Some favorite albums, books, TV shows, movies, and in-depth stories from 2013

Here’s a look back at some of my favorites from last year.

Albums

My pick: “Modern Vampires of the City,” by Vampire Weekend.

Here’s “Obvious Bicycle“:

And “Diane Young“:

Runner-up album:

Beta Love,” by Ra Ra Riot. Here’s the title track.

Honorable mentions: Sky Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time,” Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories,” and Lorde’s “Pure Heroine.”

Books

Of the books I read last year, two stand out, not least because they were written by pals.

First: Matt Gross’s “The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World.”

2014 01 08 turk who loved apples

This may not come as a surprise, since I’ve written about Matt’s work before.

The New York Times called the book “a joyful meditation on the spontaneity and unpredictability of the traveling life,” and said:

Gross ruminates on the loneliness of the road, the evanescent friendships that occasionally blossom into something deeper, the pleasures of wandering through cities without a map. Now settled in Brooklyn with his wife and daughters, he leaves little doubt that all his years of near-constant travel have only whetted his appetite for more. “The world,” he writes, has become “a massively expanding network of tiny points where anything at all could happen, and within each point another infinite web of possibilities.”

Worth checking out.

And second: “The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned,” by Dan Campo.

2014 01 08 accidental playground

The Times included the book in a piece called “Suggested Reading for de Blasio,” and wrote:

Daniel Campo, a former New York City planner, considers the serendipitous development of Williamsburg and concludes: “In contrast to urban space produced through conventional planning and design, the accidental playground that evolved on the North Brooklyn waterfront generated vitality through immediate and largely unmeditated action. The waterfront was there for the claiming, and people went out and did just that without asking for permission, holding meetings or making plans.”

Indeed, it’s worth a read.

TV shows

2014 01 09 breaking bad

There can be only one.

Movies

I haven’t yet seen many of the year’s most talked-about films, but I liked “Gravity” and “This is the End.” 2013 films I still intend to watch: “12 Years a Slave,” “The Act of Killing,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and “Computer Chess.”

Stories

And finally, here are some in-depth stories, blog posts, reviews, and other pieces of writing I liked this year:

    There’s No E-Book Version of Nicholas Negroponte’s ‘Being Digital’?

    Being digital no ebook

    More later on this topic, perhaps, but I wanted to post this for now.

    Is there truly no e-book version of Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book Being Digital?

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    The text I’ve circled in the image above is Amazon’s standard “Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle.”*

    Is this situation ironic? (It would seem so. It depends on your perspective on technology and traditional media, I suppose.)

    Is it telling? (Perhaps.)

    *My initial searching reveals there isn’t an e-book version available elsewhere, via any other retailers.

    Off Topic: An Excellent Book about Nutrition

    2012 08 10 why calories count

    I’m read several books, over the years, about food and nutrition. I’ve tackled Gary Taubes’s popular books “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat,” as well as “In Defense of Food”, the hit book by Michael Pollan.

    I’ve also done some reading on “paleo nutrition,” which is popular in Crossfit circles.

    Perhaps the most compelling nutrition book I’ve read so far, though, is one I recently completed called “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.”

    Written by the nutrition scholars Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim, the book is — as you would expect — rooted in science and references hard data. And that approach appeals to me.

    The book focuses on topics like the scientific history of our understanding of calories; how our bodies use calories; how calories are measured; how our metabolism works; what happens when we consume too few and too many calories; and — perhaps most interesting — the modern food environment and public policies surrounding food.

    Here are some of the points that stood out for me:

    1. The authors say that when it comes to gaining or losing weight, the quantity of what you eat is generally more important than the macronutrients in your food. As the title says, calories do count. So while diets that restrict carbohydrates — the kind of diet that seems to be especially popular now (see this earlier post) — work well for some people, science dictates that when you restrict calories, you lose weight. Generally, it doesn’t matter if you cut back on carbs, fat, or protein — it’s the overall calories that have been shown to matter. (Of course, long-term strategies for weight maintenance are a different story.)
    2. The human body has a tremendous capacity to deal with severely restricted calories, but we are horrible at dealing with calories in great excess. Once you’re obese, your metabolism actually fights to keep you overweight.
    3. Our physical surroundings matter: The authors talk about the U.S.’s “eat-more” environment, with its prevalent advertisements for calorically dense food. This seems to contribute to overeating, especially among children.
    4. Body weight is thought to be about 60 to 70 percent genetically determined.
    5. Many people over-emphasize the importance of exercise in weight loss. The best way to lose weight, or to maintain a healthy weight, is not to overeat. Yes, exercise is important because it keeps our bodies functioning optimally, and it provides psychological benefits. But to maintain your weight, just as we’ve heard through the years, its best to consume fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, etc. Yes: this is common sense.
    6. Interestingly, one reason, the authors say, that weight loss strategies in the U.S. so often focus heavily on exercise — think about the workout scenes in “The Biggest Loser” — is that exercise doesn’t threaten the food industry or policymakers. If you tell people to eat less, then the question becomes: Eat less of what? And that raises problems for, say, companies that derive their revenues from packaged food products. (As the saying goes, you can only squeeze so much profit out of broccoli.)

    7 Books

    2012 04 27 books
    Some books and long-form works I’ve downloaded, bought in physical form, am reading, or have recently finished:

    1. The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, by David Goldblatt
    2. Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings
    3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande
    4. The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel Better, by Tyler Cowen
    5. The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, by Diana B. Henriques
    6. Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World’s Most Popular Sport, by Simon Kuper
    7. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

    (Cartoon via.)

    Now on Amazon.com: Bizarre Thailand

    2011 07 21 bizarre thailand

    A quick note to point out that Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic, a book by old Thailand hand and all around good guy Jim Algie, is now available on Amazon.com.

    The book’s official site has info on its contents and details on Jim’s interesting background.

    I understand that the book’s first print run has sold out, but that it can now be purchased from all of Amazon’s many country-specific sites.

    I haven’t had a chance to read the entire book yet, but I’ve seen a copy. My impression is that it captures, as the official site says, not just the country’s many delightful peculiarities, but “how the profound, profane and frankly quite odd intertwine with the rhythms and flows of everyday Thai life…”

    UPDATE July 22: Jim tells me another print run is in the works, so the book will continue to be available in bookstores, as well.

    Around the web: August 25th to August 30th

    Some links that have caught my eye of late:

    John Updike, dead at 76

    John Updike died yesterday at the age of 76.

    Here’s Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

    Endowed with an art student’s pictorial imagination, a journalist’s sociological eye and a poet’s gift for metaphor, John Updike — who died on Tuesday at 76 — was arguably this country’s one true all-around man of letters. He moved fluently from fiction to criticism, from light verse to short stories to the long-distance form of the novel: a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words.

    Two paperback techno-gems from the 1990s

    A bookstore here in Bangkok was having a going out of business sale a few months back, and I picked up a couple of titles that appealed to both the bibliophile and the Internet enthusiast in me.

    The first is this:

    I saw this slim, young adult paperback volume from 1996 and I knew I had to have it. The title is “Internet Detectives volume 2: Escape Key.” Subtitle: “Enter a new dimension of adventure!” On the cover, the title reads “iNTERNET detectives,” with camel case. The book is on Amazon.com here. Here’s the back cover.

    The copy reads:

    The man’s face stared out at them from the computer screen. ‘It is him!’ exclaimed Rob.

    The photograph, flashed instantly from Australia via the Internet, sends Rob, Tamsyn, and Josh on a thrilling hunt for a man wanted by the police on two continents. They’ve seen him once already, but they’ve no idea where he is now. With the help of brilliant detective work by their friends on the Net, they start to track down their mysterious suspect…

    And here’s an interior page — I like the mock-ups of the email messages:

    Volume 1 of the series is “Net Bandits,” and later volumes include “Speed Surf,” “Cyber Feud,” “System Crash,” “Web Trap,” “Virus Attack,” and “Access Denied.”

    The book’s references to the Web and email may seem quaint now, but consider that the book was published in 1996 — a time when many of us were just beginning to discover the tubenet. After all, this is what Yahoo.com looked like in 1996, and Google wouldn’t launch for another two years.

    The next book is all about a world catastrophe…that didn’t happen. I speak, of course, of the Year 2000 problem, otherwise known as Y2K:

    The book is called “50 Urgent Things You Need to do Before the Millennium.” Subtitle: “Protect yourself, your family, and your finances from the upcoming computer crisis!” The book was published, naturally, in 1999. It’s on Amazon here.

    I’d forgotten just how that concerned many people were about Y2K.1 Check out the back cover copy:

    Are you prepared for the biggest crisis ever to threaten modern civilization? The Y2K computer crisis, the inability of computers to recognize the two-digit year “00,” is about to affect every aspect of our lives.

    Some of the doomsday scenarios envisioned include “There’s no electricity, water, or telephone service” and “Airplanes can’t fly, traffic lights don’t work, and cars with computer systems can’t be operated.”

    1996 and 1999.

    Seems like yesterday.

    1. Okay, not everyone was worried about Y2K. In Weird Al Yankovic’s classic techno-anthem “All about the Pentiums,” he boasts about his PC proficiency: “Upgrade my system at least twice a day, I’m strictly plug-and-play, I ain’t afraid of Y2K.” []

    What I’ve been reading

    Some links that have caught my eye of late:

    2008 Year-End Google Zeitgeist (Via Steve Rubel on Twitter)1

    As the year comes to a close, it’s time to look at the big events, memorable moments and emerging trends that captivated us in 2008. As it happens, studying the aggregation of the billions of search queries that people type into the Google search box gives us a glimpse into the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times. We’ve compiled some of the highlights from Google searches around the globe and hope you enjoy looking back as much as we do.

    WSJ: “Asia’s Tourism: Boon and Bane: Low-Cost Countries With Popular Spots Better Off Than Others2

    Recession in major economies around the world has hit Southeast Asia’s pivotal tourism industry, but increased domestic and regional travel by cash-squeezed travelers based in Asia means some countries will be hurt less than others.

    Governments around the region are cutting forecasts for income as both long-haul tourists and business travelers get increasingly cost-conscious. That is a problem because tourism accounts for a hefty 6% or more of most economies in Southeast Asia.

    Still, some low-cost countries with attractive tourist spots and large homegrown populations should lose out less.

    Daily Routines: How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days. Sample entry: Truman Capote3

    INTERVIEWER
    What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

    CAPOTE
    I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

    Foreign Policy: The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2008. They are:

    1. The Surge in Afghanistan Starts Early
    2. Colombian Coca Production Increases
    3. The Next Darfur Heats Up
    4. The United States Helps India Build a Missile Shield
    5. Russia Makes a Play for Africa
    6. Greenhouse Gas Comes from Solar Panels
    7. Shanghai Steel Fails Basic Safety Tests
    8. Aid to Georgia Finances Luxury Hotel in Tbilisi
    9. For the First Time, U.S. Citizen Convicted of Torture Abroad
    10. American Company Sells ‘Sonic Blasters’ to China

    — An interesting motorcycle story from the New York Times’s Handlebars section: “To Attract New Riders, Motorcycles Go Shiftless“: 4

    Car sales, already in a deep funk, would probably be slower yet if automakers decided to offer no alternative to manual transmissions.

    Makers of street motorcycles have largely painted themselves into that corner. And with the effects of stalled credit markets flattening out a 14-year streak of steady growth — despite the allure of good gas mileage in a wobbly economy — it’s no surprise that manufacturers are mounting an effort to introduce more rider-friendly bikes.

    Makers as big as Honda, the world’s largest, and as specialized as Aprilia, a style-centric Italian brand, are working to eliminate the perceived obstacles of shifting gears and mastering a clutch with new models that let riders simply gas it and go.

    New York Times: “Holiday Books: Travel

    — And last but not least, a wonderful collection of book scans on Flickr: “Nostalgia for the Scholastic Book Club, circa ’60’s & ’70’s

    1. Related: “StateStats: Analyzing Google search patterns“ []
    2. There’s this about Thailand, which should come as no surprise: “Tourism in Thailand, which in 2007 had 14.8 million visitors, naturally is getting seriously impacted by political unrest that for the past week severed Bangkok’s busy air links with the world. While the city’s two airports are now expected to be functioning normally by Friday, the way hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded or inconvenienced by the shutdowns will have a lingering impact on tourist numbers. Dozens of countries have issued warnings to avoid traveling to Thailand.” []
    3. One of my favorite Capote passages, from The Grass Harp: “Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the season: go see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.” []
    4. A thought: does the barrier to entry presented by the fact that large motorcycles require their operators to understand how to use a clutch and shift gears keep unqualified/unsafe drivers off the road? []

    Michael Crichton, Master Storyteller, Dead at 66

    Michael Crichton has died of cancer at the age of 66. His most popular books, of course, included “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and “Timeline.” And while I’ve read many of his thrillers — most recently “Next,” about genetic engineering — my favorite of his books was “Travels,” which I liked for its compelling stories told in a spare, direct style. (Most people don’t realize that Crichton penned a travel book.)

    Some snippets in which Crichton is remembered:

    LA Times: Michael Crichton dies at 66; bestselling author of ‘Jurassic Park’ and other thrillers

    Wired: The Rich, Mixed Legacy of Michael Crichton

    New York Times: Builder of Windup Realms That Thrillingly Run Amok

    I also enjoyed reading what James Fallows has to say about Crichton. A thought for Michael Crichton

    …Crichton had his enemies, especially after his recent anti-global-warming book (which I chose not to read). That he was married five times suggests that his personal life was not entirely tranquil. And he was hyper, hyper aware that in America he was regarded as a “genre” writer whereas in Italy, for example, he would be listed among the big names of Quality Lit.

    But I was honored to have met him 20 years age, when I was living in Japan, and to have been a friend since then. He seemed unassuming, funny, charming in every way — the unusual famous person who was genuinely considerate of one’s spouse and kids. Very earnest about his political causes, including a very prescient argument fifteen years ago about the impending decline of the “Mediasaurus,” now known as MSM. And, there is no way around it, incredibly talented. At one point in the 1990s, he was responsible for the #1-rated TV show (ER), the #1 box office movie (Jurassic Park), and the #1 best selling-novel — and I’m not even sure now which of his novels it was. He must have been the only person in history to have paid his way through medical school by writing successful novels.

    I loved hearing from him about oddball “practical” matters. For instance, height: he appeared to be nearly 7 feet tall, and explained to me (6’2″) that up until 6’6″ height was an advantage, but after that it was a big inconvenience — door frames, beds, airplane seats. Or, getting ready for book writing bursts: He said he removed complications from his life while writing by having exactly the same food at every meal, so he never had to waste time deciding what to eat. He was a tech enthusiast, and the most passionate Mac advocate1 I have encountered.

    1. For more on the Mac angle, see this touching note in Macworld: “Remembering Michael Crichton“ []