Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Elections are sugar-coated oppression."

"You can't exist today, much less be a dodgy, widely hated world leader, and not assume that your every action is being documented."
Infomocracy, by Malka Older, describes a future world operating on the principles of microdemocracy. Every 10 years, everyone worldwide votes for a government in their centenal, a kind of riding or district of 100,000 people, a representative democracy, where the party that wins the majority of centenals, wins the Supermajority — basically, runs the world. But crossing from one centenal to the next, an individual may be subject to a vastly different set of rules.

There's a push from some factions for electoral reform for nanodemocracy, to bring global government closer to one person, one vote. The technology of the future makes this perfectly feasible.

There's a passage from David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy that has always stuck with me:
Consider the ATM machine. In the last thirty years, I can't remember a single occasion in which I have asked an ATM machine for money and gotten an incorrect amount. Nor have I been able to find anyone I know who can. This is so true that in the wake of the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, when the public was being regaled with statistics on the 2.8 percent degree of error expected from this type of voting machine, or the 1.5 percent expected from that, some had the temerity to point out that in a country that defines itself as the world's greatest democracy, where elections are our very sacrament, we seem to just accept that voting machines will regularly miscount the vote, while every day hundreds of millions of ATM transactions take place with an overall zero percent rate of error. What does this say about what really matters to Americans as a nation?
According to Graeber, it would seem, America values money over democracy. The future of Infomocracy indicates a mature global economy; money and voting as values may be seen as equivalent. Electoral technology is accurate. But it is still susceptible to tampering.

Elections are administered and monitored by an organization, a great bureaucracy, called Information. The future is chockfull of big data, and Information watches it and processes it. It's an always-on Googly-glassbook, instastats, mega-infobubble world.

Given all the election difficulties plaguing our current world, Infomocracy's future system — where nationhood cedes to community-based voting blocks — makes sense on many levels. Until you remember two things: 1. Technology can be hacked. 2. Information is power.
"Information is a public good," one of the older men says with finality. "It may fail for technical reasons, and we may strategize about the best technical approach to get it back up. but we will not withhold Information once it is in our power to make it available. We cannot give ourselves the power to see and leave everyone else blind."
So, all is good, so long as we aspire to be our better selves. But it wouldn't be much of a thriller if that were all there were to it. Remind me someday to tell you about the busride last fall when I realized that maybe people aren't basically good.
"Surely you would prefer for the election system not to exist? We are working to eliminate it, or at the very least make it more realistic..."

The open question breaks the tension, and the sheikh laughs. "Why would we want to change it? There is nothing that suits us more than most of the world believing that their will is being carried out by governments that do exactly as they please."
Infomocracy is definitely a thriller, but who wins the election is not nearly so interesting a problem as the electoral process itself and the mystery of how information is wielded. I'll definitely be looking up the next books in this planned trilogy.

Living in an infomocracy.
Excerpt. (Chapters 1-5 are available online.)

This book is like any other book

I was feeling torn about what to read next, so I let the cat decide.

Rosie says, quite emphatically, paws down: The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector.

It opens with a note "To Possible Readers":
This book is like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed.
This concerns me a little. I hope I'll be OK.

Lispector again blipped across my radar this week in a bookclub discussion of Pola Oloixarac's Savage Theories, when someone speculated whether there might be an intentional reference to The Passion in this passage:
A cockroach scuttled along the edge of the room. [...] I gave the order for Montaigne Michelle to set her ambush . . . Now! She purred toothily. The individual in question (a Blatella germanica) came forward a meter or so: Montaigne put it down with a single swipe of her paw. Flat on its back, its abdomen contracted in pain, the cockroach bent its antennae toward us. I believe that it sensed the formidable presence of its motionless adversary — perhaps, too, that of the impromptu Thucydides who sat nearby taking notes. Finally it managed to get back on its feet. And here is where this domestic tableau takes on transcendental dimensions: it was at this moment that, overawed by such brutality, irresistibly attracted to a power far superior to her own, the scene's victim advanced voluntarily toward the Predator, and bowed down to her, in a sign of Reverence.
Fittingly, it seems Lispector's novel offered itself up to the beast to be devoured in a similar way.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

She wasn't sure how to live

She used to think falling in love was alchemy, that animals had weddings, that coal was a gemstone, that mountains were hollow, that trees had hidden eyes!
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, was something of a disappointment.

I kept bumping up against this novel at the end of the year, and there's a squirrel on the cover, which I took for a sign. Why a squirrel would be a sign I won't explain here, but I bought a copy for my sister, and I read a library copy, hoping the squirrel had some secret wisdom to impart, to me, to us. Alas not.

The Portable Veblen is, in fact, a rom-com — not really my thing.

The New York Times sums up the novel as follows:
At 30, Veblen still surfs from one unchallenging administrative job to the next, conserving her real energy for her translation work for something called the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo. She takes antidepressants every morning (Vivactil, citalopram). She never finished college. She prefers to read, bike and compile trivia about squirrels and become a secret expert on the life and ideas of the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, for whom she was named.

For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what "The Portable Veblen" is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood.

Or, as Veblen puts it: "A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future. Try devoting a few pages to that, Brides magazine!"

I won't give away how the book ends. But "The Portable Veblen" is a novel of such festive originality that it would be a shame to miss.
The Guardian called it "raw, weird and hilarious." According to the LA Times, it's "deep, wise and eccentric."

I don't see it — the originality, the weirdness. Because she talks to squirrels? I've read much stranger, more original things than this.
She relaxed and watched a family at a table nearby, the parents feeding the children, wiping their mouths, cleaning their hands, a father and mother and two children, the unit of them unsettling to her, though she couldn't say why. She looked away, at an older man eating by himself, and that unsettled her too. She wasn't sure how to live.
It feels like a missed opportunity to talk about the other Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption. This book is blah, blah, shitty childhood, blah, blah, first-world problems, blah, do I really love him, blah, do the right thing. It's all very sweet and light and nice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we stand in line at nightclubs

— So, the human brain is designed to establish relationships only within small groups, and seeks constantly to reproduce the feeling of being "just amongst us." All attempts at socialization are intended to recreate within us a series of previously successful patterns of empathy, because . . . Aha! Because the only real human instinct is to flee into the forest depths. If this weren't the case, why would the State expend so much effort teaching us to love that which is social, and why such frantic insistence on the amorous-gregarious nature of the glorious Fatherland? Social training is an operating system composed of customs designed to minimize the pain one feels at finding oneself completely surrounded. Social aristocracies are brought into existence as a form of technology that enables the elite to tolerate the proximity of others, as another way to address the need for human contact felt by the I while simultaneously protecting it from the unwashed hordes via membership cards and club protocols. The presence of the bouncer ensures that the favored group will stay small. The charm exuded by the elite is the Ersatz of an evolutionary defect related to our genetic inability to be alone, which is to say, to rid ourselves of our fear of the forest — and to do so with sufficient speed.

The later is got, the more intense grew the couple's desire not to be turned away at the door.
— from Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac.

I haven't yet decided how I feel about this book. I'm only just past halfway.

At first it was quirky and clever, and I liked it.

Then it was all about sex, and it became tiresome. I questioned whether I was being a prude. (I'm not a prude.)

There are bursts that are funny and insightful, but then it gets pretentiously academic, and I feel stupid (I'm not stupid), and I wonder if the pretentiousness is tongue-in-cheek.

"Philosophy is Satan's playground."

It's not yet clear to me what Savage Theories is about. The theorizing seemed to be about sex, and the laws of attraction, and young people claiming and wielding their sexual awareness while also dissociating from it.

Then I think, it is about sex as a political act. Revolutionary. Subversive. "There couldn't be anything in this world more beautiful than working for justice and fucking in the name of the Fatherland." And then it is about power; of course it's about power. Predatory behaviour. Everyone's a predator.

Then there is the Theory of Egoic Transmissions. (I don't know.)

Also, I need a crash course in Argentine history. Montoneros and Trotskyites. The Dirty War.

So. I will educate myself on some of the issues in Savage Theories, but I'm not sure it will make me like it any better. Right now it feels a little too opaque for me to be able to connect with it.

One hundred pages to go before bedtime, and tomorrow will be bookclub, where I hope all will be explained.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The spiral of us

I don't know how I came to have this book. I've had it for some time, and I know I didn't buy it or steal it. Friends deny giving it to me. Having established that it evidently dropped from nowhere onto my stack, I took it for a sign.

My reading in January had been not exactly depressing, and not heavy, yet it weighed. It felt decidedly male. No, I don't quite know what I mean by this. Coupland, Gaiman, Pynchon, and more, all writing boys' stories. I wanted something... not gentler exactly... More measured?
The lost and found/found and lost is like a section of our DNA. In the spiral of us is the story we can't tell — the story we tell in single lines, separated from one another not by neat spaces but by torn-out years.

Emerson said that the rarest thing on the planet is a truly individual action — but I'd set the bar at a story told. It's why the nineteenth century writers favoured such long and satisfyingly plotted novels. Some of them — like George Eliot — really believed there was something to tell and that we could tell it. Dickens knew very well that we could not, but he told it anyway, glittering and bravura. It's one way of defying chaos — the kind of Chaos, with a capital C, that can't be avoided; the exuberant, unfolding, unpredictable universe, expanding when it should be contracting, made largely of something that is not something but nothing — dark energy, anti-matter. A thing unconfined. What to say when the certainties fail?

Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
I think I found... that something in The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, though it didn't entirely work for me.

It's too compressed a book to satisfactorily be all the things it thought about being. It's a sci-fi parable that blends philosophy, anthropology and humour, but it's suddenly a travelogue from the 1700s, deciphering the warring cultures of Easter Island, and then an urban thriller, on the run through society's fringes. Futuristic yet ancient. Space pirates. A resistance movement. A cautionary environmentalist tale. And a love story. Stories within stories. In about 200 pages.

I don't mind that the connections are somewhat opaque, and I generally love Winterson's rhythm, her way with words (sparse but pregnant). But here the change in tone from one narrative to the next, as well as from character to character, felt like a self-indulgent exercise. It's all too deliberate, built for show. Winterson's poetry did not flow naturally out of it; or the characters did not fit comfortably under the umbrella of her poetry. This book demands a lot of the reader, and I'm not sure it's rewarded.

But as one character reminds us: "Stories are always true. It's the facts that mislead."

While I didn't love The Stone Gods as a novel, it provides an endless source of food for thought and conversation. Among its topics for consideration: We have destroyed our planet, depleted its resources, and therefore must colonize a new one (first priority: build a mall). A future with predictably customized advertising and customer service. Genetic manipulation. No one ages anymore. No one gets pregnant anymore (that's what test tubes are for). What is natural? The kernel of our consciousness and "humanity." Machine learning and the inevitability of a singularity. Robo sapiens. Cultural bias, but also species bias. The eery feeling that our future may be a past that we've already experienced — this may not be the first planet we have inhabited and destroyed. The paradox that technology makes us stupid. "Love is an experiment." Is that enough?
Everything is imprinted for ever with what it once was.

Is that true?
Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The problem with doublethink

I came across an article this morning, posted to Facebook by a Trump supporter, that troubles me for reasons quite beyond the partisan rhetoric. To me it exhibits a warped way of thinking, but most troublesome is that I'm unable to pinpoint why.

Written by John Nolte, a former Breibart editor, BE AFRAID: The Left's Resistance Movement Is EXACTLY as Orwell Depicted It (click at your own risk) proclaims "how truly Orwellian it is for the Left to pretend they are on the side of 1984's angels."

There has been renewed interest of late in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

What is increasingly troubling to me is how the same "evidence" can be held by both sides to argue opposite things. I acknowledge that I live in a bubble of my own devising; my personal bias is to dismiss the other side as dimwitted. But I'm certain that from their own bubble they share the same view of me.

So, how to objectively identify the the parts of and the problems with the arguments?

Quite serendipitously, this past weekend I was sorting through the last 3 boxes — milk crates, actually — of random stuff I need to contend with after having moved a year ago, among which I found a beige exercise book filled with notes made by my eighth-grade self (who even was I back then?) on CoRT III. This unit of CoRT Thinking covers debate and conflict and employs various strategies to examine both sides (EBS) by assessing the structure and value of the arguments.

My eighth-grade self was aware of 1984. The actual year was just around the corner, and soon, my very own big brother would take me to see the film adaptation.

My critical-thinking skills aren't what they used to be, so let me channel my eighth-grade self.

Nolte writes, "Orwell's seminal work is a cautionary tale aimed directly at the king of all Leftists, Josef Stalin."

Problem 1. Equating Stalinism with today's leftists. True that Orwell took aim at Stalin, but he is not the king of all Leftists.

I don't know a single left-leaning individual (and being a reasonably average university-educated, gainfully employed Canadian, I know a few) who condones Stalin. People who vote left of centre are not Orwell's target. Orwell stated that this and other works were "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." Stalin was a totalitarian; I am, more or less, a democratic socialist. Very few left-leaning people would even self-identify as communists.

Problem 2. Interpreting the aims of the left as including:
  • "the horrors of an all-powerful central government (that knows what's best for us)" — Might that not describe a president who signs executive orders for the good of us all, because he knows things we don't, and he understands the law better than the lawyers do?
  • "speech and thought policing" — Like discrediting all media as fake news.
  • "endless wars" — Who wants that?
  • "the elimination of the family and gender differences" — Nobody wants to eliminate family! As for the elimination of gender differences, if there's one thing the USSR deserves credit for it's for having produced so many women doctors, engineers, scientists.
Nolte's article then summarizes (his view of) the state of today:
We conservatives are not without our flaws, but we most certainly are not the ones running around portraying a centralized federal government as the solution to every problem, policing language, brutalizing thought-apostates, seeking the destruction of religious faith, spewing anti-science nonsense about gender-fluidity, or doing everything possible to eliminate the nuclear family — including the replacement of the father with a government check. We are also not the ones ginning up endless race and gender wars based on viralized lies and hoaxed hate crimes
Problem 3. I don't even know where to start in picking apart that paragraph. It doesn't remotely resemble the world I live in or reflect the aims of people I know. Who wants the destruction of religious faith? (Perhaps those who fear Islam?) Who is spewing anti-science nonsense? (Maybe the climate change deniers?) I might concede the need to draw attention to race and gender wars, but based on the fact that gross inequalities exist. I'm guessing that John Nolte is neither black nor a woman.

Problem 4. Calling the media Big Brother is a false equivalence. Is that just misunderstanding the source material? Big Brother is the surveillance state. It's the NSA. It's CCTV cameras. It's big data without regulation. The media does not see all.
"Here we were in the middle of Reagan's golden-era. It is Morning in America and I'm supposed to worry about words being placed off limits, guys in dresses peeing next to my daughter, and the Christian Gospels being portrayed on 24/7 cable news as bigotry?"
Problem 5. Reagan's era was not all golden. I was just a teenager, but I recall it as a time of Cold War terror, living under the constant threat of nuclear war. Or meltdown. Doesn't he remember The Day After? Or Ultravox? Or Chernobyl?

Problem 6. I can no longer tell which side Nolte is on. I thought he was worried about guys in dresses peeing next to his daughter. So, he's not? Or is it just that it's thirty years too early for that worry? Is this a time-travel problem?
Now take a good long look around and what you'll see is the deeply-disturbing spectacle of the American Left using their own Resistance movement in the exact same way Big Brother did — to out dissenters, to crush the souls of dissenters, to make violence against dissent, to make an example of those who think in ways unapproved by the Party, to silence, humiliate and punish Thought Criminals.
Problem 7. My head now hurts from trying to unravel this. The Left is Big Brother, the Party, and the Resistance. But the Resistance are the Thought Criminals. So the Left is everyone.

This is the point at which I throw my hands up in the air. It's illogical. Does not compute.

Without engaging in politics, without name calling or condescension, is it possible to define the flaws in this article and argue against it?

This is doublethink: "We have a president capable of standing in the rain and saying it was a sunny day."

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


A feature film based on Tom McCarthy's mindfuckingly awesome novel. A couple showings this week at Phi Centre. I think I need to see this.
All great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics.
― from Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

A salad of despair

Yet at least he had believed in the cars, maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bring with them the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, of supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust — and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10c, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a grey dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes — it made him sick to look, but he had to look. If it had been an outright junkyard, probably he could have stuck things out, made a career: the violence that had caused each wreck being infrequent enough, far enough away from him, to be miraculous, as each death, up till the moment of our own, is miraculous. But the endless rituals of trade-in, week after week, never got as far as violence or blood, and so were too plausible for the impressionable Mucho to take for long. Even if enough exposure to the unvarying grey sickness had somehow managed to immunize him, he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else's life. As if it were the most natural thing. To Mucho it was horrible. Endless, convoluted incest.
— from The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.

The life of a used car salesman sounds terrible.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Time didn't leak away as it should

A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach with its crop of old bones and litter, was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn't know.

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was a real treat.

The Loney is creepy, in layered way. There's the suspicious religious community that's making a pilgrimage to this corner of England — something seems off about their dynamic, maybe they're too religious, and they definitely appear to be harbouring some secrets from the new priest. There's something the boy's not telling us about the old priest either.

Then there's the creepiness of Catholicism itself: the somber rites of Holy Week, every action steeped in prayer and tragedy. (Having grown up Catholic, this element holds a great deal of interest for me in trying to gauge what is a normal level of religiosity.)

The setting is utterly windswept and gothic, a bleak house by the sea. And the tower across the way, where hanged the witch who lived there. Secret rooms. An underground shrine. Pagan charms and strange goings on in the woods at night.
The Church of the Sacred Heart was an ancient place — dark and squat and glistening amphibiously in the rain.
The locals are mostly unwelcoming, thoroughly unpleasant.
Like most drunks, Billy bypassed the small talk and slapped his bleeding, broken heart into my palm like a lump of raw beef.
Creepy also is the disconnect between now and then. The Loney is a coming-of-age story in a way — of two teenage brothers growing up in the 1970s. Back then, Hanny was mute, and everyone prayed for a miracle. The story is told by the other brother. Something happened that drastically changed how they are today.

I don't recall how I came to learn of this book, but I'm glad I did. A perfect read for a damp blustery day.

The Guardian: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley review — horror days by the sea:
This is a novel of the unsaid, the implied, the barely grasped or understood, crammed with dark holes and blurry spaces that your imagination feels compelled to fill.
The Telegraph: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, review: 'haunted and haunting':
The Loney is certainly a book about bloody rituals and ancient survivals, but it pays considerably more attention to the mechanisms of Christian faith, and to the strange arcana of esoteric Catholicism, than it does to the half-glimpsed paganism of this timeless corner of England.