Charlie Hebdo is a tragic loss for liberal France and the liberal world

Of all the misfortunes that befall our world, the most unsettling is the attack in Paris last week. It was not the most gruesome or most radical. Its hit count is insignificant compared to other tragedies. What is different in the Paris attacks is that Paris was a clear and direct attempt to squelch the liberal values the progressive world hold dear. That it happened in the birthplace of liberalism, in a city where many more people have died for similar reasons, aggravates the insult.

That the murderers were in the wrong is accepted universally. That the victims were right is less clear. Many discussions of Charlie Hebdo discuss the gray zone of freedom of speech. You cannot freely exhibit anti-Semitism so should not the same apply to Charlie’s cartoons of Islam. Free speech is a difficult topic to wrestle with; and not the right question to ask. The answer is much clearer – that Charlie Hebdo was not only in the right, but espoused all the values that create the liberal world we live in. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are a criticism of religions, notably Islam. Criticism is not hate; indeed it is often the prerequisite of improvement. To criticize the misogynistic aspects of Islam is not to say anything of its followers as criticizing U.S. foreign policy is not to imply Americans are bad people. Sometimes, especially in graphic representation, figureheads like Obama or the Prophet are used to represent an institution. But when Obama reads the Economist, he knows that he is not personally being made fun of by the Kal the cartoonist.

Criticism through humour is an integral part of the Western intellectual collective. And contrary to Pope Francis’s wisdom, nothing can be exempt from receiving criticism. Criticism is the democratic way by which citizens hold their friends, family, politicians, companies, governments, and yes, institutions, religious or otherwise, accountable. The method of criticism preferred by Charlie Hebdo is a crass and perhaps objectionable form, but nevertheless an integral part of French (and Western) culture. It is called satire, and the art form has existed at least since the playwrights of Ancient Greece.

It is through forms of criticism like satire that the French first led the world to liberal and democratic values. Pamphlets of similarly crass and indignant portraits of royalty were distributed in the wake of the French Revolution. It was a criticism of the Bourbons. Many probably died for their depictions. Much of the world owes its current liberal and democratic state to the same antics that were violently suppressed last week. There are two points that bother me the most. First, that such a righteous and ideological country, that in history and present, has been on the “right” side of most wars, that has produced the most cunning writers and philosophers, where the populous is so thoughtful that they turn melancholy, was so unfairly targeted by evil. It is unfair. Second, that there seems to be a question of whether Charlie Hebdo was “asking for it”. It is painful to make other people unhappy, but it must be done. Hopefully, you will agree that Charlie Hebdo is nothing short of a martyr.

There are and should be limits to free speech when they inspire hatred or violence. But free speech should not be limited just because it makes someone feel bad. There has been a recent uproar on a comedian who was arrested for being censored when he allegedly supported one of the murderers. That is not satire; it is bad taste. To support a murderer is clearly hatred to those who died; to publish Mohammed saying “100 lashes if you don't die of laughter!” is criticizing the brutalities of Sharia law. And that is an important difference.

Is Tinder Better? (A Brief History of Courtship Part II)

In the last article, I discussed how technology had a twofold effect of dehumanizing dating: it stratified society and tied 20-somethings to their blackberries. Finally, technology is having an opposite effect. It was nothing short of a revolution that would engulf the most pressing part of our post-undergraduate lives. Consider an app that tracks people that you could have met by GPS, and lets you chat with them if you can identify what he or she was wearing, or what he or she said in conversation. A correspondence would only initiate if both parties reach out. The chore of getting each other’s numbers will disappear. You have access to every person you meet, but only if he or she is on the same page. This was my idea of a dating app, and not half a year later, it would come out. It is called Happn. It is available in Toronto and in most major cities. In the industry of romance, there are apps for essentially every purpose imaginable.

The first evidence of this trend was when a nutty techie invented “Joysper” at Queen’s University, the epicentre of youthful gallivants (see http://randwalk.com/blog/2013/11/24/pick-your-poison-partying-culture-at-queens-university). Joysper (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAG5jxnaiRk) was the first Tinder, a novel way to meet people in the information age. Of course, online dating had already been prevalent, but was relegated to socially obtuse and desperate participants. Joysper made online dating cool by implementing a double-blind matching process that requires no explanation to readers of this blog-post. Tinder made the Joysper method ubiquitous by taking the concept mobile.

Thereafter, more apps followed, each with its unique attributes: Coffee Meets Bagel offers one match a day;  Happn connects you with people you’ve passed by; OkCupid is a widely used dating website-turned-app, Grindr is for gay men; Momo is for Asians; and so on. It is not unlikely for participants to be on many of these platforms since tiptoeing around is no formula for love. It is the initial acceptance of app-based dating that requires thought. The decision is uneasy and fraught with concerns; so it needs to be treated comprehensively. The following paragraphs try to offer a framework to consider app-based dating.

We must recognize the benefits of app-based dating. They are highly efficient at creating opportunities. Traditional online dating increases each participant’s reach. App-based dating have lowered the risk of each opportunity, and have helped participants focus on the most high-probability targets. The methodology is sound – Tinder is wildly popular. Success stories are plentiful. Importantly, Tinder is a diversified platform that offers participants different options: it is generally considered useful for most intentions.

The proliferation of Tinder and OkCupid have caused a stir. Controversies abound over vanity, racism, instant gratification, misrepresentation, self-validation. It’s enough to scare any potential user away. But these criticisms are hardly isolated to online dating. They can be applied to the human race in general. Yes, humans are intrinsically vain and racist. These are our god-given follies and society has done little to correct them. Yes, we no longer have segregated schools but intelligent people still tend to believe that dating preferences should not be subject to the same watchful eye of racism. So it is no surprise that on OkCupid, being black costs you almost a star on your rating (http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-dataclysm-by-christian-rudder-1412372499).  It seems highly arbitrary to carve out one whole branch of life, especially such an important one, and give it immunity from anti-racial feelings. A better policy is to simply admit that everyone is inherently racist and that we should all do our best to control it. An even more rampant human folly is to be overly vain. Unlike racism, which is cultural, being looksist is biological. Because it is engrained in our DNA, it is a more severe problem, a true injustice for which there is almost no defence other than the slow ticking of evolution. Like racism, we must admit our vain side and control it when possible. We should take some comfort in that these issues exist everywhere in the animal kingdom – and to a worse extent since animals lack the self-control humans do.

The question of Tinder is, therefore, not that they produce lookists and racist results, since that is produced in any interaction between humans. Rather, the question must be if they espouse greater racism or looksism. The answer is no. Seeing a photo of someone is sure to draw the same feelings of vanity and racism as meeting someone in real-life, unless the meeting was done blindfolded. In fact, Tinder at least provides some extra tidbits of detail when in another setting, the participants might just simply walk away. The age-old adage “love at first sight” is telling. Whether it is on an iPhone or across Alehouse, the first interaction is an image.

The most scathing criticisms can be mitigated but less apparent problems exist. There is no evidence of efficacy beyond ability to create relationships. The resultant Tinder couples have not been compared to control group couples on relevant metrics like quality, length and satisfaction. More problematic is the skew towards accepting more than rejecting: there is no cost of “swiping right” whereas the cost of “swiping left” is not knowing. This skew creates potentially insincere matches that can be unpleasant and a waste of time. Tinder can also be vulgar and even dangerous.  Morally, depending on your stance, it can be questioned for its contravention of Colossians 3, and the analogous chapter in other major moral codes.

Most of the concerns can be taken care of. Each individual can use it to his or her advantage, according to his or her goals, in adherence to his or her moral code. It can be used intensely or precisely. It is by no means mutually exclusive with other forms of courtship. Thus the question seems to have evolved from whether or not to use Tinder to how it should be used. The app appears capable of at least adding value at the margins, without excessive risks or costs. More likely, it will change human behaviour.  

A Brief History of Courtship: Part I

This is the first of a multi-part exploration of dating in the modern world. It will try to show that the process has changed from the not-so-distant past and explain why this is happening. It will then try to see where new technologies (e.g. Tinder) play in the grand history (in a future part).

For all mathematical abstraction presented in the biographical “A Theory of Everything,” it is not Stephen Hawking’s ideas in theoretical physics that are the most eye-opening but rather his tumultuous personal life. The most heartwarming scenes have Mr. Hawking, with a looming, childish gaze, fixated on the women of his life (or, in their absence, a Penthouse magazine). The serendipitous meeting between Mr. Hawking and his future wife at Cambridge is particularly touching. It seemed like in one deciding gaze, an intractable equality was solved.

This is not the first film about romance afforded to an afflicted genius. In 2002, A Beautiful Mind won best picture for a film about the schizophrenic father of modern game theory. It’s a testament to the curiosity of the general movie-goer for a glimpse into the mind of genius. Although the actual theories and propositions are inaccessible to the viewer, their love lives are.

To the credit of the film, it portrays Jane, Stephen’s first wife, as a heroic figure, dealing without complaint with all the tribulations of having a vegetable husband. Her confidence first shows when after a delirious night of conversation she hands Stephen a napkin with her phone number scribbled inside. He later invites her to a ball, when he adamantly admits his disdain for dancing. Then in a moment of clarity, his degeneration already apparent, they awkwardly embrace and dance a most dashing dance. It was as though, for a fraction of a second, time had stopped. Or as Hawking would put it, they were sucked into a black hole.

I will not pretend to be an expert in sociology, and my own reference of old-world courtship is through the shows and films I watch. This medium will no doubt introduce bias. But shall we begin by noting this exchange between Hawking and Jane occurred in a place not too far from ours in a time not too long ago, between people not too different than ourselves. The past may always seem better than the present, but in this case, is the past not decidedly more civilized, more romantic, more dignified than today. These two participants were university students, like you and I were a few months ago, and met with some liquid enablers in hand as we always do, in places where they could actually hear each other talk. When needed, they could easily find refuge leagues away from anyone else.

It is almost inexplicable how there can be such a divergence in courting practices over the last 30 years. Yes, since then Hawking has published on black hole radiation, computers have been invented and bankers have become the new celebrities (or villains). That would explain the outgrowth of tinder couples, but not the massive turn to the sensory deprivation method of our time. It seems that the objective now is to warp, mask, or disregard reality in an effort to create the largest possible sample size.

Should we note that in the aftermath of WWI, the Brits were sensibly turned to a romanticized form of courtship unseen by aristocrats in the prior period. Faces turned when the widowed Mary Crawley, tested the waters with a potential suitor in Liverpool. Courting in British aristocratic circles is characterized by a clear and weighty forward momentum. Both sides are decidedly honest and straightforward with their intentions. An effort is made to play out the possibility. The basic premise seems to hold from Hawking to time immemorial. At some point between Hawking and the present, the focus turned from getting to know as much about someone to trying to know was little about the other person as possible. It's a phenomenon that seems to have no rational explanation, though admittedly these processes are hardly rational.

The reason for these aberrations, I believe, is the change in the amount of free time we have. Technology has intruded into every part of our lives, giving us unbelievable access to information, and keeps us wired at all times.  Wealth has concentrated in a small group of people who can complement technology; all others are losing share. The implications for courtship is twofold: people in the small group will find fewer compatible mates – this is exacerbated by the limited amount of time afforded to each participant. Thus the result is an effort to maximize n.

It is encouraging, however, to find that technology is having an opposite effect to the recent phenomenon. It can be argued that new methods of meeting others, like Tinder, are a direct response to the messy way that is prevalent today. At the very least, participants on Tinder can be briefed on the candidate and proceed to chat with them. It follows a systematic rigour found earlier; it gives participants control. It focuses on getting to know one another first (though that is not always the case).

 ...to be continued.

 

The Real World: Stories of Transition

My ever so eminent English teacher from high school would deride the term “real world”, as previous editor of The Queen’s Business Review would strike out the word “real” for its redundancy in most applications. Perhaps this is one time when my English teacher got it wrong. I have been in the “real world” for precisely two and a half months. It has been a thoroughly difficult transition. I wrote recently that in school, there was always an obvious goal and finale. When such goals are met, there are no opportunity costs of enjoying oneself. There is an obvious delineation between work and play (the so called, “work-hard, play-hard” mentality). 

This weekend, I relived the undergraduate experience through my informal participation in QFAC. I was inspired by the many youthful souls still living in the unreal world, struggling with the issues that I seem to have conquered. But they all had the brightest faces and most optimistic outlook for the future. Of the four nights I have participated in the nightlife in Toronto, three was this weekend. Needless to say, after reliving university life on the first night, I was hooked to return. Not to say that university culture was the only real experience of the weekend. The other was learning the metaphor of a certain serpent in a Nicki Minaj music video. 

I have not written in this blog for a while. Now I must use the therapeutic nature of writing once again to navigate through these difficult waters. I first wrote here on my bike ride to Kingston, when I felt as though I had lost all trust I had in the world. Change is both a blessing and a curse, though it is usually a curse at the start. So we shall begin with the greatest change of all.

I deeply love my job and my work. It, and perhaps wine, have been the only refuge from the difficult transition into the “real” world. I find that I am talking to, eating with, and confiding in, on the most part, people from my work. They are an impressive group that I am proud to be identified with. But, last Tuesday, the “honeymoon” ended. I was happily finished my work Monday and took a nap before writing up some notes for a presentation. I set my alarm for 6:45, a good 45 minutes prior to the start of the meeting. I went to bed with a couple of hours to sleep. When I woke up on my own accord to find the sun shining brightly, I panicked. I reached for my phone – it said 8:00. I quickly rode to work, thinking of all the excuses I would use in my defense. Of course I would use none of them. When asked (and no one did), I would tell the truth. I had gotten a wisdom tooth removed recently and I was to take an anti-biotic every eight hours. One of these, I decided, I would take at 10am every day. But my fear was that I would have a meeting at work at 10am and have an alarm go off in the middle of it. So out of concern for work, I set the 10am alarm to silent (and left the 6pm and 2am alarm to sound). Well somehow, the way iPhones work is a new alarm will take all the settings of the previous one. I often always used old alarms, but yesterday I created one for 6:45. It was a silent alarm. It was my fault, but I certainly did not mean for it to happen. And I probably could not have prevented it from happening, except by setting a few alarms (I plan to set ~3 from now on). This is one of those poisson-like events that happen rarely but it will happen with a certain probability. I have this difficult feeling that I have lost any reputation I might have earned. I feel like I just turned back the clock. I have always been afraid of disappointing people and the one fear I have is to disappoint the people I work with. And that has been the single largest goal I have had in my new life. 

The other main change that I have struggled with is my business. I cannot go into details about it but it has been difficult dealing with it. And finally, there is one large part of my life that I have not mentioned. The elephant in the room, so it is called. But that requires a fuller treatment than there is room in this article. But there will be many more posts on that topic.  

tbc...

Videos from my old life

Now that a new life is beginning, here are some videos that mark my childhood. If you were a part of any of these, thank you for making a fool out of yourself for the greater good.