A Delicate Balance.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with it: each paragraph could easily be a whole post in its own right. But I think now is the right time to put them out there. Many of these beliefs are more than a year old in my mind, but I have been thinking about them a lot in the past year; and as I look back, I realise that I haven’t really gotten them out in a coherent, accessible form. They’ve mostly appeared in the form of ephemeral comments on Facebook or Tumblr, and it’s high time I put them in one place. The ideas discussed below also follow a common theme to which I find myself returning again and again, and I could easily find more to which it is applicable.

My beliefs are not typical of any particular orthodoxy. On the whole, I think this is something to be proud of. One should not believe a thing just because other people do, but rather because the thing stands on its own merits. That said, you simply can’t investigate everything fully enough to be justified in believing it from first principles; but in cases where you can’t afford the effort, it’s not appropriate to just throw up your hands or to believe what you like. It’s imperative to accept the expert consensus, if there is one, or the null hypothesis, if there isn’t. This is precisely an example of the sort of nuanced balance I’m talking about. It’s not that both sides of an issue necessarily have a point, so much as that it’s very rarely the case that any given “side” has things entirely right; and that one side has a given thing wrong is no guarantee that the other doesn’t also.

Some other examples:

I’m a feminist, and I think both that Germaine Greer is a bigot for thinking trans women aren’t women and that Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t deserve most of the praise she gets just for transitioning — she’s still a privileged conservative and wholly unrepresentative of most trans people’s experiences.

I’m an environmentalist, and I think nuclear power is not nearly as objectionable as fossil power. I believe this for environmentalist reasons, such as that it releases less carbon dioxide (and, for that matter, radioactivity), and is orders of magnitude less dangerous per GWh. As such, it would be far preferable to use it as a stop-gap rather than keep burning coal and oil until renewables take over. The only reason I’m not advocating more fervently for its use is that we don’t need it as a stop-gap any more — we can already make the switch to renewables in the time it would take to replace fossil power with nuclear.

I’m a Bayesian rationalist, and accordingly don’t believe in things like gods or the utility of death. But I think a lot of the things that are popular in the “rationalist” community, such as strict utilitarianism, advocacy of cryonics or the idea that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the only coherent one, are utter bunk. And the common disdain for “politics” among rationalists generally only serves as a mask for libertarianism or even neoreactionary beliefs, which are hardly rational.

I’m in favour of many fundamental structural reforms to the way society is run, such as a universal basic income funded by very high externality and rent taxes on harmful activities like mining, polluting, or being Rupert Murdoch. I’m equally certain that no matter how revolutionary some of these reforms may be, revolutions are almost always terrible means of achieving them. (This particular dichotomy is one of the main themes of my forthcoming novel, of which I wrote what I expect will be the final line a few weeks ago, although there do remain a few crucial chapters still incomplete.)

I am a keen believer in the usefulness of having a standardised language, especially for such a broad lingua franca as English for most of whose speakers it is a second or third language. And I don’t think this contradicts my similarly firm belief that those who speak nonstandard dialects shouldn’t have to unlearn them in order to be taken seriously. Similarly, I don’t like linguistic prescriptivism as a principle, but I abhor misuses like alternate for alternative that only serve to muddy the language’s ability to make often useful distinctions. (I’d like to think that these dichotomies and others like them make me a good editor; having solid reasons for supporting certain prescriptivist practices makes it much easier to let go of any prescriptivist instinct in the cases where the reasons don’t apply. Conversely, it also makes it much easier to objectively explain my work in the cases where they do, and providing quality feedback is one of the most important parts of an editor’s job.)

This does make it difficult to explain myself concisely, and it’s very easy to be misinterpreted. People assume that because I hold one belief I subscribe to an entire ideology of which it is a part, when that is seldom if ever meaningfully true. In acknowledging that Islam deserves much of the blame for acts of Islamist extremism, for example, I don’t want to be taken as condemning the rest of the Muslim population, because they are not to blame — much less as condoning violent and misguided retaliation.


Happy 2016!

I have, of course, been very busy for the last few weeks, which I hope may go some way toward excusing my recent absence on here. Between packing our things for shipment home; saying goodbye to everyone in Nanjing; settling ourselves in and catching up with friends in Melbourne; dealing with shipping company bureaucracy (although it doesn’t seem it will take nearly as long as last time — our shipment left China less than two weeks after we did, and is expected to get to us in January); Christmas; and of course the all-important and all-stressful job-hunting — I’ve had a lot on my mind!

We’re not doing anything special for New Year’s Eve this year. We were invited to three or four parties, and planned on going to a couple of them, but the missus and I have both been taken down by some sort of stomach bug, so we’re just having a quiet night in. We’ll be asleep well before midnight. Look at us, getting old. I didn’t sign up for this.

But it’s almost a relief in some ways. Of course we want to catch up with our friends here, most of whom we haven’t seen in nearly a year. But the fact that we don’t have to rush through and get all the catching-up done in the space of a rushed few weeks — and therefore, catching up with most people all in a few big parties rather than on a more intimate basis — is immensely refreshing. And so, to everyone we haven’t seen yet, including those who we hoped to see tonight: we’re not snubbing you, and we’ve missed you all. We’ll get to you just as soon as we have the spoons (and the healthy bodies) to do it properly.

I have a more reflective post written, looking back at some of the ideas that have occupied my thinking over the past year, but I think I’ll put that up tomorrow. It needs more brainsing to polish it up than I’m really up to right now. So I’ll just sign off with a Happy New Year!, and see you on the other side.

Movember update!

Hello! I finally got the video upload thing to work. For some reason my phone didn’t want to share it to my laptop, which meant editing it on the phone and exporting it from there; then YouTube couldn’t read the exported file. But you don’t care about that. So without any further waffling, except for this bit, I can now belatedly present Jenny’s video (with free added snark) of the Mo-mentous event.

I can also share some progress shots. It’s coming along nicely, though still far too short to style. Give it another week or two, I think.

IMG_1789 IMG_1792

Big thank you this week to the STC and Mazenod veterans cricket teams, whose donations have put me just over the halfway mark to my fundraising target.

Moving home.

First up, apologies for the lack of a post last week. I’m trying to stick to a weekly schedule, but things got ahead of me and I was laid up with the Mutant Martian Death Flu™ for most of the week. When I have been well enough to be up and about, I’ve mostly been organising things for the move back home, which is less than seven weeks away now. Yes, we’re coming home. We’d have liked to stay, but they’re changing things up on the campus here which means Jenny’s position will no longer exist. I’ve been job-hunting for when we get back, and Jenny has signed up for some fill-in teaching work next year.

I’ve also started on a regular editing gig for pop-culture news startup ComiConverse, which is taking up some of my wordsing skills, and finishing the novel is taking the rest. I should hopefully be able to keep it up when we’re back in Melbourne, but it’s just a casual gig so it’ll only be as a supplement to whatever else I end up doing there. Still, it’s good work, and I’ve already got some great positive feedback from it.

The rep from the moving company came to take a look at our things on Monday. It looks like we should be able to bring back all our stuff within our 3m3 limit. We were well under the limit for the trip over here, nearly three years ago, but in that time we’ve accumulated rather a lot of books and clothes, a couple of musical instruments, and a few pieces of furniture that all need to be shipped back to Melbourne. Packing for a holiday is stressful enough; I’m not looking forward to literally packing up and shipping off our entire lives here. At least we’ll only have to live out of our suitcases for a couple of days.

I am looking forward to coming home. Melbourne and Australia seem to be in better shape than we left them, all things considered. While I might disagree with many of his government’s policies, our Prime Minister is no longer a complete international embarrassment. (Although it appears Tony Abbott is still doing his best to do that job.) Our state government seems to be much more competent than the last one. More fundamentally, though, I miss Australian food — and good coffee.* I miss our friends and family, and our cats. For that matter I miss having regular work — everything I’ve done here has been more or less ad-hoc, with hours varying from week to week.

I also miss being at homewherever home is — for the vast majority of the year. As I write this, I’m sitting on a four-hour express train to Beijing, where we’re based this week. For the last three years we’ve spent 37 weeks of the year in Nanjing, and of that time we spend 14 work-weeks (Tuesday to Friday) in Shanghai and Beijing. We’ve made a few friends in Shanghai but it’s still difficult.

All that said, though, I am definitely going to miss Nanjing. We’ve made some great friends here, and while we’ll definitely stay in touch after we leave I know we’ll miss them terribly. I really appreciate the fact that between the ubiquity of public transport, the cheapness of taxis and the convenience of our electric scooter, we don’t need a car here to get by. Even though the place we bought in Melbourne last year is very conveniently located for public transport, we still expect we’ll need a car there. And we won’t even be moving in there straight away; our tenants’ lease runs out in September, and my parents have offered to take us in until then. That gives us some time to find our feet, and to find work if we haven’t already.

I’d also like to add a little reminder that I’m doing Movember next month — which will involve shaving off my beard for the first time in about eight years. I’ll be posting regular picture updates to my Mo Space (linked at left), Facebook, Tumblr, and here if I can get the hang of posting photos to WordPress. Please consider clicking through and making a donation. I’ll also post thanks to everyone who chips in, of course. In advance of the actual mo-growing, my mum Cathy has matched my starting donation, and we’ve also received some donations from the members of STC South Camberwell and North Balwyn Cricket Clubs — thanks fellas!

*There is one place in Nanjing that does proper Antipodean-style coffee: Motu, run by a Kiwi couple. It’s 14km away, on the far side of town. I’ve tracked down some places in Beijing and Shanghai that do it too: Barista Coffee near the Lama Temple in Beijing, Café del Volcan and Vinyl Ganesh in the French Concession in Shanghai. Beijing’s Bookworm, where I’m now finishing up this post, isn’t bad for coffee either, and has the added bonuses of being additionally a bar, restaurant, bookshop, lending library and performance space.

Cut off.

I have had my home Internet access cut off. (I’m uploading this from a café.)

You might be thinking, well, it was just a matter of time. The Chinese government is notorious for not liking what people do on the Internet, after all. I’m not exactly an activist here — I’m too busy complaining about things my own government back home is doing, and my most questionable activities involve using a VPN to access my Facebook and this blog — but still, automated processes and overzealous censors were bound to cut me off sooner or later.

You might be thinking that, but if you were, you’d be entirely wrong.

I haven’t been cut off by the Great Firewall. I’ve been cut off by my wife’s employer, with zero warning and even less consideration. So much for Internet access as a human right. (Not naming and shaming here, because although they can’t fire me, Jenny still loves her job here and we’re hoping to at least have the option of staying on after this year.)

We live on-campus here. We’re across the hall from some of the student dorms, and once or twice a week one of us has to poke our head out the door and remind them to keep down the noise. But our apartment is, for the time we’re here, our private home. Utilities are provided as part of Jenny’s contract. We’ve been here for two years, and in that time we’d been given no indication that our home usage had been impacting on the rest of the network. We had no reason to think it would, as there’s a router inside the apartment, and while it’s part of the same network as the classrooms three floors below, you wouldn’t think that traffic passing through a router up here would cause a bottleneck down there.

Until this week. I received a (very rude) email from the IT tech who’s here on his yearly visit, demanding I cease all network activity from my iMac. As that would mean cutting off our access to television (via iTunes and our Apple tv), I questioned as to why. On being informed of the aforementioned interference, I offered to use our own router (which we use while travelling, due to our regular hotel in Beijing not offering wi-fi) to set up our own network, and to arrange a segregated private connection to the apartment. In the meantime, I shut down a couple of background processes on the iMac that seemed to be using a bit of bandwidth.

I then received an email from the school’s CIO, informing me that due to our “excessive” use of the network, all my devices had been blocked from using it. Needless to say, I’m rather alarmed that this would be considered a first step and not a last resort. I’m also at a loss as to why our normal usage is suddenly a problem when it hasn’t changed appreciably since we arrived here two years ago — surely, if there had been a problem prior to this, we should have been told when it first arose.

In his eagerness to cut me off, he seems to have also blocked Jenny’s work laptop, which caused some major headaches for her at work yesterday morning. How I was now supposed to look for a service provider and arrange our private connection, or how he was supposed to be sure I would receive and be able to reply to his email, I’ve no idea. He’s changed his mind and decided to allow my phone to connect for one weekend, but I don’t see how that’s supposed to make things much better. Jenny is certain (as am I) that it’s a breach of her contract here, and she’s protesting accordingly.

And of course, it’s the Chinese New Year holiday, which means everything here is shut, so it will take a fair amount of time to get things organised. We’re informed it could take until at least next weekend for the telecom companies to even be open so we can go and start making arrangements. In the meanwhile, I can’t do research for my books, contact my friends back home, relax on my Tumblr, much less search for an ISP to rectify the issue, without either going out (in the rain) to one of the minority of Internet cafés that are open (thank goodness Starbucks are open) or chewing through my small (and expensive) phone allowance.

If an ordinary landlord did something like this, for any reason, the tenants’ union would have their guts for garters.

Back to the grindstone.

So I’m back in China for 2015. Happy new year, everyone — and xinnian kuaile for the upcoming Year of the Goat. I’m still coming down from the mad rush of seeing everyone over the Christmas break, but getting straight back into my writing seems to be helping with that. Jenny had to tell me off for writing at the weekend, which I had promised not to do.

I’m writing this post from Pause Café, in the university quarter of Nanjing — the only part of town, other than our apartment, where I’ve found there to be decent coffee. (In the spirit of fairness, the other places that do good coffee around here are Qianduoduo, Sculpting In Time and Brewsells, which also does the best breakfast fry-up I’ve yet had in China on Sundays.)

It seems the stereotype of writing in cafés actually makes a lot of sense. I get more words written, on average, on days I pop out for a coffee or two. It’s not a lack of Internet that makes the difference — all the cafés around here have free Wi-fi. In any case, for the sort of writing I’m doing, I need to be able to look up things like the distance from Winnipeg to Chicago, or when the sun sets in Kansas City in mid-April, to name two examples just from this morning. But something about the café environment is conducive to the way I work.

So the novel is continuing to go well. The non-fiction book is still with its editor, but I’m getting regular updates. I’ve got a fair bit of work to do regarding clarity, especially in the introduction, but there don’t seem to be any huge structural problems.

I may have made a bit of a mistake in coming out on the scooter today, though — it’s been snowing lightly since I got here. Not too bad for just walking in, but scooting home isn’t going to be much fun if it doesn’t let up.

In fact, it seems likely to just get heavier over the rest of the afternoon, so I’d probably better leave it there and head home while I can. Ciao for now!

One book down. (Or is it?)

The best way I have found to deal with writer’s block is to write something else. I began the planning process for Delusions of Grandeur, my still-in-progress novel, to give my mind a break from the thesis I was getting toward finishing in late 2012. In turn, when I was struggling to figure out the structure for the third act of Delusions (which is mostly now finished) earlier this year, I turned back to the thesis, which I had always intended to adapt for publication down the track.

And now it’s — I think — ready. Having spent years close to the material, though, I’m probably the worst judge of whether it makes sense as a text for non-academics, so I’m going to send it off to an editor friend for detailed feedback and suggestions before I try to sell it. Of course, my timing could not have been worse; the editor friend in question had her first child last week, so it may be some time before she’ll be able to have a look at it.

In the meantime, while the text is complete as it stands, I am considering adding a few more chapters to it. I basically had to lop off the last third of the project very early in the process in order to keep it to a manageable size for an MA. That didn’t mean removing a third of the text; that last third was never written, and much of the research I would have had to undertake for it was never done. But the things I have learned since then (including a number of things I’ve read as research for the novel) make me much more confident of my ability to undertake the project anew.

I could publish the text as it stands and write a sequel, or a much-expanded second edition; or I could put it aside to finish my original project and publish the whole thing in one go. Which of these ways to go will be one of the main questions I’ll be asking the editor. But there may be a book coming out soon after all, even if the novel won’t be finished until next year.

And in the midst of all this, I’ve been coming up with ideas for what to write when Delusions is finally finished. Stay tooned.