Podcast of the Week Ending August 22

60 Second Science :: Cows With Eye Images Keep Predators in Arrears

Painting eye spots on the rear ends of cows apparently acts as a deterrent to predators.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Commentator

A medieval Islamic philosopher named Averroes had a great influence on Western thought and the modern world that has been overlooked by history.


Movie Review: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) BONUS #AtoZChallenge

Hooray for more Blogging A to Z Challenge BONUS contents! Because why settle for revisiting one Monty Python movie when you can do two, here is a companion review to my Monty Python and the Holy Grail review.

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
Release Date: March 31, 1983
Director: Terry Jones (with Terry Gilliam directing The Crimson Permanent Assurance short)
Production Company: Celandine Films | The Monty Python Membership

Eschewing the linear narrative format of their previous two films, Monty Python returns to the sketch comedy style of the Flying Circus, loosely linked by the theme of “the meaning of life.”  The movie begins with a separate short film about a group of elderly accountants overthrowing their young, American bosses and turning their building into a pirate ship to raid financial districts around the world (assuming that the world is round).

The main part of the film is arranged around the different stages of life, from birth to death:

  • Birth – a satire of the impersonal nature of giving birth in a big hospital with lots of fancy machinery
  • Birth (The Third World) – a satire of the Roman Catholic church’s prohibition of contraception told through song.
  • Growth and Learning – a class of boys learn sex education complete with a live demonstration from their teacher and his wife
  • Fighting Each Other – three sketches about the British military: 1. In WWI a troop of soldiers give farewell gifts to their leader as he prepares to leave the trench, 2. a drill sergeant discusses his plan for marching up and down the square, and 3. British officers in the Zulu War search for one officer’s leg, believed to have been taken by a tiger
  • The Middle of the Film – a talk show which includes a surreal game show called “Find the Fish”
  • Middle Age – an American couple dine at a restaurant in a medieval torture chamber and try to discuss philosophy
  • Live Organ Transplants – two paramedics forcefully remove the liver of a still-living donor while convincing his wife to become a donor through a song about the vastness of the universe
  • The Autumn Years – an enormously obese man vomits profusely while eating a meal in a fancy French restaurant and ultimately explodes.
  • Death – the Grim Reaper claims the souls of people at a dinner party and takes them to heaven, which is a Vegas-style resort where a Tony Bennet type performer sings about how every day in Heaven is Christmas Day.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was the first Monty Python production of any kind that I saw, about the age of 12 with my family on VHS.  Despite being practicing Catholics, we thought “Every Sperm is Sacred” was hilarious and immediately rewound the tape to watch it again.  We followed up by watching all of the Monty Python movies and eventually Monty Python’s Flying Circus, discovering that The Meaning of Life is actually not as funny as some of their earlier work.

What Did I Remember?:

I remember the big musical numbers, of course, and the gross-out parts.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot that there is a lot of gratuitous nudity in this movie and casual sexism. The entire scene of topless women chasing a man off a cliff had completely slipped my mind (for good reason).  Also, I forgot about the medieval torture chamber/philosophy conversation sketch.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie has some spectacular musical numbers – particularly “Every Sperm is Sacred” and “The Galaxy Song” as well as the school boys singing “Please don’t burn us.”  There’s also some clever satire of consumerism, militarism, and Americans.  I love the Python’s American accents.

I think the best parts of the movie are frontloaded, with Crimson Permanent Assurance being a classic of short film in its own right.  I’m also quite amused by the Birth sketch, “Every Sperm is Sacred” and the Protestant response, and the sex education class.  The plain weirdness of “Find the Fish” also tickles my funny bone every time.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Most everything after “The Middle of the Film” is mildly amusing but not really all too inspired.  The gross-out humor is also (intentionally) over the top.  12-year-old me thought cutting out a liver and Mr. Creosote vomiting were hilarious, but adult me just thinks it’s cruel.  The aforementioned casual sexism – both the topless women chasing a man to death and topless angels in Heaven – have aged very poorly, if it was ever “clever” in the first place. Methinks they were trying to parody gratuitous nudity in 1980s movies but just ended offering gratuitous nudity.

Is It a Classic?:

No, but the good bits stand alongside the best work of Python.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

Author: Benjamin Hoff
Title: The Tao of Pooh
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: Tantor Audio, 2012 (originally published in 1982)

I read the writings of Lao Tzu and A.A. Milne for the first time when I was in college.  I read this book too, which tied all those things together. And since I loved all of what I read this became one of my favorite books.  As I’m periodically trying to revisit some of my favorite books of all time as audiobook, I listened to this version charmingly narrated by Simon Vance.

My impression is that while it is stil a good book, it really feels like the type of book someone in college would ascribe a lot more value too, if that makes any sense.  Through the characters of the 100 Acres Wood, Hoff ably introduces the basic concepts of Taoist philosophy, and through Taoist philosophy he also introduces the basic characteristics of Winnie the Pooh.  It’s an entertaining portal to these concepts that is worth reading, or listening to, even if just maybe it’s not one of the greatest books of all time.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Big questions, or, Asomatognosia : whose hand is it anyway by Anders Nilsen

Author: Anders Nilsen
TitleBig questions, or, Asomatognosia : whose hand is it anyway 
Publication Info: Montréal : New York, NY Drawn & Quarterly ; Distributed in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2011.
ISBN: 9781770460478
Summary/Review: This massive graphic novel grapples with some deep philosophical issues through the stories of a flock of tiny birds, a mentally retarded orphan, and a crashed jet pilot.  I can’t say that I actually “got” what the author was depicting but the illustrations were beautiful and it did make me think a lot.  Once I got into the book, I couldn’t put it down, or I wouldn’t have it the tome weren’t so heavy that my arms got tired.

Recommended booksHope For the Flowers by Trina Paulus
Rating: ***

Book Review: God After Darwin by John F. Haught

Author: John F. Haught
Title: God After Darwin
Publication Info: Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 2000.
ISBN: 0813367239
Summary/Review: This is a complicated book which I didn’t thoroughly comprehend so I may not be able to justice to it in a review.  Nevertheless, it tackles an issue near and dear to me that is how to reconcile the theory of evolution with belief in God.  I like the approach that puts aside the false dichotomy of science versus religion even if I don’t understand the science and biology behind it.  There’s definitely a core idea that faith should be challenged to be deeper by the truth of evolution rather than denying the science or creating something like intelligent design.  Definitely a work worth rereading.

Recommended booksQuarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion by John Polkinghorne and Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall.
Rating: **

Book Review: The lost art of walking by Geoff Nicholson

Author: Geoff  Nicholson
The lost art of walking : the history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism
Publication Info: 
New York : Riverhead Books, 2008
Geoff  Nicholson takes on the quotidian topic of walking, something just about everyone can do, although there who some who can who fail to exercise the ability regularly.  At the heart of this work are Nicholson’s own walks.  At the time of writing, Nicholson lived in Los Angeles a place generally seen to be hostile to walking although it is possible as I’ve experienced myself.  Nicholson walks in the various places he lives – London, New York, Los Angeles, and in a bittersweet final chapter he returns to walk through his childhood home of Sheffield.    In between he explores the history of walking (particularly sport walkers who performed feats of endurance such as walking 1 mile an hour for 1000 consecutive hours), walks in music and movies, psychogeography, walks in the desert, and street photography. There are also walking tours, which are near and dear to my heart, including such oddities as walking tours of parking lots. Nicholson seems to be a cranky person and that crankiness kind of sucks the joy out of his writing.  Still this is an interesting book with some intriguing insights into the topic.

Favorite Passages:
“Walking for peace may certainly strike you and me as futile and useless, but if a person believes it works, then it’s the most logical and rational thing in the world.  To walk for a reason, any reason, however personal or obscure, is surely a mark of rationality.  Money, art, self-knowledge, world peace, these are not eccentric motivations for walking; they’re damn good ones, regardless of whether or not they succeed.  I find myself coming to the conclusion that perhaps the only truly eccentric walker is the one who walks for no reason whatsover.  However, I’m no longer sure if that’s even possible.” – p. 85
“We walked on, not very far and not very fast.  It gradually became obvious, and it was not exactly a surprise, that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with rather short walks, of no more than a couple of hundred yards each, was actually very hard work, much harder than walking continuously for two hours.  As the tour ended twenty people were rubbing their backs, complaining about their feet, and saying they needed to sit down.  I checked my GPS: in those two hours we’d walked just under a mile.” – p. 90

Book Review: On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail

Author: Daniel Lord Smail
Title: On Deep History and The Brain
Publication Info: University of California Press (2008)
ISBN: 0520258126

Summary/Review:  Smail’s concept is that there is an artificial divide between pre-history (what he calls deep history) and history and that the biological and evolutionary history of humanity can be better understood by bridging the gap.  At least that’s what I think it was about because unfortunately my brain was too small to grasp much of this book.  For a slender book, Smail did an exhaustive amount of work detailing the idea of when history began through the ages and the time when history “begins” has remained steady even as the reasoning as moved from sacred to scientific. In place of the current paradigm, Smail proposes a neuro-history or a study of the evolution of the human brain.  Interesting stuff even if most of it went over my head.

Rating: **

Book Reviews: Out of our heads by Alva Noë

Author: Alva Noë
Title: Out of our heads : why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness
Publication Info:
ISBN: 9780809074655

Summary/Review:  I thought I’d like this  much more, but I was disappointed.  Noë’s premise is a philosophical examination of the science of the mind and posits that we should no longer accept the belief that consciousness resides in the brain.  Basically he’s arguing the opposite of the Free Will chapter in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense.  While it’s an argument I’d like to accept, I feel that Noë never really shows evidence for his thesis and that a lot of the complex language he uses serves to obfuscate rather than illuminate.  It’s just as likely that most of this went over my head though, so maybe I’m not the best person to review this book.

Recommended books: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson and Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter.
Rating: **

Book Review: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a difficult book to review.  I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t really understand all that this book is about but have hopes that reading it may have broadened my knowledge some and will be an incremental step in understanding similar works in the future.  Not that I can predict the future, that appears to be something that NNT feels strongly about.

Here are a few other things that Nassim Nicholas Taleb doesn’t like:

  • ludic fallacy
  • Platonicity
  • pompous academics
  • the bell curve (this won big points with me)
  • the narrative fallacy
  • financial consultants
  • and, putting things into categories (oops)

The idea of the black swan is that there are events that are rare & hard-to-predict with huge impact in just about every endeavour including science, finance, and mathematics.  The name comes from the belief among Europeans in past centuries that all swans are white because all the swans ever observed were white, a theory busted by the discovery of black swans in Australia.  Black swans may be beneficial or disasterous but have in common that people will generally ignore theses outliers until they happen and then try to create a reason for their happening.

NNT (he calls himself by these intials, btw) writes in a style mixing an essay-style discourse with narrative stories, often rather silly.  He also has kind of an arrogant, sarcastic tone that can be off-putting, but mostly I liked it since what he writes is pretty interesting.

Taleb, Nassim.
The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable / Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
New York : Random House, c2007.

Book Review: The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness (2006) by Alain de Botton is as much a philosophy book as it is a treatise on architecture. Instead of the who, what and how, this book explores the rarely asked why of architecture. In a short, lyrical work that is a delight to read, de Botton questions why some types of building make us happy, what buildings say to us, what ideals and virtues are put forward by architecture, and the hardest question of all, what is a beautiful building.

This is a difficult book to summarize, or at least to do it in a way that does it justice. So I’m just going to share a few of my favorite passages to give you a taste of what I liked in this book. I’ll also mention that this book is richly illustrated with images of exactly what de Botton is discussing, almost always on the same page with the relevant text which is a logical improvement over how many art and architecture books often do not include relevant illustration or bury it several pages away.

Favorite Passages

Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places — and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. – p. 13

At its most genuine, the architectural impulse seems connected to a longing for communication and commemoration, a longing to declare ourselves to the world through a register other than words, through the language of objects, colours and bricks: an ambition to let others know who we are — and, in the process, to remind ourselves. – p. 126

While a common reaction to seeing a thing of beauty is to want to buy it, our real desire may be not so much to own what find beautiful as to lay permanent claim to the inner qualities it embodies.

Owning such an object may help us realise our ambition of absorbing the virtues to which it alludes, but we ought not presume that those virtues will automatically or effortlessly begin to rub off on us through tenure. Endeavouring to purchase something we think beautiful may in fact be the most unimaginative way of dealing with the longing it excites in us, just as trying to sleep with someone may be the bluntest response to a feeling of love.

What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty. – p. 150-52

When buildings talk, it is never with a single voice. Buildings are choirs rather than soloists; they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord. -p. 217