playing in a living room where portraits of Maya Angelou and a blue-eyed Jesus share a wall. The Rapture will be televised. And I’ll be damned if it won’t involve a cookout and somebody’s auntie leading an Electric Slide. I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.