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Dec09, 2014 – 2014 Top 10 Lists

If you know me (and presumably you do), then you know that I devour cultural…stuff, and as a result tend to contextualize a lot of my experiences in terms of movies, books, music, long-form, etc. I am also a sucker for lists, which is hardly unique, and is the reason why I guess this sort of thing is so popular, why BuzzFeed/Vox exist, and why The New Republic recently self-immolated. With that in mind, here are my top 10s for 2014!

Movies

2014 was an unbelievable year for movies; the top few of this list rank amongst my all-time favorite films. Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the following yet so I haven’t included them– Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice, Big Hero 6, The Badabook, Grand Budapest Hotel, John Wick, Mr. Turner, Ida

1-2 The Tale of Princess Kaguya, by Isao Takahata

Admittedly I haven’t seen too many Studio Ghibli films, but this one really blew me away. The animation is gorgeous, and the story is extremely meditative and elegiac. I don’t want to give away too much, but please see this!

1-2 Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater

This movie has gotten hyped so much that it has spawned the predictable back-lash, but I think the hype in this case is warranted. Linklater has always made movies that are more impressionistic than straightforward – this is a series of vignettes that paints a picture about growing up and having a family in America for this generation, and it does that masterfully.

3. Locke, dir. Steven Knight

This movie is basically Tom Hardy sitting in a car talking into the camera for 90 minutes, but it’s completely enrapturing. It’s a one act play, featuring Tom Hardy, with lots of pretty night-time street bokeh in between (I’m a sucker for bokeh, especially streetlight/headlight bokeh). The writing and Hardy’s performance are top notch.

4. Lego Movie

5. Blue Ruin

6. Gone Girl

7. 22 Jump Street

8. Guardians of the Galaxy

9. Birdman

10. Interstellar

MUSIC

As far as musical tastes, I would say this is the year I’ve gotten more into electronic music (specifically Nicolas Jaar, Jamie XX, Caribou, Moderat) and had a revived interest in rap. A lot of these didn’t actually come out in 2014 (sorry) but anyways here goes:

1. Hospice, by The Antlers (2009)

OK, so this came out in 2009, but I just discovered it this year. Hospice is a concept album about the difficult relationship between a hospice worker (the narrator) and a thirteen year-old girl dying from terminal bone cancer. The cancer patient is terrified, confused, hopeless, angry, depressed, etc and takes a lot of her frustrations out on the narrator who feels impotent and despairs that there is nothing more he can do to assuage her emotional/physical pain. About halfway through, it becomes obvious that the album is an allegory for being in an emotionally abusive relationship, something that the band has, understandably, received criticism for. The songs are beautifully written and emotionally powerful – it’s obviously pretty fucking depressing and yet somehow doesn’t come off as maudlin.

fav song: Two

2. Psychic, by Darkside (2013)

I really like Nicolas Jaar (half of Darkside). Among electronic music artists, he is one of the most experimental – he takes some pretty big risks, so there are some songs that I don’t really like on this, but when it works it’s fucking amazing. Golden Arrow is one of my favorite electronic songs; Jaar has made a lot of them – Mi Mujer, Owe Me (Remix).

Fav song: Golden Arrow

3. Worlds, by Porter Robinson (2013)

I’ve listened to Sad Machine an embarrassing number of times. It’s just SO CATCHY. Porter Robinson has received some criticism for sort of being a copy of Passion Pit, but I don’t really see it – PR’s music is a lot more EDM-y than Passion Pit’s. I can listen to this album the entire way through; I don’t think there’s a bad song on it.

Fav song: Sad Machine

4. Our Love, by Caribou (2014)

Caribou AKA Dan Snaith is pretty fucking awesome. He’s a DJ/producer, and also has a Ph.D in math (or ‘maths’ as the brits would say) from ICL. Who says you can’t do anything with math! This is a great so called “IDM” album. Snaith clearly knows dance music – it reminds me of a more electronic version of LCD Soundsystem at his very best.

Fav song: All I Ever Need

5. 1989 – Taylor Swift (2014)

Hater’s gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. T Swift finally grows up! The girl who made “Love Story” has become a jaded New Yorker – welcome to the dark side, TSwift. IMO this is the best pure pop album this year (Beyonce’s eponymous album coming up scond), TSwift’s best album (Red is a close second), and the best pop album in a while (probably since 2010’s Teenage Dream). Blank Space, Style, Clean, Wildest Dreams, Welcome To New York (ok everyone seems to hate this one but I like it…), Shake It Off…the singles from this will probably last well into 2015.

Fav song: Blank Space

6. Shmurda She Wrote – Bobby Shmurda (2014)

Bobby Shmurda is absolutely killing it right now (aside from that pesky gun possession charge…) As anyone who has stepped inside my apartment in the last four months can attest, I pretty much have the Hot Nigga music video on constant repeat. I’m literally ranking this #4 off the basis of that one song, as the rest of the album is pretty weak (aside from maybe “Living Life”). Jahlil beats, holla at me!

Fav song: this one is really fucking easy: Hot Nigga

7. LP1 – FKA Twigs (2014)

FKA Twigs has a unique sound and a gorgeous voice. Part R&B, part electronic music, she’s definitely my favorite new artist of the year.

Fav song: Two Weeks (Water Me is also great, though it’s on EP2 not LP1).

8. Run the Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels (2014)

Two middle aged pissed off socially conscious rappers. Amazing beats and lyrics. They’re like a less whiney version of Immortal Technique. El-P is new to me, and I’ve liked Killer Mike since I listened to Reagan.

Fav song: Love Again (warning this song is EXTREMELY NSFW)

9. Based on a T.R.U. Story – 2 Chainz (2012)

Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Tauheed Epps (aka 2 Chainz, formerly known as Tity Boi). Masters of letters, all. Let’s just take a look at some of the literary gems contained in this masterpiece:

“She got a big booty so I call her big booty” – the “borne back ceaselessly into the past” of rap lyrics.

“I’m in the kitchen, yams everywhere” –Dada, pure dada.

“Woodgrain, chestnut / Titty f*ck, chest nut” – Shakespeare wishes he were as good at double entendre.

Fav song: I’m Different (sadly, Fuckin Problems is not on this album)

10. Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey (2014)

LDR is pretty controversial. She’s clearly fake, and is a purely commercial creation, but if you can ignore all of that, and you can appreciate her torch singer/tortured 1950s Americana schtick (as I do), there’s a lot to like. Brooklyn Baby is great, but honestly I’m more just looking forward to the EDM remixes of this album. Cedric Gervais where you at?

Fav song: Brooklyn Baby

Books/Long-form

1. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

2. Good Game (New Yorker, Nov24 2014)

3. The Bone Clocks

4. A Murder Foretold (New Yorker, Apr4 2011)

5. Netherland, Joseph O’Neill

6. Doubt - William Finnegan, Jan31, 1994

Dec07, 2014 – Auckland City Limits

One way to describe Auckland is that it’s the charming economic nexus of bucolic New Zealand. Another way would be to say that it’s pretty fucking lame. A fairer representation lies probably somewhere between the two, though I should note that when we (myself, Rebby & Phillip) went to an Auckland tourism agent and asked for suggestions of what to do, given that we had already seen the Sky Tower that morning, were planning on seeing the wharf, and had earmarked the day to explore the rest of Auckland, a look of sheer panic flashed across his eyes as he scrambled to find other things to do.

That being said, New Zealand itself is absolutely gorgeous. The North Shore is a diaphanous turquoise and its placid waves shimmer in the 75F heat. Gossamer white clouds streak the pale blue sky, etc. And the sheep – there are a lot of them. I had heard that there were more sheep than people, but I didn’t realize how much more. The NZ government estimates the number of sheep at around 60-70mm, meaning that there are 13-15 sheep for every human in NZ. There are also a lot of cows, a little over 1 cow per NZer. This compares to approximately 0.02 sheep and 0.3 cows per person in the USA. Understandably, dairy (milk, butter, cheese) and sheep/goat/cow meat are the Kiwi’s largest exports, with their largest trading partners being China, Australia, US & Japan. It’s an extremely export dependent economy (25-30% of GDP), so, thanks to China, NZ has done pretty well after the crisis, one of the few countries that is in a better place in both unemployment and GDP per capita than pre-crisis , though my guess is this won’t last very long when China slows down:

eur nzd fx

Its currency has appreciated fairly relentlessly (this vs EUR, it has also appreciated vs USD though not to the same extent):

eur nzd fx

And is one of the only developed economies that has been able to get off the zero lower bound in interest rates, at least so far (ECB and Sweden tried and failed epically):

nzd short rate

However, especially for an economy where exports are so important, having a strong currency isn’t usually a good thing, which is why their central bank has been very overtly trying to talk down their currency, e.g.:

“The Bank’s analysis indicates that the real exchange rate is well above its sustainable level and also above levels justified by short term business cycle factors.” - Graeme Wheeler, Governor RBNZ, not a Hobbit. [[Source]]

NZ being a beef export power also means that its McDonalds is delicious. It’s probably the best McDz I’ve ever had.

nomnomnom

(okay, this is sausage, I know, but I don't have a pic of the burger but still, SOOOO GOOD)

I got in to NZ a day before Rebby & Phillip (Rebby is my friend from NYC, now at Stanford GSB and Philip is her GSB friend), and crashed at the Knights Inn Motel, way out in the boonies of New Zealand. The motel was slightly dilapidated and generally ratchet, but given the nearly 2 day commute I would’ve slept on a wood plank at that point. The following morning I went to go see Rebby & Philip, and I felt so great to see them. Not only because I hadn’t seen Rebby for a while, but also because for two days my only interactions were with overly prozac’d flight attendants and state bureaucrats who glare at you with the absolute look of death and despair (1), so I felt the inchoate stages of insanity gnawing at the recesses of my consciousness.

Our first stop in our Auckland tour was at the Sky Tower. Like so many city landmarks, the sky tower is a gigantic grey phallus that overlooks the city. Amazingly, at 1076ft, it is the tallest man made structure in the southern hemisphere according to Wikipedia, though this is a bit dubious because the Petronas towers are definitely taller (maybe Malaysia doesn’t count as the southern hemisphere??). Anyways, the Sky Tower would be the fifth tallest building in NYC but it still gives a pretty great view of Auckland:

beautiful

nzd short rate

Our next stop was the wharf, where you can see the gorgeous North Shore:

beautiful

And then took the ferry to a place called Devonport, a sleepy beach community other side of the city:

beautiful

And then ate at Harbourside Seafood Bar & Grill curated from Yelp, with 4.5 stars and all of two reviews (the most reviewed place here has 56 reviews). This place was truly awful, the Auckland McDonalds was twice as good at one tenth of the price.

We also decided to stop by the Auckland Zoo, which in terms of exotic/fluffy animals per square foot rates very highly amongst the zoos that I’ve been to. Also, the animals aren’t treated horribly, which is a plus (unlike the Beijing zoo, where they’re basically kept in concrete pits and people throw bottles at them). It also helped reinforce my belief that zoo animals are lucky SOBs, they basically just sleep and are fed. What a life.

emu

lol

flamingo

gator

hippo

rhino

Finally, we went to a Stanford GSB party. There were a bunch of GSB people in New Zealand, as some of the MBA2s are Kiwis and a lot of them arranged to go backpacking in South Island together after meeting up in Auckland. The food there was amazing, and there was unlimited wine also (I think it was good quality but I can’t tell), which is always a plus. They were all extremely friendly and seemed like bright, intellectually curious people, and most didn’t know what they were doing post-graduation (or weren’t sharing). One guy was going to promote charter schools in SF (I’m pretty liberal and generally pro-union but education is one area where I think teachers unions are doing more harm than good), someone was going to start a search fund, and another couple was moving to South Africa. I wondered where all of the finance people were but Rebby said, I guess somewhat predictably, that they’re currently mostly in NYC and not NZ.

It was an extremely packed day but nevertheless Phillip and I wanted to see what Auckland nightlife had to offer. Okay, granted, it was a Sunday, and we’re in Auckland, so I had my expectations pretty low, but wow this was underwhelming. We asked the concierge at the Sky Tower for places to go out, and we were basically limited to three places: the Twentyone bar in the Sky Tower, the Viaduct area in Auckland, described as a “classy clubbing area,” and then the Federal street area, which was described as “sketchy, but there are a lot of police around so it should be fine.” We first tried bar Twentyone because it was just upstairs – and I am not sure what the twentyone is referring to but it certainly isn’t age given that the youngest patrons (apart from us) were at least twice that. It was exclusively inhabited by MILFs, though, to be honest, the ILFs is questionable. We next tried the Viaduct, but everything was closed except for one Irish bar named Danny Doolans, whose name really encapsulates the experience. I was just surprised that they weren’t playing the Dropkick Murphy’s when we walked in. Irish bars are OK but not really what we were looking for, so we decided to try the “sketchy” area, but it turns out that by “sketchy” the concierge actually meant that it was LGBT street sooo….that didn’t work out either. So we just went to the casino for a bit and then called it a night. Tomorrow we go to Hobbiton!

footnote:

(1) It should be said however, that the Chinese immigration bureaucrats treated me like I was the sun god Ra when they saw my 10 year Chinese visa. It made me feel special, but actually it shouldn’t, because after Nov12,2014, all US-Chinese short term visas are issued for 10 years, so, thank you John Kerry!

Dec06 (I think?), 2014 – Up in the Air

potato pic

(apologies for this shitty picture)

Firstly, thanks to my readers, both of you, for taking the time to read this!

I’m going to start with a couple of disclaimers:

1) After three years of communicating primarily via Bloomberg chat, gchat, text, whatsapp, snapchat, facebook chat, contextless Pusheens, and unsolicited 2chainz lyrics, I’m not entirely sure I’ve retained my ability to write in the format where you have multiple sentences that relate to a common theme or idea…what’s that called? Ah yes, paragraphs.

2) Given that we’re now post-Snowden (a), and that I am still (I think?) gainfully employed, and I’m not entirely sure who will read this, the following details/insights of my trip will be tailored such that they:

a. Do not get me arrested (any references to torrenting are simply metaphors).

b. Do not get me fired (I’m in fact planning on spending recklessly abroad to boost aggregate demand & boost global inflationary pressures and weaken the dollar)

c. Do not bring permanent shame upon my family (transient shame is OK though)

Any elisions & lacunae can be filled in person….but I mean I’m going on a Hobbit tour so it’ll probably be pretty straight laced.

I’m writing this from the Sydney Airport, feeling both a creeping sense of cabin fever and a wee bit of fucking regret after signing up for a 34 hour commute to NZ instead of a 20h commute to save $400. Between the planes and the timezone changes I’m not confident what time, or even day, it is. I just spent 15 hours in transit from JFK to Shanghai in a chair with wafer thin cushions designed by someone with little regard for human dignity, perhaps some Blackwater contractor in need of work.

I was sandwiched between four people, which, in combination with my coffin-like environs, led to a real threat of deep vein thrombosis. Mercifully there were no colicky babies on board, so I passed the time in the usual way – sleeping, watching movies, reading, and, on occasion, spastically shaking out my legs in an attempt to prevent the DVT (that would be a particularly unsexy way to die).

I watched Wreck-it Ralph, part of Cloud Atlas, Nightcrawler, and I re-watched Inglorious Basterds [sic], which is quickly becoming my favorite Tarantino movie. I meant to actually listen to the Serial podcast (I’ve only watched ep1, so no spoilers plz) but didn’t torrent them in time for the plane. I did, however, bring my Kindle, and was able to read three books - The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (one of my favorite authors), Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty (I’m going to finish this by year end goddamnit), and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

Just Mercy is the most topical, and is one of the best books I’ve read this year; I spontaneously downloaded it after reading a NYRB article about it and reading the positive NYT review. It’s a memoir about a lawyer who goes to Alabama in the 1980s, to become, as the Washington Post calls him, a “champion of the damned,” i.e. defense attorney for those on death row and others who are mistreated by the criminal justice system (minors tried as adults, minorities, mentally ill) . He sets up what is later known as the Equal Justice Initiative, which addresses the abhorrent treatment minorities get in the southern judicial system, which seems pre-MLK if not antebellum.

The book revolves around the case of Walter McMillian, an innocent black man sentenced to death for the murder of an 18 year old white girl, Ronda Morrison, in Monroeville, AL (it’s all very To Kill a Mockingbird, of which the book makes explicit reference to). The death of Morrison, who was shot in the back and killed while working at Monroe Cleaners, terrified and enraged the small community. The police force came under increasing pressure - months passed and they still had no culprit. Then, when the police interrogated Ralph Myers, a white drug dealer, for another murder, Myers first gave two completely incoherent, implausible stories, but then gave a third, equally implausible story, that involved the Morrison death and McMillian being the culprit. According to Myers, Walter accosted him at gunpoint at a gas station, forced him to drive Walt to Monroe Cleaners, which he intended to rob, went inside and killed Morrison, then got back in the car (after admitting to killing Morrison) to drive him away. So Walt’s plan, according to Myers was to:

1) Find rando in a gas station

2) Tell rando his plans to rob cleaners and coerce rando to be his get-away driver

3) Mess up robbery, murder, etc, then let the rando get-away driver survive and amicably part ways

Great plan. The story was later changed to include the presence of a mysterious older white male who was the mastermind behind everything, allegedly. The police arrested McMillian based off this, and, when Myers recanted his implausible story, they kept Myers in death row until he broke down and reversed his recantation. Walter had an extremely solid alibi, with over a dozen people, including one police officer, saying that he was at a ‘fish fry’ at the time of the murder. Nevertheless the trial lasted only a couple of hours and Walter was sentenced to death. That’s when Bryan Stevenson got involved. McMillian is obviously innocent, so the drama and intrigue behind the book is not so much a whodunit a la Serial but more “how fucked up can the criminal justice system get?” The police in this case withheld evidence, bribed Myers, coerced witnesses, and stacked the jury with only white people, all to sentence an innocent person to death, presumably to get the angry public off their backs. Stevenson goes through multiple cases like this one, including one case where the jury ruled unanimously to sentence a man to life in prison without parole, but then the judge overruled the jury to sentence him to death (something absurd that is legal in Alabama, and which the New Yorker recently reported [[here]]. According to Stevenson, justices do this because it’s “good for their brand,” and no one wants to be the judge that didn’t impose the harshest penalty on a murderer when it’s time for the next political cycle. As a result democracy is subverted and people die.

Stevenson's book is a caustic indictment of our criminal justice system, one that is particularly relevant in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (personally, for Trayvon I think the correct ruling was made based off Stand Your Ground, it’s more just that Stand Your Ground is really fucked up; for MB I think there’s enough uncertainty that I can understand a nonindictment, but the EG killing is just outrageous). More broadly, cases like McMillian's are one reason why I am against the use of the death penalty. Sure, some people probably deserve to die, but it is such a final, irrevocable act for the state to kill someone when the judgments are made often with imperfect information especially in a context of institutional bias against the underprivileged and/or minorities. The system isn't foolproof enough and the idea of a false positive is sufficiently horrifying that I don't think it's worth the risk. Walter McMillian could've been wrongfully executed, and we may have already executed an innocent person (in Texas, surprise surprise), Cameron Todd Willingham, which was investigated by David Grann [[here]].

Reading the book made me realize how fortunate it is that I’ve been living in socially progressive bubbles throughout my entire life – from Bethesda, to Duke, to Manhattan, and haven’t experienced first-hand any institutional prejudice (i.e., overwhelming negative institutional prejudice, yes I know I'm not a sociology major etc etc but I know that as a male and as ‘model minority’ I experience (mostly positive) societal prejudice and no society is without prejudice etc etc) to the extent of blacks, especially in the south/Midwest, but as EG shows, everywhere, and also my parents growing up as Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Okay that’s my bit on Just Mercy, my plane ride from SH to Sydney was more tolerable as I mostly slept through it and watched the latter part of Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I’m just 5 hours or so away from NZ and I’m extremely excited to see tons of sheep & hobbits!