Archive for April, 2011

Two movies you need to see (with me)

Most sci-fi out there sucks, regardless of the medium. The main characters have stupid names like “Dirk Steelhammer”, and the plots are either ruined because they require you to have read the “Quantum Mechanics of Star Trek” book the author ripped his science from, or because they’re painfully formulaic – usually involving stock characters like an emotionless, lone-ranger-type main character and a beautiful and scientifically-minded woman with a tough-as-nails exterior that hides her desire for love. This is why I don’t read much sci-fi or watch many sci-fi movies, even though sci-fi is probably my favorite genre.

But, this year my sci-fi intake is going to spike dramatically because there seems to be a rise in the number of talented story tellers who care about the human condition, and who are interested in making sci-fi movies that have not only brains to them, but hearts as well. Big, bleeding hearts.

So here are previews for two, really interesting-looking, soon-to-be-released “soft sci-fi” movies (that is, sci-fi movies that focus more on the ‘fi’ than the ‘sci’).

The first is from a guy who might be my new favorite director – Lars von Trier. He’s the guy responsible for Antichrist, which caused such a ruckus at Cannes last year. I thought that movie was really excellent (certainly one of the most affective movies I’ve seen). He also did Dancer in the Dark, which is a sledgehammer-to-the-chest of a film if there ever was one (it also won the Palm D’or, which is sort of the yearly “Best Movie In The World” award). In fact, he’s known for making movies that seem to aim (though not, I think, in a contrived way) at devastating the viewer. And, at the debut of the film below, he simply said that, from here out, his films would have “no more happy endings”.

Melancholia

This next film seems a bit more hopeful, though still heavy. I don’t know anything about the director or anyone else associated with the film.

The plot seems to depend on this idea popular among some cosmologists that, since the universe is infinitely large (which it actually isn’t), and contains an infinite amount of matter (which it actually doesn’t), every possible combination of matter will occur an infinite number of times. Thus, there are an infinite number of planets just like this one, with people on them with the same names and appearance, and who make the same choices, as this one – as well as an infinite number of planets exactly like this one with very minute to very large differences in the choices, names, looks, etc. of their inhabitants. I only say all that to give you some background on what looks like an important idea to the film. But the fact that that idea is just plain wrong (for reasons to do with the pure mathematics of the theory) shouldn’t affect our judgement of the film, I think, even though it’s sure to create some discussion on the science it relies on.

But I’ll shut up. Here’s Another Earth:

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What do I need to add to my list of ‘books to read’? (list below)

Books I Want To Read

Fiction

1984 – Orwell
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
Animal Farm – George Orwell
At the Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
Contact – Carl Sagan
The Crucible – Arthur Miller
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Tolstoy
Dhalgren –  Samuel Delany
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dune – Frank Herbert
The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt
Faust – Goethe
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
Gateway – Frederik Pohl
A Good Man Is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
Great Expectations – Dickens
Hamlet – Shakespeare
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
King Lear – Shakespeare
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Light in August – Faulkner
Lolita – Nabakov
The Luzhin Defense – Nabakov
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
Moby Dick – Melville
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Nausea – Sartre
The Odyssey – Homer
The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
One Day in the LIfe of Ivan Denisovich – Solzhenitsyn
Pale Fire – Nabakov
Paradise Lost – Milton
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
The Plague – Camus
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Rainbow’s End – Vernor Vinge
Ubik – Philip K. Dick
The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke
The Road – McCarthy
The Sirens of Titan – Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five – Vonnegut
Song of Kali – Dan SImmons
The Sorrows of Young Werther – Goethe
The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche
The Stranger – Camus
Stranger In A Strange Land – Heinlein
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Trial – Kafka
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Wizard – John Varley

Non-Fiction
[“(VSI)” indicates that the book is part of Oxford Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series.]

After Religion – Vattimo
After Theory – Terry Eagleton
Authentic Happiness – Seligman
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
Beyond the Pleasure Principle – Freud
The Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
The Brain (VSI)
A Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Western Philosophy – Robert Solomon
Christ – Jack Miles
Christian Spirituality – Alilster McGrath
Civilization and its Discontents – Freud
Confessions – St. Augustine
Consciousness Explained – Dennett
Critique of Religion and Philosophy – Walter Kaufmann
De Anima – Aristotle
The Death of God and the Meaning of Life – Julian Young
Desire – William B. Irvine
The Ego and the Id – Freud
Either/Or – Kierkegaard
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
Enchiridion – Epictetus
Existentialism, from Dostoyevsky to Sartre – Kaufmann
Existentialism is a Humanism – Sartre
Finite and Infinite Games – James P. Carse
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Freedom Evolves – Dennett
Freud and Beyond, a history of psychoanalysis – Mitchell and Black
God – Etienne Gilson
God, a biography – Jack Miles
The God We Never Knew – Marcus Borg
Godel Escher Bach – Hofstader
The Good Life – William B. Irvine
Greek Mythology – Edith Hamilton
Hegel – (Solomon or Kaufmann or Singer)
A History of Christian Thought – Paul Tillich
A History of Christianity – Paul Johnson
A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
I Am A Strange Loop – Douglas Hofstader
I and Thou – Martin Buber
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis – Freud
Jesus, a biography – Paul Johnson
Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes – Bailey
The Koran
Man and His Symbols – Carl Jung
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
The Many Faces of Realism – Putnam
Mathematics (VSI)
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Metaphysics and the Idea of God – Pannenberg
Modern Philosophy – Roger Scruton
Modernism – Christopher Butler
Naming and Necessity – Kripke
A New History of Western Philosophy – Anthony Kenny
New Seeds of Contemplation – Thomas Merton
On Belief – Zizek
On Writing – Stephen King
Paul – N.T. Wright
A People’s History of the World
Philosophical Investigations – Wittgenstein
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – Rorty
The Philosophy of Science (VSI)
Postmodern Theory – Best and Kellner
Pragmatism – William James
The Pragmatism Reader – Talisse and Aikin
Principles of Mathematical Philosophy – Russell
Psychology (VSI)
Quantum Physics (VSI)
Rapt – Gallagher
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Marcus Borg
The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright
The Right to Write − Cameron
The Secular Age – Charles Taylor
The Singularity Is Near – Ray Kurzweil
Sources of Self – Taylor
Spirituality for Skeptics – Robert Solomon
The Story of Christian Theology – Roger E. Olson
The Story of Thought – Bryan Magee
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Goldman
The Symbolism of Evil – Paul Ricoeur
Tao Te Ching – Lao Tsu
Truth and Method – Gadamer
The Unity of Knowledge – E. O. Wilson
Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The View from Nowhere – Nagel
Walden – Thoreau
The World as Will and Representation – Schopenhauer
Your Memory – Kenneth Higbee

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Some Thoughts on Writing from Bertrand Russell

It’s now one of those times of the year when those of us who work in academics have lots of writing to get done. If you’re at that point now and find yourself in need of some encouragement, advice, or something to distract you from your work for a minute, I suggest this piece from a guy who knew a thing or two about the craft of writing, Bertrand Russell.  I inevitably think about it every time I sit down to work on a paper. Hope you enjoy.

……………………………………………….

“How I Write”

I cannot pretend to know how writing ought to be done, or what a wise critic would advise me to do with a view to improving my own writing. The most that I can do is to relate some things about my own attempts.

Until I was twenty-one, I wished to write more or less in the style of John Stuart Mill. I liked the structure of his sentences and his manner of develop- ing a subject. I had, however, already a different ideal, derived, I suppose, from mathematics. I wished to say everything in the smallest number of words in which it could be said clearly. Perhaps, I thought, one should imitate Baedeker rather than any more literary model. I would spend hours trying to find the shortest way of saying something without ambiguity, and to this aim I was willing to sacrifice all attempts at aesthetic excellence.

At the age of twenty-one, however, I came under a new influence, that of my future brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith. He was at that time exclusively interested in style as opposed to matter. His gods were Flaubert and Walter Pater, and I was quite ready to believe that the way to learn how to write was to copy their technique. He gave me various simple rules, of which I remember only two: ‘Put a comma every four words’, and ‘never use “and” except at the beginning of a sentence.’ His most emphatic advice was that one must always re-write. I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time. I do not, of course, apply it to the substance, but only to the form. When I discover an error of an important kind, I re-write the whole. What I do not find is that I can improve a sentence when I am satisfied with what it means.

Very gradually I have discovered ways of writing with a minimum of worry and anxiety. When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for a time—perhaps a long time—to be beyond my powers. I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear that it was never going to come right. I would make one unsatisfying attempt after another, and in the end have to discard them all. At last I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time. It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was, if anything, impeded by deliberate thinking. Sometimes I would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake, and that I could not write the book I had had in mind. But often I was more fortunate. Having, by a time of very intense concentra- tion, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.

The most curious example of this process, and the one which led me subsequently to rely upon it, occurred at the beginning of 1914. I had under- taken to give the Lowell Lectures at Boston, and had chosen as my subject ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’. Throughout 1913 I thought about this topic. In term time in my rooms at Cambridge, in vacations in a quiet inn on the upper reaches of the Thames, I concentrated with such intensity that I sometimes forgot to breathe and emerged panting as from a trance. But all to no avail. To every theory that I could think of I could perceive fatal objec- tions. At last, in despair, I went off to Rome for Christmas, hoping that a holiday would revive my flagging energy. I got back to Cambridge on the last day of 1913, and although my difficulties were still completely unresolved I arranged, because the remaining time was short, to dictate as best as I could to a stenographer. Next morning, as she came in at the door, I suddenly saw exactly what I had to say, and proceeded to dictate the whole book without a moment’s hesitation.

I do not want to convey an exaggerated impression. The book was very imperfect, and I now think that it contains serious errors. But it was the best that I could have done at that time, and a more leisurely method (within the time at my disposal) would almost certainly have produced something worse. Whatever may be true of other people, this is the right method for me. Flaubert and Pater, I have found, are best forgotten so far as I am concerned.

Although what I now think about how to write is not so very different from what I thought at the age of eighteen, my development has not been by any means rectilinear. There was a time, in the first years of this century, when I had more florid and rhetorical ambitions. This was the time when I wrote A Free Man’s Worship, a work of which I do not now think well. At that time I was steeped in Milton’s prose, and his rolling periods reverberated through the caverns of my mind. I cannot say that I no longer admire them, but for me to imitate them involves a certain insincerity. In fact, all imitation is dangerous. Nothing could be better in style than the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible, but they express a way of thinking and feeling which is different from that of our time. A style is not good unless it is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing. But although direct imitation is always to be deprecated, there is much to be gained by familiarity with good prose, especially in cultivating a sense for prose rhythm.

There are some simple maxims—not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me—which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sen- tences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: ‘Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.’ Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: ‘All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.’ This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.

This suggests a word of advice to such of my hearers as may happen to be professors. I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: ‘Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters.’ I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language ‘understanded of the people’. In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.

(Portraits from Memory, London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.)

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