Author Archives: labbcla

The Taibbi Trilogy

Well not really a trilogy, but Griftopia, The Divide and Insane Clown President all riff on the same general theme of a corrupt American society, run by a cabal of robber barons at the expense of the poor. Once you read the first, it’s pretty easy to move on to the next.

Taibbi is our generation’s Hunter S. Thompson. Yes, lighter on the shock-value prose and drug addled stream of consciousness writing, but heavier on the political analysis. And in our the complex world of incomprehensible economic and legal jargon, he’s the Rolling Stone political writer we need. To his credit, Taibbi approaches the material with same requisite snarl and bite as Thompson once did. He’s angry and incredulous, blending in dark humour to lighten the subject matter.

Griftopia

 

With less of an over-arching theme than The Divide, Taibbi tells some free association stories about various grifts and cons that have gone on the in the American economic system over the past decade. In it, Taibbi also provides probably the greatest all-time explanation-for-novices of the crash of 2007 (even better than Michael Lewis). If you’ve ever wondered what a credit default swap is, Griftopia is the place to start.

Perhaps Taibbi’s best work is a chapter on former Chariman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, entitled The Biggest Asshole in the Universe. It chronicles the endless gaffs of a high-society-loving charlatan who was able to convince generations political elites that he was a financial Nostradamus. Taibbi argues that, as with most Friedmanites and Rand enthusiasts, Greenspan’s skill laid in pushing a tragically flawed philosophy, one that simultaneously exalts the pursuit of personal wealth while providing the ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ framework for a generation of thieves to convince themselves that they are doing what’s best for society. Taibbi destroys their methodology, point by point. It’s really something.

The Divide

The Divide juxtaposes the two courts of law in America: One for the rich and white and one for the poor and the minority. Taibbi exposes a society where a black man can be stopped, frisked, thrown in the back of a police car and given a court date, all for the crime of standing on the street, while a major bank can ‘illegally’ add five billion dollars off the top of a merger, while stiffing creditors and receiving no blowback, all through the power of their high-priced legal teams.

The Divide is a punch to the gut. It’s horrific, troubling, and illuminating. Easily my favourite of the three.

Insane Clown President

In his newest and most Thompson-esque work, Taibbi dispatches from the Trump campaign trail. It’s a collection of pieces cobbled together from his year writing for the Rolling Stone – much like HST’s famous books of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s hard not to compare Taibbi-Trump to HST-Nixon.

In the book, Taibbi details the fascist-like fervour of Trump’s rally’s, ultimately deciding that Trump is a fitting modern American President, A “human consumption machine with no attention span, no self-control, no beliefs and no hobbies outside of sex, spending, eating and talking about himself. Nixon at least played the piano and read the classics. He was an intellectual with a pig’s heart. Trump is just the pig part.”

Read it now, while it’s still topical, because hopefully time is running out on America’s most famous unhinged carnival-barker.

 

Nolan Kelly is a Library Tech student at Langara.

Gritting it out to reach your Peak

I read Anders Ericsson’s Peak a few months ago, so I’m cheating a bit here, but I loved it and thought I’d share. While, Angela Duckworth’s Grit feels like a sequel to Peak, insofar as it dovetails with the overarching theme of Peak’s thesis: how to become more successful at the things you love. Peak is the methodology for how to practice and achieve success; Grit is the explanation for why some of us achieve more than others, and the prescription for how to become an achiever.

Peak is a game changer if there ever was one.

You’ve likely heard of the 10,000 hour rule that postulates you need that many hours to become an expert in a given field. It was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell a few years back, you know, Gladwell does his is thing where he takes a complex idea, chops out the complicated parts and serves the juicy bits to the masses, as only he can.

Ericsson is the man behind the 10,000 hour rule’s science. His theory: that talent doesn’t exist. That it’s the word we give to hard work and practice.

Which, if you pause to reflect, is the most inspiring notion.

If Mozart had no natural born proclivity towards music and his ‘genius’ was simply the result of endless hours of practice at an early age; if Mario Lemieux’s skill on the ice was the result of countless hours of practice as a child in his basement; if John Irving’s penchant for story telling was built upon a lifetime sitting at a typewriter, it opens up a world of achievement that we assumed closed to us. Ericsson is not saying everyone can or will become Mozart, Lemieux, or Irving, but he is saying that if you work hard, through deliberate practice and expert coaching, you can get close, or perhaps closer than you dreamed possible.

Ericsson underpins his thesis by citing countless examples from his own research, including random test subjects who, with training, become memory experts, and a Hungarian family of chess masters whose intense workload dispels the notion that hi IQ plays any role in chess mastery.

Recently, I put Ericsson’s ideas to work in my own life. For the past six months I’ve been training for a triathlon, making constant improvements in running and biking, failing miserably at swimming. So miserably in fact that I hadn’t improved one bit since I’d started. Four laps and I was exhausted. I treated swimming like biking and running – a test of will and a slow build up of cardio – failing to realize that success in the water is all about technique, and acquiring perfect technique requires deliberate practice. I began by Identifying each key element of a stroke, analysing them and focusing on making them perfect. Within a week of studying strokes and focusing at the pool, I had gone from four laps in a row to 20. A 500% improvement, simply by following the steps laid out in Ericsson’s book. It was an epiphany for me, with far reaching implications for the rest of my life.

Now, you could make the case that I’m an idiot for not realizing this sooner and that practicing something properly isn’t exactly a ground-breaking idea. But when you further dive into the nuances of deliberate practice, it becomes clear that there’s a specific methodology behind it. Ericsson includes a detailed how-to guide that involves explanations on mental focus, mental maps and self-analysis. He’d argue that when most of us practice something, we are often just going through the motions and he offers ways to correct that.

So, if you finally want to master that Rachmaninov concerto, hit that driver farther or, finish that thesis faster, Peak is a great place to start.

Up next, Angela Duckworth’s Grit.

Nolan Kelly is a library tech student at Langara.

In Search of Lost Time

 

As part of a half-baked New Year’s resolution, I decided to read 5-10 pages of a classic novel every night before bed. The thinking, that drier works whose epic length might once have caused consternation, ultimately resulting in disinclination and lack of completion, could be boiled down to smaller, less intimidating bits.

I viewed the process as a lagniappe in the field of book-reading accomplishment, as though I could complete a behemoth on top of my regular reading list without even noticing (“Has it been 78 months already? That Gravity’s Rainbow just flew by!”).

It began in January, with the granddaddy of them all, Marcel Proust’s, In Search of Lost Time.

A breezy 4215 pages, but who’s counting?

Unfortunately, it’s been a harder than I thought to keep up with this resolution. For starters, Proust’s style –  heavy on minutia, light on plot – can be trying.

Sometimes, after a long day, I just can’t do eight pages of Proust waxing poetic about an ephemeral memory of a glimmering doorknob in his childhood bed chamber.

Sometimes, I can’t struggle through yet another endless digression, following young Marcel as he plots to have his mother come in and kiss him good night for a second time. Come on child Proust, get it together. Somebody buy that kid a football.

And, a more general and obvious difficultly I found when attempting and failing at this process before with War and Peace: over a long period of time it can be hard to keep track of everything at play. I’d forgotten about Mr. *****vich, whose last acquaintance I’d met some three months ago at a ballroom in *****berg, with six more *****stov’s and an *****ovna. Remembering becomes a war of attrition and the book always wins.

But overall, it’s been a rewarding gambit. Despite my previous criticisms, I couldn’t have chosen a better book to begin with.

For starters, Proust’s writing is masterful. The pacing, the rhythm. It’s languid and smooth and comforting. It’s literary hot chocolate, made with thick cream, drunk by candle light on a cold winter’s night.

And In Search of Lost Time’s profoundly peaceful nature has a calming effect before bed. Nothing much is happening, but that’s okay, because Proust somehow manages to turn simplicity into profundity. Take his famous Madeleine Passage. For Proust, dipping a madeleine in tea takes on religious significance.

As well it should.

The passage and the general theme of Proust’s writing has made me appreciate the Little Things more. Or at the very least, I’ve become more aware of trying to appreciate them. That mocha on a cold day, those chicken wings and beer. Far too often we gluttonously move from pleasure to pleasure without pausing to reflect on the simple joy found in a singular moment. The law of diminishing returns in a post-scarcity world can make appreciation a difficult endeavor and inflecting Proust is a way of challenging that.

These small moments make up the bulk of our lives, and we miss them because they’re old hat, or as Proust poetically summarized: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.”

It’s rare and wonderful when a book improves your life in some small way, even if it is trying at times and it takes nine years to read.

Nolan Kelly is a library tech student at Langara College.