Challenge: spot the single thematic thread running through these two videos.
By the way, that ant fungus is 100% creepy, man…
Challenge: spot the single thematic thread running through these two videos.
By the way, that ant fungus is 100% creepy, man…
Another good read I went through in audiobook format. The nature of the book made me feel as if was actually following a series of superb university lectures on our species as a whole instead of reading a book on the topic, which, incidentally and as the title states, is precisely the ambitiously broad, sweeping topic of Sapiens.
Mr. Harari’s choronicle of humanity is marked by the pivotal moments in human history, what we understand today to be its big turning points: the cognitive revolution, when our ancestors seemingly started to communicate about ideas and common myths and create art; the agricultural revolution, which brought private property in the picture, kickstarted civilization (life in the city) and effectively”caged in” our forefathers (more on that later on); the scientific revolution, which shifted our belief system to the result-oriented materialism of the scientific method, and the industrial revolution which has recently resulted in the fundamental shifts we are going through right now, the kind of changes that have made it possible for me to write this review and you to read it.
Fairly standard issue up to this point, right? What you’ll really find in Sapiens, though, is no ordinary retelling of our myths of history; the fact that one of the book’s central themes is that the agricultural revolution was actually “history’s biggest fraud” should give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here.
I’ll shamelessly quote The Guardian’s review of the book — where, by the way, I first found out about Sapiens through Mr. Harari’s article/promo for this book –also tellingly– titled Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history” (isn’t it?)
It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” There was, Harari says, “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which our species “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. It was a bad bargain: “the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. More often than not it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: “modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history”.
There are plenty of interesting ideas to write about off of Sapiens. You may read the rest of The Guardian’s review for the gist, because I feel there’s just too many of them to mention here. But there are three in particular that I found exceptionally intriguing:
1) What seemingly sets humans apart from our faunal brethren and sistren is our ability to create fictions and myths–anything from religion to ideology to stories–and group around them, team up around them, live for them, die for them.
2) Imperialism is a nasty word with virtually zero positive connotations today. However, If you look at human culture around the world, from language to cooking to music to politics to art, empires and imperial activity have been responsible for most of what we recognize as the common and not so common heritage we treasure so. How come I’m writing in English right now and you get to understand my thoughts expressed on this screen? Alexander the Great spread what’s deemed today as enlightened Greek culture in what was then the known barbarian world–by conquering, butchering and intermingling loads of different peoples, of course. Same for the Romans, British etc.
3) It follows from the above that if there is a single one-way trend in human history is that we’re moving one step at a time from separate communities to larger, more complex organisations to a single, planetary consciousness, and it’s not just the invention of global telecommunications that’s led us here.
Consider, for example, as Mr. Harari invites us to, that in most cases what we recognise as individual, uniquely national dishes and cuisines is what’s left of global empires of the past: Italy had no tomatoes, no pomodori, before the 16th century; chili isn’t at all native to India, and so on.
Sapiens is full of such insights that in my opinion more than deliver what is promised on the cover: a brief history of humankind. I can safely put it next to Christopher Lloyd’s What On Earth Happened or Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and add it to my core list of mind-expanding, impossibly broad works of non-fiction, and I wish I could mention everything I agree on with Mr. Harari in this review and his input I think is very significant.
The reason I’m giving Sapiens just four stars is that I find the book did not place too much emphasis on the way humanity is being detrimental to the health of its environment and planetary ecological balance (ancient sapiens killing off megafauna everywhere on the world nonwithstanding) and how this fact can and will mess everything up for us. Harari seems to envision as rather more possible a future where people as a species will become obsolete by emerging artificial intelligence or enhanced homo sapiens 2.0 godlike biotech creations that would be even more alien and incomprehensible to us than what we, the sapiens of today, would look like to people of the ancient world.
If any of this comes to pass, the greatest revolution yet is still ahead of us. But honestly, what’s most probably heading our way is somewhere between the technological dysutopia (no sp) imagined by the author and the ecocidal nightmare we’ve been moving into for a while. What’s interesting is that we’re going into this with an unprecedented feeling of unity: a global consciousness, as can be shown by the mere existence of Sapiens as a book, is reaching species. rather than national, racial or whatever, levels. Provided we stay alive for the show, it will all be incredibly exciting, not just impossibly depressing.
Wait a second: we’re already living it, aren’t we?
Phew! Finally done with this 500-page+ undertaking of a textbook. Reviewing textbooks is kind of weird, but I have to say that staying with this book and reading it bit by bit over almost a period of two years has made me seriously consider studying (cultural) anthropology more formally. I mean I already have a BA in Cultural Technology, why not add some cultural anthropology in there?
Seriously, after reading this book, my official position is that anthropology is for the humanities what physics is to the hard sciences—psychology would be mathematics and sociology would be chemistry. Just like studying physics, studying anthropology (especially combined with cultural studies) you can’t help but look at reality and your circumstances from a more detached standpoint, more objectively as it were. You get to see that your life is the result of the mixture of an endless array of possible sets of circumstances. It teaches humility, it teaches tolerance, curiosity, it awakens a deeper awareness of what being a human person in a world of human and non-human persons is all about.
I still think it’s about laughing, cooking and listening to/ playing music, but that’s just me.
My favourite chapters were on sex and marriage, art,
patterns of subsistence food, language, cultural change and the anthropology of futurology. Any overlap with any of my more general interests, including what I believe to be the fundamentals of human culture as exposed above, is purely coincidental, I swear.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Got this from Audible. Actually, no: I got it for free as a kind of gift for being a subscriber but got tired of Audible and its DRM bullshit so I downloaded and listened to a pirated version of this and subsequently unsubscribed from Audible. Ahem.
In this surprisingly old book (it was written in 2002) journalist and plant aficionado Michael Pollan takes the well-worn trope of humans using the evolution of plants for their own benefit (i.e. agriculture) and turns its on its head: what if plants have actually used the evolution of humans for their own benefit?
Just to clarify, and Mr. Pollan was well-aware of this too, anthropomorphising evolution or nature and endowing it with such properties as intelligence and design (or intelligent design) is a figure of speech: as far as we know evolution is as purposeful as the flowing of the rivers and the burning of the stars. I’ll leave that one to you.
So, Michael Pollan’s idea was to take four species of plants–the tulip, cannabis, the apple and the potato– and examine how not just we humans have used them for our own needs, but also how the plants themselves, in an evolutionary tango with our own species, played on our desires and took advantage of us, too. The book has four chapters, one for each human desire responsible for the propagation of each of the four species of plant: sweetness for apples, beauty for tulips, intoxication for cannabis and control for potatoes.
“Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance.”
In the first part of the book, I enjoyed Pollan’s comparison between the Dionysian and the Apollonian; chaos and order; female and male; yin and yang; nature and culture; the apple’s story and the tulip’s story, which both hold the sperms of their opposite inside them, in true dualist nature. I found this quote particularly interesting: “Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance”, and it becomes more and more relevant as one goes through the book, seeing in every plant’s story the art manifesting itself through the tug–which at the same time is a balancing act–between human structures imposed on nature and nature’s tendency to defy control. Then there’s structure in nature’s chaos and a part that is natural in human structures and so on.
The chapter on cannabis was a little more daring, given marijuana’s legal status (which is, however slowly, changing around the world) and Mr. Pollan shares his insights on that topic and how human societies brought a species underground, where it’s found new life, too. The Apollonian has won, even though the desire itself is Dionysian. Hm. Are all human desires Dionysian, I wonder?
The last chapter was about GMOs and Monsanto’s control on patented potato seeds, including many many other agricultural plants of course. It’s amazing and telling that this chapter, written 12 years ago, seems to sketch the current situation so eloquently. Even though I come from a family background which is 100% anti-GMO, the arguments posited here about the pros and cons of GMOs as well as the pros and cons of organic agriculture seemed very well balanced and neutral to me, and most of all well-argued; in a few words, as close to an objective view as I could hope for. It’s still pro-organic, but cleverly so: it adds an interesting twist from a philosophical, pragmatical and experiential perspective–e.g. the story of the writer’s own batch of GMO potatoes. I would even suggest reading this chapter alone for a nice eagle’s eye view of what’s wrong with GMOs, what they’re supposedly trying to solve and why they’re most probably not going to solve it, creating other unforeseeable problems along the way.
Pollan managed to blend personal experience with journalistic research quite seamlessly and enjoyably, and I feel as though I came out of this
read listen more complete and with a greater sense of appreciation for agriculture. Cause you can’t have agriculture without culture. I’m not giving it five stars because… oh I can’t come up with a reason, but hey, I don’t have to give you one, it’s my gut score! It might have to do with the reader of the audiobook whose voice and intonation sometimes annoyed me. I’d give it a 4.5 though, easily.
Thanks go to Karina for first telling me about this book two years ago or so.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This one is a toughy. Few other times have I been this undecided on a book before reviewing it.
While reading The Rebel Sell, I was nodding in agreement with many of the arguments Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter posed, such as the proposition that mass consumerism is unavoidable because it is recognition, distinction and status that people find when they consume, and while on the whole if theoretically no-one bought anything all would be well and good, everyone has to keep consuming just because everyone else keeps doing so. It is an instance of the prisoner’s dilemma, a central part of their point, used many times in the book and presented convincingly. It’s an interesting concept applicable to politics, sociology and other topics.
Furthermore, their analysis of taste in art and culture and how it is another form of projecting one’s own social class was also profound, as well as their take on what it means to be cool and how, in their view, that is the very thing that drives consumerism: someone has to be the Joneses, after all, and it is the cool people who become the Joneses, whether they realise/like it or not. There are many other such bits and pieces I found agreeable and fun to read, such as the distinction between dissent and deviance, something with which I can completely relate. If you wouldn’t like a society in which everyone acts a certain way and not just you, it’s probably deviance and not dissent, like the stupid graffiti tags, not paying taxes or avoiding standing in queue. It’s a healthy observation.
But. As convincing as I found the points above, as well as many others which did, at times, make the book a bit chaotic in its argumentation, I couldn’t help but feel the smugness of Mr. Heath and Mr. Potter seep through the pages. They ridicule the counterculture, often repeating themselves and failing to spot the benefits society has gained from it in the 50 years since it first emerged, at least in the form they describe. They cannot find any merit in any kind of fringe social movement. It’s like they’re trying to “get over” their own countercultural past by dissecting it, as if they’re trying to prove how wrong and misled their own mocking peers had been -as my friend who lent me the book accurately commented. It’s like they’re saying “look how grown up and rational we are now! Just try and grow up like we did, you pathetic self-important tree huggers/hipsters/anarchists/punks/Naomi Klein.”
Nevertheless, I realise that the implications of what is presented within the book are vast and indeed might be playing an important political role in the fragmentation of the left and its members trying to “out-radicalise” oneanother. The sad result is that it is a weaker force which is left to oppose the all-consuming capitalist market. When all has to do with individuality and how different everyone can and should be in order to “stick it to The Man”, there can of course be very little emphasis on how people can cooperate and find the similarities and common goals between them. The problem is that the same market which the writers are defending -at least in principle- and its state today, 10 years after the writing of the book, has only made itself horrifyingly stronger against legislative and institutional reform. The writers greatly underestimate the current relationship between corporations and governments and how difficult it is to change from within. The world is practically ruled by corporations and to question that rivals the counterculture in its supposed naiveté.
Comfortably, the above declaration would be enough for the writers to smirk at me and include me in the already-accounted-for group of wannabe radical counterculturals who can’t face reality. The whole point of the book is putting cases such as me, if just a hint less self-conscious, in their rightful place; just another individualistic rebel who lazily rejects all small reforms in favour of a total paradigm shift which will most probably never come, at least not in the form anybody expects. Maybe I am such a naive, sentimental being as to fall right into this argumentative trap, but I feel, like so many others ridiculed in the book, that there just is something wrong at a much deeper level with the world than what can be merely altered through laws and regulations.
Enough. I could go on. As someone whose rough ideology is directly challenged by the book, I feel I have to excuse myself and prove how “they don’t get it” in quite a thorough and wordy manner. I’m not sure I like this reacion of mine but I acknowledge it. Suffice it to say that this shows that the book is at least worth reading. For good or bad, it has intensified my great ideological confusion and has made me think and question myself – a favourite hobby of mine, that last part. I recognise its value and its propositions even if -I suppose I should say ‘thankfully’- at a sentimental level I just can’t agree. I suggest that you read it and see what impact it has on you too.
The album has leaked. Even though I can easily listen to it on Grooveshark, I feel waiting for the proper release date is the least respect I can pay Mr. Wilson for gracing us with yet another collection of awesome music, especially since I won’t be buying the album — another habit and ceremony flushed down the toilet by the internet, the abolition of which will soon render the music industry even more unrecognisable than what people 20 years ago would think the scene looks like today.
Is the fact that I haven’t bought a record in years deplorable, not even the ones prepared with love and affection by my favourite musician? There’s no right answer, not anymore. When I complete my imaginary masterpiece “The Moral Dilemmas of the 21st Century Media Consumer”, I’ll get back to you – probably with still more questions than answers.
I just watched Insurgentes, a film directed by none other than Lasse Hoile on the making of Steven Wilson’s 2009 debut solo album of the same name and the state of the music industry today, or as Steven puts its, what it’s like to be a musician in the 21st century.
Lasse Hoile is known for directing the videos for Porcupine Tree (including others groups), as well as being behind the band’s artwork, photographs etc, at least since In Absentia I believe. Check out his site, good stuff. He — as well as Steven, for that matter — likes David Lynch, this much is evident I suppose and might even be a bit of an understatement.
The film’s website: http://www.insurgentesfilm.com
Apart from the typical Lasse experimentation and playing with some of the album’s artwork material, only this time with video, what interested me more in Insurgentes was Steven’s narration of his past. He visited his old school almost 30 years later, let us in on his musical beginnings and foundations, re-visited some of his very first equipment his father had made for him.
What I found more striking was how Steven began listening to music. In the movie he shares with us that he used to be able to only buy one record every month and that only with his pocket money. Consequently, the decision which album to buy next was a very important one. Back then, Steven says, music was the number one way the younger generation could differentiate itself from the parents. So it was pretty important business indeed.
It all boils down to the comparison between contemporary download culture and what things were like 30 years ago. Back then, a new album was an event. Listeners of the album had all the time to study the cover and the artwork, feel the music and be influenced by it. They would take their time to examine the music and see through all its different levels. Listening to an album properly was a ritual all by itself. Surprisingly, although I don’t have any aural experience of my own to be able to confirm this, it is said that a well mixed vinyl recording playing on serious equipment blows away standard MP3 quality sound any day. Like Steven and another guy in the film put it, kids of today (including my generation and me, obviously) grew up and are growing up with music of shit sound quality which is considered by almost everyone as acceptable at the very least.
It is mentioned in the movie that the internet has helped musicians by making it easier for them to come into direct contact with their fans, thus doing away with the industry as a medium. In return, music has lost its value: we all download complete discographies of bands, only to decide if we like them and if they’re worth keeping after listening to a few of their tracks once or twice at best. This has got to the point that people don’t think music is worth spending money for or paying any kind of deeper and more focused attention to. Today, the music itself seems to be of little importance: it’s down to who knows of the most bands –bonus points if they’re indie–, who has the broadest possible musical taste, who owns the most records or has been to the most concerts. Maximalistic: just like any other cultural aspect of today, including, if not especially, the entire spectrum of popular media.
Mr. Wilson forced me to think, just like he’s done before... How many times have I really sat down to enjoy some music, put some thought into it, focused on it, closed my eyes, opened my ears and put my mind on overdrive? I do have a problem with intense focusing and am easily distractable so that might be a problem there. In any case, I realised that I haven’t done so in a long, long time, if I have ever properly done it at all. There is a general habit of just using music as an ambient sound carpet, having it play in the background while people are doing whatever: washing the dishes, cooking, having sex, idling, studying, walking or travelling (in the film Wilson destroys iPods in a number of fun ways, showing his real feelings for them!)… Some people never turn off their music at all! I tried doing it too: I found myself gradually hearing less and less of the music, a far cry from actually listening to it. At some point, I stopped paying any attention to it all; it was just melodic noise. I experienced a kind of desensitization, not unlike one that follows a long relationship.
Using music as ambience is, of course, perfectly OK. Nothing wrong with it. It’s not like they didn’t do it back in the ’70s. But that is as much listening to as glancing at a movie with the company of especially talkative friends is watching it, or as skimming a book as quickly as you can, skipping sentences, is reading it. We usually just put on the music, later remember nothing of what we heard, whether we liked it or not. We may have a vague idea, alright. But it doesn’t matter, it’s not like we’re going to listen to it again, is it? It sure isn’t! Because we have another 124254560 bands people, friends, acquaintances have suggested we give a “spin”, double that for bands we’ve randomly stumbled upon, bands we’ve (I’ve ^^,) seen on progarchives.com, suggested bands or neighbours’ favourites on last.fm… We’re bound to find something in this sea of art, this ocean of melody. Of course it never ends. What ever does? So we download discographies and try bands out and hop from one group to the next… But never staying with any which one for too long, no, that would be wasting time, wouldn’t it, we just keep on swinging, just like the insatiable little music nymphomaniacs that we proudly think we are. And in the end, all we’re left with is a sterile knowledge of band names and logos, song names, albums, stats, dates, genres…
If you think about it, it’s that way with everything. Travel, games, books, food, experiences, knowledge, people… The maximalist approach: less is less, the more the better. We can’t escape it. It is our culture’s paradigm. It’s what we do now, how we look at things.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at things differently.
At least for a change.
EDIT 28/4/2016: New link for the above video:
A few days ago I was at one of Mr Blacksnake’s (Mavrofidis) lectures. The subject was Multimedia Application Programming II; the practical side is working with Flash and ActionScript 3.0, the theoretical side is an introduction to systems theory. It really is a good idea. It puts learning how to code and script into perspective, not leaving it just as an empty shell of a skill but actually connecting it with an ontological background. Through understanding the basics principles of object-oriented programming, it seems we might be able to learn a few more things about the basic principles of the universe and how we look at ourselves, which neatly reflects itself into programming and scripts which are of course artificial cosmogenesies and ontologies of their own.
Silently I was pondering these things, paying attention to Mr. Blacksnake’s lecture on autopoeisis. And then it came to me.
I often hear people comparing humans –or other biological organisms, such as animals– to machines, factories or other purely logical systems. I can practically hear mum telling me: “Your body is like a factory so it needs the best materials so that it can work well!”, giving me some vitamins in the process. In some ways this isn’t a bad metaphor. Living beings work by using chemical reactions in order to perceivably achieve certain goals, a conjunction of which actually allows the individual to survive. However, such approaches often reduce personality, cultural traits and other signs of behaviour to mere results of genetics, natural selection and instincts. They’re closer to saying “living beings are just computers that run certain programs, and those programs are written on their genes. They’re saved in the individual’s ROM (Read-Only Memory) and as such cannot be modified by environmental factors. Instincts, social behaviour and traits to our knowledge only found in humans, such as creative inclination, aren’t fundamentally different to each other. They’re just steps of different height in humanity’s long and ascending staircase of evolution”.
Agreed, some basic behaviour is written on our genes, the kind no person or living organism can do without; nutrition, rest, breathing, reproduction. But human behaviour and activity lies far beyond just munching, sleeping and having sex. What we as humans use to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom lies comfortably in the domain of culture: language, facial expressions, logic, ethics, art, means of communication, even self-consciousness and self-awareness. All these aspects are taught to us from an early age from our parents and the rest of society. People seem to inherently and genetically possess the mental capabilities for what we would call advanced thought, communication in the form of language, logic and being self-aware. What’s notable though is that we’re born just with the capability, not the ability itself. If we’re never taught how to speak a language, we’ll never learn any language. If we’re never taught in an early age that what we see in the mirror is ourselves and that a clear distinction between our self and the rest of the world does in fact exist, we’ll never develop an ego and/or self-awareness. Everything that makes us what we would call human in the social sense is thus culturally acquired and not passed down through our genes.
There is some evidence that human social behaviour is not hereditary information passed down through the genome. We have learned as much from children that for various reasons lacked parent care and grew up on their own or were raised by animals. These feral children, as they are known, typically walk on all fours or swing from tree to tree, growl and do not show signs of human self-awareness, such as recognising themselves in the mirror. In most cases feral children later introduced to human society have not been able to adapt, ie go through the enculturation process expected complete by all. To me that is no mystery. We presume feral children should be able to adapt to human societies just because they’re human, just because the rest of the “normal” humans are like that, have always been. We expect that just because everyone behaves in a certain way that it’s somehow ingrained, that it’s natural. But let’s think about that for a second; there is an amazing variety in different cultures around the world. If it was ingrained, we’d expect cultures, especially ones in similar climates, would show more similarities. Furthermore, how easy is it for Greeks to, for instance, get accustomed to British culture? Not very. It might take years for the individual to adapt to the subtle changes in everyday life and performances. They might always stand out as strange, unadaptable. How can we thus expect a human nurtured as a dog, wolf or monkey to fare any better?
I’m inviting you to research feral children, look for info and videos.
You might be as shocked as I was.
This is the idea that came to my mind not unlike a frothing cascade while listening to Mr Mavrofidis: humans are indeed comparable to computers. But not in the logical, deterministic sense. A computer consists of hardware and software. The hardware is the the physical part — the CPU, the GPU, RAM etc — and the software is the programs, the ideas, the zeros and ones that come into existence through the hardware. The two depend on one another to carry out what they were designed for. Software would not exist without hardware, it needs hardware to be activated. Hardware, on the other hand, has no reason to exist if no software exists to use it. So was it software or hardware the first of the two to be designed? It reminds me of universal questions involving chickens and eggs… Roots aside, hardware of the last 25 years or so does have a kind of software that runs with no need for software present. It’s the Basic Input/Output System. Some version of BIOS is present in all computer’s motherboard’s Read-Only Memory and it basically tells it what to do when it is turned on, where to look for the real software, when to shutdown if the CPU is overheating etc… See where I’m going with this already?
Hardware, the vessel, the physical counterpart, is the human body. Software we can divide into BIOS and the Operating System. I’m taking into account every feature, program and application executable through the OS and every goal achievable through it as part of the OS. The BIOS is hereditary behaviour, what we could call instincts. Hunger, sexual urges and what we might do to satisfy them, aversion to pain and danger, perhaps some inclination for style of movement or typical gestures (a man I know does some of his father’s gestures without ever having met him), seeking warmth or shade in respective situations, the list goes on. These functions ensure survival of our “hardware”, just like the BIOS does for computers. It also bridges the gap between the physical and the mental, paves the road to the land of behaviour and culture.
Now, the human Operating System isn’t exactly like having Windows, Linux or Mac OSX installed on your PC. Windows was designed to fulfill certain working requirements, such as giving the user the flexibility to switch from one task to the other quickly, efficiently and aesthetically pleasantly. The human Operating System has not been designed by anyone in particular: it’s a conglomeration of different behaviour patterns (culture?) mostly but not exclusively taken up at childhood, chiefly influenced by any given social standards and by each individual’s parents (the parents also in turn chiefly influenced by any given social standards). Culture, of course, is a very complicated matter, and it penetrates our minds so deeply and thoroughly, it subconsciously makes us think that it, the way WE see the world, is the only truth. In fact, each one of us runs a different OS, comprising many different little “modules”: tastes, opinions, ideas, sexual preference, self-esteem, modes of interaction with others, sense of humour, what we think of or what we do when we are alone… Everything we might call personality falls under this category. Yes, who we are belongs squarely in the realm of nurtured behaviour, the kind of stuff we pick up, imitate (with criteria already imitated by our parents, parent figures, maybe something BIOS-like on the way? I don’t know) and then reproduce ourselves, ready for others to pick up and imitate. It reminds me of Richard Dawkin’s “meme”s, so narrowly used in today’s internet cyberculture.
The more I thought about it, the more it all connected, and the more it all frightened me. The mere existence, the mere plausibility of phenomena such as feral children doubts, deconstructs even, the fabric of the foundations of human society, what’s considered right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. It disconnects humanity from humans! It’s easy to say but you can’t really wrap your head around it. A human can just as easily be encultured to become dog, wolf or monkey, as well as a human, in all our different forms through different cultures and, ultimately, Operating Systems. The reverse has been tried and tested with limited success (think about wild cats next to human-raised cats), but no chimp, for example, has fully taken up human behaviour through nurturing. Does that mean human hardware is more “advanced”, has a broader range of selection, is more adaptable? Possibly. But the fact on its own proves nothing. Furthermore, it underlines what we already know but refuse to admit: that the human condition, in all its known forms through different cultures and wildly variable manifestations of unique and reproducing Operating Systems, cannot be pigeonholed into a standard set of values. Why? Simply because what we accept as our society today is one of many, one condition out of infinite, an activation bound by randomness, maintained by constant imitation, brought forward not by necessity nor efficiency.
What was first? Hardware of software? Chicken or egg? Did humans evolve their hardware together with their software, was software evolved because of the advanced hardware, did the hardware expand its capabilities to satisfy the growing demands of the software? Was there any evolution in the first place?
If computers were designed by humans to fulfill certain tasks, their competence of carrying out those tasks would separate the computers with superior hardware –and therefore a wider selection of superior software– from the rest. What purpose, what task might humans have embedded in their “design”, by which their “competence” might be measured? An answer to that wouldn’t come short of the meaning of life… The purpose of it all?
I could go on and on. I already feel this is too long for anyone on the web to have the attention required to read — friends and family included. I hope I have inspired some thought to anyone brave and patient enough to have read this far! I will sign off with an impressive, memorable little something Karina replied to me when I once asked her what came first: human nature or human culture.
Nature is cultural. I mean, think of the distinction between a natural phenomenon and a natural disaster. They’re both different interpretations of the same thing. The difference lies in humanity’s ability to deal with them effectively. The distinction between us humans and “nature” is purely cultural, constructed. We wouldn’t be speaking of nature if a concept of nature did not exist.
However, culture is also natural. The development of the concept of culture in humans has been a natural evolutionary process that has taken thousands of years and has come about because of social interaction in our species, and other unknown factors. We wouldn’t be speaking of culture if our species hadn’t evolved into a being capable of speech.
Cultural Aspects of Today, CATs for short, is my new way to present and discuss what I read, play, watch, listen to and generally enjoy these days. We are now in the era of Postmodernism according to which, very roughly, anything goes. At the same time the word “culture” can be used to describe a very broad selection of productive human activity just as well as the word “art”: cinema, video games, books, paintings, music, local traditions, Pop Art, High Culture… What falls under which category is not as apparent as it once may have been and the older norms, along with this fact, have all merged into Postmodernism, the movement of blending seams… I’m going to use this to present many different aspects of life, art (controversially or not), knowledge, products and ideas as parts of the Cultural Aspects of Today.
I watched Wall-E and Ratatouille 2 weeks apart. I first saw Wall-E, which was already hyped by pretty much everybody on IMDB along with a super user rating and a super review from Athinorama (an impressive 4 stars if I remember correctly). I could not help but be intrigued by the futuristic looks and alleged environmentalistic themes. My impressions?
The postapocalyptic backdrop for the first half of the movie was just spectacular. All the different items that Wall-E (the little robot) collects that represent parts of humanity’s cultural heritage were both emotionally powerful and conceptually brilliant. The feeling of solitude this half of the film gives off is noteworthy. The mega-corporation depicted in the movie which is the evolution of the capitalist tendencies of today is wonderfully and poetically pepresented, both by its name and its significance. BNL, Buy N Large.
The second half is not as good. The very subtle comedy of the first half is compromised and the film reverts to a style more similar to other Pixar films. The whole veil of mystery over the supposed future of humanity is lifted and, despite the unexpected plot twist (two words: steering wheel), the ending is very disappointing, destroying any kind of environmentalist tone the rest of the film had. (SPOILERS! READ FURTHER AT OWN RISK: Very “it’s-ok-guys, pollute-as-much-as-you-want-it’s-going-to-be-ok-even-if-it-takes-us-700-years!” Didn’t like that part… Overall, I think it wasn’t as good as hyped although it was enjoyable and had very sweet moments. Wall-E and EVA are perhaps the best robotic couple in the history of animation!
Ratatouille on the other hand… I had heard it was very good from different people but it managed to surpass my already high expectations. It was very funny and the characters were brilliant. Me and Alexandra especially liked the restaurant critic, Anton Ego (word goes around the internet that this guy was actually homosexual. I find that strange but whatever) I personally also liked Emile, Remy’s brother. I felt Ratatouille was very down to earth and appreciative to love for the simple things in life. Made me want to cook and eat the best meal in the world! The ending was very very satisfying and it left us with a very cheery feeling.
I cannot compare the two films. I don’t have the skills necessary and it would be pointless anyway as they are different films with a different goal and a different touch. What I can say though is that Wall-E promised a lot and underdelivered in a memorable and affectionate way while Ratatouille overdelivered in every possible way. Both films remain however as good examples to why Pixar is the leading mainstream 3D animation studio; they still haven’t made a film that I didn’t enjoy.
PS: Pixar are also well known for their shorts and we all love them. “Presto”, “Your Friend The Rat”, “Lifted” are all great recent examples, I recommend you watch them if you haven’t along with the feature films.
Braid and Castle Crashers were the summer’s greatest hits for the now-favourite Xbox Live Arcade service. Two distinct games with different gameplay styles and approaches that however have three things in common: 1) They are 2D. 2) They developed a cult fanbase even before they were released. High levels of anticipation then. 3) They are pricey games indeed.
I had the luck to be able to buy them both close to a month ago. First, Braid. Braid was a novel idea based on the platformer teaching of ye olde. That is, it was like playing a Mario game with some new mechanics. These mechanics took the “platformer” out of its name and turned it into something that’s closer to “puzzle”. Tim, the hero, must collect jigsaw pieces through various levels controlling time and various items and behaviours that manipulate time on their own as well in order to save the “princess”. The result is some very difficult puzzles but a genuine sense of accomplishment. What made the game stand out even more was the very open-to-debate story. What the “princess” is in the end is a very good question, but I won’t spoil it for you! I can’t not mention the jaw-dropping ending, one of the most fitting endings Jonathan Blow could think of! Oh yes, Jonathan Blow is the designer of this game. People call Braid “indie”, cause apart from the game’s art, Blow made the rest of the game all on his own. What is less well known is that it cost him approximately $180,000, production values quite higher than what people would call “indie”. Still, Braid has its own distinct feel and it was well worth the 1200MS Points if only to get to experience such a, how should I put it, classy and rounded game experience.
Castle Crashers is a lot different. Developed by The Behemoth (by Newgrounds.com creator Tom Fulp and flash artist Dan Paladin) and a lot more of course hit the gaming scene as a tribute to old 16-bit beat-em-ups set in fantasty settings, complete with knights, dragons, princesses, magic etc. I hear it’s very similar to Golden Axe but I haven’t personally played the game. Castle Crashers has excellent 2-D graphics (which just like the developer’s previous game, Alien Hominid, want to give off the Flash game feeling), cheery and sometimes hilarious humour and some addictive hack & slash gameplay, especially multiplayer. I’ve lost count of just how many people have come to my place, played a bit of Castle Crashers and then played the night away (with me or without me…) Not a huge game by any standards but I can see how me and 3 more friends will sometime come back to live the complete 4-player experience.
Just a few days ago me and Alex had the chance to at last play Go together. It was just as good a game as I remembered it, having only played it once before. Thank you again Cies for introducing me to a game that takes one go (pun intended) to learn and two lifetimes to master.
Go is apparently the oldest known board game, much older than chess or even backgammon. Its roots are oriental and more specifically Chinese. From there it has spread over the centuries to Japan and other asian countries where it’s now possibly the most widespread game, played in tournaments, special clubs and between friends. Oddly, it’s not that well known in Europe, especially not in Greece. I’ve only seen it twice and under totally random circumstances. Since Chess is king over here I doubt we’ll be seeing people play it more but you never know, chinese expansion could also mean cultural expansion? Hmm…
The board is empty once players start off. The players take turns placing one stone on the intersections of the board, forming groups. If the other player surrounds the entire group with her own stones then the surrounded stones are captured and removed from the game. And… that’s basically it. Every other rule derives from this simple principle. The winner is the player who controls the largest part of the board with her stones at the end of the game, point which is declared by both players passing consecutively.
These simple rules define a game of strategy, deception, intrigue, loss, amazement, fulfilment and active rivalry between the players. Never before have I seen a game so noble: one rule suggests that players say “atari” when a move of theirs will capture enemy stones in the next move so that they can react accordingly. Thus the point automatically becomes cornering the opponent and making her not be able to do anything to save herself as opposed to taking advantage of a miscalculation or a careless move which is a norm in chess. Indeed, never before have I seen a game so fair: two players of extremely different skill can fruitfully play together by having a handicap for the stronger player: the weaker one starts off with as many stones already on the board as the difference of skill indicates.
Alexandra has beat me every time we’ve played together save 2. I will strive to get better and one day, as the mighty yet harmonious Go spirit commands, I just might achieve the perfect balance of spirit and wit, become one with the universe… *floats*
I first got to know of Dan Brown through his most famous work, that is none other than “The Da Vinci Code”. It’s his latest work out of a total of 4 books he has written within the past 12 or so years. I read Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Digital Fortress all roughly 2 years ago and Deception Point just now and I’m genuinely impressed by his consistency in showing the world how skillful he is in grabbing his readers by the balls. However, The Da Vinci Code is surely Brown’s most overestimated work, another proof of why the best-seller isn’t always the best-in-general (the rest of his books it turn became best-sellers after the success of The Da Vinci Code). Angels and Demons, which was very similar in its religious and “secret cults” themes to the former, I enjoyed much more. “Deception Point” has a plotline that has more to do with politics, scandals, secret government agencies, NASA, a huge conpiracy… A lot more like Digital Fortress.
This book didn’t just have twists. Its twists were the evolution of the twists of the original twists that I thought were good twists. Yes, it was twisty. The characters felt alive if a bit contived (like the nerd astrophysicist or the always sexy front couple), the action never stopped, the good guys turned bad and then good again within a matter of pages (before they turn out bad at the end of the b… oh, another twist. They’re good), the little pieces of actual real-world scientific aspects, like the fossils and meteorite and the futuristic gadgets (always part of Brown’s stories) also gave it a nice tw… edge. Yes, I liked this book. Seemingly complex but ultimately quite easy to grasp and FUN! You just can’t help but smile when the bad guys fire bullets made of ice. Recommended.
PS: I regret to say I’ve read all of the books mentioned above in greek. They may be even better in english.