The Martian image

Everything I Read and Watched in 2015 + Top Recommendations

In late 2014, I started keeping a list of every single book I read and movie I watched. I looked back at my list from 2015, and picked the best items from it. I also learned a lot about my reading habits.

Some benefits: I can look at trends, can look back someday and have a full list of things I’ve read and watched, and ideally, be able to record my thoughts immediately after to improve my memory of the content and how much I liked it, and avoid the Wikifriends phenomenon. (In practice, I didn’t do that very often.) Also, I can give recommendations! Broadly, this was a useful exercise, and I recommend trying it.

What went on the list:

  • Books
  • Movies
  • Some online works (long serials in book format)
  • Plays

What didn’t go on the list:

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • TV show episodes (see a list at the end for shows I watched all of)
  • Re-reads or re-watches
  • Webcomics
  • Video games
  • Journal articles
  • Things I didn’t want to list for some reason
  • Books I only partially read

Everything I Read or Watched in 2015

Ra (online novel, qntm) *
Existence, by David Brin *^
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler *
Splice *
Bender’s Big Game
The Cherry Orchard (play), Anton Chekov *
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (fanfiction, Eliezer Yudkowsky)
Jupiter Ascending *
The Windup Girl, by Pablo Bacigalupi *
The Lolita Effect, by M. Gigi Durham *
The Avengers 2
Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor *
Mad Max: Fury Road *
Far from the Madding Crowds *
The Moon Moth (graphic novel)
Tig (Movie) *^
Azis Anasari (movie, stand-up special)
Chelsea Peretti (movie, stand-up special) *
Louis CK (movie, stand-up special)
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet
Dr. Strangelove
Friday the 13th
Nightmare on Elm Street *
(several other sequels in this genre)
The Martian (movie)
Silence of the Lambs (movie) *^
Hannibal (book) ^
Red Dragon (book)
Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind *
Interstellar
2001: A Space Odyssey
Star Wars: The Force Awakens *
Eddie Izzard (stand-up special) ^

Shows I watched all or almost all of: Hannibal ^, Brooklyn 99 *^, Steven Universe *^, Rick and Morty ^, Fish Tank Kings, Welcome to Night Vale ^

I didn’t write specific recommendations for shows, but will happily vouch for everything listed.

Bolded items are highly recommended, see below.
* – Female main character / mostly about a woman or women
^ – Any explicitly LGBT characters / out LGBT people

Steven Universe


Recommendations:

Ra: Dense, very clever sci-fi fantasy with fantastic attention to detail. The plot is intense and keeps escalating, and I imagine that this could get annoying- what you think the story is about, is frequently only a small part of it. But I loved it and how the stakes keep getting higher. The magic is reminiscent of engineering or programming. The characters are ambitious and engaging.

Existence by David Brin: An exciting, complex novel in the form of many entwined stories during Earth’s first contact with aliens. The author puts a lot of detail into a realistic portrayal of the future, and answering the Fermi Paradox. Unfortunately, the plot went in a lot of directions at once and it was far from cohesive, and a major part of the ending was all but copied from his anthology (which I’d already read.) This book also has some somewhat strange sections written from the point of view of an autistic character. While I think he has great intentions, and the overall plotline regarding autism seemed good, Brin isn’t autistic and I haven’t found a review of the book by an autistic person, so I don’t know how it came across.

Given all of the above, I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly. Even so, months later, I keep coming back to the ending, which is subtly inspiring. [SPOILERS ON OUT] It paints a picture of the farther-future in which the definition of humanity has been challenged- there’s the aforementioned autistic people, gay people, flesh and blood humans, and then uploaded human minds; plus: cyborgs, resurrected neanderthals, AIs, uploaded alien minds, baby aliens raised in human society, and even Brin’s beloved talking dolphins.

All of these have arrived on earth, and after social turmoil, humanity responds by… shrugging its shoulders and bringing everyone in. The novel compassionately decides that all different kinds of sentience are valuable. That we don’t need to gatekeep what it means to be a person. And that when the time comes, we’re all getting onto the spaceships together.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: In my junior year of high school, a friend recommended this to me. He wasn’t the sort of friend who would normally recommend a Harry Potter fanfiction, so I was interested and checked it out. The story finished in 2015- about five years after I found it- so I can write about it here. It’s a fanfiction written by an artificial intelligence researcher, in which Harry Potter is raised knowing about cognitive biases and the scientific method, and proceeds to go to Hogwarts and completely dismantle the magical world using logic.

It’s preachy at times- the author is clearly using it to educate the audience, or, at times, shill his personal philosophy- and yet the writing is good, the preachy parts are compellingly embedded and true to the characters, and by the end I found that it had worked and I had changed my mind on some important philosophical concepts. This story also made me want to self-identify as a rationalist and indirectly introduced me to effective altruism, which, I would say, is one of the best track records possible for a fanfiction.

Who Fears Death: Most fantasy is boring. It takes place in a somewhat sanitized Medieval Europe with wizards and kings and dragons and god, can we as a culture get past this already? Who Fears Death is not that. Who Fears Death is set in a magical post-apocalyptic Sudan and involves magic powers, a heroic quest, and a coming-of-age adventure, but that’s about where any similarity with traditional fantasy ends. It’s beautiful and imaginative and well-written. Sexual violence and genocide play major roles in the book, so read with caution.

Mad Max: Fury Road: A movie I had zero interest in until hearing that men’s rights activists called for boycotts on this “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”. Naturally, I had to see it. It’s the most intense action movie I’ve seen- it never slows down- so if that doesn’t sound fun, you may get exhausted and want a nap afterwards. If you like that format, you’ll appreciate the worldbuilding, the stunning visuals, and the characters, yes, most of which are women. Is it feminist propaganda? Sure. The hidden message is “women are people, don’t keep women as sex slaves.” It was a great movie. Best propaganda all year.

Tig: Tig Notaro’s comedy special/documentary is, I believe, still on Netflix at the time of this writing. This is part life story and part comedy feature. Her stand-up is hilarious. I love her timing and deadpan delivery, and she’s now my favorite stand-up comic.

Good Omens: “Georgia, you haven’t read Good Omens yet?” People have been asking me this since literally the dawn of time.

painting of the big bang
14 billion BC: “You like Neil Gaiman and apocalypse stuff, right? How have you not read it?”  || Image by Cedric Sorel

Worry no longer. I’ve read Good Omens. It’s really really good. Uh, the characters are engaging and human and just trying their best in ridiculous circumstances. The humor is, well, ridiculous, and has more jokes-per-word than possibly any book I’ve read. You should read it. Am I about to become one of the swarming masses that nagged me about it in a past life? It may be. The future is so hard to predict.

The Martian: Humanity of Earth gets together to save an astronaut from dying alone on a planet. Humanity of Mars, who’s just one dude, gets his shit together to survive long enough to let them. Everyone is a nerd, and there aren’t any villains- the central conflict might be Man vs. Nature in an abstract sense, but the plot is driven by people solving problems with skill and science. It reminded me of Secular Solstice, and how refreshing it is to get together with a bunch of people and sing songs about the importance of solving problems and making good plans. This is an under-represented genre in media, and The Martian did it fantastically.


Reflections on the List

  • I’m sure I left items off on this. In the future, I should make a habit of writing something down as soon as I finish it, rather than waiting until I remember that the list exists.
  • Even so, broadly, I’m rather surprised at how short it is.
  • Especially nonfiction. I only watched one documentary in 2015? I only read one nonfiction book? Even if I left some items off, the fiction:nonfiction ratio is astonishing. I love nonfiction books! 2015 was the year I started reading a lot of blogs, online articles, and other content that I didn’t record, so I’m not convinced I actually read less fiction than non-fiction- just that it wasn’t in book form.
  • 17/33 items listed had female main characters or were mostly about women. 5/33 included LGBT people. (Not just as main characters, but at all.) My memory is foggy on the latter category- there may have been more minor characters- and that’s including Silence of the Lambs, which is about the worst, most transphobic representation imaginable. (I wasn’t actually sure if I should count the movie as such, but excellent blogger Ozymandias discussed it as such on Tumblr, so I will too. More commentary.)
  • Another 4/6 instances of LGBT representation came from shows. I’m pleased that all four shows involved gay relationships between major characters.
  • Temporal trends! This year, I’ll include dates for extra data. Still, from memory, I can notice a few trends:
    • The five-item stretch right after a break-up, where I read three novels in a week.
    • The weekend my roommate was out of town and let me use his Netflix.
    • The period right after Hannibal (the TV show) was cancelled.
  • This isn’t a great record of how much media I actually consumed. Most of what I read or watch is online or in a shorter format. You could argue now that this is a problem and  I should read more books because… reasons?… but I have no idea if that’s true. I’ll probably record more TV shows, mid-length works, and journal articles on this year’s list, as well as things I wrote.
  • Ideally, I’d like to record news/blog articles as well, but I don’t know of a way that’s easy and mindless enough I’ll reliably do it.
  • I learned that the best way to get me to read something is by getting a copy and putting it in my hands. Then, if I’ve expressed interest in reading it, apply mild bothering until desired results are achieved. Should you really want me to read something, for some reason, this may help.
Longtoothed bristlemouth

What’s the most common animal species?

I tried to answer this question by doing some reading. Why should we care?

  • Most people don’t have a good sense of the scope and scale of biodiversity and common species on the planet. Whatever you think are the most common inhabitants of earth, you’re probably wrong.
  • When scientists think of “successful” organisms, they tend to think of ones with great diversity: beetles, for instance, or in terms of environments, rainforests. Looking at sheer numbers of individual species is another way of doing this.
  • “Okay,” you say, “Why animals, and not plants or bacteria? Those are way more common.” I study bacteriophage. I know. Two reasons: Animals have brains, which is one reason to focus on them- don’t you want to know who’s doing the majority of the world’s thinking? Secondly, it’s harder to find data on non-animals, but stay tuned.
  • Similarly, if you’re concerned about wild animal suffering, this may give you a sense of where best to focus your concern.

Mammals don’t come anywhere near the top, but sure, they’re furry and warm and cute and also you’re one, so let’s begin here. Humans aren’t actually a bad call as far as larger organisms- there are 7.5 billion (7,500,000,000) of us crawling around the planet, handily beating out other close competitors.

Rule 1: If you want to make an organism numerous, association with humans is a good start.

Large wild mammals are not especially common. Cows (1.4 billion) have the largest non-human large mammal population, and sheep, pigs, and goats (~1 billion each) beat out all other competitors. The curious will be interested to know that there are 50% more cats globally than dogs (600,000,000 vs 400,000,000).

What about birds? As of 1997, between 200 and 400 billion (brought to us by the excellently titled paper, How Many Birds Are There?) The most numerous wild bird is the red-billed quelea, which terrorizes African farmers in enormous flocks (1.5 billion). (The Smithsonian flagrantly claims it’s the house sparrow, but the population of those is maybe half a billion and dropping.) Again, association with human comes in- the most common bird is the chicken, at 19 billion (19,000,000,000) or 2.5 chickens per human.

Hundreds of roosters standing in a field
“Capons in Hainan” by Anna Frodesiak / CC0 1.0

So chickens are looking good so far. What about mice or rats? They’re tiny, reproduce voraciously, and also follow humans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find good estimates on global mouse populations. Maybe there’s ten mice per human? Maybe there’s 75 billion mice. Sure. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Remember the grand rule of biomes:

Rule 2: Whatever’s happening in the ocean is much bigger and much wackier than anything on land.

Longtoothed bristlemouth
NOAA Photo Library / CC BY 2.0

You’ve probably never heard of the bristlemouth, genus Cyclothone, a three-inch-long deep-ocean fish with a big mouth and weird teeth. As it happens, most of the planet’s surface is deep ocean. Unspecified “icthyologists” found by the New York Times speculate a population in the hundreds of trillions (> 200,000,000,000,000).

Their sheer population has only recently come to light- they’re found many meters deep into the water column and don’t surface at night, and the extent of their dominion has only recently been discovered via trawling with fine nets and the dawn of deep-sea exploration. If these “ichthyologists” can be believed, the bristlemouth is probably the most common vertebrate on earth.

Maybe you’re confused as to how there could be so many bristlemouths, since they’re relatively large compared to, say, insects. I’m not actually convinced that the trillions number is correct, but nonetheless, consider: The oceans represent 75% of the planet’s surface, and while land animals are more or less limited to a flat surface, ocean animals can “stack” in three dimensions.

Finally, a fun fact: If a bristlemouth brain weighs as much as a goldfish brain, then:

7,500,000,000 human brains * 1,350 grams/human brain = 10,000,000,000 kg

200,000,000,000,000 bristlemouth brains * 0.097 grams/bristlemouth brain = 19,400,000,000 kg

Mass of human brains ≈ mass of bristlemouth brains

Draw your own conclusions.

Rule 3: Ant biologists need to get it together.

Ants feeding on a honey droplet
“Meat eater ants feeding on honey” by flagstaffotos / CC BY-NC

All the world’s ants are popularly said to weigh the same amount as all the world’s human beings. It takes 16 million ants to outweigh a human, and since your garden-variety ant colony has about 4,000 ants, that would be 40,000 ant colonies per person.

This sounds ridiculous, and a University of Sussex professor suggests that it is– that ants may have outweighed humans earlier in our existence, but we’ve spread too far too quickly for them to catch up. This article posits 100,000,000,000,000 (1×1014) ants.

But wait. A different article from BBC suggests 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1×1024).

What’s going on here? To our instinctive brains, both of those guesses occupy a similar conceptual space as “really large numbers”, but they’re not close. They’re ten orders of magnitude apart. One of these numbers is ten billion times larger than the other. There’s one quantity of ants, or there’s ten billion times that number of ants. What?!

I have no idea. Worse yet, they’re both from the same source. The BBC can’t be a reliable news source if they don’t have a standard journalistic value for “total number of ants” that’s rough to within oh, say, five orders of magnitude.

Fortunately, we can perform a sanity check. The earth has 1.5×1014 square meters of dry land.

1×1024 global ants / 1.5×1014 square meters = ~7,000,000,000 ants per square meter

Given that we’re not swimming in ants at every single moment, we can knock off a few zeroes and come down to 1×1019 (10,000,000,000,000,000,000 or ten billion billion ants, at 70 ants per square meter, which seems more reasonable.)

Even if the most common ant species is just 1% of all ants, where ants ranks depends drastically on which value the right value is. Bristlemouths might outnumber them, or they might not. Dear ant researchers: work on this, but at the least, stop telling people there are 1×1024 ants. That’s too many ants.

(While researching this, I also learned about the long and short scales– everyone uses the same “million”, but my “trillion” may not be the same as your “trillion”. While normally I try to avoid being prescriptivist about language, this is a terrible use of words and everybody should either use lots of zeroes or scientific notation from here on out. Ugh. Anyways.)

Antarctic krill
Antarctic krill by Uwe kils / CC BY-NC

The antarctic krill is the foundation of the antarctic ecosystem. It feeds whales, seals, squids, fish, and everything else. 500 million tons of it exist, and Wikipedia claims it’s probably the most abundant species on the planet. Using Wikipedia’s mass value of up to 2 grams (say, 1.5 grams on average), that’s 3×1014 (300,000,000,000,000) krill.

Rule 4: Maybe we just don’t know what’s going on.

Let’s talk about uncertainty. There are a couple other candidates. They may easily hold the title, but I don’t know because nobody has done the research. There are certainly plausible reasons to suspect any of them of holding the title, and we can use Fermi calculations for the sake of a guess, but I don’t expect these to be very accurate.

Most of the guesses above did come with specific numbers, but aren’t necessarily completely trustworthy. Articles written about ants, antarctic krill, nematodes, and copepods have all variously claimed to be the most common animal. It seems like this could happen because of the availability bias– if you’re a krill biologist, and someone asks you what the most common animal is, and you know that there are a whole lot of krill, you’re probably going to say krill.

Narrowing down a common species is also more difficult- I can attest (from work with tiny snails) that doing field identification via microscope is the worst. So presumably, most studies don’t do it, and focus on the broader picture.

Alternatively, invertebrate researchers have field-wide conspiracies in order to get more grant money. Invertebrate researchers are welcome to deny this in the comments.

Copepods

Tiny free-swimming ocean crustaceans, at the root of many food chains.

Copepod
By Uwe Kils / CC BY-NC

Some scientists say they form the largest animal biomass on earth.

[…]

Copepods almost certainly contribute far more to the secondary productivity of the world’s oceans, and to the global ocean carbon sink than krill, and perhaps more than all other groups of organisms together. – Wikipedia

Also, bristlemouths eat them. Oceanic food chains don’t always work the same way land food chain pyramids do- there’s not necessarily more biomass at the base of the chain than at the top– but as far as I know, it’s strong evidence for them having more biomass.

Frustratingly, as with the nematodes, nobody seems to know what the most common copepod is.

My probable candidate:

  • A small cosmopolitan mid-ocean-level copepod.

Copepod expert Geoff Boxshall on Plankton Safari estimates 1.3×1021 (1,300,000,000,000,000,000,000) copepods. If the most common species represents 1% of all copepods, that’s 1.3×1019 of a common copepod species out there.

But I think we can do better.One study found an average 20 zooplankton per cubic meter in the Atlantic ocean, with occasional high spikes and huge seasonal variation. If we assume that such a number is constant over all the oceans and throughout the euphotic zone (the top layer of the ocean that receives sunlight and supports photosynthesis), that adds up to at least 5.78×1017 plankton. Since we know copepods are quite common, let’s say that 50% of the zooplankton is copepods, and that the most common species represents 1% of all copepods. That’s:

5.78×1017 zooplankton worldwide x (50% copepods) x (1% of the most common species) = 2.89×1015 of the most common copepod.

Copepods
By Lennart Lennuk / CC BY-SA

Nematodes

They are ubiquitous in freshwater, marine, and terrestrial environments, where they often outnumber other animals in both individual and species counts, and are found in locations as diverse as mountains, deserts and oceanic trenches. – Wikipedia

Everyone (read: all scientists who have expressed an opinion on the matter) seems to think that nematodes are incredibly numerous. That said, Nematoda is a very broad umbrella- sort of like saying that there aren’t very many Chordates (the phylum that contains all vertebrates plus a handful of squishy sea creatures.) Bristlemouths, meanwhile, are narrowed down to a single genus of only a dozen species.

My guesses for a candidate Most Common Nematode are:

  • A small, free-living, deep ocean floor or mid-ocean-level species
  • A small parasitic nematode that inhabits cattle or bristlemouth guts.

(Why these two? My educated guess is that smaller animals tend to be more common, and that the smallest species are routinely parasites. Other small species tend to be among the more numerous free-living animals- think mice and Palegibacter ubique.)

My extrapolations (more details on those numbers) from a 2006 study of benthic microfauna – very small animals living on the ocean floor at various depths – suggest that there are maybe 9.03×1019 such critters in Earth’s oceans. These include nematodes, benthic copepods, and other species. As with copepods, let’s guess that half of these are nematodes, and that 0.1% of nematodes are in the most prolific species.

9.03×1019 microfauna on the ocean floor x (50% nematodes) x (0.1% of nematodes in the most common species) = 4.52×1016 of a common nematode species.

This aligns well with another, rougher back of the envelope calculation from a different source:

Roughly 2000 nematodes / square meter * (5.1×1014 meters on the ocean floor) * (1% of nematodes in most common species) = 1.02×1016 (1,020,000,000,000,000) of a common nematode species.

Conclusion: It’s a nematode world.

Bunch of nematode worms
By Matthieu Deute / CC BY-SA

[Updated as of 4/14/2017.]