2014-04-18

Acting on expert medical advice that my recent pattern of extreme inactivity (sitting down for two years) is actually very bad, I bought a FitBit Flex in order to measure just how bad. Not that bad, as it turns out — although, I do need to go for a walk more often than not.

My immediate impression is that it is not a "wearable" per se. Okay, it is a wearable by definition but it operates as more of a passive sensor than how other wearables are described. Especially since accessing the data pushes you to your phone or computer and not away from them, as the wearable space has been positioned more generally.

In other words, just because you happen to be wearing it does not mean you have to pay attention to it. This might sound counterintuitive, given that all of our devices are united in a conspiracy to sap every last fraction of our attention, but it is actually empowering.

The daily push to meet specific goals is a nice incentive to be active when you might not have been otherwise but I can imagine this backfiring with certain personality types. It's not for everyone, clearly. But it may not be entirely what you've heard, either.

2014-04-17

And here's David Graeber in his recent book, The Democracy Project (2013), with an equally cogent answer about the Great Recession (and fitting pair to Taibbi from earlier):

There has been much talk in recent years about the financialization of capitalism, or even in some versions the "financialization of everyday life." In the United States and much of Europe, this has been accompanied by deindustrialization; the U.S economy is no longer driven by exports, but by the consumption of products largely manufactured overseas, paid for by various forms of financial manipulation. This is usually spoken in terms of the dominance of what's called the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) in the economy.

You can triangulate the whole mess from their respective points alone.

2014-04-11

Here's Matt Taibbi in his new book, The Divide (2014), with a rather cogent answer as to why no one has gone to jail for the financial chicanery that produced the Great Recession in 2008:

Every day on Wall Street, money is stolen, embezzled, burgled, and robbed. But the mechanisms of these thefts are often so arcane and idiosyncratic that that they don't fit neatly into the criminal code, which is written for the dumb crimes committed by common stick-up artists and pickpockets.

The short answer, anyway.

2014-04-10

I read P.J. O'Rourke's Parliament Of Whores (1991) last week and was genuinely surprised by how relevant the book remains (despite being bound to an ancient-feeling, minor political era), by how well it holds up (despite being having its main thrust co-opted and then eclipsed), and by how much I actually agreed with it (despite rejecting its underlying assumption).

It would be a mistake to conflate the book's legitimate distrust of government (rooted in "we, the people" misanthropy) with the calculated dysfunction practiced by those who have since warped its theme to their own designs. The George Carlin-like review of the Constitution, the line-item budget review, and the broader discussion about entitlements — seemingly impenetrable subjects, micromanaged by a clique of cranky experts — render government accessible to the individual. O'Rourke proves that you can write (and learn) about government without inducing a coma and, more importantly, that it can be done without blundering through philosophical digressions about the mechanics of government that so often inoculate the public against ever developing an interest.

In my reading, the book does little to explicitly disassociate the argument for less government with a general indifference toward the "tired", "poor", and "huddled masses" of the American founding narrative within libertarianism and right-of-centre politics more generally. This is frustrating as O'Rourke does so implicitly in many of his individual investigations. To go to this much trouble and not meet in the middle seems wasteful; but, I digress...

Overall, O'Rourke's underlying observation about the failure of America (and perhaps the West in general) to take anything seriously anymore prefigures the growing conversation (more like autopsy, really) about the failure of our institutions, or the failure of our faith in them, or both. Perhaps it is best to take Parliament Of Whores as a core part of this rather than holding it as an accessory to such co-optation.

2014-03-27

Toronto endured the first of one too many mayoral debates yesterday.

None of the assembled candidates rose to the dignity of the office nor did they overcome the trivial pettiness of running for student council. Even the moderator went through the motions like an indifferent hostage. It will be a long march to late October from here on out; I just hope we're still able to look each other in the eye after we get there.

It is odd how reluctant the other candidates were to actually call out the incumbent — especially his only truly viable challenger, who just concluded a masterfully covert (if fairly predictable) campaign deployment and returned home to a media fête befitting a conquering general.

I hope her campaign knows what they are doing. Seriously. Let's see a little swagger: My fellow citizens, my opponent is, in fact, a giant chicken. Now, let's talk about the issues...

Otherwise we may need to seriously entertain the possibility of invoking a "none of the above" option. Toronto functioned without a mayor for much (all?) of the present term, why not put an actual chicken in the office and empower Council to designate one of their own to attend red ribbon cuttings in its stead?

2014-03-26

I read Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle's Crazy Town (2014) over the weekend. It certainly caught my attention when it was released, as investigative books about sitting municipal officials are completely unprecedented, but I panned it as part of the collective effort within the city proper (and perhaps the entire country) to avert my senses from anything and everything related to Mayor "Laughable Bumblefuck" and his ongoing one-man race to the bottom.

Dear Mayor, recuse thyself. Attend to help. Go away.

I relented after Doolittle's interview on The Daily Show — a most reprehensible Canadian cliché, forgive me — where she sold the story as a much more comprehensive effort than timing and such attention might otherwise imply. And it is. Here is a book that immediately appealed to the baser sensationalist appetites of the American media behemoth that does not follow their predictable template. Crazy Town is not a cheap shot. It observes a generous, professional respect toward both subject and his family — which is quite a feat, all things considered.

I am not sure how Doolittle managed to put this together in just three months without sacrificing writing quality or organizational clarity but she did. Nor am I sure how Toronto recovers from this unfortunate episode but the book makes taking stock of the situation less onerous than scandal fatigue might suggest.

I would have preferred that the book address two specific issues which have been overlooked but, to be fair, these might be better suited for the inevitable sequel. The first and much more pervasive of the two issues is the deep-rooted social conflation between the alleged substance and class. In other words, the mayor is being popularly admonished the world over not so much for allegedly abusing a substance as he is for allegedly abusing a low class substance. While the book is critical of all substance abuse, it could have made a better use of the platform to correct such social perceptions — especially as it pertains to specific communities.

The second and less pertinent, though no less fascinating, of the two issues is the fact that Toronto has continued to function without a functioning mayor — and then, functioned all the same as the same non-functioning mayor was finally stripped of all meaningful powers. In other words, Toronto may not need a mayor after all. It would certainly be an unspeakably ironic fulfillment of this particular mayor's campaign catchphrase if he inadvertently exposed the redundancy of his own office.

2013-06-18

I lucked into a charming 1979 hardcover of Joseph Heller's Good As Gold (1976) — which I remembered Christopher Hitchens extolling at the close of The Trial of Henry Kissenger (2001) — at Encore Books and Records in Montreal this past April.

I thought it would serve as a nice distraction from my daily research over the past week. It's a classic satire, to be sure, but I have to confess that my reading was entirely undermined by the glut of derivative political spoofery and unwitting self-parody over the past (not quite) forty years. You know, that sensation you have watching the Colbert Report when the verisimilitude hits the right frequency and everyone, including Stephen, is uncomfortable.

Here's an example. I am not even sure this — "The Administration has decided to fight inflation by raising prices to lower demand to reduce prices to increase demand and bring back the inflationary high prices we want to lower by reducing demand to increase demand and raise prices" — passes for parody anymore. It's just news now.

2013-05-21

I finally got around to Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man (1951) recently. The line that went on to haunt me most, among the other exemplary passages, was this:

They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group of another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves. 

2013-05-20

Today is Victoria Day. The day most Canadians celebrate a favourite former monarch of certain longevity — one generally synonymous with a particularly virulent strain of priggishness and whose lamentable decision to place the capital in Ottawa over a more central city (read: westerly) has hampered federal politics from their inception — by consuming a stereotypical amount of alcohol in a stereotypical fashion while detonating small munitions in the privacy of their backyard.

I've always had an aversion to the private use of fireworks. There's just something disturbing about the citizens of a peaceable society willingly subjecting themselves to the isolated sounds of micro-explosions. It's basically a middle-finger to all the societies around the world whose people live in constant fear of violence  many of whom make their way to this country as refugees or immigrants in search of freedom from such brutality.

The public displays put on by communities or municipalities are entirely different matter: they're coordinated and they bring people together  done properly, they can be quite beautiful.

I know, I know; get off my lawn... just take your fireworks with you.

2013-05-19

I am halfway through Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, having just finished Excession (1996) — not quite my favourite, The Player of Games (1988) presently holds that distinction, but a very close second.

Excession explores the Culture’s reaction to the sudden arrival of an unknown artefact beyond the known capacity of the galaxy’s leading or retired players. This presents them with what Banks refers to as an “Outside Context Problem” which he wryly describes as:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

The utility of such meditations is part of what makes science fiction so relevant and the contempt with which literature proper reserves for genre so reprehensible.

2013-05-08

I read Marc Maron’s Attempting Normal (2013) last weekend.

While recounting a recent trip to the original Levi’s store in San Francisco in a latter chapter, Marc observes something crucial to our plummeting faith in institutions:

…Levi’s represented something with integrity, something American, but American in the best way possible. Something of value that lasted. Now everything turns to garbage inside a couple of years. Planned obsolescence has forever denied us the ability to believe in workmanship, institutions, and lifetime guarantees. This is true with everything from pants to marriages. And obviously life itself.

Could that be it: the reason we don’t believe in anything anymore is because we no longer build anything to last — right down to our pants?

…I enjoyed your book, Marc, are we good?

Book Leave

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I have wanted to go on “book leave” ever since I first learned of the concept, discovering an unknown guest contributor occupying the place of a regular columnist on the New York Times’ op-ed page, during my first year of university.

I failed to understand why a writer charged with producing a couple of five to eight hundred word “hey, how about that?” / “get off my lawn” ruminations a week couldn't manage a book project at the same time but, then again, this was a simpler time — a time before blogging married into journalism and such entitlements went unquestioned. I had yet to decide which writing-related career path I wanted to pursue (first, anyway) at that point but I was absolutely certain that I wanted it to include book leave.

In March 2012, two weeks after I submitted a revised thesis proposal with designs on graduating in August, a friend invited me to join his book-length project as a co-author. I really wanted to graduate but obviously I couldn’t refuse. Everything else would have to wait; I would have to go on book leave.

We published Canadian Political Structure and Public Administration (4th edition) in January. It’s my first book. I couldn’t be more pleased or prouder.

I’m set to finish my thesis in August of this year. No harm done. And book leave was everything I thought it would be.

* * *

Dear just-before-lunch fall term civics class of 2001: I not only finished every bit of class work a full half hour before any of you but I've now officially lapped you, spectacularly.

An Underwhelming Manifesto

This is a collection of irregular comments and missives on a variety of subjects, and occasional essays and book reviews. It is updated infrequently and presented without any underlying theme.

I suppose, if it had a theme, it might be "moderately disappointed"  a vague discriptor that I've been applying to myself in social networking profiles from the very beginning. It pretty much means whatever I want it to; although, I suppose the heart of it might be: one part lapsed misanthropy, one part cultural anthropology, and one part Seth and Amy’s “Really?!”.

In sum, this site is a homage to the time before the rise of the one, true social network when people maintained their own personal sites. Such sites shared a public space and afforded their owners complete control over their own content. It wasn't a golden age  there's no such thing, after all  we were just less lazy about certain things.

Thanks for visiting. Feel free to share, comment, or argue but, you know, not too much.