The Reasons for Trump

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are (i) intelligent, (ii) well-educated and (iii) bemused by what’s going with Donald Trump. If you’re at all into US politics, you have probably seen this video of John Oliver demolishing Trump. It sure feels good to ridicule this outrageous and dangerous public figure. One can also derive some righteous anger from blasting Trump’s supporters for their hypocrisy and short-sightedness.

I can’t help but think that these feelings—superiority, self-righteousness, smugness, and yes, schadenfreude—are just empty calories. The Trump phenomenon is real. Nobody took him seriously, and now he’s on the verge of becoming the Republican candidate for President of the United States. His supporters (albeit only 40-45% of Republican voters so far) are real people, with real grievances.

I think 2016 is a genuine turning point in US history, with monumental implications for at least one side of politics. Instead of ridiculing or dismissing Trump and his supporters, we need to understand what’s going on.

Below are some articles I’ve encountered over the last couple of months that shed light on the Trump phenomenon. Some of them made me feel uncomfortable. I hope you will be able to bear with some discomfort as well—if you’re a liberal reading about a conservative perspective; if you’re an atheist/agnostic reading about a Christian perspective; if you have a pro-immigration stance reading about anti-immigration sentiments; if you have grown up in prosperous, metropolitan environments reading about life on the ground in struggling towns and communities hollowed out by globalisation and outsourcing.

If you have the time, please take a look.

On the favourable environment created by broad changes in media and technology

On the failure of the elites

Among the angry, the voiceless, the dying

Personal testimonies

  • A life-long Republican and conservative writes an open letter explaining why he no longer considers himself part of the conservative movement, as the Trump phenomenon exposes the movement’s past failures and present delusions
  • A Christian author and preacher makes the bad, awful, no good, terrible confession that he likes Trump—Trump is not honest, but he is honest about who he is, and he effectively channels something:

    [T]he rage and desperation of a people who know they don’t matter anymore. Whose lives and wellbeing have become a blight, an embarrassment, who are now disposable. Yes, they have may been a privileged people once, knowing the order of the world arising from the great struggles of the first half of the 20th century was arranged for them, and may be struggling for privilege again, but they also know politics has told them — economically and socially — “lie down and die.” That they are white, and crude, and prone to brutality and violence, frequently not very compassionate or empathetic, all-too-often confused by the world, and that their religion is simplistic and mostly idolatrous, all that makes it hard to sympathize with them. (I find it hard.) But you leave people behind at your peril. You can tell them to “lie down and die,” and some will. But many won’t.


A lot of people in America are hurting right now. And rightfully so. Conventional politics have left them—more tax cuts for the rich on the one side, demonisation and dismissal as bigots on the other, and a consensus on more globalisation that, however great it is for humanity in the aggregate, makes their lives objectively worse. In their rage and desperation, they turned to a dangerous figure in Trump.

Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.



Crony Capitalism, N+1 Edition

A couple of years ago I read a book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild called the Outsourced Self. The book is an account of Hochschild’s investigation into how the logic of the market—commodification, efficiency, promotion—was creeping into more and more intimate parts of our lives. While I consider some of what she encountered to be problematic but probably a net-positive overall (e.g., online dating, nannies and helpers), there are other things that are genuinely disturbing (e.g., “household consultants”, commercial surrogacy).

Today, I encountered two examples of capitalism encroaching into spheres where it probably shouldn’t, with horrible results for society (and great results for the enriched few).

First, conservative outcast David Frum examined the state of super PACs—organisations that have been blessed by the US Supreme Court to raise (mostly from a few rich donors) and spend vast amounts of money on political campaigns. Frum focused on Jeb Bush’s doomed campaign, whose super PAC astoundingly raised over $100 million. The result was bad enough (and perhaps provides a hopeful counterexample to the notion that money buys political success). However, what’s really fascinating is Frum’s account of those who benefited most—the consultants who feasted off the bonanza while accomplishing nothing for the hapless Bush.

Second, defence attorney Greg Toucette fired off a tweet-storm about defending a young black man (YBM) from a reckless driving charge, and the photo that saved his client from the blatantly false allegation made by the police officer. It was an illustrative example of the horrendously broken criminal justice system in the US. One of the underlying causes: local governments straining under the economic damage inflicted by crony capitalism of the recent past and perversely using the criminal justice system as a revenue source, thereby immiserating thousands (millions?) of mostly young, mostly poor, mostly non-white people.

Sad, but true.

Six Months with the Apple Watch

Last year, my cousin gave me an Apple Watch (Sport, Space Grey, 42mm) as a belated wedding gift. I’ve worn it for about 6 months now and… I like it. I’m not a watch person, and yet the Apple Watch has comfortably found a place on my wrist (and in my life).

Below are some thoughts based on my experiences with the Watch. I thought the best way to capture my feelings about the various aspects of the Watch is to use emoji.

(NB: For the TL;DR version, scroll down to the Bottom Line)


Hardware – 😄

Apple Watch looks and feels nice. After the initial strangeness of having something over my naked wrist, wearing it has become completely normal.

The anodised aluminium case is very durable. There’s not a single scratch, although there is a small chip from the time I bumped my wrist into the door frame a few days into owning the watch. Oops. If I look really closely, I can see a couple of hairline scratches on the Ion-X glass surface. Perhaps this is where the sapphire screen of the non-Sport versions has an upper hand.

I love that the bands are customisable. In addition to the black sport band, I also have the blue leather loop for more formal occasions and an orange sport band for when I want something more colourful. I feel good when I am wearing the Watch.

Watch faces

Interestingly, the different Watch sizes (42mm and 38mm) are compatible with each others’ bands. My wife has a 38mm Watch and I’ve used her white sport band a couple of times. It’s a little narrower but it’s impossible to tell the difference unless you’re looking at it closely. Unfortunately, she’s not able to wear my 42mm bands since they are just wide enough so that the edges of the lugs stick out from the body.

The battery life is very impressive. Unless I’m using the Watch for multiple Workout sessions or long stretches of turn-by-turn Maps directions, I easily get two days’ use out of it.

Software – 😐

Apple Watch is clearly a first-generation product. A theme that I keep coming back to is that the Watch is slow. Launching apps typically takes several seconds, if they open at all. Navigation is solid (but not smooth like on the iPhone), with some stutters here and there. The Watch will occasionally freeze or crash.

User interface – 🙂

In my experience, the user interface is not too complex once you get the hang of it. From the Watch screen, you swipe down to see missed notifications and swipe up for Glances. Glances are discrete ‘cards’ that you navigate by swiping left and right. Some Glances display information (e.g., Activity, Battery, Calendar), while others are immediately actionable (e.g., playback control in Now Playing, toggle Airplane Mode in Settings). I’ve found Now Playing especially to be quite useful.

Where things go awry is when you press the digital crown to go to the app (home?) screen. The app screen feels overwrought. The mass of tiny circles is confusing and difficult to manage. Fortunately it is customisable, and I’ve arranged it so that I can make geographical sense of where things are (h/t to Casey Liss):

FullSizeRender 18

The reality is I hardly ever go to this screen—mostly to launch the Workouts app, and occasionally for a third party app (see below). It feels like Apple just ported the iOS paradigm of app tiles onto the Watch, and the lack of fit really shows.

Tentpole features

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the Watch, he outlined three “tentpole” features:

  • Timekeeping
  • Communication
  • Health and fitness


I think the Watch does a decent-to-great job on each of these.

Telling time – 😊

As someone who didn’t wear watches before, having the time on my wrist is obviously great. Do I care if the Watch keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard, as per Apple marketing? Not really.

The Watch screen is normally off to preserve battery life, and typically I tilt my wrist slightly to turn it on. Occasionally the sensor doesn’t register and I have to overtly raise my wrist or tap the watch to turn the screen on. This is annoying when I have to do it in the middle of a conversation, or when I’m holding a bag of groceries in my left hand.

I love the customisation of the Watch face, which allows me to match it with what I’m doing or what I feel like on a particular day.

  • When I’m going to university, I tend to use the Modular face to see what classes I have coming up and where they are. I can also change the colour to match what I’m wearing.
  • For work, I usually go with the Utility face. Both the Modular and Utility faces display my activity, the weather/temperature and sunset time as complications.
  • For weekends or when I’m just chilling out, I use either the Motion (Jellyfish) or Time Lapse (Hong Kong) face.


When I’m feeling a little pretentious I’ll use the Simple face with minimal detail. It’s not very practical but looks nice with the all-black setup.

Communications – 🙂

Apple Watch has been a useful, but not indispensable, addition to my life in this regard:

  • Notifications – Receiving messages on my wrist is fast and almost frictionless. For me, most of the time this is a first-world luxury. The Watch gives me haptic feedback that feels like gentle taps. The feedback is really nifty. It varies depending on the type of notification—iMessage, Whatsapp message, Reminder, phone call, etc. I love that my phone now remains inert; no vibrations, no screen lighting up.
  • Digital Touch – This is a feature that allows me to send taps, drawings and my heartbeat to other Apple Watch wearers. My wife and I do this from time to time. It’s cute and can be delightful, but neither of us do it on a regular basis.
  • Phone calls – The Watch is great for making or receiving calls in a pinch, like at home when the phone is sitting somewhere else. This is a cool and underrated feature.
  • Messaging – It is convenient when I do it, which is not very often. I don’t ever think of using Apple’s creepy default emoji.


Health and fitness – 😄

This is one area in which the Watch really delivers. The Workout app is great. It tracks all the activities that I need: outdoor running/walking, indoor/outdoor cycling, rower and elliptical. During the workout session, the Watch provides a series of metrics that you can swipe through. For me the key metric is heart rate, which it apparently tracks quite well.

Another thing the Watch does well is the gamification of health. It tracks daily Move (pre-determined calorie/KJ target), Exercise (30 min above a certain heart and movement rate) and Stand (at least one minute per hour, for 12 hours) goals. The Watch rewards you with badges for completing various achievements—e.g., Perfect Week (complete all three rings every day for a week) and Perfect Month (reach the Move goal every day for one month). Both my wife and I suckers for this kind of stuff. We have done post-work strolls around the block to reach the Move target and even gratuitous jumping jacks to get that last minute of Exercise. Yes, the Watch is controlling us.


The Watch has had a subtle yet meaningful impact on my health and fitness. It nudges me to move more. It encourages me to pump my legs just a bit harder during workouts. It facilitates a more intentional and healthier lifestyle—right now I’m keeping a spreadsheet to record my weight/diet/exercise, and the Activity companion app on the phone is a valuable reference source.

Other notable features

Maps – 😊/😓

Maps has been hit and miss. I will typically enter in the destination and start the navigation on my phone, which activates it on the Watch. Siri is unreliable transcribing exact addresses, so when I do use her I will just say the suburb name (normally going home from somewhere).

Most of the time the turn-by-turn directions are fine, although every now and then it lags just enough that I will miss a turn. I’m right on the edge of being able to trust Maps, but it keeps giving me little reasons not to.

When the Watch is having a good day, bringing up walking directions and a map of the surrounding area on my wrist feels wonderful.

Siri – 😄/😡

The story is the same here. When Siri works (I’d say a bare majority of the time), it’s really cool. Some of the stuff that I use her for include:

  • References (“define soporific”, “who is Andy Murray’s brother?”)
  • Reminders (“remind me to water the orchid at 6pm”)
  • Timers (“set timer for 3 minutes”)
  • Music (“play 1989 album”, “shuffle the chill playlist”)

However, Siri fails enough that it is frustrating and prevents me from developing a habit of using her.

Apple Pay – 😍

Apple Pay is awesome. When you would normally tap the payment terminal with a credit card, you can double click the side button and present your Watch instead. Using it feels like I’m truly in the future. Plus, unlike most Watch features this one is highly reliable!


Apple Pay has been really useful for my wife. She can go on a run and pick up groceries on the way home, or duck out of work to get something from the supermarket next door—all without having to grab her bag or wallet.

Luckily we have an American Express card that supports Apple Pay. The Australian banks have refused to play ball, preferring to develop their own mobile solutions. I hope they will capitulate soon, after losing customers and losing transactions due to their intransigence.

I think the future potential for the Watch to interface with the physical world is huge. Whether it’s via NFC, QR code or something else, the Watch can be instrumental in convenient and low-friction interactions at airports, concerts, sporting events, theme parks, hotels, and more.

Third party apps – 😐

I have hardly installed any third party apps—the app screen is cluttered as it is, and the user experience is plain bad. Apps are only likely to load when I tap on them. When I do tap on an app, it will always take several seconds or more to load. Taking out my phone and doing whatever it is that I wanted to do on the Watch is probably the better option most of the time.


Third party apps that I keep on the Watch:

  • Instapaper – For when I want to listen to saved articles while driving
  • Overcast – For when I want to change podcast episodes while driving
  • Tripview – Getting the time for the next available train between pre-determined places
  • 2Do – A more powerful kind of Reminder, I have it mostly just to receive notifications
  • LIFX – Turn the smart bulb in my bedroom on and off. Feels gimmicky rather than useful. Before bed I will take my Watch off and put it on charge… and then I want to switch off the light.

Bottom line

Here’s how I would summarise what the Watch does for me.

Things I do a lot + feels natural (short interactions):

  • Proactive – quick look at Watch face for the time or a complication (e.g., temperature, activity, next appointment)
  • Reactive – quick look at a notification after the Watch taps me

Things I do sometimes + feels natural (overt interactions):

  • Swiping down to see missed notification(s)
  • Swiping up and side-to-side to look at Glances (mostly Battery, Now Playing and Activity rings)
  • Going to the app screen and launching the Workout app
  • Activating Apple Pay
  • Sending a Digital Touch
  • Changing my Watch face

Things I do infrequently + still feels like extra work:

  • Using Siri to do anything
  • Sending messages

Things I forget that I can do, but am pleasantly surprised when I realise I can do them:

  • Using the stopwatch directly on the Chronograph face (rather than launching the separate app)
  • Making and receiving phone calls
  • Taking a photo on the phone with Remote
  • Pinging the phone when I can’t find it
  • Looking at the position of the planets on the Astronomy face

Things I pretty much never do:

  • Going to and navigating the app screen for a non-Workout reason

The Apple Watch is useful, delightful, frustrating, flawed. Currently I am only getting out of the Watch only a subset of what it is capable of (which, to be fair, is still quite a lot more than a traditional watch).

Part of it is technical. The Watch needs to be faster, more responsive, less buggy, all that good stuff. That’s (relatively) easy to fix. Part of it is more fundamental. The app screen paradigm is very awkward. I haven’t found any other compelling use cases yet, which is disappointing compared to the robust iOS app ecosystem.

Despite these limitations, I think the Watch is a compelling product with a bright future. To paraphrase Jony Ive, this is just the beginning of the era of personal wearable technology.

Favourite Things of 2015

For my last post of 2015, I thought I’d summarise my favourite things of this year. In no particular order:

Movie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie that many people have been eagerly anticipating. I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. If you go searching for them, you will find plenty of flaws with the movie’s plot, execution, its derivative nature, and so forth. However, you would also be missing the point. J.J. Abrams’ reboot packs a whole lot of pathos. It filled me with wonder. It made me feel. It was space operatic escapism at its best.

TV Show – Damages

I’m not a big TV-watcher, so this one basically wins by default. However, having recently binged on Season 1 with my wife, I think Damages deserves acclaim as a compelling legal thriller. The show follows the story of recent law graduate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), who must navigate tricky legal, professional and personal waters as an associate at the law firm of Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). The characters are multidimensional and the plot twists relentlessly. As a former student of law I found the issues explored here—especially the nature of trust, ethical boundaries and what makes for an effective lawyer—to be engrossing, even if somewhat heavy-handed at times.

Album – 1989

Taylor Swift hooked me in with Shake It Off and I had to listen to the whole thing. I am extremely impressed with this album. Every song holds up on its own, even if it took a while for some of them to grow on me. 1989 makes me happy, and I’ve gone back to it again and again without any diminishment in joy.

Show – 1989 World Tour

Swift is the best entertainer in the world right now. It was a privilege to take part in the live spectacle.


Book – Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walter Disney Animation Studios, wrote Creativity, Inc. to distill his experience on how to develop, nurture and sustain an organisation that produces top-notch creative work. As someone who is interested in the power of culture and psychology, this was a fascinating read.

Catmull has written an engaging and informative book on, as he put it, the noble endeavour of managing people. It also contains neat stories of how various Pixar films came to be, and also Catmull’s dealings with the irrepressible Steve Jobs.

Article – Unsustainable Liberalism

This article by Patrick J. Deneen was written in 2012 but I came across it recently. It is a long but worthwhile read on the contradictions of liberalism and how its unfettered growth leads to illiberalism. What I found most interesting is the idea that the contemporary Left and Right are both species of liberalism and are problematic in their own ways.

The Left wishes to carve out ever-more personal freedoms under the rubric of “if it doesn’t hurt anyone it should be permissible”, and using the power of the state to enforce them. The Right, as Deneen puts it, “embraces a market orthodoxy that places the choosing, autonomous individual at the center of its economic theory”, and seeks to expand the reach of the free-market in all human spheres. The result?

Both the left and the right effectively enact a pincer movement in which local associations and groups are engulfed by an expanding state and by the market, each moving toward singularity in each realm: one state and one market.

[The right] seeks to promote family values but denies that the market undermines many of the values that undergird family life. The left commends sexual liberation as the best avenue to achieve individual autonomy, while nonsensically condemning the immorality of a marketplace in which sex is the best sales pitch. The encompassing Leviathan daily attains more reality.

Fascinating stuff, and I hope to write more on this in the future.

App – Instapaper

I browse Twitter and the web daily to look for interesting stuff to read. Instapaper is invaluable in collecting them, synced across my devices and the browser, for later offline consumption. When my eyes could use a rest, there is also an option to speak the text. Neat.

Scientific Event – New Horizons Flyby of Pluto

On January 16, 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe on a mission to Pluto. After nine and a half years zipping through cold space, New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, forever transforming our image of the dwarf planet from a pixelated blob to breathtaking high resolution pictures. As with any good scientific endeavour, the data sent back so far raises as many questions as it answers about our understanding of this icy body.

Place – Château de Chenonceau

In the Loire Valley, on my honeymoon. A château over the water, surrounded by immaculate gardens. Magnificent.


Among the 76,000

I promise this will be the last post on Taylor Swift for a while. Last Saturday I saw her perform at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, the first Australian stop on her 1989 World Tour. It was a fantastic show. As someone who likes to observe things, I want to share my thoughts on the concert here.


After kicking things off with a glamorous rendition of Welcome to New York, Swift addressed the crowd with a simple “Hi, I’m Taylor”, accompanied by a beaming smile. Calculated? Certainly. Effective? For sure. The charm factor was off the charts.

Throughout the show Swift would get the crowd involved. Sometimes it would involve action—echoes, sing-alongs, arms in the air. Other times it was rhetorical, imploring us to come on a music journey with her. She took the time to say what a great audience it was, and to express her appreciation for making her album a success and for being present that night.

All photos taken with iPhone 5S.

All photos taken with the iPhone 5S.

Swift was real with the crowd. Here’s what she said in her introduction to the song Clean, which began with her remarking on how passionate and joyful the crowd was:

And let me tell you why that kind of behaviour makes me happy. Because that kind of behaviour is free, and uninhibited, and warm, and the way you’ve treated us is so open and welcoming. And, you know these days there are millions of ways for people to tell you—how to be. How to act in public. What’s cool, what’s not. What’s beautiful, what’s not. And it’s really easy to become completely preoccupied by the idea of trying to be cool. You have a lot of people who will try to make you feel like being cool, is being unaffected, and unexcited, and cynical, and chill. But you know what I think is better than being cool is being happy. And you seem really happy tonight Sydney. [Crowd cheers]

You know when someone criticises you, or says something behind your back, those words that they said about you, it’s like you feel like those words are written all over your face, all over you. And then, those words start to become echoes in your own mind. And then there’s a real risk that those words could become a part of how you see yourself. The moment that you realise that you are not the opinion of somebody who doesn’t know you, or care about you—that moment, when you realise that, it’s like you’re clean.

I think this is more than just a feel-good message. It’s a psychologically important message, especially for the mostly young and mostly female audience. A cynic would say she had crafted all these words in advance, to get the maximum emotional leverage. But I also think she’s being very genuine here. These words come from her own experiences and the (painful) lessons that she’s learnt.


Swift had incredible stage presence. I was sitting in the stands, so most of what I observed was derived from the big screens. I can only imagine what the effect was for those sitting up close.


Swift has mastered the runway strut. She moved about the stage with purpose and grace. She has mastered the turn-back pose. She has mastered the hair flick. She has mastered the pause—to look around, soaking in the adulation of the crowd. She has mastered her smile, of which there are multiple variations (subtle, innocent, knowing, beaming, etc.) depending on the situation. She always had a sense of whimsy in her expressions and body language, which was fun and engaging. Her passion was infectious.

Needless to say, the outfits were great. Probably my favourite (and my wife would enthusiastically concur) was the pink two-piece light-up dress Swift wore for How You Get the Girl.



I go to live shows not just to hear songs that I like, but to be entertained by an experience I can’t get by putting on my ear buds. I went in with very high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

Swift is multi-talented. In addition to the choreographed set pieces, she rotated comfortably between an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, and the piano. She’s blossomed from a country music darling to a gifted stage performer.


I loved the variation in music styles—from pop, to punk, to ballad, to rock, to stripped-back. Each live song captured the essence of the studio version and built further upon it. In particular, Swift’s rendition of the two popular songs from her Red album swayed my original opinion of them from annoyance to enjoyment. I Knew You Were Trouble was satisfyingly dark and moody, backed by foreboding strings. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was delivered punk rock style, with Swift working the electric guitar.


Another dimension to my enjoyment of the show was the crowd. 76,000 adoring fans made the stadium come alive. At no point did the crowd become still or passive. The number of bums off seats was impressive, even for those who were really far away from the stage.


As we entered the stadium, each person was given a rubber wristband with radio-controlled LEDs, as a “present from Taylor”. These were used to great effect, as the stadium became a roiling sea of white, blue, pink, purple and more, to punctuate the progression of each song.

Swift capped off the concert with Shake It Off, which brought together all the elements of lighting, video, band, dancers, smoke machines, rotating stage, and even fireworks. It was a worthy end to the world’s biggest star performing the best show around.



Song On My Mind XI

I’m all aboard the T Swifty train right now. Here she is performing an acoustic version of ‘Out of the Woods’. I didn’t like the song the first few times I listened to 1989 because it seemed boring and repetitive, but it’s grown on me. The live version makes me like it even more. Check it out (song starts at 1:05):

What They Believe

I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) earlier this month. FODI is an annual event hosted by the Sydney Opera House where leading thinkers around the world are invited to discuss and debate important ideas in the areas of politics, society, technology, philosophy, and more. In this post I want to share my thoughts on one of the panels I saw, “What I Believe”.

The format was a little weird, in that it wasn’t a discussion between participants on stage. Rather, the participants came in one at a time to give a ~10 minute talk on what they believe. Clearly this threw off Peter Doherty (Australian medical researcher and Nobel prize winner), who gave an entertaining but off-topic diatribe against anti-science sentiments. In any case, I came in to this panel with high expectations. Belief—that is, acceptance, trust, faith, confidence—carries special significance for how we live, and I was particularly interested to hear the perspectives of those who are non-religious. For the most part, I came out fairly disappointed.

Frank Brennan, Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, went first. He was the only speaker who was clearly associated with a religious denomination. However, Brennan was less overt about his own faith, which was a letdown. He mostly played it safe and stuck to moderate talking points. Listening to him talk about the dignity of human people, of Australia’s greatest moral challenge being how we govern our borders, and how notions of common good are as important as self-determination, I’m reminded again of how Christianity speaks to ideas that most secular people would assent to. These ideas got polite applauses from the educated, left-leaning, well-to-do audience.

Adrienne Truscott, a multi-talented American entertainer, was next. Her talk on what she believed was more like anti-belief, as she spent the bulk of it talking about her problems with organised religion. Fair enough. The general position of the audience was made very clear to me by their enthusiastic applause. What I found fascinating was the audience reaction to another speaker, Indigenous journalist and former politician Malarndirri McCarthy. At the beginning of her talk McCarthy recognised Aboriginal custodianship of the land and how the “spirits” of past Aboriginal women were with her at that moment. The audience once again applauded energetically. Just 10 minutes ago they were treated to an acerbic (and what must have been satisfying) takedown of the irrationality and ridiculousness of religion. Now they were clapping for spirits. What gives?

I think the answer lies in the qualifier organised. Truscott, and I suspect the audience (excepting the rabid atheists), does not have antipathy to the particular claims of any belief system. After all, that’s the secular way: “You can believe in whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Rather, I think they have a problem with power, and the real and perceived abuses of that power. Christianity has been an institution for approximately two thousand years. In a nutshell, people and groups associated with Christianity have done really good things and also really bad things. These people and groups often have and sometimes still do exert influence over societies. For secular, educated people today, I think this could influence their thinking in the following non-exhaustive ways:

  • People tend to remember bad stuff more than good stuff, so they tend to view “the church” in a negative light.
  • For left-leaning people who are more sensitive to groups with relatively less power (e.g., minorities, women, etc.), institutions who seemingly have more power are viewed with suspicion
  • For people who just want to live however they want and don’t want to change, it’s useful to justify themselves by pointing to the bad stuff with organised religion.

For Christians I think this is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because I think people can still be receptive to the gospel message, untethered from the politics and practices of imperfect institutions. It is discouraging because secular people have been so engrained to think of Christianity as at best neutral, and frequently some shade of bad, that it is an uphill battle to shift their thinking.

Next up was AC Grayling, a British philosopher and one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement. I had high hopes that he would explain what he believes in an intelligent manner befitting a person of his standing. It would not be an overstatement to say that his talk was a profound disappointment.

Grayling starts off by rehashing what philosophy is about (1. What is the nature of reality, 2. What should we value). He then makes a logical jump (given his time constraints, I’ll give him a pass) that if there is only physical reality, then it is up to us (humans) to determine meaning and purpose. From there, he trots out stock standard utilitarianism, dressed up in fancy cosmic garb: Human consciousness is but a flicker in the history of the universe. If the totality of suffering outweighs the totality of pleasure, then the existence of the universe would have been a bad thing. If vice versa, then it is good. And therefore—and I’m not kidding, this is a direct quote—”It is our responsibility to be nice to one another.”

Really? That’s the best that he could do? OK, I understand he had limited time. But this was frankly so vapid I had to double check that he wasn’t trying to be humorous or ironic (I don’t think he was). “Being nice” is essentially a non-answer. How should I be kind? By what standard? Are there other worthy pursuits for humans other than being kind? If conflicts arise between these other pursuits and being kind, how should we resolve them?

Grayling’s formulation of utilitarianism is also problematic. Put aside the issue of how we measure pleasure and suffering. I think it is enormously unhelpful to think in aggregate terms of total pleasure versus total suffering over human existence. What if 51% had more pleasure on average and 49% had more suffering? Would you really say that this is a good outcome for humanity? What if there was 1% who had super-charged pleasure that outweighed the 99% who had fairly bad suffering on average? By Grayling’s standard this would be a good outcome. However, if we are to use utilitarianism, then I think it is more meaningful and worthwhile to take into account the pleasures and sufferings of individuals. I really expected more from this distinguished philosopher.

Up to this point I was quite unimpressed, with the exception of the entertaining Peter Doherty and his meandering but passionate defence of science. Helen Razer, Australian radio presenter and writer, was up next. She provided a welcome and refreshing change to the stolid fare before her. Razer’s sharp insights matched her strident tone and forceful delivery. She made two main points in her talk:

  1. Doubt is more valuable than any belief. She was careful to distinguish it from denial. Rather, for her doubt means to always question her beliefs, and to aspire to strip herself of beliefs.
  2. The optimistic belief that humans can change the world for the better is useless without action.

The second point in particular stood in marked contrast to previous speakers who, generally speaking, gave sugary platitudes about how they believed in the power of humans to overcome challenges, change the world, etc. It felt good to hear someone call them out on it. All the solidarity and sentimentality in the world will not bring back Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been recently reprinted and retweeted a million times for all to see. Razer was a contrarian, but not just for its own sake. She aimed to expose the shallowness and laziness of our “good” beliefs, which can disarm and satisfy us even when there is so much good that needs to be done.

Razer also made a point about the banality of good I had never considered before. First coined by Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil is now commonly understood to mean how evil can become normalised and be perpetrated in seemingly unremarkable, ordinary conditions. Razer posits that “the real terror of good is that it is also banal.” As I understand her, she means that doing good is quite unremarkable and does not match the lofty rhetoric of optimistic belief-peddlers—it is hard, repetitive, uninspiring, and difficult to notice. However, if we really want to make the world a better place, we should stop resting on our beliefs and start doing, one small action at a time.

Even for all the disappointment I endured, this was a worthy message to take home.*

* Jon Ronson was the final speaker, but his talk was so different that it’s worth addressing in a separate post.