Words and such.

Month: January, 2012

Links ii

Newt Gingrich is considered one of the leading ‘intellectuals’ of the Republican party, not least because he can hardly be called one of its moral champions. Daniel Larison helps remind us why the notion that Newt is one of the GOP’s best and brightest is so terrifying. I don’t doubt that he’s intelligent in some sense, but like most of the leading voices of the modern American right, he sure doesn’t sound it. And when it comes to international politics he, like the rest of them, comes across like a belligerent undergraduate.

Of course it’s easy to look intelligent when you’re sharing a podium with a raging lunatic like Rick Perry. A demagogue like him savaging a political party for being excessively theocratic is almost too much irony to know what to do with. As I’m writing this I hear that Perry has backed out of the race to throw his weight (and delegates) behind Gingrich. That’s a real nightmare ticket if I ever heard one.

When the question is raised of ‘why not attack Iran?’ is raised, it’s hard to resist the urge to scream ‘because it would be completely insane and wouldn’t even work’ in response. That isn’t terribly civil or productive, however, and so Elbridge Colby and Austin Long offer yet another detailed explanation of why it wouldn’t work and why, indeed, it would be more than a little irrational.

I’m old enough that I feel able to say stuff like this now: kids today are nuts.

A nice example of the hopefully burgeoning field of Batman studies here, as Taylor Marvin uses The Dark Knight to elaborate on the sheer gut-wrenching terror that any sensible person would feel at the notion of anarchy. He also provides a delightful contrast to the frankly daft notion that Nolan’s epic was intended as some kind of defence of the Bush administration. Instead, it is convincingly argued, The Dark Knight shows us the dangers of counterinsurgency. That’s right, The Batman isn’t Dubya, he’s General Petraeus.

Anyone who has ever studied the Cold War in the english language will, I imagine, be entirely unsurprised by this development. John Lewis Gaddis has written a biography of George Kennan. Jacob Heilbronn reviews, but in essence, if you know who both the author and the subject are, you’re probably going to want to read the book.

Finally, something a bit different. This Recording hosting an extract from a collection of Woody Allen’s writing. I’m not sure if this came before my favourite piece of stand-up ever, but they’re near enough identical so one is clearly an adaptation of the other. Many people will know that a third version exists, which I shan’t dwell on, suffice to say that while the written word is massively entertaining on its own, the greatest joy here is seeing the origin of something much later and much greater.


Films of 2011

I went to the cinema twenty-five times last year, comfortably a record amount, and so for once I feel well-equipped to do the done thing at this time of year and list some favourite films of 2011. On account of my being British, some of the films might be considered ‘of’ the previous year. Award-hunting films tend to get released in and around the awards season in this country. So, for example, ‘The Artist’ would be considered part of this past year, and were I to count it so it’d most likely be top of my list. But I like calender years goddamnit, and this is my list, and so it will be a list of the top five films I saw in 2011. There’s nothing particularly unusual, as I never get to say anything at all obscure until years after its initial release, but I have, for once, seen a large proportion of the big-hitters this awards season.


I have to admit, having never seen a Herzog documentary before beyond this, I initially struggled to take it seriously. Once I came to terms with his, ah, unique vocal stylings, I was as enraptured as one would expect to be by high-quality images of utterly fascinating glimpses of the early history of humanity. Coupled with some wonderfully whimsical sections, in particular the unforgettable albino crocodiles, and it was a truly delightful and thought-provoking experience. It also conclusively proved the precise value of 3D once and for all: it has none.


A friend and I recently had a lengthy discussion about which British comedian needs to join Iannuci, Morris, Cornish and Ayoade in stepping into the world of filmmaking. The obvious candidate was Stewart Lee, so, come on Stew, get on with already. Whilst all of the above have produced fine work, it is Ayoade who shows the most promise, with this wonderful and stunningly genuine take on what it’s like to grow up and fall in love whilst having a weirder than usual adolescence. Anyone who was ever a teenage boy and doesn’t feel a significant affection for Oliver Tate either had a very lucky adolescence, or can’t really remember what it was like.


I understand the walking out. I mean, to my mind it’s practically a crime, but I understand it, it’s a challenging and unorthodox film. Those two people, however, who loudly complained and huffed out of the cinema during some of the most beautiful images ever committed to screen, they can go straight to hell. It is a film of three main strands, interwoven in remarkable ways, with Sean Penn’s part was comfortably the weakest and least worthy of discussion. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that second section is concerned with the origins of life, that it is is deeply moving, and that it is as beautiful as anything you’re ever likely to see on film. The third strand, the film’s real narrative, is ostensibly a semi-autobiographical exploration of childhood, but felt to me more like a religious experience-cum-philosophy lecture. I’m not sure you can ask much more of a film than that. Malick has given us an extraordinarily moving meditation on life, grace, memory, childhood and so much more, and if you can’t appreciate that then you should at least be able to enjoy the stunning cinematography, and if you can’t even enjoy that, well, perhaps cinema’s not really for you.


A real human being…

Drive is many, many things. A charming love-letter to the 80s, an unnerving and fascinating profile of how horrific violence can be born from the most noble of motives, an insight into into the truly dark side of Nemo’s Dad, an opportunity to stare at the stunningly beautiful Carey Mulligan without guilt because it’s what the protagonist spends most of the film doing, and, indeed, a really bloody well-made driving film. It’s all of those things and many, many more, but it was one thing above all else. It is the proud owner of the best soundtrack in recent cinema history.

…and a real hero.


It’s hard to talk about this film without spoling it. On the other hand I’m told the central premise of a film doesn’t really count as a spoiler. On a third metaphorical hand, said premise was barely hinted at in the trailer, and few critics mentioned it in their reviews. Sadly, somebody told me that Woody Allen essentially turned one of his oldest and greatest bits of stand-up into a film about the dangers and joys of nostalgia. Had I gone to see the film without knowing this, presuming it to be a somewhat tired love-letter to the city of Paris, then I may well have literally cried tears of joy upon seeing who was in that car. Shortly after seeing the film I wrote an epic treatise on how wonderful it is, but it was so utterly gushing I’d be embarrassed to share it. To summarise: Woody Allen made a film just for me.

Here’s the full 25, in case anyone feels I’ve made a glaring omission:

The King’s Speech, True Grit, Never Let Me Go, Submarine, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Source Code, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, The Tree of Life, HP7B, Super 8, The Inbetweeners, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Midnight in Paris, Drive, The Ides of March, 50/50, Moneyball, The Thing, Arthur Christmas, Hugo

Links i

First of all we have an article from The Good Men Project, a site I have rather mixed feelings about. I am, however, very appreciative to Yashar Ali for introducing me to the term ‘gaslighting.’ There aren’t nearly enough academic terms named after Ingrid Bergman films.

I read this next article quite awhile ago, but it’s so precisely geared towards my views I’ll take any opportunity to try and convince others to read it. Nathaniel Philbrick explains how a book about 19th century whaling* remains supremely relevant to our lives and our world today.

Here’s a piece from Wired about some research which backs up my long-held suspicion that it’s really hard to emote via text-based communications. The internet makes sociopaths of us all…

Gary Dorrien elaborates on one of my favourite subjects, Niebuhr’s influence on Obama. Mostly he just talks about Niebuhr’s regularly misunderstood philosophy, and how stunningly right it feels when you really get to grips with it. Needless to say Niebuhr is a huge influence on me, and I’ll probably do a blog post on him at some point. Hell, I’ll probably do a PhD on him at some point.

I have a huge interest in Afghanistan, indeed it was, in part, the subject of my MA thesis**. At present that interest has waned somewhat, due to the sheer misery involved in trawling through that nation’s recent history. Indeed Jon Lee Anderson’s look at Afghan Maskharas is a perfect representation of most literature on that particular nation, being equal parts fascinating, disturbing and disheartening. What’s a Maskhara you ask? Think Court Jester-cum-Assassin and you’re, well, about a third of the way there.

Lee Siegel provides another in the genre of ‘articles I read awhile ago about how a great American novel remains as vital as ever in modern times’. I was reluctant to urge people to read Moby Dick, because it’s quite an undertaking and you might well hate it, but if you haven’t read the Great Gatsby then you really must, if nothing else it’s shorter than some of my posts. Also of note is that I read this article waiting for a friend in a train station. After seeing my reaction to a certain comparison Siegel makes as she approached me, she claimed it was the first time she’d ever seen me smile.

Next up Daniel Blumenthal makes a bucketload of points I don’t especially agree with. What I do agree with, however, is describing delusional beliefs in IR as ‘unicorns’. There’s not nearly enough that’s adorable about International Relations.

You know how sometimes you hear about other people’s wonderful teachers and wish that you’d had him or her, or even just one John Keating of your own? Well, I wish we’d all had Al Vernacchio. A great profile, of a great man.

I’m not entirely convinced by Professor Cole’s theory here, but I do think it serves as a good example of both the possible unintended consequences of a foreign policy decision, and also the way in which politics hinders statesmanship. Both are obsessions of any realist, and I’m almost certainly one of those.

Finally, Amanda Marcotte guests on Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog to explain how awesome Britta Perry clearly is, and how we should burn this godforsaken world if Community gets cancelled. Hmm, perhaps she merely implied the second bit, either way, Team Britta.

*This should probably be the book about 19th century whaling, but I suppose there may be others, and good luck to them.

**The whole anonymity thing is a joke when you consider how freely I throw out personal details.

New Year’s Resolutions

As far as I can remember I made no resolutions last year. That’s most unlike me, so this year they’ve returned with a vengeance, not least because the new year also brought a significant change in my personal circumstances. I’ve tended to scribble them down in the back of my notebook, in vaguely coded shorthand, which isn’t always wise. One from two years ago reads ‘Make Imminence’, and since about a week after I wrote I’ve had no idea what it means. This year’s list is coded more sensibly, and is as follows:

31st December 2011

They may look like categories, but each has a very specific meaning. Which, of course, I shan’t disclose. You can probably guess the last one.

Enough about me for now, the main purpose of this post is to discuss the concept itself. I was inspired to do so by a handful of ruminations on the subject I came across this morning. Charlie Brooker is as enjoyable as ever, railing against the pointlessness of indulging in self-loathing, before moving on to some tried and tested everyone else-loathing. All very enjoyable, but mostly irrelevant to what I wish to discuss, aside from his first line, which I will get back to later. More pressing is the hypercritical take from ex-libertarian Will Wilkinson, who has two main points. Firstly, you can’t force yourself to want things:

Wanting to want or not want to do something is a pickle we can’t trick ourselves out of by harder meta-wanting. Either you somehow alter the first-order desire (all riches will flow to she who holds the secret) and, as Yoda says, do or do not, or you don’t, and you do or do not do what you wish you wouldn’t. Better to just note the conflict between what you want and what you want to want, and not make such a big deal about it. You can’t feel bad about breaking promises you never made.

I happen to disagree entirely on this point, due in part to reading about behavioural sciences, but primarily due to personal experience. If you’re willing to work at it, you have a lot more control over your brain than you may well realise. His other point I’m far more sympathetic to, that the whole ‘new year’ business is utterly arbitrary:

And why wait? What does the time it takes for Earth to make it ’round the sun have to do with your regimen of self-improvement? Nothing. You didn’t get fat last year. You’re getting fat right now, always, unless you know it and act like you care, or you’re a communist who lives on kale. Anyway, the Earth’s trip around the sun holds altogether too much sway in our lives. Why not count in full moons? Why not?  Why the best books of 2011? A year is too short. You can’t read all those books.

I do wonder how much his politics inspires this position. If you’re far from fond of government then it stands to reason that while you’ll accept the seasons as immutable, the whole concept of a standardised year which ends in the middle of one of those seasons should make you uncomfortable. He has a point, we shouldn’t feel like those aspects of our lives that we can control need to match up to the calender year, but the year itself, well, it’s an ancient and entirely inoffensive construct. This is all a sideshow, as what really matters about a new year’s resolution, like any form of self-improvement, is whether it works. Conventional wisdom suggests that resolutions are doomed to fail, often within a few days. I presume there are studies out there on the topic, quite possibly proving said ‘wisdom’, but I’m far too lazy to look at those properly. I do, however, remember once seeing that someone did a study which suggested people stick to somewhere in the region of 20% of resolutions. So, instead of an in-depth literature review, we shall consider my own resolutions. Last year was irresolute, but 2009 and 2010 are easy to find, and conveniently there’s been at least two years since I made them:

31st December 2008
-job Education
-Drink water more
-___ with ____
-learn German
-learn to cook
-relearn Maths

Well, I’ve mostly failed these. I decided within about three hours of making this list to go back and do an MA, which I did, so there’s a success, and I did learn to cook, which I still do very regularly. Oh and the blanked out one I did manage, but it remains classified. The spaces are on the written page, but I always knew what that what meant. As for the failures…I wanted to ‘relearn’ maths because I looked at an old GCSE revision guide and was largely stumped, but I never made any serious effort on that account. I have some German, and I’m forever meaning to pull it up to a decent level, but, again, little effort to do so in 2009. Exercise…well, I did lose two stone that year, but I never really found a proper exercise regime, there was never the necessary consistency. And note that it’s not “drink more water”, I just aimed to have water take the place of other drinks more often, and it didn’t really work out either.

31st December 2009
-Make Imminence

Absolutely no success this time. ’14’ was an aim to get down to 14 stone, and I’m not there even now. I’m losing weight, sure, but more slowly than your average corpse. ‘Chew’ is an interesting one, suggesting I should chew my food for longer, and I’ve never been able to stick that. I think that should count more as a permanent suggestion. You can see that for some reason I swapped out German for French, a language I known even less of. The less said on that the better. ‘Fish’ implies I should make the jump from pescetarian to vegetarian, which is a daft idea which should have been and thankfully was quickly forgotten. ‘Make Imminence’…as I said, your guess is as good as mine. ‘Lift’ suggests I start doing weights, so I could handle physical tasks with greater ease, but I never really got around to that. And ‘Contacts’ means contact lenses, and I’ve still to look into that.

So, three out of fourteen, not far short of that 20%. That’s the first lesson then, make less of them. I’ve made just the six this year, so clearly I’m learning that lesson. Finally we come back to Mr Brooker, who opened his article with this line:

New Year’s resolutions work like this: you think of something you enjoy doing, and then resolve to stop doing it.

That’s certainly a popular perception, and I think it helps explain why people’s resolutions are usually so far from resolute. Trying to stop yourself from doing something, something you enjoy, is an incredible challenge. While I’d never say you shouldn’t make that effort, I do think a new year, a supposedly hopeful time, is the wrong moment for it. Even considering my ridiculously low success rate, the ones which have worked have involved actively doing something, and I think that would be the best bet for any of us.

In conclusion, new year’s resolutions are bunkum, but only in the same way that the vast majority of attempts to control the human condition are. The best bet is clearly to strive not to stop something, but to start something, to be positive, even if it’s unlikely to work. And if the alternative is to not even bother trying, well then, there’s no great harm in using the turn of the year as inspiration, it’s bound to work for some people, and perhaps it’ll work for me eventually. If nothing else, it makes for a nice window into where you were at a certain time in one’s life, and we all love a little nostalgia, no?

On Blogging

Last night I was thinking about the process of blogging. That is to say, the form. I was drawn to the issue that I presume effects any would-be novelist, a category in which I sometimes dare to place myself. There has been so very much literature written that you find yourself wondering how on Earth you can ever hope to do anything that is at all, ahem, novel. Blogging brings with it a similar issue, but mostly to do with form rather than content. All blogs are concerned with the thoughts of an individual or group, and joining that cascade merely involves offering up one’s own thoughts. The problem is trying to do this in a manner which doesn’t feel trite. My solution, clearly, is to begin my attempt utilising WordPress’ default template. To be frank the only reason I brought this up is to make a point that occurred to me at the time. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that by this point more words have been written on blogs than in all the books ever published. Interesting though, no?

My girlfriend*, who insisted I start a blog (perhaps she sees me as a problem shared), was the one who inspired last night’s pondering. She was encouraging me to think about what I would actually put on a blog, and being an accomplished navel-gazer I decided to focus on blogging itself. I’m a specialist, but I think it’s a generation-wide issue. For whatever reason we’re all caught up on taking apart and experimentally putting back together; an entire cohort of Sternes and Joyces, but with more videos of cats. I suppose it’s all related to the problem of unoriginality mentioned above. At this point we’re just so absolutely saturated with worlds and ideas that inventing our own is effectively impossible. Of course, such concerns have been dominant for decades, and around for centuries, if not millennia. We’re hardly the first people to feel we’re slouching on the shoulders of some very tall giants, but we are the first people with the internet. Truly everyone is a critic now.

Don’t worry, dear non-existent reader, having now proven myself quite the dilettante I shan’t spend too much time with this pondering. It will come up again, I’m sure, but I’m a man of little intellectual confidence, so I don’t like to risk placing myself too obviously on Mount Stupid. I worry I live there, in a nice cabin, but when I’m feeling optimistic I like to feel I’m on my down towards that valley. So if I’m not going to blather on about things I know little about what am I to do? Say nothing…that would be and has been the obvious answer, but I’m striving to be at least a little more talkative. The solution, therefore, must be to talk about those subjects about which I know a little bit more than a little, whilst remaining aware that there is nothing about which I know a lot. Very Socratic of me. I suppose if I ever feel the need to really talk about something other than myself, and it can happen, I’ll put it here instead of my diary. Oh, and there will be links, lots of links, I read way too much not to share some of it, on the off-chance I ever do pick up a readership.

*Here’s a thing, I’ve decided to try for some vague notion of anonymity, while remaining aware of the nature of the internet. I’m actually a remarkably non-private person, if you want to find out damn near anything about me you need only ask, and, often as not, you need only stand within a few feet of me. The problem is that the only way I’ll get anyone to read the damn thing is to advertise it to people I know, and I can hardly pretend it’s not me. The reason it came up here is that said girlfriend suggested I come up with a codename for her, something akin to the Secret Service’s entertaining titles for their various charges. I shall put some thought into it. As for the anonymity, well, it’s not a big deal, but I’ll give it a go anyway.


Hey [girlfriend who has asked I don’t mention her by name]. 🙂