Listening in — a short review of “Between the World and Me”

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When I think of my long struggle to “try and be a writer”, my confidence is shattered upon reading such a poetic, insightful, heartfelt piece as this. This is writing — the naked intimacy of it. Even if I cannot fully grasp the primordial fear documented in this book, Coates’s excellent writing gives me a peek into a world I cannot — by definition of my class and race — ever truly know.

I cannot know the fear, but I can understand it. And it can move me.

The message of this book will certainly have different effects on each reader. Had I read this in my younger years, I might have had more difficulty in understanding. But after a decade and a half of being married to — and properly educated by — a feminist, living every day in an immigrant family, and being a father to two multiracial girls, I have a much better sense of how those who think of themselves as white are so blind to the system that their ancestors put in place, and that they propagate every day at work, at school, at the supermarket, on the bus, and in their homes. Ever since returning to Canada five years ago, I have struggled with my own whiteness, struggled with the strained politeness of a country that is multicultural by policy yet not by practice, keenly aware of that sickly sweet, maple-scented smugness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has touched me with this book, likely in an unexpected way. I do not know if this book will touch you in quite the same way, but it is a powerful and beautifully written message that we should all heed and consider, and hopefully some day act upon.

C.R.E.A.M.

The War on Cash is an informative piece about the battle against the cashless society. I have been cash-only for a few years, mainly for two reasons: protecting my personal information and financial discipline.

In the old days, a transaction would involve two parties: a merchant and a customer. Nowadays, barely a transaction is processed where a third, invisible party benefits — and more than by simply providing a convenient transaction process. I became more sensitive to protecting my information leading up to and in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Having worked in the online ads industry for the last three years (today is my final day, in fact), I have become even more aware of all the tracking, repackaging and reselling of personal data that goes on. Therefore, I choose to opt out of the personal information industrial complex that powers so much of our world today. 

In 2010 I quit Facebook. In my browser I use prophylactic extensions like Privacy Badger. I use services that protect me and opt out of information-sharing and activity tracking wherever possible. I delete cookies.

In the real world, your credit card is your cookies.

I stopped using credit cards and refuse networked loyalty points cards. I even switched cellphone providers, once I learned how my old one was tracking me.

It is nearly impossible to live completely cash-only in this world. A few years ago reporter Janet Vertesi tried to hide her pregnancy from the “big data dragnet” and found out how difficult opting out really is.

Mine is not a perfect system, but I do what I can.

“Cash-centric” is probably a better descriptor, since I use non-cash options sometimes. Large payments (eg. rent) I pay through online debit. Online shopping can be done with anonymous, rechargeable credit cards. And sometimes I want the card companies to become aware of the services I buy or subscribe to. I want them to be aware of a specific customer segment, and I use my credit card to pay for those items. For example, every month I let Visa and all its data-sharing marketing and consumer intelligence partners know about Ogo Carshare Co-op. If they are market other co-ops to me or people like me… victory?

Productivity hack: Use notes to keep track of things

The second reason I went cash-only is related to our downsizing journey, and our attempt at financial freedom by ridding ourselves of debt. Not using credit cards is the first step, and you will find no budgeting tool works as well as a limited supply of cash in your wallet. Each payday I take out a specific budgeted amount of cash from the bank, turn most of it over to my wife to run the household with, and am left over with a very limited amount which much last me to the next payday. The scarcity is corporeal. Every time I open my wallet, I know how I am doing in regards to my budget.

It is actually a very Japanese thing to do. I remember being in Japan in the late nineties and early oughts, and agreeing with all the neoliberal riducule of Japan’s cash-centric society as being backwards and inefficient. Now I understand the value in such a system, and have adopted it here in Canada. Just like not having a Facebook account, always using cash confuses people, but it sparks some meaningful conversations.

These are the main reasons for my choice to be cash-centric. I have not touched at all upon the impact of a cashless society on minority communities and the poor, and all the other reasons to continue carrying cash until the morally right solution comes along. To learn more about these issues, there is no better place to start than the article: The War on Cash.

Clausewitz Roundtable released as book

Many years ago I participated in an inter-blog (and very detailed!) discussion of the military classic On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The proceedings of that endeavour have been collated into 553 page book, released this week by Ever Victorious Press.

I submitted three chapters under my alias at the time “Sir Francis Younghusband.” My bio from that time was appropriately ridiculous:

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If you are very interested in CvC, you can get the book from all the usual places. Below are the links to my minor contributions:

My thanks to Michael Lotus and Mark Safranski for their work.

More people than bots?

In 1975, BusinessWeek magazine imagined the rise of the paperless office as computer use became more widespread. Of course, over the following two decades, consumption of paper doubled. A couple more decades on, we are finally seeing year-on-year decreases in office paper use, at least in North America and Europe.

One recent tech fascination is bots. Retailers are especially interested in bots which will allow consumers to ask unstructured questions about products and help them order pizza or whatever. Bots may be the latest advance in customer service automation, but, they aren’t quite up to scratch. There are still plenty of limits to overcome with machine-learning and natural language processing. It will not likely take four decades like the paperless office, but automated sales bots are still a ways off. In the meantime, what is likely to happen? To put it another way, how will the “paper double”?

Continue reading “More people than bots?”

Minimalist wall-hangings

People who think I am a downsizing/minimalist fundamentalist, are surprised when they come into my livingroom and see a number of wall hangings. We don’t have many, but almost all of them are handpainted art (like the family portrait featured in this post). They are all gifts, and have a personal touch.

For example, the piece in the photo above was made for me by a calligrapher I met near Babolsar in northern Iran, on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It is the opening line from an Omar Khayyam poem, that translates into English as “Arise o gracious treasure!” I originally hung it up over my bed.

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The artist, Farhangi, was knowledgeable about Japanese calligraphy, and wanted to show me how it was done without a brush. He wrote this out, signed it and gave it to me, joking about its potential worth. I put in a camel bone frame bought at a bazaar in Tehran and have had it hanging in every home I have lived in since receiving it in 2004. It is an important token to me, a good story-piece for when people come over, and the poem is pretty good too!

If I really wanted to, I guess I could get rid of it… . But it costs nothing to own, either in terms of space or environmental impact, and it spruces up the place a bit, making our living space interesting without any clutter. Besides this piece, we have our family portrait, a Japanese calligraphy piece, a painting of the Seven Lucky Gods, and this piece by a local artist and friend of my wife. None are mass produced, or kitschy, so I do not feel they impinge on our downsizing lifestyle, though admittedly they will have to go if we ever transition to a tiny house.