Super Course

Quite recently, I started working at a small bike shop. There is a lot of performance and spandex. Titanium frames compete with carbon fibre for floor space; the only concession to hipster bike culture are two choices for handle-bar mounted coffee cup holders.

But in the back, behind the maintenance shop, hanging silently from the wooden rafters where two old, steel-framed bikes. A Trek and a Raleigh.

I have a bit of weakness for old bikes. Hell, my LeMonde from 2011 is a retro-styled steel frame.

I’ll try to explain the appeal. First, there is the greater appeal of bicycles: the efficiency, the culture, the fitness, and the environmental pluses. Next, comes the notion that “one’s bike reflects upon one’s self”: bikes are personal. It’s something people take a lot of pride in and rightly so. Vintage bikes have some real style, real mystique. I swear this is more than just the hipster side of myself coming through in full force and effect. Biking is a universe unto itself and vintage bikes are a sort of touch-stone holding together the biking community.

So I’m in the process of buying one of the old bicycles, from an ex-cop out of Utah. It’s a 1973 Raleigh Super Course, in green. It’s the perfect show-boat for my daily commute. I’d found my new project. The owner is a retired cop out of Spanish Fork, Utah. Sounds like he’s put a lot of miles on, but has maintained them fairly well.

Here’s how I found it, hanging from the rafters.

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Plenty of grime and dust; some light rust; but fundamentally sound. Vintage bikes are definitely an on-going project. The components are largely handbuilt (about as handbuilt as anything gets these days) and hand-tuned. Bikes are both incredibly strong and fragile at the same time. This is part of their appeal.

Certain traits are highly valued in the vintage bike world; but there are plenty of individuals who simply like what they like. Therefore, some bikes are loved but not collectable and vice versa. A Raleigh Super Course from the early ’70’s has some nice traits, but Raleighs of the time are not noted for their quality, nor are considered particularly collectable. For me, this looks like a great bike to

Made with Reynolds 531 steel (desirable), The Raleigh is a twelve speed, operated by shifters on the down-tube. These shifters are so obviously not ideal that they feel downright eccentric. Because you have to move your hand down and off the handle-bars, and thus significantly shift your weight at speed, the effect can be quite thrilling. They are also slightly slow to shift (or so I have found). I love ’em. DSCF2991

A Suntour derailleur is considered a better component (a lovely name in either case) operates a free-wheel style cog-set, (as opposed to a modern cassette. I suspect that this is an upgrade by the owner. The crankshaft is a Stronglight cottered crank. Cottered means a pain to install, maintain and replace; one suspects that the designer had forgotten Ockham’s dictum about simplest being best. The original Brooks saddle and Capella lugs (the decorative bits which hide the welds) are the icing on the cake. Mini fenders add practical protection without making the bike look ungainly.

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You can see the Capella lugs, highlighted in gold paint thanks to the owner, surrounding the head badge. Some of the stickers or badges have worn off, and that’s not a great sign, I admit, but it’s not the end of the world.

We’re deep in art, not science, territory here. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I am getting myself into, with this, my first vintage bike. But I’m excited. Anxious. Nervous, even. I have plans: $200 to $300 for the bike, then a gradual program of renewal and remodelling.

I’ll keep you posted.

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A Review of “Introducing Kierkegaard”

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The Introducing… series, I was surprised to find out is actually graphically based. Thus what you hold in your hands is a cross between a graphic novel, Wikipedia, and a MA philosophy student’s notes on the given philosophical system or individual or concept. It’s relatively short, yet thorough.

It’s the fastest way to gain a conversational knowledge of a complex, dense or ignored topic. I suspect that proper philosophic academicians frown in mild disgust on these little introductory booklets, but their practical, bite-sized information-download style are just too advantageous to pass up.

Just so there is no confusion, this is not the first one that I have read; I’ve also plugged out Introducing Critical Theory.

Kierkegaard, a early 19th century Dane, raised of a tyrannically puritan (and rich from running a grocery store) father, whose influence dominates Soren’s life and thought.

There are three aspects of Kierkegaard that I found to be of interest. First of all his profoundly paradoxical, mystical, introverted and despondent Christian faith, which – oddly enough – made him the grandfather of existentialist (famously atheist) thought. Second, his observations of bourgeois society, rich with romantic notions of the loner, are the opening salvoes against pop culture, conformity, and the group versus the lone individual. His ideas about the “Public” and his rejection of reason and logic to answer the biggest and highest questions mark him as an initiator of a host of later philosophical ideas, ranging from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. Lastly, Kierkegaard’s writing is known to be quite witty; he famously adopts different personas in his books, makes contradictory arguments, was the first to write philosophic novels along the lines of Camus’ The Stranger. Kierkegaard never came up with a logically consistent system; he wrote his books to place the reader into paradoxes and forced them to come to their own conclusion or leave them to create or finish the train of thought.

Kierkegaard is both profoundly modern – I feel very comfortable saying that he is the first emo kid – and is yet a tortured soul who looks back, abjectly towards a dark, sinful form of Christianity. Tertrullian, in 200 AD, first said “I believe because it is absurd”; Kierkegaard is the ultimate formulator of this arguement. More systematic thinkers easily rip his ideas to shreds; his belief in Christianity seems to be based on a flip of a coin. His legacy is paradoxical, much like his writing. He was interested in thinking about the individual and the choice and freedom of the individual.

Interesting stuff. One of the original tortured loners; one of the first to link existence with being different from the larger social group. Am surprised that his faith has not led him to be “re-discovered” by modern evangelicals.

The Bible

Today I want to talk about a book which has influenced the lives of countless millions; a book which – everyday – people (including myself) seek to align their thoughts and actions with. It’s a sacred text, synonymous with timeless principles and hidden truths. Some say it even holds the key to True Bliss.

Okay – it’s Karen McNeil’s Wine Bible. Sorry for the build-up; I just couldn’t resist.

Looking at her website, it looks like she has finally decided to update; this fall the “New” wine bible will come out. Originally published in 2001, I became increasingly aware how outdated this late-90’s book was. The tone, aside from being obviously pre-9/11, is from the crest of the wave of the Fine Wine Revolution. I’m not saying this book is hopelessly out of date, it’s just that the wine industry has definitely turned page since she wrote.

The Bible systematically goes through each wine producing country and explores the history, grape varietals. the laws, the weather and climate, and each region specifically. It includes good asides about food and a pinch of tourism; it also contains excellent glossaries, worth the price of the book alone.

The only thing that I wanted was a more detailed tasting profile for each region. What does a cab from the Willamette Valley taste like as opposed to one from Mendoza? It’s not too much of a guide towards tasting; nor does she delve into the complex world of actually growing grapes too deeply.

No, The Bible is really just a classy, authoritative overview of the wine world. It’s a great introduction and quite readable. When you get to a wine or a grape or a region Karen McNeil is capable of very enjoyable flights of poetic fancy. It allows one to talk and think intelligently about buying wine when in their local wine shop. Just don’t expect to be considered an expert when you finish this massive tome.

Indispensable for people interested in wine.

Politics is Probably Emotion

Think about it for a second.

On any given topic at any given time, the vast majority of us hover between complete apathy and complete ignorance. Thus, despite small numbers of partisans and cognoscenti, the vast majority of us are essentially just going with our gut…at best. At the same time our society and world are massively complex – and boring. The US government and Big Business learned long ago (to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace and John Oliver) that if you want to hide something nasty, wrap it in something boring. The amount of time and effort you would have to spend to really come to understand complex economic and social issues is massive. Even then, as your newly educated perspective would be way beyond most people’s, it would still be relatively lopsided or half-baked.

I’ll get to emotion here in a minuet. But before I do, let’s talk about the Undecided Voter. Democrats and Republicans can count  on 40% of the (voting) US population no matter what. That leaves about 20% of voters who are up for grabs, let’s say. There can be a variety of reasons for being an “undecided”. Elections can therefore be seen as capturing the this 20%. So how do you convince, how do you sway the Undecided?

This is where emotion comes in. Political parties know voters, at least in terms of demographics and statistics. They know what “type” of person is going to be an undecided voter. I do not want to discuss “types” of undecided voters, but let’s just say that a white male that makes six digits a year and is over 50 is not considered an undecided voter “type”. Emotion is how you are going to grab the Undecided voter. There is too much information, too much detail to attempt a coldly logical argument. Capitalism means that there can be no time for politics; no time for deliberation. Appearance; emotion; image is what counts for the harried and likely uninformed Undecided voter.

So political parties have to appeal to emotion to grab voters and money. This is why we get scare tactics because fear is our most primal, most hard-wired emotion. It is very easy for us to fear; it is easy for us to imagine pain and fear and future punishment. It’s hard to imagine hope or a future community where everyone gets to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Most political questions require a large amount of abstract thought, ethical wrangling, best-guessing. Pretty much everything that human beings are reliably terrible at. Put a rock in our hand and ask us to break open fruit; do not ask us about abstract philosophy.

This is why, if we where to magically poll every American voter on specific issues – a sort of universal, ultimate plebiscite – we would almost certainly find that Americans are quite liberal (I repeat, on specific issues taken as a whole). But, when you ask people to choose between personalities, between mindsets and between sets of “push-button issues” that is where the conservatives comes from. This is why Republicans do well; because we elect our fears and emotions via individuals, not specific policy ideas.

I think that the Republican party and the conservative mindset and rhetoric offer a potent emotional package than a liberal mindset; this explains it’s appeal to the aged, the angry and the insecure. Conservatives long to return to a fictional past of Puritan virtues and Wild West-esque moral and cultural uniformity. This impossible past allows Republicans to pander to those nostalgic for their childhood; one can go further and say that a significant portion of the rural conservative vote is in fact an example of longing for pre-capitalist society.

The Republican message thus has several major themes. First, fear of the Other or the Enemy (immigrants, terrorists, communists). Second, frustration or anger, towards a confusing, morally relative, modern existence. And lastly, nostalgia for the simple Manichean universe of the Cold War (Reagan, the 50’s) or the Wild West.

Liberals look forward to a utopian future. While this has the draw back of being highly abstract (unlike the tangibility of the Wild West, for example, with movies and museums everywhere), and contains the possibility of an impossible quest for ideological purity, it also contains elements of hope, empathy and the idea that things can, and should be better. Note that the words “hope…empathy…idea” do not trigger the same sort of emotional activation that “fear…anger…nostalgia” do. Democrats obviously employ fear and scare tactics, but the difference between being terrified about Global Warming and Islamic Terrorism is that Global Warming is a scientifically proven phenomenon, while Islamic Terrorism is a complex geo-political-economic trend which represents not just a mysterious threat, but also America’s biggest failures and disasters.

Democrats play upon a sense of social responsibility and the idea of a better, more hopeful tomorrow. It’s touchy-feely; politically correct, cloyingly sweet, slightly apologetic and limp-wristed way of seeing society. Guilt, then is a part of the Democratic emotional arsenal, as well as hope.

The big point here is that conservatives and Republicans have a message that is emotionally powerful; while Democrats struggle with their emotional appeal. The Fox News cycle of fear and anger is a proven political engine; the politics of hoping for a better tomorrow hardly motivates people to actually do anything concrete. This is what keeps Republicans elected (this an gerrymandering); in terms of policies and ideas, they are simply the Party of “No”.

How can we change this? How can we move away from emotion as a basis of democracy? Education, curtailing super-PACs, and creating new forms of democratic participation will be key. Also, I think, increasing acceptance of reasoned discussion, the fantasy of political scientists since Plato. Let’s get started.

“Amerika”

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Amerika is Franz Kafka’s first novel, started during his adolescence. For those of you who, like myself, where absolutely haunted and captivated by The Trail – which I think is one of the most important works of the 20th Century – and savoured the magical, uncanny allegory of The Castle, I am afraid that I am going to have to report that Amerika is a bit of a disappointment.

It’s definitely Kafka: there is the same surreal-ness and metaphysical anxiousness. I was intrigued by a young Kafka’s portrayal of America and New York: a land of immigrants and rich and poor. The first chapter was actually a stand-alone short story that got published. The rest of the book (it is unfinished and essentially trails off) Kafka slowly added too over the years. The first chapter is therefore the meat of the book; at least that is how it feels.

The back cover makes a references to “picturesque” adventures. I found them to be pointless. What I am trying to say is that I was getting a glimpse of Kafka’s writing “behind the scenes” and I did not care for it. It felt weird and pointless; I felt like I was reading it and it had published because of the name, Kafka.

This book makes me want to go back and read The Trail and remember the brilliance, and that is about it.

“The Stranger”

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This classic of French existentialism is a surprisingly short read. It comes in two parts; the first part sets the stage, the second part contains most of the philosophical action.

The protagonist commits murder in an inexplicable act. There is no reason given; the reader knows the events leading up to the shooting, but we are shielded from the protagonist’s inner feelings. Later in the book, the protagonist blames the sun itself.

Existentialism in The Stranger reminded me too much of Stoicism and not enough of Bhuddism. I know that sounds strange; I wanted Camus’ hero to have more depth and subtly. Instead – and as much as I might agree with Camus – I felt that the basic, root idea of existentialism was a sort of hard-headed “this is what we know: we had better get on with it”. Fine: I do think that there are a lot of people out there that need to hear this. But I craved more; more of a system, less of a gruff admonition.

The Stranger is also interesting because of its depiction of race, law and order in French Algeria, right before the Algerian War of Independence got started in earnest. It is an Arab that the protagonist shoots after all.

Second, the protagonist to a certain extent – a very small extent – could be read as processor to the alienated, angry young men that our society churns out by the thousands. He’s distant and cold; on one level a very rational person, but on the other fairly emotional. He does what he wants to do and accepts the consequences.

My feeling is that there are probably better works on existentialism out there somewhere.

“Nazi Literature in the Americas”

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This is the second book of Bolano’s that I have read, and I can happily report that his voice and vision shows through.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is a work of fiction, best read as a novel. It presents itself as an anthology of nazi authors in the Americas; it does so with mock seriousness. As the book progresses, it becomes gradually more novelistic, ending with a climatic story that includes the author himself in a mysterious chase of one of the “nazi” authors.

The ‘anthology’ aspect is well done. It’s clever and witty in a way that is both subtle and insightful. The fact that Bolano can create a huge library of individual biographies that all seem completely real is impressive in itself, not to mention quite entertaining. A bibliophile’s dream.

The larger themes are remarkably consistent with the other work of Bolano’s that I have read, The Savage Detectives. Bolano loves the idea of literary circles and trends and fashions. He loves literary style and the philosophy and popularity and ego contests that often lie beneath the words. Thus his works abound with minor literary figures published in obscure poetry magazines, and giants of literature and popular taste which both know and at the same time do not know what they are doing.

And deeply buried beneath it all is the ultimate Bolanoism: the quest for True Art. In the morass of people entering and leaving the literature scene, there will always be a few characters that, in their own unique way, will chase after True Art. It’s hard to describe this; this goes beyond mere popularity or financial success, or even fame. It does not mean being the guy who writes a future classic. The True Artist making the True Art is always mysterious; always on the run and searching for something in his own quite way. Bolano never says “character X” is making the True Art and this is a story about someone trying to find True Artist X”. No, it’s more like Character Y seeks character X, and while nothing concrete is known (and for that matter can be known), there is this possibility – this whiff of authenticity – that Character Y is drawn towards.

This theme is very strong in both The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas.

This book is very unique and enjoyable. You will very much appreciate this book if you are a serious reader and bibliophile.

“The Cave and the Light”

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This is a great piece of intellectual history. Looking now at the cover, I can see why few people would bother to read it or pay any attention at all. It screams “dead white guy” history. You know, the Classics; Greeks, Romans, Latin, marble busts of men with beards; words you don’t know the meaning too. There they are: right there on the cover. You assume you won’t understand it; it will be dusty and obscure.

Arthur Herman, however, nails the highly delicate balance between telling an engaging narrative and academically rigorous description of the various philosophical doctrines presented through the course of the text. For example, at one point Herman refers to Macedonia as “the Texas of ancient Greece”. Such a phrase would never appear in an academic work, yet we instantly know the ‘flavor’ of Macedonia and Macedonians. Herman then procedes to lay out a concise contextual history and then formally lays out Aristotle’s philosophical doctrine. It’s both informative and enjoyable. This is history at it’s most sweeping; 2500 years of western philosophy carried right up to the present day (Herman discusses Islamic fundamentalism and global warming).

I would very highly recommend this book simply because it teaches so much about how we (i.e., western civilisation) thinks about itself and the world. It’s the sort of book that will put a lot of things and references that you’ve noticed but may not necessarily have understood. Come on: you have to be at least a little curious as to the meaning behind “Platonic love” is? It would make a fantastic introductory book for a college philosophy 101 class.

It might help to think of Platonic or Aristotelian rather like sunglasses with different colour lenses. The Platonic mindset is idealistic, thinks in terms of the Big Picture and a bit introverted; Plato saw a higher world of perfect forms which all objects where imperfect copies of; he imagined a world soul and Prime Mover whose perfection created the world that we know. Plato’s political vision, captured in his The Republic, being based on ancient Sparta is – yes – a bit fascist – but the point is that it’s the original work of utopian fiction. Have you watched Starship Troopers? You can thank Plato for that. The Platonic “lense” yearns for a higher enlightenment and sees ways to make society and each individual better. Plato is concerned with communities, even at the expense of the individual. He is the great grandfather of both Karl Marx and Gandhi. Plato is the original dreamy intellectual.

Aristotle is the origin of empirical science. He’s the original biologist, a tinkerer; the original scientist more wrapped up in his own work to notice the outside world. It’s a world view that emphasises the importance of fact gained through experience. This is incredibly important and unbelievably powerful. The problem is that if you are looking through the world through a microscope, you should be aware that this qualifies you to only speak about what you see through your lense; you have implicitly abdicated knowing anything more. Thus, the Aristotelian personality is associated with a worship of things as they are: a recipe for stagnation and conservatism.

A good example is that Plato and Aristotle disagree on 5th Century BC Athens. This is the Athenian golden age; the birth of democracy and philosophy. Athens is democratic and mercantile and imperialist. Plato sees the inevitable decline; the grotesque cynicism of mob politics, and ultimately the futility and bullshit of it all. Aristotle, however, sees Athens as the perfect society.At first blush, this goes to Aristotle. Golden Age Athens is great: individualistic, high-spirited; the birth of so much, etc. But I think it gets more complicated that that. Obviously, nobody agrees with Plato that Sparta is the way to go. But that does not qualify Plato’s original insight: Golden Age Athens is still not all that great, and sure enough Athens is destroyed. And Aristotle’s views do not allow for any actual change.

Platonic criticism remains relevant even if its’ utopianism is misguided.

Herman does a great job of navigating the reader through these debates and perspectives.

There is a catch. A big one. One that got me very fired up. Herman does a great job until Chapter 22: “Starting Over: Plato, Rousseau, and Revolution”. This chapter broaches the Modern period, which is essentially the philosophical bedrock for how most of us think about our world right now. The Modern period/perspective believes in Grand Narratives, such as Progress, Democracy, etc. Technically we are in the Postmodern period, which explicitly rejects the idea of Grand Narratives, but to be fair, the number of people who believe this are small (I do count myself among them).

Herman, however, is a Modernist, and a conservative one at that. He also is follower of “analytic” philosophy, as opposed to “continental philosophy”; a viewpoint which directly works against his main thesis; that western civilisation is the creative tension between Platonic (“continental” or “critical theory”) and Aristotelian “analytic” philosophies. Thus, the last three centuries are presented as a highly biased narrative, full of cherry-picked facts and skewed perspectives, bordering on full-blown polemic.

Worst of all he does not tell the reader of his biases.

The heroes of the last hundred years for Herman are Hayek, Karl Popper, and Ayn Rand, a twisted and very odd section of thinkers if there ever was one. Where is Freud? Where is Sarte? Where is the Frankfurt School and their theories of totalitarianism? Where is Foucault? Where is Zizek? Herman blames totalitarianism squarely on Platonic thought as interpreted by Hegel and Rousseau, yet ignores the huge body of literature that makes a very persuasive argument that this is not the case.  Even the Great Depression is blamed on Plato/Hegel (via the Federal Reserve). What I don’t get is how he can get away with this, especially since Wall Streets triggered a depression regularly; Herman acts like the Great Depression is the only major recession that’s ever happened.

Herman rages against Nietzsche, yet praises Ayn Rand to high heavens despite admitting that she draws heavily from Nietzsche. Herman claims Hayek’s perspective that capitalism and the flow of money is essentially a form of information, yet ignores all the other things that the “flow of money” is as well: like social status, power, identity etc.

I still recommend this book; it is just that anyone who reads this needs to understand that you are getting a highly one-sided portrayal of the last several hundred years of history. Even at the end of the book, he is forced to concede that “Plutonists” might be on to something about global warming; he even says that Islamic society became backward because the the Platonic implies of their society was eliminated.

A great book, yet seriously flawed.

“Ender’s Game”

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This was my “beach” reading book,picked up in downtown Mobile for a song. I actually found it very engrossing; it took me say a day or so to read it.

The basic plot fits in well with today’s trends in adolescent literature. Think Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and even a bit of The Giver. A child genius is raised by the military to fight a future alien invasion of Earth. In the house of this, he plays a series of games, each more unfair then the last. The duplicity of adults is actually pretty major subplot in this book. Factor in a bit of dystopia and a brutal series of gladiatorial games between children, you come pretty close to a medium between Harry Potter and the Hunger Games.

I am constantly fascinated by the idea of a space-faring future humanity facing an inexplicable alien onslaught. Whether it takes the form of Halo, Starship Troopers, or Ender’s Game (there has to be others, and if you know of them please tell me), the idea creates both a great sort of dramatic tableau, but also the setting for a series of philosophical and sociological conflicts (for example, Does Humanity Deserve to Survive? or Is communication with a truly alien species possible? What is the cost of survival, in terms of personal but also social terms? What is the value or worth of one individual in cosmic struggle between species?) It tends to be a great meditation on militarization; as the humanity of the future is either a bit fascist or run by monolithic corporations.

Ender’s Game shies away from the full dystopian drama of its setting. The Deus Ex Machina ending of the book, complete with a suspiciously happy ending for pretty much everyone led me to suspect that the book really is written for 10 to 15 year olds. For example, Ender is the third child in a society where only two children are allowed. The first child Peter is a brilliant, yet psychopathic murder who literally sets out to control Earth. Instead of a showdown with Peter at the end of the book, we learn that Peter leads Earth with peace and justice (he just needed to be control). Both the dystopian aspect of a society that allows only two children and the subplot of a murdering genius psychopath are allowed to peter out (pun intended) about halfway through the book.

It is this sharp avoidance or real danger or truly scary plot points (and a hesitance to grapple with larger issues, I would say as well) which indicates this this is more of young adult book. A huge part of the book takes place essentially in Ender’s head; there is a lot of child psychology here; this book is essentially about a boy being raised to be the perfect soldier. Curiously and not coincidently, Ender’s Game is also a required read for leadership programs in the Marine Corp.

Ender’s Game the movie was apparently released in theatres not all that long ago; I didn’t see it, but I do plan to watch it on Netflix eventually. Ender’s Game as a book does not strike me as being particularly easy to make into a movie, but I guess given the success of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, I shouldn’t be too surprised that some movie producer has decided to make it work (it has a similar feel of these other adolescent movies).

Adults don’t need to read this book, but if I had a 12 year old boy, I would urge him to read it.