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review 2018-04-03 17:40
The intellectual world of Adam Smith
Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life - Nicholas Phillipson

Though his name looms large as the founder of modern economic theory, Adam Smith himself is in many ways a mysterious and unknowable figure. For all of his impact upon Western thought, Smith left little beyond the two books that were his great intellectual legacy.  Not even the date of his birth is known with certainty, while his correspondence consists mainly of letters from friends plaintively wondering why he never wrote back. Nicholas Phillipson doesn’t shirk from the challenge of writing a biography of the man from such a scarcity of information, but in filling the blanks he provides something more by giving his readers a broader portrait of Adam Smith's intellectual world, one that sites Smith firmly within the context of the Scottish Enlightenment.

 

Phillipson begins by charting the formative influences that shaped Smith’s intellectual development in his early years.  Foremost among them was his schoolmaster in Kirkcaldy and two professors at the University of Glasgow, Robert Simson and Francis Hutcheson.  Yet it was the writings of Smith’s close friend David Hume which proved the most fertile inspiration for Smith’s masterpieces.  Phillipson shows how Smith drew upon Hume’s ideas as inspiration for a comprehensive “Science of Man”, which be began to articulate with his first book.  Its publication in 1759 was greeted with acclaim, elevating Smith to the first rank of intellectual figures.  A period as tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch gave him both the opportunity to meet some of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in Europe as well as an income that freed him from his onerous academic duties. This allowed Smith upon his return to concentrate on writing his most famous book, , a revolutionary text that was nonetheless intended to be only one part of his much larger project – a project that was left incomplete by the time of his death in 1790.

 

With his persuasive reinterpretation and readable style, Phillipson has produced what is likely to be the best study of Smith's life and times for decades to come.  His account challenges the traditional image of Smith as an absent‑minded academic and turns him instead into a dynamic teacher who was a part of the vibrant intellectual world of the 18th century.  The book’s main flaw – an absence of any real examination of Smith’s personality and daily life – is understandable given the limits of his material, but it does limit his achievement by failing to give a fully rounded portrait of the philosopher as a person.  Nevertheless, this book is an essential read for anyone seeking to understand Smith ideas and their development within the context of the era, ideas that still are used to inform the world in which we live today.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-05 11:42
Birth of Iron Man

 

Iron Man PosterDirector: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jnr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrance Howard

Release: 2 May 2008

IMDB User Rating: 7.9

Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 91%

 

I thought I had already written a review of this film (on IMDB that is), so it was a good thing that I have decided to go back and rewatch the Marvel Cinematic Universe films again (if only so I can have a better idea of what had happened previously, especially since the movies seem to reference events from the earlier films on a regular basis) so that I can review some of the films that I have watched in the past, but had not got around to reviewing. Anyway, this is the 'first' film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though some could argue that the Ang Lee version of the Hulk was actually the first since the events of the Incredible Hulk do seem to come after it, despite there being a number of changes to the Bruce Banner's history) and it certainly has kicked off a craze, with at least two films being released a year, as well as at least two television series.

 

Anyway, Iron Man literally sets the stage for what is to follows. First of all we have this guy wandering around saying that he is from the 'Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division' which is truncated to the acronym SHIELD at the end of the film. We also have Nick Fury making an appearance indicating that he is looking to start up a group and that Tony Stark isn't the only person around that happens to have super powers (even if those super powers consist entirely of a flying metal suit). It was probably logical to also have Ironman as the first movie since he apparently was the one who initiated the Avengers.

 

Well, the film is basically about how Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy who happens to run a corporation that develops and sells weapons, becomes Iron Man. The thing is that he is also a playboy, and a tinkerer, which means that he is more interested in building things, and having fun, than actually running the company, which means that the company is doing a lot of things that he doesn't actually know about. However the realisation of who his company is selling weapons to comes to light when he is captured in Afghanistan after demonstrating one of his weapons that he claims to have the capability of stopping a war with one shot. Well, the problem is that when he demonstrates the power of this weapon, the other side want it as well, so they kidnap him to force him to make one.

 

As well as being about how Iron Man becomes Iron Man, the film is also has an underlying theme about the military industrial complex. He we have a private corporation that years ago assisted the United States to develop a weapon to defeat the Japanese now double dealing – that is selling weapons to both sides in a conflict. It is the idea that the only person who makes money out of a war are the weapons manufacturers, and the longer the war goes on, the more money that they make, which means that it is in their interest for there to be a perpetual war. However, selling to just one side in the war doesn't really help with the profits, especially since one side may have a huge advantage, however selling to both sides means that the odds are evened out, and also that the war is likely to last a lot longer.

 

As for the villains, you sort of have two – there is the Ten Rings, an organisation that Iron Man is regularly confronting in the comics (and while they are operational in Afghanistan, when I first watched the film I simply thought they were insurgents, or at least Taliban, however this time I realised that they were actually a mercenary force working for the Taliban), and the Iron Monger, who also happens to be Tony Stark's 2IC, who then builds his own Iron Man suit to take on Tony.

 

As for the film, yep, it's pretty good, and I also picked up a lot more the second time round, which is not surprising since I do have the advantage of having seen many of the other films in the franchise already, so by rewatching them I also pick up a few more things, such as when Rhodey looks at one of the suits and says 'next time' which is flagging the arrival of War Machine in the next instalment. A good movie, pretty enjoyable, and I have to admit that Robert Downey Junior certainly plays the role quite well.

 

For those who are interested I have written a blog post on the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (if only as an aide de memoire).

 

 

Source: www.imdb.com/title/tt0371746/reviews-1188
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-11-05 22:18
Yep, I'm Talking About It
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk

I will start this review off by suggesting that there is so much in this book that it deserves an entire blog post to itself, however I don't want to actually write one now because I would like to watch the film again. Unfortunately I just don't have enough time this weekend to simply put a couple of hours aside to watch the movie so that I can write a blog post to coincide with this review (not that I need to have a blog post to coincide with the review, but I would like those of you who like this review to at least have an opportunity to read the extended post). As such, I will post this review now, and when I get around to watching the film again (for the umpteenth time mind you – I love the film) I will repost this review with a link to the blog (minus this paragraph because by that time it will be obsolete). By the way, don't let the lack of a post on Flight Club prevent you from reading some of the <a href=”http://www.sarkology.net>posts on my blog</a>.

 

When considering this book I have to be honest and say that I actually preferred the movie. In fact when I first saw this book sitting on my friend's bookshelf I immediately thought that it was one of those really bad novelisations that you tend to come across every so often. However, as I was writing a review on a completely unrelated book (the name of which I can’t remember), and made mention of the fact that I believed that Fight Club was simply a novelisation of the film somebody politely corrected me and pointed out that the book came first. Well, since that was the case I decided that actually reading the book might actually be worth while.

 

First of all the book the grabbed my attention right from the beginning to the point that I found it really hard to put down. However, I also found that the film was much more crisp and polished than the book. In fact there were parts of the book that actually came out a lot better in the film than they did in the book (though there were also aspects of the book that were much better than the film). Normally this is not the case because it is really difficult, if not impossible, to turn what is in effect a classic book into a classic movie – the media are completely different and there things that can be done on the silver screen that would be impossible to translate onto the page and vice versa. However, occasionally, very occasionally, there comes a film that actually trumps the book, and I believe that Fight Club is one of those rare occurrences.

 

That does not necessarily mean that the book was bad – by no means – it is just that I found that the film was much better. Sure, there were aspects that the book handled much better, however I simply could not read the book without picturing Brad Pitt everytime Tyler Durden was mentioned, Helena Bonham Carter whenever Marla Singer was mentioned, and Edward Norton whenever the narrator was the central character, which was pretty much all of the time. Mind you, having two different actors playing the roles of the narrator (we actually never know his name) and Tyler Durden in the film does throw us a bit, but for those of us who have seen the film, and know the truth about the identity of the narrator, it sort of doesn't come as a shock when it is revealed (I would have put up a spoiler alert, but if you are reading this review then I assume that you have seen the film and know what I am talking about – if you don't, then you either haven't seen the film, or haven't worked it out yet, or both).

 

Anyway, Fight Club is your classic anti-materalist extistentialist novel (if there is such a thing). In fact it is still as relevant today as it was back when it was released. The world of Fight Club is dark and pointless, which very much defines the 90s. It is interesting that the nineties represented the final victory over the evil empire and what was in effect the end of history – tyranny had been defeated, capitalism reigned supreme, and everybody could look forward to peace, prosperity, and endless happiness – except that didn't happen. In fact the complete opposite happened – my memory of the nineties was that of the goth, and later the emo – of bands like Portishead and Radiohead, who were dreary and depressing – it was not that we had won, it was that in defeating the evil empire we had lost our way and our purpose. In a sense all that was left was the basic anxioms of capitalism – the accumulation of wealth, yet the accumulation of wealth in and of itself has no meaning, no purpose, and no soul. In a way we had defeated the commies, but in another way we had lost our soul.

 

Fight Club is not just a question of materialism but also a question of identity. In many ways we define ourselves by our job, by our car, by our house – in effect by our possessions. I guess this is why the scene in which the narrator mugs a convenience store clerk to force him to quit his job and pursue his dream is so important. It is also the reason why in the film they target is the credit corporations – it is debt that is actually holding us back. I see this around me everyday – people are prevented from reaching their true potential and from truly sucking the marrow out of life because they have bought the lie of the American dream. In the end they have gone to collage, got a degree (and a debt with that degree), got a job, married, had children, and taken on more debt to put a roof over their head. Ten years down the track they are stuck in a dead-end job with no hope and no purpose and the only incentive that they have is the fact that they get paid every fortnight. In fact it is that pay check that prevents them from realising their true potential.

 

However Fight Club endeavours to make us realise that the ordinary people are in fact the people that hold all of the power. Sure, the managers might say that those of us that do the ordinary jobs are the ones who make the company turn over and be the success that it is – those of us who sit in the trenches and cop the brunt of all of the crap that is thrown at us – however we return home to our appartment tired, in debt, trapped with no way out. Mind you the advertising industry doesn't help because they paint this picture of the perfect life that we buy into, but we can only afford this lifestyle by going into debt, which we do only to discover that we are now trapped in this endless existence from which we cannot escape.

 

There is actually a lot more to Fight Club than what I can really explore in such a short time, though I know that I am not the only one who writes incredibly long reviews exploring every aspect of a novel. However, since I have set up my blog I feel that I don't need to do that any more as I can do that elsewhere. However I still can’t resist exploring the themes expounded in the novel - in Flight Club the main idea is how we have become slaves to the machine and the novel seeks to open our eyes to the reality of this machine so that we might break away from it. However, in reality we won't, and Palahnuik realises this – we are sheep – pretty much all of the characters in the book are sheep. Sure, they are enslaved in their day to day existence, but Tyler Durden doesn't free them from that existence, he only becomes what is in effect another messiah for them to follow. Capitalism has let them down and he offers them another way out, and they follow him like sheep.

 

I guess that is the reason why the book didn't actually end the same way the film did and that is because in the end one of the things that the book is criticising is organised religion. The book (and the film) begins with the narrator and Marla cruising the support groups, which are in effect mini-religions, and finishing by creating a new religion through the fight clubs. What the book is suggesting is two things – even though they are sheep, the sheep in fact are incredibly powerful and can reach a point where the sheep actually take control of the religion – in a way the religion takes a life of its own and is moulded and developed by the sheep. The other thing – don't talk about fight club – is genius. If you keep something secret then people actually want to know it. In fact the interest lies in the mystery not in the answer – by not talking about Fight Club makes people so much more interested in Flight Club, to the point that it grows so big and powerful that it takes on a life of its own. In the end the Narrator, even though he is Tyler Durden, has lost control over it – Fight Club has become a monster with its own will, conscience, and identity. In considering this, it is interesting to note that Jesus Christ did refer to his followers as sheep – did he have an insight into human nature?

 

There is one final thing I wish to touch upon before I go and that is the idea of masculinity, which is evident in both the book and the film. In a way it is one of those very uncomfortable truths and that is that men are basically defined by their John Thomases, and it is interesting that at the beginning of the book you find the narrator in a support group of men who suffer from testicular cancer. However, fast forward through to the end and we discover that the members of the Fight Clubs will deal with people who are seeking to shut them down by threatening to castrate them. Interesting considering that only men can be castrated, however in many cases it is the men who are very much in control. In fact the whole idea of the fight club is that men are seeking to re-estabilish their primal and brutish nature in a world in which they are effectively being castrated. Fight Club is not a story about collapsing civilisation, it is a story about returning us to our brutish past and that the trappings of civilisation only exist as a thin veneer over this brutish reality. In a way one of the main reasons that the fight clubs become so successful, and literally run out of control is because there is that underlying desire to cast of civilastion and return to that primal instinct that is always wanting to well up from inside of us and completely engulf us.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1798346392
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review 2016-09-22 00:00
24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep
24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep - Jonathan Crary The title seemed so promising but the pages were full of not so easy to digest phrases. I understood most of what he had to say but he seemed to jump from one topic to the next. This book could have been so much better if only it had a different author.
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review 2016-09-11 18:20
City of Gold by Jim Krane
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism - Jim Krane

This account of Dubai’s history and challenges isn’t quite a textbook, but it’s much closer to that than the sort of popular nonfiction people read for entertainment. It is quite thorough, covering Dubai’s history, its leaders, the downsides and seedy underbelly to its fantastic growth, and the challenges it faces going forward. The book is organized in academic fashion, in short topical subsections, and would be well-suited to a college course.

For someone who doesn’t know much about Dubai – I read this book for my world books challenge and not due to any personal connection – this provides a good base of information about the place. And Dubai is certainly a fascinating place, going from a desert fishing village without electricity to a world-class city within 50 years. According to Krane, the secret to its extraordinary growth is a line of visionary sheikhs unencumbered by any checks on their power, able to take advantage of Dubai’s few natural advantages and build a diverse economy that’s become a regional hub for trade.

But while Krane writes a lot – more than I wanted to read – about building projects and economic ventures, and seems duly impressed with a city able to become a major tourist destination despite having no cultural or historical sites and to construct the world’s tallest building despite having been a land of illiterate fishermen and nomads only a generation before, he also acknowledges the faults. Dubai’s population is 95% expatriate, but with no opportunity to gain citizenship, especially for the unskilled, poorly-paid South Asian workers imported to build its skyscrapers. It does little to stop sex trafficking in a city that’s 75% male. And sustainability has never been part of its development. Krane presents both the positives and negatives without seeming to choose a side. He also deals with the politics (seemingly a no-go issue in Dubai), acknowledging how one-man rule has facilitated development, but also recognizing that if Dubai wants to become a cultural hub rather than just a collection of skyscrapers, political expression and participation will have to come with it.

The book has two obvious drawbacks and one less obvious. First, it’s dry, organized topically rather than through a narrative structure and focusing most of its attention on economic projects. Second, it’s quickly becoming dated: it was published in 2009, already an age ago by the standards of Dubai’s rapid development and change; there’s a hasty epilogue about the possible effects of the financial crisis, which was only just hitting Dubai as the book went to press. The third and less obvious drawback is that while Krane certainly discusses the significance and influence of Dubai in the Middle East, the majority of his interview subjects are Westerners like himself; to the extent the book gives much sense of life in Dubai, it's mostly the life of Western expats. This is true even when locals could provide more interesting perspectives. For instance, in the chapter about Dubai’s often fatal traffic, Krane writes about an infamous highway pileup from the perspective of a German flight engineer who crashed on his way to work, then includes a shorter section discussing young Emirati men’s love of reckless driving. Interviewing Emirati men instead would have made this section much more insightful and interesting.

Overall, this book seems like a good choice for academic or occupational purposes, but less so for the casual reader. It is certainly informative, but there’s a reason I could find it only at my university library.

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