reading December 2013

 

Last of the year…

Jerusalem – Guy Delisle

Cartoon diary of a French guy spending a year living in Jerusalem while his wife works for Doctors With Borders (he has done similar ones for Pyongyang, Burma, and Shenzen, which are all worthy and have been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) Jerusalem is a strange strange place with multitudes of complex layers. The religious history and sites – and people who believe in it – all crammed together. And the surreality of modern life amid insane politics, the separation wall, violence and lies. Intense, fascinating, full of insights and observations. A charming journey; valuable if you want an experience of living in the place without having to live there.

Half the Blood of Brooklyn – Charlie Huston

Early Huston novel, kind of noir vampire stuff, tight and gritty and rockets along, but much less interesting than his excellent non-genre later stuff (Sleepless, Skinner.)

Satantango – Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Jeepers. Extraordinary Hungarian novel from the 1980s. Sort of classifiable as “reality examined to the point of madness”. Intense, dark, powerful, challenging, exhilirating. Krasznahorkai’s sentences are super long and take a while to get the hang of, but once in the prose drowns you cheerily in the endless rain and mud. A bleak apocalyptic-esque tale, an abandoned industrial estate in the countryside, and the hangers on who remain, and their chance at salvation… except it isn’t and never was. A grimy view of what people are with all the varnish removed, a superb revelation of what human is. Yet also challenging and transcendent in places, too.

Bela Tarr famously adapted this into a long slow film of the same name. I need to see it now, since I love Tarr, and cannot imagine this being filmed in any conventional fashion, and the prose is so intensely interior to the characters and their way of seeing. (Tarr also adapted Krasznahorkai’s ‘The Melancholy of Resistance’ into Werckmiester Harmonies, which is still a favourite film, so I will definitely need to track that book down, too.)

On Looking – Alexandra Horowitz

Charming miscellany, an intellectual chocolate sampler. The author walks around the block with eleven different “experts”, to learn about how they experience the same place. The experts range from a toddler, a dog, an insect specialist, an architect, a geologist, a blind person, a sound engineer, and so on, and the walks serve as a launching point for many whimsical tangents. Lightweight fun on the theme of perception, and how we limit our perception and experience.

 

***Statistics***

So apparently I have read 63 books so far this year, at least that I have blogged, not counting all the stuff I skim as research and general browsing, and a bunch of comics. 32 non-fiction, 31 fiction. Which is a better balance than I would usually expect. Has been a bit more random quick reading genre fiction this year. So it goes.

top 3′s of 2013

 

…or a half assed year in review just while it occurs to me off the top of my head and before they crop up everywhere; I am pretty culturally out of sync so this will be stuff I encountered this year maybe rather than was definitely released this year.

 

Film

1. The Act of Killing

Perhaps the most astounding, powerful and indescribable documentary – and film in general – I have ever seen. Reviewed back here. Incredible. See it.

2. War Witch (Rebelle)

Phenomenal film about a young girl forced into becoming a child soldier in Africa. And then it goes deeply weird, entering another magical yet completely grounded African reality. Wonderful, intense, bizarre.

3. John Dies at the End

Ridiculous amounts of fun from Don Coscarelli. Not actually sure when this came out but I saw it early this year. Really really fun. Reviewed back here.

 

TV

1. John From Cincinnati

Stoner surfer mystic madness. Possibly the best thing ever. Ten episodes of sheer joy. See it.

2. I think Game of Thrones is the only other thing I have watched.

 

Books

Ouch. Now this will be challenging. These are probably the three that have stayed with me and formed the basis of multiple conversations.

1. Exterminate All the Brutes – Sven Lindqvist

Incredible and unsettling account of the Western colonial expansion and genocide of Africa; and so much more. Reviewed in detail here.

2. The God Problem – Howard Bloom

Bloom is perhaps the most multidisciplinary genius thinker out there, and this is his magnum opus; a synthesis of human exploration and insight into the nature of the universe and its workings, told as a rollicking story through a historical anthropological historical scientific humanistic philosophical biological conceptual &c blend, with remarkable verve and vigour. Epic learnings.

3. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master Speaks

Singapore’s eminent respected genius leader’s take on pretty much everything that matters about the current state of play in world affairs. An absolute masterclass in what is going on, from someone who knows all the key decision makers, and has been wildly successful at negotiating power at the highest levels for forty years, all in under 200 pages.

 

Music

1. 3 Organic Experiences – Aglaia

Ambient. Lush. Beautiful.

2. Ambiant Otaku – Tetsu Inoue

Ambient. Serene. Beautiful.

3. Toucan Stubbs.

Don’t know that they have released anything. Most interesting live act in Wellington at the moment. Multi-instrumentalist folk duo doing… things. Live. Wonderful things, in strange places.

 

reading October 2013

 

The Ocean at the End of the Road – Neil Gaiman

Hadn’t felt moved to read any Gaiman since American Gods, which felt like his masterwork in prose, possibly because he went very YA. Ocean is the first aimed at adults in quite a while. It is  really nice, subtle, supple and warm. Ageless and satisfying, a grown up fairytale. Somehow comfortable and unchallenging though.

The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit – Storm Constantine

Somehow Constantine had never really came on my radar despite having written lots of books. Read this fairly randomly; it is the first of the Wraeththu books. Wraeththu are post-human, post-gender androgyne hermaphrodites (though seemingly exclusively evolved from males), who are very into their fairly different sexuality, as well as having weird magical type powers. The books explores their society as it expands and develops while humanity falls away. Really surprising how transgressive and challenging this was – and must have been more so in the 80′s – and that it is not more famous than it is. Lavishly sensual prose, all about the decor, not the story. Not literary greatness but certainly visionary, inventive and deeply weird.

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story – Lee Kuan Yew

Biography of a nation as much as of the man. Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore for 35 years – during which time they went essentially from being a third world country to a first world country – and still retains a great deal of influence. He relates the nuts and bolts of what they did, how and why, and how it panned out. It is a veritable masterclass in power, politics and pragmatism. He also tells you what he thinks of more or less every major world leader and what they were like to deal with. All up an extraordinary story, fascinating on many levels, and (along with his interview based book The Grand Master Speaks) highly recommended to anyone interested in politics and power.

This Book Is Full Of Spiders – David Wong

Sequel to John Dies At The End, which I haven’t read, but which is still pretty much the most entertaining movie I have seen all year and you should see it. In this sequel, which rockets along, our hallucinating smartass munter heroes go up against a not-quite-zombie apocalypse that may be mostly their own fault. Retarded, hilarious, occasionally quite demented, and easily the most incisive and worthwhile commentary on zombie-culture.

If you are or ever were a hallucinating smartass munter, you will love this.

-=-=-

Now most of the way through The God Problem – Howard Bloom, which is likely the most dazzling history of ideas and thought and science I have ever read, while remaining totally gripping and entertaining reading, and you should buy it and read it now.

Been reading a whole bunch of books about Wellington and NZ history as research.

-=-=-

In other media, seem to have run out of steam on Battlestar Galactica midway through the second season. Just don’t seem much to care what happens to anyone.

And watched the magnificent delirious wonderfulness that is John From Cincinnati, which has become one of my all time favourite TV shows ever, naturally canned after one season. Ten episodes of unique hilarious mindfuck bliss, rather difficult to describe. Find this and see it. You will be delighted you did.

 

Reading August 2013

Has been a juicy range of thought provoking stuff this month.

.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master Speaks

Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore for 31 years, during which time it went from being a third world country to a first world country. He is seemingly the most respected and smartest statesman alive. This book, arranged out of interviews with him, addresses his thoughts on the issues facing the modern world and its future: the US, China, US-China relations, India, Fundamentalist Islam, Globalisation, etc. Lots of exceptionally sharp insight, very highly recommended if you are interested in what is going on in the world.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism – Ha Joon Chang

Some pretty interesting stuff. Most striking was the claim that the internet has changed the world less than the washing machine. The washing machine freed up masses of work hours, allowed women to enter the workforce, and eliminated an entire class of domestic servants, whereas the internet is just a different delivery mechanism for many of the same things. Also, there is no such thing as a free market; rather, we accept the legitimacy of certain regulations so totally that we don’t see them. And also, wages in rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else – obvious when pointed out, but not obvious until then.

The Driver – Mandasue Heller

Hard to explain how I came to read this. British crime thriller set on a council estate among unemployed stoners. Easy to read but pretty empty, like bad TV or a bad movie, though with some reasonably astute character observation.

Quintessence – David Walton

Whimsical SF/F set in an alternate Elizabethan age. The Protestant Reformation is about to happen, and a ship returns from the Western edge of a flat Earth, with reports of a wondrous island. Very inventive creatures, lots of fun, light entertainment.

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet – Julian Assange, Jacob Applebaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, Jeremie Zimmerman

Highly relevant punchy call to arms dealing with online surveillance, privacy, freedom, and infrastructure; a conversation between Assange and some fairly clued up hackers. One notable quote, in light of the GCSB bill:

Intercepting all metadata means you have to build a system that physically intercepts all data and then throws everything but the metadata away. But such a system cannot be trusted. There’s no way to determine whether it is in fact intercepting and storing all data without having highly skilled engineers with authorization to go in and check out precisely what is going on, and there’s no political will to grant access.

Gets pretty techy but still lots for the casual interested reader.

Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Highly entertaining, delivers some well-needed shit-kicking-out-of to evolutionary psychology. Essential thesis is that agriculture changed everything, and that for the millions of years before that, humanity more likely lived in egalitarian hunter gatherer bands who would have shared everything, including sex, such that most adults would have had multiple sexual relationships at any one time.

The Resurrectionist – E B Hudspeth

What an odd book. A brief faux-biography of a turn of the century doctor with some weird theories, combined with a reprint of his purported masterwork, extensive anatomical (skeletons, muscles, etc) cross sections of mythical creatures.

 

currently on: Stealing Fire From The Gods – James Bonnet. Which is one of those sort of “here is the archetypal secret underlying storytelling books”. Interesting so far.

 

Still looking to get back to The God Problem.

Billy goes to the movies

Or, film fest 2013 review.

Blancanieves

Spanish update of Snow White, recreated as a very stylish black and white period silent film. Snow White becomes a bullfighter but somehow this makes sense. Looked great but felt very long.

The Act of Killing

Absolutely incredible documentary. In Indonesia in the 60s they killed 2.5 million communists. They don’t view this as a bad thing, and the death squads of the time are now made men in society. The doco follows some of them as they make a movie re-enacting (and celebrating) those times. It is bizarre and surreal and terrifying – much of it is incidental in purely how insane and corrupt Indonesia seems to be – but yeah, incredible to see the re-enacting, and their reflection on what they have done (killing a thousand people by hand!)… the film is long, amazingly well crafted, with so many moments of jaw-dropping speechlessness… and the ending is out of this world. Not fun in any conventional sense, but incredibly worthwhile.

The East

Brit Marling’s latest film is another very smart, very well done alt-SF feeling film. This time more of a straight thriller about an agent going undercover with a principled but extreme eco-terrorist group whom she is both sympathetic to and at odds with. Smart, relevant, excellent. Shows up exactly how shit and irrelevant the average Hollywood thriller is.

Utu Redux

Had never seen this NZ classic. Opening is very brutal, the slaughter of a Maori village by English soldiers, but it loses the edge of that beginning, and meanders into its transposed Western form. Fascinating, bemusing on occasion (particularly Bruno Lawrence), holds up with little to induce cringing, and a couple of excellent performances. Nice restoration, worth catching on the big screen as presumably it will get a general rerelease.

Post Tenebras Lux

Won Best Director at Cannes in 2012. No idea how to describe this. Lush, fragmentary, non-linear, bizarre, powerful; with some extraordinary images. Mostly about the life of a young family in rural Mexico; on the meta level seemed to be about relationships, between humans, and humans and the environment, and how these relationships shape us. One for film afficianados rather than casual viewers.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a vampire film. While very stylish and enjoyable – his jaded aesthete vampires are charming and sane, and using their perspective on humanity (“zombies”) leads to some sharp observations – ultimately it is maybe a bit pointless. Good music throughout.

june mutants

Israel Defence Force “live tweeting” the 1967 6 day war as it happened. Which just seems weird.

Interview with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if you could look at 30 years of satellite images of earth in time lapse? Yup.

Why I am no longer a skeptic. Long but fascinating and balanced account of why a dude is fed up with the skeptic movement. This was just the first interesting/quotable thing in it.

That’s right: the nerds won, decades ago, and they’re now as thoroughly established as any other part of the establishment. And while nerds a relatively new elite, they’re overwhelmingly the same as the old: rich, white, male, and desperate to hang onto what they’ve got. And I have come to realise that skepticism, in their hands, is just another tool to secure and advance their privileged position, and beat down their inferiors. As a skeptic, I was not shoring up the revolutionary barricades: instead, I was cheering on the Tsar’s cavalry.

History and maps:

During the age of exploration there were two kinds of maps: Some were intended for general consumption, others were tightly held state secrets. The maps Magellan used to circumnavigate the globe, for example, were of the latter sort. Although Magellan’s maps were rife with blank spots showing the limits of Spanish exploration, they contained more detail than the public maps. The Portuguese and Spanish empires’ secret maps revealed landforms and trade routes the rival empires sought to hide from one another. Other, deliberately inaccurate, maps were produced and “leaked” from one empire to another in elaborate disinformation and deception campaigns.

You can download Psychedelic Information Theory by James Kent for free. Based on that title, you know if you want to or not.

Cosmologist Lee Smolin’s piece on Edge is mindfuckingly interesting, if the interrelation between science and metaphysics interest you: Think About Nature.

eg:

 So that’s the first conclusion—that the methodology that works for physics and has worked for hundreds of years—there’s nothing wrong with it in the context in which its been applied to successfully—but it breaks down when you push to the limits of explanation, reductionism breaks down. It also breaks down when you push on the other end to larger and larger systems to the universe as a whole. I mentioned several reasons why it breaks down, but there are others. Let me mention one. When we experiment with small parts of the universe, we do experiments over and over again. That’s part of the scientific method. You have to reproduce the results of an experiment so you have to do it over and over again. And by doing that, you separate the effect of general laws from the effect of changing the initial conditions. You can start the experiment off different ways and look for phenomena which are still general. These have to do with general laws. And so you can cleanly separate the role of initial condition from the role of the general law.

When it comes to the universe as a whole, we can’t do that. There’s one universe and it runs one time. We can’t set it up, we didn’t start it and indeed, in working cosmology in inflationary theory, there’s a big issue because you can’t separately testing hypotheses about the laws from testing hypotheses about the initial conditions, because there was just one initial condition and we’re living in its wake. This is another way in which this general method breaks down. So we need a new methodology.

I don’t even know where to start with this piece, it deserves its own post and ruminations.

 

And this just to remind me to watch it at some point: the complete McBain movie hidden throughout clips in the Simpsons

 

some things that caught my eye lately

 

* Sobering but really sharp take on where 3D printing is actually at, and where it is heading, beyond the hype, in terms of what you will be able to build at home. Hint: your Star Trek replicator ain’t nowhere in sight.

* Meanwhile, scientists are using 3D printers to make stem cells, so who knows, really.

*Update on the Hedges, Chomsky et al case vs the Obama administration over the NDAA (which we first blogged back in October)

If we lose in Hedges v. Obama—and it seems certain that no matter the outcome of the appeal this case will reach the Supreme Court—electoral politics and our rights as citizens will be as empty as those of Nero’s Rome. If we lose, the power of the military to detain citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military prisons will become a terrifying reality. Democrat or Republican. Occupy activist or libertarian. Socialist or tea party stalwart. It does not matter. This is not a partisan fight. Once the state seizes this unchecked power, it will inevitably create a secret, lawless world of indiscriminate violence, terror and gulags. I lived under several military dictatorships during the two decades I was a foreign correspondent. I know the beast.

 Anonymous is also threatening to interrupt the State of the Union address over this.

* Blindspot: hidden biases of good people

* Great Big Ideas: twelve lectures covering most of everything, free online

 

days of destruction, days of revolt

is the name of this talk by Chris Hedges from a few months ago. It is impassioned and deeply relevant – I think Hedges is the most important political and social commentator coming of America at the moment. In this he touches on his work with Joe Sacco to document the “sacrifice zones” of capitalism in America, and how Occupy rose out of that. He also sprinkles it with amazing observations from his time as a foreign correspondent – talking to political leaders in East Berlin on the day the wall came down, who thought that maybe travel across the border would be possible in a year from then – the change took everyone by surprise.

Anyway. It is about a half hour of talk, it is very right on and informed, and I commend it to you. Powerful stuff.

Journalists suing Obama over laws violating freedom are winning so far

I haven’t really followed the Obama administration, and US politics’ general descent into madness over the past couple of years. (While it is in some sense vaguely reassuring that the Republicans can’t seem to find anyone who isn’t palpably batshit insane to run for President, it is also extraordinarily disturbing. In any case, why wallow in it?)

But for me Obama’s failure to repeal the insane civil liberties destroying laws that were thrust through under the hysterical guise of the war on terror demonstrated he was not the leader needed or hoped for. Instead, as we have noted previously, the situation has actively gotten worse under Obama.

Anyhow. This just came on my radar; haven’t heard it elsewhere yet. A group of journalists, including Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges, have sued the US government and so far they are winning. This from Hedges’ column about it, the whole of which is well worth reading:

In January I sued President Barack Obama over Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorized the military to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely, strip them of due process and hold them in military facilities, including offshore penal colonies. Last week, round one in the battle to strike down the onerous provision, one that saw me joined by six other plaintiffs including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, ended in an unqualified victory for the public. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, who accepted every one of our challenges to the law, made her temporary injunction of the section permanent. In short, she declared the law unconstitutional.

The link in that quote is to the 112 page judgement, one of the very few judicial rulings to strike down a law of Congress, and even more rarely over such subject matter.

This will of course be an ongoing legal battle. The government is already appealling the decision. Tracking it will be interesting.

 

The government has now lost four times in a litigation that has gone on almost nine months. It lost the preliminary injunction in May. It lost a motion for reconsideration shortly thereafter. It lost the permanent injunction. It lost its request last week for a stay. We won’t stop fighting this, but it is deeply disturbing that the Obama administration, rather than protecting our civil liberties and democracy, insists on further eroding them by expanding the power of the military to seize U.S. citizens and control our streets.

And I’ve got to say Hedges continues to impress the hell out of me. (We posted about him back here.) All power to those willing to scream defiance in the face of the beast,

Anyhow. This feels important, and something that should be better known.

 

Pharmaceutical industry even more corrupt and evil than previously suspected

We of the dancing moose have been tracking the fucked-up-ness of the pharmaceutical industry for quite a while, and even blogged some of it over the last six or seven years. For instance, the inappropriate medicalisation of minor conditions and attendant hard-sell of prescription remedies, manipulating lawmaking, the general desire to screen and drug the whole population, the corrupt links between drug-makers and the psychiatric experts who determine what drug shall be the default prescription, their insane profit driven priorities (erection pills over medicines), noting that legal drugs kill more than illegal, the insane PR lengths the industry goes to, and so forth.

But the latest revelation is actually beyond the fucking pale.

The Guardian’s piece from last week, The drugs don’t work: a modern medical scandal is a really extraordinary expose of big pharmaceutical companies’ practices.

Essentially, those psychiatric drugs that are tested and proven effective? That testing process is dodgy. Intentionally, consciously.

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.

The pharmaceutical companies exercise controls over the process, so that they can kill studies that aren’t going the way they want. They engage in selective reporting – just plain not reporting studies (often larger and more significant than those on which the effectiveness is claimed) which fail to show positive effects.

How broken is this? Industry funded studies are four times more likely to report positive results. This is a total rape of scientific methodology for financial gain. This is dishonesty leading directly to suffering so fucking corporations can make money.

I did everything a doctor is supposed to do. I read all the papers, I critically appraised them, I understood them, I discussed them with the patient and we made a decision together, based on the evidence. In the published data, reboxetine was a safe and effective drug. In reality, it was no better than a sugar pill and, worse, it does more harm than good. As a doctor, I did something that, on the balance of all the evidence, harmed my patient, simply because unflattering data was left unpublished.

Nobody broke any law in that situation, reboxetine is still on the market and the system that allowed all this to happen is still in play, for all drugs, in all countries in the world.

The author goes on to examine the systemic failings of the system of drug testing and prescription. It is hella worth reading.

 

 

What particularly gets me angry is the misapplication of the disease model of mental illness. We are being lied to about our nature, about our minds, and being drugged with horrible shit that has hideous side effects and often doesn’t help – and this is being done knowingly.

What goes on in our heads is not just a question of brain chemistry; our brain chemistry, and our general state of being, is a result of being human beings embedded in the world, acting and receiving feedback from those actions. Our troubles and their solutions are both to be found in that same domain, not a pill.

-=-=-

Bonus note: most of our drugs are synthesised from plants. The general reductionist belief in isolating a single active ingredient from a plant itself is largely driven by profit, and to make researcher’s lives easy. However, we are complex beings, and plants are complex, and the interactions between them are complex. See this article from Dr Andrew Weil: Why Plants are (usually) better than drugs for some examples of how whole plant remedies work.

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