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In which I award my “2015 Book of the Year” 

After too many years of studying it took some time before I was ready to even look at a book again. Earlier this year I started to pick up the occasional book. However, in 2015, the physical book, while delightful, certainly lacks convenience.

With the help of the Overdrive app and my local library I was able to access significantly more books than I otherwise could have. And by updating my Goodreads account regularly I can sort through the list of books that I have read by date read and also date published.

So my 2015 Book of the Year comes from the information contained in my Goodreads account (this is my disclaimer against inaccuracies). The list of contenders comes from books that were published in 2015, not all of the books that I read in 2015 (with a couple of exceptions that will be noted below).

The thing to do now is to list the contenders along with whatever rating I uploaded to Goodreads when I finished them. I do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to show what books I have read, and, by extension, all of the books that I haven’t read. If I have skipped over your favourite book for my award then it’s probably because I haven’t read it. Or because your taste is awful. It’s fifty-fifty really.  Secondly, a list of books and some stars will allow the reader to gain some insight into the kinds of things I value in literature, so that the reader may correctly weight my opinion in relation to their own.

In general, two or three stars indicate that the book is reasonably readable. Four stars means something quite remarkable, while one star means that I would not recommend the book to anyone under any circumstances.

The Contenders

  1. The Shameful State by Sony Labou Tansi. ☆ (According to Goodreads, the published date for this book is 3 January 2016, which is patently absurd.)
  2. Esther by Rebecca Kanner. ☆☆☆
  3. The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay. ☆☆
  4. The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. ☆☆☆☆
  5. Food Whore: A Novel of Dining and Deceit by Jessica Tom. ☆☆
  6. Ophelia’s Muse by Rita Cameron. ☆☆
  7. The Busker by Liam Murray Bell. ☆☆☆☆ (Apparently first published in 2014, but the edition I read was published in 2015.)
  8. A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball. ☆☆
  9. South on Highland by Liana Maeby. ☆☆☆
  10. ClownFellas: Tales of the Bozo Family by Carlton Mellick III. ☆☆
  11. A Better Man by Leah McLaren. ☆☆☆☆
  12. The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango. ☆☆☆☆ (Was originally published in German in 2014 but the English translation was published in 2015.)
  13. I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers. ☆☆☆
  14. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendetta Vida. ☆☆☆☆
  15. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. ☆☆
  16. The Corpse in the Cellar: A 1930s Murder Mystery by Kel Richards. ☆☆☆
  17. An Ordinary Epidemic by Amanda Hickie. ☆☆☆
  18. The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox. ☆☆☆☆
  19. Positive by David Wellington. ☆☆☆
  20. Tim Connor Hits Trouble by Frank Lancaster. ☆☆

Going back through this list as revealed some inadequacies of the rating system and my own inconsistencies. For example, Ophelia’s Muse is significantly better than both The Bronte Plot and Esther, though that is not borne out by the stars awarded. The problem with Ophelia’s Muse is that while it is mostly very good, the bad bits are awful, while both The Bronte Plot and Esther are much more middling overall.

The Finalists

And whatever brief comments I left on Goodreads . . .

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox. 24953062The beginning is a bit purple but the style settles down soon enough. A singular work.

 

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango. 23492595This starts exquisitely and even though it becomes more pedestrian as it goes on it remains enchanting right to the end. That is to say, it begins like a fairy tale but becomes a murder mystery/thriller too quickly. Still, I couldn’t put it down.

 

The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. 25159239It’s always difficult in magical stories to give the villains interesting and relatable motivations, and this book, while not perfect, comes as close as I have seen. The differing world views/religions of each of the major characters provides a meaningful basis for their actions. The author got the villains fully to “hatred/vengeance” but this would have been great if only they had pushed through to something more. But still, not a bad effort.This book did a good job of explaining itself as it went. Nearly all of the magical/supernatural elements were given sufficient explanations. As far as I can recall, there wasn’t any plot holes or logical inconsistencies that were waved away with “magic.”Maybe someone with more familiarity with Chinese myths would find this grating and over simplified but for me it was nicely done.

 

The Busker by Liam Murray Bell. 21351792There’s a lot to like about this book. I particularly like the flashback structure being organised geographically. The three subplots are each allowed to end organically and still come together in a cohesive whole. Thematically the book is similar to “Tim Connor Hits Trouble” in that it is concerned with the increasing commerciality of life. TCHT is set in the Higher Education sector and deals with that in more detail, whereas this book deals with a wider range but with its most detailed description of the music industry. The aspect that I particularly like is that economic issues are only considered peripherally by the main character. The flashpoint of each subplot is the protagonist not understanding the aspects of economic reality that the respective antagonists have chosen to focus on. (The protagonist/antagonist description is not that accurate in all cases but you get the point.) A good read.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendetta Vida.

23590710This is a bit of an unsettling read. It doesn’t really start to come together until the poem in the middle. At first glance the plot seems to be a collection of events—both likely and unlikely—but it’s really quite a literal take on the process of personal reinvention.

And the winner is . . .

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox!!

From the disconcerting second person narrator in The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty to Liam Murray Bell’s chronological arrangement, all five of the Finalists are extraordinary pieces of literature. However, the final decision came down between the eventual winner and The Truth and Other Lies. Both of them managed to have a fairytale quality to the language, but The Wonder Lover sustained it for longer. 

The Wonder Lover succeeds as a piece of literary fiction in ways rarely seen on their own, let alone in the same work. It has a unique narrative voice, has novelty that feels like uniqueness and not a gimmick, and has an ending that arises from the characters so it does not feel contrived.

Overall, it has been a good year for books. I enjoyed almost everything that I read, and was utterly impressed by a good proportion of those. Even The Shameful State, which I did not enjoy, was notable in a number of ways (not the least of which was that it was mercifully short). 

Living as remotely as I do, the other exciting thing was the ability to access a pretty good selection of novels on ebook through my local library. The convenience of ebooks meant that I was able to move swiftly from one book to the next. The negatives are that the experience is not as good as a real book and that it is too easy to start reading every time I get my phone out or read in bed. My feeling is that reading on an iPhone or an iPad is a less immersive experience than paper or dedicated ebook reader, but the convenience is unparalleled. 

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(Softcore) Torture Porn in Jurassic World

Just in case I wasn’t the last person in the world to see Jurassic World it should be noted that this post contains SPOILERS. 

It’s hard to imagine that anyone went into Jurassic World not knowing what to expect and yet the death of the hapless Zara (Bryce Dallas Howard’s assistant) struck a false note. Even in a movie where the main premise is people being killed by dinosaurs the death of Zara is out of place. While trying to look after a couple of kids long after anyone else would have been justified in giving up, Zara is swooped up by a pteranodon then subjected to several mid-air drops and catches before being dropped into the mosasaur pool. Before she even has a chance to surface, Zara is gathered up again by a diving pteranodon and lifted into the air just far enough to be swallowed by the mosasaur breaching the surface. We have several close-ups of her terrified, screaming face throughout this sequence. It’s a trifle overdone for a character that has perhaps half a dozen lines. 

Let’s put it this way: the billionaire owner of the park, ultimately responsible for a genetic engineering programme to create creatures more terrifying than “plain old dinosaurs,” dies in a helicopter crash after flying through a swarm of escaping pteranodons in a sequence less elaborate than the one in which Zara expires.

Up until now, all of the deaths in the Jurassic Park movies are at least morally neutral. A lot of deaths don’t rise above the level of industrial accidents. Civilian deaths are generally just unlucky “wrong place, wrong time” affairs. A few are sporting matters, where the victims are combatants who played to win and lost (think that hunter guy from the original film). The most dramatic deaths have generally been reserved for the villains of the movies.

In Jurassic World, there are three main villains: the billionaire owner, the mad scientist, and the guy wanting to weaponise the genetically engineered dinosaurs. The owner is a moderately sympathetic character, who argues with the mad scientist about the creation of Indomitus Rex (after it all goes pear shaped, of course). The scientist points out that the owner requested “cooler” dinosaurs to maintain the park’s profitability, thereby passing the moral buck somewhat.  Normally the villains would die in appropriate manners. 

The owner, as described above, dies in a helicopter crash. So far so good. However, the scientist is whisked away safely from the island, presumably to begin work on the sequel. Finally, the time comes for the main villain, Hoskins, to die. Hoskins wants to weaponise the genetically engineered dinosaurs and therefore treats the whole disaster as some sort of proof-of-concept “opportunity.” Fittingly, Hoskins is killed after a tense couple of seconds in a standoff with one the very raptors he wanted to deploy. However, this climactic death is treated with more dignity than Zara’s. Hoskins’s hand/arm gets bitten, he screams, the camera cuts away and we see a spray of blood on the window. (An armed Chris Pratt just stands by and let’s this happen. This is not portrayed as a conscious choice—he just looks on.)

It seems odd that the most elaborate and shocking death is saved for the only woman who obviously dies in the movie, perhaps the whole series (maybe some female visitors bite it in the stampede/panic, who knows?). The character spends most of the movie chasing after Bryce’s nephews. She has been charged with looking after them because the person who is supposed to be is just too damn busy. Zara’s biggest crime seems to be her inability to keep track of a teenager and pre-teen who are determined to try and lose her in the huge crowd. I think she answers her mobile phone at one point which the boys then use as the distraction to escape.

The problem with Zara’s death sequence is that it is not befitting the character. It’s the most elaborate, drawn out, spectacular death in the movie (and, again, perhaps the whole series) and the amount of screen-time dedicated to it probably totals more than the rest of the time that Zara is on screen. Maybe it’s supposed to be shocking. Maybe it’s supposed to shake-up the conventions of the genre. That along with “Coooooooool” is about the only reason that this sequence is in the film. If so, it’s about the most cowardly way that it could have been done.

This is a piece of very expensive cinema in which no detail was left to chance. Everything that is in this movie was the result of many very-specific decisions, time, money, and effort. The filmmakers weren’t actually brave enough to kill off a character that the audience had an emotional investment in seeing survive. 

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The Nitty-Gritty

Just a few quick points:

1. Your notion of “Equality of Opportunity” is underpinned by a larger economic ideology. It defines “dreams” in a far too narrow sense by denying any value that isn’t economic. “Dreams” which aren’t economically valid are consigned to failure. To paraphrase your paraphrase, “All dreams are equal, but some are more equal than others.” 

The effect of this is to ignore values which aren’t economic, leading, ultimately, to “consumerism” in all its most negative senses. Now you can deride this as a personal ideologic assertion, and in the sense that I attribute a negative judgement to it, it is. However, the point is, it is the only situation which can obtain given the conditions you suggest. While individual opinions of this result are a matter of indifference, it must be recognised that any set of conditions which give rise to one possible outcome is a form of totalitarianism.

Choice and freedom are an illusion under economic values. That is, I am free to choose from economic alternatives only.

2. You have provided no method of demonstrating that “Equality of Opportunity” has been established. There is no method by which to observe and measure, or in any other way verify, that Equality of Opportunity has indeed been obtained. As such, Equality of Opportunity is forced to remain an ideological assertion, and a deeply teleological one at that.

3. It must be made clear that to simply see this issue at a national level is consequently to replay the whole the whole ideological error at an international scale. Rich countries are rich because they deserve it, and poor countries, well, they should try hard to become more like rich countries.

4. In my view, the ideal system is one which places the Economy subservient to the people, and not the other way around, as narrow views of Equality of Opportunity inevitably do. This is not to suggest that all aspects of an economy are to be centrally mandated, only that, given relative freedom from economic concerns people are more free to follow their “dreams.”

It is not about guaranteeing total equality of outcome but about making sure that everybody has enough to survive. It is about paying students, unemployed, carers, retirees, injured, etc. a liveable wage.

It is about ensuring that histories other than the best-selling are recorded. 

It is about ensuring that research is allowed to progress without the goal of producing a product to be sold.

It is about making sure that wealth is kept circulating and not allowed to accumulate in relatively few gigantic pools. At the moment in WA, as I’m sure you have realised, land values and rents are tremendously over-valued. The effect of this is to make the most effective way to purchase property is to already have property. And this is the same pattern being played out in many aspects of life.

As a model of the narrow sense (the economic sense) of Equality of Opportunity, the epitome is the board game, Monopoly. Everybody starts completely equally and then has to rely on luck and skill. The game ends when somebody has collected all the wealth to the extent that nobody else can move. To suggest that the board needs to be reset from time to time (or more commonly, “Let’s play again!”) is not Socialism.

 

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In which I ask, How Can We Know If Equality of Opportunity Has Been Obtained?

I have been embroiled in a debate lately about Equality of Opportunity versus Equality of Outcome.

The basic form of the controversy has been that, on one side, Equality of Outcome has been presented as a kind-hearted flaw that ultimately descends into totalitarianism. Instead, so the claim goes, we should endeavour to ensure Equality of Opportunity.

My consistent opposition to this is that the myth of Equality of Opportunity is simply a justification for the economically privileged to maintain their power over society.

Now, for those that can only imagine the worst possible ills arising from Equality of Outcome you might need a stiff drink, for I am going to present to you the following unassailable fact:

Striving for Equality of Outcome is the only way to ensure Equality of Opportunity.

The reasoning arises from the basic premise that people are generally equal. I am not talking about simply in rights, but in abilities, skills, intelligence. People, regardless of race, gender, geographical location, and so, generally fall close to the mean. This is not to say that they aren’t spectacular individuals who deviate, one way or the other, from the mean, only that, for the most part, people aren’t that different. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, the brotherhood of man “is a most depressing and humiliating reality.”

Whether we take average height, average IQ, or whatever, in any group of randomly selected people the characteristics of the individuals are going to fall pretty closely to whatever point of comparison we choose.

It is to be expected, then, that when of equality of opportunity is established, equality of outcome will more or less follow. There will be, of course, individuals that are either exceptional or have had exceptional circumstances, but even those will be balanced out, to some extent, by the inverse instances.

It is only by studying outcomes that we can truly determine exactly how close our society comes to equality of opportunity. It is only by striving for equality of outcome that we can achieve equality of opportunity. Any thought about equality of opportunity which does not take into account outcomes is operating in a vacuum and will never fully grasp its goal.

For an example, Aboriginals have significantly shorter lifespans than others in Australia, face higher rates of incarceration, face higher rates of medical problems, and so on. The list is a shameful indictment on Australia, and its refusal to help its own people.

But of course, racial discrimination is now outlawed, Aboriginals have the same basic rights as others, and have had legal recognition of their prior claim to Australia. By all accounts, under the theory of Equality of Opportunity, Aboriginals are as well off as anybody else.

Except they aren’t. At this point the theory of Equality of Opportunity must now place the failure to obtain equal outcomes squarely at their own feet. That is, Aboriginal people must be inherently inferior to others who, given the same access to opportunity, have obtained more positive outcomes.

Which is of course bollocks. Racist bollocks.

Faced with this, proponents of Equality of Opportunity have two options. They can either deny that this accurately represents Equality of Opportunity, or they can deny that Aboriginals have equality of opportunity.

In both cases, my response is the same: How do you know?

In the first case, by not striving for Equality of Outcome, by what basis can you guarantee that the conditions set in place to engender equality of opportunity are not re-enforcing unconscious bias?

In the second case, what evidence, if not regarding outcomes, could possibly be presented that proves equality of opportunity has not been obtained?

In both cases, the success of Equality of Opportunity can only be measured in terms of Equality of Outcome.

In summary, Equality of Opportunity divorced from Equality of Outcome is a myth designed to make the success of certain individuals seem natural and deserved–even God-given. By completely ignoring that poverty, domestic abuse, and so on, are cycles whose natural condition is to continue, the myth of Equality of Opportunity enshrines the status quo.

Blindly and uncritically promoting Equality of Opportunity, and disavowing Equality of Outcome, simply lands us in an already existent process without any possible means of investigating anything. Without striving for equality of outcome, Equality of Opportunity is a mantra which is, at worst, endlessly oppressive, or, at best, blind to the point of meaninglessness.

Footnote: Of course I recognise that Equality of Outcome is a problematic principle. Working from my example above, Aboriginal people–or anybody– should not be pushed into an outcome which they themselves do not desire simply because the numbers are needed to achieve “Equality of Outcome.” However, I feel comfortable with the ideal at the level which requires that Aboriginal people do not die younger than the general population and are not incarcerated at levels higher than the general population. Not only should this stand for all groups of people, but it should also stand for any random cross-section.

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29 May, 2012 · 9:16 pm

A Response to “Equality of Opportunity”

(This is a response to this post: Equality of Opportunity)

Firstly, equality of opportunity is one of your favourite topics, dividing, as you do, everything into two categories: Equality of Opportunity (Good), Equality of Outcome (Bad). At any rate, it should come as no surprise that I define these categories slightly differently, as far as I think of them at all.

Secondly, your whole post seethes of the type of propaganda that permeates from any conservative stand-point: I’m doing okay, so there is no reason you can’t. This is the sort of attitude that reinforces the widening divide between rich and poor, the idea that there is a direct correlation between effort and success. The rich are rich because they deserve to be, and the poor, well they shouldn’t have been so lazy.

Thirdly, you lump together “make us all start from the same point” and “to be rewarded equally for differing levels of effort and skill” as if these two ideas share anything in common. I would say the first is quite obviously the definition of Equality of Opportunity. And you would see it to if you weren’t so aghast at the idea of using the surplus of those who have more than they could ever need to help those–the majority–that don’t. “But, but … that’s Socialism (with a capital ‘S’!),” I hear you sputter. Maybe. I prefer to think of it in terms of helping and sharing. You know, those values that we insist on instilling in our kids before urging them to forget, with greater and greater fervency as they come ‘of age.’

Fourthly, you make no mention of exactly how disadvantaged someone has to be before they are eligible for extra help. Your highly idealised account only holds for someone who has all their faculties, has at least a near average IQ, has access to services, is geographically mobile, and so on.

In fact, you ignore the worst kinds of disadvantage in focusing solely on “laws that were obstacles” (having, as you do, a bugbear about any government involvement or “interference”) and mental barriers. It is true that these are important points, but they completely disregard the material conditions of the disadvantaged.

In general, “Indifferent to Everyone” is not the great principle of “Equality of Opportunity” that you take it to be. Such a stricture is only advantageous to those that have been historically successful, and those that are capable and willing to adopt the definition of “Success” inherent in the ‘game’ as their own.

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Weak Atheism and Pascal’s Wager

Following on from my previous post, we can see that weak atheism does not affirm the non-existence of any gods, but simply refuses to believe claims that any gods exist. The position is that without any evidence of gods, there is no reason to believe in them.

The problem with this position is that one can effectively be driven from it by Pascal’s Wager. The weak atheist does not believe in the existence of gods simply because there is no reason to. But Pascal’s Wager provides a very good reason to. Or at least, it precludes abstaining due to lack of reasons.

The problem is that any position which rests upon lack of evidence will be shown to be inadequate by any evidence—even evidence as slight as Pascal’s Wager.

For the weak atheist to counter Pascal’s Wager they must either strengthen their atheism with a counter-claim (which, so far the weak atheist has refused to do) or deny that Pascal’s Wager constitutes acceptable evidence.

The first move means abandoning the weak atheist position.

The second involves the weak atheist invoking a standard of evidence that is deemed as acceptable—a standard Pascal’s Wager fails to obtain.

The question then becomes, “What sort of evidence is acceptable to the weak atheist?” And again, the weak atheist runs into problems. If the weak atheist has set the standard of acceptable evidence too high then that is simply a reflection of their bias against the existence of gods. Which is not a “weak atheist” position. By this I mean that the generalised statement “I don’t believe your claim, and no evidence you produce will ever convince me otherwise” is simply not compatible with the statement “I don’t believe your claim because you have not provided sufficient evidence.”

The weak atheist is left in the strange position, whereby they need to affirm the possibility of evidence, but deny that sufficient evidence has been presented. One wonders what that acceptable evidence could possibly be.

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16 March, 2012 · 11:45 am