Books I read for the first time in 2020
Not just the best book I read in 2020, perhaps the most important book I’ve read in years, persuasively making the case that the coming decades could be the riskiest humanity has ever faced, as technologies with the potential to cause inconceivable damage are developed and more widely held (artificial intelligence, human engineered biohazards, nuclear weaponry). That core argument is chilling and weighty enough to put the book in this list, but the book also addresses important philosophical questions about the value of humanity and the badness of death and extinction; is argued in a distinctive probabilistic (vaguely Bayesian) mode of reasoning that could be a model for how to write about uncertain empirical question; and is beautifully engagingly, even sometimes poetically, written. An extraordinary work.
A measured, methodical and readable overview of the economic debate around job automation, persuasively making the case that artificial intelligence will eventually cause technological unemployment on an unprecedented scale (though when that happens – in a few years or next century – is more of an open question). Deserves to be the go-to primer on this important topic in the years to come.
A good summary of the arguments for free migration, carried out with Caplan’s typically clear, uncompromising and intellectually honest approach. But the novelty is that it is combined with Weinersmith’s excellent and funny illustrations in the form of a comic book. It’s not just a novelty, and it’s a hard thing to pull off, but it works brilliantly.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Articles published in 2020
Effective altruism – the notion that we should use evidence and careful reasoning to ensure we do the most good we can do – is one of my core values and commitments. One common element of Effective Altruism, one that I personally am most attracted to, is the notion that we should do more to help the global poor. That typically involves support for foreign aid, especially in countries like the UK that display a genuine commitment to alleviating poverty through their aid budget. However, it wasn’t until this piece that I saw the insights and modes of reasoning developed over a decade of guiding private donations applied to state foreign aid, with a number of compelling recommendations for making the UK government more effective at helping the worst off.
You’ll note from previous years of my love of BoJack Horseman. My friend Michael produces a somewhat idiosyncratic and contrarian take, but backs it up forcefully and compellingly: Mr Peanutbutter, the happy-go-lucky, oblivious labrador, is the real villain of the show. The article digs into the richness of the programme, and also says something about society’s willingness to repeatedly forgive and even reward a selfish and stupid man – a tendency with consequences far beyond a TV cartoon.
A fascinating, honest and revealing piece by a journalist discussing the difficulties of covering a technical dispute between economists on a question of great policy significance: whether development in poor countries encourages or inhibits migration. The substance of that debate is interesting in its won right, but the real story is about the challenge of a non-specialist having to adjudicate on a question beyond their expertise and finding a way to communicate complexity: an issue of vital importance not just to journalists, policymakers but every layperson that has to act on conflicting expert advice (i.e. all of us).
1. The Eleventh
Billed as real-life political thriller, a documentary going back over the events leading up to 11th November 1975, when the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was removed by the Governor General, sparking a constitutional crisis. That story is fascinating, but the brilliant thing about the series is the way that it evokes the different world of 1970s Australia: an energetic, ambitious but somewhat ill prepared left of centre government seeking to remake a staid conservative country and inserting itself into cold war geopolitics.
Essentially an undergraduate History of Political Thought lecture series, providing an overview of the views of a range of theorists from Hobbes to Fukuyama. David Runciman is a fantastically clear and engaging guide, and particularly interesting because his selection of profiles goes beyond the standard liberal canon.
A history podcast covering topics inspired by current events in order to shed light on the present, from the origins of the American welfare state and political institutions, to the intellectual godfather of Hindu nationalism.
Released in the UK in 2020
1. Jojo Rabbit
An extraordinary film. An absurd – many would say insensitive – premise, telling the story of a young boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is Hitler. But I thought it was genuinely funny, and remarkably tender and sensitive at its heart. A movie that somehow crossed Life is Beautiful and Death of Stalin and managed to the tones of each and surpassed both in the process.
An excellent adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel about a teenager from Wolverhampton stumbling into 90s music journalism. Perfectly captures the core theme of the book: the joy and sincerity of teenage female fandom, and the need to treasure and protect it against a cynical world that would denigrate and crush it.
Fun adaptation that, for all its cosmetic changes, keeps to the rather wacky spirit of Dickens’ original book.
Aired in the UK in 2020
1. Mrs America
The dramatised story of the struggle over the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, combining the perspectives of the feminists trying to get it over the line and the conservatives resisting it. At its heart is a character study of Phyllis Schlafly, and she is a ripe subject: an expert political strategist, an apparent zealot whose commitment appears opportunistic, a traditionalist paradoxically defying gender roles. But that is combined with some fascinating world building, recreating the ferment, energy and optimism (and perhaps complacency) of the 1970s feminist movement.
Talking head TV documentaries, even good ones, can be a bit slow going. This one is riveting, because the participants – a range of figures who were in Iraq following the 2003 invasion: civilians, translators, soldiers, journalists – are such incredible storytellers. The Iraq war is recent enough that it doesn’t feel like there is much new to learn about the conflict, but this was genuinely eye opening.
Teen comedy-drama created by Mindy Kaling. Felt fresh, funny and authentic. Took on serious themes without being preachy. Driven by an exceptional lead performance of Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, perfectly capturing the combination of sparky sharpness and dunderheaded naivety that come with being a precocious teenager.
Released in 2020
Apparently Phoebe Bridgers needs persuading to record up-tempo non-ballads. That’s a shame, because I think that’s when she’s at her best. A lovely song, driven by its idiosyncratic touches: a slightly cheesy pocket piano melody in the intro and horns lifting the chorus.
In a year where everything felt in flux, it is reassuring that James Dean Bradfield made an album of atmospheric guitar rock celebrating a Latin American political figure (Victor Jara). As long as he keeps doing it, I will keep eating it up.
A moment of great personal significance, one that I’d waited almost 25 years for. But worthy of inclusion on its merits too, I think. In 2016, I put the Chicago Cubs breaking their 108 year World Series drought as one of my top moments. While Liverpool’s wait for a title wasn’t nearly as long, it was one of the biggest hoodoos in football. In 2018, I picked Manchester City breaking 100 points in the Premier League. Liverpool almost matched that sustained brilliance – reaching 99. For historic significance and sheer excellence, an extraordinary season, even before you factor in the drama and uncertainty caused by the temporary suspension of the league due to COVID-19 that put victory in jeopardy just as Liverpool were about to secure it.
As football has been professionalised, and players have been more media managed, they have been discouraged from saying anything controversial – even regarding sporting matters, let along wading into social and political questions. In that context, it is remarkable to have seen such a wave of activism from the current generation – most visibly from players ‘taking a knee’ before most professional matches. It has shown great courage and determination to make the symbolic gesture and one that deserves recognition.
2020 was the year I learned to get over all of my qualms and embrace the Indian Premier League. In part, that was from reading Cricket 2.0, a book that lays out the nuances and tactical innovations of Twenty20 cricket. In part, that was a need for light relief in a rough year. But it was also learning to love manufactured drama like the 18th of October, where two matches ended tied and went to super overs, and one super over itself was tied, leading to three super overs in total. Unbeatable value.
PLACES I ATE
Restaurants I tried for the first time in 2020
Delicious freshly made pasta in a lovely, homely eatery.
The improvements in artificial meat in recent years have been utterly extraordinary, and I don’t think I’ve had it cooked better anywhere than Notorious VEG, an independent burger joint in Canterbury. Their Mexican burger with tortilla chips and jalapeno relish is a personal favourite.
Rich, flavourful ramen with strong vegan options.
THINGS I COOKED
Recipes I tried for the first time in 2020
I had never made bread before this year, but, anticipating the trend, finally tried it this year and made a couple of things that worked. Homemade naan is never going to taste as good without the heat of a tandoor, but I received a pretty good recipe for stovetop naan from a ‘bread of month’ kit I got as a leaving present from my former colleagues, which has quickly become a staple.
Again, slightly different at home and on the stove, but found a recipe that works well and having tried out a few different toppings over the past few months.
Simple and delicious spinach and ricotta dumplings.