Categories
Science

We’re in this together

Via Kottke, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom’s opening remarks at today’s media briefing on COVID-19 officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Despite the alarm that word may raise raises, Adhanom concluded his remarks with some wise words:

Let me give you some other words that matter much more, and that are much more actionable.

Prevention.

Preparedness.

Public health.

Political leadership.

And most of all, people.

We’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.

Burn this into bronze: We’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.

Categories
Books History Libraries Review

Ideology and ‘Information Hunters’

When I first heard of the new book Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss, I thought it was so far up my alley it should have just moved in.

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories:

  • how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
  • how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground

One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.

Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.

A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.

Peiss:

With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’

As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”

As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)

Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.

But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.

(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)

Categories
Film Life Television

On the magical realism of Mister Rogers

My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.

Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.

At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.

That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.

This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.

Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)

That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.

Categories
Family Life Music

Inch by inch

My son walked for the first time today, the day before his first birthday. I was in front of him, bouncing on our exercise ball along to some music (Kira Willey’s “Everybody’s Got A Heartbeat” to be exact). He wanted in on the bouncing action. He was already standing—he’s been standing strongly in place for weeks and walking assisted for longer—so he took three small steps like it was nothing and collapsed into my lap.

I’m glad I was home to see it. I’m glad he did it right in front of me, right to me. And I’m glad my wife had her phone out to record it.

After that moment, I thought it fitting to play “Walking With Spring” by The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite song of theirs), mostly because of the chorus:

Inch by inch by
Foot by foot by
Step by step by mile
We’re takin’ it inch by inch by
Foot by foot
‘Til we find ourselves
In the wild

Welcome to the wild, little man.


A shot from his first birthday party. I guess we were accidentally celebrating something else too.

Categories
Etc. Life

Memories make us rich

Derek Sivers:

A new year begins when there’s a memorable change in my life. Not January 1st. Nothing changes on January 1st. … Your year really begins when you move to a new home, start school, quit a job, have a big breakup, have a baby, quit a bad habit, start a new project, or whatever else. Those are the real memorable turning points — where one day is very different than the day before. Those are the meaningful markers of time. Those are your real new years.

I read this just after New Year’s but thought of it recently after noting a significant milestone: Ten years ago this weekend a musical called Tell Me Truly debuted on a stage at my college. It was written and scored by me and my longtime friend, and staged by our friends and fellow students. It was one of the best times and accomplishments of my life.

Ten years is too long and arbitrary a timespan to have any intrinsic meaning to a human brain. My memories of that experience don’t reemerge every year on the anniversary of opening night. They remain with my other “meaningful markers of time” in a bank of memories, accumulating interest as I age and deposit more experiences.

“Memories make us rich,” as the sportswriter Vic Ketchman is fond of saying. In that case, I’m pretty well-off.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2019


Having already conquered my list of favorite films of the 2010s, I found this list much easier to assemble. I knew my movie watching would take a hit when my son was born last February, and it did, though not as much as I expected. My logbook tells me I watched 63 films in 2019, which is only 10 fewer than 2018. Turned out my 9pm-12am baby shift was perfect for catching up on titles old and new (though I can’t say I was always fully awake for all of them). Props to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and my library card for making that happen.

10. Ad Astra. Apocalypse Now meets Gravity. Can’t say I endorse the use of narration, but Brad Pitt plus a lunar car chase plus a personal/cosmic quest more than made up for it.

9. Booksmart. Charming as hell.

8. Toy Story 4. What do you do when your worldview crumbles?

7. The Irishman. One day I’ll have time to rewatch this straight through rather than broken up over several days. I suspect I’ll appreciate it even more then.

6. Avengers: Endgame. There was a 1 in 14,000,605 chance this MCU saga ended well, and they nailed it.

5. Apollo 11. A fresh, intimate, and riveting perspective of a world-famous event.

4. Parasite. Had I made this list immediately after seeing this, it would have been lower. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

3. The Lighthouse. I watched this alone since I knew my wife wouldn’t enjoy it, but I showed her the first meal scene just so she could behold Willem Dafoe.

2. Knives Out. Rian Johnson knows how to make a movie. A little goofy at times, but the scenery-chewing fun and all-time ending made for an exhilarating ride.

1. Little Women. Yes to everything: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet together, Florence Pugh’s difficult yet delightful age-spanning performance, Desplat’s score, Chris Cooper as a good guy, Gerwig’s time-turning script that (compared to my beloved 1994 version) redeems Amy and enriches Beth, Gerwig’s direction of the Altmanesque ensemble scenes, the grand exuberance permeating this little world. Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t hit me as hard as it did others, but this one knocked me out.

Honorable mentions: Zombieland: Double Tap, The FarewellUs, El Camino, Knock Down the House, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Hustlers, The Report, Marriage Story, High Flying Bird

Favorite non-2019 films:

The Big Country
Hard Eight
Jackie Brown
Minding the Gap
A Clockwork Orange
Saturday Night Fever
Swingers
Cold War
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Wages of Fear

Categories
Family Life

The rules are there ain’t no rules

There’s a scene in Grease where Leo, the head of the rival Scorpions gang, says to Travolta’s Danny Zuko before they drag race: “The rules are there ain’t no rules.”

It’s one of the many random lines that has stuck in my head from a lifetime of movie watching. I think about it a lot now in relation to parenthood.

Bun (as my wife calls him) is almost one year old and my main takeaway from that time is that there is no normal. How he eats, how he sleeps (or doesn’t), how he develops. How we teach him, what we teach him, how much screen time we give him.

There ain’t no rules. And Leo wasn’t slinging empty threats. He repeatedly rams Danny’s car and gashes his side doors with spiked hubcaps.

All Danny (and we) can do is hit the gas and hold on.

Related: this tweet from Colson Whitehead:

Categories
Libraries

Survey says: Library visits rule

Gallup: In U.S., Library Visits Outpaced Trips to Movies in 2019

Some takeaways from this survey:

  1. Yay for libraries, duh.

  2. Every other activity included in the survey—including movies, sporting events, zoos, national parks, and museums—charges admission fees. If all of them were free to access, would there be a different #1?

  3. Maybe not, because another asset for libraries in this regard is their multitude of offerings for every conceivable demographic and interest. Libraries are for everyone, and “everyone” has a different reason for going to the library.

  4. Libraries and movie theaters are both competing with streaming services and other entertainment sources for people’s attention, but theaters don’t provide internet access or storytimes or computer classes or study rooms, etc. etc. (And I say that as a cinephile and librarian, whose ideal day would be comprised exclusively of eating, visiting a library, and going to the movies.)

  5. I’m not sure how the disparity in library use between men and women bears out in my own library, but my sense is the difference isn’t as large as the survey indicates.

  6. Based on my son’s enjoyment of our library’s storytime, I know which activity he’d pick:

Categories
Design

City roads turned into line drawings

Andrei Kashcha’s City Roads tool beautifully renders every road of any city in the world into a simple line drawing using OpenStreetMap.

I did my hometown of Madison (above), knowing its isthmus gives it a distinct look. I then did the city where I work and discovered that for some reason it includes a large chunk of the interstate that borders it:

(Via Kottke)

Categories
Books

Favorite Books of 2019

Compared to 72 books in 2018, I read a relatively paltry 24 in 2019. Between work, a new house, and a new baby, I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to stick with as many books for extended periods. This resulted in a little more fluff than usual, including several Queer Eye-adjacent memoirs and tons of board books I didn’t even count.

Pickings for this list were slim since most of my reads weren’t from 2019. But here’s what I liked the most:

5. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Johnson

A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.

4. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

Probably could have just been a longform magazine piece, but I appreciated its evidence-based advocacy for an interdisciplinary approach to learning and life in general.

3. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

A kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer, from the perspectives of the people most affected by it. “The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same.”

2. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

Newport’s definition of digital minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” This certainly inspired me to ask some hard questions about how and why I use certain technologies. A key aspect of this approach is to have what Newport calls “high-quality leisure” activities ready to fill the space in your life formerly filled with mindless scrolling. Otherwise Mark Zuckerberg will win.

1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” With his trademark incisiveness and critical insight, Gladwell dives into the gray areas surrounding the cases of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, Sylvia Plath, and other events and figures of recent history you only thought you fully understood. Dovetails nicely with the most recent season of Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History.

(Also interesting to contrast with Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet, a much more positive though less clinical take on similar territory.)

Other favorite reads

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)