2017年5月17日 星期三

"Justice" by Michael J. Sandel (2010)


"What exactly is at stake in this debate between the narrative account of moral agency and the one that emphasizes will and consent?  One issue at stake is how you conceive human freedom.  As you ponder the examples that purport to illustrate obligations of solidarity and membership, you might find yourself resisting them.  If you are like many of my students, you might dislike or mistrust the idea that we're bound by moral ties we haven't chosen.  This dislike might lead you to reject the claims of patriotism, solidarity, collective responsibility, and so on; or to recast these claims as arising from some form of consent.  It's tempting to reject or recast these claims because doing so renders them consistent with a familiar idea of freedom.  This is the idea that says we are unbound by any moral ties we haven't chosen; to be free is to be the author of the only obligations that constrain us."

Michael J. Sandel is a Professor of Government at Harvard University.  Justice is (by far) his best-known book, though he has written elsewhere on other topics.

After a short introduction, he centers his discussion of justice around the utilitarian philosophers, namely Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, claimed that social justice consists of allowing the largest number of people to live/think/believe in the manner that makes them happiest.  Bentham's successor, John Stuart Mill, offered a softer approach to this doctrine, which included certain moral distinctions (or, some might say, equivocations) that Bentham hadn't anticipated.  The author's criticisms of utilitarian thought are sound, though I continue to suspect that utilitarianism might actually be the philosophy best suited to modern government.

After the utilitarians, the author discusses Kant's moral philosophy.  He offers an excellent summary of Kant's thinking, and I'm happy to say that yes, I finally understand the Categorical Imperative.  I've made attempts at Kant before, and I can assert that boiling his philosophy down to its essentials is no easy business.

And despite the beauty of the author's execution, I have to say that I remain a bit skeptical of Kant's philosophy.  This idea of a "rational actor" deep inside of us, working towards the greater good, seems (to me at least) at odds with much of human behavior.  I'm also unsure of how people, communities, and governments would go about realizing Kant's lofty ideals.  His ideas on sex fly in the face of modern morality, and his ideas on many other topics lead (seemingly) into blind alleys.

John Rawls is the subject of the next chapter.  I wasn't familiar with Rawls before reading this book, and if nothing else the discussion of his ideas has piqued my curiosity.  I'm not sure that I can picture any individual existing (much less coming to a decision) outside of his "veil of ignorance," but Rawls does have a lot to say about social justice.

Aristotle is the last major philosopher discussed, and I think putting him at the end was a nice touch.  His teleological (purpose-driven) thinking is described in the context of government and social harmony, and although this type of thinking leads one into absurdities, I found the author's presentation of it very refreshing.

If I have any reservations about this book, they only pertain to philosophers and  issues not included.  Communism, for example,  is never discussed.  Neither is the genetic basis of altruism (the "selfish gene").  No Nietzsche.  There is also no distinction made between laws and cultural norms, and the differing roles of each.  Certain facets of our society, such as information technology, are also noticeably absent.  It could be that the author thought including such things would have bogged the book down,  and he might have well been right,  but they would have also offered interesting counterpoints to some of the older, more familiar ideas.

But even with these omissions, Justice is a great book, and an invigorating take on what are, for many of us, tired philosophical concepts.  The author succeeds in bringing moral philosophy back to life, and has at the same time written a very timely, very necessary guide to social justice.

2017年5月10日 星期三

"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" by David Sedaris (2004)


"'But I didn't do anything.  I'm gay, remember?'

"'That's not going to save you,' she said.  'Push comes to shove and who do you think they're going to believe, a nine-year-old girl or the full-grown man who gets his jollies carving little creatures out of balsa wood?'

"'They're not little creatures!' I yelled.  'They're tool people!'"

David Sedaris is an American essayist.  He writes about his childhood in North Carolina, about growing up gay, and about his experiences living in France and England.

To use his brother's kind of vocabulary, he's funny as shit.  I haven't laughed so hard in a long time, and I look forward to reading more of his books soon.

The part about his brother's wedding is classic.

2017年5月8日 星期一

Stranger Things, and Growing Up in the 80s


I was born in 1975.  This means (of course) that I was five in 1980, and fourteen in 1989.  For this reason I tend to look back on the 80s with a lot of nostalgia, though I realize that for many people there were better decades.

My fond memories of the 80s led me to the Netflix series Stranger Things, which I watched in its entirety last weekend.  As of May 2017 it's still in its first season, with a second season on the way in October.



Going in, I was a bit skeptical.  It seems very fashionable to wear the 80s influence on one's sleeve these days, and I wondered whether the references would be painfully obvious (things like Thriller and breakdancing), or if they'd be more subtle.  A lot of movies and TV shows set in the 70s will bring you right out of the narrative with some jarringly inaccurate disco scene, or a car that doesn't belong in that decade.  Since I know the 80s even better than the 70s, I figured there'd be similar anachronisms in the show.

Thankfully the show is true to its decade, and I'm happy to say that Stranger Things is pretty good.  I'm not saying that it's perfect, mind you.  It's not nearly as good as Westworld.  But it is a solidly crafted homage to 80s horror movies, with just the right number of references to things like Dungeons and Dragons, John Carpenter's The Thing, and Chris Claremont's Dark Phoenix saga.  And it doesn't hit you over the head with these references - they're just there, usually in the background, where they should be.



It's also good to see Winona Ryder on screen again.  Yes, she's been in movies, but her role in Stranger Things is so much better than most of what she's done in recent films.  I thought she was great as Michael Shannon's love interest in The Iceman, but that movie was a while ago.

Next season, to make things even more 80s, Sean "Goonies Never Say Die" Astin will be making a regular appearance on the show.  Having Astin as Ryder's boyfriend should be fun, and one can only hope that other 80s stars will pop up at some point.  I know Tom Cruise is too much to hope for, but B-listers like Val Kilmer, Anthony Michael Hall, Phoebe Cates, and John Cusack seem within the realm of possibility.  My personal choice would be John Murray, brother of Bill, because you just don't get more 80s than that guy.  Anyone else remember Moving Violations?



Now that they've established the "reality" of this show, more 80s trappings could be introduced without overwhelming the plot.  We've already heard the Atari mentioned in the last episode, and with the second season set in 1984, it's high time to introduce the NES and (even better) the Sega Master System.  Many of us gave up Dungeons and Dragons for Super Mario Bros. during that year, so it makes sense.

Oh, and there's also the album of the same name by Van Halen.  And if you're going to do that, you could also do the song of the same name, "(Wake Up) It's 1984" by Oingo Boingo.  



And... what about toys?  Masters of the Universe?  G.I. Joe?  Transformers?  Food?  Chuck E. Cheese?  Wendy's "Where's the Beef?"  "Avoid the Noid?"  Reaganomics?  Star Wars (as in the defense system)?  Cyndi Lauper?  Billy Joel?  Prince?  Those shoes with the pockets?  MTV?  Early thrash metal?  Hair metal?  Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger?  The ninja fad?  David Cronenberg? VHS tapes?

I could go on, and on, and on, but I'll stop for now.  It's not good to get too caught up in nostalgia, and it's a while before the next season of Stranger Things appears on Netflix.

"In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" by Bette Bao Lord (1984)


"Shirley refused to go to school for the next two days.  Her mother thought it was because her eyes were almost swollen shut.  Not so.  Not so.  Shirley needed the time for Mabel to realize that the Chinese had not squealed, and therefore her skin and bones deserved to stay intact."

Bette Bao Lord is a writer and activist.  She immigrated to the United States when she was a child, and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson describes her experiences adjusting to life in America during that time.

It's a book aimed at young adults, and it's also super short, so I won't say much more about it.  Suffice to say it's a very heartwarming story, and the ending had my teary-eyed.  Wikipedia tells me that Mrs. Lord also wrote a few novels.  I'll be looking for them this summer.

2017年5月7日 星期日

"Mr. Nice: An Autobiography" by Howard Marks (1998)


"When I arrived back at the Newmarket-on-Fergus farmhouse, two university lecturers and their spouses were sitting in the darkened living-room staring with horrified expressions at a projection screen displaying a farmgirl having intercourse with a pig.  Standing just offscreen was McCann.  He had his dick out and was masturbating."

Howard Marks rose to prominence during the 70s and 80s as the U.K.'s most famous drug smuggler.  Using a network of associates that stretched clear around the world, he made (and lost) millions smuggling hash into Europe and North America.  He was eventually apprehended in Spain and later extradited to the United States, where he spent several years in prison. 

All of which sounds like it would make for an interesting book, but Mr. Marks gets bogged down in the details.  Instead of a riveting account of a man who spent decades dodging police and immigration officials in several countries, what we get in Mr. Nice is a tedious list of names, places, and dates.  It amounts to a lot of trivia with very little context to make it meaningful, and by the end of this book I could only scratch my head as to what the author intended to say.

Perhaps, given his level of celebrity in the U.K., Mr. Marks was able to bypass the editorial process.  This is a shame, because lost in all his details are compelling arguments against the illegality of certain drugs, against strong-arm tactics used by the DEA and other U.S. law enforcement agencies, and against the brutality of the U.S. prison system.  If Mr. Marks could have just dialed down his personal aggrandizement a bit, he might have made an excellent case against the complex of laws and institutions that caused him so much difficulty.  But he doesn't do that, and what we get instead is a rambling account of forays into Pakistan, encounters with Bangkok prostitutes, and brushes with more famous personages. 

I wouldn't say that this is a bad book.  More like a wasted opportunity.  It gets much better near the end, but about 7/8 of this book is incredibly repetitious, and will make you regret having started it in the first place.

2017年5月3日 星期三

Legion vs. Westworld

I think Aubrey Plaza was the best thing about Legion.

What did I do last weekend?  I spent most of it in a TV coma, watching the first seasons of both Legion and Westworld.  I'll admit that I'm a bit late to the party on both of these shows, but I was waiting until I could get the full first season.  Waiting between episodes just kills me.

In a way it's not fair to compare these shows.  This is for two reasons.  First, Legion was made with a fraction of Westworld's budget.  Second, Westworld's budget allowed the producers of that show to attract top-notch stars.  Third, Legion's first season consists of only 8 hour-long episodes, whereas Westworld's consists of 9 hour-long episodes, plus an hour and a half long finale.

Westworld is/was a big deal.  It is the most-watched HBO original series ever, it's won dozens of awards, and the critics loved it.  Legion, by contrast, is a much smaller-scale affair, with fewer awards to its credit.  The RT score for Legion is actually higher than that for Westworld, though the discrepancy may have something to do with the smaller number of critics reviewing Legion.

For the record, I loved both shows.  Legion, though hampered by a smaller budget, was wonderfully surreal at times, and I'm looking forward to the second season.  Westworld meanders a bit, but the performances are great (especially Thandie Newton).  The plot twist involving Ed Harris's character in Westworld was one of the most inventive things I've seen in any TV show, ever.

Westworld - get ready for a whole lotta nudity!

This said, my biggest complaint about Legion is that sometimes the show feels like watching a college (or worse yet, high school) drama class.  The first episode of that show is, in my opinion, better than any episode of Westworld, but after the second or third episode one begins to notice the less-than remarkable sets, and the fact that the show is especially talky.  "Show don't tell" is an important guideline for storytellers, and at times Legion tells much more than it shows.

Another weak point of that show is the central character.  David isn't very likable, and a little slow on the uptake.  One begins to wish he would get on the ball, and figure more things out.  Jermaine Clement's character also doesn't have enough to do, and instead of watching him passively respond to events, it would have been better to give him more of his own agenda, and to make him more necessary to the story.

With Westworld, my only issue is that there's a little too much "walking around," and although the "walking around" narratives converge at the end, I found myself wishing that the show's writers would get to the point already.  Shortening these narratives in favor of Thandie Newton or Anthony Hopkin's characters would have made the finale more powerful, and far less repetitive.

Both series are great, and I'd encourage you to watch them if you haven't.  Both are superior to most of the movies that came out last year, and both left me wanting more.  How is David going to get out of that orb?  And will the next season of Westworld be set in feudal Japan?  Are the "corporate" elements in Westworld part of a larger park experience?  Will the Shadow King also pop up in the next season of Legion?  Or will they save him for later on?  I'm sure that in both shows, in different ways, reality will hang in the balance.  And whatever happens, they can only get weirder.

...and not only the ladies, either!

"The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)


"The world - much as we want it to - does not accord with our intuition...  Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right.  They deliberately test their intuitions."

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, employed as a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.  He has written many books, but The Tipping Point is his most famous.

As the quote above explains, The Tipping Point is concerned with the creation of "social epidemics," or the passage of certain thoughts, fashions, or trends from a low level of popularity to an exponentially increasing state of ubiquitousness.  Or, to put it another way, how does a book go from being a local phenomenon to a national craze?  How does an incident of gun violence become a national crisis?  And how does a pair of "cute shoes" become something that every teenager is wearing at the local mall?

In the author's thinking, the progression from virtual unknown to cultural necessity is not gradual.  Between obscurity and overwhelming success (or society-wide failure), there is a tipping point beyond which a thing becomes part of the fabric of our lives.

And how are we to anticipate this tipping point?  The author points out three types of people who tend to incite trends: the Maven, the Connector, and the Salesman.  The Maven is an expert on a particular subject, someone looked to by others for his or her abundance of information.  The Connector is the person who inhabits the most wide-ranging social group, and a person who brings people of varied interests together.  The Salesman is, as you might imagine, a person skilled at converting others to their point of view.  All three types of people have important roles to play in any social network, and all three types contribute to pushing things toward the tipping point.

The author points out other important features of the social landscape.  One such feature is the "stickiness factor," or how well an idea is communicated across mediums.  Another is the power of context over individual and group decision-making, and the fact that a person's character varies a bit from situation to situation.  The author backs up these concepts with a wealth of examples, and I could find no flaws in his arguments.

The only problem with this well-researched book is its age.  Written in the late 90s, and published in the year 2000, its discussion of societal norms takes place in the absence of Google, in the absence of Facebook, and in the absence of smartphones.  Some of the examples he uses are also dated, and in light of recent events could cut both ways.  Using New York City's fight against crime, for example, is less convincing in the presence of recent social unrest and pressure to reform law enforcement.  This book was, after all, written before 9/11, before Black Lives Matter, and before Donald Trump was President.

But this is a small complaint.  The Tipping Point is still a great book, and I found it very informative.