This post will list some of my favorite discoveries of 2017, mostly writing. It's partly to share and partly to to remind myself years from now what I was into in 2017. This does not necessarily mean the media was created this year, or their author became famous this year, although in most cases that will be true.
The criteria for this are generally simple. The categories are chosen based on what I consume. For example, I don't watch that many cartoons so I don't have a category for cartoons. For each category I tried to pick the single item that stuck with me or inspired me the most. What haunted me? Sometimes I find myself internally referencing previously experienced media in my daily life as I try to make sense of the world. These items deserve mentioning. As do items that stood out as particularly well constructed, well written, or that just changed the way I conceived of reality.
I like reading essays and generally check out at least one or two long form essays every day. On a down day when I have less to do I can spend hours finding and reading essays and long form journalism for hours. It's listed first because it's my main form of media consumption. I read a ton of essays and when I find one that I like I usually tweet a link to it as a kind of bookmark.
The first essay is on compassion and the problems of obsessing about 'smart', Outsmarted.
The second is on the concept of premium mediocre, The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial.
And the third is a comparison of modern economics to Chinese astrology from two thousand years ago, The New Astrology.
All three stayed with me after I read them. The first two changed the way I thought about things in a way that the third did not. But it did give voice to something that previously I had trouble articulating. The less I say about them the better, just go read them.
I used to read more fiction, but since getting my Master's degree I've been reading less fiction and more non-fiction. I always think I want to go back to reading more fiction and interesting stories, but then there's that next book that explains a thing that I just have to read.
This years pick was an easy choice. I read American Taxation, American Slavery early in 2017 and I simply could not stop thinking about it. I like reading economic histories and this is a good economic history. It was dry at times with the amount of detail Einhorn provides on specific problems of ad valorum taxation in the antebellum American south, but it's so worth it. I picked it up because some Amazon reviewers claimed it provided insight into the history of American Libertarian thought, a topic I'm perennially interested in. It kinda does, but not really.
I appreciate the fact that Einhorn tells a history and focuses on facts instead of taking easy swipes at the stupidity of modern libertarianism. This is a history of the interplay between the needs of slave owners and the needs of a functioning state. Along the way we learn why taxation discourse in America is the way it is and why the Jeffersonian idea of liberty requires a weak state. Her appendix on how to talk about taxes is alone worth the price of admission.
As I mentioned in the preceeding section I don't read much fiction anymore. I used to read lots and lots of sci-fi, but now I find most of it boring. One fiction book I did read this year is Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology. It's a retelling of Norse myths in modern prose and it's very accessible and fun. I think I read it in one sitting on a long plane ride, which it's perfect for since it's short and relatively non-challenging.
The Neon Demon is a film that stuck with me after I watched it. It's a horror film about fashion models that must eat other fashion models in order to move up. Competition becomes cannibalism in a career obsessed with staying skinny and beautiful.
Another film that really stuck with me was Kati Kati. It's the story of a young woman experiencing her afterlife in a surrealist summer camp. She remembers nothing of her life and she now finds herself in a youth home for the recently deceased. Pacing is a big deal for me in cinema and this film had a consistent pacing throughout.
I've followed Mark Ames and Gary Brecher for a few years now. They're not people I discovered in 2017 but their War Nerd Podcast is. I pledge $5 a month and get two shows a month at roughly two hours each. A show typically has an interview of someone for half of it and then Ames and Brecher talk current events. The show shines because Ames and Brecher are good interviewers. They're well read on both the history of conflict and current conflicts, but most importantly they know what they don't know. Whether the interviewee is a history professor or a muck raking journalist they take the time to do their research, ask good questions, and then get out of the way and let their guests talk.
The War Nerd #76, Interview with Robert Parry is the easy win here. Robert Parry is an American journalist most famous for his work on the Iran Contra scandal in the 1980's, and who was unceremoniously chased out of American journalism for being an actual journalist. The tales he shares during this interview, his grasp of American power and influence peddling, and his insightful commentary on the pathetic state of American journalism were simply unmatched for me in 2017. This is a great interview with a focus that starts roughly around the time of Watergate and Vietnam and then spends most of its time in the 1980's. Ames and Brecher have a recurring focus of their analysis on America in the late 1970's and early Reagan years in their show, and they shine when talking with someone who shares a focus on that period of history.
Yes, I have a favorite person I discovered this year and it's Nomiki Konst. I discovered her a few months ago and she is remarkably fresh. I'm not a big fan of The Young Turks, for some reason it misses the mark for me. However, her interviews are always spot on and it's incredibly refreshing to hear an American progressive voice speaking truth to power so elegantly and forcefully. She has the ability to truly engage her interview subjects, not only because she knows the subject matter, but also because she just asks the right questions.
Nomiki Konst in Action
AUNTIE FEE PARODY 2 by Brandon Rogers is absurdly absurdist. Who says physical comedy is dead?
Underrated News Story
When I was a little kid watching the news with my parents I would always wonder and sometimes ask; What is it that determines what gets reported on? I wasn't ready to deal with the fact that it was humans who decided what gets reported on and that humans are fallable, biased, and often malevolent. I wanted a rule. Not a rule that people actually followed, but a rule that I could use myself to determine how much something should matter. The rule I came up with is relatively simple; How many people does an event affect and how strongly does it affect them?(with the strongest effect being death.) So if there a bunch of people being killed somewhere we should likely pay attention to it more, than say, a famous person's dog getting sick.
With this in mind there's a giant genocide going on and barely anyone is reporting on it.
Another item that would be news worthy in a more just society is that the USG spent $1.6 trillion on killing people in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2014. Read the report here.
Overrated News Story
How can one have a favorite overrated news story? Well, it's been a weird year and for some reason American media seem to be rather fixated on Russia. Without saying more this London Review of Books essay does a very good job of highlighting my concerns about the current American political discourse surrounding Russiagate.
One term that stuck with me when reading this piece was 'epistemological nihilism'. In the oft heard arguments of which dystopia we either live in now or soon will live in; is it Orwell's 1984 or is it Huxley's Brave New World? I've always chosen the third option of Philip K Dick and his malleable reality tropes. Attribution is a bitch. As is finding cultural or social institutions that we can trust. I don't know if Trump colluded with Russia in some fashion. I don't know if the Russians hacked the Democrats. But extraordinary theories require extraordinary evidence that I have not yet seen. It can't just be about beliefs and it can't just be about political tribalism.
What I do know is that increased media consolidation in the United States has created an environment where advancing specific narratives has gotten easier and less risky. There are fewer people holding the power of career destruction over America's journalists. I also know the CIA and FBI have a history of lying to advance their own agendas. They're political actors. However, unlike Orwell's 1984 there is no centralized authority overseeing the creation and destruction of truth. And unlike Huxley's Brave New World we're all not geeked out on videos, adrenaline and fame. Instead the modern human is confronted with a world in which reality peels back in layers. And once you've peeled a few layers you stop assuming you've finally reaching the innermost layer with your last peel. You realize that there may be yet more layers, or not, but because you're not certain your belief in 'the truth' never settles.
This is the world brought to us by Philip K Dick and this is the epistomological nihilism that we all must come to grips with in our modern world. The above linked essay from The London Review of Books is the first time I've seen that entire thought process worked through. I've read numerous essays doubting Trump's collusion with Russia, but this essay follows through in a way that stands out.