Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Six-Minute X-Ray


 

Short review as I've got a few books that I've finished recently and falling behind.

In Six Minute X-Ray, you’ll learn the most powerful people-reading system in the world. Chase exposes and unpacks simple techniques that come together to allow you to see beyond the mask that anyone is wearing.

I fell into this during the Depp v. Heard trial. Like a lot of people, I thought I'd have no interest in that at all, who cares what celebs get up to in their personal life? (No, don't answer that, as I suspect it might be 'a lot of people'). But I became engrossed when it turned into a case of 'bloke accused of abuse' becomes 'victim of abuse.' A very interesting revelation and one that challenged a lot of social preconceptions. 

I do enjoy a bit of behavioural analysis, and read Joe Navarro's book What Every Body is Saying, years ago. I recommended it to my English students when I was lecturing, to try to raise awareness that not everything we communicate is verbal. 

During the trial, I stumbled upon The Behavioural Arts channel by mentalist Spidey. He had the author of this book on there, analysing body language, and recommended Six-Minute X-ray a few times, so I thought I'd check it out. I was a bit surprised to discover Chase Hughes was American, as the audiobook is narrated by a Brit. 

I enjoyed it, especially the chapters on language, as I am a linguist. I did an MA in Language & Communication Research, which covered a lot of sociolinguistics (how languages is affected my situation and culture) and forensic linguistics (idiolect and identifying linguistic patterns). Some interesting stuff in there about linguistic distancing and use of pronouns. 

I knew quite a few of the body language indicators, but there were definitely a few things in there I wasn't aware of. I think, with body language, a lot of it is very instinctive, because we've been watching for boy language our entire lives, but because it's so natural we tend to miss a lot. Books like this just bring things to the forefront. By listening to them a couple of times, we become naturally more aware of the way people speak and move. It can just give you a little heads-up sometimes.

I enjoyed this and would recommend if you're interested in body language. As Spidey regularly points out, there's no one action or reaction that definitively tells you someone is lying, but there are clusters of behaviour that increase that likelihood. 

I have to admit, I was sceptical once upon a time, but Joe Navarro convinced me. I'd just finished reading What Every Body is Saying and there was a part in there that said the direction someone's feet are pointing are usually a good indication of where they intend to go next. I was down the village pub with my mum and some friends. One of our friends was saying his goodbyes, but his foot was pointing towards the main room in the pub, not the door. I looked at this and thought, 'well, that's bollocks isn't it.' But just as he was finishing his goodbyes, he said 'right, I'm just going to pop to the loo before I go,' and walked the way his foot was pointing. I honestly believe he indicated that he needed the toilet before he was even consciously aware of it. The direction of his foot really was the direction he went in, even though everybody expected him to head straight for the door from his words. I've never forgotten that. It was kind of fascinating. 

You can download resources from the book here.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Motoing Around Kigali

Hi guys. A non-book, non-writing related post!

I've been spending a bit of time videoing moto journeys around Kigali. It started with this trip:



And then people suggested other places to go.


So far we've been to Rebero, Nyamirambo and Gikondo.





This is mostly what I've been doing instead of writing lately. I try to upload in 4k but the internet can be a bit prohibitive, so the larger ones are regular HD. If you enjoy, subscribe to my channel and bookmark this page. I'll add more trips as they occur. 

Sunday, 24 July 2022

The Pig that Wants to be Eaten

 

It's been a while since I posted, so here's a review. This one was very interesting: 

Perfect for gifting to lovers of philosophy or mining intelligent ice-breaker topics for your next party, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten offers one hundred philosophical puzzles that stimulate thought on a host of moral, social, and personal dilemmas. Taking examples from sources as diverse as Plato and Steven Spielberg, author Julian Baggini presents abstract philosophical issues in concrete terms, suggesting possible solutions while encouraging readers to draw their own conclusions:

Lively, clever, and thought-provoking, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten is a portable feast for the mind that is sure to satisfy any intellectual appetite.

It's packed with very short chapters, each starting with a quote that poses a thought experiment. Something to cogitate over whilst stirring your morning coffee, sitting on the loo or drifting off to sleep. The subject matter is extremely broad and rather deep, covering everything from the existence of God, abortion, and personal identity through to freedom of speech and conspiracy theories. Some of my favourites were the discussions on faith. I feel that one of the more horrific aspects of monotheistic religions is the way they take away an individual's belief in themself as a moral entity from birth. This idea that we are not born with a moral compass, and that this is only bestowed upon us when we listen to this preacher or that preacher, read this passage or that passage, go to confession, take communion, cover your face... whatever. Morality isn't the dominion of religion, it goes far beyond that. People may be drawn to religion because they have been brought up that way or because a particular religion aligns with moral values they already hold, but generally speaking, religion itself doesn't appear to define an individual's moral values in and of itself. That's my personal assessment. People are as likely to be 'good' people or 'bad' people regardless of whether they follow, or do not follow, a given doctrine. This concept of sin, especially original sin, and terrifying children from a young age with the idea of eternal damnation, makes my skin crawl. The world is a fascinating, beautiful, comedic, tragic and oft-times unfathomable place with complexity and nuance at every turn. We were born to navigate that. So, the question of whether [insert name of deity here] makes a difference to the course we steer is an interesting one to me. There's a well-reasoned argument against the authority of religion over morality:

When I was at school, we used to sing a hymn in which God was equated with virtually every positive attribute. We sang that God is love, God is good, God is truth, and God is beauty. No wonder the chorus ended ‘praise him!’. 

The idea that God is good, however, is ambiguous. It could mean that God is good in the same way that cake is good, or Jo is good. In these cases, ‘is’ functions to attribute a quality or property to something, such as goodness or blueness. Equally, however, ‘God is good’ could be a sentence like ‘Water is H2O’ or ‘Plato is the author of The Republic’. Here, ‘is’ indicates an identity between the two terms: the one thing is identical to the other. 

In the hymn, the ‘is’ seemed to be one of identity, not attribution. God is not loving but love; not beautiful but beauty. God doesn’t just have these fine qualities, he is them. Hence ‘God is good’ implies that the notions of God and goodness are inextricably linked, that the essence of the good is God.

If this is so, then it is no wonder that many believe that there can be no morality without God. If goodness and Godness cannot be separated, secular morality is a contradiction in terms.

However, our imaginary conversation seems to demonstrate very clearly and simply that this cannot be so. If God is good, it is because God is and chooses to do what is already good. God doesn’t make something good by choosing it; he chooses it because it is good.

Some might protest that this argument works only because it separates what cannot be separated. If God really is good, then it doesn’t make sense to pose a dilemma in which the good and God are distinguished. But since it seems to make perfect sense to ask whether the good is good because God commands it, or God commands it because it is good, this objection simply begs the question.

Even if God and the good really were one, it would still be reasonable to ask what makes this identity true. The answer would surely be that we know what good is and it is this which would enable us to say truly that God is good. If God advocated pointless torture, we would know that he was not good. This shows that we can understand the nature of goodness independently of God. And that shows that a godless morality is not an oxymoron.

And what are we finally left with? A God who leaves no trace, makes no sound and interferes not one jot in the progress of the universe. A few miracles are claimed here and there, but even most religious believers don’t seriously believe in them. Other than that, God is absent. We do not see as much as his fingernail in nature, let alone his hand. What then is the difference between this God and no god at all? Is it not as foolish to maintain that he exists as it is to insist that a gardener tends the clearing Livingston and Stanley discovered? If God is to be more than a word or a hope, surely we need some sign that he is active in the world?...

As a response this can seem unsatisfactory. For what it adds up to is the claim that, if ever we are presented with rational reasons to doubt the existence of God, we simply have to accept that our intellects are finite and that what might seem irrational or contradictory does make sense from the divine point of view. But that just means dismissing the role of rationality in religious belief. And you can’t have it both ways. It’s no use defending your belief using reason on one occasion, if you don’t accept that a reasoned argument against belief has any force. 

*

Morality is a higher authority than the law. That is why we approve of civil disobedience when the state’s laws are manifestly unjust and there are no legal ways to oppose them. 

As Rosa Luxemburg would put it, 'freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.'

I also learned the term 'supererogatory behaviour,' which is apparently, 'when someone does something good which goes beyond what is demanded of them by morality.

I think my favourite, however, was the argument against multiculturalism. As someone who lives outside of my own culture, but sees my culture seeping into the daily lives of those around me more and more, I'm in a constant state of concern. I feel like the world is getting smaller, and that global internet culture is wiping out local, cultural culture, as it were. I've seen certain mannerisms and behaviours disappear over my fifteen years in Rwanda, from men holding hands in public to people hissing to get the attention of a waiter or moto driver. Things that have been dropped since Rwandans discovered they have a different meaning for foreign tourists. I'm always in two states. I miss those things, because they seemed so Rwandan when I first arrived, and gave me a sense of being in a different world at times, but I also like the idea of a united, global world where everyone has the same rights, freedoms, and access to information and technology (preferably a socialist world with free housing and universal basic income, but, one step at a time...) so, even as I morn the loss of certain things, I like the sense of people around the world becoming closer and understanding each other more easily. This particular chapter definitely made me laugh, because I see the issue, but I still long for a little bit of raw adventure in uncharted territories and exotic locations. A longing to explore the 'other'. It's a tough one to grapple with...

There is a problem at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. It advocates respect for other cultures, but what it values above all is the ability to transcend one culture and value many. This places a major constraint on the extent of its respect. The ideal person is the multiculturalist who can visit a mosque, read Hindu scriptures and practise Buddhist meditation. Those who remain within one tradition do not embody these ideals, and so, despite the talk of ‘respect’, they can be seen only as inferior to the open-minded multiculturalist. 

There is something of the zoo mentality in this. The multiculturalist wants to go around admiring different ways of living, but can do this only if various forms of life are kept more or less intact. Different subcultures in society are thus like cages, and if too many people move in or out of them, they become less interesting for the multiculturalist to point and smile at. If everyone were as culturally promiscuous as they were, there would be less genuine diversity to revel in. And so the multiculturalists must remain an elite, parasitic on internally homogenous monocultures.

It may be argued that it is possible to be both a multiculturalist and committed to one particular culture. The paradigm here is of the devout Muslim or Christian who nonetheless has a profound respect for other religions and belief systems and is always prepared to learn from them. However, tolerance and respect for other cultures are not the same as valuing all cultures more or less equally. For the multiculturalist, the best point of view is the one which sees merit in all. But one cannot be a committed Christian, Muslim, Jew or even atheist and sincerely believe this. There may be tolerance, or even respect, for other cultures, but if a Christian really believed that Islam is as valuable as Christianity, why would they be a Christian?

This is the multiculturalist’s dilemma. You can have a society of many cultures which respect each other. Call that multiculturalism if you want. But if you want to champion a multiculturalism which values diversity itself and sees all cultures as of equal merit, then you either have to accept that those who live within just one culture have an inferior form of life – which seems to go against the idea of respect for all cultures – or you have to argue for erosion of divisions between distinct cultures, so that people value more and more in the cultures of others – which will lead to a decrease in the kind of diversity you claim to value.

In our concrete example, for Saskia to continue to enjoy a diversity of cultures, she must hope that others do not embrace multiculturalism as fully as she has.


So, an enjoyable read. I think the only problem with books like these, where it's one information burst after another, is that it's better just to read one chapter a day, rather than listening to it all at once, otherwise the queries all start to bleed into one and you zone out a little. But this was good fun.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self

 

Something that got me through the pandemic with a smile is this lady, Julie Nolke. Her series where she explains each new development to her former self has been very entertaining. You can catch up on the links below. And for fans of Pitch Meeting, she just teamed up with Ryan George on this.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

1 Year Later 

Part 5

Part 6

Monday, 4 July 2022

The Stone Knife


 

For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.

The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.

As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.

A really excellent piece of high fantasy. Annoyingly, I know that I picked it up from a Twitter recommendation, the same person who recommended Kingdom of the Wicked. I can't remember who that was, and it's driving me nuts because I really enjoyed both of them.

This took me a moment to get into as it's quite complex and there are a lot of different tribes and unfamiliar names. I actually think the Audiobook is an advantage here because, left to my own attempts at pronunciation, I probably wouldn't have got half the characters correct.

It's nice in that two of the main characters are gay and one is deaf, but their inclusion feels natural rather than forced. It doesn't feel like they've been placed there as a token of diversity, but as part of a whole and many-faceted world. Their characters are completely developed and, in Xessa's case, the fact that her deafness proves an advantage to her community and to her own safety, is nicely woven in. There's some really nice details about the various cultures which make them feel real.

Lilla reached out and ran his finger along the pale, yellow marriage cord resting on Tayan's collar bones, its twin tied around his own throat. The cords were knotted with promises and some were hung with tiny charms that meant those promises were fulfilled. A life mapped out. A life shared. 

*

The Macaws, wearing their scarlet feather, patrolled to either side of the long line of captives. They were half-blood Pechaqueh, a step below elite, a step above the no-blood slaves and dogs. Scattered among them were the secretive, anonymous, whispers. More rumour than fact, more legend than living. Every warrior wore a peace feather above one ear, and that covenant was sacred.

There were a lot of parallels with human history in this. Although the book carried strong undertones of South America, it also brought to mind Liberian history, where those who had been removed from their culture, broken down and remade in their masters' image found themselves perpetuating that abuse once free. A cycle of racial segregation perpetuated by generations of dehumanisation and stripped identity. It's a pattern repeated throughout history where the oppressed become the oppressors, and it's very neatly summed up here:

The whole empire was a lie, a deceit built on suffering... they threatened the people you loved and then they stripped away who you were. They turned you into an animal and then slowly, they built you back up in their own image until their beliefs were yours. And one day, if you were very obedient and very lucky, they'd free you, and the first thing you'd do would be to buy slaves of your own. And so it went, rolling endlessly, like the cycle of the seasons. Like the rise and fall of the great star at morning and the great star at evening.

A lot to unpack and think on there.

That's what I liked about this. It was thinking fantasy. There was a lot you could equate to our own world, but enough differences to keep it interesting. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.


Wednesday, 29 June 2022

The City and the Stars


 

This one crept under my skin:

Men had built cities before, but never such a city as Diaspar; for millennia its protective dome shut out the creeping decay and danger of the world outside. Once, it ruled the stars. But then, as legend had it, the Invaders came, driving humanity into this last refuge. It takes one man, a Unique, to smash the legend and discover the true nature of the Invaders.

It's the first Arthur C Clarke I have ever read, and one of those legendary names you know you should get around to at some point. The first thing that really stood out was that this book was first published in 1956, yet it feels so contemporary. It could have been written a decade ago or less. The second thing was that, in parts, I thought I heard the voice of Douglas Adams. There was a sort of dry wit about it that made me think that Alvin and Arthur Dent probably would have gotten along.

In a 2000 interview, Adams said:

When I originally described The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, over twenty years ago, I was only joking. I didn't see myself as a predictive kind of science fiction writer, like Arthur C. Clarke who more or less single-handedly invented the communications satellite. The Guide was just a narrative device which allowed me to run off at tangents whenever the story seemed to be getting a bit dull.

You know what else Clarke predicted? The freakin' Metaverse:

Of all the thousands of forms of recreation in the city, these were the most popular. When you entered a saga, you were not merely a passive observer, as in the crude entertainments of primitive times which Alvin had sometimes sampled. You were an active participant and possessed or seemed to possess free will. The events and scenes which were the raw material of your adventures might have been prepared beforehand by forgotten artists, but there was enough flexibility to allow for wide variation. You could go into these phantom worlds with your friends, seeking the excitement that did not exist in Diaspar and as long as the dream lasted there was no way in which it could be distinguished from reality. Indeed, who could be certain that Diaspar itself was not the dream? No one could ever exhaust all the sagas that had been conceived and recorded since the city began. They played upon all the emotions and were of infinitely varying subtlety.

Spooky, huh? What seems so obvious today with our VR headsets, must have appeared completely preposterous back when this was first published. 

Though, there was one little line that really stood out as a watermark of its time...

Yet perhaps her motives were not entirely selfish, and were maternal rather than sexual. Though birth had been forgotten, the feminine instincts of protection and sympathy still remained.

Oooh, yuck, yuck, yuck.

But it was the 50s, so I guess we can forgive.

I really did enjoy parts of this, especially this bit, which made me stop and think. I'm a huge Star Trek fan and, all of my early years, I enjoyed programs about space exploration and other planets - exploring the stars. But I think I always thought like everybody else - that we would find our equals among the stars, but not that the stars would destroy us with our own insignificance and force us further into ourselves. It's quite an interesting consideration:

Despite his failures, man had never doubted that one day he would conquer the depths of space. He believed too that if the universe held his equals, it did not hold his superiors. Now he knew that both beliefs were wrong, and that out among the stars were minds far greater than his own. For many centuries, first in the ships of other races and later in machines built with borrowed knowledge, man had explored the galaxy. Everywhere he found cultures he could understand but could not match, and here and there he encountered minds which would soon have passed altogether beyond his comprehension. The shock was tremendous, but it proved the making of the race. Sadder and infinitely wiser, man had returned to the solar system to brood upon the knowledge he had gained.

Star Trek certainly would have been a very different sort of programme based on that premise.

I did enjoy this passage on religion. Travelling and observing people and cultures around the world, it's hard not to be persuaded that progress is largely secular in nature: 

While still a young man, he had been forced to leave his native world, and its memory had haunted him all his life. His expulsion he blamed on vindictive enemies, but the fact was that he suffered from an incurable malady which, it seemed, attacked only homo sapiens among all the intelligent races of the universe. That disease was religious mania. Throughout the earlier part of its history, the human race had brought forth an endless succession of prophets, seers, messiahs, and evangelists who convinced themselves and their followers that to them alone were the secrets of the universe revealed. Some of them succeeded in establishing religions which survived for many generations and influenced billions of men; others were forgotten even before their deaths. The rise of science, which with monotonous regularity refuted the cosmologies of the prophets and produced miracles which they could never match, eventually destroyed all these faiths. It did not destroy the awe, nor the reverence and humility, which all intelligent beings felt as they contemplated the stupendous universe in which they found themselves. What it did weaken and finally obliterate, were the countless religions, each of which claimed with unbelievable arrogance, that it was the sole repository of the truth and that its millions of rivals and predecessors were all mistaken. Yet, though they never possessed any real power once humanity had reached a very elementary level of civilization, all down the ages isolated cults had continued to appear, and however fantastic their creeds they had always managed to attract some disciples. They thrived with particular strength during the periods of confusion and disorder, and it was not surprising that the transition centuries had seen a great outburst of irrationality. When the reality was depressing, men tried to console themselves with myths.

It also reminded me a little of Scythe with the concept of Central Computer caring for and regulating a society of immortal humans for whom disease and death are but a distant memory. Also love Great Polyp.

I shall leave you with this last little quote, and recommend The City and the Stars as rather a good read. As is The City & The City... in fact, anything with 'city' in it:

There is a special sadness in achievement, in the knowledge that a long-desired goal has been attained at last, and that life must now be shaped toward new ends.

Monday, 20 June 2022

The Way of All Flesh

 

This is the first in the Raven and Fisher Mystery trilogy.

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder. Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson. Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education. With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

I was slightly confused when it got to the very end of the book and the credits mentioned Christopher Brookmyre. I saw him at the Cheltenham Literature Festival years ago, with Jasper Fforde. So I went to look this up and apparently: 

Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.

I found that a fascinating concept that two authors could combine to create an entirely new author. What a wonderful idea. 

I also enjoyed the nod to Barry Lyndon. I mentioned that recently in my review of Thackeray's other work, Vanity Fair. Though I must admit, I was a bit uncertain with the title for this one as I was sure The Way of All Flesh was already quite a famous novel. When I looked it up, it was a 'a semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler.' Apparently it was a satire about the Victorian bourgeois.

There was some great opening descriptive of Gargantua unfolding into this great, hulking henchman. It reminded me so clearly of the blob men unfolding in the animation of Howl's Moving Castle. Very evocative of a visual style. 




Also some nice observations on human nature:

He would simply have to endure it. His time at Herriot's had taught him that sometimes people could take an instinctive or irrational dislike to you, as you could to them. In such instances there was nothing you could do to change that and it proved a fool's errand to try. 

And I smiled at the detailed description of how to make a calotype. They handled it with more grace and economy than I did in Secure the Shadow. It's a lengthy and tricky process, and not easily put to paper. They did it the same way I did, having the expert explain it to the neophyte in a friendly and instructive manor. I suppose the other way you could do it would be to have the expert observe themself making the photograph, but dialogue pulls people in and holds attention much better. Just for kicks, I wonder if you could write it as the photograph becoming aware of its own existence as the latent image strengthens and becomes fixed? An interesting short story, perhaps?

I counted three instances where the main characters were forced into a tight space together, inches apart. I'm not sure whether it was intentionally three - as in, third time lucky - or just a motif that the authors really, really liked. 

All in all though, a good read. Great suspense as Raven is racing to the dinner party. Likable protagonists and a solid whodunnit.