The elephant in the room: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’ (Review)

This month I have the task of doing a book review. I’ve chosen a book within the so-called ‘New Atheist’ canon, although labels aside, this is a fascinating and challenging book for all concerned. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a person of numerous identities, many of which hold awkwardly together, and this is the essence of the title of her book: Nomad.

Ali is a woman. As a woman, she faces multiple discriminations; from her father, who is interestingly the daughter of Hirsi Magan Isse, a Somali revolutionary; from her grandmother, whose distrust of modernity was interesting in spite of her own personal defiance by defying patriarchal customs of her time and from her own community who see her as betraying her heritage.

Ali is a secularist. By studying in school was a defiance enough for her family, Ali came to study political science and immersed herself and identified with the values of the European Enlightenment. Ali makes an interesting case for the universality of the enlightenment values: of freedom of expression and the erosion of religious influence on civic society. From her background not just as an Arab, but a woman from an Arabic culture, she turns the values of the 17th and 18thC Enlightenment to apply beyond Europe. For her criticism of Islam, such as the insular fear of modernity and its values to practices which involve violence against women, Ali raises something very uncomfortable and unsayalbe in this day and age. Consider for instance in the UK that Baroness Warsi recently stated that Islamophobia is rife, while many comedians are known to have a secret rule to avoid critique of the religion due to the historical repercussions of Salman Rushdie. Ali was the writer of Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’, a film for which Van Gogh was murdered.

Ali is not a ‘feminist’. So many are unwilling to critique Islam, perhaps for the fear of association with extremist right-wing politics or for the threats. This is a topic very sensitive but important. Ali refuses the title of ‘feminist’ despite raising the issue of women in the Arab world, as well as the double oppression Arab women face when emigrating to the west with the pressure to conform to old cultural standards against their pressure to distance themselves from integrating with the society. Integrating to a a country once emigrating is often an issue for minority groups and it shows the many facets of the cultural diaspora that is contemporary Islam. Ali challenges so-called identifying feminists because ‘many’ (only one I recall was named – Germaine Greer) refused to critique Muslim country customs on the basis to the effect of¬† ‘we cannot judge other countries by our cultural standards’. That alone raises at least two or three distinct questions internal to a feminist discussion. For Ali, these issues for the women she describes are not so much a feminist issue, but a human rights issue.

Ali is a modern woman. Perhaps the end of the book shows how sympathetic Ali is to her late grandmother, who despite her defiance, did not approve of her granddaughter’s life. Ali describes how Somalia irrevocably changed once western innovations and modernity were introduced, electricity for instance, and new ways of thinking, and new ways of killing. For better and for worse, the innovations that modernity brought could not be reversed. Ali’s grandmother was a nomad who was forcibly married off to a man who left her for another woman, despite this she maintained her personal integrity within the confines of her patriarchy of the time. Ali describes her grandmother as a more successful matriarch keeping the clan in checkcompared to the woman her grandfather replaced her with, who, while the latter provided him with boys (a favoured gender in tribal society), was poor at other domestic duties. Ali sees the strength of her grandmother and those of many other women around her in the trials of everyday life. It is Ali’s conviction, as it is for many others, such as Nussbaum, that a key feature for social development in many countries involves providing more education and social mobility to women especially in their traditional caregiver roles of their society. While recognising this, Ali fights a battle of many fronts, from the dangerous public criticisms of Islam, both from the social othodoxy and her family’s ostracism of her; to the indifference of liberal intellectuals and so-called feminists who turn a blind eye. Ali shows herself as a Nomad of many fronts.


Linkspam of the week (17th to 23rd January)

This week I submit the following stories of interest, that is to say, my judgment that all people should consider of interest (cf. Kant’s theory of judgment)

  1. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science unveils the phenomenon of ‘Blue Monday’ to be a sham co-opted by both commercial and supportive interests.
  2. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images unpacks the phenomena of Seth Rogen the Mediocre Male which has been opted toward a cultural and commercial end.
  3. Over at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is a new article on Ernst Cassirer, a very important Kant scholar and Neo-Kantian, written by another important Kant Scholar and Neo-Kantian, Michael Friedman.

Hopefully we can make a more regular occurence of linkspam.


Lies, Damned lies, and…Karl Popper’s logic of science?

Continuing my series of posts following my reading of Popper’s ‘Logic of Scientific Discovery’, I think that I have just finished the more difficult part of the book. Popper wrote a large section on his unique theory of probability, many of the nuances I have to admit due to my lack of reading, are lost to me. I think a fair few things are important to say:

1. There has been a large consensus among many philosophers I’ve known, that a logical theory of probability is lacking in various ways compared to a consideration of more conventional mathematical notions about trying to understand statistical functions, interesting that among the mathematicians that I’ve known this conviction is not held. For this reason I might consider that this probability approach, at least in terms of the contemporaries of Popper’s time, were not in the majority. How such an approach now would hold, however is a much more detailed response. Formal approaches are the fashion in many areas of contemporary philosophy.

2. Popper should be read in context with as a point of comparison and contrast: the probability accounts of Carnap, Von Mises and Keynes (as in, J.M. Keynes the legend of Economics). Each of these thinkers had a particular aim for their thought around probability. Carnap integrates probability in a logic of science approach while the wider context of von Mises and Keynes are as theoreticians and practicioners of an applied numerical science; physics in one and economics in the other. Construing probability in such a wide light and in the audience of philosophical methodology shows the real ecclecticism and interdisciplinarity of the time.

3. Popper moves away from talk about truth. Starting off the book with a discussion concerning the limits of science, namely through falsification and demarcation, Popper then moves on to try and consider how to make positive claims of science. Often a reply to a discussion of falsification is a claim to the effect of: if our method concerns what shouldn’t be admissible as a scientific claim, what can we say is an admissible claim?

Here is where the probability account comes in. Instead of a distinct bivalent set of values of whether a claim is true or false, we are led to a notion of degrees of credence in probability. Perhaps we can never talk of appropriately ‘verifying’ a theory, but we can talk in terms of falisification and a positive notion of what he calls ‘corroboration’. Claims are suitably corroborated in terms of its instances and a calculus that applies a certain set of purely statistical assumptions. The game of science, then, is moved away from talk of truth to talk of corroborated estimates of what we may deem to be factual. It is this notion of corroboration which is the answer to the negation of verification.

4. Contemporary science, it should be said, relies on a great deal of statistical work. Everything from sociology and economics, to chemistry and climate science involve the gathering of statistics to establish predictions and models. Any good theory of science worth its salt needs to acknowledge the common contemporamous practice of science. The 20thC turn to statistics in the methodological literature is very much sensitive. I would go further to say that it would be a desiderata to acknowledge that the practice of science now uses these machinations.

5. One thought I advance: to what extent are the standards of rigour for corroboration internal to the discourse and its practitioners or that they are sufficiently generic to account for all discourses? I suspect that the notion of statistical accuracy and range has a lot of pragmatism involved depending on what is being measured, or predicted. This discussion is slightly addressed when Popper relates his notion of probability with the (emerging at the time) Quantum Mechanics.


Life as gaming (Plato was right #12398958)

From my foray into gaming I’ve noticed two things which remind me of the ‘life imitates art’ adege. Firstly, one thing I’ve noticed which seemingly converges into real life is how government initiatives orient towards providing incentives to citizen behaviour. This reminds me directly of the RPG merit system, where more experience points or allocation of ‘level up’ points improves the player character, which implicitly forms an incentive to improve oneself. Life doesn’t seem to have the same appeal of levelling up.

I was listening to a programme lately which suggested the suggest of giving incentives to improve people’s behaviour. This sounds like some overt form of operant conditioning and it seems to merge gaming with life. Consider for instance the xbox achievement system where one gains points for completing various feats in a game, this transfers in all sorts of other online behaviours from foursquare to facebook’s farmville. Behaviour motivated by incentive seems to be something which is harnessed commercially.

Another aspect of gaming I found interesting was the moral aspect of many games, namely, how in many games a clear distinction between good and evil is forged. In a sense, it is this clarity which makes the game an enjoyable experience. This aspect of gaming does seem to be challenged in other more cynical games which have a more conscientious angle to their construction. I suspect that teaching by incentive and the uncritical acceptance of the rules of a game may transfer to real life. People often ask the question of whether games have become an art form. To ask this misses the point, the answer is implicitly some form of yes’. The question should be directed more to: is gaming part of the culture industry and propagation of cultural norms and social education?


Links of interest (3-9th January weeks)

I thought I’d share some links of interest.

  1. The blog ‘A Year of Feminist Classics‘ are inviting readiers and bloggers to take part in an online reading group. Their list of works are very interesting, including authors from JS Mill and Harriet Taylor, Simone de Beauvoir, Naomi Wolf and Judith butler. Here is their full reading list for the year.
  2. I’ve found a neat article by Richard Smith (mentioned as a speaker in Michael’s previous post on the ‘valuing the humanities’ discussion) concerning the import of the humanities on medicine as a profession and a scientific endeavour.
  3. The blog ‘Inter Kant’ provides a discussion linking teleology with practical reasoning, and the exegetical difficulties of trying to make this view consistent. It provides an interesting starting point to try to clarify the relationship between how an agent may have hypothetical imperatives of teleological character, and Kant’s (as it is normally understood) non consequentialist notion of morality.

We hope that you join us for another year of blogging.


REVIEW: Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir

[Since many of my posts tend to ruminate on specific works. I thought that we might as well make blog posts in the book review format. So here goes…]

Dave Mustaine, and Megadeth, which are largely one and the same thing from a creative and business perspective; is an iconic band and figure to my personal musical interests. To read his memoir reminds me both of what I love about Megadeth, but also reminds me about why I don’t listen to it very much anymore. Mustaine’s Heavy Metal journey is more than just a narrative or band biography, it addresses many of the urban legends and heresay around the persona of ‘Megadave’. Mustaine is well known for notorious reasons: such as the substance abuse, being kicked out of Metallica (and replaced by Kirk Hammett) right before they made it big, and having a reputation for confrontational behaviour with many of his peers in the industry giving him the nickname of ‘angry Dave’.

When I read reviews about this book I was totally thrown by it, partly because I was half way through already. Many of the reviews called it a work of ‘Christian Apologetics’ or something to the effect of ‘confessional Christianity’. At the point I was reading it this seemed as far from an apt description as possible. Mustaine was describing himself from a difficult family background who found heavy metal and the trappings of drugs and sex part and parcel of his rock star life. For a work of Christian apologetics it contained references to things that one would not associate with Christendom such as how to use a certain brand of barbeque sauce (you’ll have to read that one for yourself).

This story reminds me of the Aeneid, or perhaps the Oddessy in that it’s a side story, a spinoff to what is the main pop culture narrative of Metallica’s success. Everyone knows that the Greek alliance beat the Trojans in the mythic Trojan war, but fewer still remember Odysseus’ journey home, or Aeneas’ perspective of the loser. In a sense Mustaine’s story begins as the loser, the one who got kicked out of Metallica before they made their name as one of the all time greats of the Rock pantheon.

Mustaine’s story is one of redemption on many levels. Despite his departure from Metallica, Mustaine forged his own band and infused his own distinctive creativity to create his own empire. Despite the drug fuelled lifestyle which led to toxic relationships both with men and women, Mustaine found a way to sobriety. Despite losing the ability to play guitar in the early 2000s and virtually losing his wife and children due to a relapse into addiction, Mustaine developed a spiritual side and eventually learned to let go. It is odd that at the point that he realised that his career and his music were not the important things in his life was exactly the point at which his creativity and success returned again speaks of some kind of spiritual significance I don’t really comprehend.

Mustaine is a person who admits of his own flaws. Who else but the most depraved of them can ask for redemption, which is what makes this work a particularly interesting (albeit surprising to me) biography which ended up as some kind of Christian apologetical (perhaps apologism is not the apt term here as he doesn’t ‘preach’ to anyone as such).

In terms of the band, Mustaine addresses important issues of the band. At the beginning, Megadeth was an edgy and hungry band full of anger and political relevance. Consider for instance the music video ‘Peace Sells’ where at one point, a father changes the tv channel and says “What is this garbage you’re watching? I want to watch the news!”, to which the son replies: This is the news. Despite the anacrhonistic temptation to see a religious or gospel like aspect to that now, it showed then that the music was distinctly relevant to the age. Social decline and the destructive economic situation that fuelled it was expressed through Thrash metal.

Eventually, as the poverty stricken Megadeth ceased to be poor (due to record sales and touring), their music became less relevant to the cutting edge of heavy metal. While there was a honeymoon period of making Thrash slightly more accessible and slightly more mainstream (such as the albums Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia), eventually Megadeth lost their way to Mustaine’s own admission in the album Risk. While I quite like Risk as an album not judging by heavy metal terms to judge the album by the bar set by Megadeth’s previous records fares very poorly on the band. A lot can be said about ‘Risk’ and its overt commercialism. For instance, many in personal conversations I’ve had say that Risk is comparable to Metallica’s St. Anger album (ie. it’s their worst album) although in terms of the comparisons I’d say Risk is more like Megadeths’ ‘Load’ or ‘Reload’. If one could ever accuse Megadeth with selling out at this period, it would be even easier to say that Metallica sold their souls long ago.

Interesting background characters emerge in the story of Mustaine and Megadeth. Dave Ellefson, the long time bassist of Megadeth and perhaps the second longest member of the band, has a relationship with the protagonist which varies from brotherhood to outright enemies. How a friendship can endure and survive with all that happens to Megadeth is really a story of how many long term friendships of real people survive or are put under pressure. My personal favourite background character is Marty Friedman: the virtuoso guitarist who came from a neoclassical metal background. Friedman is a character of interest because he becomes in a similar vein to Mustaine, an industry savvy fellow. Mustaine complains that Friedman (and the same point applies to Ellefson) started giving guitar clinics and promoted guitar playing and advice on how to advance in the popular music world. Friedman eventually grew tired of Megadeth for a variety of stylistic reasons (many which seem not consistent) and is now in Japan as a minor celebrity/television presenter. I hear he even has a video game about him.

Megadeth started as a band on an ideological frontier and ended up as a commercial machine. Mustaine has returned to his thrash metal roots since Risk but his later albums show their age. I’m of the conviction that thrash has lost its fresh and would soon one day enter into the specter of ‘dadrock’. People make the distinction between Megadeth the band and Mustaine the person. Many have also complimented on the band’s greatness but not of the nice frontman’s personality. If this book shows anything it is the opposite. Mustaine makes for an interesting character who distinctively has had his flaws in the past. The band was once great and relevant to an audience, but now it is a commercial engine which runs on the steam that it was as a fact, once that great band of the 1980s and early 1990s. Success is a blessing and a curse for any career venture, as one solution to a problem becomes a new problem. The story of Thrash is perhaps this: being biting and relevant cannot last after success infects. It leads me to think of another Metal documentary ‘Until the Light Takes us‘ where a member of Darkthrone curses the international reptuation of Black metal because it meant as a consequence, its uniqueness was taken away from Norway. I wonder if Black Metal will go the way of Thrash, or if the perpetual underground nature of it will never take its frontline spirit away.


Short term (ir)rationality: A post to celebrate the new year

Happy new year from all of us.

Normally at this time of year, or kicking around the last couple of weeks of December, there are two distinct kinds of thoughts that come up. One is a matter of taking stock over the past year (since the year seems the largest small amount of time as a unit of time). My RSS feeds were chock full of ‘a year in review’ of blog posts and soforth. I even got an email about the most popular posts and most hits on my blog. Funny enough its never the posts that I want to be the most read or that I think are most important thematically to this blog.

The other thought that often comes up this time of year is that with the novelty of having a new year, we see this as a time to engage in different behaviour and reflect on ourselves and actions to improve ourselves in some way. Christmas and New Year are often times where people say ‘never again’: never again to so much food, never again to so much alcohol or perhaps some embarrassing situation might have happened (I was witness to many last week, but not party to them, fortunately).

The constant mantra of ‘never again’ and the urge to improve oneself are both candidates of how people engage in a fallacy of placing long term plans on the basis of a short term feeling. The newness of the new year is a novelty, and any novelty of change gives one a temporary improvement in their mood and situation, eventually however their mood levels out and novelty becomes boredom and regularity. Many situations fit this bill: winning the lottery for instance, a new job or promotion. The temporary novelty of change makes one feel that their situation or mood has improved, conversely, a change that is negative can often create a sudden downward change in mood or motivation, but eventually one’s mood levels out and gets used to it (usually at least).

This is a common critique of utilitarianism: to seek out the highest good, or to seek out happiness as a moral goal is facile for this exact reason: to see out something that causes a boost in one’s mood temporarily eventually fades to normality and either we must reconstrue what we understand as happiness to something a little less emotional and putatively understood, or a hedonic utilitarian (qua of the Bentham kind) would be some bizarre agent who seeks thrills and short term happiness, who then finds the boredom of their initial goal lacking the foresight of knowing this psychological phenomena would happen so they would have to jump ship to a new goal. There’s a name for this kind of agent, I’ll leave her name undisclosed to preserve her shame.

This kind of agency lacks an understanding of the human condition. Seeking out such a feeling and having it substantiated by the novelness of the new or or the novelty of change is a feeling we so often forget. Like the ‘never again’, we so easily forget why we resolved to avoid some actions and distinctly go into them again. Some personal examples of my ‘never agains’ which I systematically forget to learn are:

  • I have motion sickness if I play too many first person shooters
  • Low quality chinese food is a recipe for disaster
  • Don’t order the duck soup
  • Never watch a horror film again

Many have philosophised about what I’d like to call the short term rationality, or perhaps I should call it short term irrationality. Perhaps I should define it. Short term rationality is a phenomena where one bases reasoning about actions based on the immediate affectation it has on the agent, under the presumption that this immediate feeling is the sole constituent of the experience or the process of the experience.

Here’s some examples. When I am really hungry, I often order or make too much food. What is best for my body and to satisfy hunger is usually less than what my immediate urge is to estimate my limit. In short, I always make too much, or order too much. Similarily, I seem to think that the immediate pleasure of the experience is the whole experience itself, and I overlook other aspects of the experience. When I am invited to a kill fest playing a first person shooter, I enjoy the repartee of insults between my friends, I enjoy the funny kills, and thrill of the match. What I don’t normally seem to remember are the facts that if I play for too long the high frame rate affects my constitution and I tend to feel unwell if I play too much, I normally in recent years have learned to know when I need to stop playing shooters (I haven’t learned this for RPGs which do not have high frame rates). Often it is said that pregnancy is a similar issue. With the pain of childbirth quickly forgotten by the woman (many women often report not having a memory of the final moments, to the disdain of their partners and midwifery staff).

What I find interesting is the amount of interdisciplinary interest in this short termism of rationality. Philosophers have often spoken of this in context of mind. But what about in terms of reasoning. There are many interesting formal models of reasoning in contemporary philosophy: there is decision theoretic oriented approaches which try to consider non-co-operative models of discerning beliefs and deciding actions; there are agent co-operative/agent competitive approaches in the guise of Game theoretic notions of rationality; then you have similar to decision theory a bayesian probabilistic set of approaches. Notions of rationality are interesting for so many reasons, the applications are astounding, from international banking, deciding actions in social situations and non-human interactions. There are normative and descriptive things to be said of rationality.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that led me to think about this is a conversation with a friend who is a microbiology researcher. My microbiologist friend works on bacteria and some of his work involves communication on the prokaryote (sic) level. When we look at organisms, we can see a narrative of co-operation and competition through the lens of natural selection. To what extent, he asks, is it that we have the power to understand our environment and its conditions, in deciding to further our long term interests? Be it the survival of our kin, or defending or resources or determining the availability of these resources.

I answered jokingly to this thought and said: this is very much the human condition

My friend corrected me and said: no, this is the condition that all life faces.

Happy new year, and if you are considering making any new years resolutions, consider the phenomena of short term (ir)rationality and think of the lines of Jason Statham’s character Frank Martin from the Transporter film series:

Rule 4: Never make a promise you can’t keep