Tuesday 28 May 2019

A History of Western Philosophy


Goodness, that was a long one. Jonathan Keeble deserves a medal. Thirty-eight hours of narration, excellently done. 

So much to unpack here, I doubt I can do it justice. It is a history of western philosophy - surprise! - from the ancient Greeks up until 1945, when the book was published. Each chapter is dedicated to a different philosopher, explaining their outlook, influences and main philosophical points. 

The Greek philosophers make up a substantial portion of the book, then the medieval philosophers, with Machiavelli, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Bergson and William James occupying shorter chapters towards the end. 

It was good in that, although I was familiar with most of the names, it condensed each down into manageable highlights which fitted together as a progressive whole. Though, despite Russell's clear respect for women, scant attention was paid to any of history's female philosophers, with the exception of Hypatia, which mostly focused on her gruesome death, and a bit about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's Monster and what that said about Romanticism. As with all writers of that time, he stuck to Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which, if I recall correctly, advocates he as a gender-neutral pronoun to be used whenever the subject's gender is unknown or unimportant. In contrast, Harari's Sapiens often used the female pronoun she when giving examples and, as a result, I felt more engaged with it. I felt like it included me in its historical narrative rather than assuming that all things of importance belonged to men. A minor style issue, but one that I notice nowadays in a way I probably didn't when younger, and serves to illustrate how culture and societal norms are changing. 

Although the book references Hitler as a contemporary threat a few times, the tone of the book is fairly ageless. Russell presents his own thoughts on individual philosophers sparingly and with good rationale, so it's unlikely to feel outdated any time soon. In fact, I'd love to know what he would have thought, and how he would have updated the book, in the internet era. He'd be on my guest list at a fantasy dinner.

I started this book with a sense of adventure and curiosity about philosophy. I did try to read Sophie's World when I was about thirteen, but didn't get into it. I was ready for A History of Western Philosophy this time, but found myself harbouring a significant sense of disappointment by the end. Not at the book, which was really well written, but at how very much religious thinking retarded intelligence over all those centuries. From that first spark of Socrates, through the slow-dying flames to the dark ages, it all seemed to boil down to:
Intellectually, the effect of mistaken moral considerations upon philosophy has been to impede progress to an extraordinary extent. I do not myself believe that philosophy can either prove or disprove the truth of religious dogmas, but ever since Plato most philosophers have considered it part of their business to produce “proofs” of immortality and the existence of God... In order to make their proofs seem valid, they have had to falsify logic, to make mathematics mystical, and to pretend that deep-seated prejudices were heaven-sent intuitions. 
The sheer enormity of the circles these 'great thinkers' went round in was upsetting when we think what that time could have been used to consider instead. To me, philosophy is about the meaning of existence, whether reality is real, what - if any - the purpose might be. Yet most of it seemed to be about holding up the norms of the Church and gaining political influence. Few of these thinkers appeared to be truly objective in their enquiries. Those who thought themselves to be, as we all do to some extent, can be forgiven, but many of them appeared to be truly aware of their bias and embrace it at the expense of the spirit of philosophy.

Another passage explained the problems of philosophical bias brought about by religious and political motivation:
Philosophy, throughout its history, has consisted of two parts inharmoniously blended. On the one hand a theory as to the nature of the world, on the other an ethical or political doctrine as to the best way of living. The failure to separate these two with sufficient clarity has been a source of much confused thinking. Philosophers, from Plato to William James, have allowed their opinions as to the constitution of the universe to be influenced by the desire for edification: knowing, as they supposed, what beliefs would make men virtuous, they have invented arguments, often very sophistical, to prove that these beliefs are true. For my part I reprobate this kind of bias, both on moral and on intellectual grounds. Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competency for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery. And when he assumes, in advance of enquiry, that certain beliefs, whether true or false, are such as to promote good behaviour, he is so limiting the scope of philosophical speculation as to make philosophy trivial; the true philosopher is prepared to examine all preconceptions. When any limits are placed, consciously or unconsciously, upon the pursuit of truth, philosophy becomes paralysed by fear, and the ground is prepared for a government censorship punishing those who utter “dangerous thoughts.” In fact, the philosopher has already placed such a censorship over his own investigations.

Of the lot, I think I most enjoyed Socrates, for who couldn't admire a person who set down their experience of dying for others to learn from, Machiavelli, who, despite certain political influences and whatever you might think of his reputation, remained coldly pragmatic about the human condition, and Bergson, who I hadn't heard of before, but came across as being to philosophy what Dali was to art. 

I took so many notes throughout this book, it would take half-a-dozen posts to get through them all, but suffice to say, it was a veritable tapas of philosophy. Some chapters I thoroughly enjoyed, others I picked at, but it introduced me to a host of flavors I can go off and explore further if I wish to. It really is an extremely impressive achievement and worth a look if philosophy interests you.

Sunday 19 May 2019

Buckle Up

Well, here we go. Super excited for the Game of Thrones finale. Had a little tinkle on the piano to build the atmosphere. Probably going to watch it with my neighbour, Didier, as we're both hooked.

I've been laughing loudly at the #GoT hashtag on Twitter but I've been so restrained and not retweeted anything in case it spoils it for others. But, down below, are a couple of my favourites. Don't scroll if you're still getting there.







That last one feels like a long time ago now!

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Hard Copy Decisions

Much closer to the release of Children of Lir. Big debate about the cover colour, so ordered a copy of both the blue and the green. It didn't make things easier. Still a really tough decision. The blue looks good in photos, but the green just has the edge in print I feel. So, going for green for print and possibly blue for the ebook.

Just going through the hard proof now. It's absolutely astonishing how different the reading experience can be in print compared to word or Kindle. Looking at it in different formats helps you catch the extra issues.

Almost there. Looking forward to releasing it into the wild. This one's been a long time in the making.  

Sunday 12 May 2019

Consider Phlebas

Finished this today.

I really enjoyed The Wasp Factory. When I read it, I assumed it would be sci-fi as I knew that's what Iain Banks was best known for, so I was surprised it was horror. Thought it was excellent, so decided I'd also check out his sci-fi and picked up Consider Phlebas

I have to say, this one wasn't really my thing. It falls into the category of space opera, which isn't a genre I'm that into. I like Star Trek a lot, but that's about my limit. So, this is just to say, it wasn't for me, but that's not to say it isn't for someone else. When I mentioned I was reading it, friends told me they really enjoyed it.

The first book in Iain M. Banks's seminal science fiction series, The Culture. Consider Phlebas introduces readers to the utopian conglomeration of human and alien races that explores the nature of war, morality, and the limitless bounds of mankind's imagination.

The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.

Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.

There was definitely some very good imagery, such as phaser blasts bouncing off a crystal temple, the guy who jumped the barrier without an anti-gravity unit, and the cannibal, Fwi-Song, is also very memorable, plus some nice lines:

Still, the underlying point held. Experience, as well as common sense, indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place.

I had to smile at one point when Banks seemed to let slip something of himself. The father in The Wasp Factory is obsessed with measurements and exact conversions. There's a point in this novel where a computer starts calculating how many two-millimetre characters could fit onto a piece of card 10x10 cm,  if writing on both sides, and how many cards total you could stuff into a draw one metre long. A conundrum that would have been at home in The Wasp Factory.

There's also a nice point of security logic. The main character, Horza, is a changeling (think Odo in Deep Space Nine and you're not far off). He takes the form of a ship's captain and logs into the controls. Banks explains that some ship's identity software looks for signs of relief after someone successfully logs in, as an indication of fraud. That could be useful for a lot of things. An I-got-away-with-it detection program.

So, it was interesting in parts, but the story just didn't pull me under. Glad I checked it out, though. Proved Banks to be a diverse writer, and Peter Kenny is an exceptional narrator.

I think there are ten books in the Culture series. You can find out more about them here. Apparently Amazon bought the rights to Consider Phlebas last year, so there might be a film adaptation on its way.

Friday 10 May 2019

Why UBI is so Important

Saw this on YouTube and it made me smile. Reminded me a of a cartoon I saw once where a kid turns up at his parents' door after graduation with a massive sack of debt on his back. His dad greets him with no sympathy, saying "I left school with nothing!", and the kid replies, "I wish I'd left with nothing."

I mentioned Universal Basic Income briefly in my TEDx talk. For those who don't know what it is, here's the lowdown.

Finland joined the list of countries to trial a UBI payment. The experiment recently finished and I was a bit annoyed by the coverage. One of the key complaints was that it didn't lead to significantly more people starting businesses.

Well, would you, if you knew UBI was an experiment lasting for two years, and after that the money would stop? You're hardly going to behave in the same way as you might if you knew the money was guaranteed for life. One woman gave a heartfelt panic as the year drew to an end, because she wasn't sure how she'd make up for the loss of UBI. There were also strongly influential restrictions to the study, which you can read about here, that discouraged people from taking employment. Many people involved in the study had been living with financial insecurity for a long time, you can't just ask someone to trust in a stable income and behave with confidence.That takes time.

All that considered though, I think the emphasis is on the wrong thing. Leading opinion compellingly suggests that we're facing a fourth industrial revolution and that 9-5 jobs are not the way of the future. The other thing we're seeing is a global mental health crisis brought about by financial stress and a growing lack of purpose. As the video above shows, you can have someone physically in the office eight hours a day, but that doesn't mean they're productive.

One thing that has come out of UBI studies is their positive effect on mental health and boosting self-worth. This is absolutely what we need to focus on. We need to stop talking about work and the simple act of living in terms of how much money it equates to. The crux of it should always be quality of life. Whatever that means for each individual.

Happy people are also more productive people. When you care about what you do, and enjoy doing it, you usually do it well. When you don't give a crap and see no point to it, why bother?

For me, as a writer, it's of particular interest. Recent research shows that the average writer in the UK earns around £10,000 a year. I'd suggest that's optimistic for many. Most writers work several other jobs to get by and financial tension, as shown above, leads to increased mental stress. This is true for other arts too, from circus performers and dancers through to musicians and painters. Art takes time to develop and mental space to conceptualise. Yet the pay off is significant, with a recent report showing the arts industry contributes more to the UK economy than agriculture.

Not that farming escapes the ravages of austerity either, with Brexit and climate uncertainty leading to a spike in suicides among farmers. These are people who love the land. Who want to raise animals, grow crops and put food on people's tables. Often farms that have been in families for generations, or a person's life-long dream of escaping the city, now rendered unsustainable because of our obsession with financial worth. Although I'm viewing this from an artistic perspective, because it's my perspective, nobody in any profession is unaffected by the times. For a developed country, we're backwards when it comes to income inequality.

Here's an excerpt from the above report which sums things up well.

Another popular assumption about employment is that all employment is better than no employment. Finland’s experiment did not break employment down to the granularity of the nature of the work itself. If they had done so, and the results showed that 50 basic income recipients quit their jobs as telemarketers to pursue their doctoral degrees in biotechnology and quantum computing, would that loss of employment reveal a failure of basic income, or its success? Existing research also shows that going from unemployment into a bad job is worse for your mental health than staying unemployed.

We need to start asking some important questions about employment. How much employment actively hurts society? How many people have jobs that are the opposite of contributing to society, and instead drag society down? How many people have entirely unnecessary jobs that don’t need to exist at all? How many people have jobs that could already be done more cheaply and with higher quality and dependability by existing technologies? How many hours are we clocking that could be reduced without accomplishing less?

None of the above questions were investigated in this experiment, because for the most part, these questions aren’t being asked by society in general because of a mass delusion that all employment is good. That assumption is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong with exponential technological advancement. - Understanding Finland's Universal Basic Income Experiment

Capitalism is a financial feudal system. Money only travels in one direction unless we're willing to redistribute it. UBI is a way to redistribute it. Whereas I'd love to think governments would do this out of the goodness of their heart, to benefit the mental health and well-being of their populations, you know that's never going to be the reason.

The reason it is most likely to happen is to save economies. If people have no money, they don't spend anything. If they don't spend anything, you don't have an economy. You need to give just a little back to the people, so that the people can give it back to businesses - and the wheel keeps turning.

And you know things are getting bad, because the UK are mooting this point right now. It's been suggested that every adult in the UK gets £48 in UBI each week. Whereas this does sound like a ridiculously small amount given the current cost of living, the horrific thing is that almost four million people rely on food banks in the UK and that money would actually make a significant difference to their lives. 

That is why I predict UBI will come into effect. Not for our well-being, but because the government need it as a way to placate growing civil unrest. You can only control people for as long as they feel they have something to lose. Take everything from them, as is happening now: homes, pensions, health care, self-worth, dignity and financial security, and, well, this beautiful individual right here explains what happens:

Thursday 9 May 2019

Sali Bracewell

This is my incredibly talented cousin Sali, with her latest song Cwch Bach Coch (Little Red Boat). And yes, she really is underwater! Llongyfarchiadau, cous. You can find her on Facebook and SoundCloud.

Monday 6 May 2019

Pride, Prejudice and Pianos

Huge thank you to Bugesera Lodge for this fine spread. I went to take a look at their piano the other day and Jocelyne and her husband fed me a four-course spread. Included blue cheese and rhubarb, two things I can't remember the last time I ate.

They have an American Hamilton piano which came with them from Tanzania. It was a little worse for wear but mostly just issues with the action, so I've spent the past few days working on that. I've been really unwell for about three weeks so just finding my feet again. Got through a lot of movies whilst sitting on the floor, surrounded by whippens and jacks. Nice listening to the piano playing on Pride and Prejudice whilst physically putting one back together. More about pianos on the project page.