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.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Selected Reading Reviews: 2015-16

A friend mentioned the use of vanity to motivate himself to read. The idea being that he regularly posts a list of books he has read, with short reviews accompanying them, in order to impress the internet and incentivise reading. It seems a perfectly good idea, so I thought I'd copy it. Fortunately I have been keeping a list of the books I have read, along with mini-reviews, for just over two years  now. Accordingly this post is an assortment of reviews for some of the good, bad and ugly books that I have read over the last two years. So, in no particular order...

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

A ground-breaking book in so far as it detailed the world of cheffing in juxtaposition to that of fine dining. Very honest but not entirely un-pretentious. Bourdain clearly revels in his mastery of the nomenclature of cooking and takes a childlike glee in revealing the seedy, crude and bleakly comical world of professional cookery to his presumably upper-middle-class clientele. It's as funny as it is insightful and for anyone wondering, as an ex-cook, I can confirm that it is mostly true.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Cutting and personal to the point of being cryptographic: such is modern verse libre. Lots of wonderful images and lovely mouth sounds: "the yew's black fingers wag" and "fat, gold watch". Initially intimidating on account of its obscurity but by the end I salvaged a few nuggets of poetic black gold.

One Hundred Years of Protest by Christopher Catherwood

A warning against what will happen to those who write about contentious subjects while trying not to upset anyone: in this case Catherwood ends up comparing Palestinians throwing rocks to rifle-fire from professional soldiers. This is done purely so that the author can preach the refrain "senseless violence on both sides".
Gandhi here is portrayed as an anti-racist (he wasn't) and a hard-line pacifist (again, nope) and the psychology of militant activism is boiled down to an expression of unreasonable outrage - despite the author holding Nelson Mandela (the leader of a terrorist organisation) in high regard. 


Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman

Interesting, accessible but about twice as long as it needs to be. Fonts influence us: they communicate as well as construct content and they have evolved alongside advances in culture and printing. I fully support Hyndman's goal in getting people to think about font more and her book makes for an adequate introduction to the subject - it's just a shame that this book isn't much more.  


Liberalism: A Counter History by Domenico Losurdo

The freedoms of the liberal world were hard won; universal suffrage and the abolishment of slavery were both contentious issues among the architects of the modern world. Losurdo's counter history reminds us of the theoretic possibility that was liberal freedom as the reserve of the privileged. Focusing primarily on the Atlantic slave trade, and also touching on the labour struggles of the developed west, Losurdo examines the philosophic acrobatics that were required to champion freedom during a time of great subjugation.  
The books thesis is rooted in an examination of the history of political struggle in early liberal society, its rhetoric and emergent conceptions of freedom. Of particular note is the idea that we could have freedom without equality and the small triumph of egalitarian struggle in helping correct that mistake.

The Philosophical Life by James Miller

The blurb of this book argues that it "confirms the continuing relevance of philosophy today". I have always been sceptical of such projects; especially when the philosophers the book points to are no more recent than Nietzsche. It would be much more prudent to prove the relevance of philosophy by pointing to the myriad of fascinating works published in recent years.
Perhaps what is meant by proving the relevance of philosophy, is its defence of philosophy as self-help - ala Alain de Botton. This is another project for which I have limited sympathy. Philosophy hasn't really operated with spiritual goals in mind for quite some time and I'm not entirely convinced that that is a problem. Even if enlightenment and happiness was the goal of philosophy I'm not sure this collection of mini-biographies makes a good case for the discipline. Seneca and Socrates were both murdered; Aristotle and Plato were widely ignored by the people they sought to tutor and Nietzsche and Kant died as pair of mad, tormented bastards. 
The book is still readable and informative, even if it doesn't achieve what it set out to do. Though there is one remark in the books conclusion worth expounding on: philosophers may face despair and madness ahead of them but they reason nonetheless. And we are all philosophers, by the very dint of being capable of thought.


4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane

A play that utilises an almost vers libre monologue to flit between moments of psychotic dread and sparkling gallows humour. Clearly written from a very honest emotional place, the clich├ęs of mental health are steam-rolled into oblivion by Kane's candid and confused narrator. Intense, raw - must read again.

Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Ranciere

Ranciere explores the tensions of a secular republic and presents an understanding of democratic struggle as an expansion of public space in the face of technocratic elites. Modern political leaders must ape the values of democracy while simultaneously attempting to keep the populist masses at bay.
French, continental and as poorly written as it sounds. Like much of the post-modern canon it's 5% good ideas couched in post-modern verbage; an insightful analysis buried under a landslide of badly composed sentences with too many indexicals, needless ambiguity and a weird fetish for turning adjectives into proper nouns. Left me in many places feeling "the confused" and had me re-reading many passages two or three times over.


The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Anderson 

 Absurdly amoral fairytales seems to be HCA's thing. The Tinder Box is about a soldier who murders an old woman to steal her magic Tinder Box which gives him command of three magic dogs who help him commit regicide and marry the resulting orphaned princess. There are moments of humour here and there that make me think Hans Christian Anderson had adults in mind while also writing for children: the Deacon visiting the housewife in Little/Big Claus seems to be a wink and a nod towards more adult content.