De omnibus dubitandum
19 Dec 2013
I’ve decided I’m a fan of Nicholas Winding Refn.
The Danish film director is a bit of a controversial figure due to the fact his films tend to sit firmly on the ‘obscure, arty, pretentious’ side of the cinematographic spectrum.
I’m usually not the type to indulge in arthouse-type films (heck, I professed my love for that most obscene example of Hollywood-blockbusterism: Transformers 2) but I’ve now seen three of Winding Refn’s films, and I love them all.
My first exposure to Winding Refn’s work was the critically acclaimed Drive, featuring truly superb performance from its lead actors as well as some scenes of brutal, unglorified, unstylised violence.
Recently I caught Valhalla Rising on TV, and its hypnotic mood, surreal plot, and anticlimactic finale, all contributed to a cinematic experience that I enjoyed profoundly. Mikkelsen is astounding in the lead role and manages to captive and intimidate without speaking a single word in the entire film. The film is now sitting near the top of my top 10 all time favourites.
Then earlier this week I saw Only God Forgives, and once again I was mesmerised. At first I thought the film indulged a bit too much in those dialogue-less scenes where the actors brood intensely, but as the plot unfolded I realised those scenes are significant and serve to expose inner turmoil hinted at in later scenes. And the ending is, in typical Winding Refn fashion, entirely un-Hollywood and deeply unsatisfying and, because of that, paradoxically, very much satisfying.
Obscure and pretentious? Yes. Powerful? Very much so.
His style is not for everyone. I do think he’s one of those directors whose output you genuinely either love or hate. There’s not much room for fence-sitting where his films are concerned.
But for me, to date, I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp, eagerly awaiting his next cinematic endeavour.
13 Nov 2013
It’s hard to overstate the profound ignorance of the tabloid-reading masses that are responsible for this exceptionally misguided expression of putrid hatred. Unfortunately it’s endemic of a growing trend in the UK to worship everything military and to uncritically accord the armed forces with heaps of respect.
I believe that’s a dangerous cultural phenomenon. The military is not something any country should take a great deal of pride in. A nation’s ability to kill and destroy is not something to boast about. At best, a country should view its military as a necessary evil, something that is an unpalatable requirement for engaging in international affairs.
A country that worships its military is a country that often shows little restraint in flexing that military muscle. In fact, the more a country praises its armed forces, the more likely it is to use those armed forces in the pursuit of their own economical and political goals. That used to be something solely associated with so-called ‘banana republics’, but since the 1950s it’s actually been a staple of western Realpolitik.
Here in the UK, the military is worshipped on a level that borders on a fascist ideology. Even people who are nominal pacifists say that soldiers deserve respect, and that on Remembrance Day we should honour those fallen in service of their country, regardless of the reasons for the war they died in.
I vehemently disagree with that. I do not believe we should separate soldiers’ deaths from the reasons they fought and died.
In fact, I believe we should closely scrutinise exactly why these soldiers were sent in to battle, and pay a great deal of attention to the reasons that are given for that.
Because when we do that, when we analyse exactly why we send armed troops to countries halfway across the planet, we quickly realise that the vast majority of soldiers who’ve died since the end of World War II died for no good reason at all other than to serve the interests of corporate profits and imperialist politics.
If Remembrance Day was purely about commemorating those who died in the first and second world wars, then I’d be perfectly fine with it. But that’s no longer the case. Instead Remembrance Day – and, by virtue of being its symbol, the poppy – has become about commemorating and idealising all soldiers who have died in all modern conflicts.
And that is nothing to solemnly commemorate. In fact, that’s something to get infuriated by. Countless thousands of lives lost because of political egos, corporate oil profits, and international trade rights. And that’s just counting the UK military – civilian casualties are orders of magnitude higher.
‘Defending democracy’ had fuck all to do with most of the wars fought since 1945 – it was nearly all greed and political face-saving.
Those are piss-poor reasons to send young men to their deaths. In fact, any life lost in the pursuit of those sinister goals should come with a powerful backlash against the corporate & political forces that caused it.
But that backlash is entirely absent, of course. Instead the UK population has bought in wholesale to the pro-military hype peddled by the politicians and eagerly supported by a cynical profit-chasing media, to such an extent that even an expression of neutrality – such as not wearing a poppy – is met with outpourings of hatred and bigotry.
That is profoundly sad, and deeply disturbing.
1 Oct 2013
Successful people often, if not always, assume that their success is the result of hard work or talent, or a combination of the two.
And they’re wrong.
Success has very little to do with hard work, nor with talent. Yes, hard work certainly helps to achieve your goals, and having a healthy dose of talent doesn’t go amiss either.
But there are literally millions of hard-working people out there, struggling every day with the challenges life throws at them and barely managing to keep their head above water.
And there are also countless people who have an amazing talent or prodigious gift for one thing or another, but who never get even a glimpse of a chance to exploit that talent to achieve what we call success.
So neither hard work nor talent can deliver success. What can?
When we look at people we judge to be successful by our modern standards – people who have accumulated wealth and power and influence, who live in luxury and want for nothing – what lessons can we learn from them?
What do all these successful people have in common? Are they all hard-working? Do they all possess a certain measure of that ephemeral quality we call ‘talent’?
No. There’s just one thing all successful people – all of them, every single one – have in common: They got lucky.
Luck comes in many forms. The most basic luck anyone can have is the luck of birth. Your birth, a purely accidental event that you have absolutely zero control over, is the single biggest factor when it comes to determining your success in life.
If you happen to be born in to a wealthy family, chances are you will inherit that wealth, and as a result society deems you to be successful. You had nothing to do with that yourself at all. It was just pure luck.
Less obvious luck of birth is being born white. Or male. Or heterosexual. (If you are all three, consider yourself an early victor in the lottery of life – you basically started life with all the cheat codes on.)
Should you have had the misfortune of having been born in a destitute African family in Somalia, or a ghetto in Los Angeles, or in the slums of Manila, your chances of achieving success are significantly diminished. You just weren’t lucky enough.
Luck doesn’t stop at birth. At many different points in your life your future is determined by random acts of chance. Everything from who you meet and befriend to where you choose to have dinner can and does impact your life in meaningful ways, and almost always those are in turn determined by a purely random sequence of events.
Whenever you hear rags-to-riches stories, so often thrown up as evidence that hard work always delivers its just rewards, keep an ear out for that one moment of luck, that one event of pure chance, that helped the protagonist escape the clutches of poverty and achieve success. It’s always there. Without that fortuitous turn of events, the protagonist would not have succeeded at all, and would still be poor and unnoticed.
Who you are and where you are in life – holding up an empty cardboard cup on the corner of the street, or chairing meetings in 30th floor board rooms – is entirely the result of luck. Hard work and talent played only a peripheral role.
And that’s without going in to the neuroscientific minefield of subconsciousness, which basically states that you – the conscious, decision-making part of you – is not really in control at all, but that you are governed by inscrutable subconscious processes of the mind that are in turn more or less deterministic and dependent on a great many internal and external factors – most of which are, too, the result of pure random chance.
So whenever you see someone successful boasting about their accomplishments, or look down on those less fortunate than them, or when you feel the urge to congratulate yourself on your own achievements, keep in mind that it is all built on a very flimsy foundation of luck.
Always remember, you cannot truly take credit for your successes nor blame others entirely for their failures. It is a probabilistic universe, devoid of meaning, where success or failure is determined by a roll of the dice.
13 Sep 2013
Whilst Tao Lin has been making a reputation for himself overseas, I’d never heard of the chap and so I approached this book with an open visor and a near-total lack of preconceived notions. It turned out to be an interesting, if unexpected, read.
The first thing that struck me about the novel was its style. Sentences go on for absurd lengths, with the comma being Lin’s preferred punctuation mark by far. At first this grated me, but then I got stuck in and found that those expansive paragraph-length sentences actually served to draw me in further, evoking a trance-like state of reading that empathises with the drugged state of the book’s narrator.
The book itself lacks a narrative as such. It’s basically a collection of disconnected events that occur to the narrator, and the book seems obviously autobiographical. Yet I suspect the format of the novel allows Lin to blend fact and fiction at his leisure. To me that sort of writing has always seemed a shortcut, an easy way to churn out books without having to put too much effort in to storylines or narrative cohesion.
And despite the trance-like style, the book lacks substance. While at times it describes the mental state of its first person narrator in depth, it somehow always steps back from declaring emotion. Not once did I ever get the sense the main character was actually feeling any type of emotion at all. He comes across as a robotic drone coasting through a rather meaningless existence fuelled by prescription drugs and short-lived friendships.
Despite all this, I found myself captivated by Tai Pei and finished it quickly. There’s so much to dislike about the book, but I found myself incapable of actually putting it away.
In the end I found it an interesting departure from my usual reading genres, but I don’t think I’ll be buying any other Tao Lin works any time soon.
3 Sep 2013
I don’t consider myself to be a particularly vindictive man. I recognise that I have a short fuse and fly off the handle fairly quickly, but it nearly always passes just as fast, and I genuinely tend not to hold grudges.
But if someone jerks my chain for almost a year, at some point my patience is thoroughly exhausted, and ‘naming & shaming’ posts are born.
Read the full details on my professional blog: Shafted by Darryl Collins, Banjax & Gingerparts
13 Aug 2013
Genetically modified organisms – GMO – are a hot topic at the moment, with loads of people weighing in on the debate. Especially the anti-GMO stance receives a lot of attention, fuelling scare stories about the hazards of GMO crops and food.
However, there seems to be precious little facts in these scare stories. Fortunately there have also been a few recent articles that provide a more balanced, fact-based perspective on GMO foods:
This thoroughly researched article on Slate debunks a GMO scare story published in Elle magazine – not quite a staple of fact-based reporting – and delves deeper in to the scientific evidence about GMO foods.
Turns out there’s no evidence whatsoever suggesting that GMO food is any more dangerous than regular food:
“Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated. That scientific consensus has been endorsed by every major science oversight body in the world.”
But, say the GMO skeptics, what about the correlation between the growing consumption of GMO food in America and the rise in autoimmune disorders?
“The rise in such problems, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. Incidences of these same conditions across U.K., Europe and in other countries where there is no consumption of GM foods match U.S. trends. To put this claim in perspective, the upward slope also tracks with the cumulative wins of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, the GDP of China, and indeed the increased consumption of organic foods over a similar period of time. In other words, the alarming connection that Shetterly alludes to in her piece is completely random.”
An article on Grist explores the issues of allergenic proteins originating from GMO foods. Turns out that in this respect GMO foods are actually safer than regular foods and are being tested much more thoroughly for new allergens:
“First, there just aren’t many new proteins in GE food (all allergens are proteins) — you are adding just a couple. It’s much riskier to introduce a new food from another country, each of which contains hundreds of new proteins, Taylor wrote, and yet we subject new foods to less safety testing. (When the first kiwis were shipped into the United States in 1962, they weren’t tested because they were an established food, but, as it turned out, they did cause allergic reactions in some people.)
Furthermore, Taylor said, the new genes in transgenic plants generally express very low amounts of protein (when a gene causes an organism to make a protein it’s called expression). Allergens generally account for more than 1 percent of the proteins in a food, while the proteins expressed by transgenic DNA are much more sparse.”
The New York Times published a balanced piece about the use of genetic modification to help oranges resist a specific type of bacteria:
“Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.”
Many anti-GMO activists point to the evils of Monsanto and how scientific studies are funded by biotech companies and thus cannot be trusted. But there’s abundant independent research in to GMO foods (over a third of peer-reviewed studies on GMO are independently funded), and a great many independent health organisations have undertaken their own studies in to the health risks associated with GMO crops.
The results are unanimous and clear: GMO foods are perfectly safe, and probably necessary to maintain sustainable agriculture that sufficiently feeds our growing population.
While I consider myself a left-wing thinker, on this particular issue I vehemently disagree with the anti-GMO stance prevalent in the political left.
For me it’s a bit like climate change, vaccination, and evolution: there is an unassailable scientific consensus, with only a tiny minority of dissenting voices that lack any form of empirical evidence. Unfortunately in this case public opinion is eager to embrace the – very vocal – fringe lunatics.
6 Aug 2013
In just five short minutes this animation manages to include a smorgasbord of geek awesome: hackers, assassins, black ops science labs, telekinetic superhumans, and a dystopian sci-fi world.
I don’t think the internet could cope with a more purely concentrated dosage of awesome.