Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book: Books vs Cigarettes by George Orwell




This little collection of Orwell's essays was a joy to read, especially the first three essays which all concerned the world of books. There is a wonderful accounting of the cost of books compared to the cost of cigarettes, reminiscenes of Orwell's time working in a bookshop, and a discussion of the horrid life of a book reviewer. "My Country Right or Left" is also a particularly interesting essay, observing that while great events may be occuring around us, our real memories at the time will probably be of smaller things of more greater import. For example, writing of the final period of the war, when Orwell was a child, he says "if you ask me to say truthfully what is my chief memory, I must answer simply - margarine." It is only afterwards, with the shaping influence of movies and books that our memories of the grander picture is truly formed.

As always, Orwell's strikingly clear prose is a joy in itself.

**** (many of Orwell's essays can be read here for free)

Quotes:

On reading:
"There are books that one reads over and over again, books that part of the furniture of the one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life"
- for me these books include Don Quixote by Cervates and Candide by Voltaire. P.G Wodehouse also features.

On losing the passion for book buying after working in a book-shop:
"Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles."

On memories and history:
"Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks."

"I spent the years 1922-7 mostly among men a little older than myself who had been through the war. They talked about it unceasingly, with horror, of course, but also with a steadily growing nostalgia. You can see this nostalgia perfectly clearly in the English war-books"

Monday, April 29, 2013

Book: Cloud, Castle, Lake by Vladimir Nabokov


Well, I have given the famed Vladimir Nabokov a try and have found his work not to my taste. The short stories in this collection were deliberately miserable and while the sentences were nicely crafted, the stories themselves don't lead anywhere particularly interesting. Russian Beauty stands out for its terrible, cheaply written ending. Razor is good enough. The title story, Cloud, Castle, Lake has hope but by the end it is dashed.

Am I missing something? Perhaps. A quick Google search reveals layers of analysis that passed this reader by:

"It is well known that Nabokov's short story "Cloud, Castle, Lake" abounds in allusions to Tiutchev's lyrics, functioning as its metatextual "re-reading." The article takes its departure from calling attention to an unexplored Tiutchevian allusion in the story—the image of "the fine hair of a spiderweb," the pivotal image of Tiutchev's famous nature lyric "There is in early autumn …"

My only response to this is "Whatcha talkin' about, Willis?"

*  Avoid at all costs. Never again Nabokov, never ever again.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Daniel Day Lewis plays Obama and nails it

A small rant on the new £5 note

There are at least four things wrong with the design of the new £5 note:

  • Odd blue tinge
  • Picture of Churchill is not emotionally neutral
  • A most odd choice of typeface
  • The quote "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" emblazened across the bottom contains too many negative words.

Film: Rumble Fish


Rumble Fish was on my list of "films I'm embarassed not have seen" until very recently. It was made back in the era when Francis Ford Coppola was still making amazing movies and it firmly belongs in this bracket.
Matt Dillon plays Rusty James, a rebel gang member who needs to be sourrounded by people all the time and harks back to a supposed golden age of gangs when his brother the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) ruled the roost. Rusty James doesn't just look up to his older brother, he idolises him by creating a warped sense of the past. However, the Motorcycle Boy, seen as a prince of the old gangs to be followed wherever he may go, is seeking to escape this part he has created for himself.

Dillon plays his role well but Rourke dominates and this is how it was meant to be. Rourke nailed a role which required finely balanced and intense acting, otherwise the film would have been destroyed. Denis Hopper is also brilliant as the constantly drunk father figure. Shot in clear black and white, the cinematography is beautiful. The musical score is also spot on, adding an existential tone and creating a sense of rapidly passing time, building up to a fateful ending.

I can see why the movie was panned by quite a few critics. Rumble Fish was released around the same time as The Outsiders, a much more commerical vehicle similarly tackling gang violence. Also, unless you have a feel for the type of film who are about to watch , the hyper-real aspects, dream-like sequences, and strong existential slant, will all serve to throw you off. Expect this and you are in for a rare treat.

7/10

Quotes:

Father:  "Your mother is not crazy. Neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother. He is merely miscast in a play. He would have made the perfect knight in a different century, or a very good pagan prince in a time of heroes. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to do anything and finding nothing he wants to do."

Motorcycle Boy: If you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Turner paintings

Watching the sky and its changing hues this evening, I am moved to post a handful of my favourite paintings by William Turner. I find the exaggeration of nature's elements in these pictures very powerful and emotive. Indeed, the effect seems to keep hold in the mind's eye, serving to provide a dramatic overlay when looking back at the real objects - it is a reality exaggerated by art in the best of possible ways.

 



Book: First and Last Things by H.G. Wells (Thinkers Library Series, 1929)


First and Last Things by H.G Wells is a collection of four honest, personal essays: Metaphysics, Beliefs, General Conduct and Some Personal Things. Beyond the interesting use of language, I found the book difficult to engage with due its heavy Socialist and religious focus; these aspects were clearly a steering force in Well's life but resonated little with this reader. On the upside the volume was small and there were enough interesting snippets to make the read worthwhile, but only just.

**

Some passages of note:

"Men imagine they stand on the same ground and mean the same thing by the same words, whereas they stand on slightly different grounds, use different terms for the same thing and express the same thing in different words."

"...And these primary necessities of food, clothing and freedom being secured, one comes to the general disposition of one's surplus energy. With regard to that I think that a very simple proposition follows from the broad beliefs I have chosen to adopt. The general duty of a man, his existence being secured, is to educate, and chiefly to educate and develop himself. It is his duty to live, to make all he can out of himself and life, to get full of experience, to make himself fine and perceiving and expressive, to render his experience and perceptions honestly and helpfully to others. And in particular he has to educate himself and others with himself in Socialism."

"...when we state that one's surplus energies, after one's living is gained, must be devoted to experience, self-development and constructive work, it is clear we condemn by implication many modes of life that are followed to-day. For example, it is manifest we condemn living in idleness or on non-productive sport, on the income derived from private property, and all sorts of ways of earning a living that cannot be shown to conduce to the constructive process. We condemn trading that is merely speculative, and in fact all trading and manufacture that is not a positive social service; we condemn living by gambling or by playing games for either stakes or pay. Much more do we condemn dishonest or fraudulent trading and every act of advertisement that is not punctiliously truthful. We must condemn too the taking of any income from the community that is neither earned nor conceded in the collective interest. But to this last point, and to certain issues arising out of it, I will return in the section next following this one.
And it follows evidently from our general propositions that every form of prostitution is a double sin, against one's individuality and against the species which we serve by the development of that individuality's preferences and idiosyncracies.

And by prostitution I mean not simply the act of a woman who sells for money, and against her thoughts and preferences, her smiles and endearments and the secret beauty and pleasure of her body, but the act of anyone who, to gain a living, suppresses himself, does things in a manner alien to himself and subserves aims and purposes with which he disagrees. The journalist who writes against his personal convictions, the solicitor who knowingly assists the schemes of rogues, the barrister who pits himself against what he perceives is justice and the right, the artist who does unbeautiful things or less beautiful things than he might, simply to please base employers, the craftsman who makes instruments for foolish uses or bad uses, the dealer who sells and pushes an article because it fits the customer's folly; all these are prostitutes of mind and soul if not of body ..."

"...In setting this down be it remembered I am doing my best to tell what is in me because I am trying to put my whole view of life before the reader without any vital omissions. These are difficult matters to explain because they have no clear outlines; one lets in a hard light suddenly upon things that have lurked in warm intimate shadows, dim inner things engendering motives. I am not only telling quasi-secret things but exploring them for myself. They are none the less real and important because they are elusive..." 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book: The Pleasures of the Table by Brillat Savarin (1825)

The Pleasures of the Table is a condensation of  "The Physiology of Taste" (1825), a timeless classic by Brillat Savarin, founder of the gastronomic essay. Savarin's style is highly entertaining and his writing is packed with interesting facts, even if some of the nuggets are suspect. For example, are we really to believe that it was once the common practice for an individual to eat twelve dozen oysters before tucking into the main meal? As for Turkeys being dealt fatal blows by raindrops falling on their soft skulls, well, this just can't be. Instead of detracting however, these odd, researched findings add further appeal to Savarin's wide-reaching compendium which covers all matters relating to the table, including: appetite, meats, fish, drinks, frying, the restaurant trade and even obesity. The original text is broader still, including topics such as sleep, death, exhaustion, and the effect of diet on dreams.Wonderful.
 
I miss works of such scope and ambition and believe a well illustrated, up-to-date version of Savarin's compendium would find a ready audience in today's society.

**** 1/2

My favourite passages from this book will be presented in a future post.

Film: Oblivion

Oblivion is an okay film and is easily worth the £3 ticket price - yes, our local cinema is one of the cheapest in the UK! The problem is that it is trying to do too many things at once and so ends up appearing as a mash-up of existing sci-fi films. It also suffers from a few plot holes which end up being quite annoying in hindsight (why did the alien intelligence need Jack in the first place?). What's more, knowing the fact of life that Morgan Freeman never plays a bad guy is a bit of a twist spoiler, albeit a minor one Complaints aside, the CGI isn't particularly troublesome and if you can forgive the elements I've menioned, then the movie is good fun and isn't too long.

6.5

Monday, April 22, 2013

Book: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley



In the Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experience taking the mind altering hallucinogen Peyote (mescalin) as a guinea-pig for scientific observation. Huxley writes extraordinarily well, describing how the drug impacts his experiences and also making a strong case for the direct, perceptive experience versus the conceptual, systematic reasoning that dominates our approach to understanding the world around us.

After drinking the mescalin dissolved in water, the author describes how his "interest in space is diminished and interest in time fall to almost zero", and how almost complete emphasis in perception is then given to the underlying aesthetic reality of the object of focus. The interesting thesis here is that humans naturally constrain and limit the overwhelming external stimuli we are constantly subjected to, and while this is necessary to function effectively as people it also means that we are not experiencing the greater "Mind at Large". According to Huxley, mescalin has the effect of blocking or limiting the function of the "reducing valve", thereby allowing the Mind at Large to seep into our consciousness, an experience he describes as coming as close "as a finite mind can ever come to perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe". It is this trip through the "Door in the Wall" experience that Huxley encourages as a means of transcending self-hood for all, noting that humans the world over already reach mind altering chemicals to create such an  effect (alcohol, hashish, opium, etc) and calling for a safe drug to be created or discovered to achieve the desired end.

**** 1/2

Some passages from the text:
"...By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies -all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes."

"...In the mescalin experience the implied questions to which the eye responds are of another order. Place and distance cease to be of much interest. The mind does its Perceiving in terms of intensity of existence, profundity of significance, relationships within a pattern. I saw the books, but was not at all concerned with their positions in space. What I noticed, what impressed itself upon my mind was the fact that all of them glowed with living light and that in some the glory was more manifest than in others. In this context position and the three dimensions were beside the point. Not, of course, that the category of space had been abolished. When I got up and walked about, I could do so quite normally, without misjudging the whereabouts of objects. Space was still there; but it had lost its predominance. The mind was primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning."

"...Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, "that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful." According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large."

"..."This is how one ought to see," I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers, or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more than Van-Goghian chair. "This is how one ought to see, how things really are." And yet there were reservations. For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else. Just looking, just being the divine Not-self of flower, of book, of chair, of flannel. That would be enough. But in that case what about other people? What about human relations? In the recording of that morning's conversations I find the question constantly repeated, "What about human relations?" How could one reconcile this timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see with the temporal duties of doing what one ought to do and feeling as one ought to feel? "One ought to be able," I said, "to see these trousers as infinitely important and human beings as still more infinitely important." One ought-but in practice it seemed to be impossible. This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, the necessary concerns of human existence, above all for concerns involving persons. For Persons are selves and, in one respect at least, I was now a Not-self, simultaneously perceiving and being the Not-self of the things around me."

"... How was this cleansed perception to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion? The age-old debate between the actives and the contemplatives was being renewed..."

"...to be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large -this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual." 

"... the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book: Practical Knowledge for All Vol 4 by Hammerton

I picked up this encyclopedia from a charity book store, attracted by it's musty smell, hand-drawn diagrams, yellowed pages and satisfying hand-feel. The book belongs to a set some 65 years old and so the knowledge is pretty dated. But herein lies the attraction and value: when you read a reference book that is partially defunct by its age you are reading a snapshot of our understanding of the world at a specific point in time (i..e there is an element of social history, an appreciation for our changing world and also for our changing outlooks and understandings).

My favourite entry was on the United States, which is described with a certain colour that clearly tells of the some of the differences between Britain and the US at the time, differences that have since narrowed.

"...the American is a youth on the word's stage. 

His growing years have been spent farther and farther from the Old Word, for the centre of the population has steadily gone to the West. New York, alleged to be the greatest agglomeration of buying power the world has yet seen, is but the nexus of the links between the Middle West and Europe. His growth has been achieved in relation to the concept: "better merely because bigger." For him, as he spread over untrodden ways, "bigger" has not necessarily meant "better", and bigger must be interpreted as not only greater in size but larger in number; bigger has implied mass-production, which means the making of much wealth by means of an infinitude of small profits. Hence he has grown to the gospel of work - make things, make more things, make yet more things, and have acquired the habit of making, sell the things. But to sell has meant selling as the price the customer can pay, not selling at the price which the maker has demanded, and selling has become a fetish, an art exalted by its practitioners....

...Such are the United States, a newcomer inviting the staid Old World to slough its antiquities, its habit of making war, its slavish devotion to futile formalities, which served well even the last generation"

***

Book: World's Greatest Letters: From Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century by Michelle Lovric


Alas, this book failed to deliver upon the high hopes I had set in place. It was worth an amble but I found myself uninterested in too many of the letters. Also, the chapters are unevenly weighted with too great a portion of the book given to the topics of love, family and friends. Other topics includes science, history and creativity, but the contents of these chapters is too sparse. Also, I found an absence of sufficient humour, vitriol and mad ramblings; there was a measure of colour in some of the letters but on balance this was greyed out by the greater number of letters relating sad news or discussing things not of my interest.

For more entertaining letters, one is better served by the excellent lettersofnote web-site, where the reader will find original letters along with with typed out versions. The latest entry is a great letter from comedian Tommy Cooper to his mother:

"...Looking forward very much to seeing you and have a nice long rest with us Jan. All day yesterday, I heard a ringing in my ears — Then I picked up the phone and it stopped. I was going to see my doctor, but he isn't a very good doctor. All his patients are sick. Dove & myself are on a new diet. We eat our breakfast in the raw. Then we eat our lunch raw. For dinner we put on clothes."


Now that's a letter!

**

My favourite quotes from the book:

Napoleon Bonaparte writing to his love Josephine Beauharnais (1796)
 "By what art have you become able to captivate all my faculties ..."

Karl Marx on how he expects Das Capital to impact society (1864):
"Now I hope to finish it in a couple of months and to deal a theoretical blow to the bourgeoisie from which they will never recover"



Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading some quotations about reading


“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

“When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” — Erasmus

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” — Henry David Thoreau

“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” — Confucius

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Film: Tales from the Golden Age (2009)


I watched my first Romanian film today. Tales from the Golden Age is a series of vignettes described as legends (each story is based on an urban myth). The movie is distinctly Eastern European with the type of surreal, bleak humour one expects from the region, and it's a welcome and refreshing change from the typical US/UK fare. Set in the horrid extreme Ceausescu period, when the whole country went to ruin and the procuring basic goods and services was a challenge and a risk, one half believes these absurd stories could have actaully taken place.


*** 1/2

Book: The Traveller's Daybook by Fergus Fleming


The Traveller's Daybook is a wonderfully presented, weighty collection of travel writing through the ages. There is an entry for each day of the year, each with a short background of the writer and the entry.

The beauty of this book is in the variety. You have adventurers in the Artic and Antartic risking life and limb, war correspondents, mountain climbers, musicians and poets crossing america, wives of diplomats accompanying their husbands to new lands, and discoverers of new depths of the African continent. And then the modes of travel as many as you can think of, from foot to rail to plane to air balloon. There are people who balk at the way of life in a country because they don't have ice at hand, folk who see puffins for the first time and think them to be some kind of winged rabbits, and Artic highlanders who see a boat and are convinced it is a creature of some sort. Wonderful.

A few snips of my favourite entries:

January, 1900 - Iasbelle Eberhardt. A disturbed adventurer of the Sahara.

"I sit here all by myself, looking at the grey expanse of the murmuring sea .... I am utterly alone on earth, and always will be in this Universe so full of lures and disappointments...alone, turning my back on a world of dead hopes and memories."

April, 1934 - Richard Byrd: meteorologist in Antartica
"This morning I had to admit to myself that I was lonely. Try as I may, I find I can't take loneliness casually; it is too big. But I must not dwell on it. Otherwise I am undone."

This is my favourite, evocative and hanting entry:



***1/2

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

10 stone weight goal ... crushed

A few months back I went on a mission to increase my weight to 10 stone. The target deadline was 18th April. Well, today is the 17th and I can report back from my weigh-in .... pow, 10 stone exact.

: )


Book quotes collection 2 of 2: "The Tao of Jeet Kune Do"














  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: Candide by Voltaire (translated by John Butt)

At just 50p I couldn't resist buying a second hand copy of Voltaire's Candide, even though I had already read a version of the work several years back. It is amongst my favourites and was due a revisit. Plus, it's a quite a slight volume at just 144 pages, and that includes the introduction by another author which shouldn't be read until you finish the book as it gives everything away. This version, a Penguin Classic translation by John Butt isn't quite as joyful to read as the translation by Theo Coffe that I read earlier, but it is still fantastic, unique, insightful and hilarious, and much more besides.

****

A few additional quotes (follow the above link for more):

Martin: "I remember being ill myself during my first visit to Paris. I was very poor. But then I had no friends, no kind ladies, and no doctors, so I soon recovered."

Martin: "I have seen so many extraordinary things, that nothing is extraordinary any more"

"... He first took Candide and Martin to La Comedie, where they played a new tragedy. Candide happened to be seated near some of the fashionable wits. This did not prevent his shedding tears at the well-acted scenes. One of these critics at his side said to him between the acts: "Your tears are misplaced; that is a shocking actress; the actor who plays with her is yet worse; and the play is still worse than the actors. The author does not know a word of Arabic, yet the scene is in Arabia; moreover he is a man that does not believe in innate ideas; and I will bring you, tomorrow, twenty pamphlets written against him."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Vanity Google Books search produces little joy

I just entered my name into the Google Books search box to see the extent to which my fellow namesakes had contributed to the world's scriblings. Would there be high minded pamphlets, magazine articles, towering works of fiction, poetry perhaps?

The search yielded a single work with the title "Chemical cleaning of starch based deposits from hard surfaces".

I shall pursue this no further.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Comedy: Ever wonder how (m)animals eat their food?

Book: The Faber Book of Greek Legends by Kathleen Lines



Whilst highly entertaining, The Faber Book Greek Legends is not particularly well written and one imagines there better books out there that will provider a better service to the reader. Nevertheless, if like me you are new to Greek mythology and want to learn more without delving too deeply, then Line's book isn't bad at all. Excluding the Forward and the first "In the Beginning" sections, the chapters are relatively breezy, with  illustrations that help to evoke much mystical imagery, for in this world humans and gods interact on a frequent basis.

Amongst the tales of adventure and tragedy, my favourite legends were of:

- Persephone: Whipped away by Hades (god of underworld), Persephone's mother Demeter (goddess of corn and all growing things) entered into a great sadness and whilst she was searching for her daughter everything stopped growing. The gods agreed to bring Persephone back from the underworld on condition that she hadn't eaten any food from the Kingdom of the Dead. Alas, she eaten six pomegranate seeds during her time below ground. Zeus determined that for each seed, Persephone would have to return to the Underworld for a month each year. And so it is that when Persephone returns to our world for six months. the joyful Demeter brings growth and blue skies. For the other half of the year when Persephone returns to the underworld to be with her husband Hades, all becomes grey and cold.

- Echo and Narcissus: Echo used to enrapture the goddess Hera with her beautiful voice but these distractions would be used by Zeus to visit his mistresses. When Hera discovered the truth, she made Echo into a mute who could only repeat the words of others. One day, in the forest, Echo met Narcissus, who fell in love with her. Howver, his love quickly turned to anger when he thought she was taunting him in her repetition's. Narcissus came to a pool of water and saw his image for the first time. Not knowing who this person was, he kept trying to reach out and touch it, only for it to disappear. In the end, he dove into the water and vanished forever into the depths in pursuit of the image. In this deed, he fulfilled the prophetic warning that "So long as he knows not himself, he will live long and happy".

- Artemis and Orion -When the god Apollo learned that his sister, the skilled hunter Artemis, was spending much time with the mortal Orion, he became angry and jealous. One day when Orion was out swimming in the distance, Apollo challenged Artemis to strike this fish with her arrow. By this deception, Artemis ended Orion's life. Artemis immortalised Orion by placing an image of him image among the stars.

File:Orion constellation Hevelius.jpg

*** 1/2

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Photo-a-week Project: obsolete


p5213 p521315 p5213obsolete, originally uploaded by Riz Din.

Via Flickr:
Give anything long enough and it will rust to gold: the Kodak Brownie is a super popular camera from a bygone era.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I am not alone in my hatred

All Adobe Updates


xkcd have provided the nice picture above to go along with this old blog rant from 2010:

"Dear Adobe,

Did you know that you suck eggs big time? Yes, big rotten eggs. You suck them and burp the horrid nasty gases all over your customer base. Okay, so you have some cracking software, but that's not enough. As a company, you are a disgust, a disgust you hear!

I have already abandoned Acrobat Reader due to it's constant checking for updates and incessant reminding to upgrade to the latest version with this or that incremental improvement. I'm not interested and never have been. I just want to be able to view pdf's quickly damn it. Indeed, most people really aren't fussed whether the latest version of your reader has an extra icon that does something we aren't ever going to use. Most of us really don't care. Okay, so we may find some value in going from, say Acrobat Reader 2.0 to 4.0, but all the versions in between - we don't care. Anyway, I got rid of your reader when it pestered me so much that I thought you guys were one step away from having an Adobe representative knock on my door in the early hours, beseeching me to upgrade.

Were my Adobe problems over with though? Oh no. Only today, my Firefox browser told me that my Flash software was out of date, so I did a quick install of your latest version. No probs? Simples? Oh, no, probs. Always probs with Adobe. You see, this time you managed to sneakily install a copy of Macafee Scan Plus on my machine by hiding a check box out of my line of sight, you little gits. I have uninstalled it now but you have now annoyed me so much that I don't want to come across any of your products again."

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Buying a car - 3 options

Here's an idea. With two out of three cars typically bought on some kind of finance plan, you have to wonder how many people are doing the maths behind making their decisions? Let's say you buy a brand new, simple little run around for £10,000 on a 5 year finance plan with an APR of 8% (kind of typical). That leaves you paying back almost 50% above face value once you take full ownership. It's likle a mortgage but on a depreciating asset and with a much higher interest rate. True, you'll get a care package making it dead easy to look after, but you still have to pay up for tires etc.

I tend to go for second hand cars around the £1.5k mark, a price point where you can get reliable old cars that you don't need to worry about too much. If lucky, maintenance costs will be minimal, and even if you were to scrap the car after a few years, the yearly costs will be relative peanuts.

If you are really motivated though, perhaps the best option should be to not have a car for a few years or have a really cheap runabout, and instead save a pot of money to fund all future car purchases for the rest of your life. For example, if you put some effort in and saved £15k this would give you £2,700 every five years if you earned 4.5% (a reasonable long-run rate of return). Then in terms of capital outlays for cars, you are done. You have effectively purchaed your own virtual car factory, enabling you to order the likes of the following every 4-5 years:

This BMW Z3 can be had for £1,750:


Or this Mercedes SLK for £1,800:



Food for thought.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Francis Bacon ... nice quotes



File:Francis Bacon 2.jpg


"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."

"Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not."

(quietly thieved from the excellent BrainPickings site)

Film: Coriolanus

I've never been much of a fan of Shakespeare's plays and so haven't found much enjoyment in cinematic adaptations of his works. However, Coriolanus, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, is an exception. Ralph unreservedly plays the role of Coriolanus with such a powerful and intense honesty that he is scary and chilling almost all of the time his character is on screen. Vanessa Redgrave is equally strong playing his cold, militaristic mother. The language is Shakesperean but don't let this put you off, as the story and script is never so convoluted that one's attention shifts to trying to figure out what is going on. Also, it helps that there are some great battle scenes with explosions, shooting, and close body combat fighting ; ) 

****


Sunday, April 07, 2013

Book: Bourbon for Breakfast


"Bourbon for Breakfast" is a collection of mostly fine essays from Jeffrey Tucker of the libertarian Mises Institute. Topics are wide ranging, including commerce, food, movies, health, crime, books, technology and even health and manners. The text starts off very strongly but as we move to the second half, covering broader topics such as health and manners and movies, the book loses some of its coherence and morphs into something much more heavily shaded by strong personal opinions. It's not bad when it changes, just unexpected. Overall, Bourbon for Breakfast is definitely worth dipping into though. What's more, this book can be had for free in the pdf form from the Mises Institute. At the very least, I'd recommend downloading the pdf and reading the fantastic section on Commerce. Chapter 14 is particulaly important, as it provides a straight forward explanation of one of the most important principles of economics: comparative advantage.

*** 1/2

Snippings for posterity:

"...The case of socially just coffee is the one that really gets my goat. The
coffee plantations that pay the highest wages and offer the most bene-
fits to their workers are the largest, most established, and most well-con-
nected plantations. The smaller, family-owned plantations can’t afford all
these things, but they are less likely to have access to the rating agencies
and export companies. Why, precisely, are consumers supposed to favor the
corporate big shots over the family farms, and do so in the name of enlight-
ened social consciousness? The whole campaign for fair-trade coffee is one
of the most bizarre and contradictory schemes that the dumb-dumb Left
has ever dreamed up."


---

"...Let’s review the oldest contribution of liberal thought: The market soci-
ety uses private gain to achieve social good, via the mechanism of mutually
beneficial exchange. I buy a jug of milk and the shopkeeper takes my money.
We both say “thank you” to each other because we have both given each
other a gift and we are both better off. The profits in the form of money, if
there are any after expenses, are used to expand production so that there
are ever more opportunities for trade. Multiply these little exchanges and
investments by the world’s population and you have an ever-more beautiful
and fruitful garden of peace and prosperity.


In this scheme, what is the role of giving to charitable causes? This is
provided for by the growth of capital and wealth. When there is enough left
over after providing for basic survival needs, people turn their attention to
widows, orphans, the sick, the symphonies, art galleries, saving salaman-
ders, promoting religion, establishing quilt-weaving societies, and billions
of other causes — all of which are evidence of rising prosperity.
The direction of causation here is important. First: markets. Second:
investment and exchange. Third: prosperity. Fourth: a zillion social causes
that fall into the category of charity, social justice, and the like. Why is it that
we are so fearful of telling the truth about this step-by-step plan for build-
ing civilization? Why are we so anxious to blur the distinctions between the
stages?


What’s more, if I want to give to charity, I’m perfectly capable of doing
this on my own and according to my own values. I do not need business
enterprises to intervene to help me along and show me the path to true
enlightenment. When someone comes along to dictate to me what my val-
ues should be, I tend to push back. I just want products and services; I’ll
take care of the rest on my own dime. What is so complicated about this?"


---


"...It is critically important for the employee to understand that he is
doing no favors to the employer by working there, nor is the employer to
be regarded as a generous distributor of funds, much less someone who is
under some positive moral obligation to dish out. The employee is there
because the nature of the world and the ubiquity of the scarcity of time
and resources make it necessary. In order for there to be peace amidst this
arrangement, there must be mutual benefit, always."


---

"...Employers will tell you that most
kids coming out of college are radically unprepared for a regular job. It’s
not so much that they lack skills or that they can’t be trained; it’s that they
don’t understand what it means to serve others in a workplace setting. They
resent being told what to do, tend not to follow through, and work by the
clock instead of the task. In other words, they are not socialized into how
the labor market works. Indeed, if we perceive a culture of sloth, irresponsi-
bility, and entitlement among today’s young, perhaps we ought to look here
for a contributing factor."


---

"...In so many ways, child-labor laws are an anachronism. There is no
sense speaking of exploitation, as if this were the early years of the industrial  
revolution  . Kids as young as 10 can surely contribute their labor in some
tasks in ways that would help them come to grips with the relationship
between work and reward. They will better learn to respect private forms of
social authority outside the home. They will come to understand that some
things are expected of them in life. And after they finish college and enter
the workforce, it won’t come as such a shock the first time they are asked to
do something that may not be their first choice. "



"...What lesson do we impart with child-labor laws? We establish early on who
is in charge: not individuals, not parents, but the state. We tell the youth
that they are better off being mall rats than fruitful workers. We tell them
that they have nothing to offer society until they are 18 or so. We convey
the impression that work is a form of exploitation from which they must be
protected. We drive a huge social wedge between parents and children and
lead kids to believe that they have nothing to learn from their parents’ expe-
rience. We rob them of what might otherwise be the most valuable early
experiences of their young adulthood."


"...Do you see what is happening here? The minimum wage, subsidized col-
lege loans, child work laws, and other interventions are conspiring to prolong
adolescence as long as possible—to the point that these young adults are see-
ing as much as a full decade of life experience pretty well stolen from them. "


"...Aside from the economic costs, the biggest cost is to the human charac-
ter. It encourages the worst possible value system during the critical years in
which character is shaped. Our country is caging people up for a quarter of
their lives in government holding tanks and then dumping them on a cold,
cruel world for which they are not prepared."


---

"...I was in a sporting goods store the other day that seemed to have every-
thing one can imagine. How much inventory? $10 million? $100 million?
It was all beyond belief, and trying to run the numbers in my head boggled
my mind. And here I was buying a $2 pair of socks. That’s a tiny chink out
of the inventory. They might clear 25 cents on that transaction after all the
expenses are paid. And yet they did it all for me and others like me: con-
sumers who are free to buy or not buy.
And then what does the store do with its profit after wages, expenses,
and inventory? Why, it has to replace those socks that I just bought so that
someone else can buy another pair."


"..To possess a consciousness about the two sides of enterprise is a bur-
den in some ways. It destabilizes you, and actually makes you wonder how
the system can work at all. "


" ...It is not enough that people participate unknowingly in the market economy. They
must understand it, and see how, and precisely how, their smallest and self-
ish contribution leads to the general good, and, moreover, they must desire
that general good."


"...An economically literate public is the foundation for keeping that amaz-
ing and wild machine called the market working and functioning for the
benefit of the whole of humanity."


---

"...Also, there is this cream that will triple the amount of moisture in your
hands, and there is a gel that will stop hair loss, and, also, it turns out that
I would have a greater ability to concentrate if I ate a good breakfast that
includes Frosted Mini-Wheats, each of which talks and has a charming
personality. And there’s this nose spray that will help me breath better and
play trumpet like a pro, which will thereby earn my son’s admiration, just
like on TV.  

...What the entire critique of advertising misses is the crucial and even
decisive economic issue that is solved by the principle of marketing. How
does a product or a service go from being a good idea or even a physical
possibility to being available for people and available for consumption?
Here is the major issue that has never been solved by any other system but
capitalism. And capitalism solves it in a way that is wealth-generating and
leads to constant improvements."


---

"...you might respond that these kids are not actually saying any-
thing useful. They are engaged in conversational junk, punctuated by
grunts of nothing. Well, productivity is a subjective concept. Meeting social
obligations, making another person feel connected, letting someone know
you care—these are all productive activities as understood by the indi-
vidual speaking. Who are we to say what constitutes valuable or valueless
conversations?"


---

"...Just have a look at what all men in the Great Depression wore. They
were smashing. The suit. The hat. The shoes. The ties. Everything was well
put together, among all races and classes of men. This isn’t just because all
this stuff was intrinsic to the culture. Men in all times and all places have had
the option of looking ridiculously unkempt. The point is that these men
were under pressure to perform, to show that they were valuable, to demon-
strate on sight that they were desirable commodities as workers."




  

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Bet by Anton Chekhov


The Bet is a great short story. I fear it has left a permanent stain on my memory. 

When you have ten minutes spare, go read this masterpiece and make up your own mind. 

A hat-tip to the good gentleman who sent it my way.

*****

Friday, April 05, 2013

Book: The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Hector Hugo Monro)

This wondrous book contains all the short-stories of Hector Hugo Monro (pen-name Saki), who was unfortunately put away by a sniper during WWI. The short stories each are no more than a few pages long and Monro's biting, dark satire is quite different to anything else I've come across, making for a delicisouly enjoyable reading experience.

My favourite stories from the collection:
  • Reginald on Tarriffs
  • The Sex that Doesn't Shop
  • Gabriel-Ernest
  • The Bag
  • Cross Currents
  • Tobermory
  • Mrs Packletide's Tiger
  • The Background
  • Sredni Vashtar
  • The Way to the Dairy
  • The Hounds of Fate
  • The Remoulding of Groby Lington
  • Clovis on Parental Responsibilities 
  • The Stalled Ox
  • The Lumber-Room
  • Tea
  • Louis
  • The Guests
  • The Image of the Lost Soul
  • The Gala Programme 

The Collected Short Stories of Saki costs a mere £1.99 including postage.

**** (or five-stars if I only count the above stories)

A selection of passages from various stories: