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 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 Mitski, Milkman, and the Mekong Review

  • Be the Cowboy by Mitski is the best album of 2018, according to Consequence of Sound, Vulture, and The Line of Best Fit. It ranks #2 for the New York Times and NPR. (Update: also #1 for Pitchfork)

    • I was at the same London show as the Best Fit writer. I would venture a guess that at least a third of the crowd were LGBTQ couples, which was surprising because Mitski’s music neither lyrically nor sonically make for an obvious union of indie and queer subcultures. Even within the broad indie rock genre, hers is a less accessible sound, her last album Puberty 2 pretty much defined by its distorted guitar (the Guardian recently called her work “the emotional Tough Mudder of indie rock.”) But it did move me to try to re-read her lyrics while there and with her manic choreography, it made for a fun crowd; a pair of brothers in front of me hugged and high-fived in excitement between songs and fist pumped during choruses.

    • I find myself liking a lot of Mitski-adjacent musicians but neither Puberty 2 nor this album have quite hit the spot for me. That said, I do recommend “Geyser” and “Two Slow Dancers” off this album and “Your Best American Girl” off Puberty 2 was one of my favorite songs of 2016. There’s a great episode of the Song Exploder podcast about the last one

    • Mitski on the Daily Show in September: "The cowboy myth is so appealing to me especially because I'm an Asian woman. That idea of not having to apologize is so American: riding into town, wrecking shit, and then walking out like he's the hero."

  • “Milkman” by Anna Burns (h/t Helena for this month’s book club selection)

    • I found it a chore to get through and what little action takes place is usually accompanied by the narrator’s lengthy and purposely anti-climactic tangents that remove the reader from the action for several unindented pages at a time

    • My reading of the depicted setting divided characters into “shinies”—those made to be outcasts by often harmless idiosyncrasies—and characters who personify the oppressive and violent setting of the time speaking and acting like video-game NPCs, working collectively as a shame-weaponizing ecosystem to combat the shinies in a manner I think I will be the first to compare to the Shimmer in Annihilation. The novel eschews names for its characters and the defining events, parties, and even countries and cities of its 1970s Troubles setting, which to me contributed to a compellingly sinister and hyper-simplified, almost science-fictionalized version of a specific place in history. Most in my book club saw it as far more realistically grounded than I did, but I really prefer the Cary Fukunaga/Hiro Murai-inspired television adaptation that played in my head while reading. It’s sinister and disturbing at times—it is a book about a predatory and violent society—and yet almost delightfully weird at other points.

    • Overall, I would hesitate to recommend because of the effort required to read it even though the writing is bleakly funny in several places. I’ve already told a friend to deprioritize it on his reading list, but at the same time, its selection has improved my opinion of the Man Booker committee.

  • Australian news channel ABC interviewed Minh Bui Jones, editor of the remarkable Mekong Review (audio). At just over three years old, the Southeast Asia-focused literary quarterly is thriving.

    • New York Times profile from last year:

      Minh Bui Jones… saw the magazine as a vehicle for cross-border connections in a region that lacks a sense of a shared historical narrative.

      According to Mr. Bui Jones, it also aims to be for Southeast Asia what he said The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books had been since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “brave, trenchant critics of their respective governments.”

      Mekong Review is a long shot on many levels, not least because it covers a region where English literacy is patchy, postal systems are unreliable and newspapers that are not controlled by governments tend to struggle against censorship and chronic financial constraints.

      …Then he must arrange delivery of the magazine’s 2,000-copy print run to Southeast Asian cities that are hundreds of miles apart. Mr. Bui Jones said he has an ad hoc distribution system that relies on friends who “mule” copies by plane, bus, tuk tuk and motorbike, and that he also moonlights as a deliveryman when he visits the region.

  • Twitter and caste-based discrimination

  • John D. Dingell, the longest-running member of Congress in American history, calls for publicly funded campaigns and the abolition of the Senate

  • Doc Rivers reflects on 20 years as a head coach in the NBA, a league notorious for its trigger-happiness in firing coaches and—despite its relative progressiveness—the dearth of black coaches for a league where most coaches are former players and 80% of players are black:

“We have a lot of black players without fathers. And to me that’s a story that needs to be talked about, because it’s difficult for the black coach sometimes. The black male figures in a lot of these guys’ lives have burned them. So, being coached by us, some people think it’s easier when actually it’s harder.”

  • Time lapse of the 32 days of filming required to shoot the sushi scene in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Isle of Dogs (2018):

 
 

And the final product, one of my favorite scenes of the year:

 
 

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.