All posts by andrewmiller2007

About andrewmiller2007

Andrew Miller is a Strategic Leader with the City of Mississauga in Ontario. He holds a BA from McGill, an MA from Yale, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins, none of which are related to what he's doing now. His interests include cities and urbanism, narratology and game design, noir fiction and belles lettres, and Aristotle and Saint Paul, but it's his expertise in public-transit policy and implementation that pays the bills. He volunteers his time to PhD students interested in exploring lives and careers outside of the academy. He's been a panelist on CBC Radio on the subject of municipal finance reform, and is a two-time TEDx speaker. He's also fun at parties.

Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

I picked up this novel hoping to learn from the source what defines me – what defines membership in Generation X, the generation I’d always been told that I was part of. The first thing I learned was that I’d been lied to… as initially coined by Douglas Coupland, Generation X consists of people born in the late 1950s and 1960s, people who, at the novel’s publication date in 1991, were in their mid-to-late twenties. As someone born in 1975, I was too young to belong. So Generation X, the novel, isn’t about people like me, it’s a sketch of the people I knew as I was growing up.

I think ‘sketch’ is the mot juste because Generation X isn’t a novel in the sense that most of us are used to: there’s no character arc in sight, and the plot arc is basically flat. Indeed, the plot of this novel could be summed up as ‘three twentysomethings living on the outskirts of Palm Springs hang out, tell stories, go home for Christmas, and then move to Baja California’. The meat of the book lies in the second clause of that description. Andy, Claire, and Dag, the three main characters (I hesitate to use the term protagonists), spend much of their time recounting elaborate tales to each other, or rather parables which artfully reveal their attitudes towards their selves and their world. Sometimes these tales have a meaning that is easily unpacked. In one, a woman decides to meditate in solitude for seven years, but finds out too late that her spiritual program, which she’d borrowed without careful study from an Asian monastery, relied on a different calendar and that she’d overdone it, and that enlightenment would come after only one year, and that the final six years, which ended up being fatal, were redundant. In other words, don’t spend too much time in your own head. Other stories the trio tells each other are more opaque, but Coupland’s skill as a storyteller makes them engaging even when they’re unclear.

So what, according to Coupland, defines Generation X?

Continue reading Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

A Meditation on THE MEDITATIONS

From the vantage of the 21st century, Marcus Aurelius is one of the most appealing characters of Roman antiquity.  Not only a Roman emperor, but a good one, who administered the affairs of state in the public interest and didn’t abuse his authority, but also a thoughtful man, a philosopher, whose private commonplace book, “To Myself”, remains in print today as Meditations, a classic work of Stoic philosophy. Meditations is a true classic, re-discovered periodically by those seeking wisdom in difficult times. It was beloved of figures as diverse as Matthew Arnold (who wrote “So spake the imperial sage, purest of men, Marcus Aurelius”), WEB DuBois, and Bill Clinton. To me, it’s a remarkable book, one that inspires and repels: and not serially, but simultaneously. The passages that seem most noble are, at the same time, the most inhuman.

For Marcus, the good life for human beings is one of dispassion. Perhaps the most widely quoted line from the Meditations is “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”; this sounds appealing to modern ears. Marcus sounds as if he is suggesting that life is about challenging and facing down difficulties, rather than simply seizing fleeting pleasures, and no doubt Marcus would agree; but that’s not what he’s trying to say in this passage, which is truncated. In the original text, he continues that living well is like wrestling “inasmuch as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.” That is, the danger that life poses us is disruption of our mental equilibrium. Certainly pain can do this, and vice, but so too can pleasure and virtue. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not,” he writes, “but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”

This insistence that pleasure and virtues are, in their own way, traps, distinguishes Marcus and the Stoics from other ancient schools of philosophy, like the Peripatetics or the Epicureans. The strongest argument Marcus has against those bodies of thought is that they admit that the good life requires certain external goods and circumstances. For Aristotle, the good life was lived in the city-state, and absent that form of social organization, human life can’t reach its full potential. Epicurus believed something similar, that the pleasant life required a well-governed society that minimized harms, for such was a prerequisite of the pleasant life. Marcus, living in a time when Rome warred against Persians and Germans, insists that the good life has no external needs: the power to live well lies within in everyone. “It is perfectly possible to be godlike, even though unrecognized as such. Always keep that in mind; and also remember that the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics and physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.” Such a life will be filled with pains and difficulties, but these are to be accepted, even welcomed. He writes: “So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune'”. In a similar vein, life will seduce with pleasures, but these too are snares. He reminds himself that “Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.”

A human’s greatest fear, Marcus posits, is the fear of death.  Again and again in the Meditations he offers advice for overcoming this fear, which is to keep one’s death in proper perspective. Anticipating Milton, he emphasizes that such fear is a  product of the mind, and can be changed by the mind. “Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies with yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.” He suggests imagining one’s own funeral, and recognizing how, even among your friends, there will be people relieved to be free of you and the obligations you bring, which should make the fear of leaving them less. In fact, death is to be imagined at every opportunity: “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time you may be given to you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with Nature.”

There is wisdom here. Even more than Marcus, we 21st-century Canadians are prone to look for happiness as a thing out there, to be acquired through our latest acquisitions, and modern Stoics like Mr. Money Mustache or Juliet Schor remind us that this temptation will always be with us, and hard as it is to overcome it, doing so is imperative for anyone seeking a pleasant life. Marcus’ advice to cultivate patience and perspective about the difficulties and pains of life is also well taken; we’ve all known people who lacked such perspective, and seen how much unnecessary suffering they underwent. Marcus’ description of such a person, in the second person, is apt: to be such a person is to be a “stranger in your own homeland, bewildered by each day’s happenings as though by wonders unlooked for, and ever hanging upon this one or the next.”

But at the same time, Marcus’ insistence that we must detach from joy is too much to ask. The soldier may take pride in fulfilling duty; but there is more to life than duty. A human being is more than a robot, and finding delight in books, in family or friends, in food and stories and sex, seems to me to be also part of the good life. For all of his iron austerity, it seems to me that Marcus felt it too. The most poignant passage in the Mediations is this one, where Marcus seems to shudder at his own limits, and that of his way of life: “O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh? Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company? When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth? Will you never be fit for such fellowship with gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?”

I admire Marcus; but I do not follow him.

—Andrew Miller

Things That We Learned This Week Are “Not a Panacea”

REDSHIRTS, by John Scalzi

[SPOILERS for a three-year-old book to follow]

Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo Award for best Sci-Fi novel, and it received a lot of buzz at the time for being a great read. I dutifully added the citation to my ‘to-read’ pile and a few days ago was able to check it out digitally from my local library. E-books are superior to print books in many ways, but one advantage of print is that you can tell simply by holding it – perhaps after a glance at the font size – how long it will take to finish. I surprised myself by starting and finishing Redshirts in a single day: a round trip to Toronto from Mississauga accounted for the bulk of it, with about an hour at home to finish it off. As you may gather from this, it’s a light read.

The story is set aboard the starship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, a starship which takes on a variety of missions – diplomatic, military, exploration – with the common feature being that on each mission, one of the junior crew dies. Senior staff, including the brash captain and the coolly unemotional, alien science officer, are oblivious to this trend, but the junior crew certainly aren’t, all of whom find elaborate ways to avoid going on inevitably-lethal away missions. In other words, Redshirts is essentially a parody fanfic of the original Star Trek  TV show. In the first half of the novel, the humour is awfully broad, and consists almost entirely of pointing out the ways in which the Intrepid and its officers don’t behave in the way we’d expect a real military craft and crew to act. The bridge chairs don’t have seat belts! The uniforms don’t have pockets! The bridge shakes, no matter where or how the ship has been damaged! Science crew are always able to come up with an answer to the problem of the moment, but only at the last minute, and they always miss something that the science officer notices immediately! This is bad enough, but the humour worsens as it gets more meta, and starts pointing out the way that the conventions of televised fiction don’t line up with reality. In real life, you see, people rarely stop to give expository speeches explaining the problem of the moment, especially to people who are already familiar with it, or to their subordinates.

These insights are hardly original: people have been making these gibes at Star Trek‘s expense since the show aired, almost fifty years ago. I remember David Gerrold making the pockets-and-seat-belts jokes in his Star Trek memoir, and that came out in 1973. The only original bit that author John Scalzi offers is a novel explanation for a notorious situation aboard the Enterprise: the fact that, whenever the senior staff walk the corridors of the ship, the junior staff around them are all hurriedly moving around them, never stopping to talk with their superiors or with each other. It turns out that the crew are afraid if they catch an officer’s attention, they’ll be ordered to join a presumably-fatal away mission, so they avoid the command staff wherever possible.

The only thing sustaining interest in the first part of the story is the question of why the away missions are so dangerous. I was expecting a different answer than the one the story eventually gives us. The superficial emotional tone of the first half of the book is lamely comic, but it’s a thin cover for a thick layer of horror. Crew on away missions die, and in terrible ways. Knowing this, the crew go to great lengths to avoid going on these missions… and this includes finding ways to ensure their fellows, not they themselves, get assigned first. This subversion of solidarity is chilling, and it only becomes worse on the missions themselves, where the crew – out of sight of their commanders – begin to actively sabotage each other, to ensure that someone else become the necessary sacrifice. The mood is genuinely and surprisingly bleak. Unfortunately, that mood isn’t sustained, because Scalzi can’t avoid having to explain why the Intrepid is the way that it is. (The burden of science fiction is that everything must have an explanation.) I had assumed, given the established tone, something along the lines of The Cabin in the Woods, a roughly simultaneous exercise in genre metafiction: the crew die as sacrifices to some alien force, and the bridge crew are complicit with this arrangement to preserve what they see as the greater good. Scalzi goes a different way: it turns out that the Intrepid and its crew are all fictional, the stars of an early-twentieth-century TV show, and its junior crew die so often because the head writer of the show is a hack and doesn’t know any other way to build dramatic tension.

With that mystery solved, the book’s second half becomes even less engaging than the first, as the story transforms from a parody of Star Trek generally to a parody of Star Trek IV. In place of dangerous away missions and ensigns scheming to make someone, anyone else get killed, we have the book’s viewpoint characters, the newly-minted junior staff of the Intrepid, travel to 2012 Burbank, California, to confront the creators of the science-fiction show that has taken over their lives. Aside from more lame jokes in the key of fish-out-of-water, Scalzi offers another interesting bit: the Intrepid crew are dopplegangers for the actors who played their parts on the series, leading to several cases of mistaken identity. Most notably, one of the crew is a perfect physical copy of the showrunner’s son, who appeared on the show briefly but then, days before the Intrepid crew arrived, had a serious motorcycle accident, leaving him mangled and brain-dead. His grieving father was about to pull the plug, but in exchange for his son’s life being saved by the deus ex machina of Otherworldly Medical Science, agrees to change his show such that the junior crew won’t die anymore. Mission accomplished, our heroes return to their world, confident that they’ll own their own destinies now, or at least as much as anyone in their situation can.

If that was all, I’d rate Redshirts as a slight read, as fanfic with delusions of grandeur. But the entire exercise is redeemed after the book proper ends. I suspect Scalzi intuited as much, given that the full title of his book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. It’s those codas that pay the whole thing off. They deal with the people left behind in 2012, who are now aware that their TV show isn’t just a basic-cable triviality, but is also a machine with existential significance. In one coda, the show’s head writer battles writer’s block, as he’s terrified that if he writes about someone dying, someone actually will die. In another, an actress deals with the fact that her doppleganger was the love of someone’s life, and that when her doppleganger died, the grief almost destroyed him. And yet she, the original, is alone, and has inspired such passion in nobody. And in the most powerful epilogue, the showrunner’s son becomes aware that his body and brain had been smashed into wreckage, and that impossibly, he’s been given a second chance at youth and health… and yet his life to that point has been wasted in shallow pursuits. Of all people, he deserves the gift he’s been given the least. So what should he do, having received it?

I found the codas genuinely moving, and far more engaging than the entire novel that preceded them. Science fiction is supposed to be a literature of ideas, and these ideas – what significance do our lives have, and how should we live them? – are much more interesting than wondering why, in the future, military uniforms don’t have pockets.

—Andrew Miller

How to Tell If You’re a Character in an Ibsen Play

Apologies to The Toast.

Your husband married you for your money, but you don’t know it. When you discover the truth, you are overjoyed.

You are a wealthy and bored socialite. You convince your old boyfriend to kill himself; after he’s dead, the only safe thing to do is kill yourself, too.

You are a boy living in a grim Norwegian coastal town. You plan to leave. This is a mistake.

You have a mortal enemy. Before executing your plan for revenge, you reveal it to him so that he can find its weak points.

You encourage your best friend to kill herself so that you can have her husband, but when he proposes marriage, you decide to kill yourself instead. He joins you.

You are a wealthy bourgeois. Do you have a lot to learn!

You are a corrupt shipping magnate. You give a speech to the entire town revealing your many crimes. This makes you a hero.

You are a doctor. You are determined that the world know the truth, no matter the consequences. This makes you a hero.

You are a wealthy young man. You are certain that the world should be left alone with its cherished illusions. This makes you a hero.

You suffer from chronic illness, thanks to your father’s syphilis.

You are the spoiled, childish wife of a banker, until you suddenly transform into an author surrogate.

Your family is faced with a problem. You decide you’d better commit suicide before anyone else can.

You are the beloved pet of a young girl. She will certainly kill you, unless she kills herself first.

You are a middle-aged architect who falls in love with a much younger woman. You also have psychic powers, but they won’t save you.

Three Moral Theories: a Fable

The Rock Driving Although these days I’m lucky to find even two hours a week to devote to it, one of my hobbies is playing video games. The fact that I spend so little time on it means that I rarely buy new titles, as there are so many games that came out years ago that I’m still interested in playing, and those can be picked up cheap. Case in point – yesterday I bought a used copy of God of War for the PlayStation, which was the top console title of 2005. Total cost to me: $4 plus tax. Bought new in 2005, it would have cost $50, or $60 in 2015 dollars.

This phenomenon is widespread: consumers pay a hefty premium for novelty. Whiplash, the film that J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for, came out last fall, and would have cost $15 or more to see in the cinema. Today, the cost of renting it from the PlayStation store is $5. Soon you’ll be able to see it on Netflix for $0. (Note that I’m excluding overhead costs here for ease of comparison. Sure, Netflix costs a monthly fee, and buying a PlayStation has an upfront capital cost, but so too does buying a bike or a bus pass to take you to the cinema, etc.)

In a similar fashion, the price of hardcover books > the price of the same book in paperback > the price of the remaindered hardcover. And the same six-issue arc of, say, Amazing Spider-Man will cost $24 plus tax in monthly issues, or $20 for a trade paperback, which is typically more compact and easier to read. In each case, as the  novelty of the work fades, so too does its price. I was told once that in the music business, it used to be reversed, and that albums cost less when released and more later on. But that strange artifact has collapsed -along with the entire business model surrounding pre-recorded music – and who knows what will take its place. Something more like the Netflix model, I guess.

But I digress! The point I was driving at was, this morning I got an e-mail alert from Steam, the marketplace where I buy my games for the PC, that a title I’m interested in is on sale. I checked and the price drop was high in relative terms – 33% – but low in absolute terms: from $50 to $33.50. “Pshaw”, I said to myself, “I’ll wait till that drops to below $10”.

Immediately the ghost of Immanuel Kant materialized behind me to ask “What if everyone behaved as you did?” I thought about this. If everyone waited for new games, or indeed new media, to be old and hence cheap, the profit margin on producing new media would drop. As a consequence there’d be less investment in the sector, and many fine works would never be made, because the returns on investment would be such that no one would pay the up-front costs to make these works. In a sense, by waiting for a price drop when the novelty faded, I was free-riding on other consumers. “So,” said Kant. “What you’re doing can’t be universalized as a rule of conduct. It is therefore wrong, and you have a deontological duty to buy media you consume when it is new.”

I didn’t like that conclusion, so I summoned up the ghost of John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately he had no comfort to offer. “By intending to purchase a good, but deliberately delaying your purchase until the price falls to a fraction of the initial price, you save your funds, and in so doing, you provide some utility to yourself,” he said to me. “But you deprive utility to the various firms that rely on purchases at the initial price to sustain themselves. That lost utility far outweighs the utility you keep for yourself, for – ” and he leaned in at this point – “we are both aware that you could easily afford the extra $40 to purchase that good now; the savings provide you little gain; the real utility you preserve is not the money that remains in your pocket, but the feeling of moral rectitude that frugality brings you. Given that the harm you do to others by achieving that feeling outweighs the pleasure you gain from it, what you are doing is wrong, and you have a consequentialist duty to buy media you consume when it is new.”

Luckily, at this point I remembered that I’m neither a deontologist nor a consequentialist, but a virtue theorist. “Aristotle!” I cried. “Save me!” The ghost of Aristotle appeared and said “As a middle-class civil servant living in contemporary Canada, there is a good life to which you are obliged to aspire. The contents of that good life are open to interrogation, but we are both satisfied that being a wise steward of your funds is a part of that good life. Thus, for you, the two vices you must avoid are parsimony and profligacy, and the virtue to which you must aspire is thrift. Buying a game you wish to play when it is expensive would be profligate, but not buying it at all would be parsimonious. Buying it when you can obtain it most cheaply is thrift, and thus is morally obligatory.”

And having been given the answer I wanted to hear, I dismissed the philosophers, deleted the e-mail, and went about my day.

-Andrew Miller

The Perils of Praise

Big Tom Hanks memeThe Good Student was a teacher’s favourite in school, consistently earning praise from teachers for her work. Over time, the tokens of approval changed from gold-star stickers to A grades, but the mechanism remained constant: teachers liked the Good Student’s work and contributions, favoured her with extra attention, and told her she was going to go far.

Perhaps you’ve met the Good Student. Perhaps you were one.

The Good Student received constant praise. Contrary to what one might think, though, this wasn’t a good thing. Constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function. If the praise ever dries up, the recipient goes into withdrawal. This is talked about most often in regards to rearing young children, but it applies just as well to older children and youths in high school and university. Deprived of praise, the addict becomes anxious and emotionally fragile. Rather than try new things or practice new skills, she prefers to retreat into fantasies of power and control.

Unfortunately for them, while the school system is a great place to get constant praise from one’s superiors, outside of school it’s much harder to come by. Employees receive much less feedback from their employers in general, especially for those working entry-level jobs. Often, the only time an employee gets feedback is when she screws up; good work isn’t singled out for praise, but rather is expected and taken without comment.

And so, Good Students who enter the world of work often suffer an unexpected shock: for the first time, nobody is telling them how great they are.

I’m sure the person who wrote the movie Big (1988) with Tom Hanks was familiar with this situation, because the movie is a perfect recitation of the sort of fantasy that these circumstances provoke. In the film, Hanks’ character is an anonymous data-entry clerk whose work is repetitive and dull. Management, to the extent that they notice him at all, holds him in contempt, seeing him as a drone incapable of anything important. But then he catches the eye of the firm’s owner, who immediately sees that this kid has real talent. Overnight, Hanks is a senior executive, with his own office, secretary, and fat paycheque. Better still, he has flexible work hours and the autonomy to do his job as he likes. In return for this recognition of his genius, he leads his company to fantastic new achievements.

This is the sort of thing that Good Students daydream about, when they’re not seething about how they deserve better than what they’ve got, dammit. Don’t they know how special I am?!

Young people with fresh undergraduate degrees, faced with this unexpectedly difficult environment, often beat a hasty retreat to grad school. It’s a bad idea, because they’re not going because they love their subject, but instead because they hate being just another nobody. This is unfortunate, because it’s a recipe for quitting ABD (but that’s a post for another time). Bad as this scenario is – I’m surprised it wasn’t written up as one of the 100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School – the PhD holder who leaves academia for the working world outside has it worse. At least the undergrad has an escape hatch, but the ex-academic has no grad school to retreat to. She has no alternative to going cold turkey.

Well, I suppose there is one – she could start looking for a constant stream of validation in her romantic life. I suspect the results would be ugly.

The best response is to grit your teeth and get over it. It’s a painful process, in the same way that athletic training is painful. Getting physically stronger takes time and discomfort, and getting emotionally stronger is no different. Good Students in recovery, rather than waiting for the world to acknowledge how special they are, should recognize and embrace the opportunity to learn some important life lessons: that you are not your resume (or even your CV), that good work is worth doing even if nobody notices it, and that ultimately you are the only judge that matters of whether you’re living a good life. If you know that you’re doing something worthwhile, and you’re doing it well, then no else’s approval is necessary.

—Andrew Miller

Guy de Maupassant – the Complete Short Stories

Tl;dr: If you’ve never read Guy de Maupassant, definitely read “Boule de Suif‘, his first and most famous story. If you enjoyed that, I can recommend a few more. Maupassant is worth reading because of his clarity and brevity. He doesn’t flinch from displaying the dark side of human life, but that view into the dark side means that when he turns to satire, it’s delicious.

Occasionally I take on a reading project where I read as much of one author’s work as I can handle. One of these began when I picked up a cheap copy of a selection of Maupassant’s short stories, which I had barely begun when I foolishly left it on a bus. Looking for a replacement, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I was able to download the complete corpus of his short stories – thirteen volumes! – in one file. Here was something worth digging my teeth into.

What the typical reader knows of Maupassant is probably something like this: French writer, late nineteenth century, followed in the footsteps of Voltaire by exposing bourgeois morality as a sham, died insane from syphilis. To this I don’t have anything to add: I don’t know his biography, just his bibliography. So what did I learn from reading all these stories?

Firstly, they’re worth reading. Maupassant is everything I adore in short fiction: his stories have beginnings, middles, and endings, with sharply defined characters, and always have a point. Though not a moralist – he doesn’t seem to be keen for us to begin acting a different way – he does want us to feel something about his characters, and usually succeeds. Continue reading Guy de Maupassant – the Complete Short Stories