Monthly Archives: December 2016

Salamander Named Jesus

IMG_7083-005In the summer of ’85, when I was ten, I found a blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale) under a log on Nun’s Island. I’d never seen one before. Not even in a book. He was, at that point, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (I’d yet to discover girls). I named him Jesus and took him home. This was, I soon discovered, a really bad idea. Poor little guy was miserable. Wouldn’t eat. Just dug himself deep into the dirt and stayed put. I found him there, dead, three months later. I’m sure I was sad, but mostly I remember how embarrassed I was. Because my mom had warned me, in no uncertain terms. She’d said it was a bad idea. So I kept the little dude’s death to myself.

I wanted to bury him down by the river with the rest of my deceased pets. But it was December and the ground was already frozen solid. So I put him in a little soil-filled box, hid the box under some old crap at the bottom of our freezer, and waited for the spring thaw. I’d love to tell you that I followed through on my noble intentions, but that’d be a lie. Truth is, I’d long forgotten about the salamander by the time spring rolled around. Little dude stayed in there for four years. Probably would’ve been there longer, way longer, if the fridge hadn’t died in the middle of that unseasonably hot June.

I recognized the little box right away, and felt a wave of shame wash over me (which I kept to myself). I slid that box into my pants pocket with the stealth of a practiced pickpocket. Said in my head: I’ll bury him with the others after school. And I remembered this time. Dug a nice hole too. Was just about to bury him in that soggy box when something really weird happened: he crawled out of it! He is risen, I thought; He is risen indeed! Of course Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. He was always alive. I’d mistaken a hibernating salamander for a dead salamander. Didn’t take me but a moment or two to put that together. But it has taken me close to three decades to grasp this event’s deeper significance.

There’s a reason why certain forms of life, like salamanders, stand the test of time, whilst others go extinct. The salamander is one of evolution’s masterpieces. It’s not just ready for winter; it’s ready for catastrophic black swan events: like the little ice ages caused, from time to time, by massive volcanic eruptions, giant meteors, and the forgetfulness of flaky children. Are we ready for black swan events of this magnitude? God told dreamy Joseph to prepare Egypt for seven years of famine. Could we survive that long? I doubt it.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Profs Who Don’t Read

92821459I’ve often been shocked by how utterly boring and anti-intellectual a lot of academics are. They’ll happily gossip about their colleagues for hours, but if you start talking about ideas at the dinner party they invariably give you this exasperated look and say something akin to “Do we really have to talk shop tonight?”

Most of the academics I know can’t remember the last time they read a serious book cover to cover. Sure, they keep up with reviews of serious books (thanks New York Review of Books!); but there’s nothing particularly intellectual about their leisurely pursuits. How thoroughly disturbing this is! Writer’s block is excusable. Sometimes you just don’t have anything to say. Or you can’t find the words. But a prof who doesn’t read is like a preacher who doesn’t pray.

I wonder if the increasing popularity of cheap moralism and formulaic ideologies amongst academics is really just a sneaky way of hiding the fact that they’re not reading like they used to. After all, who needs to read when you already know everything? Who needs to read when your pre-fab grad-school ideology has a ready-made pigeonhole for everything new under the sun? Why be curious when you can be outraged? Why be right when you can be righteous? Food of an inferior quality is often drowned in spices. Perhaps there’s something of a similar stamp going on here.

Why anyone who finds playing with ideas so tedious would choose the academic life is a mystery to me. After all, it’s not like we’re curing cancer or saving starving children. Nor are we making the big bucks. So what are we doing this for? Well, to my mind, the only good reason to pursue this life is because you find it inherently rewarding.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Dépanneurs and Bridal Shops

10514228_10152377913477683_7292019885298708821_o-003My old friend Ron Kensley used to say that there were two types of people in the world: people from Verdun, and people who wish they were from Verdun. I’ve often said the same thing about Montreal. Regardless, if you’re not from around here, you probably don’t know what a dépanneur is: a “dep” is a kind of all-purpose convenience store that sells everything from beer, wine, smokes, and lottery-tickets to milk, bread, hummus, cheese, toilet paper, toothpaste, and tampons. Since they sell basics people need and consume daily, there’s a dep on every street corner, and people tend to go to the dep closest to them.

But deps can’t be too close to each other. For instance, when Frank’s dep at the corner of Rue Roy and Avenue Laval burned down a few years ago, we switched to the Mastrocola mural dep at the corner of Avenue des Pins and Avenue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. Took years, but the insurance claim finally came through for Frank; and, as a consequence, the dep at the corner of Roy and Laval is being rebuilt. This worries the owner of the Mastrocola mural dep. Big time. Because when deps are too close to each other, it’s a zero-sum game: your competitor’s gain is your loss and visa versa. The same is true, to a large extent, of gas stations. But it’s not true of bridal shops.

The vast majority of the bridal shops in Montreal are clustered together on a few blocks of Rue St-Hubert. Do they compete with each other? Sure. But the benefits of coöperation far outweigh the costs of competition if you’re running a bridal shop. If you live in Montreal, and you’re looking to buy a wedding dress, most people go to Rue St-Hubert first. And one of those bridal shops makes a sale, more often than not. Why waste hours and hours running around the city when you can find everything you’re looking for in one place?

If you’re an artist or a writer or a musician, you’re much more like a bridal shop owner than a dep owner. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t steal my attention away from other fantasy writers when I was a teenager; he made me want to read more fantasy fiction. Tony Hoagland didn’t steal my attention away from other poets in my mid-twenties; he made me want to read more poetry. And Aaron Haspel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb didn’t steal my attention away from other aphorists in my thirties; they made me want to read more aphorisms. If you’re working within the same genre, the benefits of coöperating with other artists far outweigh the costs of competing with them.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Pink Elephants with Purple Polka Dots

the-pink-elephant-marquette-statue“Don’t think about a pink elephant with purple polka dots!” My students burst out laughing whenever I say this, with faux-seriousness, because it’s impossible to heed the injunction. The very mention of such a comical creature causes the image of a pink elephant with purple polka dots to spring to mind with a reflexive immediacy that bypasses all rational thought. The same is true of the emotionally-charged categories we use to make sense of what’s happening to us. For instance, whenever I smell freshly-baked bread, I remember the bread my mother made everyday from scratch in the early afternoon. I remember the way its intoxicating smell permeated every corner of our little basement apartment on Airlie Street. I remember the way you could smell it in the building, long before you got to our apartment. At times, you could even smell it on the street, long before you got to our building! In short, whenever I smell freshly-baked bread, I’m 7-years-old again. Likewise, whenever I burn my tongue, I remember the first time I burned my tongue, when I was 12-years-old, on some hot chocolate at Bad Boys, the 24-hour doughnut shop on Wellington Street. When you’re having an emotionally-charged experience, you remember every other experience you’ve had of that kind. It happens instantaneously, automatically—with a reflexive immediacy that bypasses all rational thought. As such, asking your partner, in the middle of an argument, to refrain from bringing up ancient history—that is, bad experiences of a similar stamp—is about as silly as asking them to refrain from thinking about pink elephants with purple polka dots.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

McNuggets (9) of Wisdom, or: “It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims”

1091. Be authentic. Do you. Don’t pretend, ever. Be in a state of absolute self-knowledge – like a self-aware MacBook Pro.

2. Travel. There is something new under the sun after all, and tourists are never dilettantes.

3. Stop being so critical about everything. It will make bad movies easier to bear and likelier to get the green light, so it’s win-win.

4. Find a purpose in life. There is no greater achievement for a human being than to become a tool.

5. Stop ruminating on your dilemmas. Thinking is so last century.

6. Network. It’s the way computers communicate, and look how efficient they are.

7. You must be able to love yourself before you can love another. And it is unthinkable that loving another might bring you to love yourself.

8. Don’t care so much about what other people think. You’re the only person who really matters, and the world revolves around your life and what you do with it.

9. You can always choose happiness. Because happiness is just some kind of chemical reaction, anyway. See #8.

—Phil Lagogiannis

Twenty-Minute Lies

Talking to an ideologue is like talking to a friend who’s moved to the suburbs about how long it takes to get downtown. They invariably give you a ridiculously optimistic estimate. Sure you can get downtown in 20 minutes, if you’re speeding like a demon, on empty roads, in the middle of a cloudless summer night. But I don’t wanna hear about how well your plan works in ideal circumstances, I wanna know how well it works in this broken and burning world we call home. How long does it usually take to get downtown? How long can it take if there’s traffic?

flag_of_mozambique-svgI grew up hearing again and again from all the old communists and socialists in Verdun and The Point that none of the supposedly communist countries were actually communist, and none of the supposedly socialist countries were actually socialist: “We’ve never really tried communism!”—they’d say, before pounding a fist into the table, and taking another swig of beer. There’s some truth to claims like this. After all, we live in a complicated world wherein all theoretical constructs are forced to fall from grace when they’re put into practice. So there has never been, nor will there ever be, a perfectly communist society or a perfectly capitalist society. But does this mean that every system must be judged only with reference to its pristine Platonic ideal?

%d0%b0%d0%ba-47The AK-47 (Kalashnikov) is the revolutionary’s gun of choice the world over, not because it’s a particularly precise instrument, but rather because it’s unbelievably reliable in less than ideal circumstances. The AK-47 can fire when it’s wet, dirty, rusty, bent. Seriously, it’s an amazing tool: one of the only guns to actually make it onto a country’s flag (Mozambique). If your proposed political program can’t function in this broken and burning world we live in, if it’s not at least as reliable as an AK-47, I call bullshit. Because we have to be able to judge how things function in the messy real world we live in. Besides, there’s something vaguely sleazy about constantly placing your proposed system beyond reproach.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Single Lessons

10448561_10152264724787683_3148736248626517964_oA good friend of mine gave up on men in her mid-40s. She’d been in back-to-back relationships since she was 13. None of them good. So she threw in the towel. “Clearly I suck at this, John!” Of course she met the love of her life a few years later, and they’ve lived happily ever after since then. But before she met Mr. Right, she was single for a few years, truly single, for the first time in her life. She said it was enlightening, being single. She said she learned how to take responsibility for her own emotions: “Back in the day, if I woke up in a bad mood, I’d turn to the guy next to me and say: ‘I feel bad because you did X or you didn’t do Y.’ But when I was single, if I woke up in a bad mood, there was no one to blame. I had to stop blaming others for my sadness. Making others responsible for my happiness.”

If taking responsibility for your own emotions is like finishing Spiritual High School, what might we learn in Spiritual College? If Epictetus is to be believed, the next step is to get rid of the impulse to blame altogether. In The Art of Living, he writes: “Small-minded people habitually reproach others for their own misfortunes. Average people reproach themselves. Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself. One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress is the gradual extinguishing of blame. We see the futility of finger-pointing.”

If getting over our obsession with finger-pointing is like finishing Spiritual College, what might we learn in Spiritual Grad School? If Kant is to be believed, the next step is to take responsibility for the happiness of others. Susan Neiman summarizes his reasoning in Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (2008): “Like most people, you’re likely to devote most of your attention to your own happiness (or lack thereof), and my perfection (or lack thereof). What if we simply switched? Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Glenn Greenwald Sucks

“This appears to have been a hoax, Glenn. You retweeted it 3 times to 779K people. Got anything to say?”—Sam Harris

g9hhnjiiSo, let me get this straight, an internet troll named “Godfrey Elfwick” pulls off a hoax of Sokal-level proportions on The Guardian, one of the most well-respected newspapers in the world. This fake-news story, which includes a nasty denunciation of Sam Harris, goes viral. Glenn Greenwald retweets said fake-news story. Sam Harris and others let him know that it’s a fake. Does Greenwald apologize? Nope. He doubles down. Says the story speaks to a deeper truth about Sam Harris even if it’s not factually true. If we were talking about something like Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games, this might fly. But we’re not. We’re talking about a story in a serious newspaper, which was enthusiastically retweeted by one of the most well-respected journalists in the world. What does it say about the state of journalism when one of its leading lights publicly declares that the truth doesn’t really matter?

Glenn Greenwald reminds me of this crazy woman I met at a wedding in the early 2000s. It was a beautiful ceremony but a terrible reception. I was stuck at the worst table in the room, sitting across from the worst couple in the world. A real match made in Hell. They were in the middle of some sort of fight. She was mad at him. Really mad. Furious actually. But he didn’t know why. Poor guy kept sheepishly asking her what was wrong. Eventually she told him. Apparently she was mad at him because he’d said something horribly hurtful the night before. At dinner. He stared at her with the doe eyes of an innocent man. He really didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about. Seriously, if you looked up “WTF?” in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of this dude’s face. Didn’t last though. Second or two later, color in the dude’s face went from Scared-Rabbit White to Righteously-Indignant Red. Faster than you can say “Johnnie Cochran”. Guy was so mad he was shaking. Could barely speak.

He reminded her that he was on a plane last night. That they didn’t talk last night. That he’d been back home for a funeral. His grandmother’s funeral. Took awhile, but eventually she realized that she wasn’t remembering something that actually happened, something he actually said; she was remembering something he’d said to her last night in a dream. Did she apologize? Nope. She doubled down like Glenn Greenwald. Said the dream spoke to a deeper truth about their relationship even if it wasn’t factually true.

If you’re writing historical fiction, you can tell the truth whilst fudging the facts. The same cannot be said of journalism. Different rules apply. A journalist who thinks the truth doesn’t matter is like a comedian who thinks being funny doesn’t matter.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Elfwick’s Law

A fortnight back, The Guardian newspaper (1) published a worrying article about the rise of fascism—in its new shiny manifestation, spurred on by various online forums. The sub-headline was worrying enough:

screen-shot-of-guardian

“It started with Sam Harris, moved on to Milo Yiannopoulos and almost led to full-scale Islamophobia. If it can happen to a lifelong liberal, it could happen to anyone”. (2)

It made for grim reading, talking about “cult-like” aspects and flirtations with the far right. The poor author, who had started out as a “normal white liberal”, had been almost brainwashed into the “alt-right” was enveloped in a web of “indoctrination”, but just drew themselves back from the brink because “[D]eep down, I knew I was ashamed of what I was doing…”

Some of us who have followed Sam Harris, and his much-maligned attempts to raise the level of public intellectual debate above the banal and asinine, smelled a rat at the first headline. But, for those unfamiliar with him or his work, there were some not so subtle signals. The brainwashed writer went on: “On one occasion I even, I am ashamed to admit, very diplomatically expressed negative sentiments on Islam to my wife. ‘[W]e should be able to discuss these things without shutting down the conversation by calling people racist, or bigots.’”

(Horrifying indeed!)

Oh dear. Anyone who had not seen the signs by this time had been led up a garden path, one decorated with crazy paving, and bordered by Mad Dog-Weed.

The Guardian had been spoofed.

“I’m not a ‘Grammar-Nazi’, I’m ‘Alt-Write’”…

The article had not come from some anonymous anxious young white man who had just managed to pull himself back from the brink of full-blown Nazi extremism after all. So, where had it come from?

There is a scurrilous (and sometimes hilarious) online troll who calls himself “Godfrey Elfwick” and styles himself on Twitter:

“Genderqueer Muslim atheist. Born white in the #WrongSkin. Itinerant jongleur. Xir, Xirs Xirself. Filters life through the lens of minority issues.”

alt-shite

His account parodies the self-abasing virtue signalling of elements of the far left, and is frequently painful reading for the liberally inclined.

“Elfwick” came forward and admitted that the piece was his. It certainly fits with his normal output, and in the time I’ve been aware of him, this is the first time he’s broken through the fourth wall and come out of character. Some were outraged at his fooling of The Guardian, but I think his example is a reminder of the important role that satire has to play in the modern marketplace of ideas.

The Day the Music Died.

The great satirical songster Tom Lehrer dramatically declared the death of satire on the occasion of awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. How was he, a mere satirist, to approach ridiculing by parody and extension the awarding of the world’s highest peace honor to a man who ordered the carpet bombing of civilians on Christ’s birthday? As the cliché has it: you couldn’t make it up.

This supposed death of satire was much exaggerated. There is always a role for pushing the boundaries of beliefs into absurdity, and one such is when the bearers of such beliefs seem not to have realized that the absurd is where they have taken up more or less permanent residence. And let’s be specific about what I mean by “absurd” here: It means to have abandoned one’s critical faculties to the extent that one is governed by wishful thinking. And one of the ways this is revealed is that the difference between real and fake no longer matters to you. Talk of post-truth worlds or fake news is hot air. We humans have always been suckers for hearing what we want to hear. Satire has always been one of the cures.

But it’s more than just fun at the expense of the hoaxed. A foundational ability in any discipline must be able to tell the real from the fake. Art experts who praised the “furious fastidiousness” of the brushstrokes of Pierre Brassau (actually Peter, a four-year-old chimp from Boras zoo) confirmed what many of us suspected about modern art expertise. (3) The knowledge that wine experts can be fooled by switching expensive and fake labels casts a lot of their expertise into doubt. (4) In the 1970s, Rosenhan’s classic “Being Sane in Insane Places” study threw the whole of the psychiatric community into disarray; by showing that mental health care professionals of the time couldn’t distinguish real patients from ones who were faking it. (5)

Why can’t the opposition just recognise that they are evil and stupid?

An oft-repeated finding in psychology is that expectation conditions perception. We are notoriously easy to hoax when you give us what they want to see. From the Cottingley Fairies, to the Roswell Alien Autopsy, through the Book of Mormon, to Uri Geller, the history of humanity is a history of people seeing daft things because they wanted to.

This is one reason I advise all my students to study a bit of magic. Not enough to turn pro, but just enough to see how hoaxable we all are. It’s like any self-defence course, although in this case it’s mental self-defence. It’s a humbling experience. Anyone can be blindsided and beaten in a fight. Likewise, any of us can be fooled if someone matches our expectations to their pitch.  Ideally, of course, a good scientist should have no expectations, but scientists are human too. Uri Geller for instance, managed to hoax a number of famous physicists but no magicians.

This is one place where satire comes in. In the 1990s Sokal gloriously hoaxed a post-modernist journal called Social Text. (6) He produced an article of high-sounding gibberish that the editors happily let through to publication as it appeared to speak to their idea that science was just one way of knowing among many. It was filled with supposed physics support for bizarre claims about “physical ‘reality’” [being] fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct” and with needs for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.

1996sokaltext01co-museum-of-hoaxes

When he revealed the hoax, what did the editors do? Remove the article in embarrassment? Sore up their editorial policies? Laugh along? Not a bit of it—they somehow tried to maintain the fiction that this tosh was meaningful all along, losing any opportunity to develop their thinking, if thinking it ever was. After Rosenhan’s study, the field of Psychiatry made a concerted effort to tighten its procedures—resulting in new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Whether it was 100% successful is a different question, but there was an effort to reform in response. But Post Modernism as a field never took this option. Having effectively amputated itself from critical self-reflection, it is now largely moribund, although versions of it still exist to poison efforts at critical reflection in the academy.

Don’t like my opinions of post-modernism? Well, they are true for me…

Now, I’m not claiming that expertise rests on getting it right every time. Expertise does not imply that. But the desire to understand a phenomenon must involve the disciplined attendance to mistakes—so when one is fooled (by nature, colleagues, the maliciously mischievous, or oneself) then one goes back and studies how so it doesn’t happen again. To not do this is to forever live wishfully, rather than authentically attending.

So, what’s the next step? Here’s my suggestion: There are a number of famous Internet laws. Rule 34 is the famous law that somewhere there is a porn version of everything. (7) Godwin’s Law is the tendency over time from all Internet discussions to tend towards an accusation that the opponent is Hitler. An addendum to Godwin’s Law is that the opponent to first yield to the temptation to Hitlerise their opponent automatically loses. (8) Poe’s Law is the rule that any right wing fundamentalist internet site is indistinguishable from a satirical parody of right wing fundamentalist Internet sites. A few minutes on Alex Jones’ will confirm the truth of this. But why should the right wing have it all their own way when it comes to being mocked?

I think we need a new Internet Law to invoke that mirrors Poe’s Law. If a piece of far left virtue signalling cannot be reliably distinguished from a satirical version of it, then this deserves its own nomenclature.

Given his latest achievement I would like to propose the term “Elfwick’s Law” to mark such occasions. If nothing else this would serve as a reminder that descending into parody, and not caring about real or fake, is not the preserve of any political tribe, but is part of common humanity. That’s real equality for you.

—Robert King

elf-meme

References

1) For those not in the UK—The Guardian is a respectable left-leaning broadsheet newspaper.

4) Hodgson, R. T. (2008). An examination of judge reliability at a major US wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(02), 105-113.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/10/you-are-not-so-smart-why-we-cant-tell-good-wine-from-bad/247240/

5) Rosenhan, D. K. (1973). On Being Sane In Insane Places. Science, 179, 250-258

A good write-up is here http://www.holah.karoo.net/rosenhanstudy.htm

6) Sokal, A. D. (Ed.). (2000). The Sokal hoax: the sham that shook the academy. U of Nebraska Press.

7) My advice is to never, ever, check on the truth of this.

8) In the light of recent events the use of Godwin’s Law is under judicial review

9) For more details of the Heterodox Academy see: http://heterodoxacademy.org/

((Of course it’s also possible that Godfrey Elfwick is playing some elaborate game of double bluff and I have been fooled along with others. Which would have a touching irony about it! But–let the record show that when respected newspaper (the Guardian) and respected journalist (Glenn Greenwald) were confronted with the hoax accusations their response was to double-down  and, in Greenwald’s case, to insist that truth was not the issue–the piece spoke to a “deeper truth”.

No it doesn’t. Not if it’s false it doesn’t. That’s what true and false mean.
“Elfwick” broke character for the only time I’ve known to share his workings on the hoax the day after and I reproduce them here. Could these also be faked? Well, of course they could but its worth asking –why would he pick this one to lie about? And even if he did–what is going on with a journalist telling the world that mundane sorts of truth (you know, those ones that are actually true) no longer matter? When Harris retweeted a story that turned out to be false he apologized publicly. https://twitter.com/SamHarrisOrg/status/675030323923656704 This is how public debate should be conducted

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(Shared via screenshot from Godrey Elfwicks Twitter account on 29/11/2016)

 

The Uberization of the Entertainment Industry?

horaceandpete-ep3We really do live in The Golden Age of Television. Never before has there been so much high quality stuff. Even so, Horace and Pete takes this to a whole new level, especially the third episode of the first season. Laurie Metcalf’s performance is breathtakingly good. You can’t take your eyes off her. Not even for a second. Louis CK’s writing is excellent throughout, as usual, but this particular episode is Dostoevsky-level awesome. Very powerful stuff. Probably some of the best TV I’ve seen. Ever. Incidentally, I paid $31 for all ten episodes of Horace and Pete—and I paid it directly to Louis CK (via his website). This isn’t the first time I’ve purchased content directly from Louis CK. First time was back in 2011, when he bypassed all of the middlemen and sold Live at the Beacon Theater on his website for 5$. Are we witnessing the uberization of the entertainment industry?

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)