Finished Railsea, China Mieville's juvenile about a world where instead of the traditional water sea there's a railsea of criss-crossing rail tracks, under which giant animals such as whale-sized moles burrow.
Loved this book. It's exciting, action-packed and imaginative. Like the best kids books it works on multiple levels: there's a kind of institutional Captain Ahab-ism to the captains of the moletrains. It also has a kind of Marxist message that's woven in quite deftly.
Definitely worth reading.
What I'm Not Reading 2
Read about half of Capitalism 4.0: The Birth of a New Economy by Anatole Kaletsky. Mostly read the second half, but although published in 2011 it already seems too dated to be worth bothering with. He predicts the western economies returning to strong growth in 2010. He considers the alternative of a long-term stagnation, but regards it as both too pessimistic and utterly disastrous.
I'd hoped he'd have some good ideas for what the new capitalism would be like, but he's pretty vague. It will be more regulated, with complex pragmatic regulations instead of good ideas. He thinks that new big ideas will somehow emerge, as they have before in previous crises of capitalism, but doesn't say what they will be.
I think another problem is that he overestimated how bad the "new normal" of long-term stagnation would be for capitalists. Stock prices, commodity prices, UK house prices, the surviving banks, and gold prices have all held up. It's wages, out-of-work benefits, and employment rates that have collapsed. The one percent never really experienced any crisis and don't see one now: the only threat they see is the threat of increased taxation in the future.
Ideologically, they've retrenched behind ideas like Tyler Cowen's "Zero Marginal Productivity" workers. This explains the huge rise in unemployment as workers who were too stupid and lazy to contribute anything, who were rightly purged in the creative destruction of effective capitalism. If their benefits are eliminated they will all get jobs in unskilled manual labour which will mysteriously appear from somewhere, and all will be right with the world again.
What I'm Watching
Saw Waldemar Januszczak's The Dark Ages: An Age of Light, BBC series about art of the Dark Ages was pretty good. Especially liked the bit about how early depictions of Jesus showed him as a cheerful, clean-shaven miracle-worker with a magic wand; till the crucifixion and agony started being a big deal much later, and beard, halo and throne were adopted from pagan gods.
What I'm Watching 2
Saw Jack Reacher at the cinema. Thriller about a former military policeman turned drifter investigating a mass shooting. OK-ish thriller, bit predictable and melodramatic.
Did like the idea enough to read the first one in the series of books it's based on, see below. Tom Cruise does seem a bit miscast, not so much because the books' Jack Reacher is a burly 6'5'', but because he's a ruthless cold-blooded killer and Tom Cruise doesn't really seem menacing enough.
What I'm Reading 3
Read the ebook of Among Others by Jo Walton, which wasn't out in paper in the UK when I got it, despite being a British novel which won the Hugo and Nebula awards.
The story is set in 1979. After the death of her twin and a conflict from her mother, Welsh 15 year old SF fan Morwenna is sent to live with her estranged father and his sisters, who farm her out to a boarding school. The book is written as her diary, which intersperses excited accounts of the science fiction she's reading with matter-of-fact accounts of magic and interactions with beings she calls fairies.
Not sure how much it could appeal to non-SF readers who might find it baffling, but I loved the book. It's gripping, poignant and also a kind of love letter to SF fandom. Certainly worth reading if you're part of the target audience.
What I'm Reading 4
Finished The Stoic Idea of the City, my Xmas present from Girl B. Very specialized book, attempting to reconstruct stoic ideas of politics, in particular Zeno's book Republic, from only a tiny handful of fragmentary and indirect references which remain. Don't even try to read this unless you're exceptionally interested in Stoic philosophy.
If you are, it's worthwhile for Schofield's painstaking analysis of the various sources and how we can interpret them. However the reality is that there's little that we can really conclude about the details. Schofield resists the urge to project unsubstantiated ideas onto the evidence, so we're not left with very much.
Zeno does seem to have had non-sages as part of his Republic. He seems to have imagined a society without any formal institution of marriage, where men and women are equal and wear unisex clothing, where anyone can have sex with any other if there is mutual consent. Zeno seems to have believed that Eros was an important factor in civic unity, so that erotic bonds somehow helped the harmony of the city, but there's not much specific information on how this might have worked.
Zeno seems to have stuck to his cultural model of erotic relationships as being between an older dominant lover and a younger, lower-status beloved of either sex. The ideal of love may have been where the lover educates and improves the character of the beloved, which is where the social benefit comes in.
Zeno's free love ideas seem to have been a bit of an embarrassment to later stoics, who backtracked from them. This process started early, even with Chrysippus (Zeno's successor's successor, who formalized most stoic theory). The much later Roman stoicism seems very different and much more conventional. Musonius Rufus regards erotic love as only a good thing within a married, heterosexual relationship.
Other aspects of stoic political thought are more familiar. The natural law aspects of stoicism are fairly well known. Also the idea of cosmopolitanism, that all human beings are citizens of a kind of universal city, is not unique to stoicism. It's not particularly clear how real world cities relate to the universal city, apart from being imperfect reflections of it.
I notice the Amazon reviews complain about some technical terms being used in the Greek alphabet. This did seem a bit pointless to me as the rest of the book is in English and I think transliterations could have done just as well. There is a Greek-alphabet glossary at the back if you get stuck.
Overall, a good book, scholarly yet fairly accessible, well worth reading if you have a fairly serious interest in stoic philosophy.
What I'm Reading 5
Read Killing Floor by Lee Child, the first of the Jack Reacher novels. Jack Reacher is an army brat turned military policeman, who after an honourable discharge becomes a kind of hobo, drifting around an America he barely knows after a lifetime on military bases.
In this book he becomes a murder suspect after wandering into town on a whim on the trail of a long-dead bluesman.
The book doesn't have any Rebus-style literary pretensions, but I found it gripping and very entertaining. Reacher has a refreshing lack of angst, and is cheerfully willing to just shoot baddies in the back whenever it's easier. Looking forward to reading more, though not sure if the formula will get stale on me.
Saw the First Cut papercraft exhibition at the Manchester Galleries. Like it a lot: lots of beautiful and creative things there, especially the birds, flowers and trees made from magazines.
Went home to visit the parents for Xmas. Had a nice quiet family Christmas, did all our traditional things. Got a decent present haul, mostly from the Amazon wishlist apart from a belated electric toothbrush.
Bit worried about my father's condition though. He has Parkinson's, Lewy Bodies Dementia, and had a knee replacement some time ago. He was able to walk to the end of the road with a stick last time I was there, but instead of recovering he seems to be deteriorating. Now he can only get around the house with a trolley. A few months ago he just had visual hallucinations, but now he remembers us saying things that we didn't, and he remembers things that I don't think happened. I think this may have been the last family Christmas with my father around and able to talk to us normally.
My wife spent Christmas in Germany, and I flew out to join her afterwards. Had a good couple of days. It's been unseasonably warm here so unusually there's no snow: we were able to have some nice walks in the woods and on the hills.
Went to what Girl B called the local pub which was interesting. I said beforehand it would be nice to have a beer, but she laughed at that: this is a wine area, so the pub only sells locally-made wine. B helpfully tells me which wine to get, explaining that such-and-such a wine is no good because it comes from that hill there which doesn't get enough sun. Fascinating how local everything is.
Socioeconomics. Trade, geography, and the unifying force of Islam. Social class and getting sacked. The Surprisingly Manly History of Hot Cocoa. This strange neo-Victorian desire to save prostitutes and porn actresses. The problem with privilege-checking. Religion Rises After Disaster Strikes.
Sci/Tech. Evidence Against The "Autism Epidemic"?
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