Monday, July 27, 2009

Democracy: the Only Option?

Recently, I have been reading a book called "Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle" by Zizek. If you've never heard of Zizek, go to youtube and search pervert's guide to cinema and you will get a decent sense of what he's about. The main thrust of the book is... well, if you know Zizek, you'll know why that's a difficult question to answer, but to give you some idea, the title is a reference to the classic Freudian joke that goes as follows, someone asks if you broke their kettle and you reply in a panic "a) I never borrowed a kettle from you, b) I returned it to you intact c) it was already broken when I borrowed it." As you can see, the reasoning behind these denials exposes the true fact that you broke the kettle. At one point, Zizek quotes an interesting poem written during the 1954 worker's strike in E. Germany. I quote it here in full
After the uprising of 17th June
The secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinalee (main st. I think)
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

This poem was intended as a sarcastic jab at the supposedly Democratic gov't in E. Germany. But this strikes at an interesting notion, the idea that the government can modify the people's approach to politics. Two such ideas already exist, the concept of the Vanguard party in Leninism, whereby a staunch, communist element of society (eg, urban proletariat) will bring about the initial changes leading to communism, and then remain in the vanguard of society pulling up and educating the other classes (eg, rural workers). Another manifestation of this idea is found on the right, whereby a strongman will remain in power while the country slowly liberalizes its markets and develops its civil society in preparation for the introduction of democracy. Do either of these models really work? In the former case, obviously not. The current state of nations that followed this path adequately demonstrates this, and I have trouble buying the argument that it was only due to Western interference that not a single one of the former Soviet aligned countries remains. If you want to say "Ah! but what about Cuba" my reply will be that, while the country does survive, the Vanguard did a fairly poor job in guiding the people due to the overwhelming disaffection of Cubans with socialism. In the latter case of the regent/dictator, we have also seen some pretty abject failures. Amy Chua points out the dangers of sudden democracy in countries which aren't prepared and don't have the appropriate (in her view) preconditions necessary for democracy. At the same time, I feel compelled to challenge this view, not on evidentiary grounds (of course the events in the Balkans in the 90's and the land seizures by Mugabe were terrible events) but on ideological grounds. Zizek defends populism on the grounds that democracy is made up of its constituents, not of an idealized but non-existent body politic that behaves in ways which we support.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review- The Lost Millenium

The Lost Millennium:Histories timetables under siege by F. Diacu
Could the Peloponnesian Wars have occurred in the 12th century AD?  This and other outlandish claims are given serious credence in this book and investigated in earnest.  Seemingly, that is reason enough to put the book down (this comes up first on page 13) and move on to a more worthwhile read.  But, that would do a disservice to the positive elements of this book.  Basically, the Lost Millennium is a look at the science of chronology, or dating events and putting them in some kind of order.  How do we date events?  Sounds like a simple question, right?  We just look at old sources and calculate the date.  In fact, the techniques used to date events are quite complex.  Sources cause numerous problems, such as dating based on dynasty.  If we can't ascertain the date of the dynasty... and so on.  So, a more concrete tool historians have used have been things like records of eclipses.  Because astronomy is a fairly well developed science, we can determine when eclipses occurred and what kind of eclipses they were (lunar, solar, full or partial).  Then, we merely need to find a reference in the texts which correlates to that kind of eclipse.  For example, the Peloponnesian Wars coincided with a series of eclipses.  Thus, the Peloponnesian Wars have been used as somewhat of a standard by which to date other events.  Some scientists have questioned the dates which the scholarly consensus has arrived at, including heavy weights like Isaac Newton and modern revisionists like Velikovsky and Morozov (one of the main theorists discussed in this book).  The heart of this book is basically a scientists attempt at chronology, without using "unreliable" historical records such as political histories but instead, utilizing "reliable" records such as eclipses and other astronomical phenomena to the exclusion of any other historical sources.  This approach leads to some ridiculous conclusions (above).  In the end, the author himself basically debunks Morozov's theories (although rather gently I felt).  The impression I was left with was that scientists who want to ignore the entire corpus of historical knowledge are just as out of place in history as a historian would be who wanted to ignore the corpus of scientific knowledge.  One thing which I immediately realized was that all the European records could easily be checked by referring to Islamic sources which mention events in Europe.  Because the muslims dated things based on the Hijra, which we can ascertain and kept careful records after that point, due to the ritual importance of the lunar and solar cycle for things like Ramadan and prayer times, their records are rock solid.  Another feature of this book which history buffs will enjoy is its summary of various techniques for dating events.  In addition to the astronomical information, there are brief summaries of carbon dating, dendrochronology (tree ring dating, which is apparently not as great as I thought, for example, trees gaining 5 rings in one year in some cases!) and thermoluminescence.  I found these to be very concise and helpful, not only explaining the actual methods, but also the critiques leveled against them.  A good read and I feel guilty that I got it on sale for a pittance of $2.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Well, a debate... Gladwell vs. Kingwell

Here's a link to a debate became Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, and Mark Kingwell from UofT.  Maybe some of you have had Kingwell as a Prof?  What was he like?

The debate centres around how to best deal with tackling societies problems, a rather broad topic.  Gladwell attacking awareness raising programs vis-a-vis concrete action, supporting the latter as a much more effective method of tackling problems while Kingwell suggests that the root of the problem is... well just listen and find out.  The debate gets heated by Canadian standards and its great to hear two great minds politely clash.  Enjoy and feedback is welcome.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Blink with your ears

I am currently experiencing my first audiobook, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.  This book was a huge hit a few years ago and as I've been on a big audio lecture kick over the past few months, I decided to try listening to an audio book.  I chose Gladwell b/c he's easy to digest, and from what I've heard about blink, I knew the book would be captivating without being too dense.  Blink is about making snap decisions, or as it is apparently really called, "think-slicing".  Studies have shown that people have a remarkable ability to reach accurate conclusions rapidly, with only key amounts of information.  For example, the first example is describes how art experts were able to detect a fraud at first glance, even though careful research on its background and chemical tets to determine its age all indicated that it was authentic.  One conclusion of this book is that amount of info is much less important than the quality of info and excess info can actually impair correct decision making.  I think the implication of this is that in the internet age, info quantity is no longer an issue.  In the Pre-net era, info was treasured due to its scarcity and no accurate info was seen as "bad".  But today, paucity of info is never a problem and so we have a contradiction between the old values which prioritize amount of info vs the new reality, where accurate info is readily available.  I've often thought about this in reference to music.  If you can download basically every song ever for free, the question becomes, which songs are worth listening to?

Why Blog?

What will this blog bring you?  In the past, I have posted notes on facebook, partially to elicit comments and thoughts from others, and also to indulge myself.  Here, I seek to do that in a more organized and consistent fashion.  Further, I will be posting links to audio lectures that I find, bboy and martial arts videos as well as book critiques (/reviews).  Don't worry, I won't post all the latest viral videos, only the more obscure ones that are difficult to find, or the ones about which I have something worthwhile to say.  To start, I'll give you a preview of the books which I plan to critique.
The Lost Millenium: History's Timetables Under Siege
Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle
The Rebel Sell
Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

In the words of my favourite Kwik-E Mart employee "Thank you, come again!"