Quotulatiousness

November 7, 2017

Le Corbusier

Filed under: Books, France, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Theodore Dalrymple could never be called a fan of Le Corbusier’s architecture:

The French fascist architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, was another of this charmless ilk, though cleaner than Brecht (a Marxist, the latter’s decision not to wash was his tribute, albeit not a very flattering one, to the proletariat). Jeanneret’s inhumanity, his rage against humans, is evident in his architecture and in his writings. He felt the level of affection and concern for them that most people feel for cockroaches.

Like Hitler, Jeanneret wanted to be an artist, and, as with Hitler, the world would have been a better place if he had achieved his ambition. Had he been merely an artist, one could have avoided his productions if one so wished; but the buildings that he and his myriad acolytes have built unavoidably scour the retina of the viewer and cause a decline in the pleasure of his existence.

One of Jeanneret’s buildings can devastate a landscape or destroy an ancient townscape once and for all, with a finality that is quite without appeal; as for his city planning, it was of a childish inhumanity and rank amateurism that would have been mildly amusing had it remained purely theoretical and had no one taken it seriously.

A book has just been published — Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect, by Malcolm Millais — that reads like the indictment of a serial killer who can offer no defense (except, possibly, a psychiatric one). The author shares with me an aesthetic detestation of Jeanneret, and also of his casual but deeply vicious totalitarianism; but, unlike me, the author both has a scholarly knowledge of his subject’s life and writings, of which the perusal of only a few has more than sufficed for me, and is a highly qualified structural engineer. Mr. Millais is able to prove not only that Jeanneret was a liar, cheat, thief, and plagiarist in the most literal sense of the words, a criminal as well as being personally unpleasant on many occasions, but that he was technically grossly ignorant and incompetent, indeed laughably so. His roofs leaked, his materials deteriorated. He never grasped the elementary principles of engineering. All his ideas were gimcrack at best, and often far worse than merely bad. To commission a building from Jeanneret was to tie a ball and chain around one’s own ankle, committing oneself to endless, Sisyphean bills for alteration and maintenance, as well as to a dishonest estimate of what the building would cost to build in the first place. A house by Jeanneret was not so much a machine for living in (to quote the most famous of his many fatuous dicta) as a machine for generating costs and for moving out of. In the name of functionality, Jeanneret built what did not work; in the name of mass production, everything he used had to be individually fashioned. Having no human qualities himself, and lacking all imagination, he did not even understand that shade in a hot climate was desirable, indeed essential.

October 29, 2017

QotD: Mencken’s revised view of Coolidge

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In what manner he would have performed himself if the holy angels had shoved the Depression forward a couple of years — this we can only guess, and one man’s hazard is as good as another’s. My own is that he would have responded to bad times precisely as he responded to good ones — that is, by pulling down the blinds, stretching his legs upon his desk, and snoozing away the lazy afternoons…. He slept more than any other President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored…. Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1933-04.

October 28, 2017

Loved by outsiders, hated by insiders … differing views of the Pope

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Guardian, Andrew Brown reports on just how some insiders are eager for the Pope to be promoted out of office:

Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers. Outside the church he is hugely popular as a figure of almost ostentatious modesty and humility. From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope in 2013, his gestures caught the world’s imagination: the new pope drove a Fiat, carried his own bags and settled his own bills in hotels; he asked, of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and washed the feet of Muslim women refugees.

But within the church, Francis has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives who fear that this spirit will divide the church, and could even shatter it. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private. Whenever two priests meet, they talk about how awful Bergoglio is … he’s like Caligula: if he had a horse, he’d make him cardinal.” Of course, after 10 minutes of fluent complaint, he added: “You mustn’t print any of this, or I’ll be sacked.”

This mixture of hatred and fear is common among the pope’s adversaries. Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first ever Jesuit pope, was elected as an outsider to the Vatican establishment, and expected to make enemies. But no one foresaw just how many he would make. From his swift renunciation of the pomp of the Vatican, which served notice to the church’s 3,000-strong civil service that he meant to be its master, to his support for migrants, his attacks on global capitalism and, most of all, his moves to re-examine the church’s teachings about sex, he has scandalised reactionaries and conservatives. To judge by the voting figures at the last worldwide meeting of bishops, almost a quarter of the college of Cardinals – the most senior clergy in the church – believe that the pope is flirting with heresy.

The crunch point has come in a fight over his views on divorce. Breaking with centuries, if not millennia, of Catholic theory, Pope Francis has tried to encourage Catholic priests to give communion to some divorced and remarried couples, or to families where unmarried parents are cohabiting. His enemies are trying to force him to abandon and renounce this effort.

Since he won’t, and has quietly persevered in the face of mounting discontent, they are now preparing for battle. Last year, one cardinal, backed by a few retired colleagues, raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy – the wilful rejection of an established doctrine of the church, a sin punishable by excommunication. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop and a former head of the Vatican bank, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.

To accuse a sitting pope of heresy is the nuclear option in Catholic arguments. Doctrine holds that the pope cannot be wrong when he speaks on the central questions of the faith; so if he is wrong, he can’t be pope. On the other hand, if this pope is right, all his predecessors must have been wrong.

It might be worth noting that the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was only formally accepted in the late 19th century … long after the Pope was able to exercise secular power of any note.

H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.

October 24, 2017

The many false faces of Aleister Crowley

Filed under: Books, Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Sean Gabb reviews a new collection of essays about Aleister Crowley:

Turning to practitioners of the occult, I see no evidence of special success. They do not live longer than the rest of us. However they begin, they do not stay better looking. Any success they have with money, or in bed, is better explained by the gullibility of their followers than by their own magical powers.

So it was with Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) — the “Great Beast 666,” or “the wickedest man alive.” He quickly ran through the fortune his parents had left him. He spent his last years in poverty. Long before he died, he had begun to resemble the mug shot of a child murderer. Whether his claims were simply a fraud on others, or a fraud on himself as well, I see no essential difference between him and the beggar woman who cursed me in the street. He had advantages over her of birth and education. But he was still a parasite on the credulity of others.

Nor can I see him as a thinker or writer of any real value. The book that I am reviewing does its best to claim otherwise. Its varied essays are all interesting and well-written. Anything by Keith Preston, who wrote the fourth essay, is worth reading. Mr Southgate has done a fine job on the editing and formatting. But I found myself looking up from every essay to think what a terrible waste of ability had gone into producing the book. Was Crowley a sort of national socialist, or a sort of libertarian? Was he a sex-obsessed libertine, or did he preach absolute self-control? I suspect all these questions have the same answer. The overall theme of the book is that he was a penetrating critic of “modernity,” and each of its writers — all, in my view, men of greater ability than Crowley — has done his best to reduce a corpus of self-serving nonsense to a coherent system of thought.

The truth, I think, is that, beyond a desire to impose on everyone about him, Crowley had no fixed ideas, but he was too bad a writer for this to be apparent. Take these examples of his prose:

    We are not for the poor and sad: the lords of the earth are our kinsfolk. Beauty and strength, leaping laughter, and delicious languor, force and fire are of us…” [quoted, p.68]

    The sexual act… is the agent which dissipates the fog of self for one ecstatic moment. It is the instinctive feeling that the physical spasm is symbolic of that miracle of the Mass, by which the material wafer… is transmuted into the substance of the body. [quoted, p.151]

In the second of these, he seems to show an influence of D.H. Lawrence — or of the sources that made Lawrence into another bad writer. In the first, he has certainly been reading too much Swinburne. I confess that I have not read anything by Crowley beyond the quotations in this book. Having seen these, though, I am not curious to look further. He was a nasty piece of work in his private life, and a victim of early twentieth century fashion in everything else.

October 22, 2017

IKEA’s strengths and weaknesses, from a consumer point of view

Filed under: Business, Europe, Woodworking — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Paul Sellers posted an article on his woodworking blog, reacting to some British journalists praising IKEA’s “democratisation of design”:

Visually neat and relatively cheap at first glance, but they are basic and they resolve the need in a new and young family for storage. The pinnacle of three-dimensional cubism!
(photo from PaulSellers.com)

Yup! a couple of newspaper writers (maybe more, knowing British journalism) reported the same thing in a short space of time, both hailing IKEA as a ‘democratising’ force revolutionising people’s perspectives on furniture design. Both articles were interesting in the way some articles can be, you know, not contributing much to society really, but time filling on a lazy Sunday. What actually struck me most between their somewhat opposing points of views was the unifying thread in their use of the terms “democratisation of design” and “democratising design and the theme of creating affordable, non-fusty furniture for the masses.” As far as I have seen through the years it is not so much IKEA’s ability to design but more their ability to produce zero- or minimalist-design products that seem less to be concepts of style, shape or form but mostly the selling of square-edged, styleless, plank-type items in the form of very, very plain boxes. Yes, I do understand the needs of young families for low cost storage and first year students to furnish their rooms, but democratisers of design!

Unpretentious though their lines are, you can hardly say they are designs so much as meagre assemblies and of course assemblies you generally have to take care in the way they are used because the selling points are their lightweight cheapness, transportability, dismantle-ability and simple (or complex) self-assembly products. You might be better to strike out into similar fashion statements rejecting the classics of old and adopt an equally classless line of unimagination by using old scaffold planks for dining tables and benches or, say, a shipping pallet coffee table on commercial galvanised swivel casters.

Elizabeth and I used to enjoy visiting a furniture store up in Peterborough, but about a year or so back, they stopped carrying the kind of furniture we liked and started stocking exactly the sort of stuff Paul is talking about. Industrial chic is all very well, but these pieces looked like they’d been thrown together at the last possible second as a student project for a college design course: the industrial fittings were cobbled together as crudely and as shoddily as possible, with no eye to either aesthetics or sturdiness. They were literally props that might appear in the background of a Victorian or Edwardian shop floor scene in an off-, off-, off-Broadway kind of production.

I’m far from a curmudgeon on the topic of home decor and furniture, but the pieces in that store were expensive crap. You can do the industrial chic look, or more modern variations using cast-offs from all sorts of places. My friend Brendan, in his first couple of apartments, had no spare cash at all so he scrounged up pretty much all of his furniture from around town. He had the weirdest collection of decades-old store signs, former display cabinets from different eras, and I don’t know what else, but he has a great eye for design, so no matter how eclectic it all was, he managed to make it look appealing and (somehow) integrated. That was clearly the ideal for the owners of the Peterborough furniture store, but they missed the mark by a very large amount.

I never liked lazy, press-release type journalism (as we are used to in British woodworking magazines) because it can be the same as lazy design work; both lacking any true imagination. But the two authors, each celebrating IKEA’s birth for opposite and then too the same reasons, seemed more focussed on this issue of IKEA somehow ‘democratising’ something rather than considering what could be in essence more a diktat. I question whether IKEA makes products that people actually want or makes people want what they make by virtue of cheapness and driving out competition, but then what do I know? I know this though, IKEA only sells what it wants you to buy, sells stuff so cheap that no one else can compete, and devalues the market by forcing down prices to a level that promotes mainly quite dumbed down designs. I don’t ever recall much in IKEA’s selling centres that I would describe as at all imaginative. People buy there because it’s cheap. To zone in on the reporting world, on Beeb 4 a day later a reporter interviewed some head of IKEA UK and allowed way too much waffling claptrap boasting IKEA’s products were now no longer going into the landfill after a short lifespan as the reporter suggested, which is of course absolutely true, but onto the secondhand market, which IKEA wants to include in its ‘widening circle of circulation’.

[…]

On the one hand Rhiannon Cosslett article in the Guardian describes IKEA accurately as the “symbol of impermanence”, but she also follows the same track as India Knight in stating that this IKEA is enabling people to shed their ties with “snobbery regarding middle-class home decoration”. The woman reporting in the Times, India Knight, describes the pretension of owning a semi (duplex, USA) and adding furniture that emulates the chintz (a word used in the two articles) of the rich and famed owners living in UK mansions past as a kind of mindless hypocrisy. I agree to some degree, but then there are those millions of others who follow the IKEA trending in equally mindless ways buying into its philosophies purely on the basis that it’s IKEA, as though IKEA holds the keys to concepts of good design. This, in my mind at least, shows how lacking we can become in discerning just what a good design is. I might liken IKEA designs to all the nations County Councils use of standardised street and buildings signage. Yes, they work effectively, but only because they have a created dull and unimaginative examples that stand out because of dullness. The main difference here of course is that for safety reasons the County Councils have a get out clause. I have yet to walk through an IKEA store without thinking (smelling too) MDF, pressed fibreboard, resins and plastic but how is it even possible that any company could put so much effort into creating so much artificiality.

Nope, not plywood, faux ply ‘engineered hollow core particle board.’
(Photo from PaulSellers.com)

October 11, 2017

Reading Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Filed under: Books, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Richard Blake introduces one of the greatest English historians and explains why his work is still well worth reading:

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was born into an old and moderately wealthy family that had its origins in Kent. Sickly as a child, he was educated at home, and sent while still a boy to Oxford. There, an illegal conversion to Roman Catholicism ruined his prospects of a career in the professions or the City. His father sent him off to Lausanne to be reconverted to the Protestant Faith. He came back an atheist and with the beginnings of what would become a stock of immense erudition. He served part of the Seven Years War in the Hampshire Militia. He sat in the House of Commons through much of the American War. He made no speeches, and invariably supported the Government. He moved for a while in polite society – though his increasing obesity, and the rupture that caused his scrotum to swell to the size of a football, made him an object of mild ridicule. Eventually, he withdrew again to Switzerland, where obesity and his hydrocele were joined by heavy drinking. Scared by the French Revolution, he came back to England in 1794, where he died of blood-poisoning after an operation to drain his scrotum.

When not eating and drinking, and putting on fine clothes, and talking about himself, he found time to become the greatest historian of his age, the greatest historian who ever wrote in English, one of the greatest of all English writers, and perhaps the only modern historian to rank with Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus. The first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire astonished everyone who knew him. The whole was received as an undisputed classic. The work has never been out of print during the past quarter-millennium. It remains, despite the increase in the number of our sources and our better understanding of them, the best – indeed, the essential – introduction to the history of the Roman Empire between about the death of Marcus Aurelius and the death of Justinian.

I’ve read a few abridged versions of Gibbon’s great work, and I intend to start on the unexpurgated version once I’ve finished the New Cambridge Modern History (I have all in hand except Volume XII, the Companion Volume). This is why Blake considers Gibbon to be such an important and still-relevant writer:

1. Greatness as a Writer and a Liberal

I cannot understand the belief, generally shared these past two centuries, that the golden age of English literature lay in the century before the Civil War. I accept the Prayer Book and the English Bible as works of genius that will be appreciated so long as our language survives. I admire the Essays of Francis Bacon and one or two lyrics. But I do not at all regard Shakespeare as a great writer. His plays are ill-organised, his style barbarous and tiresome. I fail to understand how pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, with their long, ranting monologues, can be thought equal to the greatest products of the Athenian theatre. I grant that Julius Caesar is a fine play – but only because Shakespeare stayed close to his ancient sources for the plot, and wrote in an uncharacteristically plain style. Perhaps I am undeveloped in some critical faculty; and I know that people whose judgements I trust have thought better of him. But I cannot see Shakespeare as a great writer or his age as the greatest in our literature. […]

2. His Scholarship

As said, this was not my first meeting with Gibbon. I was twelve when I found him in the abridgement by D.M. Low. As an undergraduate, I made use of him in the J.B. Bury edition up till the reign of Heraclius and the Arab conquests. In my middle twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only as I approached thirty that I read him in the full and proper order, from the military resources of the Antonines to the revival of Rome under the Renaissance Popes. It is only by reading him in the whole, and by paying equal attention to text and footnotes, that he can be appreciated as a supreme historian. […]

3. His Fairness as an Historian

Even where he can be criticised for letting his prejudices cloud his judgement, Gibbon remains ultimately fair. He dislikes Christianity, and is convinced that it contributed to the decline of the Empire. His fifteenth and sixteenth chapters are one long sneer at the rise and progress of the Christian Faith. They excited a long and bitter controversy. There was talk for a while of a prosecution for blasphemy. But this was only talk. A man of Gibbon’s place in the social order was not to be taken into court like some hack writer with no connections.

QotD: Speed readers

Filed under: Books, Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

… shut up, speed readers. That’s right. I said eight hours. Deal with it. Nobody cares that you read 6,000 WPM like some sort of freaky robot person. Most people read for fun at 200 WPM and most books are 100k words. I swear, I’ve never in my life mentioned that it takes hours to read a novel without some self-righteous speed reader chiming in the comments about how brilliant they are and how they read a novel every fifteen minutes. Goody for you. Those of us who’ve known the touch of a woman don’t care you read fast.

Larry Correia, “one Star Reviews Over Book Prices are Dumb”, Monster Hunter Nation, 2016-02-16.

October 9, 2017

Reviewing Democracy in Chains as speculative fiction, rather than as history

James Devereaux critiques the recent book by Nancy MacLean which was intended to tarnish the reputation of James McGill Buchanan by tracing the intellectual roots and influences that shaped Buchanan’s life and work.

Nancy MacLean, in her new book Democracy in Chains, has allegedly revealed the master plan of right-wing political operatives, funded by the Kochs and inspired by James McGill Buchanan. MacLean pulls no punches as she describes a right-wing conspiracy meant to bring about “a fifth column movement the likes of which no nation has ever seen.” (page 127) Alas, the major problem with her account, as her fellow Duke Professor Mike Munger summarized, is it is “a work of speculative historical fiction.” MacLean’s contribution is a failure of academic discourse more likely to increase unfounded paranoia and division than to reveal any hidden agenda. MacLean’s bias bleeds into nearly every aspect of this book and taints her interpretation of the facts and sources beyond any reasonable interpretation could support. At one point she ponders the genius of Buchanan but determines it to be an “evil genius” for his work, much of which discusses the difficulties of democracy (page 42).

Why, one may feel justified in asking, dwell on speculative fiction? Unfortunately, when speculative fiction enters the popular culture, is applauded, and treated as fact, a measure of scrutiny is required. MacLean has received a fair share of positive press. NPR wrote that Democracy in Chains is “a book written for the skeptic; MacLean’s dedicated to connecting the dots.” That is if the dots were points on a corkboard tied together with red yarn. Oprah’s book club put it in their “20 books to read this summer” list. The Atlantic’s review praised the book as “part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism.” Slate also wrote a review.

A Deluge of Error

MacLean’s revelation regarding this “stealth plan” for a “fifth column movement” focuses on the relatively obscure, but well-respected, founder of public choice economics Nobel laureate James McGill Buchanan. MacLean weaves a fascinating tale but one that paints Buchanan and sympathizing libertarians as radicals determined to undermine democracy for the purpose of satisfying elitist urges, squashing the underdog, burdening the minority, and exploiting the poor. Unfortunately for MacLean, and those heaping praise, it is clear this tale rests on ransom-note-style citations, cutting and pasting together portions of phrases to change the meaning and support her narrative. In certain places it appears she has woefully misunderstood the source material or did not care – the notes do not match the claims. By cobbling together this mish-mash of selective quotes and speculation MacLean errs twice: first in describing Buchanan’s views and second in describing the motives of Buchanan and anyone sympathetic to his view.

A litany of scholars have examined the book and revealed a deluge of error. Russ Roberts wrote that MacLean owed Tyler Cowen an apology, courteously gave her room to respond, which she used to double down on her claims despite the obvious selective use of unfairly parsed phrases which attributed a view to Cowen he did not hold. Steve Horwitz, Michael Munger, Jonathan Adler, and David Bernstein have found issues with her citations and claims (Adler aggregated them at the Washington Post). Most thoroughly, Phil Magness has dissected numerous errors, misquotes, and general failures of citation found within the book, it appears to be an ongoing project. The errors which have compiled are such that they undermine credibility in the reading. As others have listed her poor citations, mangling of quotes, and selective editing, this will not be the focus of this review.

Since the publication of Maclean’s book, Don Boudreaux at Café Hayek has been hammering her work on an almost daily basis.

September 26, 2017

Steve Chapman – “The Unabomber had a point”

Filed under: History, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In his Chicago Tribune column, Steve Chapman does his very best “grumpy old man yelling at a cloud” imitation, while the headline writer goes one step further:

The iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right

The introduction of the new iPhone X — which features wireless charging, facial recognition and a price tag of $999 — appears to be a minor event in the advance of technology. But it’s an excellent illustration of something that has long gone unrecognized: The Unabomber had a point.

Not about blowing people up in an effort to advance his social goals. Ted Kaczynski’s campaign to kill and maim chosen victims with explosives was horrific in the extreme and beyond forgiveness. But his 35,000-word manifesto, published in 1995, provided a glimpse of the future we inhabit, and his foresight is a bit unsettling.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” it begins. Among the ills he attributes to advances in technology are that they promise to improve our lives but end up imposing burdens we would not have chosen.

He cites the automobile, which offered every person the freedom to travel farther and faster than before. But as cars became more numerous, they became a necessity, requiring great expense, bigger roads and more regulations. Cities were designed for the convenience of drivers, not pedestrians. For most people, driving is no longer optional.

Smartphones have followed the same pattern. When cellphones first appeared, they gave people one more means of communication, which they could accept or reject. But before long, most of us began to feel naked and panicky anytime we left home without one

He also comes up with a non-Unabomber book that kinda-sorta supports the point he’s trying to make, I think:

The problem is hardly a new one. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the agricultural revolution that took place 10,000 years ago was “history’s biggest fraud.”

In the preceding 2.5 million years, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers they worked less, “spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease” than afterward.

Farming boosted the population but chained humans to the land and demanded ceaseless drudgery to plant, tend, harvest and process food — while making us more vulnerable to famine, disease and war. People who had evolved over eons for one mode of life were pushed into a different mode at odds with many of their natural instincts.

Our distant pre-agricultural ancestors may have worked less than their post-agricultural descendants, but they hardly could be said to have lived lives of leisure and plenty. They lived in very small family groups because without advanced technology they were limited to what could be hunted or gathered in a small region and had very few portable possessions because they generally had to move frequently as the availability of food dictated. Once a group switched from a nomadic to a fixed lifestyle, “work” became how most members of that group would live the vast majority of their lives. Lives of hunter-gatherers were not stunted by the work that farmers had to put in, and hunter-gatherers had no fixed territory to defend, so they had no need of a warrior class or caste to help them protect the land they farmed, and no king or chief or overlord to “protect” them from other groups’ kings or chiefs or overlords. The advantage of the farmers over the nomads was that farmers could build up a surplus of food to tide them over when food was normally scarce – nomads would have to move on to find new hunting grounds.

September 22, 2017

Why I DON’T watch (most) TV Documentaries

Filed under: History, Media, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 5 Sep 2017

I get asked quite a lot about TV documentaries either which I recommend, like or watch. Well, here are the main reasons why I usually avoid them like the plague.

September 18, 2017

Identity politics

Filed under: Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Brendan O’Neill posted this to Facebook a few days back (but it only showed up on my timeline now):

Here’s the danger in identity politics. The more we mix up the personal and the political, the more we define ourselves and our entire worldview according to what colour or sex or sexuality we are, the more we will experience every criticism of our beliefs as an attack on our very being, our personhood, our right to exist. If your politics are indistinguishable from your self — your biological, racial, sexual self — then every challenge to your politics will naturally look like an assault on your self, on you as an individual. This is why identitarians describe even measured debate about their political beliefs as “erasure” or even “violence”: because having made politics all about them and their mental wellbeing, they naturally see political disagreement as an assault on them and their mental wellbeing. Identity politics directly breeds thin-skinnedness and intolerance. And in green-lighting such fragile narcissism, it green-lights violence too. After all, if political disagreement really does threaten your very existence, if critical speech really is violence, how should you deal with it? By censoring it, or even crushing it, by any means necessary, to protect your precious self.

September 17, 2017

QotD: The great enrichment

Filed under: Books, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The most fundamental problem in Piketty’s book, then, is that he misses the main act. In focusing solely on the distribution of income, he overlooks the most surprising secular event in history: the Great Enrichment of the average individual on the planet by a factor of 10 and in rich countries by a factor of 30 or more. Many humans are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were.

This includes a gigantic improvement of the poorest — your ancestors and mine. By dramatic increases in the size of the pie, the poor have been lifted to 90 or 95 percent of equal sustenance and dignity, as against the 10 or 5 percent attainable by redistribution without enlarging the pie.

What caused the Great Enrichment? It cannot be explained by the accumulation of capital, as the very name “capitalism” implies. Our riches were not made by piling brick upon brick, bachelor’s degree upon bachelor’s degree, bank balance upon bank balance, but by piling idea upon idea. The bricks, BAs, and bank balances were of course necessary. Oxygen is necessary for a fire. But it would be unenlightening to explain the Chicago Fire of 1871 by the presence of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere.

The original and sustaining causes of the modern world were indeed ethical, not material. They were the widening adoption of two new ideas: the liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the democratic social idea of dignity for them. This, in turn, released human creativity from its ancient trammels. Radically creative destruction piled up ideas, such as the railways creatively destroying walking and the stage coaches, or electricity creatively destroying kerosene lighting and the hand washing of clothes, or universities creatively destroying literary ignorance and low productivity in agriculture. The Great Enrichment requires not accumulation of capital or the exploitation of workers but what I call the Bourgeois Deal. In the historical lottery the idea of an equalizing liberty and dignity was the winning ticket, and the bourgeoisie held it.

That even over the long run there remain some poor people does not mean the system is not working for the poor, so long as their condition is continuing to improve, as it is, and so long as the percentage of the desperately poor is heading toward zero, as it is. That people still sometimes die in hospitals does not mean that medicine is to be replaced by witch doctors, so long as death rates are falling and so long as the death rate would not fall under the care of the witch doctors. It is a brave book Thomas Piketty has written. But it is mistaken.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

September 15, 2017

The Good The Bad & The Ugly: Why Is It So Good?

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Feb 2017

The Good The Bad & The Ugly: Why Is It So Good? is a great movie to look back on. It made 5 times its money back, making it a big success. But even Clint Eastwood himself thought the movie would do either really well or really bad.

It didn’t have the greatest reception from critics at that time. One of the most memorable criticisms from The LA Times said that the movie should have been called The Bad, The Dull and the Interminable”. The main reason for this negativity was due to the movie belonging to a not so popular sub genre, the Spaghetti Western, which when compared to a Hollywood western was considered as a cheap, inferior, foreign version.

In your typical Hollywood Western everything looked clean… where the heroes were handsome, and wore freshly pressed suits and had shiny new guns. But in a Spaghetti or Italian Western thing were far more gritty, dirty and violent as a whole they were perceived as been more realistic Its main characters weren’t well groomed nor necessarily handsome.

The musical scores were pretty different, from the amazing high energy music by Ennio Morricone compared to the more stately orchestral scores by Elmer Bernstein, like in The Magnificent Seven. In the 1960s the Hollywood hero was usually a great gunslinger who faced insurmountable odds taking on the bad guys and out smarting them. They were usually unselfish and down to earth. The main villains were very one dimensional, their badness was not explained, and they were often a outcasts, which meant they were either feared or hated by the local townspeople. However Italian films featured anti-heroes: instead of the protagonist saving everyone, the main character himself was either neutral or more interested in personal gain. While the bad guy was often as charismatic or powerful as the hero in order to give the protagonist a real challenge.

In Hollywood westerns the death of an antagonist simply meant the triumph of the good over the bad… going back home or having a reunion with loved ones, concluded the movies story. Whereas in its European counterpart, the death of the antagonist usually completed the narrative.

Sergio Leone had only directed a “fistful” of low budget movies at this point of his career, but you wouldn’t think that watching this film. What makes this movie truly amazing is Leone’s scope and vision. He had the special ability to use silence to help build suspicion, and paranoia when it came to one of his famous shootout scenes. Or Leone would use a long pause combined with music that slowly increased in tempo to make his action scenes feel more exciting and have a far greater payoff, even though the action would be over within a blink of an eye

Leone’s unique style involved shots of scenery that were very pulled back, where he would have small figures moving around in the distance, these wide shots were then followed by tight close ups of faces, giving you the audience this fantastic operatic feeling whenever a new chapter began Leone was great with people’s faces… he would deliberately hand pick his extras to find people who had very different looks and features… he would then pan across them giving his shots an extra sense of realism

Leone also establishes a rule where a characters vision is limited by the sides of the frame, everything outside the frame is invisible. This allows you the viewer to see only from the perspective of what the characters sees. So when Blondie and Tuco are heading towards the cemetery, they don’t notice the massive Union army in front of them and neither do you. Leone often thought that Hollywood Westerns had too much dialog, so he had his characters say more by saying less. Where most of them make eye contact with each other… pause and then start shooting!

Clint Eastwood as Blondie aka the good, is easily recognizable due to his iconic brown hat, poncho and fondness for cigarillos. But apart from that, his character is pretty mysterious… not much is known about him he says very little, and technically isn’t `good’ in a traditional sense… however he has a certain sense of honour and tries to do the right thing from time to time. Tuco aka the Ugly is the exact opposite or his partner Blondie, he never stops talking… Eli Wallach steals the show with his acting, and is easily the most complex character… always lying, switching sides, where he goes from trying to kill Blondie in one scene to pretending to be his best friend in another… He truly represents `the ugliest’ side of humanity, But that doesn’t stop you from loving his character Angel Eyes aka The Bad is evil personified. Lee Van Cleef was born to play this part

September 11, 2017

Smug Canadian vanity over helping (some) refugees may harm a larger number of more desperate refugees

Filed under: Cancon, Middle East — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jonathan Kay in the National Post:

By my anecdotal observation, these accounts are not overblown. At Toronto dinner parties, it’s become common for upscale couples to brag about how well their sponsored refugees are doing. (Houmam has a job! The kids already speak English! Zeinah bakes the most amazing Syrian pastries — I’m going to serve some for desert!) Syrian refugees aren’t just another group of Canadian newcomers. They’ve become central characters in the creation of our modern national identity as the humane yang to Trump’s beastly yin.

Given all this, it seems strange to entertain the thought that — contrary to this core nationalist narrative — our refugee policy may actually be doing more harm than good. Yet after reading Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, a newly published book jointly authored by Paul Collier and Alexander Betts, I found that conclusion hard to avoid. When it comes to helping victims of Syria’s civil war, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

[…]

What’s worse, the lottery-style nature of the system means that refugees have incentive to take enormous risks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel received lavish praise for admitting more than 1 million Muslim refugees in 2015. But the data cited in Refuge suggest the tantalizing prospect of first-world residency is precisely what motivated so many refugees to endanger their lives by setting out from Turkey in tiny watercraft. We like to believe that generous refugee-admission policies are an antidote to the perils that claimed Alan Kurdi’s life. The exact opposite seems more likely to be true.

Moreover, the refugees who make it to the West do not comprise a representative cross-section of displaced Syrians — because those who can afford to pay off human smugglers tend to be the richest and most well-educated members of their society. (Betts and Collier cite the stunning statistic that fully half of all Syrian university graduates now live outside the country’s borders.) This has important policy ramifications, because refugees who remain in the geographical vicinity of their country of origin typically return home once a conflict ends — whereas those who migrate across oceans usually never come back. Insofar as the sum of humanity’s needs are concerned, where is the need for Syrian doctors, dentists and nurses more acute — Alberta or Aleppo?

[…]

But logically sound as it may be, the authors’ argument also flies in the face of our national moral vanity. Scenes of refugees being greeted at the airport by our PM offer a powerful symbol of our humanitarian spirit. Having our PM cut cheques to foreign aid agencies? Less so. While focusing more on supporting Syrian refugees who’ve been displaced to other Middle Eastern countries would allow us to do more good with the same amount of money, we’d also be acting in a less intimate and personal way — and we’d get fewer of those heartwarming newspaper features about Arab children watching their first Canadian snowstorm.

And so we have to ask ourselves: In the end, what’s more important — doing good, or the appearance of doing good? If we’re as pure of heart as we like to imagine, we’ll seek out the policy that saves the most people, full stop. And Refuge supplies an outstanding road map for getting us there.

QotD: Does inequality matter?

Filed under: Books, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The central problem with the book, however, is an ethical one. Piketty does not reflect on why inequality by itself would be bad. To be sure, it’s irritating that a super rich woman buys a $40,000 watch. The purchase is ethically objectionable. She should be giving her income in excess of an ample level of 2 cars, say, not 20; 2 houses, not 7; 1 yacht, not 5 — to effective charities. Andrew Carnegie enunciated in 1889 the principle that “a man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie gave away his entire fortune. (Well, he gave it at death, after enjoying a castle in his native Scotland and a few other baubles.) But the fact that many rich people act in a disgraceful fashion does not automatically imply that the government should intervene to stop it. People act disgracefully in all sorts of ways. If our rulers were assigned the task in a fallen world of keeping us all wholly ethical, the government would bring all our lives under its fatherly tutelage, a nightmare achieved approximately before 1989 in East Germany and now in North Korea.

Notice that in Piketty’s tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book. Piketty’s vision of apocalypse leaves room for the rest of us to do very well indeed — rather non-apocalyptically — as in fact since 1800 we have. What is worrying Piketty is that the rich might possibly get richer, even though the poor get richer, too. His worry is purely about difference, about a vague feeling of envy raised to a theoretical and ethical proposition.

But our real concern should be with raising up the poor to a condition of dignity, a level at which they can function in a democratic society and lead full lives. It doesn’t matter ethically whether the poor have the same number of diamond bracelets and Porsche automobiles as do owners of hedge funds. But it does indeed matter whether they have the same opportunities to vote or to learn to read or to have a roof over their heads.

Adam Smith once described the Scottish idea as “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.” It would be a good thing, of course, if a free and rich society following Smithian liberalism produced a Pikettyan equality. In fact, it largely has, by the only ethically relevant standard of basic human rights and basic comforts. Introducing liberalism in Hong Kong and Norway and France, for instance, has regularly led to an astounding betterment and to a real equality of outcome — with the poor acquiring automobiles and hot-and-cold water at the tap that were denied in earlier times even to the rich, and acquiring political rights and social dignity that were denied in earlier times to everyone except the rich.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

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