The Year in Review (2020)

"The World is a lot Poorer without You": a tribute to the great minds we lost in 2020...

US composer Charles Wuorinen
British physicist Freeman Dyson
Music producer Andrew Weatherall
Bulgarian artist Christo
British guitarist Peter Green
Swedish actor Max Von Sydow
Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas
Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda
Somali musician Manu Dibango
African musician Ahmed Ismail Hussein
Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz
Argentine philosopher Mario Bunge
Rock'n'roll pioneer Little Richard
Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist
Classical composer Krysztof Penderecki
Jazz bassist Henry Grimes
Electronic music pioneer Richard Teitelbaum
French actor Michel Piccoli
Zhensheng Li, photographer of Mao's Cultural Revolution
Jazz pianist Keith Tippett
Art historian Frank Popper
Afghan poet Sulaiman Layeq
Reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert
French singer Juliette Greco
Jazz bassist Gary Peacock
Argentinian cartoonist Quino
Irish poet Derek Mahon
Rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen
British actor Sean Connery
Jazz trumpetist Toshinori Kondo
Soccer player Diego Maradona
Ambient composer Harold Budd
British novelist John LeCarre
Korean filmmaker Kim Kiduk
Rock guitarist Leslie West
Classical violinist Ivry Gitlis
Soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone
Film director Alan Parker
Pioneering programmer Arianna Rosenbluth
Somali human rights activists Hawa Abdi
MF Doom
Jazz keyboardist Lyle Mays
Social scientist Ezra Vogel
French philosopher Bernard Stiegler
US physicist Watt Webb

Good news of the year:
Recommended Books:
  • Helen Pilcher: "Life Changing - How Humans are Altering Life on Earth".
  • Neil Shubin: "Some Assembly Required - Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA". A brilliant explanation of how life has evolved.
  • Meera Senthilingam: "Outbreaks and Epidemics". A health journalist summarizes the history of diseases.
  • Adam Kucharski: "The Rules of Contagion". The principles of epidemiology (like herd immunity and mathematical modelling) apply as well to other kinds of "infections" like financial crashes and gun violence.
  • Katie Mack: "The End of Everything". A theoretical astrophysicist explains the various ways in which the universe could end.
  • Matthew Cobb: "The Idea of the Brain". The human brain has been compared to plumbing pipes, telegraph wires and computers.
  • James Scott: "Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States"
  • Joseph Henrich: "The Weirdest People In The World". This is an anthropological history of how the West became the land of innovation. Henrich thinks that we owe Western creativity to Catholic doctrine: not the fundamental precepts, but the prohibitions of polygamy, incest, marriage to first cousins, and even to some distant relatives. Henrich thinks that this religious regulations caused the transition from the tribal societies of the past to the modern state. Quote: "The accidental genius of Western Christianity was in `figuring out' how to dismantle kin-based institutions while at the same time catalyzing its own spread."
  • Walter Scheidel: "Escape from Rome". Yes another history of the fall of the Roman Empire, but also one of the best, and probably the first one that looks at global history.
  • Catherine Belton: "Putin's People - How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West". The best chronicle so far of Putin's campaign to destabilize the West, all the way to his triumph of installing his puppet Donald Trump at the White House.
  • Ross Douthat: The Decadent Society - The USA is showing all the signs of a decadent society.
  • Fenton Johnson: "At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life".
  • Mark Lynas: "Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency"
  • Sophia Moskalenko & Clark McCauley: "Radicalization to Terrorism". These two psychologists reprise the topic ten years after their book "Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us". While the study mainly focuses on radical Muslims, it is particularly interesting in the age of radical right-wing media like Fox News and Trump fanatics.
  • Kevin McDonald: "Radicalization". Ditto, but the author is a sociologist.
  • Frank Smyth: "The NRA - The Unauthorized History". A portrait of the largest terrorist organization in the world.
  • Thomas Rid: "Active Measures - The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare"
  • Ben Buchanan: "The Hacker and the State - Cyberattacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics"
  • Rob Wallace: "Big Farms Make Big Flu" - Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science" (2016). One of the books that i recommended in 2016. Worth reading it again. It was written thinking of Western industrialized agricultural but it may apply to today's China and help explain the origin of covid19. Wallace makes the case for a connection between capitalist-industrial agriculture and the new epidemics ranging from SARS to Ebola.
  • Christopher Tyerman: "The World of the Crusades". The standard history of the Crusades is Steven Runciman's "A History of the Crusades" (1954). While the facts have rarely been disputed, Runciman was a fan of Byzantine civilization and his history suffers from that bias. A number of other books have covered the same material, recently Dan Jones' "Crusaders" and Roger Crowley's "The Accursed Tower", but almost all written by non-academics who, first and foremost, try to make the material attractive to the general audience. Tyerman has the academic approach and all the facts. Funny trivia: there's a picture of Saladin in the book that is actually the picture of a robot described in Ismail al-Jazari's "Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices". Either the robot was modeled after Saladin, or the book's editor missed a glaring mistake.
  • Andrew Bacevich: "The Age of Illusions". The USA in the post-Cold War era became a country organized around the process of exploitation.
  • Monica Smith: "Cities: The First 6,000 Years"
  • Ian Duncan: "Human Forms". A history of the European novel after the scientific revolution.
  • Heidi Blake: "From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin's Secret War on the West".
  • David Enrich: "Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction".
  • Thomas Piketty: "Capital and Ideology". Piketty follows up the 600-page "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" (his book on skyrocketing income inequality) with a 1,000-page book that provides a historical timeline of inequality in the world, from India to France and to the modern age of globalization (which he calls "hypercapitalism").
  • Kishore Mahbubani: "Has China Won?"
  • Andrew Marantz: "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation"
  • David James Stewart: "The Truly Infinite Universe". A philosopher's meditation that blends Hegel's philosophy and Stephen Hawking's quantum cosmology.
  • Worth reading again: Laurie Garrett's "The Coming Plague" (1994)
  • Worth reading again: David Quammen's "Spillover - Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic" (2012)

Tech and Science
  • BioNTech's covid vaccine, developed in Germany by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the first RNA vaccine for use on humans and the first vaccine ever developed in less than 10 months
  • Haydar Frangoul at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute heals sickle cell patients with CRISPR gene therapy from Emmanuelle Charpentier's CRISPR Therapeutics
  • The European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter (SolO) probe sent us pictures of the Sun taken just 77 million km from its surface, the closest ever: click here
  • Several breakthroughs in neuroscience
  • Xenobots

Best films:
Best jazz albums:
Best classical music recordings:
  1. Shostakovich: Symphony No 13 (Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti)
  2. Orlande de Lassus: "Inferno" Motets for six and eight voices (Cappella Amsterdam/ Daniel Reuss)
  3. Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia/ Vladimir Jurowski/ Alina Ibragimova)
  4. JS Bach St: Matthew Passion (Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki)
  5. Corelli: Concerti Grossi Op. 6 (Genesis Baroque)
  6. Martino Tirimo: Beethoven Complete Piano

Heroes of the year:
All the doctors and nurses battling the covid-19 pandemic
French teacher Samuel Paty, beheaded by a Muslim bigot for defending freedom of speech against religious intolerance
Wenliang Li, the doctor who first raised the alarm about covid19
Nina Baginskaya, the 73-year-old grandmother who led antigovernment protests in Belarus
Agnes Chow, Hong Kong's democracy activist
Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed george floyd's assassination
Iranian blogger Ruhollah Zam, who fueled the 2017 protests in Iran, executed in 2020
Thai pro-democracy activist Parit Chiwarak
Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan was imprisoned for reporting from Wuhan
Chinese blogger Wang Fang who documented life in Wuhan during the lockdown

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