One Quote Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

My first Margaret Atwood book. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect 1984. This is thought provoking novel but it won’t make you feel lovely and gooey inside. In fact, while an interesting proposition, it comes out perhaps as a dull finished product. I’m not saying it needs some ninjas and an alien, but the novel is largely inside someone’s head.

America is taken over by some quasi-Christian cult. Their Ayatollah style regime is obsessed with fertility. The handmaids are women who failed to meet the strict moral regulations and are trained to be nothing more than birthing tanks.

One of the most dreadful passages, in the sense of evoking dread, takes place when the protagonist is out for her daily walk:

At the corner is the store known as Soul Scrolls. It’s a franchise: there are Soul Scrolls in every city center, in every suburb, or so they say. It must make a lot of profit.

The window of Soul Scrolls is shatterproof. Behind it are printout machines, row on row of them; these machines are known as Holy Rollers, but only among us, it’s a disrespectful nickname. What the machines print is prayers, roll upon roll, prayers going out endlessly. They’re ordered by Compuphone, I’ve overheard the Commander’s Wife doing it. Ordering prayers from Soul Scrolls is supposed to be a sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime, so of course the Commanders’ Wives do it a lot. It helps their husbands’ careers.

There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.

The machines talk as they print out the prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over. Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again. There are no people inside the building: the machines run by themselves. You can’t hear the voices from outside; only a murmur, a hum, like a devout crowd, on its knees.

Your Correspondent, Almost always does a whole-arsed job of it.

One Line Review: Drive

This is a good movie marred by hyper-violence and suspected (by me) of being so critically acclaimed because a nice trick is making a movie notionally about driving cars very fast on city streets and actually filling it with slow motion shots of people moving close to each other in enclosed places.

Your Correspondent, Made his fortune doing open-casket caricatures

One Line Review: 30 Minutes Or Less

While this has the potential to be a rip-roaring bit of fun, the screenwriters forgot to make sure we liked even one of the characters and so as a result the premise that should be thrill-inducing is just another prop to facilitate jokes where the punchline involves some synonym of “cock”.

Your Correspondent, Has 99 problems and they’re all red balloons

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

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Guwande

This book is a curious attempt at cross pollinating Aristotlean virtue theory with Lifehacker.com-style 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