Friday, 24 November 2017

Cut-Throat's 2017 Resolution Round Up

I have been busy. Accordingly my last quarterly review will be replaced/superseded by the cut-throat annual round up, which starts now.

1. Seize the Day (Off).

So I started this year wanting to make more of my free time. In particular I wanted to plan ahead more so that I could do more interesting stuff with my days off outside of 'whatever strikes me as fun/practical on the day'.

This one has been a mild success, the use of a calendar helped but to be honest phone apps proved more effective. No one checks their calendar anymore, but you check your phone hundreds of times a day. It just makes more sense to organise your life through your phone. However while I have been able to do more exciting/interesting things with my time off, at least some of that success must be attributed to the more stable, predictable and easily planned 9-5 lifestyle that I now lead.

Either way this is just something that I expect to get better at with practise.

2. Learn a Craft.

I wanted to get a more technical grounding in a combat sport; originally I was looking at grappling but quickly switched to Muay Thai. I have trained with two/three different teams since the start of this year and am looking to get back into fighting. The coaching I have received has been some of the best technical and strategy focused coaching I have ever had. I am hugely satisfied with my achievement on this front.

3. Specialise in the Kitchen.

I ended last year after going back to the basics in the kitchen and have spent this year learning Scandinavian and Japanese cooking. They are rather eccentric choices of cuisine but they were deliberately picked for their obscurity. The idea was that by learning about schools of cookery far removed from what I had experienced before, I would be able to expand my knowledge of food much faster than if I had done something more orthodox.

Learning to cook this way has been fun but it has made hunting for ingredients more time consuming; though it is often a pleasant adventure to go rooting around in specialist stores looking for a herb or seaweed that you previously had never even heard of. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending on your perspective, I have gotten the most satisfaction out of the development of classic skill sets like stock-making and butchery - despite having actually done comparatively little of them. Next year I'm probably going to focus more on this side of cooking.

Otherwise I feel like I have begun to flesh out my grasp of world cuisine and develop tastes of my own. No doubt there is a long exciting road ahead, and it feels good to have had such a strong start this year.   

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Book Review: A Hedonist Manifesto by Michel Onfray

Ethics, Art and Knowledge are all subjects that can be seen to have a transcendental element. Each is capable of acquiring a religious tone, especially when they unconsciously replace the un-touchable figure of God with abstract notions of un-corrupted beauty, goodness or truth. Even in nominally secular pursuits there is often a desire for contact with something beyond the mundane and terrestrial: a desire for art that portrays an ideal form, ethics that could transcend human subjectivity or even knowledge that we can be certain to represent reality as it is.

This transcendental impulse is what Onfray takes to be the stumbling block of philosophy. From Plato's cave to Kant's Noumena and Phenomena, philosophers have been obsessed with attempts to reach beyond the material world. Onfray's alternative is to refocus on the here and now. To reject any transcendental claim that pulls us away from the material conditions of life. Drawing on Pre-Christian philosophers such as Epicurus and Diogenes the Cynic, Onfray pulls together thinkers who rebel against the transcendental impulse identified early on in his historiography of philosophy: though he later also incorporates the existential humanism of Nietzsche and hints at some of the themes in Camus in order to more fully situate his approach. The result is a philosophy that is concerned with, and exalts, the human experience and rejects any attempt to supersede our subjectivity.

The book is philosophically iconoclastic in a very exciting way. Onfray doesn't just sneer at the empty verbal gesticulations of arm-chair theorists, he works productively to identify new directions for philosophy. What's more he identifies precedents in philosophy's own history that could act as starting points for more hedonistic and concrete theorising. Onfray's case is extremely compelling, perhaps one of the reasons philosophy is often seen as an impotent practise, next to more scientific endeavours, is due its lack of material relevance Onfray identifies in this book. To quote Dawkins 'Science works'. The criteria for successful scientific research involves an improvement of our ability to control and impact the world: something which is often independent of any abstract truthiness.

Ultimately, 'A Hedonist Manifesto' is not just an appeal to refocus philosophy on human affairs but it is also a polemic in defence of hedonistic human relations. Onfray does not advocate for any particular form of utilitarianism but rather for an ethic of honour and kindness; an ethic which considers acts with the the thoughts, feelings and freedoms of other humans at its heart to be the highest good. An ethic which asserts, perhaps un-controversially, that the highest good is whatever pleases us best. Our moral responsibility is then not to God or History or any empty abstract talk of values but to each-other and we must interrogate norms and practises which suggest otherwise.

His closing suggestion for making this world a better one is decidedly humble, but perhaps this is in line with the books ethos. He advocates not for social revolution or mass immediate change, but for his readers to become 'Nomadic Epicurean Gardens'. Doing what they can to look after those around them and build pockets of micro-resistances to the boredom and tyranny of the world.

This is a far reaching book that does well to unify Onfray's critical look at our current, sorely limited, idea of what philosophy can be, with his more bold and hedonistic sensibilities. It's iconoclastic in a constructive way and subtly political in a way that is more humanistic than it is partisan. An important read for ethicists and lay people alike.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Cut-Throat's Half Time Review 2017

Accountability, Reflections and Musings Ahoy....

1. Seize The Day.

Considering my lack of posting here, I think we all know how well this has gone. That said I have finally planned and had proper holidays for the first time in years and been socializing a lot more. I am certainly busier than I used to be.

I will also be moving house in just over a month, meaning I'll have to make very good use of my time over the next few weeks. Hopefully, this will inspire me to make better use of my diary.

2. Learn A Craft.

  As for sport and fitness, the past couple of months have seen real progress. I have a semi-regular lifting routine and am racking up some serious sparring hours at Muay Thai practice. My striking has never looked better. I was enjoying learning classical Brazilian Jui Jitsu but alas my coach has re-located. Luckily I will be moving to a City with a very well rounded MMA team with great grappling coaches so this is only a temporary set-back.

Otherwise I have some goals to hit before my Birthday 2018, I'd like to compete again. Specifically do a couple of grappling competitions and a Muay Thai fight; and just for giggles, maybe see if I can get a half marathon in there as well!

3. Specialize in the Kitchen.

I have been experimenting a bit more with a different Scandi cook book and have started to get a feel of the Nordic flavors - salted, herbal and earthy. I get the sense that it's basically an un-orthodox and heavily foraged style of French-cuisine, however my understanding of French-cuisine consists of a couple of stock phrases like 'confit' so I don't know on what authority I say that.

 Japanese cooking has also proven fruitful and greatly enlightening regarding western misconceptions of Japanese culture. Sushi was originally a street-food, and before that it was the staple of impoverished rice farmers; Ramen was originally a Chinese dish, one that didn't really make it in Japan until the 1950's. So much of what we think to be 'authentic Japanese cuisine' has its roots elsewhere, or at the very least has more humble origins than is often thought.

Speaking of my lack of experience with classical French cooking, I have noticed a gap in my skill-set - dessert. In typical overambitious 'me' fashion I may in the near future look at learning some French patisserie skills for the sake of variety.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Cut Throat's First Quarterly Review of 2017

What can I say? I have been busy these past four months, but I'm back for the sake of accountability. Hopefully there will be a couple more posts appearing here in the next few weeks, for now... let's take stock of the year.

1. Seize The Day

At the beginning of this year I promised to use a diary and a calendar to plan my days off more effectively. So far I have seen partial success in this area. I am certainly making better use of my down-time but perhaps not as much as I had originally envisioned. Part of this may be explained by the fact that while I may be trying to keep better track of up-coming dates, most of my friends don't, which makes the planning of anything social potentially frustrating.

However I must also share some of the blame here. About a month ago my planner was moved off of my desk and onto a shelf, so that the aforementioned desk could be cleaned - it was never put back. Also I have struggled to discern any reason for keeping both a calendar and a diary planner. Moving forward I'm going to keep the calendar for the planning of events far in the future and the planner for mapping the individual weeks as they come.   

2. Learn a Craft

I have started taking advantage of the gym next door and its wide array of combat sports. Currently I am back to training about 5 times a week, once we include lifting and stretching sessions. I have put a bigger focus on diet, stretching and recovery than ever before, I want this hobby to last so I need to make sure it won't wear me down chronically or become too much of a time burden in relation to the other aspects of my life.

Training as a now fully grown adult (tm) comes with certain benefits. I don't drink like an arts student anymore, so my body has more of an opportunity to recover from the various sessions; furthermore I am now a better cook than I was 3 years ago, so preparing meals to maintain a healthy diet has become a lot easier.  So far it has all been really enjoyable, I am learning classical gi-based jiu jitsu and orthodox muay thai, which has given me a much broader appreciation of their unique approaches and strategies. I'm now looking to perfect my management of time vis a vis training vs recovery. Combat sport is extremely stressful and the risk of neurological burn-out from over-training is very high; consequently I am watching my recovery to make sure everything I do is manageable and in my long term interest.

3. Specialise in the Kitchen

There has been a little experimentation with new foods over the last couple of months. I have been doing more in terms of casseroles, gotten the process of marinating down to a fine art, and begun exploring more unusual oils and vinegars for the sake of salad dressings and frying.

In terms of geographic specialisation however, not much has happened. I have learnt a bit of Scandinavian cookery but not enough to really call it progress. The book I was given is heavily reliant on specialist ingredients, such as elderflower vinegar, which makes its recipes both logistically challenging and low in cost-efficiency. A lot of my more adventurous cooking plans have been put on hold while I sort my diet for muay thai and jiu jitsu. I'm still very happy with my Scandi book and I really appreciate its haute cuisine French-style influences, but when I resume this resolution I'm going to have to pick a Japanese cook book that won't require me to take such extreme measures in acquiring ingredients.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Cut-Throat's Resolutions for 2017.

2016 is dead. Long live 2017. Here are my resolutions for the coming year, along with some related observations and expectations.

1. Seize the Day (Off).

I rarely plan my days off, and when I do my foresight struggles to see past the first 48 hours. Consequently, I repeatedly fail to visit friends who live in other cities, and have not taken a proper 'sight-seeing' holiday for over two years - which is fairly appalling considering that I don't have any dependents to account for.

132 Seize the Days, a travel guide published by the Lonely Planet in 2007, attempted to cajole the reader into making better use of their weekends and holidays. Although it presumed the reader had a lot of disposable income, at least far more than I currently posses, it otherwise offered plenty of inspiration to do something interesting with those days off. To this end, I will be using a diary planner, in conjunction with a calendar, to plan ahead and make the most of my free time.

2. Learn a Craft.

Where I live there are a lot of opportunities to participate in combat sport. Unfortunately the nature of my work does not allow for facial injuries and so I will have to stay focused on grappling this year. This is not necessarily a problem. I have a fairly rag-tag martial arts background, but little in the way of accredited technical skill. Although I am a - relatively - okay grappler and a - below - average stand up fighter, it would be nice to be able to say that I do 'orthodox [insert grappling style]' to a reasonably satisfactory level. My aim for this year then is to grade in either Brazilian Ju Jitsu or Judo.

3. Specialise in the Kitchen.

Now that I have developed an all purpose cooking from scratch skill-set, it is time to dabble in the realm of culinary specialisation. By the end of the year I hope to have a strong grasp of at least two styles of world cuisine: I am currently hoping to learn Japanese and Scandinavian cooking. Vegan cookery may also make a later appearance, for the sake of my vegan friends, moral conscience and general curiosity.  

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Cut-Throat's 2016 Resolution Round Up

Susan Neiman's 'Why Grow Up' encouraged me to take resolutions seriously. My review of it can be found here and it has, in retrospect, been immensely influential for me. Of course, it is easy to be cynical about resolutions: they are, rather comically, rarely successful. But they also represent a struggle to improve oneself, and are more empowering than the alternative of un-reflective meandering.

What is often forgotten is that growing up and living longer, is fun - it results in competency. When you are young you lack the knowledge and experience needed to make the most of life's opportunities; it is only with a bit of practice that you can actually start to get good at living. Resolutions then, are a small attempt to harness this growth in natural competency.

1. Reading, Writing and Running.

2016 was intended to be a year where these three activities would happen on an 'almost daily' basis. The three programmes, which were lumped under one heading, have been met with varying levels of success.

Reading- I read almost every day, even if I am just browsing articles on the web. However my recent flat move has denied me a comfortable reading spot for a more focused programme of book consumption. In the new year I will have acquired a new reading den to remedy this. This sub-resolution has been a partial success.

Writing - This year I have regularly written with a much wider scope than ever before; in particular, I have started writing more poetry and short-form prose. I have not managed to make this an 'almost daily' routine, as this year has shown that reading, writing and exercising on an 'almost daily' basis is a tall order considering all the other things going on in my life. 

Running - I no longer exercise on a daily basis. This is not due to a lack of motivation but rather a lack of necessity. I have finally gotten back into combat sports this year and am looking to take grappling much more seriously in 2017 - perhaps enter a tournament or look to grade in Judo or BJJ. At the moment, again due to the flat move, I am lifting in the gym rather than training in any particular club. With last year's fitness failure in mind, I am very happy with what I have accomplished in 2016.

2. Get Techie.

This resolution was discontinued three quarters of the way through the year. I certainly know a lot more about digital technology than I did at the start of the year, but it wasn't thanks to any considered effort on my part.

3. Get Foodie

I cook from scratch almost everyday now; which has helped to improve my diet and aided in the tweaking of a number of dishes that I have been working on this year. Jack Monroe's budget cook book 'A Girl Called Jack' has seen a lot of use in my kitchen over the last few months. It has quickly become a classic in contemporary budget cookery and I highly recommend it to budding chefs who want to broaden their horizons; the dishes in Jack's book are varied but, for budget reasons, stripped down to their bare bones. The result is a cook book filled with recipes that require little in the way of food shopping, which is probably the most time consuming part of learning new forms of cuisine.

I now have a fairly wide and adaptable skill-set in the kitchen that I feel ready to build on. Next year I will be looking to work on more presentation pieces and start specialising in a couple of areas of world cuisine: French, Japanese and Middle Eastern cookery are on the cards for 2017. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

On Democracy and Its Cynics: Reflections on Trump

The presidential election of the United States of America 2016 transpired just under a week ago and now every person of every sensible shade of political opinion is shaking their head in disbelief. Naturally, the electoral victory of such a ruinous candidate as Trump has resulted in some bitter reflection on the values and limitations of democracy (examples of this anxiety/bitterness in pre-election form are found: here and here). The criticisms now are largely the same as those raised in times of yore: most voters are ignorant and, in an electoral democracy, charismatic leaders will often outperform more competent candidates. These points are echoed throughout the history of political philosophy from Plato's Republic to the "elite theorists" of democracy of the 50's, and they are given plenty of air time in times of distress. It is then only natural that we see them aired once more.

                                     Image result for Trump business

We must remember that Trump is/was far from being a typical electoral candidate. He himself is/was a member of the American Aristocracy. While he has solidified his power over the American landscape through an electoral victory, he was always a wealthy and connected member of the American plutocracy nonetheless. Had there been no election to win, were the United States of America a Neo-Roman Republic or Empire, Trump would probably have ascended to power just as easily through Machiavellian real-politick. In the hypothetical alternative universe of the United States of Aristocracy, he would have assassinated and out-manoeuvred his rivals just as he stampeded them in our democratic one. Authoritarian organisations typically favour rather than stifle the Caligula-esque figures such as Trump, but what of technocracy: the rule of the competent and wise? Is technocracy not a suitable alternative model; one that could avert the horrors of capriciously unscrupulous demagogues, without providing a power structure that would enable the reign of tyrants?

Thankfully, most people in the west are inclined to agree with Churchill and his the summation of democracy as "...the worst form of government, except all those others forms that have been tried from time to time.". The paradoxical nature of our contemporary democratic cynicism is worth unpacking. We loath democracy's nominal flaws, even though we recognise that it has value. But what would we possibly replace it with? Voters are often uninformed and irrational but un-democratic leaders are rarely renowned for their reasonableness; and while demagogues may rise to power through electoral means, are such figures truly contained in more feudal or aristocratic societies?

The problem of technocracy, especially with regards to its conception in juxtaposition to democracy, concerns two key contentious claims which simmer beneath the surface.

First we must consider that technocracy and aristocracy are more closely related than we might first think. Aristocrats have always thought themselves to be technocrats - the literal translation of aristocracy is, after all, "rule of the best". The dialogues of western academies are mostly filled with the voices of rich, white men. A strategy of deferring policy decisions to relevant captains of research and industry would result in a very limited demographic being handed control; granted that demographic would be relatively well educated and worldly, but that has generally held true for all aristocracies whose histories are filled with examples of neglectful and myopic governance. This is not to say that a nominal technocracy would not be an improvement on aristocracy, but rather to add a pessimistic footnote that calls attention to the parallels technocracy and aristocracy share in struggling to provide fair and attentive governance.

Second, we must dispute the very foundation upon which the technocratic/democratic divide rests. The pursuit of competent governance is not antithetical to the pursuit of a fair and representative governing processes. It is my belief, based upon a flexible and serious consideration of democratic praxis, that the hunt for social equity in the realm of social and political organisation is a great enhancer to our collective efficacy. In this humanist age the function of good government - whether that is taken as the management of people or a more anarchistic "organising of things" - is to aid in the running of a society conductive to the pursuit of happiness and justice. This telos is both universal and implicitly egalitarian. A full consideration of all the interests of any given fragmented society is required for any chance at realising such an aim. Democratic channels foster diversity of opinion and provide the possibility of levelling differences in power. This is an often overlooked yet deeply important element of the democratic process and one which aids us in our technocratic desire for competent and informed decision making. Political questions are often value-laden and only amicably resolved after much representative dialogue and exchange of perspective. The cold expert-veto-technocracy outlined above may be effecient when handling questions of truth but it is limited in so far as questions of policy are frequently linked with more collaborative inter-social projects of discerning what is just and fair.

Yet despite this, to understand the call for greater involvement of expert opinion as an un-democratic or "extra-democratic" call is to be fooled into maintaining a limited view of what democracy could be. One that, as we will see, is pernicious in a philosophical sense and perhaps even spiritually harmful to the democratic project.

There are plenty of ways to integrate expert knowledge into democratic culture. Consider the "mini-publics" of the deliberative democrats: small groups in which citizens, chosen for their representativeness of the larger concerned population, gather together to make large-scale policy decisions after being briefed by experts and given space for collective reflection on the topic. Although major legislative bodies have been hesitant to trust these mini-publics, the qualitative research on the topic is very promising. Furthermore, models of Sortitive Democracy provide other promising avenues for incorporating professional and worldly expertise into the democratic process by making eligibility for particular roles subject to qualifications and experience in the relevant area of policy. Even the bog-standard electoral system can be tweaked to produce better informed voters by improving services which pertain to public education.

Image result for deliberative democracy Image result for sortition democracy

One might ask why I have bothered writing this post. After all, we all know that democracy really is the best of the worst, and none of us have any real desire to replace it. However I fear that our cynicism is both unwarranted and even dangerous. Democracy is not just a necessary arrangement to aid in the abatement of war-crimes and authoritarian collapse; it is a vessel which holds the seeds for a fairer and more intelligent world. Its invocation may not necessarily be a magical elixir to cure all ills, and it may require far more than a mere "going through the motions" to achieve anything worthwhile, but it is one of the moral zeniths of our modern age - however small, broken and disappointing it may seem to us now.

The ideals of democracy are far more institutionally flexible than they are often credited for. Democracy's core principles are firm, yet its praxis can easily be reworked to avoid the pitfalls of the dangerously populist and electorally obsessive systems of today. There are options for democrats who find the current formulations un-satisfactory; and there are steps that can be taken to improve and change it for the better. To portray democracy as a project doomed to produce Trump-like characters by way of unfortunate necessity is to limit our democratic sensibility and imagination: it is to tie our hands in the face of adversity rather than use this moment for reflection on the democratic failures of the current model and its attendant institutions.

In so far as Trump is a representative of an ignorant mass-hysteria coalesced around a cynical demagogue, he is also a representative of the deeply underdeveloped elements of American democracy. His triumph through the rallying of an un-communicative and ignorant public is but a indictment of the poor soil that has made up the substrate of U.S' voting public. In short, Trump is a poor leader in so far as he is the product of a poor democracy. The results of the 2016 election should not be a cause for empty despair at the supposed inefficacies of the democratic dream but rather a cause for reflection on the deeply under-developed potential of our democratic ideals and an affirmation of the steps that we must take to realise their humanistic, and even promethean, values.

Democracy is important: do not let the cynics discourage you.