Category: Entertainment


From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.

The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.

When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.

Spencer Ackerman, “Inside the Battle of Hoth“, Wired (February 2013)

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As lyrically dense as rap can be, it’s no wonder that the lyrics present themselves as a problem to be solved, something to be organized either in wiki fashion or to be parsed like raw data. In wiki arrangement, the lyrics are treated as having no intrinsic value beyond the references they make; as raw data, they are done away with almost entirely. Both approaches belie an attitude that ultimately creates distance between the listener and the music: rap lyrics are data; rap lyrics are graphs. Rap lyrics are poetry to be read in your smoking jacket with a glass of Cognac…. Perhaps this is reflective of a certain discomfort that rap music’s ever-broadening fan base has with the genre (or a discomfort with its own outsider’s unfamiliarity with the genre). It at least suggests a nascent anxiety: that to appreciate the music in a direct and visceral or even emotional way would be untoward for the effete, urbane listener. It is hard to imagine this brand of wink-wink analysis happening to any other form of music….

Willy Staley, “What Is the Real Meaning of ‘Fanute’?”, The New York Times Magazine (15 July 2012), 49.

Magazines in their great age, before they were unmoored from their spines and digitally picked apart, before perpetual blogging made them permeable packages, changing mood at every hour and up all night like colicky infants—magazines were expected to be magisterial registers of the passing scene. Yet, though they were in principle temporal, a few became dateless, timeless.

Adam Gopnik, “Yellow Fever”, The New Yorker (22 April 2013), 102.

Jumping into the boundless streams of Twitter is not very different from compulsively buying books in the false hope that, one day, you might read them. Of course, you won’t, but this doesn’t matter: it’s the very brief encounter with that possibility that counts. The fire hose of social media tricks us into thinking that, for a fleeting moment, we can play God and conquer every link that is dumped upon us; it gives us that mad utopian hope that, with proper training, we can emerge victorious in the war on information overload.

Evgeny Morozov, “Only Disconnect”, The New Yorker (28 October 2013), 37.

Every magazine is addressed to a readership for whom what the magazine presents as attained is in truth aspirational: Seventeen is read by twelve-year-olds, and no playboy has ever read Playboy. The explicit goal of the National Geographic Society, and of its house journal, was to show the world to the worldly, to enlarge the map, to support exploration with grants and medals. But the real task of National Geographic was to show white people who rarely got far from Cincinnati or San Francisco what lay beyond their ken.

Adam Gopnik, “Yellow Fever”, The New Yorker (22 April 2013), 104.

As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.

Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience.

The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.

There’s a deep cynicism at work here, one that stands in stark contrast to the voices of even a generation ago. And this cynicism has, I fear, become the default setting of a culture that lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction yet lacks the moral imagination to change its destiny.

Steve Almond, “‘A Culture That Lurches About Within the Shadow of Its Own Extinction'” The New York Times Magazine (29 September 2013), 48.

The instinct to retrench and overemphasize strategies that have worked in the past is a common problem in companies as they get bigger and have more to lose, particularly as technologies change. Polaroid and BlackBerry doubled down on their time-tested formulas despite market changes, suggesting that this behavior can undermine even the most successful companies. “The more successful and larger they become, the more antibodies they develop to doing anything new,” said Alan MacCormack, a Harvard Business School professor. And this may explain why summer 2015 will see sequels in the franchises for “Batman,” “Superman,” “Avengers,” “Terminator,” “Independence Day,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Smurfs.”

Catherine Rampell, “Revenge of the Nerds”, The New York Times Magazine (8 September 2013), 16.

Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying—when, as the cinema-studies scholar Scott Higgins puts it, “curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction.” They are sensational, in every sense of the word. Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told in this manner, the way it tugs the customer to the next ledge. Nobody likes needy.

But there is also something to celebrate about the cliffhanger, which makes visible the storyteller’s connection to his audience—like a bridge made out of lightning. Primal and unashamedly manipulative, cliffhangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling. They expose the intimacy between writer’s room and fan base, auteur and recapper—a relationship that can take seasons to develop, years marked by incidents of betrayal, contentment, and, occasionally, by a kind of ecstasy.

That’s not despite but because cliffhangers are fake-outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 70.

In the late nineties, television took a great leap forward. This story could be told in many ways: by focussing on the quality cable dramas, starting with “The Sopranos”; by emphasizing luminous genre myths like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; or by highlighting experimental sitcoms, such as the British version of “The Office,” themselves a reaction to the advent of reality television. Pugnacious auteurs emerged, resistant to TV formulas. The result was one innovation after another: juggled chronologies, the rise of antiheroes, and a new breed of challenging, tangled, ambitious serial narrative. Dramas often combined a plot of the week with longer arcs, a technique pioneered by “The X-Files,” allowing for subtler levels of irresolution. Some ambitious comedies incorporated serial elements, while others, like “Arrested Development,” satirized cliffhangers in much the way that “Soap” had.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 74.

It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder. Which points, in turn, to a dog-not-barking-in-the-nighttime detail that may be significant. In the Better-Never books, television isn’t scanted or ignored; it’s celebrated. When William Powers, in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” describes the deal his family makes to have an Unplugged Sunday, he tells us that the No Screens agreement doesn’t include television: “For us, television had always been a mostly communal experience, a way of coming together rather than pulling apart.” (“Can you please turn off your damn computer and come watch television with the rest of the family,” the dad now cries to the teenager.)

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

Adam Gopnik, “The Information”, The New Yorker (14 & 21 February 2011), 130.