For not-so-constant readers of this blog, parts one and two of this discussion were all about Buddhism's four "noble truths". No, no, don't run off on me now; I'm not here to sell you flowers or pamphlets. This is more about looking at some common-sense advice that sounds like a greeting card, but finding the harder and wormier truth inside it.Read more
We won’t end tragedies like the Malaysian Airlines disaster just by meditating until we all have our own glimpses of God. ... Accepting things as they are does not mean you need to be complacent about them. The ability to accept things as they [are] allows you to become better able to make changes when change needs to happen.
The above is in the context of a larger discussion about how what I guess could be called "spiritual materialism" (I wish that term could be separated from its creator, sigh) is often misinterpreted as being spirituality itself. Meaning that the trappings — the ritual, the language, the behaviors, even the insights themselves — are not the same thing as actually being an enlightened person who tries to do the right thing and keep his mind in mind. Nice talk isn't the same thing as enlightened action, but since you're the easiest person in the world to fool, you can always fool yourself into believing it's your nice talk that's really enlightened action.Read more
Some months back I noted how discussions of Buddhism by people not familiar with it outside of its pop-culture incarnation often end with them misconstruing it or dismissing it entirely. "Life is suffering" sounds terrible, but the way I put it, a better way to think about the first of Buddhism's four "noble truths" would be "Life and suffering are inextricable". The same goes for the second line item, often described as "The source of suffering is attachment".Read more
Would J. K. Rowling have written seven Harry Potters if the first hadn’t sold so well? Would Knausgaard have written six volumes of My Struggle, if the first had not been infinitely more successful (in Norway) than his previous novels? Sales influence both reader and writer — certainly far more than the critics do. In general I see nothing “wrong” with this blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction. In the end it’s rather exciting to have to figure out what is really on offer when a novel wins the Pulitzer, rather than taking it for granted that we are talking about literary achievement. But it does alert us to the fact that as any consensus on aesthetics breaks down, bestsellerdom is rapidly becoming the only measure of achievement that is undeniable.
I've talked before about how we tend to get our cues for enjoyment from our peers and our surroundings. If we know everyone is watching a given show, we watch it too, because that gives us all something to talk about, instead of everyone else talking about Orange is the New Black and then me (unsuccessfully) trying to explain the appeal of Berserk.
Sales works the same way. Fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong, and neither can millions of people throwing down bundles of cash to read 50 Shades of Gray or the latest bale from the James Patterson hay factory. Even if the books themselves are forgettable tripe, people still feel as if they've had some kind of experience worth talking about, and so they're not wasted. But that means the book itself is no longer the important thing; it's just a poker chip being passed between hands. The real subject there is how we feel like we belong to something and how we fit ourselves into a given group.
This isn't confined to best-sellers, either. Elsewhere in the article, there's this note: "... while in the past one might have grumbled that some novels were successful only because they had been extravagantly hyped by the press, now one discovers the opposite phenomenon. Books are being spoken of as extraordinarily successful in denial of the fact that they are not." (Emphasis mine.) Meaning that people talking with their peers about a given literary darling will use the word "success" as a signal between them: This book validates our tastes, and by the same token, us.
I think we need to examine closely the way social validation works, especially in environments where it centers around something that only looks like it's benefiting from such a boost. It's great that you can have something zoom out of complete obscurity and get into millions of hands, but if it comes at the cost of having almost no one see the thing for what it really is — and to make it all the more difficult for present or future folks to do the same — was it worth it?
Busy week at work (one which culminated in me getting a company award, my second so far from them!), so not much time for blogging. But the most striking thing of the week so far is me finally getting a handle on how to use Twitter effectively. Here's the short version: use it like a chatroom.Read more
This may not be an especially profound insight, but the thing I notice most about artists who are most successful in terms of putting a personal stamp on their work is that they are that much more in touch with what they are. That person may be of one given political bent or another; they may be meek or bold; they may be tough or sensitive. But whatever it is, they are entirely cognizant of it and in tune with it. They know how to look inside themselves to get whatever it is they need to speak their mind. They don't need anyone else's work to serve as a model. Inspiration or perspective, maybe, but nothing more than that.
As my friend Steven put it, "Their writing is being them, and at least they're them." I agreed: it's self-expression — not in the sense of "look at me", but rather "look at how I see this; see this through my eyes as only I know how". But so many people — writers, and readers alike — are willing to settle for borrowed vision.
Most people are willing to settle because we're not in the habit of thinking about our entertainments as anything but. We didn't think twice about the lousy food we ate until obesity and diabetes started skyrocketing, and then allasudden we realized we'd aided and abetted a system that made it more expensive to buy (or prepare) a salad than grab a hamburger.
Likewise, we've done the same things with our entertainments. We've given precedence and preferential treatment to things that are not good for us, not even on the level of mindless fun, and then we wonder why everything is a vague (or not-so-vague) echo of everything else. It isn't just that we've starved audiences, but that we've starved the current and future generations of creators as well, and given them no incentive to think about what else might be possible. The eyes we give creators to look through aren't even their own anymore — they're a composite of everyone else's.
Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9, one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.Read more
Something else came to mind after my discussion of how not every book can and should be filmed: the economics of it.
One of the advantages of the written word is that it's cheap. It's far less expensive to put words on a page, and that much less expensive to get them back off a page, than it is to put images on a screen. This despite the fact that our words and our movies are being delivered that much more from the same screens — believe me, the irony isn't lost on me.
The problem lies in how much easier it is to be the recipient of a movie than a book. Earlier I made the analogy that there's far less effort involved in lying back and having a movie ladle its images and speech into your eyes and ears, than there is in trying to feed yourself the same things as offered up by a book. Complaints of that stripe have been made ever since movies or TV began to offend the sensibilities of English teachers, so I don't think for a moment I'm breaking ground with this revelation.
What's worrisome is how this might be further affected by the idea that a book is just a preface for some piece of visual material. If we think the movie or the TV series has become more revelatory, more immediate, the costs involved will always ensure that only the most broadly salable material will be sponsored and distributed.
The fact that words are cheap means we can and should put things into words that don't stand a chance of ever manifesting any other way.
I finally watched the "short" version of Kenneth Lonergan's much-debated Margaret earlier this week, and I can't remember the last time I saw a film that I simultaneously liked so little and admired so much. I admired its ambition and scope, but I disliked how all that ultimately translated into a story that was too baggy, too sporadically volcanic, too fundamentally undisciplined to really work. It's more interesting for the story behind it and for the ideas it touches on than for what it actually pulls off. (No, I haven't seen the longer cut yet, but I have the feeling the movie's problems started at the screenplay level, not in the editing room; more on that in a bit. I may do a full review if I see both cuts, but it's honestly not a high priority right now.)Read more
My concern about the trend toward a winner-take-all dynamic is that it enables defense of the status quo over disruptive innovations.
The buzzword disruptive makes me giggle into my Ovaltine just as much as the next person whose eyes have gone a-glazed at too much Silicon Valley / TED talks horse manure.Read more