2005 in Review

This post attempts to pick out the highlights of my media experience over the last year… some items came out during the year, others came out long ago and I just found them… links are (mostly) to earlier blog posts.

A book that brought a lot of things together for me is called Five Billion Years of Global Change (2005) by Denis Wood. As the title indicates, it’s a type of world history, placing us today in the midst of a long ongoing series of changes in the geological/biological realm. The style is probably infuriating to a specialist, but was good for a generalist like me – it’s very chatty and informal and digressive. Also the notes are great – lots of extra material and good references to other books.

Other books that stood out in my mind this year mostly revolved around issues of how we ‘understand things’ or perhaps how our brains work. Donald Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence (1998) was very good – he describes a set of rules that we apparently use to interpret visual information (and uses plenty of optical illusions to indicate how they can ‘fool’ us into perceiving things that aren’t quite there). I also liked A Different Universe (2005) by physicist Robert Laughlin, who makes the case that reduction has gone about as far as is useful, and that there are many properties of elements that can only be found through experimentation (his work was in properties of superconductivity at very low temperatures). The book is for the layman. The idea is that you can’t use the basic laws to predict very much of the emergent behavior; you have to discover it by observation. The larger idea, for me, is that we really have still just scratched the surface of the phyical world, and perhaps that we will always find more, since we are mostly creating new mental maps and models…

On the fiction front, I delved into some of the work by Arthur Schnitzler (Viennese, died in 1930 or so). I particularly liked a novella called Casanova’s Return to Venice (1918). More recently, I thought John LeCarre’s last one, called Absolute Friends (2003), was quite good (I hadn’t read anything of his for many years, and this seemed much better than what I remembered). One more – The Hearing Trumpet (1974) by Leonora Carrington (1974), a surreal tale of a bunch of old ladies by the painter who lived in Mexico.

Finally on the history front – I found this year’s 1491 by Charles Mann to be very intriguing in its survey of the ‘new world’ prior to Columbus – apparently much more populated and complex than we had been taught! And covering more recent ground, What the Dormouse Said (2005) by John Markoff writes about the (at least partially) drug-fueled emergence of the silicon era, and Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm (2001) covers the Goldwater era and the rise of modern conservatism.

Podcasts: Two weekly KCRW shows that I’ve consistently enjoyed this year: Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment (interviews with writers, actors, directors) and Bookworm hosted by Michael Silverblatt (interviews with literary authors).

TV: I kept hearing good things about the new Battlestar Galactica, and while bad memories of the original seventies show made me hesistant, I finally gave in and watched the three hour miniseries made in 2003. I was hooked! The first season is out on DVD and it’s also good. One could see the show as an investigation of some post-9/11 concerns in America, or as an action sci-fi show, but either way it’s well-written and respects the audience.

Live Show: Most rockin’ show of the year for me was The Hold Steady at Berbati’s Pan. Great in a very different way were The Boredoms back in May in SF.

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