Thoughts filed in: Books 'n' movies 'n' TV

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11
Oct

Tolstoy: the forgotten philosopher

I recently finished reading the classic novel War and Peace. The 19th-century epic is considered the masterpiece of Leo Tolstoy, and I must say it took me by surprise. In particular, I wasn't expecting its second epilogue, which is a distinct work of its own (and one that arguably doesn't belong in a novel): a philosophical essay discussing the question of "free will vs necessity". I know that the second epilogue isn't to everyone's taste, but personally I feel that it's a real gem.

I was also surprised to learn, after doing a modest bit of research, that Tolstoy is seldom mentioned amongst any of the prominent figures in philosophy or metaphysics over the past several centuries. The only articles that even deign to label Tolstoy as a philosopher, are ones that are actually more concerned with Tolstoy as a cult-inspirer, as a pacifist, and as an anarchist.

So, while history has been just and generous in venerating Tolstoy as a novelist, I feel that his contribution to the field of philosophy has gone unacknowledged. This is no doubt in part because Tolstoy didn't consider himself a philosopher, and because he didn't pen any purely philosophical works (published separately from novels and other works), and because he himself criticised the value of such works. Nevertheless, I feel warranted in asking: is Tolstoy a forgotten philosopher?

11
Oct

Forgotten realms of the Oxus region

In classical antiquity, a number of advanced civilisations flourished in the area that today comprises parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Through this area runs a river most commonly known by its Persian name, as the Amu Darya. However, in antiquity it was known by its Greek name, as the Oxus (and in the interests of avoiding anachronism, I will be referring to it as the Oxus in this article).

The Oxus region is home to archaeological relics of grand civilisations, most notably of ancient Bactria, but also of Chorasmia, Sogdiana, Margiana, and Hyrcania. However, most of these ruined sites enjoy far less fame, and are far less well-studied, than comparable relics in other parts of the world.

I recently watched an excellent documentary series called Alexander's Lost World, which investigates the history of the Oxus region in-depth, focusing particularly on the areas that Alexander the Great conquered as part of his legendary military campaign. I was blown away by the gorgeous scenery, the vibrant cultural legacy, and the once-majestic ruins that the series featured. But, more than anything, I was surprised and dismayed at the extent to which most of the ruins have been neglected by the modern world – largely due to the region's turbulent history of late.

Ayaz Kala (fortress 2) of Khwarezm (Chorasmia), today desert but in ancient times green and lush.

Ayaz Kala (fortress 2) of Khwarezm (Chorasmia), today desert but in ancient times green and lush.

Image source: Stantastic: Back to Uzbekistan (Khiva).

This article has essentially the same aim as that of the documentary: to shed more light on the ancient cities and fortresses along the Oxus and nearby rivers; to get an impression of the cultures that thrived there in a bygone era; and to explore the climate change and the other forces that have dramatically affected the region between then and now.

18
Jul

World domination by box office cinema admissions

It's no secret that Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the world. Hollywood blockbuster movies are among the most influential cultural works in the history of humanity. This got me thinking: exactly how many corners of the globe have American movies spread to; and to what extent have they come to dominate entertainment in all those places? Also, is Hollywood really as all-powerful a global cinema force as we believe; or does it have some bona fide competition these days?

I spent a bit of time recently, hunting for sets of data that could answer these questions in an expansive and meaningful way. And I'm optimistic that what I've come up with satisfies both of those things: in terms of expansive, I've got stats (admittedly of varying quality) for most of the film-watching world; and in terms of meaningful, I'm using box office admission numbers, which I believe are the most reliable international measure of film popularity.

30
Dec

Media through the ages

The 20th century was witness to the birth of what is arguably the most popular device in the history of mankind: the television. TV is a communications technology that has revolutionised the delivery of information, entertainment and artistic expression to the masses. More recently, we have all witnessed (and participated in) the birth of the Internet, a technology whose potential makes TV pale into insignificance in comparison (although, it seems, TV isn't leaving us anytime soon). These are fast-paced and momentous times we live in. I thought now would be a good opportunity to take a journey back through the ages, and to explore the forms of (and devices for) media and communication throughout human history.

24
Jun

On the causes of the First World War

WWI was one of the most costly and the most gruesome of wars that mankind has ever seen. It was also one of the most pointless. I've just finished reading The First Casualty, a ripper of a novel by author and playwright Ben Elton. The novel is set in 1917, and much of the story takes place at the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, which is considered to have been the worst of all the many hellish battles in the war. I would like to quote one particular passage from the book, which I believe is the best summary of the causes of WWI that I've ever read.

23
Dec

Freaky Teletubby hypnosis

I used to think that the Teletubbies were just cute, fat, bouncy, innocent little TV celebrities. But I've finally come to realise the truth that was so obvious all along: the Teletubbies are evil. And very hypnotic. Those flubby tubbies are starting to freak me out.

12
Jun

On death and free minds

For many years, a certain scene from a certain movie has troubled me deeply. In The Matrix (1999), there is a scene where the character 'Neo' is killed. Stone dead, no heartbeat for over thirty seconds, multiple bulletholes through chest. And then he comes back to life. Up until now, my friends and I have always derided this scene as being 'fake' and 'medically impossible'. But like Neo, I believe that I may finally have the answer.

03
Jan

A novel style

The novel is considered the most ubiquitous of all forms of literature. You can find novels by the truckload in any old bookstore. But what is the true 'novel style', and just how common are 'real novels'? Read on to find out why novels aren't quite so common as you might think.

04
Jul

The glossy future

According to science fiction, humanity should by now be exploring the depths of outer space in sleek, warp-powered vehicles. This fantastical Utopia of the 21st century, however, could hardly be further from our own reality. Will the future continue to disappoint, or will it live up to its glossy predictions?

09
Jun

Movies for the masses

Film has been around for over 100 years now. I just saw a documentary about Cecil B DeMille, one of the world's first filmmakers, and the founder of Hollywood. Watching clips of movies made over 80 years ago gave me an idea about the future of old films.

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