Category Reviews

5 Movies by John Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), because of what gold does to men’s souls, a dance and a laugh, and because “the worst ain’t so bad when it finally happens. Not half as bad as you figure it’ll be before it’s happened.”

The Man Who Would Be King (1975), because three summers and a thousand years ago those who were not little men would be kings, true safety exists only on the battlefield and because “Everything is alright then.”

The Misfits (1961), because we are all dying, a home that was better by adding a step, and because to find your way home in the dark you “just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it. It’ll take us right home.”

Under the Volcano (1984), because of a wasted love and a horse in the rain.

Freud: A Secret Passion (1962), for being a true film on the development of theory, Montgomery Clift’s broken gaze and because “Progress, like walking, is achieved by losing and regaining one’s balance.”

Page-Turners of June 2011

Tyler Cowen (2011) The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. Dutton: New York, NY.

In this essay the economist Tyler Cowen advances an enlightening conjecture on the reasons for the ongoing troubles of the US economy. He argues that there are two sources for widespread economic growth. To him one source is the development of new technologies and the attempt to solve hard social and scientific problems. As a second source he identifies economic growth based on the widespread adoption of new technologies and solutions of formerly hard problems. For Cowen the US, and probably in extensio the West, has spent the last century caching in the dividends of technological and social revolutions of the late 19th century. He calls this process “eating the low-hanging fruit”. Nothing wrong with that except that this source of economic growth over time yields increasingly low results and the ongoing allocation of ressources to these low-hanging fruits keeps a society from working on the hard problems. To Cowen this is the reason for the current economic stagnation in the US. The solution:

Raise the social status of scientists.

Which sounds about right to me, since who wants to live in a world run by glorified accountants and process optimizers?

To me, the most interesting argument was the chapter in which Cowen focuses on innovations brought on by the internet. He argues that the internet, while bringing its innovations to an ever increasing number of users, has not created significant revenue for society as a whole since most of its services are brought to the users for free. Also he points out that the most successful internet companies employ comparably few people. For Cowen this is one of the reasons for the “jobless recovery”.

This book advances a very interesting argument and offers an original perspective on how to think about innovation and economic growth. For an in-depth review of someone who actually knows economics have a look at The great stagnation on the Economist’s Free Exchange blog.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2010) The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms. Random House: New York, NY.

This is a fun read that I suspect I’ll come back to many times. In this little book Taleb is his usual self, if his public persona is his usual self. In this collection of aphorisms he comments on the present with the eyes of a man steeped in classical thought. Taleb writes with a healthy distrust in institutions, especially academia, and with furor against thought practices that

“squeeze a phenomenon into the Procrustean bed of a crisp and known category (amputating the unknown), rather than suspend categorization, and make it tangible.” (p. 105)

To him this leads to sucker problems that lay also at the heart of his earlier writings:

“when the map does not correspond to the territory, there is a certain category of fool – the overeducated, the academic, the journalist, the newspaper reader, the mechanistic ‘scientist’, the pseudo-empiricist, those endowed with what I call ‘epistemic arrogance,’ this wonderful ability to discount what they did not see, the unobserved – who enter a state of denial, imagining the territory as fitting his map.” (p. 106)

For everyone interested in reality and bored by the accountant’s truths of our present day, for everyone who feels the present is lacking in erudition, wit, effortless style, and greatness – in short sprezzatura – this book will be a joy.

Page-Turners of May 2011

Paul J. Silvia (2007) How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.

This is a very good natured book on how to approach academic writing. The simplest, while probably also the hardest, advice Silvia offers is to stick to a regular writing schedule instead of trusting the spur of the moment or the occasional inspiration to provide writing impulses. To this recovering binge writer this seems to be very sound advice, indeed. The upbeat prose and some practical tips for the journal submission process makes this a very agreeable and helpful read.

Clay Shirky (2010) Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Aged. The Penguin Press: New York.

There seems to be a pattern with me and books by Clay Shirky. I see the talk, like the basic idea and leave it at that, only to return a few months later to actually read the book and find much of value there. This was true for “Here Comes Everybody” and it’s also true this time around for “Cognitive Surplus”. Let’s see if the pattern holds in the future.

In “Cognitive Surplus” Shirky argues that during the second half of last century the majority of people in the West suddenly found themselves with a lot of spare time on their hands. Shirky calls this the Cognitive Surplus. To Shirky social media would enable users to do better things with that surplus than watch TV. Shirky starts by describing the new media environment and the ermergent possibilities to use social media for social good. Still, he does not argue in favor of a simplistic technological determinism the likes of: “We have the tools now they will be used for good”. Instead, he discusses preconditions for the successful use of social media, the strongest being: intrinsic motivation of the contributors and a supportive culture among groups of users. He closes with some rules of thumb of elements that, in his experience, contribute to the success of social media ventures. Usually I am not a big fan of those list, but his remarks seem sensible enough and might actually help in the development of social media services.

As usual with Shirky, “Cognitive Surplus” is a very readable book. Shirky uses well chosen stories to illustrate the possibilities of social media use. He combines these stories with accounts of research relevant to his argument. For me “Cognitive Surplus” works as a very useful addition to his prior book “Here Comes Everybody”. While in his prior book he argued very convincingly in favor of the transformative potential of widespread social media use, in “Cognitive Surplus” he adds some useful conjectures on the reasons why people might be motivated to invest significant time and effort into producing content through social media.

The Daemon in the Machine

Daemon” by Leinad Zeraus, a pseudonym by the author Daniel Suarez, is a great piece of speculative fiction. It reads like a worst case scenario of a networked society gone spectacularly wrong.

The death of Über-Game-Designer Matthew Sobol sets a surprising chain of events in motion. Before his death Sobol designed a computer program that automatically scans the internet for news of his death. After his death this daemon starts automatic protocols which in the end destabilize the global economy and challenge national security.

With his novel Daniel Suarez emphasizes different aspects of our time which are usually ignored by so-called serious fiction. Suarez’ characters are mostly digitally natives who are battling an older generation who fondly plays with the idea of “shutting down the internet”. He shows the emerging culture of Multiplayer Video Games and weaves them as a different layer into reality, a layer which remains invisible to most onlookers. Yet the author does not restrict his story to the digital realm. He also addresses issues of the ongoing privatization of security and shows a world which is increasingly governed by global corporations.

“Daemon” reads at times like a dramatization of non-fiction books on computer security, sociology, economics and futurology. The author points among others to works by P. W. Singer, Kevin Phillips and Jared Diamond. This stylistic device reminds of Neal Stephenson who anchored his “Baroque Cycle” on the works by the French historian Fernand Braudel. This process is greatly entertaining because it shows the rather abstract ideas of non-fiction writers in glorious technicolor. It also gives the novels more relevance and grounding in present day science then can be normally expected from fictional work.

Initially Suarez self-published his novel. The success of “Daemon” let the Penguin books imprint Dutton to acquire the rights to Daemon and its sequel Freedom TM.

Recently Suarez gave a talk about his book at the Long Now Foundation. There is a video of the event at Fora TV.

Not quite so Magic Flute

Quite some time ago I visited a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of The Magic Flute. The visuals of the movie were great and the music as always great fun. Unfortunately there was trouble with the projection and so the aspect ratio was slightly screwed. But those are the delights of independent movie houses. Although the movie was made in 2006 it has been quite as hassle to see it in Germany. It toured for almost two years through different festivals until it received a limited release in Germany. So the troubles with the aspect ratio didn’t bother me that much, since it was great to finally see the movie.

Unfortunately I was not all that taken by this interpretation of Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The movie starts great. Kenneth Branagh and his coauthor Stephen Fry set the action in a fantasy world, highly reminiscent of Europe at the time of the first world war. A meadow Wordsworth used to dream of is pierced by a network of trenches belonging to two opposing armies. Those armies attack each other to the soaring tunes of Mozart’s overture. At the end of this battle Tamino finds himself disoriented on the devastated battlefield. From here on The Magic Flute takes its course.

Kenneth Branagh accompanies the opera with dazzling visuals. He chooses a visual style that keeps reminding that the action is taking place in a heightened reality. This is a logical continuation of Branagh‘s visual work on Love’s Labour’s Lost, where the images were modeled on the pictures of the French artist Fragonard, and As You Like It where Branagh invoked the forrest of Arden with the same approach. Now, in the realm of opera Branagh pulls all the stops. And it works beautifully. “The Magic Flute”? shows Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”? in the highly personal images of Kenneth Branagh.

The novelist, actor, director, show master, blogger, twitterer, podcaster and wearer of many other hats Stephen Fry wrote the english libretto for “The Magic Flute”?, and unfortunately here the troubles of the film start. Unfortunately because I greatly admire Fry’s work, especially his movie Bright Young Things, which to me is one of the great movies set in the early 20th century. Fry’s libretto reminds in word choice and mannerisms of the great operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. At times it feels like one is watching a „Gilbert and Sullivan Go to War“ matinee. While this works for the Papageno scenes it seems quite out of place in the Sarastro scenes. To me in those scenes the movie looses track and its makers consciously seem to choose to ignore the nature of their source material.

Sarastro, in the original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, is a high priest. He forces Tamino to undergo three trials to be accepted in Sarastro‘s pseudo-egyptian-free-mason-style cult. Those trials are important because they show Tamino’s spiritual development. He moves away from a worldly frame of mind, as represented by the Queen of the Night towards an enlightened state of spirituality, as represented by Sarastro. Branagh and Fry completely secularize Sarastro. Instead of a high priest, he is a healer and head of an army. His scenes do not take place in a temple of wisdom, but in a Walt Disney version of Cinderella’s castle. Sarastro’s high priests are army officers and the important aria “Marsch der Priester, O Isis und Osiris”? changes completely in character. Instead of invoking the spirit of these ancient egyptian gods in his temple of wisdom, Sarastro stands in a cemetery in front of a multicultural wall of death and sings about the wisdom of his forefathers.

The admittedly highly convoluted and ambiguous spirituality of Mozart’s opera is completely ignored and substituted by a cheap and easy brand of internationalism. Branagh and Fry try to take the easy way out. Instead of confronting the more difficult and possibly controversial side of their material they settle for a candy-store version of Schikaneder’s libretto. This is especially unfortunate because the complete second half of the opera hinges on those spiritual questions. Tamino’s trials loose every meaning if they are not understood as part of a spiritual test of his character. The way Branagh and Fry choose to play it in their version makes those tests part of an ultimately unconvincing quest for a ceasefire between the armies. If you play it like that Tamino‘s toils make little to no sense. While “Die Zauberflöte”? remains highly ambiguous on who is right and who is wrong, on who is good and who is evil, “The Magic Flute”? leaves not doubt: The Queen of the Night is an evil warmonger while the healer Sarastro is a good and caring pacifist, who is forced to fight a war against his will.

While I liked the audacity of the undertaking, bringing Mozart’s opera in Branagh’s dazzling visuals on the screen, in “The Magic Flute”? I missed those elements that in my eyes make “Die Zauberflöte”? such a great work of art. Now it is definitely time to check out Ingmar Bergman‘s production of “Die Zauberflöte”? of 1974. Let‘s see how he deals in his Trollföjten with the same material.

Tribes in a Sea of Change

To Seth Godin we are living in a new world. A world where success does not depend on doing things the way they were done in the past. A world where playing it safe actually means betting the house. A world where the best way to success is to break with everything that seemed true yesterday and to do exactly the opposite today. In this world only through embracing the chance of failure one can achieve success.

This is the background for the new book by Seth GodinTribes: We Need You to Lead Us“. In this book Godin declares the tribe to the next successful form of social organization and demands of his reader to rise to the challenge and form a tribe around an idea.

To Godin tribes are:

“a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” (Tribes 2008: 1).

This is a fairly wide definition, but Godin differentiates further between tribes that embrace change and those that oppose it.

To him tribes that formed in the past around an idea run the danger of perpetuating an institution in the hope of keeping an old idea alive in spite of changing times. In his eyes these tribes are doomed.

Instead, to Godin, a tribe has to become a micromovement to be successful.

Godin identifies six principles for a micromovement:

1. Transparency
2. The Movement has to be bigger than its leader
3. Movements that grow thrive
4. Movements are most successful if they clearly differentiate themselves from the status quo
5. Excluding Outsiders
6. Enabling Followers to be more successful

Only through this openness to change and the active participation of its members a tribe can be successful, so Godin.

To become and remain a micromovement tribes need leaders. In Godins eyes these leaders are we, the readers. To Godin leaders differentiate themselves through the conscious decision to lead a tribe, instead only to participate in a movement. They are motivated by curiosity and a desire for change. Their ability to lead, their charisma, is derived from their uncompromising faith in the core of their movement. The narrative of this faith gives the followers something to believe in and something to work for. With his short manifesto Godin tries to infuse the reader with the passion and confidence to make that decision and to step up and lead his own tribe.

For Godin, today is the time for heretics in leadership positions. A chaotic present and a future where seemingly anything goes, lead the market to embrace change. In the past curiosity and the desire to change the status quo seemed frightening because this attitude lead to the possibility of failure and with this it threatened success. Today it‘s different. Godin argues, that since success is more and more based on change of the status quo and unpredictable factors, the market demands heretics as leaders. Heretics whose radical challenge to the status quo were in the past anathema to investors are in Godins eyes necessary.

In this short book Godin thinks out loud about leadership in a time of change and the ties that bind subgroups in a society which differentiates itself ever increasingly along the long tails of interest, practice, place and ideas. This book is not so much an analysis of leadership, small group behavior or organization in times of the social web (try for this “Herd” by Mark Earls and “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky), it is clearly a book of ideas. Herein it reminds of the short books by Tom Peters on leadership and talent. Godin tries to inspire the reader and move him to action.

A great shortcut to the ideas of “Tribes” is this interview between Seth Godin and the blogger and cartoonist Hugh MacLeod.

5 Movies with Paul Newman

The Long, Hot Summer (1958) because of the lady who has to buy herself a bus ticket, because of the man with whom nobody wants to talk peacable, and because of the man who wonders what happens when he is dead.

The Hustler (1961) because of the man who does not now how he can lose, because you play pool fast and loose but also because character beats talent.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) because people dress up when they go to see Miss Lilly, because of a drunken bear and the justice who is the handmaiden of the law. Now get a rope!

Slap Shot (1977) because for two minutes in the box you feel shame and then you get free, because you can’t put a bounty on a man’s head, and because well, we are human beings.

The Verdict (1982) because there is no other case!

5 Movies by David Mamet

The Spanish Prisoner (1997) because of the girl who lives above a bakery, the sunshine bakery.

The Winslow Boy (1999) because of the man who knows so little about women, the woman who knows so little about men and because one reads Lord Byron.

State and Main (2000) because everybody makes their own fun, else it be entertainment.

Heist (2001) because the place to be is in the sun.

Redbelt (2008) because there’s always an escape.

5 Filme von François Truffaut

Truffaut in Zurich

Baisers Volés (1968) für Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig und eine umgestossene Tasse Kaffee.

La Sirène du Mississipi (1969) für La Reunion, eine zerbrochene Schallplatte und Schönheit die schmerzt.

Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent (1971) für Kika Markham, gesprochene Briefe und Balzac.

La Nuit Américaine (1973) für die Musik von Georges Delerue, künstlichen Schnee und einen Zug in der Nacht.

La Chambre Verte (1978) für Truffaut, Nathalie Baye und einen Brief im Winter.

Image cc Andreas Jungherr.