Sunday, January 31, 2010

Five of the Best

These are five of the best movies that I saw in 2009:

  1. Up
    Pixar Animations Studios' The Incredibles is one of my all-time favourite movies (I even keep a small Mr. Incredible figurine on my desk). It's my favourite Pixar movie by quite some distance. I had concluded, with regret, that Pixar would never be able to equal, never mind exceed, what they had achieved in The Incredibles. Until Up came along. Up tops The Incredibles in all departments, but most notably in the emotional intensity and authenticity of the characters and the story. The Oscar for Best Animated Feature is in the bag. Again.
  2. Disney's A Christmas Carol
    Jim Carrey can act. That's not something that comes out too strongly from his previous work. Oh, he can play the fool all right. He can face-pull, slap-stick and wise-crack with the best of 'em. But act, really act? No evidence of that whatsoever. But here, in Robert Zemeckis' version of Dicken's classic 1843 novel, Jim Carrey demonstrates that he is more than just a jester. The use of 3D in this movie is judicious, not gratuitous as in so many movies that have jumped on the 3D bandwagon.
  3. The Hangover
    Sometimes a movie sneaks up on you and surprises you. The Hangover is one of those. I wasn't expecting it be as funny and as well made as it turned out to be. The script is an absolute zinger: witty, twisty (in a nice way) AND it has Mike Tyson in it (No, I'm not telling). It was a huge box office hit (much to the surprise of the people who made and funded it I'm sure). So that probably means a not-so-good sequel is about to go into production. A pity really because I think this film deserves to stand on its own as a modern comedy classic.
  4. White Wedding
    The eyes of the world will be on South Africa this year because, as anyone who hasn't been comatose over the last 12 months knows, the world's biggest sporting event, the World Cup, will be hosted here. But what sort of a country is South Africa anyway--I mean beyond the usual, lazy headlines and cliches? This beautiful and funny little film provides as good a starting point as any for anyone who's interested in finding out. And that includes both those that are familiar with this unique country (or think they are) and those that aren't. Somewhere in the starting credits I saw the name Ken Follett and thought "Wait a minute, is this that Ken Follett?" And so it was. Turns out our Ken is the director's step-father. But anyway, this movie is definitely worth a watch and if there's any justice in this world it should get nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar this year.
  5. The Great Debaters
    An odd choice because The Great Debaters came out in 2007, not last year. So what is it doing here? Well, since I'm discussing the best movies I saw in 2009 and I only saw this movie in late 2009 (thanks MS), it stays. Denzel Washington stars (in a supporting role) but the real stars of this movie are the scripting, the casting and Washington's own tender directing. A great film.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

How to Read Wittgenstein

I'm reading (among other things) How to Read Wittgenstein (2005) by Ray Monk, author of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1991). The Duty of Genius is still the best biography available on Wittgenstein. It is a fascinating and beautifully written account of the life of a fascinating man who, in Monk's words, "was by universal agreement one of the greatest and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." And yet, if you asked the proverbial man on the street what Wittgenstein's ideas are: (a) he probably wouldn't know who you're talking about; and, (b) if he did happen to know of or about Wittgenstein, he would probably be quite hazy on the substance of Wittgenstein's ideas. The Duty of Genius solves the first problem; How to Read Wittgenstein solves the second. To get a full and accurate picture of Wittgenstein, both books should be read together.

It is a surprising fact that Wittgenstein's published output during his lifetime consisted of just three works: one book review (1913), one book (1921), and one article (1929).

Monk has also written a two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein's philosophical "mentor". (The reason for using inverted commas around the word mentor should be readily apparent if you are acquainted with the facts of the relationship between Wittgenstein and Russell. If you're not, read this.) I found Monk's biography of Russell hugely disappointing. However, this may well be a consequence of (unfairly) comparing those two books with the brilliantly executed The Duty of Genius.

Monk is currently working on a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It will be interesting to see how he fares with that task.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mr Gates goes to Cyberton

Before last week, Bill Gates, the posterman (let's face it, at 54 he can hardly be a posterchild) of the PC revolution, had exactly one official personal website in the public domain: the Microsoft one. Last week, he added three more: Facebook, Twitter and the Gates Notes. The Gates Notes website is particularly revealing about what makes the world's richest man tick.

Some extras:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dangerous Non-science

"A half truth is a whole lie."
--Yiddish proverb

The anthropogenic climate change movement has been dealt some hard and potentially lethal blows recently. First, there was the Climategate scandal in November 2009. Then there was the much-hyped United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in December 2009. And now this: Glaciergate.

That the earth's climate undergoes changes at various times is undisputed. That certain of these changes are due to human activities is unproven. In spite of this, some African governments have swallowed the anthropogenic climate change agenda hook, line, sinker, fishing rod, fisherman and fisherman's boots. For example, this year (2010) the Zambian government has introduced an annual carbon emissions tax on all motor vehicles. This can only be detrimental to economic and social development.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Prerequisite to Prosperity in Africa

From Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter 2009) of Innovations on the theme "Mobilizing Markets":

"Prerequisite to Prosperity: Why Africa's Future Depends on Better Governance" by Dr. Mo Ibrahim.


Monday, January 04, 2010

Einstein: His Life and Universe

I recently finished reading Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007) by Walter Isaacson.

A superb book. Einstein's life and work, as we all know, is the stuff of popular myth and legend. But what was the real Einstein like?

Here's what struck or surprised me about the man behind the myths and the legends:
  • His tenacity;
  • His sense of humour;
  • His childlike sense of wonder and curiosity;
  • His unshakeable faith in the orderliness of the universe;
  • His intellectual courage and boldness;
  • His human frailties.
In 1909, some four years after his annus mirabilis, and after numerous failed attempts, Einstein finally got offered an academic position (at the University of Zurich). "So, now I too am an official member of the guild of whores,” he remarked.