The best things I’ve read recently (27/11/17)

Can China find aliens? Can the DPRK survive South Korean pop culture? Can Dan Brown write for toffee?

Dan Brown is a very bad writer by Matthew Walther (The Week)

“The novel’s most crucial scene is the stunning almost-but-not-quite-too-late moment when, having reached as far as he can into the depths of his (as is repeatedly impressed upon us) encyclopedic memory, it dawns upon Langdon, purportedly a member of the Harvard humanities faculty, that “Blake was not only an artist and illustrator … Blake was a prolific poet.” Bingo? This is like saying that John Carpenter is not only a composer of synthesizer music, he is also the director of such classic films as Halloween and The Thing.”

N Korean defection sheds light on influence of pop culture by Bryan Harris (FT)

‘US president Donald Trump has embarked on a strategy of “maximum pressure”, leaving “all options on the table”. North Korea, however, is demonstrating resilience to comprehensive international sanctions, while the estimated death toll of any military intervention makes the prospect unfeasible.

The alternative path for some watchers of the reclusive nation is to focus on its people — particularly the younger generation, who are increasingly familiar with foreign movies and music.

“This is such a point of leverage that is being underutilised,” says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps scores of North Koreans defect every year.

“There is so much focus now on security problems and harsh rhetoric but ultimately that is playing North Korea’s game — and they are very well-practised. It is the soft underbelly of media, culture and the economy where South Korea, the US and the international community has massive advantages over North Korea.”

Analysts say the first step is to improve the quality and quantity of radio transmissions — a prospect that was boosted when the BBC Korea service began in September.

“We need a more diverse array of tailored media content for North Koreans,” said Mr Park, who contrasted the lacklustre efforts to break North Korea’s information blockade with those made to bring down the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. “We used to be better at this stuff.”’

What happens if China makes first contact? by Ross Anderson (the Atlantic)

“How would he reply to a message from a cosmic civilization? [Famous Chinese Science Fiction writer Liu Cixin] said that he would avoid giving a too-detailed account of human history. “It’s very dark,” he said. “It might make us appear more threatening.” In Blindsight, Peter Watts’s novel of first contact, mere reference to the individual self is enough to get us profiled as an existential threat. I reminded Liu that distant civilizations might be able to detect atomic-bomb flashes in the atmospheres of distant planets, provided they engage in long-term monitoring of life-friendly habitats, as any advanced civilization surely would. The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.

Liu told me that first contact would lead to a human conflict, if not a world war. This is a popular trope in science fiction. In last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly triggers a war between world powers anxious to gain an edge in the race to understand the alien’s messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast simulating an alien invasion was replayed in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We have fallen into conflicts over things that are much easier to solve,” Liu told me.”

Tweets of the week

Podcast of the week

Analysis examines the premium voters seem to be placing on ‘authenticity’ and why this is problematic. I would perhaps go with a slightly different conclusion than the show does and say that ‘authenticity’ is functionally a synonym for ‘entertaining’ and that this is a terrible criteria by which to choose leaders.

Video of the week

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