Clive James (1939-2019) has just died. He was a poet, novelist, writer, TV critic and TV showman famous as a wit and a humorist, although I never found him to be very funny. Strangely, not actually being funny is apparently not a barrier to acquiring a reputation as a comic writer, as the careers of Howard Jacobson and Saul Bellow demonstrate. Jacobson, an Honorary Life Member of the UK branch of the Expatriate Australian Mutual Admiration Society, praises his fellow Society member in today’s Grauniad.
The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind.
The Bitcoin whitepaper was published on 31 October 2008, ten years ago today.
Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, where Britain and France sought to appease Hitler by signing away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Last month was the 50th anniversay of the Warsaw Pact invasion which ended the Prague Spring. More here and here.
And 28 October 2018 was the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918.
Recent Reading 15
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.
- Michael Ovitz : Who is Michael Ovitz? A Memoir. USA: WH Allen. This is a fascinating and well-written autiobiography by the co-founder and driving force behind Creative Artists Agency. CAA grew from nothing to dominate the agency business in movies and TV, and then entered M&A consultancy and advertising. I always admired the chutzpah of this strategy and marveled at its success. The book explains how CAA’s creative bundling of the products of its writers, actors, musicians, directors and producers enabled it to grow as an agency, and also enabled the diversification: the expertise gained in strategizing and financially evaluating creative bundles was used to value Hollywood studios (with their back catalogues) as potential acquisition targets. Likewise, the creativity in bundling and the access to diverse talent was used to design successful advertisements. What surprised me reading this book was that the diversification ended after just two acquisition assignments and one advertising project (Coca Cola’s polar bears). The key reason for this seems to have been the opposition of Mr Ovitz’s partners and colleagues at CAA, despite the handsome and arguably unearnt rewards his efforts brought many of them. No good deed ever goes unpunished, it seems. // The book also presents his experiences as President at Disney. Although of course we only hear his side of that story, he does seem to have been undermined from before he even began work there. // Overall, the writing is articulate and reflective, and he seems to have grown personally through his career and his apparent failures. I greatly admire his continued desire and willingness to learn new things – new skills, new businesses, new industries, new cultures, new hobbies. Doing this requires rare, personal courage. Few people in American business were as willing as he was to immerse themselves in Japanese culture when doing business in Japan, for instance. One characteristic Mr Ovitz does not ever display is smugness, and this absence is admirable.
Recent Reading 14
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.
- Kate McClymont and Linton Besser : He Who Must Be Obeid. Australia: Random House. The life and fast times of Eddie Obeid, perhaps, despite the strong calibre of the competition, the most corrupt person ever to be a Cabinet Minister in NSW.
- Bob Carr : Run for Your Life. Australia: Melbourne University Press. A memoir mostly of Carr’s times as Premier of NSW (1995-2005), running a government which was, untypically for NSW, seemingly uncorrupt.
- Aldous Huxley : Music at Night and Other Essays. Flamingo reissue.
- Keith Gessen : A Terrible Country. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Writing as smooth as a gimlet, and extremely engrossing.
Rue Malibran, Brussel.
Idioms of explanation
Life is a series of events that bombard us like waves in the surf. How do we explain these events? Different religions provide fundamentally different explanations.
- Atheism says there is no explanation – the events happen randomly, and only by chance do they happen to us in particular. We are not responsible for what happens to us, no one is.
- Traditional pagan and animist world-views, and religions such as Shintoism, Confucianism and African spirit worship, assert the existence of unseen spiritual forces or entities, who may bestow good or bad fortune on us through the events they send our way. All deleterious events or mishaps are thus the work of malevolent entities, who may be acting with or for malicious humans, intent on harming us. The spiritual entities require continual praise and gifts or sacrifices, as if they were feudal lords, to moderate or mitigate their actions. We are not responsible for what happens to us, spirits are.
- Judaism and Christianity imagine an omniscient and omnipotent God who, for reasons beyond our understanding, sends events our way. In some Protestant versions of Christianity, the events and perhaps even our responses have been predetermined by God before we are born. In Catholicism, which mixes, as Santayana argued, Christianity with paganism, God’s decisions may be tempered by appeals from other spiritual beings, such as angels and the souls of the dead, petitioning for us. We are not responsible for what happens to us, God is.
- Buddhism posits that the events which happen to us are the consequences of our own past decisions. In some versions, we are reincarnated and what happens to us in any one life is the consequence of what we did in previous lives. We are not responsible for what happens to us, our past selves are.
- In other versions of Buddhism, such as Nichiren Buddhism, what happens to us is the consequence of thoughts, words or actions in this life. This view is held also by certain New Age thinkers, such as those of the New Thought Movement and followers of the Law of Attraction. The time between a causal thought or action and manifestation of its consequential effects in our lives may be very short, of the order of weeks, if the causal action is held or undertaken with sufficient emotional intensity. Nichiren Shoshu adherents believe that negative karma from previous lives may be eliminated by actions, such as chanting, in this life. We ourselves are responsible for what happens to us, both good and bad.