Simple Thoughts

Dec 20

Best Books I read in 2013

I read nonfiction. I basically only read fiction when it is philosophically motivated and influential, a historical landmark, or when it contributes to some sort of context I want to have, like if I am going to a country in which it takes place. Therefore, I wouldn’t take my fiction commentary too seriously. 

Antifragile

Taleb’s often endearing, but frequently overbearing (and in the midst of key passages, no less) ego, absent-minded disorganization, indulgent and liberal analogizing, amid other avoidable errors, are not enough to extinguish the brilliance of his original thesis. Overlap with The Black Swan is relatively (surprisingly) small. A must read for those interested in nonlinearity talk, in the vein of Jervis’ System Effects, but without the rigour and with, to steal a phrase from a Howard Zinn jacket, “a shotgun blast of revisionism.” I would still start with the Black Swan, but stopping there would be self-punitive. This is not a technical work and relating technical matters is not Taleb’s forte. His forte is effulgence. 

Thinking Fast and Slow

The pitch-perfect, comprehensive introduction for laypeople. An antidote to Gladwell, but so much more. High school textbook material, in a good way, but also recommended for lake-side reading. Basically what textbooks should be, bestowing definitions, examples, and evidences for various cognitive biases, without any of the usual eye-glazing roadblocks. I would go so far as to say asocial science triumph. 

Dubliners

Elegant, crisp, and lucid prose. Astounding in arrangement at every scale — word, sentence, paragraph, story, work — with expansive sublime commentary through inference. Instills resonant heartbreak.

Bird of Chaman, Flower of the Khyber: Riding Shotgun from Karachi to Kabul 

Matt Aikins intrepid journalism in long, narrative form. Full disclosure, I worked directly with (and under the tutelage of) Matt at the magazine he ran during his final year of Queen’s University. A talented writer, he has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria…Are those hotspots sufficient? He has interviewed warlords, crossed through dangerous checkpoints, ducked gunfire, investigated torture, exposed the murder of Afghan civilians by US forces, spent days with Syrian bomb makers, the list goes on and on. He’s written for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, the Atlantic, et al. To my mind, the premier conflict journalist under forty writing in the English language. 

Elements of Poker

The starting point for any aspiring poker professional looking to enact a lifelong tuning of their mental game. 

The Swerve

Sneaking into the list, is effective, interesting scholarship and well organized, informative history, overlaying an intriguing narrative. What puts Greenblatt a cut above is his uncanny ability to lay out in plain language the nuts and bolts of competing philosophical premises, in their context. With this power comes some responsibility, and Greenblatt errs on hyperbole a smidgen at times. Another must for those touring the history of ideas. 

Arguably 

He was the best living writer of English nonfiction until he wasn’t. A man who wrote in a wide variety of formats, Arguably is a collection that plays to his strengths. His reviews outclass his long-form work, such as the infamous and popular god is Not Great, to the point where it is, to my mind, unfortunate that it is the book he is most well known for.

In this collection he is the epitome of freethinker, navigating everything from animal rights to Benjamin Franklin studies.

His review of an apparently forgettable Mark Twain biography is a study in critical dissection. His prose are crafted to sever. He balances detailed consideration and pithy wit, but not delicately, because he is seemingly never in danger of being hysterical or hyperbolic, while simultaneously ravaging the banal, the lazy, the haphazard, the uncritical, and the misinformed. A unique collection whose only fault is its exclusion, despite dozens upon dozens of entries (ie plenty of room), of his 2006 Slate column on Slobodan Milosevic. That piece, again highlighting my own bias, contains the following favourite: “Beware of those resentful nonentities who enter politics for therapeutic reasons.”

Incredible writing like this does not litter Arguably, it forms the ground on which everything else stands.

Honourable Mentions

Infinite Jest

Unique, virtuoso, and perpetually intriguing.

Simply, for prolonged stretches, not achieving a state of being compelling. Not a page turner. One has a hard time identifying with any characters, much less the majority of those who might be roughly pigeonholed into the role of protagonist as their portion of narrative is limelit. 

Wallace is a prose artist, a classic case of, pardon the cliche, perfecting the rules in order to break them — with spectacular results. Coinage and spin, technically playful. If Wallace, as a 1,000 page novelist, were to be rendered into a basketball player, coaches would unanimously assert “he does all the little things.” 

There is simply no way Jest cannot be characterized as self-indulgent. But that is fine, because indulging Wallace is surrendering to something majestic. My preference to be rendered a hapless page-turner, ignorant to my surroundings, was never fully actualized, particularly in the first 400 pages, as important in my mind as any other 400. 

On the other hand, for what one supposes Wallace was trying to do, he, in my present, humble estimation, executed it near-flawlessly. 

The Signal and the Noise

A noble effort. The world is better that this book was written. Nate Silver was not the hero some wanted, as far as literary capacity, but he is the hero they got. 

The Idea of Decline in Western Civilization 

A survey of history that suffers from a lack of corroboration in the assassination of various philosophers with whom we can infer the author brooks philosophical disagreement. An otherwise excellent survey, certainly worth studying, drawing from a breadth including W E B Dubois and Nietzsche. 

Naked Lunch

The filthiest book I have ever read, bar none. Its black type on white page is make you look over your shoulder on planes filthy. Truly pornographic. 

Crescent and Star

American Stephen Kinzer (who wrote the also recommended All the Shah’s Men) has written an informative work that suffers from narrative injections and unabashed romanticism for his adopted state. 

The worst books I read in 2013

I feel bad about my neck - Nora Ephron

This book humoured me less than I did it. 

Bone in the throat

Not the elsewhere brilliant, Renaissance flaneur-on-camera Anthony Bourdain’s best. Far superior to Ephron’s offering, though. 

May 24

The Quebec Student Protests

Almost two years ago I made this post, which is uncanny in its applicability to the current Quebec student protests. 

A play without a hero

People might point to Quebec’s emergency legislation as proof of the fact that the government is in the wrong. Sure, it is in the wrong, but not in comparison to the student protesters, only in general. The students also happen to be in the wrong.

Misguided would be a great adjective to describe both parties. Anytime a Western democracy passes an emergency powers law it makes an unwitting admission that its legislators have no idea of the history of their own polity. It is an admission of ignorance. Not just of practicality — the fact being that these laws and efforts never work to their intended effect. More importantly is the total ignorance it shows with regards to the history of laws of this nature. Their absence and repeal, over time, is one of the main benchmarks of progress on the road to the prosperous and flourishing society we find ourselves in today. Those in the Quebec legislature cannot argue, without betraying ignorance to the seriousness of crises past, or the relative lack of seriousness of the student protests, that this is a crisis worthy of an emergency powers law. Moreover, there are laws on the books. Not to point out the obvious but, somehow, up to this point in recent history, Quebec has been a relatively orderly place. 

The students are more obviously in the wrong, that is to say their wrongness is more conspicuous. They seem to realize that there is a state and that the state has interests. What they are painfully unaware of is that they are not an oppressed minority standing up for itself, but rather, an incredibly fortunate group merely protecting their interests. 

Wrapping yourself in righteousness

Were these students aware they were receiving essentially a corporate hand out from the state, at the expense of the rest of society, and wanted to protect themselves from their subsidy being reduced, they would draw up a public relations campaign that painted themselves as an oppressed, hard-working minority “up against it” as it were by the penurious provincial government “going back” on its word. Moreover they would paint the issue in light of its fairness, its justice, cosmic justice! It would be a brilliant way to brand your interest group and to deceive the public who may or may not know better or who may or may not take the time to find out. 

It just so happens, by way of happy accident, that the student protesters have painted themselves in this optimal public relations light: the unwashed, hardworking low men and women on the totem pole, simply fighting for what is right.

The truth is a neat little proof of the fact that, independent of whether age bestows wisdom, those lacking the former don’t possess the latter. I feel partially obliged to write this now since, at twenty-six, my ability to make such statements with any credibility is expiring. 

Because the students actually believe what they portend on their placards and signs, they actually shout their slogans with conviction, not in sole interest of fulfilling their interests, but also in interest of supposed and phantasmic cosmic justice. They’ve been tricked by lightswitch enlightenment; the light is on, but nobody is home. Such is the privilege of privilege — the ability to inculcate yourself in the belief that what has been given to you is deserved. 

Feb 22

The Limits of Multiculturalism

This article originally appeared here and I am indebted to The Mark for publishing it so I do not want this reprint to be seen as anything untoward. Really, I wanted something leading this space that was not the Hitchens tribute, since that piece, apart from being laden with obscure references, probably has the least broad appeal of anything I have ever written, which is saying quite a lot. It seems likely that a few more people will be visiting this space, hopefully spillover from the other blog I have been keeping here. If you don’t know of it, and think that I have just been not writing anything this past while, well I am sure this, this, or this, will convince you otherwise. 

Anyways, an update on this piece. Recently the father, his (preferred) wife, and his son were all indicted on murder charges based on the killing of the four women. This has been much publicized so I assume most have come across the story, I mention it in interest of full disclosure. My view, without actually having been in Canada for 15 months, is that the trial and the media coverage I have taken in seems to signal a shift of the conversation from the (often inane) “how culturally relativist should we be” back and forth to the “how can we address this issue in our communities” question. 

***

Sitting in a coffee shop I overheard the barista soothe repeatedly “it is their culture” to an elderly regular. Her statement was both an explanation and an excuse; the customer could not understand why it had happened or how it was justified. Word had spread that the four women who drowned just outside Kingston last July had been murdered, by their own family, in what the National Post’s Tarek Fatah characterizes correctly as an “honour killing.” A man, his son, and his second wife had killed his first wife and their three daughters, ostensibly because one teen acted salaciously and thus shamefully. Fatah, a devout Muslim, takes the view that “the Koran does not sanction such murders, but man-made sharia law … does allow for the killing of women if they indulge in pre-marital or extra-marital consensual sex.” It is their culture. But what the barista offered as a defence should be an indictment.

In 1985, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act became law. The contradictions it contains offer a clear parallel to the mindset of those Canadians today who would offer a similar line.

(1) It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to

a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;

e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;

Canada is experiencing a widespread conflation between the rights and freedoms a liberal democratic state should endorse and unqualified cultural relativism. It is far from desirable for the state to have citizens preserving or sharing, much less enhancing, barbaric aspects of their cultural heritage. It should also be clear that ensuring the first portion of section (e) will oftentimes be anathema to respecting, much less valuing, diversity.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that a belief in basic human equality, when coupled with a desire to inhabit a society freely populated by people from all over the world, constitutes a culture itself. This kind of culture cannot, by definition, be one that welcomes all kinds of cultures into its midst.

One perverse alternative to this arrangement is cultural relativism, whereby members of one culture cannot judge those from another, simply because they “have not walked in another’s shoes.” This is too often the excuse given by Canadians to heinous actions of fellow citizens or to heinous practices accepted in distant lands.

There is no doubt that unjustified xenophobia persists in Canada. However, apologizing for the negative aspects of immigrant cultures is the furthest thing from a rational response to this societal shortcoming. And yet, it is the tactic the politically correct most often adopt. In their minds being called xenophobic themselves would surely be worse than admitting that there are inferior aspects of other cultures.

But what of those who would genitally mutilate their infant children, as if modifying their own property? What of the “traditional lifestyle” that keeps so many First Nation communities impoverished? What of Aqsa Pervez of Mississauga who was slain by her own father because of the choice she made, her choice, not to don the hijab? Surely a hurtful label can be risked in order to speak out against not just these acts, but against any culture that endorses them.

It is actually not that difficult for people from all around the world to cohabit a liberal democracy that affords them relative security, opportunities for prosperity, and the rights and freedoms an “equalist” would expect. People have much to gain from one another. You don’t need any abstract explanation for why a population diverse in geographic origin is preferable if you have eaten sashimi, samosas, or shawarma after growing up on chicken and potatoes. Cuisine suffices, to say nothing of music, fashion, literature, art, or more compelling still, the interpersonal relationships we form. Social cohesion is certainly not induced by lame government-sponsored cultural celebrations, but rather by the everyday social and economic benefits we derive from one another.

This ongoing conflation between the logic of equality and misguided political correctness is harming Canada’s chances of success. There is no hypocrisy in thinking and speaking critically of one’s own culture while doing the same of, and indeed rejecting outright, other cultures. When the freedom of women, the rights of children, or the hopes of the impoverished are at stake, let me suggest we do both.

Dec 16

But why does he have to be such an asshole?

The imaginary question from the imaginary person, who verily exists in this world, just not in my life, leads one to believe that another, less uncouth, expositor could have come along and been just as well heard and just as well considered and just as doubly well read. This is a falsity held up by Quixotism but maybe more precisely an inaccurate gauge of the state of the world’s other minds. 

There are times to argue diplomatically, to make false concessions, to implore and to retract, to self-deprecate and to parry one’s own advances and one’s own territorial claims, that is if one seeks to plant the seed of an idea or perhaps just an emotion of nostalgia in the mind of another whose favour you personally need. This class of discussion need not always be with a women whose bed of which you seek joint custody for but tonight, but across broad surveys, this is when it occurs most often. 

To not care what anyone else thinks is the correct stance to take on one’s own public expressions. Not for personal indulgence in smug erudition (while enjoyable), but because not having a stake in changing someone’s mind implies one is not in the literal business of doing so and that no gain of financial or ecclesiastic variety is on the cusp of seizure by hoodwink. The book is already sold; the column is already filed; the cheque is already in the mail and no one with a clip board awaits you as you filter out of the hall angry at that daft prick. Besides the silent electronic donations to the business of literalism which would have once announced their repeated cupidity with the familiar rattling of the collection bowl are the mercurial hindrances of the listener’s emotions, wooed by those who would study Cicero on oration not for what to spot, but for what to do. It is rare for someone to change their mind instantaneously and when it does happen it is often in times of distress and vulnerability, an arrival at gullibility by way of fear and inducement.

When I entreat someone to teach me something, as I do from time to time, I sit with open mind, and their thoughts pour through me like water through a sieve. I am actively ready for my mind to be changed, I know what I currently think on the subject is a hodgepodge ignorance, a collection of common sense natterings at best, and yet their efforts go unquaffed. It takes work for me to rehash and to revisit what has been said and why they have said it. But it is necessary because I am unable to purchase through husbandry or through lottery that which Pascal peddles, to believe without believing.

The wit behind the unapologetic diatribe, unwittingly or not, ensures his toil’s harvest is fairly reaped, that being, to plant the seed of a notion, that the meritocracy of the receiving mind can then promote or fire over time through examination and scrutiny of its own volition. This is the seared impression as gift, not for purchase or for sale. Quite in contrast to all those abnormally alliterative speakers who would wish, with charlatan charisma, others into halcyon hock, impervious to the careful consideration of facts and follies. That is how the man of letters and of the hour could know he had truly succeeded, when a skeptic is defeated despite being filled by his bilious essay with the fluid of choler. To not only dispense with, but oppose the persuasive techniques of the sophists, for the sophistication of ridicule, is not so much of a challenge as an investment in one’s apologies’ integrity. 

Some pieces of culture we would all agree are disdainful, and some, though we may not agree which ones, superior in nature. And so some amalgamations of many pieces of culture one would assume by transference are therefore disdainful and inferior in nature. The opposing opinion was something which Hitch perennially derided and shamed, for it is clear that an elevation of those things we should not discriminate against — be it race, creed, party, or religion — is a defense of unsavory tribalism. Any allegiance to these mock, blow up doll divisions for dummies is a type of stupidity similar to that of the bigot. For the culture one has, especially in today’s west, is the culture one chooses, so that one’s culture is ultimately the amalgamation of the pieces of culture one elevates by virtue of deeming them worthy of reflection. Without heed to any ideological or other prerequisite, the amalgamation Hitchens enjoyed, he was by his virtuosity also contributing to until the end. 

And so we realize that it couldn’t be done another way, the asshole is reason’s man. No man who chose to respect a peep of his inner milquetoast would be able to stand up for reason and sanity and criticism as much as Hitchens did. Never to hide behind shelves or peers or committees or titles or desks or blackboard and chalk, he says and he writes what he means and he expects to be evaluated on its merits. His causticity is the reaper of the intellectually slovenly habits of so many women and men in this ongoing spectacle, our species’ slow and assiduous awakening, century by century, from its self imposed immaturity.