Days Of Heaven

In some ways I wish I didn’t love Terence Malik’s movies as much. I am at heart a movie enthusiast as against a film-lover. Give me Jurassic Park and Juno over something by Krzysztof Kieslowski. But this tale of Abraham, Sarah and Pharaoh re-set in Texas in the early 20th Century is yet another masterful investigation of nature and grace and what it means to be good and what it means to make amends and how it is that we are half angels and half devils. Roger Ebert put it well in one of his reviews:

What is the point of “Days of Heaven”–the payoff, the message? This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us. That feeling is how a child feels when it lives precariously, and then is delivered into security and joy, and then has it all taken away again–and blinks away the tears and says it doesn’t hurt.

Maybe the most influential soundtrack in all of film. Allegedly the most beautiful cinematography. A guy like me can’t be taken on questions like that. But I can say that even from the perspective of narrative, this is a masterpiece that tells more than what it tells, tells it obliquely and tells it compellingly.

Your Correspondent, He is selling faith on the Go-Tell Crusade

One Quote Review: “A Little History Of The World” by E.H. Gombrich

Countries with ailing birth-rates should subsidise this book. It makes me want to have babies just so I can read them this when they turn 9 or 10. It is a broad, lovely, human account of human history (largely European). Written in one big flurry as the NAZIs rose to power, it sparkles with the strength of a conviction that no matter how bad the past is, or how awful the present seems, humans are still worth fighting for.

Writing about what some people call “the dark ages”…

But there was more to it than that. It wasn’t all dark. It was more like a starry night. For above all the dread and uncertainty in which ignorant people lived like children in the dark – frightened of witches and wizards, of the Devil and evil spirits – above it all was the bright starlit sky of the new faith, showing them the way. And just as you don’t get lost so easily in the woods if you can see the stars like the Great Bear or the Pole Star, people no longer lost their way completely, no matter how much they stumbled in the dark. For they were sure of one thing: God had given souls to all men, and they were all equal in his eyes, beggars and kings alike. This meant there must be no more slaves – that human beings must no longer be treated as if they were thing. That the one, invisible, God the Creator of the World, who through his mercy saves mankind, asks us to be good.

Your Correspondent, Realised he could never be trusted as a historian considering how he meddles with his browser’s history

In Honour Of Friday Night Lights

This is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna talk about TV.

If I ever had to live in America, one of my great consolations would be the potential for going to baseball games. I love that game. As many of you know, since this blog is largely read by people who know me, my two childhood best friends remain my constant companions. We’re awful nerds and so call ourselves the Triple Entente. One balmy summer evening too many years ago to remember, the Entente, joined by Wife-Unit and two native Oregonians, attended a game of minor league baseball.

A sport for kings that is! Designed for optimum drinking. Played at dusk when everyone is at their most attractive. Loaded with statistics for those of us who are friends with numbers. Being able to spend the summer following a local baseball team would more than make up for the crappy bread in America.

But now, much to my surprise, I love American Football too.

Previously my knowledge of American Football had been gathered from Madden 93 for the Sega Megadrive. I asked my parents to buy me Lemmings. They bought me an American Football game with a fat man on the cover. How’s that for being born under the wrong sign?

From what the games console taught me, the key to winning in American Football was to always play as the Buffalo Bills and to do something called a “Hail Mary”.

Now I know what a “Hail Mary” actually is because I fell in love with the hugely under-rated programme Friday Night Lights.

It is about the life and times of a small fictional east Texas city called Dillon, told through the lens of its high school American football culture. When I tell people that they look at me with what we can call the “Firefly” face. That’s the face evoked by being recommended to watch a tv programme that is a “Western but set in space”.

But actually underneath the teen soap, testosterone charged football arena surface, Friday Night Lights is an expressionistic wonder. Over the course of its five seasons it plays out as a kind of extended musing on one of the great philosophical questions: is it better to be effective or to be excellent?

See why the sport plays a part? Life is like football and we have to decide if we want to win or be good and those are not necessarily the same things.

The plot always hinges around Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, a high school guidance counselor called Tammy. Eric and Tammy always wear reflective sunglasses but you never ever ever see the camera or boom-mic in the lenses and that is a hint towards the stratospheric production standards maintained in this show. It has a kind of documentary style shooting that is unobtrusive but very effective. I could waffle about that but won’t. It is high quality telly.

Plus, in its depiction of this married couple as they struggle through the compromises and consolations of living together, you have the rarest of things: a believable depiction of what it means to be husband and wife.

The Taylors

It helps that they fancy the pants off each other. I hate how marriage is commonly a trope for sexual dissatisfaction or monotony.

There is some stellar acting and some utterly shite acting. There is occasionally a slip into Dawson’s Creek territory infuriating dialogue and teenage romance. There is a very strange plot tangent in series two that comes out of nowhere. This is not perfect telly. But it is deeply satisfying. It is full of total hotties so at least on that level it will always work. Plus it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It gives some space to considering the way in which the Christian faith shapes American culture without viewing that totally negatively. It depicts the elderly with dignity. The soundtrack is superb.

This is a show that has a strong leading female character who has a real moral compass. Not a Hollywood moral compass. She is not certain. She is not glib. She is not sorted. But she has virtue.

So too does her husband. And as the show comes down heavily on the side of excellence over effectiveness, one of the unspoken undertones is the way in which their virtue spreads. That’s some moral complexity from American pop culture. That kind of thing needs to be encouraged.

So go watch Friday Night Lights and try not to fall for Timmy Riggins.

Your Correspondent, Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Guwande

This book is a curious attempt at cross pollinating Aristotlean virtue theory with efficiency thinking.

It is also a much better read than pretty much any popular science I’ve read since the death of Stephen Jay Gould.

It is also probably more profitable for you to read this book than attend a whole conference on leadership theory.

Plus, it is a big public intellectual utterly justifying my archaic practice of keeping a little folded piece of paper in my back pocket and renewing it every Monday morning.

To-do list technology

As you can see, I rely on only the most cutting edge of “apps” to make me as effective as I am. I print 50 pieces of paper some time after New Year’s Eve and that is me sorted for the year. I also keep ring binders with the last four years of my inane to-do lists in case it is of critical importance I know which day I recycled bottles in the third week of March 2008.

Guwande offers a rough-and-ready but very usefull categorisation of problems. They are either:

  • Simple
  • Complicated
  • Complex
  • Simple problems are like baking butterfly cakes: we know how to solve the problem, the problem involves the mastery of only basic skills and the problem varies little.

    Complicated problems are like rocket science challenges that involve many simple problems that must be orchestrated in the correct order without a solidly set template for success although with the potential for evolving effectiveness.

    Finally complex problems are like raising a child. Success is hard to ascertain. It is impossible to abstract out a set of simple problems or even break it into complicated problems. The challenge is constantly new with each iteration. It is possible, it just isn’t systematisable.

    I think this theory alone is worth the reading of the book.

    His claim is that simple checklists serve two mutually related purposes. Firstly, in their tried and tested development they are a means by which to avoid making stupid mistakes (or making mistakes stupidly in a crisis) and secondly they can foster communication when teams of specialists gather to do a complex job.

    This is important because most of the problems that we face, that involve more steps than the human mind can easily recall (surgery, rocket design, church calendar planning(!)) also involve more than one person. The mythical man-month that computer programmers are familiar with applies whenever specialists gather to do a complex job. Checklists, the examples he most commonly cites are in plane cockpits and surgery theatres, are a means by which to foster the integration of abilities around a common goal that constitutes teamwork as against having a bunch of individuals pursuing their parallel objectives.

    The virtue aspect of this is brought out best of all in his discussion of how different bodies in American life responded to Hurricane Katrina. Weirdly enough, the body who perhaps contributed the most was Walmart. This was in part because they decentralised their response. Over a 100 of their stores were to be affected by the storm. They told managers and assistant managers that they would be forced into making decisions way above their pay scale. In that situation, the Walmart central HQ advised their staff to simply gather as much information as possible before making any decision and to do what is right. This meant in one case, a manager drove through her gutted store in a JCB, emptied the pharmaceutical stores and restocked local hospitals with the drugs and provisions.

    Walmart congratulated her on her leadership skills.

    Aristotle didn’t have paper and ballpoint pens. So he couldn’t have checklists. Imagine if he had such advances at hand. He might have been able to do the laundry, remember the milk, iron his shirt and pick up croissants for the staff meeting. Guwande reminds me that virtue formation can often rely on the most basic habitual practices.

    Your Correspondent, When he was the first to use incommensurability in a haiku, critics hailed it as a miracle