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  • Inertia in the U.S. military

    This is where U.S troops were stationed abroad in 1951, 1986, and 2019. Things haven’t really changed in 70 years:

    Rather than adjust grand strategy to take into account new realities, the dominant force has been inertia. The middle of the twentieth century brought America into certain countries, and it just stayed there and later invented reasons why doing so made sense.

    That’s from Richard Hanania’s summary of his new book, Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy. It appears to argue that American foreign policy isn’t very strategic, which checks out.

  • “The rise and fall of rationality in language”

    A new paper analysing English and Spanish books finds that “the use of words associated with rationality, such as ‘determine’ and ‘conclusion,’ rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and ‘believe’ declined”. But “this pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged”. The change is found in both fiction and nonfiction.

    The authors have a good explanation for the 1850-1980 change (“rapid developments in science and technology and their socioeconomic benefits drove a rise in status of the scientific approach”); I’m less convinced by their 1980-present explanations (“the late 1980s witnessed the start of the internet”, “there could be a connection to tensions arising from neoliberal policies which were defended on rational arguments”, “2007 was also roughly the start of a near-universal global surge of social media”).

    (Via Literary Saloon)

  • Best films of 2021

    2021 releases, in rough order of my favourites:

    Dune

    A fairly revelatory experience for me: I was blown away by every aspect, with the music and production design particular highlights. I’m very glad I got to see this in IMAX: it felt like being in another world.

    Boiling Point

    Unbelievably tense, hyper-realistic, and an astonishing feat of filmmaking: an actual single-take film set in a fast-moving kitchen. Genuinely faultless.

    Red Rocket

    There is absolutely no question that Simon Rex’s character in this is a gigantic piece of shit, yet he is so charismatic that you still (kind of) like him. Cemented Sean Baker as one of the best directors alive, in my mind.

    C’mon C’mon

    Sentimental in all the best ways, led by excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman (the latter is one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen).

    Benedetta

    A very beautiful and very funny film that still manages to be emotionally affecting. Virginie Efira is an excellent psychopath.

    Older films I happened to watch and enjoy this year, in no particular order:

    • Akira
    • Persona
    • Dr Strangelove
    • Spring Blossom
    • Minari
    • Deerskin

    Honourable mentions: The Power of the Dog; Licorice Pizza; Memoria; The Green Knight.

    Waste of time and money: Promising Young Woman; The Afterlight; The French Dispatch; Belfast.

  • Best exhibitions of 2021

    Yayoi Kusama, Bronx Botanical Gardens

    The rare kind of exhibition where the way the art was displayed made a big (positive) difference to how you perceive it and how you perceive your surroundings.

    Albion Farm

    The initial display at this new sculpture park was excellent — it’s a really lovely venue and was a good selection of artists (David Adjaye’s pavilion was the highlight.)

    Rachel Whiteread, Gagosian

    Some of the most technically impressive art I’ve seen in a long time: the “cardboard” box above is made of metal.

    Honourable mentions: Jasper Johns (Whitney), Surrealism Beyond Borders (Met), Idris Khan (Victoria Miro)

    Waste of time and money: Louise Bourgeouis (Jewish Museum)

  • The best theatre of 2021 (online and in-person)

    A lot of the theatre I watched this year was online. In the best cases, this was as good — or even better! — than live theatre. Some highlights:

    Einfach das Ende der Welt, Schauspielhaus Zürich

    The opening act of this was magnificent. After a short monologue a camcorder gives us a detailed, lengthy tour of the empty set, the main character’s childhood home. It’s intricate and beautiful, and gives you a real sense of the people that lived there and the lives they led, while the absence of actors conveys the main character’s intense isolation. And after you’ve spent a very long time getting acquainted with this house, and building up a picture of the characters, the entire set is deconstructed — and the explosive second act takes place on a practically bare stage. It’s really powerful and very clever.

    Kings of War, ITA

    I saw this live at the Barbican a few years ago, but enjoyed this rewatch even more. Ivo van Hove’s extensive use of cameras in his plays means they translate extremely well to streaming — shots are framed beautifully and the whole thing feels like a good movie.

    A Little Life, ITA

    I’ve not read the book, and this play was so devastating that I don’t think I want to. Phenomenally acted (particularly Ramsey Nasr and Hans Kesting), thought-provoking, and beautifully staged. (Ivo’s been my favourite director for a long while, but ITA’s streams this year cemented that for me.)

    Ibsen Huis, ITA

    This very clever Simon Stone play blended a bunch of Ibsen’s work into one, multi-generational story. It worked really well, playing on themes of trauma cycles and history repeating itself. And it made me want to watch more Ibsen than I have thus far.

    But some of the in-person stuff was excellent, too:

    After Life, National Theatre

    This felt like it was made for me: flashy staging, fun and pacey, while still profound and moving. I enjoy basically everything Jeremy Herrin directs — Best of Enemies at the Young Vic was pretty good, too.

    We Are As Gods, Battersea Arts Centre

    There hasn’t been a Punchdrunk show in London for way too long, and this did an admirable job of filling the gap. It wasn’t the most polished production, but it was really fun, the music/lighting/set dressing was excellent, and the performances were solid. And the labyrinthine BAC is a brilliant venue for an immersive production. Mostly, though, this just made me very excited for Punchdrunk’s new show next year.

    The Invisible Hand, Kiln Theatre // Constellations, Vaudeville Theatre

    Neither of these have particularly stuck with me, but I do remember enjoying them both a lot at the time. Not life-changing theatre, but a very fun night out.

    Honourable mentions: Rare Earth Mettle; Eulogy; Rockets and Blue Lights; The Lion King; Out West.

    Average: Macbeth (Almeida); The Normal Heart; Paradise; Under Milk Wood. (This was the year I decided I’d no longer book everything at the NT because it’s just way too hit or miss these days.)

    Waste of time and money: Changing Destiny; seven methods of killing kylie jenner.

  • Eight things Don’t Look Up gets right

    The new Adam McKay movie is out on Netflix today and has a fairly plausible portrayal of what might happen in the event of an apocalyptic event. Here are eight things I think the movie gets right:

    1. Many (most?) scientists are bad communicators and are not very good at conveying danger in a way normal people can understand. (Some scenes reminded me of the discussion over presenting global warming temperatures in Farenheit so Americans can better appreciate the severity.)
    2. Government institutions move too slowly.
    3. Electoral politics are not conducive to tackling existential risks.
    4. Media incentives are not conducive to tackling existential risks.
    5. Everything can be politicised. (See here.)
    6. International cooperation is easier said than done.
    7. The UN always moves too slowly.
    8. It is psychologically easier to hope for the best than prepare for the worst.

    I enjoyed the film, and thought Timothée Chalamet was particularly excellent. I would have liked it to spend more time on technocrat/bureaucrat failures due to their risk-aversion, which strikes me as being a very underrated risk and one that has killed many people in the pandemic (see here, here, and here).

  • Best of Enemies, Young Vic

    This was a very good play about the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. I knew nothing about the debates beforehand; according to the play, they were a seminal moment in TV history.

    It’s very much a typical James Graham/Jeremy Herrin play: flashy and entertaining, fast-moving with lots of cutaways. It’s designed to be both fun and thought-provoking, a depressingly rare combo in modern theatre. Aside from a few overly didactic lines, the play leaves you to draw your own parallels between the past and the present. That isn’t particularly difficult as the similarities between now and 1968 are quite striking.

    The acting is universally excellent, too. Casting a black actor (David Harewood) as William Buckley Jr. was clever. It makes it harder to immediately dismiss Buckley as a racist, and forces you to listen to his ideas. It helps that Harewood is very good in the role. But the highlight of the show is Syrus Lowe’s James Baldwin. In fact, his performance spurred me to go and read some Baldwin.

    I have a feeling that this will transfer to the U.S. and be a big hit there. Note that I saw it in previews so things may change by the time it opens.

  • Seven Samurai

    I watched Seven Samurai yesterday, and really did not like it. I was surprised, because I saw it in what I assumed were the perfect conditions: at the BFI IMAX (one of my favourite cinemas) in the middle of the day so I wasn’t tired. But even that couldn’t save it for me.

    I can understand that it has been very influential. The whole “putting the crew together” act was the spitting image of Ocean’s 11. The way the action sequences are shot is almost identical to The Lord of the Rings. But the trouble is, those later movies do it better. Seven Samurai is slow, with either bad or poorly translated dialogue, mediocre actors, and underwhelming cinematography. The characters are caricatures with very little development; it is very hard to care when they die. The jokes are not funny, though maybe that’s due to changing comedic tastes. And the movie is about 2 hours too long.

    Too often, we confuse something that is innovative with something that is good. The reality is that it’s very hard to simultaneously invent something new and perfect it. Instead, someone like Kurosawa comes along and introduces new ideas, and later directors figure out how to use those ideas more effectively. This state of affairs, where things get better over time, is exactly what’s supposed to happen! But for whatever reason, prestige unfairly accrues to the originators.

    This isn’t to write Kurosawa off entirely — I enjoyed Rashomon, though even that isn’t as good as people make it out to be.

  • 2007 Kindle pessimism

    I’ll admit to not yet having seen a Kindle, but I think it is not the wave of the future and not the next iPod. The key feature of the iPod is the use of software to organize your music collection, not just the portability … Maybe Kindle is good for voracious readers who take long trips, and don’t want to buy books along the way, but can you build a market on that?

    That is from Tyler Cowen, upon the Kindle’s release in 2007. Was he right? In some ways obviously not. Amazon very much did build a market around the Kindle. I think Tyler missed a few things.

    1. The economic effect of the Kindle. Ebooks are so much cheaper than normal books that in some ways a Kindle becomes a cost saving device. That is even more true for the small minority of people who lack moral scruples around piracy.

    2. The transformative nature of more-portable books. The combination of weight, thickness and being able to use it one-handed means a Kindle is much more usable than a book in a wide variety of situations (public transport being the primary one). As the features continued to improve, this became more true — having a waterproof book I can read in the pool/bath is genuinely revolutionary for me, though I have never seen anyone else reading one in a pool. Having multiple books on one device also allows a freedom of choice — you can carry a library around with you and decide what’s right for the moment, rather than being confined to whatever you packed that morning.

    3. The link between Amazon’s store and the Kindle made it almost inevitable that the Kindle would dominate the e-reader market. In this respect it is similar to the iPod: other MP3 players/e-readers existed, but making it easy to buy MP3s/e-books and transfer them to your device made the iPod/Kindle more popular than the competition.

    4. The Kindle’s instant gratification. With paper books, the absolute shortest time between deciding I want a book and starting to read it is 30 minutes, and I’m lucky to live near a largeish book store. For more obscure books I have to wait a couple of days for the book to ship. With a Kindle, I can start reading a book within 30 seconds of wanting it. Removing the friction of waiting is a large contributor to the Kindle’s popularity.

    But in other ways Tyler was right. Overall, the Kindle has not been as transformative as the iPod. The iPod reshaped the act of listening to music — you can draw a clean line from its invention to the popularity of streaming services and the “death” of the album. And while there is a Kindle subscription service, as far as I can tell it’s not very popular. Instead, the Kindle has become a popular way to consume a pre-existing format in a pre-existing way: it’s not done much to change the act of “reading”.

    Maybe that’s changing now, with the advent of services like Readwise and PKM tools like Roam — Kindles can encourage much more “active” reading than physical books thanks to the easily-synced highlights. But as we have seen, making predictions is risky, so I shan’t make one.

  • Economic research and improving economic conditions

    For Giving What We Can, I wrote two pieces explaining why economic research and improving economic conditions matters. From the articles:

    Around 4.7 billion people (approximately 62% of the world’s population) live on less than $10 a day. And around 700 million people live on less than $1.90 per day, defined as “extreme poverty.”

    Research shows that rising incomes are correlated with higher levels of self-reported happiness. Fortunately, we can help make that happen. Since 1990, over one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

    Economic research has the potential to influence change on a large scale, and history suggests that it can lead directly to positive outcomes.

    It’s hard to find a single estimate of the overall impact a field as wide as economic research has had. But numerous case studies provide examples of economic research having a very large impact. One example is the deworming treatment mentioned above. GiveWell decided to fund deworming treatments as a result of economic research into the area, and they estimated that their recommendation led to over 319 million treatments being provided to children between 2012 and 2019.

    You can read the full posts, which include recommendations for charities to donate to, here and here.