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 "Reporter" by Seymour Hersh, "Normal People" by Sally Rooney, and literary hot takes

  • “Reporter” by Seymour Hersh. Very apt one-word title; Hersh despite or because of his hard-headedness comes across as the living embodiment of the profession. Highly recommend to anyone with any interest in or respect for investigative journalism. Hersh is now one of my few heroes.

    It inspires mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, his career is a monumentally successful story that follows a copyboy from the South Side of Chicago who found his calling and thrived amidst a culture of self-censorship, conformity, and hierarchy with his idealism and work ethic exposing the protected secrets of institutions as powerful as the military, the White House, Capitol Hill, and to a smaller extent, Wall Street and the mafia. It’s astonishing too how single-handedly his successes come (on more than one occasion, Hersh refers to himself as a “lone wolf”) in an industry where the impact of reporting is cynically contingent on the politics of self-censorship, publication prestige, personal vendettas, and competitive one-upmanship: his Pulitzer-winning work uncovering the My Lai massacre came as a freelance journalist. Indeed, when his agent refuses his request to approach The New Yorker about any writing vacancies, Hersh visits its editor’s office without an appointment, secures a job on the spot, then fires his agent. Even when he finds a more permanent home in The New York Times and The New Yorker, the arrangements seem more like the hiring of a truth-seeking mercenary than an employee. But the results speak for themselves and the reader cannot help but admire that Hersh’s body of work has come largely on his own terms, without compromise of his integrity, objectivity, or values.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t shake the disappointment at the apparent rarity of Hersh-type reporters. A common thread in Hersh’s work is empathy for the powerless, which is too often unmatched by his peers. At his first reporting job, he is keen to break the story of a horrifying murder of a Chicago family by arson, but relaying the details to his editor, he is asked: “Ah, my good, dear, energetic Mr. Hersh. Do the, alas, poor, unfortunate victims happen to be of the Negro persuasion?” Hersh answers in the affirmative and the story is reduced to a single sentence along the lines of “Five Negroes died in a fire last night on the Southwest Side.” He repeatedly attributes this uncommon compassion, which manifests in his antiwar stance and skepticism of the conduct of every administration from Kennedy to Obama, to his upbringing among minorities in the South Side. I found it difficult then to resist the cynical thought that were it not for this man’s unlikely ascent to the media elite, the brutal rapes of murders of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the clandestine bombing of Cambodia would have not just been unquestioned, but entirely unknown and the Abu Ghraib abuses underreported. Sad enough that they went largely unpunished, which is in keeping with a recurring theme of the book that is maybe not emphasized enough: that for all the work that can go into an investigation, it is often not enough to have the information out there, so to speak. Change is repeatedly dulled by public disinterest, the industry declining to follow up a competitor’s story, a newspaper’s reach, a public refutation of fact, or irresponsible coverage.

    Underpinning all this pessimism is the certainty that the landscape of investigative journalism is much worse now than in Hersh’s heyday. Hersh alludes to this in the introduction, perhaps because reflecting on the sad state of affairs in an epilogue would sour the mood: “…it’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today. Of course I’m still trying.”

  • “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (h/t Helena). Really enjoyed this and am finding it difficult to say why without referring to specific details of my personal life. The excellent pacing made it a breeze to read despite its narrative unfolding over several years and it was interesting how modern and accessible the writing was—for example, it’s set in Ireland, but could generically have been set anywhere in the world owing to the lack of idiosyncratic detail and language.

    My mom read it after me and found it unrelatable because of how the characters melodramatize relationships and complicate issues that could be resolved very easily. Maybe this is a reflection of our times, though. My mom moved to Manila after a childhood in the province and stayed there until she was married and had three kids, while I’ve moved countries six times since graduating high school and nine times overall so the constant connection and reconnection in young adulthood that defines the central long-term relationship of the novel is a recurrent theme of my own life. I’m also just a sucker for stories that do a good job of aging and progressing platonic or romantic relationships alike over long time periods like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Boyhood.

  • The legacy of Atticus Finch in light of the December premiere of the Aaron Sorkin Broadway adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which is explicitly influenced by the revelations of “Go Set A Watchman” and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Perhaps his perfection was only ever as a father, and not as a civil-rights crusader. He teaches Scout and Jem a kind of radical empathy that he himself cannot sustain but that they might grow up to embody. That is the version of Atticus still beloved by many of the book’s readers: not a noble lawyer on a par with actual civil-rights heroes such as Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, or Morris Dees but a compassionate, courageous single dad raising his children as best he can.

…Not everyone, however, was inclined to agree, and not long after Rudin announced that Sorkin’s play would première in December, 2018, the estate of Harper Lee filed a lawsuit, alleging that the adaptation violated the spirit of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” At the heart of the dispute was a disagreement about the essential nature of Atticus. According to the estate, the character, as written by Lee, was “a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism,” while Sorkin had made him into an “apologist for the racial status quo.”

…In this new production, the empathy for which Atticus has always been celebrated— his belief, as Sorkin sees it, in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists”—would be his fundamental flaw. Of course, framing Atticus in this way compounds the complication of putting him at the center of the story: the tragedy, it suggest, isn’t that a black man loses his life, but that a white man loses his case.”

  • Two Roads for the New French Right: “Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established… In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern… France is a good place to start.”

  • Two recent books imagine the lives of the overlooked female characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey respectively. I did a similar exercise in high school imagining a dream of Penelope’s that is only alluded to in Book XIX.

  • From Twitter: “Give me your spiciest, maddest, most sacrilegious book opinion.” Some embedded below. One of mine is that books are a poor medium for comedy and those that are joke-dense enough that Humor is one of its listed genres are almost always bad, especially memoirs. I’ll generally dismiss books that feature a critic calling it “uproarious” on the front cover. I haven’t come across a book funnier than Weird Twitter or Demi Adejuyigbe’s Instagram stories on a good day.

    • I’ve started a GoodReads account and will try at some point to add some text to some of my reviews. Also thinking of starting a LetterBoxd.