book review: ego is the enemy

Ego is the Enemy is a self-help book by Ryan Holiday. He takes inspiration from stoicism and business-people and artists to show how the problems facing the reader are all about ego and thinking as people we deserve anything in this life.

I read it because I’m passingly interested in the Stoics, especially in how they’re being brought back today, but this book is kind of an illustration of what happens when un-deep thinkers get a hold of ancient thoughts. I didn’t disagree with a lot of what he said, but it was very obvious this is a writer who has only had well-off white dude problems. Just accepting things and taking your licks is fine for people who are supported by the system that wants them to succeed (eg well-off white dudes in capitalism) but terrible advice for people who are getting trampled by the status quo.

This is a book designed to stave off the revolution, not change the world.

library and archives canada’s fear of librarians

I can’t imagine working for an organization that would put out a code of conduct that prohibits its employees from engaging in teaching, conference attendance or other “personal engagements” on their own time. I mean, I can imagine it; I just imagine it would suck. And for the librarians at Library and Archives Canada who are in charge of keeping the country’s information organized and accessible for all Canadians to be muzzled in such a way is complete bullshit.

From the recently-leaked LAC Code of Conduct Values and Ethics in regards to an employee participating in a conference or speaking engagement on her own time (p.17):

An employee may accept such invitations as personal activities if all of the following conditions are met:

  • The subject matter of the activity is not related to the mandate or activities of LAC;
  • The employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC or the Government of Canada;
  • The third party is not a potential or current supplier to/collaborator with LAC;
  • The third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC;
  • The third party does not receive grants, contributions or other types of funding or payments from LAC;
  • The employee has discussed it with his or her manager, who has documented confirmation that the activity does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.

Personally, the idea of having to have off-work-time speech needing to be okayed by a manager gets up my nose in terms of chilling effects. Who’s going to ask interesting questions if they must check with risk-averse superiors first? Other people who are more in tune with how organizations work than me point out that the other clauses mean LAC employees couldn’t feel at ease going to talk at their kids’ school about being an archivist, let alone work with academics who might get some funding from LAC. One would think you’d want interesting thinkers at a country’s flagship library instead of mere functionaries. I would think so, anyway.

Because I was interested I looked at the social media segments of this code of conduct. They say that if an employee said something within a limited group of people that was shared to a wider audience, the employee could be subject to disciplinary measures, because of her “duty of loyalty.” Now my reading of that section seems to indicate that as long as the individual employee isn’t representing LAC’s position, but her own, things would be fine. Of course, I don’t take anything said by a person to be representative of their employer’s views, because that is crazy. Oh wait. If someone could find out where you worked and that you had an opinion then it would count as you trying to represent LAC’s opinion and smack goes the hammer.

I’m sorry, LAC employees. I think we, as librarians and as humans, should be asking interesting questions. The photographer Clayton Cubitt recently wrote a blogpost about labelling which of the pictures he posts on Tumblr are NSFW (not safe for work) after an explanation of how to get a feed of just his SFW pictures he went on to talk a little bit about alignment of your philosophy with your workplace. And there he says: “So the only real solution is in your hands: don’t work at a job that doesn’t share your personal philosophy.”

I think that’s good advice. And actually I think it’s good in its way that LAC sets out its philosophy so starkly so its employees can see how it diverges from their philosophies. They are clearly saying to their librarians “We don’t trust you. You are our enemy.” Having such a clear enemy makes some things easier. You know who you should pull your support from. The problem however is that LAC isn’t just some company making widgets or apps. It’s supposed to be preserving and organizing the citizenry’s information for use, and it’s not like the librarians who have been made enemy of their institution can just start up another one.

Let’s just get this out there: I would hate to work at LAC. But we need a National Library. If this strangulation of its workers means that librarians dedicated to freedom of information and access for the citizens leave or get chilled out of proposing any ideas to talk about that is a huge fucking loss. The librarians shouldn’t have to leave because the government doesn’t understand what the job of a librarian is.

We need people to change this. Part of the job of being a librarian is to stand up for freedom of thought and expression. That has to apply within the National Library as well as in society in general. We have to make the rules at our National Library fit the job and its values. This should be a no-brainer for librarians. We should all be do our best to help people with their information needs, which might involve asking interesting difficult awkward questions. We aren’t supposed to be scared of ideas. That is part of my personal philosophy and something I believe makes me a good librarian.

This is not a very focused blogpost. Organizations I belong to are writing much more eloquent letters outlining the issues for a general public and other librarians. I don’t know what you should do. They probably will. I will link to them as they come up.

This is just a response. My response. (Not that of any employer of mine, past, present or future.)

book review: railsea

Photo Credit: Gastown Railyards by Evan Leeson

Railsea is China Miéville’s a story about a boy named Sham who is working on a moletrain. A moletrain is like a whaling ship, but in the world of Railsea, there are no seas like we know them, only the loose earth that terrifyingly dangerous creatures (like moldywarpes and antlions) burrow through. This earth is crisscrossed by an impenetrably tangled network of rails that require expert navigation and track switching. The trains navigating the railsea are hugely various, some powered by sails, some by steam, diesel or even fusion. Out in the dangerous earth there are islands and communities, and many wrecked trains to salvage. There’s also the upsky which is poisonous and filled with alien beasts that sometimes drop inexplicable bits to earth for people to find. It’s all kinds of awesome.

Sham begins the story as a mediocre doctor’s apprentice, serving a captain in search of her philosophy, a giant ivory mole named Mocker-Jack that took her arm. Miéville does this thing where this creature she’s hunting is explicitly philosophical at the same time that it’s a physical beast that could crush a train. It’s directly inspired by Moby Dick but is wildly divergent from Herman Melville’s story.

Strangely enough not everyone likes China Miéville’s use of language. It’s filled with words that are made-up but make sense and I am a fan. The book is published as YA and while the language is intricate and ornate, it will knock the right reader’s socks off. Comparison-wise, it’s got similar themes to Ship Breaker, but the language is less straight-forward. The plot is stronger and more direct than Mechanique, which had a similar kind of language/mood.

I loved the hell out of this book and am only sad it’s over and I’ll have to wait for Miéville’s next one.

book review: the other

I’ve had The Other sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just got to it. It’s a book of philosophical essays by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how people deal with people who are not like them. It’s not a rigorous philosophical treatise, but the thoughts of a journalist who’s spent most of his life off travelling the world and recounting tales of other lands (most notably in Africa and South America, which were places the censors back in Iron Curtain Poland wouldn’t censor too much about).

Reading this book made me want to go places again, to travel, but not as a tourist. To go with a mission, like anthropologists do, like a real journalist, going off to find out about people and what life is like in faraway places. Every time I go to China, I realize how hard that is.

One thing he talks about in regards to the dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world which used to be dominated by it, is how that dichotomy was created in part because Europe’s first ambassadors to the rest of the world weren’t noble wise people. They were scummy ruffians who’d set sail because they didn’t have good lives back in Europe. They were misfits in an unromantic way, antisocial and greedy and were ready to take anything they could get from the people/creatures they encountered.

One of the most important things in this book, or at least a thing that resonated most strongly with me, was the idea of the self needing an Other to truly define it. You don’t know what you are until you are exposed to something else, the ways other people organize their lives. This kind of Other requires seeing these people in different places with different histories as still being human, so it’s actually historically quite a recent phenomenon. And one helped along by anthropologists.

It was a short book but very good. I’d probably read it before reading Travels With Herodotus if I hadn’t read any Kapuscinski before.

book review: everyman philosophy books

I read a bunch of these little introductions to some different philosophers and it made me think, “I kind of enjoy reading about philosophy.” The ones I read were on Socrates, Descartes, Hegel, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Hegel was the least interesting as it was more about theology than his dialectical stuff. I hadn’t realized Nietzsche had so many health problems and did eventually go crazy. And how can I not love Socrates? I knew he was executed (drank his own hemlock) but I hadn’t known he’d basically argued himself into it. How can you not admire someone like that?

book review: the tao of wu

The Tao of Wu is a weird book by the RZA. I mean, it’s about taosim and philosophy and the jewels of being and shit, but also about being Bobby Digital and partying the fuck out of the hip-hop life. He talks a lot about the Supreme Mathematics and being a Five Per Center and a lot of the Nation of Islam stuff I didn’t know anything about. But it’s also about comic books and Kung-Fu movies and finding your way to happiness.

The stuff I found most tedious was the numerology. You can pretty much do anything you want with numbers when you’re looking for significant dates and aren’t too picky about specifics. He goes on about how Barack Obama being the 44th president is significant numerologically and then goes on to say that since he’s the 43rd person to hold the office (because of Taft) those numbers are also significant. But they weren’t significant when Dubya was in. There’s a lot of that kind of intellectually not too rigorous kind of pontificating in the book.

But the stuff about him learning the Mathematics as a kid and being on and off of spiritual paths? Really good. His chess talk gets a little woo-woo spiritual but it’s an interesting perspective. Also, he had the best explanation of the difference between East Coast and West Coast rap and why it led to violence. He also talked about how the Wu-Tang Clan sound was created and having a dictatorial plan to make it work and about the death of ODB. I haven’t read a lot on these subjects so I liked it.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a reference book on Taoism or anything, but it’s an interesting perspective on taking a spiritual path that’s littered with shell casings.

book review: still life with woodpecker

I like Tom Robbins’ books, but it’s one of these weird blind spots in my memory that I can never connect the titles with the stories so I’m never sure which ones I’ve read. I was halfway through Still Life With Woodpecker before recognizing a scene from the last time I’d read it. It was a line about a finger in an asshole being in Outlaw Territory that made me remember a specific seat I slouched in in one of the reading rooms in one of the Arts buildings at the University of Manitoba back in my undergrad days when I would devour novels instead of worrying too much about my classes. Good times. It’s funny how that one bit is all that sticks in my head. I mean, I’d remembered the themes and stuff, but nothing specific.

And the themes to this one are Choice and individualist romanticism and the only serious question anyone should ever ask: “How do you make love stay?” The story is about an exiled princess who falls in love with an outlaw bomber and they try to answer that question with explosions and pyramids and causes. It feels a bit like a 70s book (which it is), but not so much that you can’t squint and ignore it if the time period is not to your liking. You do need to know who Ralph Nader is though. And be familiar with the kind of people who join causes. Not too tough even today.

But the big thing it does is glorify the individual who makes choices. Which is not too bad a thing to focus on. There’s a running fixation on the moon and, one of the bits I quite liked was this:

Poetry, the best of it, is lunar and is concerned with the essential insanities. Journalism is solar (there are numerous newspapers called The Sun, none called The Moon) and is devoted to the inessential.

Essential insanities do seem important in this world.