Cooked (Netflix Documentary)

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What it’s about: The documentary version of Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, which I have reviewed here. The show, like the book, takes a look at the four main ways of preparing food in each of its four episodes: roasting for fire, braising/stewing for water, baking for air, and fermenting for earth.

Notes:

  • Documentary adaptations of non-fiction books are a strange and special kind of adaptation that don’t suffer from the ills of fictive adaptations – the people depicted and written about are real, and there is less value in our mental models and images of them, unlike in a fictive adaptation where we are as active participants in the worldbuilding as the author is, and visual adaptations often take that agency away from us and turn us into consumers of another person’s imagination.
  • The show is very similar in spirit to the book, and I have already extemporized at length about the latter. Suffice to say that in this case, the show really adds a vital visual and aural interest that the book simply cannot provide, though Pollan does extremely well at evoking the passions of cooking and food through his prose. Seeing the people – real people – that I’d hitherto only read about enriches the immediacy and the visceral elements of Pollan’s message, and makes it that much stronger.
  • Pollan’s book still contains the meat and potatoes of his message, and the show is best seen as a complement, rather than a substitute, for reading the book. The show excels in its new material which I recall was less present in the book, in which the foodways of different cultures with respect to the four modes of cooking are explored – Aboriginal fire hunting for roasting, Indian home cooking for braising, Moroccan breadmaking for baking, and cheesemaking in a Connecticut convent for fermenting. The documentary provides insight into how these different processes of food preparation are an inherent part of different foodways and a vital component of what makes us human. Commensurately, Pollan’s personal experience is less emphasized than in the book – in fact, he seems to only serve a function of being a talking head on the show, rather than the person who goes roving around and talking to people. So the show and the book should definitely be considered complements – and there is value in watching the show and reading the book, although you might want to do it a few weeks apart to minimise repetitiveness.

Verdict: This is an impeccably made, viscerally resplendent adaptation of Pollan’s book, and should be watched even if one has read the original for added information and a greater sense and understand of the real people and places that Pollan describes in his book.

I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 cheese wheels

 

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Gardens of the Sun

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What it’s about: The follow-up to The Quiet War, this book continues the story of the conflict between Earth and the Outers, as well as that of the lives of the various characters from the first book.

Notes:

  • This was actually a more enjoyable read than The Quiet War. McAuley is better at the big picture, and Gardens of the Sun definitely has a much more expansive scope than the first book. The book adopts a much more “future history” tone, with McAuley describing grandiose social and political movements, migrations, and revolutions from the perspective of his characters, who are both observers and active participants in these events. There isn’t much in the way of tension – a lot of the plot threads have an air of inevitability to them, in the sense that we never feel like the characters are acting in opposition to overwhelming odds against them, and the stage is often set for ensuring the survival of the collective (but not so much for the individual characters, who get killed off like flies). And a lot of the plot is told, rather than shown, in long expository passages. But I don’t actually mind this, because it plays to McAuley’s strengths in world-building.
  • Surprisingly, the characters all get significant and meaningful development in this book, and are as a consequence much more fleshed-out than in the first book. Characters like Cash Baker, Alder, Dave and even Loc Ifrahim are no longer the one-dimensional ciphers in the Quiet War and are deployed in a much more sympathetic and nuanced light. This really made me enjoy the book that much more.
  • For all of McAuley’s strengths in worldbuilding, however, one problem that emerges in this second book is his plot resolutions. He seems to have a clear ending in mind, but has problems resolving things that he’s set up over the course of the book. This leads to certain leaps in plot logic and deus ex machinae that pop up close to the end of the book, and plot elements that one would think deserve a bit more attention are described in the past tense and are taken to have occurred off-screen.

Verdict: While still flawed, Gardens of the Sun is a much more interesting and involved read than its predecessor, and maintains the same grandiosity of worldbuilding as the original.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Ghost Ships

Spring Chicken

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What it’s about: A journalist plumbs science and pseudoscience for the secret to living a longer and healthier life.

Notes:

  • This is a book that, naturally, touches on something of abiding interest to everybody on the planet – how to stay youthful and healthy for as long as possible. It’s not just about keeping death at bay, but to increase your healthspan as long as possible. There’s also a brief meditation on the socio-economic and environmental impact of having a bunch of eternally-living folks around, which is a subject of another book, presumably one about the necessity of space colonisation.
  • Gifford’s wry, layman-peeking-in sort of tone lends an approachable air to the already intriguing subject matter. His attention is prolific, touching on nearly everything being done in the field, from the serious scientists to the celebrity hacks trying out dubious supplements like HGH (which, spoiler, are pretty dangerous and can even increase your chances of cancer or other age-related diseases.)
  • Gifford spends time as a volunteer in the massive Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Ageing, a decades-long study aimed at identifying all the external predictive correlates of senescence. He finds that it has as much to do with behavior as genetics (of course).
  • According to Gifford’s research, an important biomarker of senescence is inflammation, caused by senescent cells whose telomeres have depleted and hence are reaching the end of their replicative lifespan (telomerase activators are implicated in causing cells to go cancerous, so pumping yourself full of telomerase is not a particularly good anti-ageing strategy). Inflammatory compounds like cytokine contribute to all manner of age-related diseases, such as heart failure and dementia. Basically, it’s a catch-22. Left to their own devices, your cells either die (after becoming senescent) or become cancer (and you die in both scenarios). There isn’t any getting out of this bind – at least, not yet, with current technology.
  • There are, of course, certain people who possess certain sets of protective genes that guard against the effects of old age – and these lucky people can live to fantastically old ages even if they pursue all manner of bad habits. It seems that such genes are not selected for because there is no evolutionary pressure to privilege them – after all, such genes, whose effects only become evident in older folks, don’t really affect people’s chances of having babies.
  • Are there miracle medicines or interventions to extend lifespan? Gifford’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a “it’s too early to tell”. There are studies touting the restorative effects of rapamycin and metformin that have some scientific purchase (unlike HGHs peddled by aforementioned celebrity kooks) that may or may not have efficacy beyond the lab environment and/or horrible side effects. There’s also the creepy fact that blood transfusions from young to old mice (i.e. parabiosis) have restorative properties in the latter, due to some as-yet unclear property of young blood. But the biomechanical pathways for these substances are not well-understood as of yet.
  • That said, the good news is that there are plenty of behavioral modifications that most people can adopt to maximise their chances of living long and healthy lives. These include, naturally, losing weight, frequent exercise, and being educated, as well as having a positive outlook on life. One can also try some other, more drastic, lifestyle changes, such as intermittent fasting/caloric restriction and introducing physical stressors to the body from time to time, like taking dips in ice-cold water.
  • And so, whatever it is, after all that talk about scientific measures to reverse ageing, it seems like the age-old adage of “use it or lose it” still wins out in the end. Essentially, you gotta work hard for the life you want. Even if it means earning enough money to pay for frequent blood transfusions from broke Gen-Zers.

Verdict: Engaging, accessible and soberingly wry, Spring Chicken educates and entertains while reminding us that the reins to our own health are entirely in our hands.

I give this book: 4.5/5 danishes

 

The Quiet War

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What it’s about: Earth, newly ascendant from environmental catastrophe, seeks to establish its hegemony over the far-flung colonies of posthuman Outers living in the moons and planetoids of Jupiter and Saturn.

Notes:

  • This is the first of a duology of books that paint an arresting vision of the state of a 23rd century solar system where humankind has mastered genetic and environmental engineering to a degree that they can spin complete habitats on the most arid of rocks and thrive there to a high degree of self sufficiency and comfort.
  • The Quiet War starts out intriguingly enough, introducing the reader to a climate change-ravaged Earth with a vastly reshaped political theatre, dominated in the Americas by the dictatorial and oligopolistic (but also aggressively environmentalist) families of Greater Brazil, and their attendant gene wizards: scientific geniuses whose proprietary mastery of genetic engineering have given them considerable clout and influence.
  • On the far edges of the Solar System, new typologies of living are being explored by the Outers: diamond-tented cities perched on moonlets, undersea bases clinging onto the underside of Europa’s kilometres-thick ice-crust, mysterious gardens of vacuum-adapted organisms in the centres of hollowed-out asteroids. The Outers themselves are on the cusp of a massive flowering, forging their descendants into posthuman clades adapted to the diverse environments of the solar system.
  • McAuley’s training as a botanist and biologist shows, with oddly beautiful passages devoted to the exploration of how future humans might be able to cultivate living biomes from dead rock, and of the rejuvenation efforts being carried out on Earth, where we see an odd juxtaposition of climate consciousness, religious fervor, and dictatorship – a state of affairs that seems more and more likely as our squabbling corporate-dominated institutions move closer and closer to a global warming redline without being able to come to a consensus.
  • McAuley treats both sides with some complexity, at the risk of muddying his message. Greater Brazil is depicted as aggressive, conservative and militaristic, contrasted against the technologically progressive, gene-spliced Outers who operate using a culture of radical consensus and whose currency is a system of favour-based accounting called kudos. Except I’m not quite sure who McAuley is rooting for sometimes (which is not a bad thing, per se, but I think most books should take a stand on this) – because the Outer system of democracy is portrayed as ineffectual and affected, to the point of making them sitting ducks for a military strike.
  • Amidst the stellar worldbuilding, however, is a ponderous narrative populated with undistinguished characters, that, like the spaceships of the era, take forever to get anywhere. And indeed, the titular quiet war between Earth and the Outers is the payoff of the entire book, and the consequence of McAuley’s slow and considered buildup, but it feels almost inevitable – thus, the reader is just left with the task of finding out how exactly it happens.
  • To put it another way, the lives of the small players in this space opera intertwine with the massive historical shifts in power that result in a vastly different Solar System between the start and the end of the book. But the lives of the small, for the most part, pale in interest to those characters closer to the loci of power – gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen may be the most intriguing of these. But the book’s other POV characters – notably Macy Minnot and Cash Baker – are the “human interest” characters that don’t seem quite as interesting in the scheme of things, even as they are expository vehicles for McAuley to further explore the world he has wrought.

Verdict: While the worldbuilding is top-notch, the narrative takes forever to get anywhere, not helped by the inherent dullness of many of the story’s POV characters.

I give this book: 3.5/5 spex

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

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What it’s about: Dan Ariely takes us on a tour of human dishonesty and tells us that humans in general don’t rely on dispassionate cost-benefit analyses (expectation of reward vs penalty of being caught) to guide when they cheat. Instead, cheating is motivated by a number of things, including, most importantly, whether we are able to rationalise the cheating to ourselves such that we can maintain a positive self-image.

The list of such rationalisations might include: whether other people in your social circle or culture are doing it (social and cultural norms), whether someone else can benefit from it (collaborative cheating), whether there are a large number of ways to justify the cheating (creativity), the emotional disposition of the cheating person (willpower depletion), whether the person has done it before (the “what-the-hell” justification) and a few more.

Conversely, cheating can be mitigated using tried-and-tested methods to outsource the “moral compass” or remind people of the rules of the game, including through supervision, pledging or moral suasion.

Notes:

  • This book strikes me as one of those “I could’ve told you that” tomes that provide, at best, simple (lab-environment) experimental backing for well-understood but ill-defined social adages. Humans cheat when they can rationalise it to themselves. That’s essentially what the book says. Hardly earth-shattering to presuppose that we are not all amoral cost-benefit calculators.
  • But even the distinction between rational cost-benefit analyses and rationalisation isn’t quite as stark, because what constitutes utils to you might be different from me. If a person cheats because everyone is cheating, is that necessarily not a cost-benefit analysis borne from the quantification of the “everyone does it” excuse as an input in the cost-benefit calculator?
  • Ariely’s approach to substantiating his claims strikes me as a bit overreaching, because he writes as though his series of experimental protocols demonstrate the conclusive truth of everything. But his experiments are all carefully controlled and offer comparatively little in terms of payoffs and risks, and by and large he relies on a common pool of university students (although he does conduct experiments on other people from time to time). Are his models really extensible to real-world cheating, Bernie Madoff style? I’m not so sure yet . That said, his conclusions are quite parsimonious in that they are not extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and I don’t disbelieve in anything he claims through what I understand from my Jungian received folk-wisdom corpus of moral sensibilities.

Verdict: While written in an engaging and accessible style, this book doesn’t quite manage to conclusively prove its truisms beyond the four walls of the psychology lab. But it does provide a useful conceptual framework to crystallise the folk wisdom on how cheating comes about into something more academically rigorous.

I give this: 4 out of 5 worksheets full of matrices

Baby Driver

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What it’s about: A gifted young getaway driver tries to leave his life of crime, but realises it’s harder than it looks. Mayhem ensues.

Notes:

  • Much ink has already been spilled about how this is another of Wright’s cinematographic triumphs, and I shan’t go into it too much here. Suffice to say, much of this film is not so much directed as choreographed, actors moving to the beat of an eclectic and variegated track, car chase sequences impeccably shot and edited, that makes the movie a sensorial treat on so many levels. Visually, aurally,  proprioceptively, Baby Driver delivers.
  • Or, at least, in the first half or so of the film, when it shines the brightest. The film’s best scenes are almost all in the first half, in its kineticism, its humour, its cheerfulness, and Baby’s winning, cool-kid-but-not-douchey precociousness, amidst the violence and freneticism of the car chase sequences and trigger-happy action.
  • As the film’s plot starts to go into motion, however, Baby Driver‘s unique traits – its choreographed physicality, whiplash humor – fades somewhat into the background as a more typical plotline takes over – where Baby is blackmailed into continuing his criminal activities by his erstwhile handler Doc, who threatens his girlfriend Debora and his foster parent Joseph. Heists go south with the increasingly deranged antics of the psychopathic gang member Bats, who kills at the slightest provocation, giving the film its main source of dramatic tension as we wonder when this unstable element will explode.
  • At this point, the film essentially becomes Drive, but without the sun-gold stylishness and heavy electronic beats – taciturn protagonists with assumed names raining carnage down on their enemies to save themselves and their girls from psychopathic criminals. Also, while Drive ended on a low poignant note with the Driver sacrificing his humanity to save the woman he loves, even as she distances herself from him and the things he’s done, Baby Driver has a bucolic ending and a moralistic message. Baby, the kid with a good heart who was forced to break bad, served his time in jail, and having done penance for his crimes, is clean in the eyes of the public, and most importantly, his love interest. The two films therefore share the same stylistic and dramatic beats, but have different payoffs for their respective characters. Of course, the Driver did a lot more gruesome things than Baby, though.

Verdict: With a strong, stylish and refreshing first half that unfortunately segues a little into action film generica by the finish, Baby Driver doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 iPods 

 

Persepolis

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What it’s about: A precocious young woman tells the story of how she came of age in revolutionary Iran.

Notes:

  • To me, Persepolis exemplified one of the great virtues of reading – its ability to introduce the reader to new places and people, and most importantly, humanise them. In a climate where Iran is constantly demonised as an intolerant theocratic pariah state with nuclear ambitions, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are people living there whose hopes, dreams and fears are akin to ours.
  • But it doesn’t vacillate into cultural relativism – Satrapi is firm in stating her position that Iran’s current environment is repressive to women, foreign ideas, and alternative systems of thought and faith, and that this has robbed its culture of its essential vitality. There is much that Satrapi depicts as evil and backward about the Islamist regime, and many of the people Satrapi depicts are no angels – bigoted, cowardly, bullying, or apathetic cogs of the state. But there are good people too.
  • In this sense, Persepolis is, while funny and charming to a fault, still a tragic story of how Iran, teetering on the brink of democratic revolution, instead fell prey to its more reactionary tendencies. As part of a stratum of liberal Iranians who were the losers in this particular cultural battle, Satrapi and her family had to get by as best as they could in a climate of fear and paranoia.
  • Yet, the magic of Persepolis is that, told through a child’s lens, it is also a story of growing up and of the pleasures of childhood. While always politically and socially conscious, Satrapi, the rebellious child (and later teenager), always finds small ways to sidestep and defy the system she finds herself in – and there is a real human rawness to this because she does so not so much because of high ideological reasons but because she is simply a free-spirited kid who doesn’t want to adhere to the strictures of religiously orthodox behaviour.
  • Satrapi’s relatability and her evocation of the interstices of Iranian society who still flourish even under the hard-heeled boot of theocratic rule are powerful reminders to readers in other climes not to tar an entire people by the political brush of ideologically-inclined media empires, and to recognise our shared humanity through the power of story.
  • Lastly, a note on the art style: while simple and monochrome, Satrapi has a knack for expressiveness amidst light and stark shadow that jumps out of its simplicity.

Verdict: Entertaining, sobering and rawly authentic, Persepolis brings us closer to an understanding of Iran and its peoples through its honest evocation of growing up in a repressive Iran, told through Satrapi’s vivacious autobiographical lens.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Iron Maiden Posters