Listened to another Teaching Company course, Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Alan Kors. I did this one while in the early weeks of fee feeding/changing the baby. Thought it might be useful as it's hands-free, but the problem was I was often too tired and sleepy to focus properly.
If you have a working brain, this is probably a good guide to the origins of the enlightenment. Goes through the significant minds of the century in detail. Some like Voltaire and Pascal were pretty familiar, but others like Bishop Joseph Butler, Pierre Bayle and Beccaria were newer to me.
Kors also thinks that the pairing of Calvin and Hobbes might come from the philosopher Bishop Joseph Butler who rejected the pessimistic view of human nature of Calvin and Hobbes.
Overall, probably pretty good if you have a functioning brain.
What I'm Watching
Saw Inception again: wanted to give it another look after seeing it in the cinema. Holds up very well: it's a beautiful movie in the way everything fits together and secrets are progressively exposed.
I also watched the featurettes: surprising how much of it was done with old-school practical effects, with CGI just used to add detail. It wasn't just the big rotating sets for the gravity shift scenes. The water cascading into in the Chinese castle, the explosions in the Paris cafe, and the destruction of the ice fortress were all originally practical. Apparently filming rain in daylight is also very tricky for the first level fight scenes: they had to have huge flags and crane-mounted boards to block out the direct sunlight.
Already a classic movie, well worth seeing.
What I'm Watching 2
Saw Titan AE on TV. Animated science fiction set after the destruction of Earth, where humans are an oppressed migrant minority in an uncaring galaxy, Some nice touches but a bit predictable. Probably better for kids than grownups.
What I'm Watching 3
Saw the last Sherlock series. I really liked the middle one, which had a clever locked-room mystery and a plot that really brought all the different mysteries together.
Wasn't so keen on the others. The first I think was a write-off: a classic whodunnit or locked-room mystery just won't work if used as an end of series cliffhanger these days. For those mysteries to work perfectly, the solution must be obscure until almost the end, but eventually it should be absolutely clear that it had to be that particular solution. There needs to be an "aha moment" when that becomes clear. But if you try to do this in the Internet era, as soon as one clever person thinks about all the clues and posts the solution online, it immediately becomes obvious to everyone that that solution is correct. What the Sherlock writers did was to use a mystery as a cliffhanger, but not include sufficient clues to give a single solution. That succeeded at keeping the fans guessing. But when they gave us several different solutions, but none of them really fit together elegantly enough to provide an "aha moment".
The third episode just didn't seem to have either a clever mystery or a clever solution. Sherlock just shoots the baddie in the head knowing his well-connected brother would get him off. Seems more like a George W. Bush solution than a Sherlock Holmes one. I'm not that keen on extra-judicial murder, not even for face-flickers or drug-dealers.
What I'm Watching 4
Finally saw the cult movie Upstream Colour by Shane "Primer" Carruth. Takes some mental effort but it's not as complicated as Primer to understand. It's not exactly avant-garde, just telling a science fictional story in a way that gradually unfolds the story.
Overall, I liked it. Good points: an interesting idea, good storytelling, believable characters, nice photography. Some minor bad points: the ending seemed a little unsatisfying, and I wasn't that convinced by the romance.
Definitely worth seeing if you want something a little different.
What I'm Watching 5
Saw the Total Recall remake. Had some decent enough action scenes and futuristic design elements. However it basically wasted the plot opportunities of the what-is-real concept, and lacks the glorious goofiness of the original. It's entertaining enough if you want something to watch while doing the ironing or exercising, but not really worth seeking out.
What I'm Reading
Finally finished A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Very famous book of political philosophy, in which he derives a theory of justice using the concept of the "veil of ignorance". This is a kind of thought experiment where you imagine everyone in a society meeting up to decide its principles. The twist is that everyone is behind a veil of ignorance where they don't know their position in society: whether they're to be born in grinding poverty or immense wealth; whether they're physically strong, weak or disabled; what their race or religion will be. The theory is that people will then create a society which is quite fair, but also has an eye on efficiency. You'll want to make sure that if you're born disadvantaged, you have good opportunities and some protection. But you'll also want to make sure that talented people have an incentive to be productive.
The book is also interesting because Rawls uses ideas from economics. He discusses equity/efficiency tradeoffs, and even draws graphs of indifference curves showing how different people may have different preferences along these curves, which cannot easily be reconciled.
It's definitely an interesting and valuable idea. However its one of those ideas that gets less convincing when you look at the details. In particular, part of the "veil of ignorance" is that people have no idea of what they're concept of The Good is. That helps Rawls produce a nicely liberal settlement where everyone agrees to give each other the opportunity to pursue the good in their own way. But I'm not sure how relevant it is, if when the veil of ignorance is lifted everyone finds their ideas of the Good are incompatible anyway. If most people decide then that The Good requires that everyone else should submit to their religious or political ideology, the exercise doesn't seem that useful.
Also in more general terms, the more I look into liberal philosophies, the less useful they seem. John Stuart Mill was the same. They all have some kind of "national security exemption" to liberty, where in times of war, threat or disaster some liberties must be surrendered to defend others. That means there has to be some kind of government mechanism to suspend liberties, which can be suborned by human fears and frailty. No theoretical commitment to liberty guarantees it in practice. Moreover, a theory of liberty can give the members of a state a false complacency that they have it in practice.
The book took me a while to finish, but though it deals with complicated ideas, its written very clearly and explains them as lucidly as possible. Overall, an interesting book, but you can get most of its ideas from digests, I wouldn't say its essential reading.
What I'm Reading 2
Homunculus by James Blaylock. Light, entertaining adventure set in Victorian London. A bit similar to his other novels but definitely good fun.
Not sure about the attempt to brand Blaylock "steampunk" though, I think he always had his own distinct style and it might be a bit late to jump on that bandwagon.
Socioeconomics. Booth Babes don't work. Medieval gay marriage debate. Russia's economic problems. Soho prostitution crackdown. Independent's claims of sex-specific abortion are statistically flawed. Must cartoons exaggerate gender differences? Britain’s shaky growth is papering over cracks.
Politics. Benefits Street: the neoliberalism in our souls. Repeat link: "For the past generation, the lifeblood of British elections has been warnings of black holes, tax bombshells and savage cuts. Usually, the party of government claims the opposition has plans to change economic policy in some unfunded way by about £35bn. I have no idea why £35bn is the magic number, but it was used by the Conservatives in 1992 and 1997, and Labour in 2005 and 2010. The only exception was in the foregone-conclusion election of 2001, when the number was £20bn". "Labour's economic plan to borrow an extra £25BILLION poses 'biggest risk to recovery', Osborne warns".
Articles. Interview with the men behind Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans etc, via. The Pleasure and Pain of Speed ( "At the height of the silent film era, shot lengths were about as short as they are today". How government officials get scared by unlikely threats.
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