Book Review: ‘Lying’ by Sam Harris

12379144One of the issues ever close to my mind these days is the concept of honesty, dishonesty, truth and intention. It’s one of those things, where you can have the best of intentions, and think you’re always doing the right thing, but end up constantly making the wrong decisions.

This extended essay by Sam Harris entitled ‘Lying’ reinforces a point of view that I have been edging around to for a while, the concept of ‘Radical Honesty’. In a thorough logical and philosophical look at the concept of lying, as well as the effects that it has, both on yourself and others.

Harris begins his essay by acknowledging that while most people can see the inherent problems with outright lies, we often trick ourselves into thinking that white lies – or exaggerations intended to save others feelings, or simply massaging the truth to make life easier for everyone – is somehow morally acceptable. He gives example after example of how small lies in response to seemingly inconsequential questions such as ‘do I look fat in this?’ or ‘do you want to hang out this week?’ can have drastic and far reaching consequences in your life and the life of those you cared about.

I know from personal experience that it’s not often been the intentional lies that have gotten me into trouble, or as Harris calls them “lies of commission” but rather the “white lies” or “lies of omission” that cause the most hassle, the biggest losses of trust, and the largest breakdowns in relationships. Harris suggests in this book that quite literally honesty is the best policy, and that even the risk of appearing rude or brash should not overcloud a genuine desire to be truthful, and that whatever losses you endure are outmatched by honesty being it’s own reward.

The essay also explores such issues such as honestly as opposed to truth, and the links between dishonesty and other forms of unethical behaviour. For anyone with an interest in ethics or moral philosophy, I could not recommend reading this enough. at only 40 pages it won’t take long to read, but the ideas that it espouses will surely grip you for much longer. I know it has left me with a new goal in life.

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Five Boxes: A Review

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I don’t know about you, but in my mind there is no conversation piece in this world more dull than one’s own child. The way they are trotted out, “Oh look he can walk”, “He’s so funny when he’s disrupting large groups of people trying to have a quiet night”. But more than this is the incessant story-telling, every tiny aspect of their life apparently worthy of a Tolstoy-esque novelisation, as if I hadn’t already seen the story and the iPhone pictures plastered around various types of electronic media that day.

Perhaps it is for this reason that when I tell people about this book I read, Five Boxes, and they ask me what it’s about, I am not met with immediate excitement. “Well you see he found some boxes from his childhood and he goes through them and talks about what everything is…” Oh, they say. I immediately realise my mistake and correct their misapprehension, “No it’s very good, it’s by the same guy as ‘A Year Down the Drain’, the one about walking his dog by the creek for a year”.

Over this year I have become a much more accomplished Mark MacLean evangelist, and I would be surprised if you could find a friend of mine who hadn’t heard about the book at least once, and I feel almost sorry for those who spent time with me during the time that I was actually reading it, but the Gospel of Mark is not an easy message to share, because a simple description of the book doesn’t quite cut it. I saw an article online a few months ago entitled “Your Favourite Fairy Tales in One Line”, with all the big ones:

“Girl gets lost on way to Grandmothers house and heroically saves Grandmother from wild animals”

“Girl lives with hardworking dwarves in the woods until someone more attractive comes along”

“Picky girl learns her lesson after attempting to steal from bears.”

Just from these one liners you can probably guess which fairy tale each is, but how to describe Five Boxes in a line? You can’t do it. Trust me I’ve tried, and it is because this book (to borrow the phrase), is far more than the sum of it’s parts. The basis of this story is ostensibly five boxes of old stuff, but in reality it’s a journey through time, a memoir that is funny, thoughtful and engrossing, all while feeling completely genuine.

So I have come to the conclusion that I cannot tell you what it’s about, I can’t describe it’s stories and I most definitely cannot make you understand the writing, (although I do wish I could emulate it), because you have no basis for comparison, there is nothing like it and only when you have finished reading it will you understand just how sad that fact is.

Do yourself a favour, and pick up a copy of Five Boxes today, just make sure you’ve got nothing important on tomorrow, because you won’t want to put it down.

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A bit more…

She skipped down the road. Does anyone skip anymore? Why wouldn’t you skip, skipping was fun. It’s not like anybody had told her she couldn’t skip, it was just that nobody else did it. For some reason cartoon characters skipped an awful lot but their undrawn counterparts never followed the televised example. As a rule skipping was a dangerous habit along this street, you were just as likely to meet with a horizontal demise as you were to meet with fun, but on this day in particular she met with a lady. Stranger danger was a lesson taught with hesitation in Abigail’s household, as her parents were concerned about protection and socialisation in equal parts, so as there seemed to be no immediate danger from talking to the lady that is exactly what she did.

“Hi! Are you from around here?”

The lady looked down at the small girl who had skipped across her path, and removed a small white wire from her ears, “Excuse me?”

“I asked if you were from ‘round here”

“Oh, well, kind of. I live a few suburbs over. I’ve just been riding my bike today, being a nice day and all. How about you?”

“Yeah I live on this street. It’s a pretty nice place to live I guess. Do you like living where you live?”

“I do actually! It’s just outside a school though so it gets pretty busy on the streets around this time of day.”

“Cool. Well nice to meet you. See ya!”

With that abrupt finish she edged around her new friend and skipped away. Only a few doors down she hooked a quick left into her front yard and kicked a ball that she had left lying on the lawn from a previous session and then watched in horror as it flew over the barely manicured hedge, over some green railings and smashed straight through one of the windows that provided a gap in awful purple of the house across the road.

For half a second Abigail froze, before quickly rotating and making haste inside her own house. She had made it to the front porch and was fumbling with her keys just as the lady on the bike turned around, ironically only having heard the noise of the windows breaking due to Abby’s conversion forcing her to remove an earphone. The lady turned around and headed towards the ugly house just as Abigail slipped inside of her own.

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The Beginning of a Story

The townhouse around the corner from the road lined with fig trees had to it both an unusual odour and an eye-catching paint scheme. The road lined with fig trees boasted a library and a museum, a park and a concert hall, and a magnificent view of the cities centre. Perpendicular to this road ran a stretch of coffee shops and boutique clothing stores, a haven for those who felt themselves to be part of the counter-culture.

But the street the townhouse lay on had no landmarks, no special features. The parking was uneven due to the age of the road and the roots of old trees cracked the pavement. The street had a certain rustic charm to it, but the oddball nature of most of the townhouses was outdone by the eye catching house at number 32.

Joel Winton had lived at number 32 for almost a full year, but coming home every day he still cringed at this sight. The front wall was painted a light shade of purple, conflicting sharply with the green of the railings and the bright yellow door. It was at this sight that Joel was staring, lost in a polychrome daze he was hit by the front wheel of a bicycle. This was startling to say the least, though not as painful as you would imagine it to be. He turned quickly to catch the final seconds of a fall that was far from graceful, and watch a girl (most likely all of twenty years) groan and push herself up from the pavement.

Still somewhat startled he reached down to collect her hand and assist her to an upright position, now far more concerned with the wellbeing of this (admittedly fetching) stranger than the possible blindness of his homes past decorator, and did his best to sound calm and collected while he asked

“Are you okay?”

Awkwardly the girl finished standing up and flashed a smile that was halfway between warm and embarrassed before responding

“Uh… I think so, I’m so so sorry! Oh my god I’m so sorry look at your leg!”

Joel did as he was told, and noticed for the first time a large gash in the side of his leg. This must have been caused when the front chain of her bike took its sudden turn into the ground but the shock of the incident had shielded him. Small droplets of red fell to the pavement as he once again collected himself and looked her in the eye.

“Oh it’s okay, this is my house I’ve got some stuff inside I can put on that” He managed a smile, “Are you all in one piece? You seem a bit shaken would you like to come inside for some tea?”

She nodded yes and grabbed the handlebars of her upturned vehicle from the footpath, before following him inside

“Interesting paint scheme you have here”

“Oh, yeah I guess it is I never really noticed”.

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The Gap: A Micro-Story

Bent, again. Jason took the legs down again, flicked the little red switch in the middle and folded it back to its compact state. From here he turned it onto its back and laid it out flat again, this time putting the red switch into the locked position. He stepped back and observed the tabletop, lying flat against the floor. Victory! Jason flipped the legs out, clicked in those little silver buttons that hold the legs at a certain height… what were they called? He didn’t know if they even had a name. At last he flipped the table over onto its legs and stepped back to view his handiwork only to discover that damned bend in the top again. The two sides of the table simply refused to meet; yet when laid flat they met perfectly! He surmised from this that the problem must be contained somewhere within the legs, as the upturned table had been quite flat, but they looked straight!

A book, one of those books that you never read. A book that sits on the bookcase with its wide hardcover spine facing the lounge so the guests are impressed. A book that has more than once led you to its Wikipedia page in order to obtain a basic grasp of the plot for small talk, yet after skimming the page you find even the summary too long and complex. For Jason that book was War and Peace, and he took that book and placed it on the small gap between the table’s two sides hoping the weight would push them flat. A small change was made in the table’s structure, but the gap remained. At seeing this his frustration got the better of him, and he slammed his palm down on top of the tilted surface, then watched as the book was shaken from its tilted resting place and fell to the floor. After retrieving the book he returned it to its decorative resting place and turned to see the table, now slightly more tilted as a result of his strike, as if to mock him.

He thought back to that afternoon, and the trip to his local Kmart that had resulted in his current dilemma. In a moment truly fit for Robert Frost he had stood in front of two boxes, both boasting convenient fold up tables and had picked the box that looked less beat up, and just hours later here he was, with a table so flat that it could have passed as a teepee. He packed the table back into its plastic wrapping and slid it back into the box.

The next morning he trudged back into the Kmart, table in one hand, receipt in the other and a sheepish look on his face. As he walked through the store he eyed a display boasting small wooden tables. He paused for a moment and eyed off one of the black ones, but thought better of it. Arriving home he unpacked and set up his new table, only to flip it over to see that damned gap.

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Red Pen: A Micro-Story

A couple of my friends and I have started to write together. Every week we pick a topic and have to produce a 500 word story. I figure I may as well publish them here as well. This is completely unedited so forgive any typos. There will be one of these published each week, as well as some other fiction and non-fiction I’ve been working on that’s coming real soon.

There it was again, so close, but no. How many times did she have to tell him how to answer this question? It was not like this was a particularly difficult thing to come to terms with, a simple equation, fill in the blanks and you’re done! All the way down the paper there it was again and again, the same error repeated over and over again, she had to wonder exactly how many hours she had wasted going over the same thing. At least once the magic of sharing knowledge fades you still get a paycheck.
The next Monday it was time to hand the papers back, and deal with the onslaught of complaints and nitpicking that was inevitable from a group of students who knew they could have done better, before they skulked back to their seats and awkwardly hid their returned papers under a pencil case. She gave his back last, and watched as he scanned the top for some good news, only to be left wanting, as the hopeful light left his eyes, just like every other week.
The day flew on, as with the next. Flurries of children, each group the same as the last, until the final bell released the schools population from their educational prison. Following the obligatory paperwork and the occasional staff meeting, the drive home would commence, followed by a night of procedural cop shows and a couple of chapters before bed. In years past she could have boasted of consuming high-class literature, or perhaps philosophy, perhaps a documentary on the latest scientific discovery, but now she found it much easier to simply trudge through the latest celebrity biography, or easily forgettable sitcom.
Similarly, there was a time that she found the challenge of imbibing the next generation with knowledge to be a source of excitement, a goal that deserved nothing less than all of her efforts. Now she just had a mortgage. There was still one student, however, that plagued her, even after the shoes had slid off and the ass was firmly on the lounge. Unfortunately this potential motivation was instead one setback after another.
Wednesday passed, Thursday too. With each day she sat through classes with him, as he watched, wrote, watched, and glazed over. There seemed to be no hope. She stayed back on Thursday afternoons to provide extra assistance to those who wanted it. The smart kids never took this option; they were getting eighty percent when they could have been getting one hundred, but instead satisfied themselves with the former, and told their friends they could do better if they bothered trying. He was different though. He made every extra class, wrote down every word she said, and seemingly took none of it in. This class was different though, he seemed to understand some of it, and even the smallest thing would be amazing.
Friday afternoon brought the next test, and as she got home flicked on Law and Order, before reading his test. A wave of disappointment washed over her, and she got out her red pen.

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Education: The Final Frontier

Page 5, Sydney Morning Herald, 05.09.2014

Page 5, Sydney Morning Herald, 05.09.2014

I had conflicting feelings about this story.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see that the Government is actually seeing a problem with the Northern Territory, and that problem is the lack of infrastructure or development, rather than the problem that they usually see; the race of the people who live there. It’s quite refreshing to see that the Government is actually suggesting a special Northern Territory Minister based in the Territory, demonstrating that perhaps some local management would be superior to being ignored by Canberra.

However, the title of the article, Graduates Going North Could Have Debts Wiped, is based in a major problem in our new society, one that seems to be getting worse before it gets better: Why are students having to look for ways to clear debt? We see this already in the way that the United States does college loans, and the end result is that less people receive tertiary education, and those that do are saddled with crippling debt. This is not the model we should be shooting for, and while offering encouraging ways for students to get rid of their debt is great, it displays that we have already accepted a system where getting an education and debt are synonymous.

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