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What to watch and read this week
My recommendations, as you make that increasingly difficult choice: what is worthy of your eyeballs and your ears?
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. If you would like to support my work, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or pre-order my new book, Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters, out in January 2024.
We, modern consumers, are cursed with the tyranny of choice. There is so much written, filmed, and produced that we sometimes feel like my dog when there are two frisbees in the garden: endlessly flitting between them, unsure which to pick up, until he has neither. (I’m serious, I have to put one away when this happens or he gets sad).
To help you avoid that same unfortunate fate, every so often I produce a little list of that which I have enjoyed, off the beaten path recommendations of articles, books, films, TV shows, etc. Warning: you may hate what I suggest! But here goes:
I saw this film a few weeks ago at the London Film Festival—and it’s an extraordinary documentary that raises serious questions about exploration, devotion to religion, and the right to be left alone from outsiders. The film tracks the story of John Chau, a young American man who decides to make his life count for God by trying to bring the teachings of Jesus to the North Sentinelese people, one of the most isolated, uncontacted groups of humans on the planet. The documentary is beautifully shot, moving, and an all-around masterpiece of using cinema to provoke debate.
I saw a preview of this film at the London Film Festival as well (it isn’t out until January), but it’s something extraordinary: an uplifting, inspiring film that covers the darkest subject matter imaginable: the Holocaust. One Life portrays two snapshots in the life of Nicholas Winton, who organized the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from near-certain death in Prague as World War II broke out and Jews were being deported into death camps.
Winton’s story had been forgotten—one of countless tales of heroism and harrowing escapes from World War II—until it was rediscovered by the British press in the 1980s. The BBC invited Winton to be recognized live on air, but didn’t tell him that they had filled the studio audience with the very children that he saved, surprising him with the extraordinary human legacy he left, but never saw for himself. Anthony Hopkins plays Winton. (At the screening I attended in London, there were 11 people in the audience who Winton had saved—and countless others attending who were their descendants, people who quite literally wouldn’t exist but for Winton’s heroism).
Here’s the video from the original BBC show in the 1980s:
If you’re in a contemplative mood about life—or need a reminder about how lucky we are to experience every moment we’re alive, then this is a film for you. The film is set in an in-between world, of people who are neither alive nor dead, and it follows Will, a man who is tasked with interviewing and testing various candidates for the grand prize: life. Only one of them can get selected, and Will has to decide who is worthy, while those who aren’t selected disappear into the mist. This idea, that we who are alive are the unimaginably lucky ones, 8 billion out of infinite trillions of possible people, what Richard Dawkins once called the “unborn ghosts.” Nine Days takes that notion seriously—and reminds us of how we must grasp and savor every moment we can.
Lupin (Season 3)
It’s not art, but it is extremely entertaining. This show, a modern take on the Arsène Lupin stories from the early 1900s, is brought to life by the always charismatic Omar Sy. Lupin is a sort of heroic bad boy, who routinely breaks the law and carries out intricate, clever heists—but does so according to a code of ethics in which the victims always deserve it. It won’t change the way you think about the world, but if you like heist shows with a bit of French flair you will probably want to binge it.
I discovered this show after I was filmed for Cunk on Earth, because I met the brilliant Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk) and wanted to explore her other work. She created and starred in Mandy for two seasons starting in 2019. The show is ridiculous and absurd, about, as the BBC put it: a “hapless, jobless heroine whose daft adventures mostly end in disaster. She's got Big Dreams, but can she actually be bothered?” The episodes are short, entertaining, and charming in an eccentric way. It won’t be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a quirky British comedy, give it a shot.
Beautifully written, but also packed full of interesting tidbits that make you go “Aha, that’s why that’s the way it is!” Measurement is one of those hidden variables of life, as to how we parcel up everything around us into quantities so we can better control them. I drew on some of the detail from this book in my piece about measurement and the making of the modern world for a previous edition. If you’re curious about how a series of arbitrary measurement decisions have produced modern life, this is the book for you.
It’s impossible to make any sense of what’s going on in the Middle East without understanding the history that got us here. And the most relevant starting point for modern Middle Eastern history lies with the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This book brings early 20th century Middle Eastern history to life, along with the likes of the real Lawrence of Arabia, laying the groundwork for a better understanding of modern divides in the region.
Okay, so you’re not going to like this book if you’re not interested in the subject matter, but if you find medieval life interesting—as I do—well, then this is a wonderful book that brings it to life in a way that’s beyond the kings and queens and bishops that fill most history books. Instead, you can get a glimpse of how normal people lived in the Middle Ages, with plenty of fascinating detail (such as how celibacy among the clergy was viewed more as a bonus than a requirement until the late 11th century).
This book, by Henry Gee, covers the evolution of all life in Earth’s history in a quick read. I learned a ton—and there’s all sorts of astonishing detail that might just make you see ourselves a little differently.
Masts Like a Forest: How the trees of China were used to build an empire that lasted for centuries (Aeon)
In 1676, the Qing navy engaged a fleet of the Zheng kingdom, a trading empire based in Taiwan that controlled sea lanes from Japan to Southeast Asia. Despite regarding the Zheng state as little more than a pirate organisation, a Qing captain had to respect the size of its fleet, describing its ships as ‘uncountable, we saw only masts like a forest.’
This piece showcases how wood was once a precious strategic resource that could empower empires and reshape world history.
As disinformation swirls online, particularly in the cesspools created by deranged billionaires, Elon Musk decided to recommend some accounts that he saw as particularly trustworthy sources. One source that he suggested, to his more than 160 million followers—WarMonitors—turns out to be an account with “a long history of antisemitic posts [that] is connected to a southwest London teenager, according to research and a text exchange with the account.” The Washington Post has the receipts—and it provides a disturbing glimpse into how one of the richest men alive ends up getting his warped view of the world.
On the evolutionary link between our hands and tongues:
One day, while threading a needle to sew a button, I noticed that my tongue was sticking out. The same thing happened later, as I carefully cut out a photograph. Then another day, as I perched precariously on a ladder painting the window frame of my house, there it was again!
What’s going on here? I’m not deliberately protruding my tongue when I do these things, so why does it keep making appearances? After all, it’s not as if that versatile lingual muscle has anything to do with controlling my hands. Right?
This piece, by the always insightful Helen Lewis, starts with a line that is sure to hook you: “The last time Lucien Greaves got into this much trouble over a photograph, he had his genitals out.”
Lewis brings the reader inside the strange world of the Satanic Temple and shows how its reality is different—and more complicated—than you might think:
The most important thing to know about the Satanic Temple is that its members don’t really believe in Satan. They are atheists, and if they venerate anything, it’s the establishment clause of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the creation of a state religion. They have adopted Satan as their emblem because, in the Christian tradition, he is the ultimate revolutionary—the fallen angel of Paradise Lost who decides it is better to “reign in hell than serve in Heaven.”
Play Around With
I’ll conclude this edition with a bit of artificial intelligence, but not in the way you probably think! A ton of ink has been spilled about the society-bending power of artificial intelligence, the threats it poses to creativity and intellectual property, and how it could pose an existential risk to humanity. Not great! There are serious reasons for concern! But let’s take a break from the doom and gloom and our impending destruction for just a moment and just marvel at the fact that…it can be really cool?
OpenAI is testing out Dall-E 3, which produces advanced AI image generation. And what’s most extraordinary about it is how well it does with concepts, not just literal representations of images. To showcase how good it has become, let me show you what it spit out when I asked it to “please make some images of a young Border Collie named Zorro, but in the artistic style that channels the idea of the vigilante hero of the same name.” Here’s what it came up with:
It’s also extraordinary how you can fine-tune images after you’ve created them. I thanked Dall-E for producing such nice images (I don’t know why, but I instinctively still use “please” and “thank you” when I’m typing to an algorithm) and then asked it to please turn one of the images into a cartoon.
And this is what I got back when I gave it the prompt “Please create an image of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths, but in the style of ancient Japanese art.”
This is mind-blowing sophistication.
I hope you enjoy (some) of my recommendations. **Important Legal Disclaimer: Brian Klaas disavows full responsibility for any anger, feelings of resentment, or disdain including—but not limited to—your subjective reactions to the aforementioned recommendations or any ill-will produced thereof.**
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. If you would like to support my work, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription or pre-ordering my new book, Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters (coming in January 2024).