Creation Stories

Creation Stories (2021) directed by Nick Moran is about the life of Alan McGee and the story of Creation Records. It stars Ewen Bremner who may be known as Spud from Trainspotting. The film was adapted from McGee’s autobiography by Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh.

Alan McGee grew up in Glasgow and then eventually moved to London where he was in various bands and then established Creation Records. Creation Records was an incredibly successful indie label that signed The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Primal Scream and Oasis.

The film is engrossing. It’s a bit reminiscent of the also excellent 24 Hour Party People about Factory Records. The sound track is, as expected, fantastic. The film is also funny in parts.

Creation Stories is a really fine film. Hopefully it’s more than just my biases toward the music of Creation Records but it really does all come together well.

Knives Out

Knives Out (2019) written and direct by Rian Johnson is a murder investigation where the writer patriarch of a family is found dead. The film has an excellent cast with Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis amongst others.

The film has twists and turns and works very well. It’s hard to say much about the film without giving things away. Rian Johnson also wrote and directed Brick and Looper which were also very good.

The Scout Mindset

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t (2021) by Julia Galef will help you dib-dib-dib and dob-dob-dob your way to greater insight by using the ways of Baden Powell while avoiding dodgy scout masters. Well, no, not at all. Actually, the book is about how we should basically be more Bayesian. That is, we should be checking our picture of reality regularly rather than just seeking out things that confirm our world view. Galef hosts The Rationally Speaking podcast for the New York Skeptics association.

The Scout Mindset is a very well written popular nonfiction. It’s really easy to read and makes a good solid point in the right amount of pages. Galef describes the soldier mindset where we identify with our views strongly and anything that contradicts them is seen as an attack on ourselves. Instead we should have a Scout mindset where we ‘update’ our views when we find new facts and try and regularly change our minds. We should also think about how sure we are of the facts that we think we know. There is even a nice quiz in the book to try and calibrate various statements of fact with how strongly we think they are true.

The Scout Mindset is well worth a read to think about your own cognition and biases. Hopefully it will help us all avoid coming to a strong judgement on some new fact or news story. Reading this book made me reflect on my reaction to the announcement of The European Super League this week.

Progress

Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016) by Johan Norberg is an excellent, short summary of recent history that looks at how much better life has become for many more people as the world’s population has grown, lives longer and is richer since the Industrial Revolution. It summarises similar facts to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, Factfulness by Hans Rosling and Your World, Better by Charles Kenny. The book makes a good summary of the work started by the economist Julian Simon in cataloguing how the world has changed in recent history.

Norberg uses a lot of statistics like those from the excellent Our World in Data site hosted by Oxford University. The book is broken up into 10 Chapters. These look at Food, Sanitation, Life Expectancy, Poverty, Violence, The environment, Literacy, Freedom, Equality and the next Generation.

The section on food looks at how for most of human history there were regular famines. Incredible statistics are shown about how in 1950 50% of the world regularly suffered from undernourishment while today it’s shrunk to 10%. There are many descriptions of famines of the past in Europe and around the world.

The chapter on Sanitation describes how clean water was a rarity for most of humanity for almost all of history and how children would frequently die from waterborne diseases. All this leads to the massive increase in life expectancy that has happened across the world in the last 150 years or so which is described in the next chapter.

The decline of poverty, from almost all of humanity to around 10% in 2015 is amazing. Norberg looks in detail at the Industrial revolution and how between 1820 and 1850 real earnings in England rose by almost 100% and points out that previously a doubling of real incomes had taken 2000 years.

The chapter on violence shows how violence has declined despite the horrific global wars of the Twentieth Century. In the chapter on The Environment the change from Industrial towns having terrible pollution, such as London’s ‘Pea Soup’ fogs that would kill thousands of people to having air as clean as in the Middle Ages today. Or how in Pittsburgh the lights had to be kept on during the day until about 1970 because the pollution was so bad. Norberg points out that people who are not starving and are better off, say on about $5000 per year will pay to reduce airborne pollution.

The chapter on Literacy then looks at how we have gone from societies where almost everyone is illiterate to societies where almost everyone can read and write. The chapter on Freedom looks at how democracy has spread around the world, particularly since the end of colonialism and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Norberg then looks at how Equality for women has gone from being nowhere 200 years ago to today with women having many, many more rights and being free of ‘legal’ rape from their husbands. The vast improvement in gay rights is also described. As is the change in approval for inter racial marriage from a small minority to a vast majority in democracies.

Finally Norberg describes how it is very likely, if merely that trends continue that the world will be even better off in the future. He talks about visiting people in Vietnam and how their lives have improved in the past decades. He also points out that when asked about global trends people do worse than random because they think the world is getting worse. He points out that news describes calamities but ignores the fact that every day people have been getting a bit richer across the planet.

The data that Norberg puts forward is vehemently opposed by some people on the Left. There are plenty of left wing economists like Noah Smith or Paul Krugman who are quite happy with his fact based approach but some people seem to see it as an affront.

Progress is an excellent short book that clearly and succinctly describes the state of the humanity. It’s definitely worth a read.

Kids

Kids (1995) directed by Larry Clark and written by Harmony Korine is a confronting, interesting film.

The plot is basically about teenagers, drugs and sex in New York. To go into much more is to give away too much. The leading male characters are not at all sympathetic and the film has a kick to it. But it works. It is somewhat reminiscent of Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, but Kids has a stronger plot and the kids are not rich.

Kids is not a fun film but it is engrossing.

Free Speech and Why It Matters

Free Speech and Why It Matters (2021) by Andrew Doyle is quite a good defence of free speech in the woke era. Andrew Doyle has a doctorate in poetry from Oxford and these days is better known as the fictional Twitter celebrity Titania McGrath. He describes himself as left-wing.

The book looks at how views held by left wing writers such as JK Rowling and Noam Chomsky have decried modern ‘cancel culture’ where Rowling and people she support have been dropped by publishers merely for supporting Rowling and where Marxist Feminists such as Germaine Greer are not allowed by various universities to speak due to their views on transgender issues.

It’s a curious change. Doyle notes that today young people support limiting free speech on comedians of all people. Doyle gets some remarkable quotes about the murder of the murder of employees Charlie Hebdo from Justin Trudeau amongst others, suggesting that making jokes about religion should be limited.

Doyle writes very well about how UK police have been called in to police speech on twitter that expresses views that others deem hurtful. He points out the impressive absurdity of this. Doyle also looks at the sad decline of the ACLU in the US.

The book provides a good defence of free speech and carefully chronicles many of the current absurdities that have happened as people have been censored and silenced. It’s well worth a read.

Your World, Better

Your World, Better: Global Progress And What You Can Do About It (2021) by Charles Kenny is a very good look at how the world has changed and how it has generally improved that is aimed at older kids.

In the book Kenny compares how the world is now to how the world was for kids parents and for their grandparents. It works very well. There are chapters on Health, Money and Wealth, Home, School, Work, Violence and War, the reduction in Discrimination, Democracy, Happiness and The Environment. Kenny uses statistics sparsely but well. The book makes the point that in general things are really getting substantially better.

The chapter on Health is very good, pointing out just how much healthier we are today compared to previous generations. The Chapter on Discrimination makes very good points about how many fewer countries actively discriminate based on race or sexual preferences.

Recently I was sitting around with my neighbours and there was a discussion about whether there would be a political and social collapse or a major war or an environmental collapse first. While some of these things may happen it’s vital to remember that things have become dramatically better over the past few hundred years and indeed in the lifetimes of the people sitting around the table. It’s also important to remember that at most times people also think doom is around the corner while things continue to get better. It’s very important to point out how things have become better to young adults so they get a real picture of what has been gained in the past.

Your World, Better, does an excellent job of showing kids and adults how the world has dramatically improved and does so in impressively few pages. It’s very much worth reading.

Another Round

Another Round (2020) directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Mads Mikkelsen is a very engaging comedy drama based around the idea of Norwegian philosopher  Finn Skårderud, that having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 is generally a good idea.

Mikkelsen and his mates are middle aged school teachers who decide to test the theory. Drama and comedy ensue.

It really does work and this is a highly enjoyable film.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) by Douglas Adams is the last of Hitchhiker’s book that were published close together from 1979 to 1984 and it’s where the series starts to get tired.

Arthur finds himself back on a planet that appears to be earth. This time he even gets to find some happiness instead of being cast from pillar to post.

The book retains a view of an absurd universe where crazy things happen. The wit is still there. But it’s tired and it seems as if Adams doesn’t really know what to do next with Arthur and company. Adams sets up stories and gags beautifully but isn’t always sure of where to take them. In So Long and Thanks for All the Fish some of the setup starts to be tired. A destroyed Earth is brought back into the plot. Bringing dead characters or planets is a good sign that writers have run out of ideas.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is definitely fun for people who have enjoyed the previous Hitchhiker’s books but it is where the series starts to decline.

A World Without Email

A World Without Email (2021) by Cal Newport is another book from Newport about doing the most valuable work we can at work. Newport is an MIT graduate and associate professor at Georgetown in Computer Science.

In the book Newport describes how many knowledge workers now exist in a storm of meetings and email and are constantly being interrupted by email in particular. He calls this the ‘hyperactive hive mind’ and says that when in this state people don’t have time to really focus on what is important and are instead constantly distracted. It’s a very good point. Senior people I know have inboxes that are exploding with email and it becomes a fearsome task to stay on top of this.

Newport makes the point that in the twentieth century the factory was revolutionised, not by making every worker do lots of different things at once but instead by standardisation and make manufacturing the repeated execution of one task by an employee. He makes the point that knowledge workers instead have had little work done on organising their work so that they are more productive. Instead, knowledge workers are given lots of freedom but are then bombarded with emails distracting them all the time.

Newport looks at how Kanban, Scrum, Agile and XP are good responses to this that break things down into small tasks that can be done with concentration and that do not require a constant stream of email coming in. Indeed Newport says that the tasks can have their communication needs done by putting comments in them and by regular short stand up meetings are held.

A World Without Email makes a lot of good points and is well worth a read for anyone interested in increasing productivity at work.