Learning from a Presbyterian Buddhist skeptic – David Hume and life

David Hume - Enlightenment Historian
David Hume – Enlightenment Historian

 

Just read this rollicking good tale of unexpected connections and the virtue of tolerance for and learning from divergent views…….

………and the prime dictum of History (and Life – if there’s a difference):

 

Diary of a quarantined man

So, to use a word that has become quintissentially infuriating recently to so many for no really discernable reason,  one had the flu recently.

Which like war is a lot less of an experience than many accounts would have you believe.

Mainly it involves having a brain with the functionality of a sand-filled bobble-headed doll, wedded to the vitality and vigor of a mummified sloth.

There’s not very much interesting about any of it.

Thankfully I’ve progressed to mostly well again, with the odd outbreak of a marshy mucuousy wheeze briefly breaking into a chainsaw buzz death rattle. (I might have made the last bit up).

Thus ended quarantine.

 

Earth as a goldfish bowl?

I’ve just been reading the excellent Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

In just 400 pages or so he traces the history of humanity from our African origins to today – and indeed beyond – it’s truly fascinating, exceptionally written and a trove of interesting information and thought-provoking perspectives on what we are and what makes us what we are; and what we might become.

One of his key concepts – perhaps the overall theme of the book – is that after a period of divergence across the face of the globe, the different branches of humanity are fast reconverging into a single whole. In future the different divisions that we employ today to differentiate between groups of Sapiens will diminish steadily in meaning until it makes no sense to think or speak of anything but a single human society.

Yet Harari also points out that a strong motor and facet of almost all human societies and cultures throughout history has been a strong ‘them’ and ‘us’ distinction. At our origins we there no shortage of others – different species of humans, as well as dangerous animals. Then came migration out of Africa over thousands of years and separation of different human bands across continents.

For thousands of years now though this process has been in reverse, ever more comprehensive and ever faster, with previously distant ‘peoples’ reintegrated into one society. Today only tiny numbers of humans in the remotest of areas remain beyond this renewed shared space – and arguably even they are in truth not detached entirely from the impact of our own world.

The fascinating question perhaps now is what happens when there is no more readily discernible ‘them’ and ‘us’? Harari sees a future where religion and ‘race’ no longer mean very much, and where standards of living are relatively harmonised in a single unified global space.

Who then are the ‘others’? Do we need others?  Will we develop some new divisions? What or whom do we measure ourselves against? Where will the spirit of competition lie? Do we need that? Will there be a fundamental shift in human nature and motivation? Or shall we seek friends and neighbour and yes even enemies beyond Planet Earth? Will homogeneity spur a search for new opportunities for exploration, travel and ‘experience’?

What will historians write of in the (utterly welcome) absence of wars, famine and pestilence? If our dearest dreams come through, what then for humanity? If we live in a world with Star Trek-like harmony and tolerance – but nowhere to go and nothing to do that isn’t already ‘here’? What happens if a species which has been constantly moving and adapting for all its existence arrives at a stage where it can do neither?

What happens if ‘here’ is everywhere? And everywhere is here????

 

Book Challenges – Yay or Nay?

Last year I read 103 books.

I know because Goodreads tells me so. Or at least Goodreads tells me that I told it that was the number.

Actually it was the number, I didn’t game the system though of course it is possible. It was the first time I had ever consciously kept track of how many books I read over a year.

Thoughts on the experience?

It definitely made me much more aware of how many books I had read, and was reading. How often do you realise that days have gone by and very few or maybe no pages have been read? It’s easy as we all discover to lose time, to get lost in other things, to be the fly in molasses. The Goodreads counter knocked lassitude on the head – ‘You’re on track!’ or ‘You’re 2 books behind’. It never went beyond two, the kick in the pants worked wonders ever time.

Added to the impetus was the % read tracker on my Kindle. Between the two, there was a steady drumbeat of recognition of progress made, or not, and encouragement to stay on track, or catch up.

Over time this did though grow to be a little disconcerting. Only 15% through a book? 1 book behind? Time to up the pace…..maybe speed up? Skip a little even? There were targets to be met after all!!

This was the downside of what was mostly a positive experience. A ticking clock measuring anything inevitably pushes towards a greater tempo, and then greater still, as it counts down, ever closer to the moment on 31 December and the final reckoning. The odd psychological effect was that even though the figure I set was entirely of my own choosing, and no one cared or was watching, and the unseen outcome counted for absolutely nothing, it did assume a significance just by being there. I not sure I liked that feeling, and especially not to have it bound up and instilled with reading – a pleasure and a realm intended to be as enjoyable as it is because it was separate from deadlines and pressures, walled off in its own sanctuary beyond normal space and time, and the everyday world. Though of course really it’s not – but it’s nice to think that way.

It’s easy (and in the grand scheme of thing right) to say that the best response was to just chill, since the grand total was freighted with no meaning – nothing was lost at 98 or gained by 103 books read.

And yet. It mattered. Oddly, and perhaps inexplicably so. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t competing with anyone. As I said no one was keeping an eye on me. I didn’t mention any total or the challenge to anyone, let along invest any importance in reaching the figure.

So why care? A good and puzzling question. A challenge is a challenge perhaps? Losing to oneself is the worst defeat of all? Keeping track highlighted how much time is actually ‘wasted’, as it might be termed, not reading? Maybe 100 books doesn’t seem a very large number? Especially in a  year? With over 1,200 on my Kindle alone? And more to add? And that leaves aside all the paper mounds and pyramids accumulated and waiting to be explored?

In a way I suppose keeping track revealed a tangible mortality of time, a limit that is real and insurmountable. Our thread of life is finite and what we do with the length available, in so far as we can ever know or guess what that is, is a series of choices.

And all of the time a clock is ticking.

Like it or not.

I set the 100 books goal again this year, with a bit more trepidation and hesitation than last.

Let’s see how it goes……tick……tock……tick…….

Acts of the Assassins

Acts of the Asassins cover
Acts of the Assassins

The close associates of a dead insurgent leader start meeting grizzly deaths.

Doubts arise as to whether the insurgent himself is really dead. His diminishing band of companions proclaim not. Bizarrely they believe he came back from the dead.

Disgraced secret policeman Cassius Gallio knows this is impossible. He was in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus – he saw the radical agitator die before his eyes. True, the body was stolen from a tomb but the guards were inexperienced and open to offers. Still he suffered for the embarrassing outcome – busted back down to uniform and posted to the wilds of Moldova.

Now, though with one phone call he’s on a plane back to Jerusalem – the case is reopened, and with it the chance to save himself and possibly the Roman Empire as well.

Even from that short description it’s obvious that Richard Beard’s book is different. A Roman Empire with phones? And planes? The Twelve Apostles as part of a murder mystery? Roman Imperial FBI with Glock pistols?

The premise is intriguing and the setting and background as creative as it is mind-bending and unsettling.

Plotwise the story is a little weak but the concept and context is so inventive that you keep reading to learn more of this odd and unique story world, and of course to find out what happens to the characters in this strange parallel universe.

Not a book that you might ever re-read but one that has enough elements of interest to hold the reader the first time around, and when the end is reached it’s hard not to find satisfaction freighted with relief.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New JihadUnder the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad by Sami Moubayed

Is the Islamic State/ISIS a flash in the pan? Brutal but ephemeral? Or might it be more long-lasting?

Could it even become a ‘proper’ state? Might the ‘Caliph’ one day address the UN?

Dr. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and researcher who tries to answer these questions in Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad.

Based in Damascus, he has the bitter sweet advantage of witnessing the events convulsing his country at first hand, and has interviewed many of those involved. This proximity to sources and evidence gives a unique perspective to his book. An added strength is that he has no particular axe to grind – the tragedy he describes that is the current Syrian crisis is made all the worse by seeming to have no obvious solution and no easy fixes.

In trying to understand ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, he emphasises their ideology as deriving from one specific strand of Islamic thought, and not, as ISIS and indeed some of its enemies would claim, inherent in and intrinsic to Islam itself.

Moubayed traces this extremist interpretation from the 1300s thought of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) to later Wahhabism in the 1700s and beyond, revived in the twentieth century by people such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and continued by modern salafi-jihadism.

He shows that this history is far from irrelevant – it is indeed the central focus of and justification for the ruthless campaigns of ISIS, the Nusra Front and al Qaeda: a return to what they imagine was the purity of the past. Simply return to those beliefs and glory will follow. Anyone rejecting the call stands in the way of regress, and will suffer.

Moubayed describes how the Islamic State based on the city of al-Raqqa in Syria, and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi/self proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, now has all the trappings of a state – a civil service, a police force, an army, an intelligence service, taxes, schools, a capital, a national anthem, a flag and significant income from oil smuggling and border crossing levies. This developing governance structure is staffed by many experienced ex-Iraqi Army officers and former Baath officials.

No less important is a slick and sophisticated communications strategy, taking in social media, as well as print, television, and radio.

Overall, Moubayed concludes, ISIS is a significant threat and one that stands a good chance of creating a functioning and enduring state from the ruins of what was Syria and Iraq.

A sobering assessment from an experienced and talented scholar in an informative and well researched book.

Trigger Mortis

Cover image of Trigger Mortis - Bond is back
Trigger Mortis – Bond is back

Books ‘in the style of’ a deceased author can be hit and miss, but Anthony Horowitz had the advantage of a framework, and even some original passages, written by Ian Fleming himself when creating this new James Bond thriller.

Set in the 1950s, Horowitz manages skilfully to retain the essence of Bond while thankfully jettisoning the more objectionable and dated aspects of the originals.

In Trigger Mortis women protagonists give as good as they get, henchmen have backstories, and Bond has a conscience. But not too much of a one.

None of this gets in the way of a rollicking good story – on the contrary, even as the plot and characters have more depth and satisfying nuances, the action is if anything enhanced.

All the traditional staples of a Bond story are here to be enjoyed – a maniacal villain, a female character with a memorable name, an inventive and dastardly sinister scheme, and perhaps Bond’s most challenging dicing with death ever, all set against a background of Cold War tension and the Space Race.

In Horowitz’s talented hands Trigger Mortis makes for an enjoyable read whether you’re a long-time Bond fan, a dedicated thriller aficionado or just in search of your next good book.

The Salt Of The Earth

The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth

 

How long does it take to plant 2,000,000 trees?

Why would someone give up a safe and lucrative job as an economist with a global institution for the uncertain livelihood of a photographer?

What keeps a person who is steeped in the aftermath of brutal atrocities – and witnesses human savagery up close – sane?

We get an insight into all of these questions in this mesmerising documentary. The range and depth to be found in the experience of the life that Sebastiao Salgado has lived is just hinted at by the variety and profoundness displayed in the previous questions.

 

Serra Pelada Mines - one of Sebastiao Salgado's most iconic images
Serra Pelada Mines – one of Sebastiao Salgado’s most iconic images

Born on a Brazilian farm in Minas Gerais state in 1944, Sebastiao led a conventional life until the age of thirty – earning a Masters in Economics, moving to live in Paris and working on assignment in Africa for the World Bank studying the coffee industry.

He also met and married his wife Lélia Wanick (Salgado) a fellow Brazilian. So far, so usual.

Then one day he picked up a camera Lélia had bought for her studies – and his life changed utterly.

Fascinated and increasingly enthralled, we might even say bewitched, by the world of images, Sebastiao – fully supported by Lélia – made a very radical decision: he gave up his safe, secure and extremely well-paid job as an economist to begin work on a long-term photography project.

If this had failed we might say he was unhinged to take such a step, but with the benefit of hindsight we can say now that it was inspired.

Never an easy path – Sebastiao spent long periods away from his family, which now included children, two boys, along with isolation in remote and difficult, and often dangerous, terrain – his perseverance, dedication and rare talent eventually made Sebastiao one of the world’s most successful photographers.

Ironically, many of his signature photographs came to be taken on the same ground as he had previously trodden as an economist – capturing stills of workers where he had poured over statistics before. Some of his most renowned photos came from coffee plantations; a revolution complete.

A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers

This documentary by German film maker Wim Wender (with the help of Sebastiao’s and Lélia’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) delves with empathy and incisiveness into Sebastiao and Lélia’s lives since that momentous change in direction, the highs and the lows, the various projects – including some truly horrendous experiences in Rwanda and Yugoslavia as both were dissolved by the acid of human hate – and their return to Brazil to begin their new project, the Instituto Terra.

If you can see this film, it will be an enjoyable and enlightening experience, tinged with some sadness of course – a bit like life and a fitting testament to a living lens on humanity’s positive and negative elements.