Lately I’ve been enjoying reading a few newsletters and mailing lists that I’ve subscribed to and thought I ought to do something similar. In these “Roundups” I’ll be rounding up some of the things I’ve been learning, watching, or thinking about lately.
A silver lining for me in the Quarantimes has been having more time to dive into assorted rabbit holes. Sometimes it’s reminded me of being back in high school, staying up into the wee hours of the night learning about some new subject online. An eagerness to jump into something completely new and attempt to learn the ropes is important and easy to let dwindle. The freedom enabled by this attitude is almost intrinsically valuable, but it’s also important to avoid the trap of grasping too tightly onto whatever you imagine you are best at the expense of exploring new territory.
James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games explores the quest towards open-ended play and inquiry. One thing that’s emphasized in that book is that there are always a wide variety of finite games that may be played within the one infinite game, the characteristics of which he attempts to distinguish throughout the book. Identifying too much with any given finite game can cause you to lose touch with the bigger picture. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t take any given finite game seriously, only that the infinite game should never be sacrificed for a particular finite game. To do so is perverse, as contorting oneself to the role necessary for victory in a finite game will leave you lost when the game is over and you’re faced with the fact that you’ve forgotten you’re always playing the one and only endless game.
It’s true that the analogy is not perfect, since no subject remains distinct upon closer inspection. But exploring new areas of inquiry can help remind one that there is a bigger game afoot than whichever particular activity you tend to focus on. An interest in philosophy seems to be particularly dangerous in this regard, because a focus on developing general, universal theories can fool you into thinking that any particular case is subsumed by whatever general theory seems correct, blinding you to the intricacies and charms of a more specialized case.
A beautiful example of broad, genuine curiosity is that exhibited by Duncan Trussell in his podcast and the character voiced by him in Midnight Gospel on Netflix. Each episode of the Netflix show is based on episodes of his podcast, but the added art and narratives turn them into something truly unique. The final episode of the first, so far only, season is television of the highest quality. As a whole, the show served to inspire me to place more value on spontaneity and to maintain a childlike curiosity in the world and people around me: a true gift.
This energized curiosity led me to the fascinating and fringe topic of UFOs. For those interested in a sober look at the topic, I highly recommend Leslie Kean’s book. In it, she focuses on testimony from high ranking military and government officials, steering clear of more controversial UFOlogists and witnesses. Kean emphasizes an agnostic approach to the subject in terms of what may explain the observations, eschewing accepting the oft-jumped-to conclusion that extraterrestrials are visiting our planet. Her, and my, conclusion is that there is in fact something going on in certain cases that cannot be explained conventionally, but that the vast majority of cases may be dismissed. The Belgian UFO wave, the Tehran encounter, the Phoenix lights, the USS Nimitz and USS Theodore Roosevelt encounters are some good examples of sightings that are difficult to explain conventionally. It should be noted that in many of those cases conventional explanations have been put forward but, considering all the facts, are more laughable than acknowledging that we don’t have an explanation. Being scientifically minded does not mean imagining that all phenomena can be explained with theories we already have in hand, something many UFO skeptics seem to forget. My only criticism of Kean’s book regards its length. The testimonies from various contributors are great, but it’s difficult to keep a book about a subject we fundamentally don’t understand interesting for too long.
It seems plausible that studying UFOs could lead to a scientific breakthrough if nothing else, considering the fact that in most legitimate cases they have been observed to exhibit behavior that can’t be explained by current theories. But until that day comes around, quantum theory is perhaps the best game in town. If you have a little bit of math background or are willing to pick it up, Leonard Susskind’s lecture series is a great place to start, as it’s meant to give a theoretical minimum for studying quantum mechanics. If you’re more interested in interpretations and philosophical repercussions of quantum mechanics, Sean Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden does a great job of introducing quantum theory and the Many Worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics to the lay reader. Chapter 11 of David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity also illustrates MWI beautifully.
Should Schrödinger have been allowed to patent his famous equation? The answer to this and similar questions in the field of intellectual property (IP) are controversial. Stephan Kinsella in his freely available book Against Intellectual Property argues that IP rights violate material property rights and therefore cannot be justifiably enforced. Butler Schaffer argues for the same conclusion in A Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property (also free for download) based on the argument that intellectual property cannot be enforced without a coercive state. Although I align with Kinsella and Butler here, it should be acknowledged that more work is needed from a consequentialist perspective to discern whether or not abolishing IP would be overall beneficial. My hunch is that it would be, but I’m not familiar with empirical studies on the topic.
Assorted YouTube gems:
The Viking Mind lectures by Neil Price are a fascinating look into the world of the Vikings, covering in turn their cosmology, funeral practices and attitudes toward death and metaphysics of the soul.
Now is perhaps a better time than ever to catch up on one’s understanding of viruses, and Vincent Racaniello’s virology lectures is an excellent place to start. I’ve only watched the first two, but his top-down theoretical approach is a great way to move from general understanding of the properties of viruses to the particulars.
For those interested in laissez-faire economics, Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose features an excellent review of cases of government failure in market intervention as well as Friedman’s playful and articulate response to critics in the debates at the end of each episode.
The YouTube channel Twin Perfect has released an excellent explainer video for Twin Peaks, one of my favorite TV series. There is certainly plenty of room for interpretation in any David Lynch piece, but Twin Perfect makes a compelling claim that he’s “solved” the show.
Some cinematic gems:
It took me surprisingly long to get to this Studio Ghibli film and I was not disappointed. The soundtrack is an instant favorite and its world is, as expected from that studio, gorgeous and delightful. Ghibli’s honesty and care in handling its heroes and villains is far superior to that of most American counterparts and this film exemplifies this. Ashitaka represents this spirit by attempting throughout to reconcile the opposing perspectives and motivations of the other characters. This reconciliation is itself depicted honestly, eschewing an easy resolution.
Tampopo is styled as a “Ramen Western” and like its cousins from Italy illustrates dichotomies of good vs. bad, proficient vs. incompetent, all with good humor. But Tampopo is also a culinary love story the likes of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, displaying a sincere appreciation for food and it’s place in a culture. Viewers may be left with a greater appreciation for the craft of cooking and the reward of striving for excellence in order to create something that can bring people together in delight.
Incredibly lighthearted and funny, Good Morning captures the innocent earnestness of childhood and contrasts it with the melodramatic seriousness of many adults. I’ve always loved and been fascinated by movies that can breath magic into the everyday without resorting to extraordinary plot points or devices. Good Morning achieves just that with beautiful cinematography and writing, topped of by excellent and adorable acting from the child actors.
Unlike the aforementioned two masterpieces from Japan, Audition is not for the faint of heart. One of the most terrifying and queasiness-inducing films I’ve seen captures the fear that an innocuous-seeming breach of decency can lead one into a hell of repercussions. For all its bloodiness, Audition is beautifully made and features some of the best dream-reality blurring captured on film.
Stalker is a masterclass in suspense and mystery without resort to cheap gimmicks or jump scares. The eponymous Stalker is a guide who leads interested seekers, in this case an author and a scientist, into a mysterious and dangerous area called ‘The Zone.” Their goal is to reach a location that will one’s deepest desire will be granted, but only if they pass various tests. The film explores existential questions around faith, suffering, and what it means to get what you truly desire. It is based in part on the excellent novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
Almost as interesting as the film itself is the story of its production. Some of the highlights:
It was shot three complete times. The first time the new Kodak film was exposed improperly and all of the footage was tinted green. The second time the director, Tarkovski, was unhappy with the cinematographer’s work and fired him after longstanding disagreement. Tarkovsky was apparently able to get more time and funds to film these three times by telling the Soviet government that it was a two-part film.
It is believed that the director, his wife, and many of the cast and crew died as a result of filming downstream from a paper processing plant which released toxicants into the water.
Come and See
Considered by many the best film of all time (#3 on Letterboxd), Come and See is undoubtedly the most harrowing war film I have seen. Based in part on the experiences of its writers and director on the Eastern Front of World War II, the film depicts atrocities commited by the Germans and the rapid deterioration of the psyche of a young resistance fighter faced with the chaos and senselessness of the war. The cinematography, sound design, acting, and environment all serve to immerse the viewer into a veritable hell, an experience that left me reeling for the rest of the night.
Last but not least!
If you enjoy fun, otherworldly art check out my girlfriend’s recently opened Etsy page! Her efforts and the pieces themselves have served to inspire me greatly.