|Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007) by Walter Isaacson
Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of art of the twentieth century.
- Jacob Bronowski
What to say about the stereotypically great? Start by scrubbing off the accumulated century of journalism and appropriations.
Einstein's scientific achievements:
- A model of Brownian motion: the decisive argument for the existence of atoms. His model enabled experimental confirmation of Dalton's theory, after a hundred years of denial or instrumentalism.
- An elementary particle, the photon. The atomic hypothesis applied even to light.
- A law for the photoelectric effect, implying a quantum theory of all EM radiation. (A realist about quanta, unlike Planck.)
- So also lots of pieces of the "old" quantum theory.
- A theory of light and so space and time, special relativity.
- A flawed but progressive theory of heat capacity, the Einstein theory of solids
- A better method of analysing quantum systems, "EBK". An ignored semiclassical precursor to quantum chaos theory.
- The greatest scientific theory, General Relativity. Explaining gravity and, so, the shape of the universe.
- Implies the first modern cosmology
- Gravitational lensing (confirmed 1998)
- Inadvertently predicted dark energy.
- A crucial experiment: gravitational waves. (Confirmed 2015.)
- Implies a whole lot more like black holes but you can't name everything "Einstein thing".
- A general method for thermodynamics and information theory: Bose-Einstein statistics.
- New state of matter: the Bose–Einstein condensate
- Fruitful failed theory: first local hidden variable theory
- A profound phenomenon, quantum entanglement. (Susskind calls entanglement "Einstein's last great discovery", though he 'discovered' it by trying to reductio away Copenhagen interpretation, taking entanglement to be a disproof.) (Confirmed properly 2015.)
- A crucial experiment for a metaphysical principle, local realism is false!: EPR
- Inadvertently, a physical constraint on metaphysics: nonlocality.
- Thought-experiment: The content of the "Schrödinger's" cat setup
- Repostulation of wormholes. (Not confirmed.)
- Isotope separation methods for the Manhattan project.
- Also a nontoxic fridge
Besides his own prize, confirmations of Einstein's theories have led to 4 Nobel Prizes (1922, 1923, 1997, 2001) so far, and first-order extensions several more (1927, 1929, 1933 at very least). We should expect a few more, for grav waves and not inconceivably for wormholes, some day.
Isaacson, like most people, portrays Einstein's post-1935 work as a dogmatic waste - he spent about thirty years straining to produce a field theory that could get rid of the spookiness and probabilism of QM. If you compare the output of the first half of his life to the second, sure it looks bad. But he was giving classical physics (determinism, continuousness, simplicity, fierce parsimony, beauty-based reasoning) a well-deserved last shake.
Imagine the strength of will needed to maintain full-time effort over thirty years of failures, with your whipsmart peers all tutting and ignoring you. His unified field efforts are methodologically sort of like string theory: a hubristic search over mathematical forms without contact with the actually physical to help limit the formal space.
And he actually had a decent decision-theoretic argument for his doomed crusade:
When a colleague asked him one day why he was spending — perhaps squandering — his time in this lonely endeavor, he replied that even if the chance of finding a unified theory was small, the attempt was worthy. He had already made his name, he noted. His position was secure, and he could afford to take the risk and expend the time. A younger theorist, however, could not take such a risk, for he might thus sacrifice a promising career. So, Einstein said, it was his duty to do it.
People also try to attach shame to him for his wildly stubborn anti-Copenhagen crusade: years spent thinking up tricky counterexamples for the young mechanicians, like an angry philosopher. But I think he had a good effect on the discourse, constantly calling them to order, and leaving it clear, after all, that it is a consistent view of the evidence.
The only unforgiveable bit in his later conservatism is that he ignored the other half of the fundamental forces, the strong and weak forces, and for decades. Two forces was hard enough to unify. I suppose another point against his long, long Advanced Studies is that he could have done even more if he had helped push QM along; as late as 1946, Wheeler tried to convince him to join in. As it is we have evidence against the unified field: "Einstein failed".
Einstein is like Bertrand Russell, only much more so: even more brilliant, even more rebellious, even more politically active, even more aloof, even more relentless, even more neglectful of his family. (Russell, on hearing relativity for the first time: "To think I have spent my life on absolute muck.")
Along with Ibn Rushd, Leonardo, Pascal, Leibniz, Darwin, Peirce, Russell, Turing, Chomsky, Mackay*, Einstein is one of our rare complete intellectuals: huge achievements in science, beautiful writing, good jokes, original philosophy, moral seriousness. To have warmth too, as Einstein does abundantly, doesn't have much of a precedent. However much Einstein is misattributed vaguely pleasant, vaguely droll, vaguely radical statements, the fact is he actually was brilliant, pleasant, funny, radical. Believe the hype.
* The usual word is 'polymath', sure, but although we are mad keen on polymaths, their generalism is seen as a laudable extra, rather than the vital
service I now think they alone can give: you want people who have proven they can discover truths to tackle your ancient ill-defined questions (beauty, justice, existence).
And you can't do good unless you know a great deal about the targets of your morals; you want the vast imaginative search over philosophical possibilities to be aided by what we actually know. (As the noted writer against scientism, Ludwig Wittgenstein put it:
Is scientific progress useful for philosophy? Certainly. The realities that are discovered lighten the philosopher’s task: imagining possibilities.
Maxwell, Boltzmann, Schrödinger, and Feynman basically fit the above: they are as good at writing and philosophy as they are at physics, and very funny to boot. But they didn't push society forward much (...) Goethe tried admirably, but didn't achieve much science. Descartes should definitely be on there but eh. Hilary Putnam discovered important logical results and has all the other virtues, but I guess science is a stretch?. von Neumann covered perhaps the most intellectual ground of all of these people, but I'm not sure he had a moral or political life to speak of. Herbert Simon is deep and broad and fun. And Bohr is brilliant and moral but can't write.
(There's others I'd include, but won't because I know I'm a fanboy** / it is too soon to say: Scott Aaronson, David Pearce, Nick Bostrom.)
** A new Moore's paradox: "I know I'm a fanboy, but my thinker is still better than your thinker."
What was so moral about him? Well, he was ahead of his time (still is):
- Denounced WWI as the senseless crap it was.
- Never went to the Soviet empire (despite repeated invites).
- Denounced the Nazis from '31, despite/because of public threats to his life.
- Flipped from pacifism at the right moment.
- Many early actions for US civil rights, including work against McCarthyism.
- Sold his original manuscripts for War Bonds
Even his Zionism was enlightened (pro-migration, anti-state, anti-Begin):
“Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs,” he wrote [Chaim] Weizmann in 1929, “then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering.”
He proposed, both to Weizmann and in an open letter to an Arab leader, that a “privy council” of four Jews and four Arabs, all independent-minded, be set up to resolve any disputes. “The two great Semitic peoples,” he said, “have a great common future.” If the Jews did not assure that both sides lived in harmony, he warned friends in the Zionist movement, the struggle would haunt them in decades to come. Once again, he was labeled naïve.
One particularly charming bit in this book covers Einstein's long friendship with the Queen Mother of Belgium. When Szilard warns him that nuclear fission has been achieved and could give the Nazis dominion over all, Einstein's first thought is to ask Elisabeth to sort it out, by grabbing all the Central African uranium and sending it far from the Nazis. (As it happens, the Uranverein got their uranium from Czechoslovakia.)
Isaacson read all the letters, formed a view on all the academic controversies (Maric's contribution, baby Lieserl, what sort of deist or Zionist or pacifist he was), and covers most of the papers, recasting the classic thought experiments very lucidly. This was a huge pleasure. Read with Wikipedia open, though: C20th physics and its physicists are way too deep and broad for one book.
|The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan (1991) by Robert Kanigel
||One of the best biographies I've ever read. (The subtitle says it is about Ramanujan, but it is equally about Hardy, that perfect British intellect: more crystalline than Russell, more lofty than Moore, more self-critical than Hare, more fun than anyone, loveable atop it all.) Ramanujan's story is of course maximally moving to anyone with a shred of curiosity or pity. The most moving part of all is an absence, one of the darker thoughts among all thoughts:
How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain, locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?
His research is patent throughout: he decodes South Indian religion and cuisine, British upper-class slang, and even something of the impressiveness of higher mathematics, while using mere natural language:
Ramanujan's work grants direct pleasure to only a few - a few hundred mathematicians and physicists around the world, perhaps a few thousand. The rest of us must either sit on the sidelines, and, on the authority of the cognoscenti, cheer - or else rely on vague, metaphoric, and necessarily imprecise glimpses of his work.
...mathematics is not best learned passively; you don’t sop it up like a romance novel. You’ve got to go out to it, aggressive, and alert, like a chess master pursuing checkmate.
Ramanujan himself left a tiny dense literature that we are still decoding:
Ramanujan's notebooks formed a distinctly idiosyncratic record. In them even widely standardized terms sometimes acquired new meaning. Thus, an "example" — normally, as in everyday usage, an illustration of a general principle — was for Ramanujan often a wholly new theorem. A "corollary" — a theorem flowing naturally from another theorem and so requiring no separate proof — was for him sometimes a generalization, which did require its own proof. As for his mathematical notation, it sometimes bore scant resemblance to anyone else's.
Many passages raise goosebumps: Kanigel unites the abstract and the bodily, the true and the human all-too-human.
You cannot say much about Ramanujan without resorting to the word self. He was self-willed, self-directed, self-made. Some might conceivably label him selfish for his preoccupation with doing the mathematics he loved without any great concern for the better of his family or his country...
Hardy discovered Ramanujan? Not at all: a glance at the facts of 1912 shows that Ramanujan discovered Hardy.
A life-giving book.
|White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo
The drug could be dangerous, after all. I was not a believer in easy solutions, something to swallow that would rid my soul of an ancient fear. But I could not help thinking about that saucer-shaped tablet...
Tumbling from the back of my tongue down to my stomach. The drug core dissolving, releasing benevolent chemicals into my bloodstream, flooding the fear-of-death part of my brain. The pill itself silently self-destructing in a tiny inward burst, a polymer implosion, discreet and precise and considerate. Technology with a human face.
Exhausting - but funny! - postmodern critique of postmodernism. Maybe David Foster Wallace did it better but this is still a thrill
|Fear and Trembling (1843) by Søren Kierkegaard
|The Gig Economy () by Zero HP Lovecraft
|Seven Surrenders (Terra Ignota, #2) (2017) by Ada Palmer
||It is so, so striking to see Palmer, who obviously lavishes enormous systematic attention on "worldbuilding", blow her own world up.
|The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (2008) by Deirdre N. McCloskey
||Not the earliest critic - that's Meehl or Freedman or Gosset himself - but the most readable. You don't necessarily need to read past page 100, it's recapitulation.
Very short version here.
|A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce
||To use yourself for art you need a really interesting life, or sheer expressive skill - the ability to force anything to be interesting. Neither is easy: someone like Montaigne manages easily, but e.g. Rousseau doesn't (he just got there first, to the I Am Art game, so we have to talk about him).
Joyce's life is only mildly interesting from the outside, so it falls to his evocation. I read this to find out whether to care about him, and I actually didn't until Part III, the rightly famous spiritual arc from apatheistic teenage kicks, to the ecstatic shame of submitting to the vast closed Catholic system, and through it to passionate agnosticism, anticlerical naturalism. Joyce's is the best portrait of the infinite terrorism of the Church:
remember, my dear boys, that we have been sent into this world for one thing and for one thing alone: to do God’s holy will and to save our immortal souls. All else is worthless.
As he crossed the square, walking homeward, the light laughter of a girl reached his burning ear. The frail, gay sound smote his heart more strongly than a trumpet blast, and, not daring to lift his eyes, he turned aside and gazed, as he walked, into the shadow of the tangled shrubs. Shame rose from his smitten heart and flooded his whole being. The image of Emma appeared before him and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry? The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils.
As a teen Stephen tries to mortify himself, to not look at women, to not eat well, to just look at the mud. But he's too bright, too worldly and too proud. I cheered at the end of Part IV, when he throws off the yoke.
The prose is port wine: lovely if sipped. It is mostly monologue but the dialogue is the best bit. He is passionate about anything, e.g. algebra -
The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock's; and, when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched. The vast cycle of starry life bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine stardust fell through space.
The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the bale-fire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.
The painful process of moving past family, nation, church, scholastic philosophy, to become yourself. Doing this in a country as maniacal about nation and church as eC20th Ireland was so much harder, and indeed he had to leave. He doesn't move past Art, and acquires a similarly monomanaical view of it -
[To be an artist], a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life
but if my prose was as good as Joyce's maybe I couldn't have moved past it either. Like Nietzsche if he wasn't an edgelord.
That printers and governments treated Joyce and Lawrence the same is a laugh: Joyce has all of Lawrence's passion and none of the flat feet. Self-parody, odd humility, laughter at his own past dogmatism.
His memory - or his notetaking? - is amazing: scholars have spent lifetimes checking and relating everything in this to recorded history, and he's usually spot on about details (though he changes names). I don't think I could write anything as accurate, even in my surveillance society.
Fully half of my edition was taken up in footnotes and bibliophilia. (It also left Joyce's typos in, which is a bit much. In fact half the footnotes were as trivial as typos, e.g. pointing out where lines are reused from his draft Stephen Hero.)
Portrait stops before the end of uni, before his odyssey, before his wife even. And much of the last section is a surprisingly flat, academic statement of Thomist aesthetics. But by then you've heard enough to love him anyway.
|The Periodic Table (1975) by Primo Levi
|The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (2018) by Bryan Caplan
||A powerful book, remarkably light on ideology given its extreme conclusions. (Caplan is not mad: he is right behind universal numeracy and literacy. So the title should be "Case Against Higher Education" but oh well.)
Here's a flavour:
I have a long list of strange and extreme views, and I've been an arrogant hedgehog for as long as I can remember. As a rule, arrogant hedgehogs with lots of strange and extreme views are severely biased and grossly unreliable. Which raises two daunting questions.
The Reputational Challenge: Why should people take me seriously? Even if I happen to be correct, why would a reasonable person bother giving me a chance?
The Self-Referential Challenge: Why should I take myself seriously? Why should I consider myself so epistemically superior to the typical arrogant hedgehog with lots of strange and extreme views?
In all honesty, I take both challenges seriously. But it's the self-referential challenge that weighs on me. I can endure the apathy of others, but not the idea that I'm living a lie. So what should I do?
What might explain the universal appeal of education?
- 1. learning specific facts and hard skills (private and social gain)
- 2. learning general rationality and meta-skills (private and social gain)
- 3. learning soft skills (private and social gain)
- 4. credentialing: showing off how smart, conscientious, conformist you are (zero-sum private gain)
- 5. culture fit: showing employers you are their kind of person (private gain)
- 6. networking (private gain)
- 7. assortative mating at university (near-zero-sum private gain)
- 8. primary schools are daycare (private gain by proxy (parents), social gain (doubling workforce))
- 9. it's fun (private gain)
- 10. conspicuous consumption (zero-sum private gain)
- 11. state propaganda about how developed the country is. (zero-sum and of no private or social gain)
His conclusion is that about 80% of the personal economic gains from higher education are from (4): not improving your character, knowledge, or ability, but rather from certifying yourself as a good worker (smart, conscientious, conformist). Given the vast cost, time sink, and psychological toll of education, this implies a hugely wasteful, zero-sum arms race (grade inflation, degree inflation), since the income gain doesn't reflect productivity gain, and since we could be doing signalling in less indirect and foolish ways. I'll do a proper rundown of the (many) arguments he gives to end up at this separately.
The mostly-signalling theory explains a huge number of confusing features (why do students and employers not value Ivy League MOOCs, even ten years on? Why are most of the income rewards concentrated in the instant of graduation? Why do students cheer when class is cancelled? If lectures are so economically powerful, why don't people just sit in on them without enrolling (and why doesn't the university put security on them to protect their livelihood)? How can human capital explain the income gains, when people forget almost everything about their major within 5 years and don't show very large soft skill increases?
You often see people trumpeting the large (50-60%) income premium of higher education, as if that showed that added human capital was the reason for the premium (cough, correlation / causation). But even granting that uncritical leap, there's something strange about focussing on private income gains: the kind of people who believe in the centrality of education tend also to believe that pay is a poor indicator of social value. (For instance, our incredibly low opinion of investment bankers.) Caplan's disturbing point is that the private returns do not translate into social returns. This seeming paradox could happen a few ways: if credential inflation shifts jobs from nongraduates to graduates; or if there are minor human capital gains, but swamped out by the huge financial cost and time cost of uni.
My philosophy department used to trumpet graduate income stats as evidence that critical thinking is valued in industry. (They don't anymore, possibly because philosophy is now associated with decreased earnings, at least in the UK.) This trump was an amusing triple failure of critical thinking: they confuse correlation and causation ("philosophy degree and income gain, therefore philosophy degree causes income gain"), fail to consider selection effects (philosophy students start out posher than the average student) and the Yes Minister fallacy:
- A philosophy degree causes an income premium.
- If something causes an income premium then it is valued in industry.
- A philosophy degree causes critical thinking.
- Therefore, critical thinking is valued in industry.
The big concern with the sweeping cuts Caplan recommends is: how do you stop poor people losing their ability to signal their virtues, if the state withdraws the current subsidy?
Remarkably, the book is in large part not based on economists' research: there is as much sociology, . This triangulation strikes me as the way to write lasting social science, social science with a chance of still being relevant in a decade. Who writes like this, aside from the GMU mob?
Caplan is modest, thoughtful, an admirable empiricist. If you can't accept his argument you have a lot of work to do before you break even.
|Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems: Networks of Plausible Inference (1988) by Judea Pearl
probability is not really about numbers, it is about the structure of reasoning -Glen Shafer
By no means an introductory book; even chapter 1 will mean little to you if you haven't tried to model situations with both formal logic and probabilities before. (Some set theory wouldn't go amiss either.) Parts of it treat nearly-irrelevant dead controversies, just because he was still fighting off the McCarthy / production systems programme in the late Eighties. (For instance, I learned Dempster-Shafer theory in class, and it is sorta interesting and neatly evades Cox's theorem, but I still expect never to have to use it. It gets more than 50 pages here.) Bayesian networks, ingenious and progressive as they were, have peaked in use, though their children are still cutting edge and invaluable for human and nonhuman reasoning.
All that said: Pearl thinks very hard about ultimate matters. He didn't develop Bayesian networks (and causal models) as a hack, but instead as a consequence of showing probabilities to be better than the alternatives when tweaked for computation, subjective Bayesianism to be capable of handling causal inference, graphs as the natural data structure for both relevance and cause, and the causal/evidential decision theory distinction as primal.
On the surface, there is really no compelling reason that beliefs, being mental dispositions about unrepeatable and often unobservable events, should combine by the laws of proportions that govern repeatable trials such as the outcomes of gambling devices. The primary appeal of probability theory is its ability to express useful qualitative relationships among beliefs and to process these relationships in a way that yields intuitively plausible conclusions… What we wish to stress here is that the fortunate match between human intuition and the laws of proportions is not a coincidence. It came about because beliefs are formed not in a vacuum but rather as a distillation of sensory experiences...
We therefore take probability calculus as an initial model of human reasoning from which more refined models may originate, if needed. By exploring the limits of probability in machine implementations, we hope to identify conditions under which extensions, refinements and simplifications are warranted.
Building AI as feedback for formal epistemology! My favourite philosophers are technical like David Lewis; my favourite technical people are philosophical like Pearl.
He's also very good at taking us through a derivation and underlining the big implications (e.g. P(A) = \sum P(A|B_i) P(B_i) as a model for hypothetical reasoning: belief in event A is a weighted sum over belief in all the ways A can obtain). There's plenty of maths in here but I never struggled much, probably because of this qualitative care of his.
PRIS beats the arse off his own 2018 effort, perhaps because at this point he was still working incredibly hard to understand and synthesise competing approaches. Hard to rate. But if you want to seriously think about AI, you'll want to read it at some point.
* McCarthy is to probabilities as Minsky is to neural nets. He sent us down a rabbit hole, chasing nonmonotonic logic solutions to a numerical problem. (See also Chomsky vs prob language models.)
* Others have used Pearl's vision to explain the ideal form of rationality, which humans depart from.
* His discussion of extensional (hacking out a generalised logic) vs intensional (possible-world counting) approaches to uncertainty seems fundamental to me, bedrock.
* The heart of the matter: Bayesnets are O(n) in variables, but actually with some complicated tweaks so are Dempster-Shafer galleries.
* Dempster-Shafer is an interesting example of the contingency of (the context of discovery of) mathematics. It didn't have to be developed (since probs are adequate for so much), and yet it was, and it evades the normal arguments against other uncertainty measures and is thus alive, if unpopular. (Compare noneuclidean geometries.) What other dominant calculi would get similarly competing theories, if we threw a few decades of brilliance at them?
|Beggars in Spain (Sleepless, #1) (1993) by Nancy Kress
||Big, moving dynasty novel about a future class war. Elitism vs racism, individualism vs collectivism, negative freedom vs positive freedom, UBI and/or dignity. Kress' stated goal is to bring together Rand's ideal and Le Guin's (ambiguous) ideal and see how they spark off each other, their repulsion dance.
The first two books seem simple: a good basic dramatisation of the excellence vs equality problem. But stick with it, dialectic comes. Kress is much better at inhabiting other views than Rand, but not quite as good as Le Guin (who surprised me with how ambivalent, careful and detached her books can be, when her essays are so often blunt and denunciatory). Unlike them, Kress allows her ubermenschen to be irrational, as when the Sleepers fall into stupid binary demonisation of the majority outgroup. The Sanctuary bunch start as Objectivists, but are twisted by Jennifer's wealth and terrorism into the worst totalitarian collectivism - one without even pity for misfortune.
She climbs inside libertarianism, productivism, Objectivism, elitism - half of the protagonists are deeply, unreflectively into these ideologies for half the book. Leisha finds one fatal flaw with them - society is not a linear series of contracts but a chaotic informal web of micro-contracts and unthinking mutual structuration, with a thin layer of formal voluntary contracts on top.
She remembered the day she had realized that [Objectivist] economics were not large enough. Their stress on individual excellence left out too many phenomena, too many people: those who had no excellence and never would. The beggars, who nonetheless had definite if obscure roles to play in the way the world ran. They were like parasites on a mammal that torment it to a scratching frenzy that draws blood, but whose eggs serve as food for other insects that feed yet others who fatten the birds that are prey for the rodents the tormented mammal eats. A bloody ecology of trade, replacing the linear Yagaiist contracts occurring in a vacuum. The ecology was large enough to take Sleepers and Sleepless, producers and beggars, the excellent and the mediocre and the seemingly worthless. And what kept the ecology functioning was the law.
Miranda and the supers find another, which is that fortune can mock anyone regardless of momentary strength or weakness.
Tony, Leisha said silently, there are no permanent beggars in Spain. Or anywhere else. The beggar you give a dollar to today might change the world tomorrow. Or become father to the man who will. Or grandfather, or great-grandfather. There is no stable ecology of trade, as I thought once, when I was very young. There is no stable anything, much less stagnant anything, given enough time. And no nonproductive anything, either. Beggars are only gene lines temporarily between communities.
The hyper-precocious kids are about as off-putting as those in Ender's Game. I wish she had only given the Sleepless more time than the unmodified - not superintelligence and immortality to boot. This would still be enough to create the tension the plot needs, they'd just grow with a lower exponent, maybe taking 150 rather than 40 years.
Everyone in this book, plus maybe Kress herself, are in serious need of the first lesson of first year economics, comparative advantage. This says, roughly, that it actually isn't a fatal problem if someone is better than you at every different economic task: they still have limited time, so they can still gain from trading with you (you each produce the thing you're best at making then swap some). This understates the problem with launching your entire city population into space, which is that you've just made transactions costs a thousand times more expensive (Y-energy or no). It would be so hard to make Sanctuary profitable, and yet it's implied to be about the GDP of the entire Decadent 20% Productive USA.
Kress portrays a couple of neglected ideologies. One, which determines just as much of world events as liberalism or socialism, has only the ugly name 'productivism' (or maybe also the misleading name 'workaholism'). Leisha is a classic example. On worrying that her elderly stepmother might be just farting around the house:
Leisha had felt a palpable relief, like a small pop in her chest, when she saw the terminal and medical journals in Susan’s office.
On her relationship trouble:
“We’re fine, Susan. We work together really well. That’s what really matters, after all.”
You can laugh at someone missing the point of life so much, but you should consider how much of what you value depends on people like this. And, when summarised into the long-term growth rate, how much of the vast potential of the future does. (Ada Palmer covers this exact dynamic, as the romantic "vocateurs", people of vocation.) And another ideology neglected in fiction: Leisha is a rare instance of "bleeding-heart libertarianism" (another ugly name).
Genetic engineering is becoming a reality, one that many people are not ready to acknowledge, let alone allow. But you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. We know how to manipulate the human genome and so, inevitably, we will. The two sequels to Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride, explore that issue in as much detail as I could invent. Even so, I didn’t come close to covering the excitement, the changes, the shock, and the controversy that genetic engineering will bring in the coming decades. I just wish that I could stick around for a hundred years or so to see it—and to write about it. Nah mate not a hundred years; try thirty.
* There are eventually 4 classes: Livers (the idle cosseted underclass), Donkeys (the unmodified workers, the elite Sleepers), Norm Sleepless and the Super Sleepless. Ordered pair of ordered pairs.
* One key to the conflicts is that people have grown used to certain ancient inequalities of degree, but new or qualitative ones should awake all of our envy and rage
Beautiful or brainy children might encounter natural envy, but usually not virulent hatred. They were not viewed as a different race, one endlessly conspiring at power, endlessly controlling behind the scenes, endlessly feared and scorned. The Sleepless,
* Most of the big interventions in the book fail. Yagai's gift to the US enables its slide into total indolence and short-termist hedonism. Hawke's nasty uprising for dignified labour morphs into shallow hedonistic Idiocracy, voting for more party money instead of doing things.
* Sanctuary is grandly sick, a monarchy masquerading as half a democracy. (It is not quite as sick and complete as the totalitarianism in Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky.) The mad monarch, Jennifer is a blank evil cipher for almost the whole book, eventually cracking during the final confrontation.
This… child, this girl who had never been spat upon because she was Sleepless… never locked in a room by a mother who was putrid with jealousy of a beauty her daughter would never lose, even as the mother’s beauty was inexorably fading… never locked in a cell away from her children… never betrayed by a husband who hated his own sleeplessness… this spoiled and pampered child who had been given everything was attempting to thwart her, Jennifer Sharifi, who had brought Sanctuary into its very being by the force of her own will.
The children looked at their shoes. They were afraid of her, Jennifer saw. That was not bad; fear was only the ancient word for respect.
She's a paranoid idiot, or rather mindkilled by fear and the dread ruthlessness of a survivor. Witness her adhoc patching of the edge cases of personhood on Sanctuary, her silly fixation on mere sleep and mere relative productivity, which is her downfall. And: What good outcome could there have been from her bioterrorist secession? She's an effective villain despite her inertness because she's so good at manipulating smart well-meaning people into vice. The horror of sophistry.
She has a right to her life, whatever it is now!”
Jennifer said, “The real question is, do we have the right to sacrifice someone else’s life to the care of hers?”
* Libertarianism could be a lovely thing, for some other species. It builds a philosophy of life from a completely different direction than mine: top-down, from grand general ideas to morals and behaviour. (Has anyone teased them for having a top-down philosophy which demands the abolition of top-down forces?) The bottom-up approach, missing from this book, is to instead move from experiences, which motivate morals and nonmorals just by you understanding what it is like to experience them. Any subject of experience deserves good; the legal and political implications are distantly contingent on this, and vary massively from time to time as a result. Productivity is good when it leads to good lives: the enlightened definition of 'productive' is whatever does this. If pushpin or cartoons give you pleasure, they're productive. It just happens that there is generally currently millions of times more productive things to do. (The Livers are aesthetically repugnant to me, but eh their lives are better than most.) This isn't as vacuous as it sounds: consider the remarkable goodness of (most of) Jeremy Bentham's beliefs, in a time of universal bigotry. We got better, but we're still not optimising for good vibes.
* "Community" is mostly malign here: the zero-sum nativism of We-Sleep, the incoherent defensive supremacism of Sanctuary. The idea does have a black heart: "us, not them", but there are better, nicer examples. (I suppose the Supers are the steelman.) The one grace of the instances here is separatism: they don't initially demand mutilation or submission, just space for their difference. We-Sleep is also a pretty weak exemplar for socialism.
“Wake up, Jordan. No social movement has ever progressed without emphasizing division, and doing that means stirring up hate. The American revolution, abolitionism, unionization, civil rights—”
“At least we didn’t invent this particular division—the Sleepless did. Feminism, gay rights, Dole franchisement—”
* The depiction of the supers' thought process is good and novel - they build and collaborate on "strings", complicated visual argumentation models, replacing natural language.
* What is Kress' view? It's not that good a question, given that she's trying to do dialectic between ideologies, and does it pretty well. But if we let Leisha's mature view stand in, there are some authorial-sounding notes
And throughout it all, the United States: rich, prosperous, myopic, magnificent in aggregate and petty in specifics, unwilling — always, always — to accord mass respect to the mind. To good fortune, to luck, to rugged individualism, to faith in God, to patriotism, to beauty, to spunk or pluck or grit or git, but never to complex intelligence and complex thought. It wasn’t sleeplessness that had caused all the rioting; it was thought and its twin consequences, change and challenge.
Leisha settles on the idea that it is impossible to reconcile solidarity and high-variance freedom, that the attempt to reconcile them drove Jennifer and the US mad.
When individuals are free to become anything at all, some will become geniuses and some will become resentful beggars. Some will benefit themselves and their communities, and others will benefit no one and just loot whatever they can. Equality disappears. You can’t have both equality and the freedom to pursue individual excellence.
The book's answer is to not take either horn, to just juggle the contradiction forever. I don't see the dilemma really; you just separate moral worth from ability, then automate the economy: boom, equality and freedom.
Maybe five stars on re-read, though the prose might be a bit flat for that (aside from a couple of moving passages, all quoted above) and maybe the dialectic is too heavy-handed.
How does it do as Serious science fiction?
Social development: Strong. The various caste systems that spring up are believable - for instance the Liver/Donkey one, where the donkeys downplay their own work and set up society as a circus, to short-circuit the questions of employment, dignity, status, revolution. Her nativists are very plausible, though they speak less about "natural life" than I expect ours to (the Sleepers seem happy with any genetic modification besides sleeplessness). The elitism of the Sleepless is just a stronger form of the sort already held by certain merely slightly more productive conservatives. Much of the economics is questionable though, particularly the C21st self-sufficient space city of 80,000(?).
Software development: Good, though high-level even by fiction's standards. The plot hangs on software (including patent databases), though these are mostly reduced to relative hacking ability. Only Vinge is better.
Actual Science: Some very sketchy genetics at the heart of the plot but not much. It's not pure magic - she puts realistically heavy limits on the genetic engineering of adults - but the rest is just assumed.
|A Companion to Ethics (1991) by Peter Singer
|Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota, #1) (2016) by Ada Palmer
||SF with prose from the (radical) C18th, written IRL by a historian of that time. A big old bucket of ideas.
I loved the many didactic discursions - e.g. de Sade's Christian name being a plot point, sections written in speculative future Latin - but I think most readers will not love them. I did choke a little at the constant coincidences, and at the enslaved protagonist meeting literally every elite in the world in the space of two days.
Filled with what some have called out for, "competence porn" - i.e. the elites are manipulative, egotistical, and yet still acting in (what they think are) the best interests of the world.
Will probably bump it up to a 5 on re-read.
Get past the superficial quaintness, you'll be rewarded.
|The People's Act of Love (2003) by James Meek
||Found this very striking when I read it 13 years ago, but can't remember why.
|Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration (2019) by Bryan Caplan
Beautiful stuff, perhaps the clearest economic argument I've ever seen, and more moving than expected. I've seen people dismiss it as narrowly economic ("people value more than money ya know") but this is stupid: fully half the book is about morals and culture. There are dozens of lovely little easter eggs in Weinersmith's art too (e.g. "Conspicuone Pecansumption" icecream).
1. Closed borders lead to incredible suffering - not just the obvious oppression of camps, raids, struggle and drownings, but also the unnecessary perpetuation of poverty.
2. He argues that it's a human rights issue: "If a foreigner wants to accept a job offer from a willing employer or rent an apartment from a willing landlord, what moral right does anyone have to stop them? These are contracts between consenting adults, not welfare programs." The regulation is an apartheid with comparatively little outcry and great popularity.
3. America had completely open borders until 1875 and comparatively-free undocumented immigration until 1924. It did pretty alright.
4. Immigrants on average have been fiscally net-positive. Doing our best to isolate the effects, moving to a rich country seems to multiply your productivity. (For a few reasons: more co-operation, a larger market for your work, no tropical disease, coastal trade, IQ gain if you're young.) This model predicts trillions of dollars of gain from open borders. If true, this massively reduces global poverty.
5. Immigrants are on average culturally positive, allowing the recipient country to select from the best of everything in the world. The first generation are quite a bit more law-abiding than average natives. (Nowrasteh estimates that just one in seven million immigrants turned out to be a terrorist.) Assimilation is high, usually complete within 2-3 generations. "Political externalities" (the idea that your good culture will be voted out by bad culture once you let immigrants vote) have not in fact been seen.
- The data is mostly from our current highly-restricted high-skill-only immigration regime. It's not clear which effects would change in the dramatically different world Caplan promotes, though he does his best to look at saturation effects and the low-skilled who are currently persecuted-out. (For instance, a large part of his cultural argument depends on the low-skilled continuing to not vote, as they haven't.)
- The biggest risk by far is the damage caused by irrational native backlash against foreigners. This produces things like Brexit and the Jobbik and Austrian 'Freedom' governments. Chapter 6 addresses some of this by suggesting ways to make things unfair for the migrants (limiting their welfare access, entry tolls, language tests, slow naturalisation) to mollify the local problems / backlash and so protect people's right to move in the first place. I glumly suspect this wouldn't work, because much of the backlash isn't based on real effects, and so can't be mollified by policy. (Indeed, he notes that most of the suggested hobbles already exist in US law in some form, and might have somewhat dulled anti-immigration sentiment.)
- He sometimes implies that he'd open borders in one big bang - but this size of policy shift should basically never be done, just out of epistemic modesty and reversibility. His counter is that the magnitude of the gains is too large to be possibly less than zero.
- It's mostly based on US data and US policy is the target, which is completely fine but limits the inference. This is sensible; general theory, general policy usually fail.
- To my surprise he doesn't much emphasise the macropolitical benefits of immigration: if people could just leave countries with terrible policies, taking their taxes with them, this would be a new and powerful check on government abuse. Voting with your feet, and governments actually trying to attract and retain people.
- Though its evidence checks out (as far as I can tell), it's still a polemic (like The Wealth of Nations before it!). As such it's simple, too simple. The Center for Global Development has a sadder, equivocal summary congruent to the limits of social science:
No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what “the” effect of “immigration” is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration.
|The Age of Reason (1945) by Jean-Paul Sartre
||So nasty, but some great lines.
|The Replacing Guilt Series () by Nate Soares
pinch yourself, and remember what you are. What do you see?
I see bundles of proteins and lipids arranged in a giant colony of cells, lives given over to the implementation of a wet protein computer that thinks it's a person... Look at us, the first species among the animals that can figure out what the stars are, still tightly bound to impulse and social pressure. (Notice how silly it is, monkeys acting all serious and wise as they try to affect the course of history.)... [but still] see the lost monkey who's trying to steer an entire universe...
Consequentialism for humans. Important because it is rare for discussions of "demandingness" or "scrupulosity" to speak about specific behavioural patterns or phenomenology. (It also has the most important part of self-help, an awareness that positive advice is never universal: "remember the law of equal and opposite advice. For every piece of advice useful to one person, there is some other person who needs exactly the opposite advice.")
(I put off reading this for a whole year, and felt bad about it. So.)
He'd have you move from external motivation to intrinsic motivation because it's more sustainable, and so more effective. He's quite radical about this, ditching normal moral psychology:
the way that most people use the word "should," most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves... imagine the person who wakes up feeling a bit sick. They say to themselves, "ugh, I should go to the pharmacy and pick up medication before work." Now picking up meds feels like an obligation: if they don't get meds, then that's a little bit of evidence that they're incompetent, or akrasiatic, or bad... this disconnects the reason from the task, it abolishes the "why". The person feeling sick now feels like they have an obligation to pick up medication, and so if they do it, they do it grudgingly, resenting the situation... Now imagine they say this, instead: "ugh, if I went to the pharmacy to pick up medication, I'd feel better at work today."
Your true shoulds, if I could show them to you, would not look like a list of obligations. Your true shoulds would look like a recipe for building a utopia.
Many treat their moral impulses as a burden. But I say, find all the parts that feel like a burden, and drop them. Keep only the things that fill you with resolve, the things you would risk life and limb to defend.
I find it amusing that "we need lies because we can't bear the truth" is such a common refrain, given how much of my drive stems from my response to attempting to bear the truth.
"Badness" is not a fundamental property that a person can have. At best, "they're bad" can be shorthand for either "I don't want their goals achieved" or "they are untrained in a number of skills which would be relevant to the present situation"; but in all cases, "they are bad" must be either shorthand or nonsense.
Wouldn't Nietzsche in his better moods (or Laozi at any time) smile?
The strategy is roughly:
1. Find something to care about. (Obstacles: hiding in bed, defensive relativism or nihilism, hiding in routine.)
2. Drop all obligations and see what you still care about.
3. Build intrinsic drive (change environment, train willpower and habit)
4. Draw on the fact that the world is broken as fuel
5. See guilt as an alien concept, unnecessary for the higher goals.
An important distinction:
* Listless guilt: feeling bad because you feel you should do something with your life, but not really thinking about what.
* Specific guilt: feeling bad because of unmet obligations to a particular goal.
* Akrasia guilt: feeling bad because you're not following the endorsed plan.
One startling bit: some people report that following his advice has "broken" them, in the sense that guilt was indeed propping up their lives. His response is, "good":
Some people, when they stop forcing themselves to do things because they "should," will do a bit less to improve the world. They'll bow a bit less to social pressure, and insofar as the social pressure was pushing them to do what you think is good, you might count that as a loss. Some people don't care about things larger than themselves, and that's perfectly fine, and making them more resilient to social pressure might lose the world some charity.
I expect that far more charity is lost from people convincing themselves that their altruistic desires are external obligations and resenting them. I expect that most people who feel obligated to improve the world and only do it because they "should" will become much more effective if they stop forcing themselves...
You can recover from breaking a few parts of yourself, so long as you're modular rather than fragile.
(This attitude is strongly reminiscent of the person Scott Alexander is incredulous about at the end of this great, great piece, though with instrumental harm.)
I'd probably be more cautious, and advise you not to read this if you don't have lots of slack, support, and stomach for horrible facts. (Soares finds intrinsic motivation in attending to how awful the world is, how much it needs fixing.)
It's short but dense with interesting ideas. (e.g. the nice concise rebuttal of naive internalist egoism.)
Each post repeats its point at least three times, which I suppose is intentional pedagogy, but it made me skim a lot. Soares also often links forward to posts you haven't read yet, confusingly.
I'm not particularly guilt-ridden or scrupulous, on the scale of things, but I still found this good. Not sure I buy everything in it, but the rough method (move from vague to specific guilt, and then view the specific guilt as an external and unhelpful force in the light of your specific goal) seems sensible.
If the following worldview or prose doesn't appeal to you, it's not for you:
you will not be measured by the number of moments in which you worked as hard as you could. You will not be judged by someone rooting around in your mind to see whether you were good or bad. You will not be evaluated according to how unassailable your explanations are, for why things you couldn't possibly have prevented were the things that went wrong.
You will be measured only by what actually happens... this is the driver that takes the place of guilt... All we need to do, in any given moment, is look upon the actions available to us and take whichever one seems most likely to lead to a future full of light.
Why should we listen to self-help, unless the author has done something impressive? I don't know if you find these things impressive, but they serve.
|Do You Think What You Think You Think? (2006) by Julian Baggini
||Maybe the first philosophy (nominal philosophy? thing by a philosopher?) I read. Can't quite remember if it was amazing, but I ended up doing philosophy so it can't have been bad.
|This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009) by David Foster Wallace
||There's been a lot of DFW hate lately – here, here, here, here. But who else marries the syrupy plain with the thrilling theoretical arcane? Could anyone fail to understand the retrospectively obvious point of this little lecture? (Roughly just: It requires constant work to divert yourself from egotism and irritation; this work is the point of education and the essence of maturity.)
The audience titters throughout the recording; this grates on me. It’s the forced, knowing laughter you hear in theatres. I submit that it’s this feature of DFW’s audience that Ellis and TLP hate. I don’t know if reading DFW makes me any less self-obsessed and disdainful, but actually it feels like it might.
|How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (2007) by Pierre Bayard
|| In one sentence: Relax, it's a game.
To be read when: teenaged; burdened by the thought of the millions of unread books; before going to a posh party.
There are too many books; among those worth reading at all, most are best skimmed; others are best interpreted via interpreters; you only see part of the possible meaning of the books you've read; and you've forgotten almost anything about even those. So relax and talk about the 'virtual' book, the idea of it, the version of it that you and your interlocutor inadvertently generate between you.
The title sounds like vacuous click-bait (indeed, a friend who later wrote his thesis on Bayard initially thought I was recommending something like this fluff). But it is instead all of the following: a thrilling act of virtuoso postmodern over-reading, a serious look at intellectual status and neurosis, a really interesting phenomenology of books, a glowing review of a dozen writers (including my beloved-but-low-status Greene and Lodge), and sheer backwards-land satire.
I found it liberating, not because I go round pretending to have read things (a free-rider in literary conversations), but because by the end of my arts degree I had found out, to my surprise and dismay, that high culture is 90% bollocks. Or, maybe: that arts culture is shallow and irrational, a thick and grasping vine overgrowing the lovely lonely tower of great writing and painting.
Bayard (or anyway his cheeky narrator) help unhook you from the blind devotion of the reading classes, and lets you face books on your own terms, sceptical and skimming and agentic. I was freed - and immediately started to get technical.
And 'Bayard's' style - pointing out the inconvenient but undeniable things about a cherished phenomenon - now reminds me of the arch-rationalist Robin Hanson. Which is where I went next.
- Galef type:
Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &
Style 2 - learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker
|The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing (2012) by John R. Perry
structured procrastinator: a person who gets a lot done by [consciously] not doing other [important] things.
This book didn't exactly change my life, but it made me feel better about what I was already doing. (Before, I'd been calling it slingshot akrasia.)
Structured procrastination is that staple from stand-up comedy where the best way to get yourself to tidy your entire house is to sit down to do your taxes.
: All of my reviews, all of my essays were written in the glow and shadow of other things I should've been doing.
All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they find the time. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because accomplishing these tasks is a way of not doing something more important.
If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him to do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important...
Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important. And the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being...
The second step in the art of structured procrastination is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal projects have two characteristics -- they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't), and they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. At universities, the vast majority of tasks fall into those two categories, and I'm sure the same is true for most other institutions...
At this point, the observant reader may feel that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly... what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the effects of another?
Work and study pressurise my life. They give me a structure to defy, a gravity assist. I am happiest laden with obligations, when the set of tasks that is my life flies just out of control. I think the mechanism is this:
1. I require a steady stream of variety.
2. Having a job makes my days closely resemble each other.
3. Intolerable resentment.
I am forced to produce creative sparks to satisfy my basic drive.
SP is related to how great I feel when I don't have to go to a party, to my sadly efficient approach to grades, to how giving work to a busy person is a good way of getting it done quicker, i.e. an implausible linear increase of output with increasing things to do. I read more fiction when doing a stats degree and learn more stats when in work.
Antecedents of Perry and me.
I often wonder what kind of person I would be if I had been protected from the cold wind of fate by the screen of wealth... to reach the tawdry heights of being a good assistant book-keeper in a job that is about as demanding as an afternoon nap and offers a salary that gives me just enough to live on.
I know that, had that past existed, I would not now be capable of writing these pages, which, though few, I would undoubtedly have only day-dreamed, given more comfortable circumstances. For banality is a form of intelligence, and reality, especially if it is brutish and rough, forms a natural complement to the soul. Much of what I feel and think I owe to my work as a book-keeper since the former exists as a negation of and flight from the latter.
the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity... produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely-strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals... we have it still, all the distress of spirit and all the tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the duty, and, who knows? The goal to aim at...
The best circumstance for writing, I realized... were those in which the world was constantly knocking at your door; in such circumstances, the work you were engaged in generated a kind of pressure, a force to keep the world at bay. Whereas here, on Alonissos, there was nothing to keep at bay, there was no incentive to generate any pressure within the work, and so the surrounding emptiness invaded and dissipated, overwhelmed you with inertia. All you could do was look at the sea and the sky and after a couple of days you could scarcely be bothered to do that.
[After months of working only on my main goal] I took on a job doing closed captioning because I found it [made for] an easier time writing. Just something about talking to people and watching weird media made the writing a lot easier. My new theory of self was that you can't write well unless you have a little strife in your life. I worked at the closed captioning job for 4-6 months and by then I was making enough money on the site to responsibly quit my job.
The problem was I didn't want to quit my job and have readership fall off because I couldn't write, so my crazy idea was to go back to school. I thought, it'd to be this weird environment, with younger people, and that would be good...
Is this platitudinous? It is possible that the grand narration above is delusional, and that the only actual content here is "A lot of people work better under pressure". Don't think so though.
YMMV. 5/5 if you don't do this already.
|80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good () by Benjamin Todd
||Collation of results from a very grand project: to channel young careerist thousands into better tasks in higher gear. If you have the will to do well, you should read the website, and think through the planning exercise here.
Unlike everything else I've read about career development, since it talks about work and success without being nauseating.
|Exhalation: Stories (2019) by Ted Chiang
||Wonderful again, worth the wait - 9 stories (including 4 novellas) in 12 years. The defamiliarisation, the perceptual aid in these is the equal of great philosophical work.
The best bit is his patience and magnanimity with folk psychology. He is much more empathetic with bad philosophy that I am; he builds people very different from himself or me (a worried father writing a moral-panic piece about perfect recall; a young-earth creationist tipped into despair by being god's practice shot), and then around page 10 he flips their philosophy, showing how it unravels in the face of reality, and so makes me look like an idiot zealot for being irritated by them.
many people became convinced that [alt-timeline creation devices] nullified the moral weight of their actions. Few acted so rashly as to commit murder or other felonies, but...
In "What's Expected of Us" he has "one-third" of people driven mad by an intuitive demonstration of their lack of 'libertarian' free will. I don't doubt that some would be, but there's no way that one-third of people are that abstract, that philosophically susceptible. The world would look so different if they were. (We have "paradox-absorbing crumple zones", as Futurama puts it.) And as for the ones who did go mad, I would be tutting at them for letting bad philosophy confuse them to death.
The title story is just perfect, the story of a robot dissecting itself and thereby learning of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its emotional implications. It's powerful because it's us. Our waste air is waste heat. Our pressure gradient is a proton gradient.
Another distinctive thing: Half the stories have a pair of contrasting narrators, objective and subjective. One of these voices is merely expository, apparently styleless. But it just works.
I was primed to dislike "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" from the title alone: despite popular usage, feelings are neither true or false, but instead grounded or ungrounded, helpful or unhelpful. (I was shocked to find this activist taxonomy very useful: valid / justified / effective.) But again it's larger than me: it links the great oral-to-literate transition to a near-future one from analogue-literate to digital-literate. God it's good, like Black Mirror if it wasn't relentlessly scaremongering and cheap.
2. "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling"
4. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
5. "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom"
6. "The Great Silence"
7. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects"
8. "What's Expected of Us"
9. "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny"
Not as good as his first collection, but what is? (With Le Guin and Wolfe gone, he might be the reigning master.)
|The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins
|Information Theory: A Tutorial Introduction (2015) by James V. Stone
rigour follows insight
A pleasure to spend time with. Stone's arguments are complete without being bloated, and he has a keen eye for philosophical and intuitive implications ("Why does maximum information look like pure noise?", "What exactly does half a bit mean?", and much more). This completeness means that he sometimes repeats definitions or lemmas, but I defy you to find this unhelpful.
The bibliography is also excellent, ranking a hundred books by their specialty and difficulty.
(Quibble: at the end he suggests that Shannon's originality was so strong that he "single-handedly accelerated the rate of scientific progress, and it is entirely possible that, without his contribution, we would still be treating information as if it were some ill-defined vital fluid". But his work seems so natural and elementary that this would surprise me. Weak evidence: Konrad Zuse independently invented Shannon's boolean circuit theory...)
|Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013) by Sendhil Mullainathan
||Economics bills itself as 'the study of decisions under scarcity', though much of it is actually about excess: luxury substitution, savings rates, futures markets, conspicuous consumption, and so on. The psychological side - the panic, narrow focus, and sense of doom - was completely absent from my economics classes, but without it you can't really understand poverty, and thus can't value economic growth as the life-saving, mind-saving thing it has been.
Reasons scarcity is bad:
1. Lower consumption is less good (and sometimes very bad)
2. Less freedom (fewer choices)
3. Anxiety (emotional penalty)
4. Cognitive penalty (bandwidth of worrying)
5. Excessive focus on present, no planning, compromising future ("tunnelling")
6. Have to spend time on careful allocation ("juggling")
7. Excess self-consciousness means worse performance ("choking")
8. It might also poison social interaction by encouraging zero-sum thinking and its attendent wasteful conflict. (Although see Junger for some positive social effects of shared adversity.)
9. It recurses: Mistakes lead to real sacrifice (debt; traps; no slack means penalties bite, further reducing slack). Scarcity causes more scarcity by screwing with your planning and implementation skills.
Economics only really handles costs (1) and (2). Psychology at its best handles (3-7). (9) is the author's new contribution, I think: this is cognitive economics.
Without some spare resources it's impossible to be free, to be generous, to relax. That's obvious. Less obvious: Without slack you can't even think straight (there's a "bandwidth tax" on the poor, reducing their effective intelligence, willpower by perhaps an entire standard deviation). Most of the cited experiments are about money scarcity, but their ingenious move is to generalise to all of us, to all conditions where a person lacks some instinctively (evolutionarily) key resource: e.g. money, time, calories, friends. As well as a rare theoretical synthesis, this makes this book more evocative for its rich-world readers:
We have used the psychology of scarcity to create an empathy bridge. We have used experience with one form of scarcity (say, time) to connect to another form (money). Having known what it’s like to badly need a little more time, we might start to imagine what it’s like to desperately need a little more money or even more friends. We used this bridge to draw a connection between a busy manager fretting about insufficient time before a deadline and a person short on cash fretting about insufficient funds to pay rent.
Exciting! I've been reading development economics and behavioural science for years, and I still got a lot of new results and a whole gosh-darnit Practical Theory of Mind with moving parts from this.
They compress all the complex constructs and determinants of their real theory into a lossy construct, "bandwidth". This is a shorthand for working memory & fluid intelligence & attention span & decision consistency & persistence & executive control & long-term planning inclination. They admit at the start it's a compression, so that's fine.
With compromised bandwidth, we are more likely to give in to our impulses, more likely to cave in to temptations. With little slack, we have less room to fail. With compromised bandwidth, we are more likely to fail.
Lesson: To actually optimise your life, you can't optimise too hard, in the sense of pushing right up against your budgets. This idea is not new; a different book would tie this to queuing theory and distributed systems, trying to find general theoretical truths about systems. (What's the maximum sustainable load for a server? For a life?) Excess capacity, 'slack', is short-run inefficiency and long-term shock-tolerance and thus true efficiency. The point seems to apply to servers, hospitals, and a single human life viewed from inside.
This also adds to Taleb's critique of naive finance, encouraging 'risk-sensitive optimisation' (or, death-sensitive). Extends bounded rationality to limited attention, willpower, as well as computation and a search budget.
The book's big philosophical question is the old Essence vs Context chestnut ("the poor are worse parents, drivers, borrowers" vs "given these constraints, people are worse parents, drivers, borrowers"). But it's a new twist on it: rather than (as well as) a developmental deficiency, poverty is an active, situational force:
This shortfall is not of the standard physiological variety, having to do with a lack of nutrition or stress from early childhood hindering brain development. Nor is bandwidth permanently compromised by poverty. It is the present-day cognitive load of making ends meet: when income rises, so, too, does cognitive capacity. The bandwidth of the farmers was restored as soon as crop payments were received. Poverty at its very core taxes bandwidth and diminishes capacity.
This surprises me: I generally accept that people are hard to change, that engineered context is relatively weak. But then all attempts at self-improvement are a denial of essentialism about something, and I'm well into those.
To explain why the poor borrow excessively, we do not need to appeal to a lack of financial education, the avarice of predatory lenders, or an oversized tendency for self-indulgence. To explain why the busy put off things and fall behind, we do not need to appeal to weak self-control, deficient understanding, or a lack of time-management skills. Instead, borrowing is a simple consequence of tunneling.
They don't sugarcoat it: they accept the massive body of evidence on how burdened the poor are, on dozens of axes. And they note that just giving them cash rarely solves the problem because this doesn't change the logic enough.
The poor stay poor, the lonely stay lonely, the busy stay busy, and diets fail.
One big gripe: They use the word "scarcity" for both a physical shortage (i.e. the normal economic sense) and for this special psychological burden. (Not having, and having your mind captured by not having.) This needs two words; it muddies their thesis.
They've persuaded me that late fines are an extremely regressive tax. I'm open to the view that reducing poor people's options is sometimes best for them (e.g. if they are "hurt by the ability to borrow [at extortionate rates]" because it prevents them smoothing their income in a credit cycle). I agree that bandwidth is the deepest kind of human capital.
Their treatment of the mental costs of education is important, given NGOs' blithe promotion of education over all else. (And it's a further argument for unconditional cash transfers.)
To capitalize on a bonus payment for a child’s medical checkup, a parent must set up the appointment, remember to keep it, find the time to get there and back, and coerce the child to go (no child likes the doctor!). Each of these steps requires some bandwidth. And this is just one behavior. Conditional cash transfer programs seek to encourage dozens, if not hundreds, of these good behaviors. Just understanding those incentives and making the necessary trade-offs—deciding which are worth it for you and which are not, and when—requires bandwidth.
We never ask, Is this how we want poor people to use their bandwidth? We never factor in this cost in deciding which behaviors are most worth promoting. When we design poverty programs, we recognize that the poor are short on cash, so we are careful to conserve on that. But we do not think of bandwidth as being scarce as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in our impulse to educate.
I'm a keen and cynical student of social research, and but I only recognised one spurious result in this whole book. (ego depletion, p.107 - and that only in a tangent explicitly phrased as hypothetical.) They did a pretty convincing within-subjects study on sugar farmers before and after harvest income which nails down the effect as far as I can see.
Only not five stars because we can't give any social science book five stars until it is 20 years old and more severely scrutinised.
|A Few Quick Ones (Jeeves, #11.5) (1959) by P.G. Wodehouse
||What else can you read one line of and feel this happy?
In these disturbed days in which we live, it has probably occurred to all thinking men that something drastic ought to be done about aunts.
"The whimsical way she put it was that a woman who married a man my size ran a serious risk of being arrested for bigamy."
|Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom
||Like a lot of great philosophy, Superintelligence acts as a space elevator: you make many small, reasonable, careful movements - and you suddenly find yourself in outer space, home comforts far below. It is more rigorous about a topic which doesn't exist than you would think possible.
I didn't find it hard to read, but I have been marinating in tech rationalism for a few years and have absorbed much of Bostrom secondhand so YMMV.
I loved this:
Many of the points made in this book are probably wrong. It is also likely that there are considerations of critical importance that I fail to take into account, thereby invalidating some or all of my conclusions. I have gone to some length to indicate nuances and degrees of uncertainty throughout the text — encumbering it with an unsightly smudge of “possibly,” “might,” “may,” “could well,” “it seems,” “probably,” “very likely,” “almost certainly.” Each qualifier has been placed where it is carefully and deliberately. Yet these topical applications of epistemic modesty are not enough; they must be supplemented here by a systemic admission of uncertainty and fallibility. This is not false modesty: for while I believe that my book is likely to be seriously wrong and misleading, I think that the alternative views that have been presented in the literature are substantially worse - including the default view, according to which we can for the time being reasonably ignore the prospect of superintelligence.
Bostrom introduces dozens of neologisms and many arguments. Here is the main scary apriori one though:
1. Just being intelligent doesn't imply being benign; intelligence and goals can be independent. (the orthogonality thesis.)
2. Any agent which seeks resources and lacks explicit moral programming would default to dangerous behaviour. You are made of things it can use; hate is superfluous. (Instrumental convergence.)
3. It is conceivable that AIs might gain capability very rapidly through recursive self-improvement. (Non-negligible possibility of a hard takeoff.)
4. Since AIs will not be automatically nice, would by default do harmful things, and could obtain a lot of power very quickly*, AI safety is morally significant, deserving public funding, serious research, and international scrutiny.
Of far broader interest than its title (and that argument) might suggest to you. In particular, it is the best introduction I've seen to the new, shining decision sciences - an undervalued reinterpretation of old, vague ideas which, until recently, you only got to see if you read statistics, and economics, and the crunchier side of psychology. It is also a history of humanity, a thoughtful treatment of psychometrics v genetics, and a rare objective estimate of the worth of large organisations, past and future.
Superintelligence's main purpose is moral: he wants us to worry and act urgently about hypotheticals; given this rhetorical burden, his tone too is a triumph.
For a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands, a sensible thing to do would be to put it down gently, quickly back out of the room, and contact the nearest adult. Yet what we have here is not one child but many, each with access to an independent trigger mechanism. The chances that we will all find the sense to put down the dangerous stuff seem almost negligible. Some little idiot is bound to press the ignite button just to see what happens. Nor can we attain safety by running away, for the blast of an intelligence explosion would bring down the firmament. Nor is there a grown-up in sight...
This is not a prescription of fanaticism. The intelligence explosion might still be many decades off in the future. Moreover, the challenge we face is, in part, to hold on to our humanity: to maintain our groundedness, common sense, and goodhumored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.
I don't donate to AI safety orgs, despite caring about the best way to improve the world and despite having no argument against it better than "that's not how software has worked so far" and despite the concern of smart experts. This sober, kindly book made me realise this was more to do with fear of sneering than noble scepticism or empathy.
[EDIT 2019: Reader, I married this cause.]
* People sometimes choke on this point, but note that the first intelligence to obtain half a billion dollars virtually, anonymously, purely via mastery of maths occurred... just now. Robin Hanson chokes eloquently here and for god's sake let's hope he's right.
|Lost for Words (2014) by Edward St. Aubyn
||Brutal Booker Prize satire.
'The measure of a work of art is how much art it has in it, not how much ‘relevance’. Relevant to whom? Relevant to what? Nothing is more ephemeral than a hot topic.'
The targets I recognised were 'Wolf Hall', 'how late it was, how late' - and, among the judges, Stella Rimington, Chris Mullin, Malcolm Rifkind / Jim Murphy(?) Sam certainly sounds like Patrick, too:
Like a man walking backwards along a path, erasing his footsteps with a broom, he had tried, through contradiction, negation, paradox, unreliable narration and every other method he could devise, to cancel the tracks left by his words and to release his writing from the wretched positivity of affirming anything at all.
There's also an exquisite send-up of Deleuzian/Lacanian raving.
|An Introduction to Statistical Learning: With Applications in R (2013) by Gareth James
||Really good, heavy on intuition building, folk ML, and stuff which you'll actually use. I've brushed up against all of it before (: I've called all of it from the safe distance of a nice Python library before), but it took a second pass and doing all the exercises to click. To actually learn (grok) something, you need
1. To do it, not just read about it
2. To read it several times
3. To feel challenged but not overwhelmed by it
And 2&3 conflict.
(Most books don't have a natural do-operator. How do you do a novel? I make do with these reviews; others do fanfiction and probably get the same benefit.)
Kind of annoying that the figures are never next to their discussion. And I was hoping this would make me like R but I can't and I don't. But good.
|The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World () by Tom Chivers
||To my surprise I recommend this for anyone. (The chapters are tiny and I did the whole thing in an hour.) For outsiders it's an honest and nontechnical portrait of a new, strange, and wonderful endeavour; and Chivers shows his path from ordinary sceptical thoughtfulness to taking the idea seriously. (However, there's almost no maths in it, and without maths you can only ever sort-of get the gist. For instance, one of the key premises of the whole programme is very easy to understand if you've ever seen the structure of a reinforcement learning algorithm - where the 'optimizer' and the 'reward function' are completely separate modules varying freely - and apparently quite difficult to accept if you haven't.)
For insiders it's a reminder of just how strange the project seems from outside. The chasm of inferential distance. There's also fun new details: I had no idea that Bostrom is name-dropped in Donald Glover's new TV show, for instance. And this made me laugh:
Buck Shlegeris, a young MIRI employee with excitingly coloured hair and an Australian accent, told me that 'A book on this topic could be good', and that 'if I could jump into your body I have high confidence I could write it'. However, his confidence that I could write it from within my own body seemed significantly lower, which is probably fair enough.
If you've read much on the topic you can skip the whole middle third of the book, it's just Chivers paraphrasing bits of the first two Sequences.
Chivers overemphasises Yudkowsky. Gwern, Grace, Sandberg, and Muehlhauser get one passing reference each, but their work (and Krakovna's) have each had a larger effect on me, and on others I know. Not to mention the tumblrs. Ach never mind: it's a huge illegible mess of a movement and he's done well.
Some of the interviewees make patently poor arguments - Sabisky ("it's a sex cult"), Brooks ("no [AI safety proponents] have ever done any work in AI itself"), Gerard ("it's a money-spinning cult") but it's so patent that I think people will see their prejudices. The real shame is that better critics exist - I have in mind the anonymous prosaic-AI researchers Nostalgebraist ("alignment is equivalent to solving ethics and decision theory at once") and "Beth Zero". But I suppose anon randos are not the best subjects for a mass-market book.
"Here is what this ends up looking like: a quest to solve, once and for all, some of the most basic problems of existing and acting among others who are doing the same... problems of this sort have been wrestled with for a long time using terms like “coordination problems” and “Goodhart’s Law”; they constitute much of the subject matter of political philosophy, economics, and game theory, among other fields. It sounds misleadingly provincial to call such a quest “AI Alignment” ...
There is no doubt something beautiful – and much raw intellectual appeal – in the quest for Alignment. It includes, of necessity, some of the most mind-bending facets of both mathematics and philosophy, and what is more, it has an emotional poignancy and human resonance rarely so close to the surface in those rarefied subjects. I certainly have no quarrel with the choice to devote some resources, the life’s work of some people, to this grand Problem of Problems. One imagines an Alignment monastery, carrying on the work for centuries. I am not sure I would expect them to ever succeed, much less to succeed in some specified timeframe, but in some way it would make me glad, even proud, to know they were there."
Young Yudkowsky is adorable - and I hope others are able to see this past his hubris and proclamations.
Chivers manages to show the power and emotional impact of the 'internal double crux' idea:
I can picture a world in 50 or 100 that my children live in, which has different coastlines and higher risk of storms and, if I'm brually honest about it, famines in parts of the world I don't go. I could imagine my Western children in their Western world living lives not vastly different to mine, in which most of the suffering of the world is hidden away, and the lives of well-off Westerners continue and my kids have jobs... Whereas if the AI stuff really does happen, that's not the future they have... I can understand Bostrom's arguments that an intelligence explosion would completely transform the world; it's pointless speculating what a superintelligence would do, in the same way it would be stupid for a gorilla to wonder how humanity would change the world.
And I realised that this was what the instinctive 'yuck' was when I thought about the arguments for AI risk. 'I feel that parents should be able to advise their children,' I said. 'Anything involving AGI happening in their lifetime - I can't advise them on that future. I can't tell them how best to live their lives because I don't know what their lives will look like, or even if they'll be recognisable as human lives... I'm scared for my children.' And at this point I apologised, because I found that I was crying.
(Amateur psychoanalysis is fine - if you're doing it to yourself, and if you don't take it too seriously.)
I'm pretty sure I know who this is (that mix of iron scrupulousness and radical honesty) and before I read it I thought the same:
I met a senior Rationalist briefly in California, and he was extremely wary of me; he refused to go on the record. He has a reputation for being one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but I found him a bit stand-offish, at least at first. And I think that was because he knew I was writing this book. He said he was worried that if too many people hear about AI risk, then it'll end up like IQ, the subject of endless angry political arguments that have little to do with the science, and that a gaggle of nerdy Californian white guys probably weren't the best advocates for it then.
Journalistic harm I feared, that didn't come to pass: he never comments on anyone's appearance ("It would be extremely easy for me to write a book mocking them. But I don't want to do that."); he mentions Dylan Matthews' irritating amateur psychoanalysis only once - roughly, "of course Silicon Valley people think that good software will save the world"; he gives exactly no time to that one proudly cruel subreddit devoted entirely to ad hominem idiocy about the Rats. He brings up polyamory a lot but not malignantly.
The "Chinese robber fallacy" is that you can make any large group seem evil by selecting from bad actors among them, even if they have exactly the same rate of the selected bad behaviour. If there are ~1m views on LessWrong per month, say 100,000 unique visitors. If sociopathy is found in 1% of the general population then the site will have 1000 sociopathic visitors. If 99% of visitors are lurkers, never commenting then you should expect 10 sociopathic commenters a month. This is enough to satisfy me that the 'dark side' (i.e. the odd far-rightist, and two gendered tragedies) Chivers covers is the selfsame dark side as our dumb world at large.
I hate Chivers capitalising "Rationalist" all the time. I double hate it when he pairs this with capitalised 'Effective Altruist', like "the Rationalist Effective Altruist Buck Shlegeris". At no point does Chivers use the full (and only appropriate) name for the identity: "aspiring rationalist". (No human is that rational.) But to be fair nor do most people online.
Couple of harmless errors (Helen Toner wasn't 'doing' ML in China, for instance). But the big one is that, after talking to all these people for and against, Chivers ends with the deferential prior: 80% of technical researchers think it's 90% likely we'll have AGI within a century, and if (as Chivers thinks) 17% think it will be highly negative, then our best guess is a 14% chance of catastrophic AGI. (With very large error bars - but that's even worse when you think about it.) Now, since he began at extreme scepticism (<1%) this is a large update - and we were lucky that a journalist came this far out on the limb. But the arguments presented here for and against the Risk are not equally convincing. He is presumably just too modest to multiply them out, as an amateur, in the face of big expert surveys. But, see what you think.
|Joy in the Morning (Jeeves, #8) (1947) by P.G. Wodehouse
||An irony: Florence is noted for her urge to improve Wooster by forcing philosophy textbooks and boring modernist literature on him. This fails utterly and inspires revolt.
she was one of those intellectual girls... who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove. We had scarcely arranged the preliminaries before she was checking up on my reading... substituting a thing called 'Types of Ethical THeory'. Nor did she attempt to conceal the fact that this was a mere pipe opener and that there was worse to come.
Jeeves, on the other hand, has no programme, he just slips allusions and lyricism into conversation, with at least passable results on Wooster.
'I shall miss you, Jeeves.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?'
'The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.'
'It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?'
'Not at all, sir.”
'Propose, forsooth! She'll just notify me that the engagement is on again, like a governess telling a young charge to eat his spinach. And if you think I've got the force of character to come back with a nolle prosequi-'
'With a what?'
'One of Jeeves's gags. It means roughly "nuts to you!" '
Indeed, since all the stories but one are told by Wooster, the title of this is down to this strategy. (This is only remarkable because I was not expecting ironies.)
* Wooster's taboo: Sindbad fancy dress costume; fake ginger beard.
* Triangle: Cheesewright - Wooster - Florence.
* Subplot: Nobby and Boko; the brooch; the ball; the Clam Line.
* Aunt: Percival Worplesdon
* Antagonist: Cheesewright
* Expedient: stealing a constable's uniform, kicking a child, lying to a Peer, lying to the police.
|The Divine Comedy (1320) by Dante Alighieri
||James claims Cultural Amnesia took him 40 years to write and that this translation took 50. Lucky he saw the two keystones to the end!
I was surprised by how much of Dante’s audacious fleshing out of vague Scripture is revenge verse; standing in judgment over his historical (Alexander, Attila) and contemporary enemies (his Latin teacher). He was probably echoing Church proclamations, but still: the author as towering demigod.
After Book One you’d be forgiven for thinking that most people in hell are Italian. It’s impossible to ignore Dante’s medieval sneer in places (even though he was a big liberal by the going standard): he parades the Church’s varied idiot retributions, some of which persist, e.g. promising suicidal folk that they are going to get fucked up, or having sweet modest Epicurus roasted alive forever for holding the soul to be mortal. The final, most irredeemable circle of hell is reserved for, well, me: childless anti-nationalist atheists. Didn't quite have the stamina, but I'll be back.
|Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
|Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1) (2002) by Richard K. Morgan
||Class act: cyberpunk without cheap gothic neon and lolspeak; noir without cartoonish conventions. A meditation on identity and consent via sex and violence. Genuinely. The Scene: Consciousness can be up- and downloaded. In this world, if you are rich enough, you do not die. If you're richer than that, you get uploaded into a young clone of yourself - otherwise you take whatever marginalised corpse is going and adjust your sense of self to fit.
He picks out implications brilliantly (e.g. what happens to celebrity culture?). The inevitable neologisms are excellent, intensely suggestive of the new culture's inner life: death is just "storage"; bodies are just "sleeves" and to be reincarnated is to be "sleeved"; a plasma gun is a "sunjet". Murder is just "organic damage". Catholics are (once again) the world's underclass - unable to travel interstellar because it involves casual storage (suicide) and resleeving (heresy), and killed with near-impunity because they alone cannot testify at their own murder trials. Cartoonish moments: our anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs is attacked or apprehended 7times in the first 150 pages.) People transition gender with regularity. Morgan makes a bold essentialist statement, which is somewhat backed-up:
To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male... To a man, skin was a barrier. To a woman it was an organ of contact. That had its disadvantages</span>. (Kovacs is tortured, horrifically, as a woman.) Advertising can be beamed obtrusively into your mind. The UN has become a Shady Galactic Empire. It is strongly suggested - not least by our trained-psychopath protagonist - that this transhuman society is more psychopathic, owing to the lower stakes of violence, injury, and taboo-breaking. Gritty but not just gratuitous. Better than Gibson.
|At Last (2011) by Edward St. Aubyn
|ワンパンマン 1 [Wanpanman 1] (Onepunch-Man, #1) (2012) by ONE
Note that you will only be recognised as a super hero if you are registered in the National Super Hero Registry. If you are not registered, you will always be seen as a delusional weirdo and looked down upon, regardless of how many times you save the world.
What's the name of the thing where you don't like a genre, but you do like deconstructions of it? I have it with horror (Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs Evil!) and now, to my surprise, with shonen anime (Evangelion, Mob Psycho and this). Despite appearances OPM is a serious comment on credentialism, mob psychology, existentialism. The heroes and monsters are all ranked, but the ranking has little relation to their power. The unboundedly powerful protagonist is quite depressed because nothing in life is a challenge to him any more, no foe ever lasts.
(Disappointed by the second series of the TV show, so turned to this.)
The art is surprisingly bad (though the creator improved massively over a couple of years). Unlike most manga it looks like what it is: a five day rush job. The show plays with this by using art crudeness to represent Saitama's emotional state: when he's actually focussing he's drawn in great detail. The other 99% percent of the time he's round-faced, blank, and unshaded to represent how little effort he is giving whatever perilous situation the world is in.
|Collected Poems (1981) by Sylvia Plath
||The first raw confessional poet? Which is to say the first very-modern-poet, mother of 100,000 epigones, confessing when we've done nothing in particular worth admitting or renouncing.
Actually, have any metal bands covered Plath?
|Nua-Bhardachd Gaidhlig / Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems: A Bilingual Anthology (1976) by Donald MacAulay
|Museum Without Walls (2012) by Jonathan Meades
||The best bellowing contrarian in the land. This is mostly just TV scripts I've already seen, and though this means that we can at last catch up with his rapid-fire aesthetic barbs, they still suffer without their inspired, bizarre visual production.
A sense of loneliness comes through on paper (anger and historical command is the dominant note in the programmes). You can see almost all his work at this Youtube channel. It is a fine use of a week.
|A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (1998) by Noretta Koertge
|Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1) (1977) by Frederik Pohl
Hits hard, leaves marks. The ignoble, epistemically pinched, economic-realist sci-fi as written by the Strugatskys or Stross. I love it so much that even the Rogerian psychotherapy at its core doesn't annoy me; that even its 90% focus on one spoiled and abusive bastard is a merit of it. Spoilers everywhere. Physics and sin. No shortage of things left to do.
In one sentence: Dreadful human being reflects on his dreadful actions while dead aliens look on.
To be read when: overconfident; always.
- Galef type:
Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something .
|The Earthsea Quartet (Earthsea Cycle, #1-4) (1984) by Ursula K. Le Guin
||If fantasy tends to strike you as pompous or tasteless - if you can't get through 'Lord of the Rings', 'Game of Thrones' or whatnot, you should try this. Anthropological fantasies. The first three books are about: mortality, deconversion and addiction. But the fourth, about two women in two farmhouses, is actually the most ambitious.
'Tales of Earthsea' is my favourite, but you can't just skip to it, since it gets its power from reprise and reprisal.
The cycle is relentlessly pro-death though; Ged does not become a man until he faces and integrates a manifestation of his own death; Cob's terror of, and resistance to death enslaves and drains the entire continent; an ancient attempt to create an afterlife is actually an act of betrayal, colonialism, and Frankensteinian hubris. The cycle ends with the circle of life and death restored, and everyone right pleased and relieved at this, not least the undead who get to not exist. Now, you can counter that le Guin is more pro-stoicism, pro-serenity, pro-enlightened-adaption-to-the-inevitable than she is pro-death. But deathists always are; they are harmful because of their apriori ban on potentially wonderful undertakings, not because they are goth as fuck.
As always, she is a wonderful read even when I disagree with her very strongly. To be read by 10 year olds and 27 year olds, presumably by 50 year olds and definitely by 75 year olds.
|Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (1993) by Leonard Cohen
||I don't think he's depressing! Does that make me in some way broken? Anyway: Cohen the Jewish Buddhist leverages literary power from a faith he does not own: his poems are thus as erotic and grotesque as the best Christian writing. Much funnier and more concrete than his songs, too. Sure, everything is ominous in his work, but it's also banal, and these often admit they're ridiculous. To my surprise he is never obscure; to my relief he is never fatally wounded by the vicious retribution his many flaws invite.
Gnarled urban spirituality. A strong, unlikely comparison: Bukowski. They both fixate on: plain poems about poems, bitter desire, nakedness, grandiose self-loathing, losers in love, and the significance of everyday things.(Look at this: "The art of longing's over and it's never coming back.") Speaking of Bukowski: is Cohen sexist? Arguable. For every slap in the face like 'Diamonds in the Mine', there are several tendernesses ('Portrait of a Lady') and self-aware apologies for lust. I would say: shocking and honest about patriarchal shapes, generally not unfeminist. ("You took my fingerprints away / So I would love you for your mind.") Moments of chastity inamongst the randy fury - for instance he never says 'God', always 'G-d'. Lots about the Holocaust too, mostly its banal consequences.
Kiss me with your teeth
All things can be done.
whisper museum ovens of
a war that Freedom won.
The newer stuff is generally weak, because less wry, profane and specific.
(4/5 with lots of 5/5 moments: 'French and English', 'Israel', 'A Working Man', 'Queen Victoria and Me', 'Montreal' 'Hydra 1960', 'A Cross Didn't Fall on Me', 'Disguises', 'It's Probably Spring'.)
|I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated Than That (2014) by Ben Goldacre
A hundred clear, witty, and literate attacks on the agreeable nonempiricism that most worldviews and most conversations are based in, even in the modernised, developed world. (It covers such anti-scientific fields as alternative medicine, journalism, politics, and policy. You may regard anti-vaxxers, face cream 'science', homeopathy, and AIDS denialism as too obviously false to be worth your time deriding. But these hopeful, manipulative falsehoods are where many if not most live: someone has to defend people.)
This makes it a collection of a hundred enjoyable tutorials in statistics, experimental method, and epistemology:
Alternative therapists don't kill many people, but they do make a great teaching tool for the basics of evidence-based medicine, because their efforts to distort science are so extreme. When they pervert the activities of people who should know better – medicines regulators, or universities – it throws sharp relief onto the role of science and evidence in culture...
Goldacre is a gifted populariser: by focussing on particular abuses, he is able to animate very hard and theoretical topics by leveraging our anger, or our humour. (In a similar way to Nassim Taleb's snark. Of course, as strict empiricists, the two men share many targets: the powerful and overconfident, the famed and hollow, the predatory and avaricious). Since British libel law opens him to constant financial hazard, even when he is entirely careful and correct, he calls his writing "pop science with a gun to your head". (Actually it is mostly pop metascience; even better. There are shout-outs to the great critics of C20th science: Celia Mulrow, John Ioannidis, Uri Simonsohn, who are too-rarely praised; for they turned on the people who might otherwise have lionised them.)
He shows policy analysis to be lagging a century behind the standard set by medical trials, and not mostly for the good reasons (which are: that they have a more causally dense subject than medicine has; and because they face absolute ethical restrictions on their experiments: it is politically impossible to experiment with welfare systems). e.g.: Policy people set no required evidence threshold before administering their treatments en masse, have no controls, no randomisation, no calibration, no statements of formal uncertainty, no malpractice system to punish their recklessness, nor often any honest fucking posthoc evaluation of their treatment.
[Andrew Lansley's] pretence at data-driven neutrality is not just irritating, it's also hard to admire. There's no need to hide behind a cloak of scientific authority, murmuring the word "evidence" into microphones. If your reforms are a matter of ideology, legacy, whim and faith, then, like many of your predecessors, you could simply say so, and leave "evidence" to people who mean it.
Journalists come across as badly as the quacks - even BBC, Panorama, C4 News. This may be being ameliorated at last by the rise of the specialised blogospheres and by the Nate Silver / Rich Harris / Keith Frey school of data journalism. But not generally yet and not for sure.
I love his rationalist war-cry, against the public and dinner-party proponents of the never-supported MMR -autism link:
Many of these people were hardline extremists - humanities graduates - who treated my arguments about evidence as if I were some kind of religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counter-attack.
...nerds are more powerful than we know. Changing mainstream media will be hard, but you can help create parallel options. More academics should blog, post videos, post audio, post lectures, offer articles and more. You'll enjoy it: I've had threats and blackmail, abuse, smears and formal complaints with forged documentation. But it's worth it, for one simple reason: pulling bad science apart is the best teaching gimmick I know for explaining how good science works. I'm not a policeman, and I've never set out to produce a long list of what's right and what's wrong. For me, things have to be interestingly wrong, and the methods are all that matter.
His website is a bit ugly but has most of this content for free; the extras in this volume are oddities for fans (an undergraduate paper of his, BMJ editorials and notes from his heartening rise into British policy establishment (he is a public health researcher at the NHS). This was my second pass at his columns; I was again refreshed and uplifted and enraged. We might despair at how persistent insensitivity to evidence has been, and at how unnatural empiricism remains, in a society totally transformed by it. But I don't despair, because it has never been easier for us to check and rebut liars and fools. I sincerely aspire to become a "research parasite" (an independent checker of analyses, a rogue forensic statistician) and to write as clearly and well as him.
Goldacre is that rare thing, someone doing the best work they possibly could be. (If he could be persuaded to migrate to the global south...)
|Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990) by Ray Monk
|Math with Bad Drawings (2018) by Ben Orlin
Fables and math have a lot in common. Both come from dusty, moth-eaten books. Both are inflicted upon children. And both seek to explain the world through radical acts of simplification. If you want to reckon with the full idiosyncrasy and complexity of life, look elsewhere... math makers are more like cartoonists.
Taken as a collection of words, literature is a dataset of extraordinary richness. Then again, take as a collection of words, literature is no longer literature. Statistics works by eliminating context. Their search for insight begins with the annihilation of meaning... Is there peace to be made between the rich contextuality of literature and the cold analytical power of stats?
So wise. You'd think a high-school maths teacher who draws intentionally badly wouldn't have much to say about the nature of reason, the ecstasy and despair of learning and abstraction, the beauty of inevitability. But here we are - this only looks like a children's book. For better or worse there's a pun or goofy self-deprecating joke every couple sentences. (The greatest of these: " CHAPTER 21: THE TIME HAS COME, LEON WALRAS SAID, TO TALK OF MANY THINGS")
Everything in it is elementary, but using these simple examples Orlin covers a dozen of the most important intellectual developments: constraint theory of beauty, "unreasonable effectiveness", probability theory (via fascinating government lotteries with positive expected value!), the Great Recession from the quants' perspective, the replication crisis, the marginalist revolution... And he disses school mathematics often enough to charm anyone. I learned plenty (about bridges, polar animals, sabermetrics, about the inevitability and brilliance of ISO 216, and so on).
Dissing folks for their probabilistic failures is a bit like calling them bad at flying, or subpar at swallowing oceans, or insufficiently fireproof. No big deal, right? I mean, does probability ever come up in the real world? It's not like we spend our lives clawing for intellectual tools that might offer the slightest stability in the swirling miasma of uncertainty that surrounds us every waking moment...
He goes a bit wrong in his probability / lottery chapter - he spreads the rational choice theory (the idea that lotteries are good because it buys you nice daydreams) without reflecting that human attention and gumption are finite, and that the daydream thus robs people of a mildly but actually better future. Surprisingly, he also disses expected value (first-order users of which are "educated fools") with the trivial fact that infinities are strange: "Perhaps the ultimate repudiation of expected value is the abstract possibility of tickets [promising infinite payoff but only asymptotically]". Luckily decision theory is larger than one rule, and nowhere says that you must ignore your budget (+ leverage) and blindly obey the result of one multiplication... He also uses the false positive / false negative framework, which is usually misleading for squishy things like medicine and social science.
(He also thinks Han Solo is valid.)
While I am bitter that my own early maths education was so mindless, I'm amazed and glad that a few kids out there get to learn from someone like this.
|The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence (1964) by D.H. Lawrence
||Far better than his far more famous novels. Bitter and randy but often sensational, bringing flowers
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
Let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
down the way Persephone goes, just now, in first-frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is married to dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice, as a bride
a gloom invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms of Pluto as he ravishes her once again
and pierces her once more with his passion of the utter dark
among the splendour of black-blue torches, shedding
fathomless darkness on the nuptials.
There's about 6 duds for every one of those - as always, a Collected is never judged by its hit rate but by its best. His philosophy is rank nonsense ("Sexless people transmit nothing."; "The machine shall be abolished from the earth again; / it is a mistake that mankind has made;") - as always, this has no bearing on the poems. What do I care that he is the most unsound voice in the great unsound choir of English literature?
See here, here, here, here, here.
The dirt-cheap holly-green Wordsworth paperbacks are where I got my first education. (I think this is what older generations got via Dover Thrifts or Pelicans.)
|Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: A Reader's Guide (2006) by Roger M. White
|The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011) by James Gleick
||Ah! I am a sucker for this form in pop science: “primary research into some unjustly obscure thing, pulling together the historical and scientific strands, revealing the excitement and transcendence in the unsexy, un-Arts thing, and making the reader feel smarter and more solidly located in the modern world”. Here it's information technology very broadly construed – so African talking drums, Morse, bioinformatics, memetics, Hawking radiation, Wiki, and so on.
Unbelievably, I’d never heard of the hero of the tale, Claude Shannon, because he was quiet and didn’t make any metaphysical claims for his profound work. Loads and loads of tasty gobbets to boot
“I do not believe that my father was such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician)…” - Lovelace
“A theoretical physicist acts as a very clever coding algorithm.”
“Across the centuries they all felt the joy in reckoning: Napier and Briggs, Kepler and Babbage, making their lists, building their towers…”
Shot through with the joy of discovery, and all of it unbleached by the drudgery, familiarity, and commercialism evoked in “I.T.”.
|The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1965) by Stanisław Lem
||Superlatively brainy and silly fairytales, with wizards replaced by AI engineers. Think Carroll, Smullyan, Juster, Egan, heavier than heaven.
And the mathematical models of King Krool and the beast did such fierce battle across the equation-covered table, that the constructors' pencils kept snapping. Furious, the beast writhed and wriggled its iterated integrals beneath the King's polynomial blows, collapsed into an infinite series of indeterminate terms, then got back up by raising itself to the nth power, but the King so belabored it with differentials and partial derivatives that its Fourier coefficients all canceled out (see Riemann’s Lemma), and in the ensuing confusion the constructors completely lost sight of both King and beast. So they took a break, stretched their legs, had a swig from the Leyden jug to bolster their strength, then went back to work and tried it again from the beginning, this time unleashing their entire arsenal of tensor matrices and grand canonical ensembles, attacking the problem with such fervor that the very paper began to smoke. The King rushed forward with all his cruel coordinates and mean values
Despite appearances, it's not light fiction. It covers the impossibility of making people happy, the absurd birth and death of a robot without senses, the arbitrariness of power. The shadow of the Soviets falls on the stories quite hard.
Trurl notarizes, issues directives, the typewriter chatters, and little by little an entire office takes shape, rubber stamps and rubber bands, paper clips and paper wads, portfolios and pigeonholes, foolscap and scrip, teaspoons, signs that say “No Admittance,” inkwells, forms on file, writing all the while, the typewriter chattering, and everywhere you look you see coffee stains, wastepaper, and bits of gum eraser. The Steelypips are worried, they don’t understand a thing, meanwhile Trurl uses special delivery registered C.O.D., certified with return receipt, or, best of all, remittance due and payable in full- he sends out no end of dunning letters, bills of lading, notices, injunctions, and there are already special accounts set up, no entries at the moment but he says that’s only temporary. After a while, you can see that that is not quite so hideous, especially in profile - it’s actually gotten smaller!-yes, yes, it is smaller! The Steelypips ask Trurl, what now?
“No idle talk permitted on the premises,” is his answer. And he staples, stamps, inspects vouchers, revokes licenses, dots an I, loosens his tie, asks who’s next, I’m sorry, the office I closed, come back in an hour, the coffee is cold, the cream sour, cobwebs from ceiling to floor, an old pair of nylons in the secretary’s drawer, install four new file cabinets over here, and there’s an attempt to bribe an official, a pile of problems and a problem with piles, a writ of execution, incarceration for miscegenation, and appeals with seven seals. And the typewriter chatters:
“Whereas, pursuant to the Tenant’s failure to, quit and surrender the demised premises in compliance with the warrant served habee facias posessionem, by Div. of Rep. Cyb. Gt. KRS thereof, the Court of Third Instance, in vacuo and ex nihilo, herewith orders the immediate vacuation and vacation thereunder. The Tenant may not appeal this ruling. Trurl dispatches the messenger and pockets the receipts. After which, he gets up and methodically hurls the desks, chairs, rubber stamps, seals, pigeonholes, etc., out into deep space. Only the vending machine remains.
“What on earth are you doing??” cry the Steelypips in dismay, having grown accustomed to it all. “How can you?”
“Tut-tut, my dears,” he replies. “Better you take a look instead!” And indeed, they look and gasp-why, there’s nothing there, it’s gone, as if it had never been! And where did it go, vanished into thin air? It beat a cowardly retreat, and grew so small, so very small, you’d need a magnifying glass to see it. They root around, but all they can find is one little spot, slightly damp, something must have dipped there, but what or why they cannot say, and that’s all.
“Just as I thought,” Trurl tells them. “Basically, my dears, the whole thing was quite simple: the moment it accepted the first dispatch and signed for it, it was done for. I employed a special machine, the machine with a big B, for, as it is the Cosmos in the Cosmos, no one’s licked it yet!”
“All right, but why throw out the documents and pour out the coffee?” they ask.
“So that it wouldn’t devour you in turn!”
how do you [humans] build your progeny?" asked the [robot] princess.
"In faith, we do not build them at all," said Ferrix, "but program them statistically, according to Markov's formula for stochastic probability, emotional-evolutional albeit distributional, and we do this involuntarily and coincidentally, while thinking of a variety of things that have nothing whatever to do with programming, whether statistical, alinear or algorithmical, and the programming itself takes place autonomously, automatically and wholly autoerotically, for it is precisely thus and not otherwise that we are constructed, that each and every paleface strives to program his progeny, for it is delightful, but programs without programming, doing all within his power to keep that programming from bearing fruit."
Kandel's translation (from the Polish) is maybe the greatest I've ever seen: hundreds of puns, neologisms, fake academese, and absurd alliterative names, all rendered into English without slips or missed opportunities. I read this over a month, savouring.
Probably 5/5 on re-read.
|Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) by Peter Singer
If a critical mass of people with new priorities were to emerge, and if these people were seen to do well, in every sense of the term -- if their cooperation with each other brings reciprocal benefits, if they find joy and fulfillment in their lives -- then the ethical attitude will spread, and the conflict between ethics and self-interest will have been shown to be overcome, not by abstract reasoning alone, but by adopting the ethical life as a practical way of living and showing that it works, psychologically, socially, and ecologically...
One thing is certain: you will find plenty of worthwhile things to do. You will not be bored or lack fulfillment in your life. Most important of all, you will know that you have not lived and died for nothing, because you will have become part of the great tradition of those who have responded to suffering by trying to make the world a better place.
I've read a lot of Singer, mostly papers and columns and distilled arguments, not books. I can't remember not wanting to life an altruistic life, so I don't know exactly how much influence he had on me - but I'm a tithing vegan with a lot of respect for evolutionary arguments, who bites many utilitarian bullets, so it's probably plenty.
Clear, unflinching, inspiring. Reading this, it's easy to see why the heroes of a fantasy novel could be called Singers.
PS: Can anyone explain why, alone amongst philosophers, his face is so often on his book covers? Just fame? Just his strong brand?
|Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1) (2009) by Hilary Mantel
||Engrossing, a great charitable reconstruction of a terrible age. Besides the subtle portrayal of the latent Reformation revolution, there's also a far more important upheaval: the rise of brilliant laymen and potent commoners (e.g. More and Cromwell), that is, the beginning of the end of feudalism.|
Never been very interested in the Tudors. Henry is fickle and narcissistic even compared to other early Modern monarchs, and Anne is a boring climber. He appeared to set off a revolution for no better reason than he was too sexist to accept a female heir. Mantel shows how Henry, Anne and Katherine are a microcosm of their time - Mother Church vs the nationalism-Protestantism complex, and England slowly tearing itself away from former to latter. The first Brexit.
It's an imperfect model - Henry still burns un-Catholic books and men, and Luther and Tyndale don't support the shady divorce (against their own interests). A mixture of lust, opportunism, influence from competent rebels (Cromwell, Cranmer)?
Most characters are portrayed as pragmatic and modern, prayer aside. They know most relics are bogus, that the "medicine" of the day is hazardous, that the Church's decisions are deeply contingent and political, and they mock the superstitious lord who believes in ghosts. This is probably going too far, but it makes for great fiction.
The treatment of More vs Cromwell is the reverse of that in A Man for All Seasons: here Cromwell is a rational, catholic, and empathetic gent, while More is a scary authoritarian fundamentalist, closer to a Daesh jihadi than Rowan Williams.
[Cromwell] can’t imagine himself reading [the Bible] to his household; he is not, like Thomas More, some sort of failed priest, a frustrated preacher. He never sees More, a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod - without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you have learnt, confirm you in what you have believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away, a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.
Mantel has a funny way of letting her grammar show that Cromwell is The Man - she'll use "he" to mark him, even when this breaks the normal "pronouns refer to the most recent subject of that gender" convention. This is disorienting, but I appreciate the effect.
I was recently baffled by this sentence, from a contemporary American evangelical: "I was baptised Catholic before I became a Christian." The violence of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation is the nastiest evidence of the power and horror of the narcissism of small differences.
I liked the book recommendations, the 16th Century equivalents of discussions on here. It is so hard to know, from 500 years away, what's worth reading. Though I suppose the real C16th dross is dead, all out of print, unarchived, unextant. For instance:
Castiglione says that everything that can be understood by men can be understood by women, that their apprehension is the same, their faculties, no doubt their loves and hates.
This bit was funny:
When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of. He feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; now a days the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.
He's talking about a time with ~0.1% annual growth, starting from very little; where new books per year was still in the three digits; where new actual insights per year was probably lower, where it takes an entire month and ~thousands of pounds for one troll to even partially foul a discussion.</td>
|Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help (2015) by Larissa MacFarquhar
I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them... The moral virtues, present... to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the non-moral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy,
well-rounded, richly developed character... there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.– Susan Wolf
...the moral narcissist’s extreme humility masked a dreadful pride. Ordinary people could accept that they had faults; the moral narcissist could not. To [André] Green this moral straining was sinister, for the moral narcissist would do anything to preserve his purity, even when doing so carried a terrible price... new qualifiers appeared: there was "pseudo-altruism", a defensive cloak for sadomasochism; and there was "psychotic altruism", bizarre care-taking behaviour based in delusion... the analyst surmised that the masking of their own hostility and greed from themselves might be one of altruism's functions for people of this type.
– Larissa MacFarquhar
...we cannot and should not become impartial, [Bernard Williams] argued, because doing so would mean abandoning what gives human life meaning. Without selfish partiality—to people you are deeply attached to, your wife and your children, your friends, to work that you love and that is particularly yours, to beauty, to place — we are nothing. We are creatures of intimacy and kinship and loyalty, not blind servants of the world.
– Larissa MacFarquhar
Twelve profiles of recent radical altruists, and the backlash they receive from the rest of us. (^) Besides, MacFarquhar has some deep reflections on the good life and human nature to work through. So: There are people who shape their lives around the need of the world – in particular around strangers who are constantly, in some sense, drowning. This category of person does more than just work a caring job and be dead nice to those around them: instead, their entire lives are dominated by the attempt to do the most good.
The profiled altruists are:
- A fairly fearless nurse who organised the Fast for Life and trained generations of Nicaraguan nurses, continuing for thirty years despite specific threats to her life by Contras.
- A pseudonymous animal rights activist who has rescued or won improved conditions for millions of chickens.
- Two early effective altruists, Julia and Jeff, who live frugally and donate more than half of their salaries to the most effective NGOs in the world. They plausibly save 100 lives a year, far more than a doctor or firefighter (even before considering replaceability).
- A real Christian, who opened her church to the homeless (over the hostility of her flock) and donated a kidney anonymously.
- A charismatic, outcaste social worker and jungle statesman, who created a self-sustaining leper ashram, 5000-strong, out of nothing. Also his equally hardcore descendents.
- A Buddhist monk who created the largest suicide counselling site in Japan, stressing himself into heart disease.
- The omni-parents of Vermont, who adopted 24 of the least cute and easy children on the lists.
- A taciturn altruistic kidney donor.
- A burned-out idealist.
(I've compiled data on their nature here.*)
MacFarquhar appears suspicious about these people, whose lives are taken over by their morals. She calls them "do-gooders" while admitting the term is dismissive.** Even the most humble and quiet do-gooder is, she thinks, making an extremely arrogant claim: that the moral intuitions of the whole species - i.e. family favouritism, supererogation, the right to ignore the suffering of strangers - are totally wrong. She leaves no-one unsuspected.
an extreme morality as Singer's or Godwin's can seem not just oppressively demanding but actually evil, because it violates your duty to yourself. To require a person to think of himself as a tool for the general good could be seen as equivalent of kidnapping a person off the street and harvesting his organs to save three or four lives... even to ask this of yourself seems wrong, even perverted. Impartial, universal love seems the antithesis of what we value about deep human attachment.
But these lives are victory laps: the victory of broad reason over narrow animality. MacFarquhar is more nuanced, less willing to dismiss particularism, nepotism and speciesism – which are together known as common sense. (Though I have only a mild case of the radicals: for instance, I am mostly immune to misery about the state of the world, and I help my loved ones without much guilt. I'm giving 10% now and 50% eventually, but I am such a bookish scruff that the absence of luxuries does not really cramp my life at all.)
One part of Williams' humanist case against radical altruism has dissolved in the last decade: the idea that single-minded ethical focus must erode your connection to your community. Well, the effective altruists are growing in number and maturity; they offer a deep, global community of at least partially serious people to support and be supported by: and all with the stamp of moral consistency.
MacFarquhar doesn't much like utilitarianism, but she is too moved and impressed with her subjects to take the standard, safe, quietist line (which her reviewers have tended to). Throughout, she presents contradictory philosophical propositions, and makes it difficult to know which she believes; she constantly uses indirect speech and deictic discussion, blurring her voice with the debate at hand. This is, I think, an impressive rhetorical strategy – an "esoteric" one. The book is addressed to common sense readers, but also to our uncertainty and faint guilt; it's dedicated to her parents, but explicitly constructed to bring us closer to the altruists:
I took out all the physical descriptions because if you’re looking at someone’s physical appearance, you’re on the outside. Similarly quotations, which seem as though they should be the most intimate form, because they come directly from the person’s mouth. Again, in fact, the only way you hear someone speaking is if you’re outside them. So if you translate quotation into interior thought, which simply means taking away the quotation marks and saying ‘he thought’ rather than ‘he said’ – that’s a more intimate way of encountering someone.***
So Strangers Drowning covertly brings us closer to radical altruism. Her task is not to establish their ethical premises, nor to win over new obsessives: instead, she simply shows us their sincerity and incredible effects on the world – and, better, shows the lack of evidence and interpretive charity behind their opponents' aspersions. (This goes for the Freudians, the Objectivists, and the anti "codependency" crowd.) It humanises the threatening side of ultimate goodness. She mostly avoids editorialising about the radicals. But one of her clear conclusions is that these people are not deficient, instead having something most people lack:
What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people's joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility...
The need of the world was like death, [Julia] thought — everyone knew about it, but the thought was so annihilating that they had to push it out of consciousness or it would crush them. She understood, and yet did not understand, why other people didn't give more than they did. How did they allow themselves such permission? How could they not help?
while also noting that, in general
If there is a struggle between morality and life, life will win... Not always, not in every case, but life will win in the end. Sometimes a person will die for a cause; sometimes a person will give up for duty's sake the things that are to him most precious. But most of the time, the urge to live, to give to your family, to seek beauty, to act spontaneously... or to do any number of things other than helping people, is too strong to be overridden... It may be true that not everyone should be a do-gooder. But it is also true that these strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.
An amazing book, anyway: charged, critical, structurally ingenious, and filled with humanity – or, with this other, better thing.
† Note the absent quotation marks around MacFarquhar's report of the psychoanalysts' and Williams' positions.
The chapter on the blitheness and cruelty of the psychoanalysts enraged me - all the more because MacFarquhar leaves their unscientific bullshit unchallenged, instead letting it mock and degrade itself. (One hopes.) So much glibness and spite:
|ANNA FREUD:||Altruists are bossy, because the urge that is usually behind the fulfillment of one's own wishes is now placed behind the fulfillment of the wishes of another person. The wishes have to be fulfilled in a certain way, in the way the altruist would like to fulfill them for himself or herself. After all, the bossiness of do-gooders is proverbial...|
(My, what rigorous science.) So, here's yet another way I am fortunate to live when I do: these people have by now been mostly sidelined in polite discourse. The harm they are able to do is much reduced, and I need not spend my whole life convincing people that they are just making things up.
* Philosophy - e.g. Peter Singer, Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Mark Lee, Geoff Anders, Stephanie Wykstra - looms large here, in this little corner of the race; larger than organised religion. Since all of the philosophers are from Analytic departments, this gives the lie to the generalised standard criticism of academic philosophy (: that they are fatally detached from the concerns of society, dehumanised, etc).
** "Do-gooder" is still much better than Susan Wolf's term, "moral saint", because, as MacFarquhar notes, to call someone a saint is to nullify the challenge of their difficult actions: saints are not just 'people who do really good things'; they are (thought to be) a different sort of being. Any movement (like EA) which seeks to make radical altruism mainstream has to resist this demarcation and get people to see such a life as, first, good; then, possible for them; and then reasonable - the sort of thing that people would do if they thought about it more.
*** MacFarquhar's account of Stephanie is misleading: she makes it seem like she has opted for ordinary amoral innocence, where the real Stephanie has taken on an incredibly high-impact job, activism for oversight of pharmaceutical clinical trial data.
[Data #2, Values #2]
"Optikaa" (c) Zaky Arifin (2015)
|Why I Am Not a Christian (1957) by Bertrand Russell
||Read my great-grandfather's copy, which felt good in a way I haven't often felt. This is what traditionalists like about tradition, I suppose: long continuity making you feel large.
|The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun, #2) (1981) by Gene Wolfe
||Again excellent - a better Dune, a much better Narnia, a peer to Ulysses. Throws you off balance right from page one - there's about 50 pages of plot missing between the first and second volumes, never really recounted. Since the Book is a chronicle written much later by Severian, this is maybe to show how old the book is when the in-universe reader finds it.
One of the great things about Severian is that he's various - he has many conflicting goals, none of which is really the master quest. He swears I think four absolute oaths to different authorities. Jonas teases him about this:
"You want to serve Vodalus, and to go to Thrax and begin a new life in exile, and to wipe out the stain you say you have made on the honor of your guild — though I confess I don’t understand how such a thing can be stained — and to find the woman called Dorcas, and to make peace with the woman called Agia while returning something we both know of to the women called Pelerines... I trust you realize that it is possible that one or two of them may get in the way of four or five of the others.”
"What you're saying is very true," I admitted. "I'm striving to do all those things, and although you won't credit it, I am giving all my strength and as much of my attention as can be of any benefit to all of them. Yet I have to admit things aren't going as well as they might. My divided ambitions have landed me in no better place than the shade of this tree, where I am a homeless wanderer. While you, with your single-minded pursuit of one all-powerful objective . . . look where you are."
As the retrospective journal of a victor (and as a work of nasty, feudal science fiction) it has the same feel as Dune, only less clumsy: we know that Severian or Paul have prevailed or will, but this somehow doesn't unstring the plot.
There is a lot of plot, a lot of one-off scenes and people. It's all earned though, through symbolism or callback or prose. Hundreds of pungent sentences ("praise the Autarch, whose urine is wine to his subjects...").
Probably 5/5 on re-read.
|The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006) by Deirdre N. McCloskey
I've been most things in my life: a positivist social engineer, a Joan Baez socialist, a man. Now I'm a free-market feminist, a quantitative postmodernist, a woman. I'm not ashamed of these changes of mind.
- In one sentence: The obscured origins of the modern world and its heart, as built by the hated bourgeoisie.
- To be read when: depressed about the modern world; locked into an ideology which doesn't people's lives better, esp. your own life; if you are like most middle-class people, vaguely self-hating.
It is good to be a contrarian teen. Decorous even. I was straight-edge, socialist, feminist, a poetaster, an inverse snob, and a shunner of TV.* Call this sort of thing one level up, one contrarian step past received opinion (which defaults to boozing, family-level rather than species-level communitarianism, gendering, ignoring poetry, passively respecting fine art, and watching 4 hours a day).
However, at some point the observant contrarian will disagree with someone and find themselves unable to write them off - as they usually do - as prejudiced, anti-intellectual, or ignorant. Worst-case, they will meet a deadly meta-contrarian, someone who once held their view but stepped past it on considering some missing crucial consideration.
(For instance: it is common sense, or at least common practice, that it's fine to not give any money to charity. One step beyond is altruism: 'we have a duty to help the wretched of the earth'. But then consider that one of the first things people who rise out of poverty do is increase their meat intake, and so to industrialise - that is, torture - their animals. If, as the scientists strongly agree we should, we take this seriously, then poverty alleviation might not be good at all! But then, consider that wild animals also suffer, millions of times more of them than even factory farmed animals, and that human industrialisation plausibly decreases this by removing habitat (...) )
Meta-contrarianism is vital is because philosophy, politics and economics are littered with crucial consideration landmines like these, single premises that can fully transform our conception of good action.
Our problem is not socialism or theism or atheism or conservativism: the problem is irrational, reflexive views with no connection to the balance of evidence: i.e. ideologies and not philosophies.
Anyway: I was pretty good-hearted, but neither clear nor honest. An ideologue. McCloskey, a Christian libertarian(!) and much else besides, got to even me via our shared contempt for neoclassical macroeconomics and null-hypothesis significance testing, two things she critiqued twenty years before the Great Recession and the replication crisis.
Then she shocked me with the meta-contrary title of this, the first volume in her epic economic history of moral development: a reclamation of a slur on the creators of this good modern world we all increasingly enjoy.
I don't know how many iterations of contrarianism ("dialectic") I'm on; it's not important, as long as I hold my views lightly enough to do one more when the evidence demands it.
Besides long meditations on the pagan and Christian virtues, she holds a serious discussion on Groundhog Day, Thomas Mann, and much other art, and is the best telling of the maligned, vital Great Transformation story. Triumphant and funny and trembling with erudition.
* At the time I thought being an atheist was really contrarian, but in Britain it really isn't. (Outside an RME classroom.) The formal stats are only now showing a majority for stated nonbelief, but church attendance has been a minority practice since the early C20th.
Data 3 - highlight patterns in the world, &
Theory 2 - models of what makes something succeed or fail , &
Values 1 - an explicit argument about values, &
Style 2 - learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world.
|Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (2003) by Philip Ball
||"Being an Enquiry into the Interplay of Chance and Necessity in the Way That Human Culture, Customs, Institutions, Cooperation and Conflict Arise" (2004) by Philip Ball.
An elegant pop treatment of the once-burgeoning physics of mass human behaviour. (Which physics follows hundreds of years of stupid and/or inhumane theories claiming the name "social physics"). A love letter to statistical mechanics:
Most people who have encountered thermodynamics blanch at its mention, because it is an awesomely tedious discipline both to learn theoretically and to investigate experimentally. This is a shame, because it is also one of the most astonishing theories in science. Think of it: here is a field of study initiated to help nineteenth-century engineers make better engines, and it turns out to produce some of the grandest and most fundamental statements about the way the entire universe works. Thermodynamics is the science of change, and without change there is nothing to be said...
Tools, methods and ideas developed to understand how the blind material fabric of the universe behaves are finding application in arenas for which they were never designed, and for which they might at first glance appear ridiculously inappropriate. Physics is finding its place in a science of society.
Introduces a hundred topics from thermodynamics, economics, econophysics, game theory, and fields which don't have a name yet, including intuitive explanations of fearsome concepts like:
- self-organized criticality
- the 2D and 3D Ising model
- diffusion-limited aggregation in bacteria and cities
- the business cycle
- random walks
- superfluidity and supercooling phase transitions
- bifurcation theory
- traffic flow
- Zipf's law
- the Small world phenomenon
- catastrophe theory...
Unlike shiny TED-style nonfiction, he refers directly to the original scientific papers and includes small interviews with the original researchers. No equations, but beautiful diagrams relating micro with macro, too: snowflakes to traffic and bacterial colonies to cities.
The book's reception, in the main by middlebrow, mathematically illiterate reviewers shocked me a bit: their banner conclusions were "boo! people aren't particles!!", a truism which Ball spends much of the book thinking about, and "aaar horrible people have said they've found the laws of society before!!", a truism the first fifth of the book is a history of. In their haste to protect ordinary human difference from averages, and the notion of free will from technical explanations, they flee to safe refuges like "complexity" and "reflexivity", i.e. out of science. Ball can speak for himself though:
The notion that we could ever construct a scientific "utopia theory" [e.g. classical Marxism] is, then, doomed to absurdity. Certainly, a "physics of society" can provide nothing of the sort. One does not build an ideal world from scientifically based traffic planning, market analysis, criminology, network design, game theory, and the gamut of other ideas discussed in this book. Concepts and models drawn from physics are almost certainly going to find their way into other areas of social science, but they are not going to provide a comprehensive theory of society, nor are they going to make traditional sociology, economics, or political science redundant. The skill lies in deciding where a mechanistic, quantitative model is appropriate for describing human behavior, and where it is likely to produce nothing but a grotesque caricature. This is a skill that is still being acquired, and it is likely that there will be embarrassments along the way.
But properly and judiciously applied, physical science can furnish some valuable tools in areas such as social, economic, and civic planning, and in international negotiation and legislation. It may help us to avoid bad decisions; if we are lucky, it will give us some foresight. If there are emergent laws of traffic, of pedestrian motions, of network topologies, of urban growth, we need to know them in order to plan effectively. Once we acknowledge the universality displayed in the physical world, it should come as no surprise that the world of human social affairs is not necessarily a tabula rasa, open to all options.
Society is complex but that does not place it beyond our ken. As we have seen, complexity of form and organization can arise from simple underlying principles if they are followed simultaneously by a great many individuals.
There is a real question about how deep into human behaviour the statistical approach can go. Econophysics, as a term and as a living, funded academic subfield, fizzled out shortly after this book was published. Apparently the SOC results have come in for a lot of criticism, though mostly of their overreach than the method being humanistically inapplicable or whatevs.
Even so, I wish I had read this 5 years ago: it would have saved me lots of contortions. it taught me a huge amount anyway. (e.g. the huge moral panic, following the invention of descriptive statistics, about ever using means to describe any human characteristics, since the remarkable stability of e.g. the C17th London crime rate across decades seemed to speak of divine or diabolical insurance.) One of my top 5 books on economics, one of my top 5 books on physics.
In one sentence: Social physics had at last begun to make exciting progress on understanding mass human behaviour.
|Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges
in the early days of computing, a number of terms for the practitioners of the field of computing were suggested in the Communications of the ACM — turingineer, turologist, flow-charts-man, applied meta-mathematician, and applied epistemologist.</blockquote>- wiki
In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.- JAK Ferns, Turing's coroner
There have been two big films about Turing (three if you count the uselessly fictionalised Enigma (2001)). All of them are more or less dishonestly melodramatic; for instance they depict Turing's relationship with his dead love Christopher as the driver of his work on machine intelligence. And more generally they depict him as tragic. But he wasn't tragic: we were. In the 1950s we attacked a superlatively profound person, because we were certain it was the right thing to do.
Hodges, whose book began the great public rehabilitation of Turing and served as the source for the films, bears no blame for this: it's one of the best biographies I've ever read (better even than Kanigel on Ramanujan and Issacson on Einstein).
Begin with his achievements:
- 1935: Mathematical statistics: An independent proof of the Central Limit Theorem.
- 1935: Group theory: An extension to a theorem of von Neumann's.
- 1936: Mathematical logic: One of the all-time great papers, an answer to Hilbert's halting problem and an elaboration of the incompleteness of all mathematics, and the formal statement of a single machine that can perform all computable work.
- 1936: Computability theory: Same paper. Creator thereof.
- 1936: Automata theory: Same paper. Creator thereof.
- 1936: Computer engineering: Same paper. Inventor of the stored-program concept, used in all computers since 1950.
- 1937: Group theory: Proof that general continuous groups cannot be approximated by finite groups.
- 1938: Mathematical logic: Invention of ordinal logics, an attempt to handle incompleteness.
- 1938: Analytic number theory: Algorithm ("Turing's method") for calculating values of the zeta-function.
- 1938: Computer engineering and Mathematical methodology: Design of an analogue machine to approximate the zeroes of the zeta function.
- 1939: Cryptanalysis: developed most of the logical methods used against Nazi Germany's naval cipher, Enigma. Including a new sort of indirect frequency analysis, "simultaneous scanning", search trees, an independent invention of Shannon's information entropy (as "Weight of evidence")...
- 1940: Mechanical engineering: redesigned the Polish Bomba to handle the exponential explosion in the Enigma's state space.
- 1941: Statistics: independent invention of sequential analysis, for "Banburismus".
- 1940: Bayesian inference: independent reinvention of Bayes factors and the first approximation of what we would now call empirical Bayes estimation. IJ Good quite rightly calls Bayes factors, "Bayes-Turing factors". (Though it should be Laplace-Turing factors.)
- 1942: Cryptanalysis: A hand-method for cracking the Lorenz cipher, "Turingery".
- 1944: Crytography, audio engineering and electrical engineering: Design, proof and much of the construction of "Delilah", an electronic speech encipherment device.
- 1945-6: Algorithmics: The discovery of the stack. A neglected but vast accomplishment. (Zuse had already implemented subroutines by then.)
- 1945-6: Computer engineering: Design of the Automatic Computing Engine, the first complete design of a stored-program computer, including circuit diagrams, instruction set and cost estimate. (von Neumann's is incomplete.)
- 1948: Computer music: The first computer music. Turing's handbook for the Mark I had a section on using it to produce notes, and they gave a demo for radio in 1951, also a first. Not really a synth (not real-time) and not real electronic music (produced by moving parts).
- 1948: Linear algebra: Better ways of solving linear systems and inverting matrices.
- 1949: Group theory: Proof that the 'word problem' is insoluable for cancellation semigroups. Computability mainstream in mathematics by then.
- 1949: Formal verification: Paper on proving that computer programs will behave.
- 1950: Philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence: His famous one, "Computing machinery and intelligence" is one of the top 100 set texts in philosophy, but Computable Numbers is deeper, outlining how computability places limits on what the brain can do, and how difficult it will be to redo. He sees machine learning coming very clearly.
- 1951: Group theory: Another big result in the word problem for groups. (unpublished)
- 1951: Chess engine: Published the first algorithm to play a full game of chess automatically.
- 1952: Mathematical biology: a profound chemical theory of how life grows, now a textbook model of morphogenesis.
- 1952: Number theory: Numerical evidence (computed on the Manchester Baby) for thousands of values of the zeta-function.
- 1952: Pattern formation: Construction of the "Swift-Hohenberg" equation, 23 years before them.
Copeland estimates that breaking U-boat Enigma saved 14 million lives, a large fraction of which we can lay at Turing's feet. This puts him in the top 50 life-savers ever. But what is most amazing (and endearing) is just how unsophisticated he was.
As at school, trivial examples of ‘eccentricity’ circulated in Bletchley circles. Near the beginning of June he would suffer from hay fever, which blinded him as he cycled to work, so he would use a gas mask to keep the pollen out, regardless of how he looked. The bicycle itself was unique, since it required the counting of revolutions until a certain bent spoke touched a certain link (rather like a cipher machine), when action would have to be taken to prevent the chain coming off. Alan had been delighted at having, as it were, deciphered the fault in the mechanism, which meant that he saved himself weeks of waiting for repairs, at a time when the bicycle had again become what it was when invented – the means of freedom. It also meant that no one else could ride it.
He made a more explicit defence of his tea-mug (again irreplaceable, in wartime conditions) by attaching it with a combination lock to a Hut 8 radiator pipe. But it was picked, to tease him.
Trousers held up by string, pyjama jacket under his sports coat – the stories, whether true or not, went the rounds. And now that he was in a position of authority, the nervousness of his manner was more open to comment. There was his voice, liable to stall in mid-sentence with a tense, high-pitched ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah’ while he fished, his brain almost visibly labouring away, for the right expression, meanwhile preventing interruption. The word, when it came, might be an unexpected one, a homely analogy, slang expression, pun or wild scheme or rude suggestion accompanied with his machine-like laugh; bold but not with the coarseness of one who had seen it all and been disillusioned, but with the sharpness of one seeing it through strangely fresh eyes. ‘Schoolboyish’ was the only word they had for it. Once a personnel form came round the Huts, and some joker filled in for him, ‘Turing A.M. Age 21’, but others, including Joan, said it should be ‘Age 16’...
It was demeaning, but the repetition of superficial anecdotes about his usually quite sensible solutions to life’s small challenges served the useful purpose of deflecting attention away from the more dangerous and difficult questions about what an Alan Turing might think about the world in which he lived. English ‘eccentricity’ served as a safety valve for those who doubted the general rules of society. More sensitive people at Bletchley were aware of layers of introspection and subtlety of manner that lay beneath the occasional funny stories. But perhaps he himself welcomed the chortling over his habits, which created a line of defence for himself, without a loss of integrity.
We have words for this now ("nerd", "wonk", "aspie"), and massive institutions, and even social movements, but at the time he had to make do with "don", and hide inside academia. Again: the problem wasn't him, it was us.
He gets called a mathematician most often, I suppose because people don't want to be anachronistic. But scroll up: his most famous work is as a logician and a systems architect, and much of the rest is statistics and algorithmics and cognitive science. He was falling between several chairs, until computer science caught up with him:
a pure mathematician worked in a symbolic world and not with things. The machine seemed to be a contradiction... For Alan Turing personally, the machine was a symptom of something that could not be answered by mathematics alone. He was working within the central problems of classical number theory, and making a contribution to it, but this was not enough. The Turing machine, and the ordinal logics, formalising the workings of the mind; Wittgenstein’s enquiries; the electric multiplier and now this concatenation of gear wheels – they all spoke of making some connection between the abstract and the physical. It was not science, not ‘applied mathematics’, but a sort of applied logic, something that had no name.
The philosopher-engineer. One of several moments in Hodge's book that left me dumbstruck is Turing arguing with Wittgenstein about the foundations of mathematics. (In the spring of 1939 they were both teaching courses at Cambridge called that!) Bit awkward, and in my view Alan goes easy on Ludwig. But you still couldn't make it up.
The government employed Turing for 9 years, paying him about £6000 over the duration (£150k in today's money). In that time he produced 3 gigantically advanced systems (most of the Hut 8 system, the Delilah and the ACE design), about 10 or 20 years ahead of their time. Hodges sees this as a triumph of managerial socialism. Now, breaking naval enigma for £6k is an unbelievable deal (the savings from undestroyed shipping and cargo would be in the billions). But the government suppressed Delilah and totally screwed up the ACE project. So I'm not sure if we can cheer too much. Keynes says somewhere that
The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.
This is true of Enigma, I suppose. But instructive failures are only helpful if they occur in public. (As at least the ACE report was.)
The most annoying part of the films making up emotionally powerful unifying themes for Turing is that they are already there. (But to grasp them, you'd have to actually display what was most wonderful and important about him, his technical work, and there goes the box office.) Anyway, here's one that made me cry:
In an end-of-term sing-song [at Sherborne, when Turing was 12], the following couplet described him: </td>
Turing’s fond of the football field
For geometric problems the touch-lines yield
... another verse had him ‘watching the daisies grow’ during hockey... although intended as a joke against his dreamy passivity, there might have been a truth in the observation.
[20 years later] ...One day he and Joan were lying on the Bletchley lawn looking at the daisies... Alan produced a fir cone from his pocket, on which the Fibonacci numbers could be traced rather clearly, but the same idea could also be taken to apply to the florets of the daisy flower.
[30 years later] ...he was trying out on the computer the solution of the very difficult differential equations that arose when [one] followed the chemical theory of [plant] morphogenesis beyond the moment of budding... it also required some rather sophisticated applied mathematics, which involved the use of ‘operators’ rather as in quantum mechanics. Numerical analysis was also important... In this it was like a private atomic bomb, the computer in both cases following the development of interacting fluid waves.
...he also developed a purely descriptive theory of leaf-arrangement... using matrices to represent the winding of spirals of leaves or seeds round a stem or flower-head... The intention was that ultimately these two approaches would join up when he found a system of equations that would generate the Fibonacci patterns expressed by his matrices.
...Such observations reflected an insight gained from... [a program called] ‘Outline of Development of the Daisy’. He had quite literally been ‘watching the daisies grow’... on his universal machine.
|Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything (2017) by Kelly Weinersmith
Excellent, sceptical look at near-future tech, their enormous potential and risk. The technologies are: new ways of getting to space, asteroid mining, fusion power, programmable matter, robotic construction, brain-computer interfaces, synthetic biology, and bioprinting. They tend to be bearish about these technologies, because their default (i.e. unregulated) effects could be really dreadful.
(Excepting robo-construction and organ printing because these are much less dangerous and dodgy than the existing hacks.) My favourite bit is the paean to Alvin Roth's organ-swap algorithm, which is a magnificent way of circumventing human squeamishness.
Lots of direct quotation from the unprepossessing scientists doing all this, <3. There are also lots of addenda of the following sort:
The story of Gerald Bull goes like this. You have a brilliant engineer who's especially good at ballistics at an early age, who had a brilliant career early on where he got funding from Canada and the US to work on these ballistics programs. Then basically the funding dried up. So he kind of did whatever it took to be able to keep working in this area, which led him to do work in weapons dealing, including dealing with then apartheid South Africa. And things basically unraveled from there, resulting in his humiliation and depression and alcoholism.
Then much later in life he began working for Saddam Hussein, building, for reasons that are not well understood, a giant gun. To be clear, it was probably not useful as a weapon. It was not going to be moveable, it was not pointing at an enemy city: it was pointing as the Earth turns, which is what you'd want to do if you were shooting into space. Then, shortly after that, in the early ‘90s he ended up in a Brussels hotel with a bullet in his head and $20,000 on his body, and nobody is sure who killed him. I believe his son suspected Mossad, but no one as far as I can find has come forward to say here's who did it.
Suitable for all ages, knob jokes aside. (There's a segue joke at the end of every block, and they are uniformly a bit forced.) The illustrations actually don't add anything, even though I love SMBC.
|A Deepness in the Sky (Zones of Thought, #2) (1999) by Vernor Vinge
||A beautiful portrait of pragmatism vs idealism, colonialism and collaboration, surveillance culture vs everything, the possibility of deep translation, the beauty and gaucheness of trade, and the ultimate fate of civilisations.
Programming went back to the beginning of time. It was a little like the midden out back of his father's castle… There were programs here written five thousand years ago, before Humankind ever left Earth. The wonder of it — the horror of it… down at the very bottom of it was a little program that ran a counter. Second by second, the Qeng Ho counted from the instant that a human had first set foot on Old Earth’s moon. But if you looked at it still more closely… the starting instant was actually about fifteen million seconds later, the 0-second of one of Humankind’s first computer operating systems…
“We should rewrite it all,” said Pham.
“It’s been done,” said Sura.
“It’s been tried,” corrected Bret…“You and a thousand friends would have to work for a century or so to reproduce it… And guess what—even if you did, by the time you finished, you’d have your own set of inconsistencies...”
Vinge's great skill is in drawing out sick tragic tension for hundreds of pages, driving the reader on to ever more complex injustices, until... The smooth-talking fascist antagonists are a bit too simple, a bit Harkonnen; their mind-raping slavery, their inversion of justice by lying perfectly, their flat-toned planning of atrocities:
"At which time, we'll feed them the story of our noble effort to limit the genocide." Ritser smiled, intrigued by the challenge. "I like it."
You are made to wait 500 pages for a comeuppance. The "Focused", the mindwiped slaves are extremely creepy; weaponised savants (see Ada Palmer's set-sets for a less straightforward treatment of human computers).
Pham Nuwen, the great programmer-statesman, is far more interesting here than in the first book. He stands out in a large cast of interesting characters, all laying down schemes and intrigues with at minimum 20 years until payoff (at maximum 2000 years). Not ordinary, but not unrealistic; there have been dozens like him, possessed of or by the force that drives Napoleon off his island, Washington over the river, Alexander everywhere. He is a psychopath:
The [armed fascists] might try to chase him around in here. That would be fun; Nau's goons would find just how dangerous their tunnels had become...
The evolutionary role of such people - both the fearless hero, Nuwen, and the bloodthirsty predator, Nau - is not handled explicitly, but Pham is held up as a paragon.
The arachnid aliens are much better than the hivehounds of the last book: Vinge and his translator characters' anthropomorphisations (or, rather, personalisations) are successful. Though maybe I'm just biased because the Spiders are shown going through their Information Revolution rather than their Pre-Renaissance period. It shows the deep connection between lack of economic growth, lack of intellectual growth and lack of social progress. The great scientist Sherkaner is also the one to challenge his society's sexual oppression. ("Either way, the cycles were shattered forever") The "counterlurk" is the Enlightenment. It's an exquisite portrait of the great promise and risk of a technological society; you get the end of hunger and disease, you get spaceflight, but you also get nuclear standoffs.
There are wonderful symmetries between the Spiders and humans: they each have odd, distended sleep cycles (the humans going into cryogenic suspension most of the time, the Spiders hibernating centuries until the sun reignites). There's also the Sura/Pham, Qiwi / Ezr, and Victory/Sherkaner pairings, the actual beauty of complementing another, of power couples with aims beyond their own power.
The title looks clumsy but isn't: it refers to a very large thought, that decentralising a system is the only way to make it last; that space is not only a cold and hostile place, it is also the way to break the terrible forces that might work against mere interplanetary civilisations:
Pham would get their localizers in return for decent medical science. Both sides would benefit enormously. Magnate Larson would live a few extra centuries. If he was lucky, the current cycle of his civilization would outlive him. But a thousand years from now, when Larson was dust, when his civilization had fallen as the planetbound inevitably did—a thousand years from now, Pham and the Qeng Ho would still be flying between the stars. And they would still have the Larson localizers...
"If you accept the trade I'm hoping for, you will live just as many years as I. But I am Qeng Ho. I sleep decades between the stars. You Customer civilizations are ephemera to us."
One unintentional detail: the "huds" that all the human characters depend are I think just Google Glass.
Stayed up late to finish it. Maybe 5/5, will re-read in a while and see.
How does it do as Serious science fiction?
Social development: all three societies depicted are very distinct and have believable economies, genderings, . The Qeng Ho - the empire without a capital, the force without an army - are a lovely depiction of the humanistic and progressive side of trade. The Emergents are maybe a little too simple, too feudal and dastardly.
Software development: Fantastic. Central to the plot (titanic cruft as feature), with a subtle twist on the horror of legacy systems: an entire multi-planet civilisation is shown collapsing because its software is too fucking crufty to live. (That might sound ridiculous, but I promise you I see this story in miniature everywhere at my work.) No one does it better.
Actual Science: Lots, with a breathless romp through all of C20th physics and engineering - though there's also a magic antigrav ore.
|The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) by Erving Goffman
||Queering the fake/authentic binary
|The Lord of the Rings (1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien
||Anti-modern, stilted, and it inspired millions of pages of awful work, but hey it's grand. A glorious mess (or, a glorious mess draped over an impressive classical edifice, the linguistics.) : a devout Catholic tries to write a mythic prehistory of Earth... with its own pagan pantheon, where a cool man with a shiny gem on his face is also a giant ball of carbon dioxide.
People don't seem to realise that it's a mess. Maybe all fiction is, when you know it intimately enough.
Is this hate-reading? I don't think so, I wouldn't get goosebumps at this if it was:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
|Infidel (2006) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I told him, "I'm not coming to the [wedding he arranged for her], and all he said was, "You're not required." Legally, this was true.
I went to Sister Aziza and said, “The [Christian] girls will not become Muslims. Their parents have taught them other religions. It isn't their fault, and I don't think it's fair that they'll burn in Hell." Sister Aziza told me I was wrong. Through me, Allah had given them a choice. If these girls rejected the true religion, then it was right that they should burn.
Vivid and horrific. She is sewn shut as a child. Her Sunday school teacher beats her into the hospital. She is forced into marriage. She flees civil war and her family. She becomes an apostate. She makes an edgy film. The latter three are held to be crimes, the last worthy of death. But somehow the book is not a misery memoir.
She is hard to agree with and impossible to ignore; some people solve this tension with absurd insults. Her work against sexism is thought to be negated (and then some) by her succour to racism.
What are the arguments against her views?
* "Her critique only applies to Somalia." (e.g.)
* "Her critique was only valid in the 70s."
* "Her critique only applies to Wahhabism."
No; she grew up under non-Saudi Islamic socialism.
* "Her writing is self-serving: she built a political career on denigrating Islam."
Ah yes: cunning of her to be born into oppression, get chopped up and repeatedly forced into marriage; what an impressive long con. More seriously: it doesn't strike me as a good deal to accept a high probability of murder for the rest of your life, in exchange for a political seat and an academic post. Why is so hard to believe that someone willing to risk her life might mean it?
* "She has no scholarly credentials to speak authoritatively about Islam".
Doesn't apply to Infidel, since it is a first-person account of several different Muslim regimes. More than this: she grew up in four different Islamic societies, speaks half a dozen languages, and has spent 17 years studying it, at Harvard and places like that. This is not to say she's correct, it's just obviously untrue that she has no scholarly credentials.
* "She is an inauthentic ethnic voice." / "Her portrayals are neo-Orientalist." / "Her portrayals are an enactment of the colonial civilizing mission discourse."
This is only an objection if you think she's lying (or cherry-picking), and if you take correspondence to old ideas of bad people as proof of falsehood or unsayableness. Who's more authentic?
* "Their accounts confirm dangerous stereotypes and reinforce the old-new dichotomy of the 'civilized us' versus the 'barbaric them'. In addition, they increase the pressure on Muslim and Arabs in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere." (source)
I wouldn't have used "confirm" there, if I was making his point.
* "Her policy prescriptions are extreme and counterproductive."
This was true through the noughties (she called it 'fascism', called it war), but apparently she's mellowed. (Generally people aren't given a second chance on these matters.)
* "Hirsi Ali feels she cannot be a feminist and a Muslim... [but] numerous women who espouse feminist, intellectual, Muslim and African identity [exist]." (e.g. here)
* "(Only) white men like her" / "Her fans are awful.".
This is very twisted ad hominem (because the critic realises that they can't attack a Somali woman who has survived decades of abuse).
Here's one of mine: To understand Ayn Rand - the cartoonish egotism, the false social theory, the needless extremity - you need to remember what she went through: the equally cartoonish, false and extreme Stalinism. (This point would outrage Rand, since it makes a victim of her, and makes her vaunted individualism just a mechanical inversion.) Maybe you could argue Hirsi Ali is like this. Even if you do, it doesn't reduce our obligation to actually argue with Rand or Hirsi Ali at all, though.
Here's the crux of the whole thing, her discussing religion with her dad:
"There is no coercion in Islam," my father said. "No human being has the right to punish another for not observing his religious duties. Only Allah can do that."
It was like Quran school, but more intelligent. We even talked about martyrdom. My father said that committing suicide for Holy War was acceptable only in the time of the Prophet—and then only because the unbelievers had attacked the Prophet first. Today there could not be a Holy War, he said, because only the Prophet Muhammad could call for a Holy War.
This was my father's Islam: a mostly nonviolent religion that was his own interpretation of the Prophet's words. It relied on one's own sense of right and wrong, at least to some degree. It was more intelligent than the Islam I had learned from the ma'alim, and it was also far more humane. Still, this version of Islam also left me with unanswered questions and a sense of injustice: Why was it that only women needed to ask permission from their husband to leave the house, and not the other way round?
My father's Islam was also clearly an interpretation of what the Prophet said. As such, it was not legitimate. You may not interpret the will of Allah and the words of the Quran: it says so, right there in the book. There is a read-only lock. It is forbidden to pick and choose: you may only obey. The Prophet said, "I have left you with clear guidance; no one deviates from it after me, except that he shall he destroyed." A fundamentalist would tell my father, "The sentence 'Only the Prophet can call a Holy War' is not in the Quran. You're putting it in there. That is blasphemy."
: Did you notice it? She yields the entire ground to the fundamentalists. She's a literalist! She notes, correctly, that the Quran forbids interpretation, forbids reformation, and gives up. Never mind that almost all religious people live extremely flexibly with the demands of their religion, "failing" at this and adapting that. Never mind that, contrary to the Word, there's loads of Islams, that some majority-Muslim countries have been electing women for ages, that some Muslim governments have been trying to stop FGM for a while now. We're messy, nevertheless, thank god.
(It looks like her more recent books focus on exactly this point, though.)
|Surface Detail (Culture #9) (2010) by Iain M. Banks
||Meditation on consequentialism and moral progress, only more fun than that sounds. ("Consequences are everything.") Spends 300 pages setting up its thirteen protagonists into like seven plot threads. As a result, he has to repeat a lot of exposition to keep us - including, in one instance, a full page of quoted dialogue which we'd heard 50 pages back. Oddly simplistic despite its fifth-order intentionality, then.
Surface Detail fills out some of the mechanisms and organisation of the Culture; throws his usual bucket of ideas at the plot (graphic descriptions of Hell, a first-person account of an aquatic, hair-thick species, an extended section in a Medieval convent) and keeps a good amount of tension and mental strain going. Good, full of simple dramatised philosophy.
|Seveneves (2015) by Neal Stephenson
||Amazing hard worldbuilding from a lunatic seed: 'what would happen if the moon just blew up?' You will stomach pages of physical exposition before scenes can occur, but it isn't superfluous. First two-thirds are psychologically convincing: you will ball your fists at the politics. (By which I mean treachery and irrationality.)
He does railroad a couple of plot points - e.g. it is taken for granted that a psychopathic war criminal has every right to an equal share of the genetic future. And the last third's extrapolation of 5000 years of cultural creep is less formally ambitious than e.g. Cloud Atlas.
First two-thirds 4*/5, last third 3/5.
[Theory #1, Theory #2, Theory #4, Values #2]</li>
How does it do as Serious science fiction?
Social development: Lots, though the races that develop are primary-coloured and fantastical, including a fantastical war.
Software development: A little bit, particularly Dinah's cool claytronics.
Actual Science: Plenty, with the lone exception of the initial moonburst.
|Money for Nothing (1928) by P.G. Wodehouse
||Gorgeous as ever. Was snorting on the Tube over it.
This was surprising, for 1928:
You're a confirmed settler-down, the sort of chap that likes to roll the garden lawn and then put on his slippers and light a pipe and sit side by side with the little woman, sharing a twin set of head phones.
But Wiki tells me this was indeed possible, for a posh progressive couple. Not sure why they'd do this instead of a gramophone - maybe it was for the radio.
|The Waste Land (1922) by T.S. Eliot
||What a pain to understand this must've been, before the internet. (But only if you need to feel in control all the time while reading.)
|Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck (2017) by Eliezer Yudkowsky
|Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions (2008) by Gayle Laakmann McDowell
||This has zero relevance for almost everyone; and about 3 quarters of the book can be skipped by almost all of the remaining people (specifics about the big tech companies and particular language warts). Even so, it's good that it exists; it's an impressive distillation of Computer Science lore and heuristics, which thus lets smart outsiders in.
I was dismayed to open it and find 100 pages of fluff (the curse of the ebook: book proportions not being completely obvious), but the algorithm challenges start after, don't stop, and are very good. (Don't panic: doing half of them way over-prepared me for my interview.) The non-coding 'brain teasers' are helpful if, like me, you weren't a puzzle geek in youth.
Essential for a tiny number of people.
|Sex by Numbers: What Statistics Can Tell Us About Sexual Behaviour (Wellcome) (2015) by David Spiegelhalter
||Fun with a serious scientific mission. The expected titillating facts are present (how many people have tried anal? How many people are gay? What's typical?) but there's also an intro to the many difficulties of social science and a history of sexology in here. You learn why you should admire (but not trust) Ellis, Hirschfeld, Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, Hite...
Something for everyone.
|The Pale King (2011) by David Foster Wallace
||What to say?
Fifty fragments: unintegrated, contradicting, only sometimes amazing. Themes you’d expect: self-consciousness, freedom, duty, routine - the awful effect of unconstrained self-consciousness, freedom, duty and routine - the death of American civics - ‘the horror of personal smallness and transience’ - the repugnance we feel for pure virtue - the extraordinary fires alight beneath some people. But where in Jest these were expressed through (burdened with) drug slang, pharmacology, advertising dreck, and calculus, here we get accountancy minutiae surely intended to repulse us. Yet the style is far less mannered than his finished work, which style we might call Postdoc Valleyspeak.
The reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help to insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting.
Institutional tedium – the default state for developed-world adults – is profoundly important to address, a topic it will take an unusual mind to illuminate for us. But Pale King is actually not a Kafkan tale of the ever-growing horror of bureaucracy; actually he is deeply impressed and convinced of the value of the people and the work of the IRS, in large part because of its inhumane strictures, lack of glory, and unpopularity.
"Big Q is whether IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one." (Though if ‘corporate’ is there read merely as meaning ‘maximising’, the distinction can be misleading.)
To me, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ and ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way… I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
I tried to read them as short stories rather than chapters. This half-works. Actually the entire book was intentionally fruitless – the major agonists all off-stage, everyone else just enduring.
A couple of intentionally unconvincing first-person authorial inserts – “I, David Wallace, social security no…” – affirm the reality of the garish IRS underbelly he fabricates, put him in the scene. Fragment #8 is a horrifying Cormac McCarthy lyric, childhood psychosis. One (#22) is a hundred-page monologue, the character repetitive, rambling and conceited, but also the most developed and affecting. Of this wreckage we are given to read.
What to say? That you’d have to love this writing to like it, that you should.
|The Plato Cult: And Other Philosophical Follies (1991) by David Stove
||Funny, unfair, rabid dismissal of most philosophy ever. Uses ad hominem Bulwerism openly - despite that going against his own ideal of reason - because he views a great range of people as being too mad to engage with.
His other move is to use the positivist's wood-chipper principle a lot: 'your position is literally meaningless; you're too stupid to see this', occasionally correctly. Attacks idealists mostly, including whole chapters making fun of Goodman, Nozick, and Popper(!) - but does not spare Mill ("here doing his usual service of making mistakes very clearly") and Russell, who you'd think were his kind of men.
The last chapter is scary and hilarious and suggests the man's basic pain, underneath his roaring pessimism. Read it at least.
4/5. (keep it away from freshers though)
|Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1975) by Raymond Williams
||A list of definitions (and etymologies) of the vague, overloaded, and pompous language used in the humanities. Reading this early in my degree made me able to talk: it relaxed the paralysis that is the natural (and perhaps intended) response to their famous walls of jargon.
If you've ever felt there was something to area studies and critical theory, but that the inferential distance was too costly to justify the effort, this is the book for you. (Or, it was thirty years ago. They'll have invented thousands more ill-defined words since then.) I imagine it would also be good for very ambitious adult English learners.
Williams is a sarcastic, clever and friendly guide: I can't remember which top-rank word he describes as "better for it never to have been", but here's a good entry:
'Nature' is perhaps the most complex word in the language. It is relatively easy to distinguish three areas of meaning:
(i) the essential quantity and character of something;
(ii) the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both;
(iii) the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings.
Yet it is evident that within (ii) and (iii), though the area of reference is broadly clear, precise meanings are variable and at times even opposed. The historical development of the word through these three senses is important, but it is also significant that all three senses, and the main variations and alternatives within the two most difficult of them, are still active and widespread in contemporary usage. was (i), the essential character and quality of something. Nature is thus one of several important words, including culture, which began as descriptions of a quality or process, immediately defined by a specific reference, but later became independent nouns...
The common phrase human nature, often crucial in important kinds of argument, can contain, without clearly demonstrating it, any of the three main senses and indeed the main variations and alternatives. There is a relatively neutral use in sense (i): that it is an essential quality and characteristic of human beings to do something (though the something that is specified may of course be controversial). But in many uses the descriptive (and hence verifiable or falsifiable) character of sense (i) is less prominent than the very different kind of statement which depends on sense (ii), the directing inherent force, or one of the variants of sense (iii), a fixed property of the material world, in this case ‘natural man’. What has also to be noticed in the relation between sense (i) and senses (ii) and (iii) is, more generally, that sense (i), by definition, is a specific singular - the nature of something, whereas senses (ii) and (iii), in almost all their uses, are abstract singulars - the nature of all things having become singular nature or Nature...
There was then a practice of shifting use, as in Shakespeare’s Lear:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s ...
one daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.
That nature, which contemns its origin
Cannot be border’d certain in itself...
It could seem wrong to inquire into the workings of an absolute monarch, or of a minister of God. But a formula was arrived at: to understand the creation was to praise the Creator, seeing absolute power through contingent works. In practice the formula became lip-service and was then forgotten. Paralleling political changes, nature was altered from an absolute to a constitutional monarch, with a new kind of emphasis on natural laws. Nature, in C18 and C19, was often in effect personified as a constitutional lawyer. The laws came from somewhere, and this was variously but often indifferently defined; most practical attention was given to interpreting and classifying the laws, making predictions from precedents, discovering or reviving forgotten statutes, and above all shaping new laws from new cases: nature not as an inherent and shaping force but as an accumulation and classification of cases.
The complexity of the word is hardly surprising, given the fundamental importance of the processes to which it refers. But since nature is a word which carries, over a very long period, many of the major variations of human thought - often, in any particular use, only implicitly yet with powerful effect on the character of the argument - it is necessary to be especially aware of its difficulty.
|Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1) (1965) by Frank Herbert
The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes– Frank Herbert
'Didn't you learn the difference between Harkonnen and Atreides so that you could smell a Harkonnen trick by the stink they left on it. Didn't you learn that Atreides loyalty is bought with love, while the Harkonnen coin is hate?– also Frank Herbert
Dune shouldn't work: there's a lot of the worst of fantasy fiction in it. The spurious black and white morality, above; cod-medieval dialogue; noble-savagery and bizarro Orientalism; its spoilers for itself (through its constant first-person precognition); and the po-faced chapter epigrams about how great the main character is... *
But it does work. It works because of the loveable setting and its thrilling ecosystem; the sharp, rapid dialogue; its sheer, smushy pastiche of human history (American environmentalism, medieval feudalism, Arabic sheikism, and Zen martial hokum ("he is a Zensunni prophet", "to use the family atomics"); its mystical anti-Star Trek historical materialism; excellent setpieces; and because the book contains a realist reading of its own magical-heroic events. (Here's a start: Everything takes place on a world made of shroom heroin! You can't trust a thing these people say!)
This hidden realism is clearest in the (heavy) appendices to the book - these aren't the ordinary conceited footnotes of fantasy, which assume you care about its little world as much as the author does. They're instead a rationalist palate cleanser after 600 pages of woo. A scientific, academic register erupts, mocking the internally real mysticism of the foregoing. I was even a little disappointed to find a huge glossary at the end, containing all the words I had been puzzling over. Mystery and gnosis and not-quite-getting-it suits the plot. The appendices say the book is more than its plot, and the world more than its books.
(The big realist moment within the book is when you see that the great prophecy is just a scam, planted to manipulate people.)
The baddies, the Harkonnens, are a bit much though: nothing they do is not repulsive. Herbert has the protagonists use mysticism and authoritarianism, while having most of the best characters resist and despise these things. There's no such tension with the main antagonists, no nominally redeeming feature. So you can feel Herbert hissing and booing the Harkonnens. Here is the first scene with the evil Baron:
It was a relief globe of a world, partly in shadows, spinning under the impetus of a fat hand that glittered with rings... A chuckle sounded beside the globe. A basso voice rumbled out of the chuckle:
'There it is, Piter, the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke's headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?'
Herbert gets away with this because Harkonnen is supposed to be over-the-top, and, more, because his world has a black and grey morality. (Do you want the genocidal decadent rapist Machiavels or the square-chinned aristocratic Machiavels?)
The greyness of the Atreides leads to the biggest plot problem. (It's not exactly a plot hole, but it takes interpretive labour to make it make sense.): Paul's Jihad is unmotivated. Nobody wants it, including the Messiah it is carried out for. Paul even compares himself to Mega Hitler:
'There's another emperor I want you to note in passing - a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.'
'Killed by his legions?'
'Not very impressive statistics, m'Lord.'
'... at a conservative estimate, I've killed sixty-one billion, sterilised ninety planets... We'll be a hundred generations recovering from Muad'dib's jihad.'
and it's implied that the previous tyrant, Padishah, did not do such things. This completely undermines the exciting and righteous revolution that we spent a book and a half cheering on. If unprecedented death and misery is the payoff, what is the gain of having a noble ruler?
OK, Paul frequently speaks of not being able to stop the jihad - scrying that, if he does try and stop it, he just gets usurped and then it carries on worse. But then he shouldn't have come to power at all, and the book tacitly tells us that things would have been better if the Harkonnens succeeded and none of the last three-quarters happened.
The way to make sense of this is to take Herbert's anti-hero line above seriously. Paul made a terrible situation worse. We're not supposed to root for him. But, Herbert knows, we can't help it, because Paul is the Underdog and Loyal and Smart and Competent and (obvs) dead handsome.
- There's very good dialogue throughout, with some of the best lines given to an array of anonymous guards. It is good because spare in the face of a baroque religion and politics.
- The Nietzschean philosophy of the book (that is, of Herbert, not just of the Fremen or of Paul) suggests a stronger connection between strength, suffering, and spiritual superiority than there actually is. But, even here, it would not be too hard to make a dove reading of Dune, where the actions of all ruthless parties are actually perverse.
- Dune even has a proper dialect, not the usual mere conlangs. Vocal memes: several different characters say "Ah-h-h-h-h" in a particular way.
- The Bene Gesserit are the best thing in the book, a cabal of galactic, psychic, eugenicist spies.
- The books eventually turn against the Bene Gesserits' specific eugenics program, but it never lets up with hardass Darwinism (which in respectable form has been called Haidtism). Lots and lots of woo:
The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive. All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment, experiencing a kind of sexual heat that could override any barrier.
There's a Randian seduction in the Fremen hardass ethic. As in Nietzsche: Herbert is inviting the reader to view themselves as strong, above the mob. (If you feel nothing seductive about these books - well, you've a modest soul.)
- The second book goes into even more gritty detail: the Fremen toilets are 'reclamation stills', for instance. (I'm just impressed at the speech-act of grossing out your readers with your hero characters.)
- I've been toying with a connection between Kynes (Dune's divine ecologist, who designs the rejuvenation of Arrakis) and the Kynde of Piers Plowman (Nature itself, or the intuitive transcendental grasp of it). I mention this mostly just to score a literary point: no-one else has noticed.
- The Fremen, his Muslim Tuareg, are actually Thracians in complexion. Xenophanes about Thrace:
Men create the gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair.
- I also love his Vulcans. Rather than being the mockable and inhuman they are just whaddya know better at thinking:
'A mentat could not function without realising he worked in infinite systems. Fixed knowledge could not surround the infinite. Everywhere could not be brought into finite perspective.'
"Be a man and a mentat!"
"I am a mentat and a man."
- * On the last page you are told that the epigrams are all written out of sexual frustration, the joke on the author of them:
'See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she'll have little else.'
Cue laughtrack, applause, credits.
The quality dropped sharply between books: Dune is amazing, Messiah is slow but satisfying, Children of Dune is ok. Believe the hype.
How does it do as Serious science fiction?
Social development: Done pretty well, despite appearances. Dune is a wild repudiation of Whig history, that our technology and our society must progress, and progress together. "Feudalism with energy weapons" as Heath says, half in contempt.
Software development: No.
Actual Science: No.
|A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998) by Bill Bryson
||I don’t rate him – his matey adjectival register and cutesy knowledge get on my nerves – but this is great. Dead funny throughout, free of bluster, and passionate about marginal researches (the fate of the hemlock tree in Northeast America, the punctuated history of very long US roads).
I read this aloud and it worked very well. Even my townie girlfriend wants to go hiking now.
|Does Foreign Aid Really Work? (2007) by Roger C. Riddell
||At least when I was writing about aid, this was the best book on the balance of evidence. Bottom line is that almost all non-health C20th aid was wasted (and the food aid portion often harmful, since it distorted the local economy), but things have been getting a lot better since 2005.
Only not five stars because it doesn't integrate the evidence into a full quantitative model or meta-analysis.
|A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (2003) by Richard Dawkins
||Essay collection from his long heyday. His letter to his 10yo daughter is maybe the clearest statement of sceptical empiricism ever, though it also displays the blithe wonkishness that alienates most people:
Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, ‘Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?’ Now suppose I answered: ‘I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.’ You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside ‘feeling’ on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.
People sometimes say that you must believe in your deep feelings inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.
Aaag he used to be so wise and grand, giving out words to live by. (He remains brave and clear, but you don't necessarily want to look through this windows anymore.)
|Selected Poems, 1954-1992 (1996) by George Mackay Brown
Distrust and death but never self-pity; drowning and drama but wise. Of one place’s Vikings, fish, and pain – like Under Milk Wood without the japery and authorial distance. Seal Market is amazing; the Hamnavoe poems are so good I feel I’ve been there (which means I don’t have to go).
Brown seems stuck writing about the Middle Ages – “what are these red things like tatties? (apples)”– but then, the Middle Ages lasted right through to the 1960s, on Orkney.
And since “a circle has no beginning or end. The symbol holds: people in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers of 3000 BC.”
|Writing Home (1994) by Alan Bennett
|Dril Official "Mr. Ten Years" Anniversary Collection (2018) by Dril
||It's difficult to explain ok. What looks like tasteless idiocy - or, not much better, tastelessly ironic tasteless idiocy - is actually a new, hilarious literary style. I hate Twitter, but use it for this.
'dril' is a self-aware idiot, a boastful masochist, a fanboy, a shill, a disgusting but hapless man. He graduated high school in 2005 but also has grandchildren. He can't spell very well but he breaks out ten-dollar words quite often. That is: he is Everyman, online.
He thinks he's a social critic but he's also an open shill (and this is not unheard of). His mix of self-regard and incompetence is done better than Ignatius in Confederacy of Dunces.
You can get a sense of what people see in him through all the surprisingly apt applications: the prolific tagging of completely different philosophers, US presidents, Romans, Christian denominations.
Missing from this book is the nastier strand of the project, where he resurrects ten-year-old tweets by real accounts with impressively stupid names which accidentally share the aesthetic. (He mostly targets inactive accounts, though.)
It's weird to pay for a book which is both free and dreadful (and lacks some good roughhousing). But everything here is weird.
|Little Wolf's Book Of Badness (Book & Tape) (1995) by Ian Whybrow
|In the Beginning...Was the Command Line (1999) by Neal Stephenson
The basic tenet of multiculturalism is that people need to stop judging each other—to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful… The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macramé. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor and begin pumping bullets into Westerners.
Classic, cynical cultural history of popular computing. A noob-friendly guide to breaking free: a love letter to GNU: “Linux… are making tanks… Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free… It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against more modern products. But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.”
If you’re like me (human?), you need metaphors and binary distinctions to get abstract stuff, and Stephenson has them coming out of his ears, which sometimes leads to a stone-tablet patronising tone*.
Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces.”)
An amazing writer, though: he finds program comments "like the terse mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes." In tech, 15 years is a full geological era and a half*, so some of his insights have taken on a sepia hue (e.g. “is [Microsoft] addicted to OS sales in the same way as Apple is to selling hardware? Keep in mind that Apple's ability to monopolize its own hardware supply was once cited, by learned observers, as a great advantage over Microsoft. At the time, it seemed to place them in a much stronger position. In the end, it nearly killed them, and may kill them yet... When things started to go south for Apple, they should have ported their OS to cheap PC hardware. But they didn't. Instead, they tried to make the most of their brilliant hardware, adding new features and expanding the product line. But this only had the effect of making their OS more dependent on these special hardware features, which made it worse for them in the end. ”). But astonishingly, most have not – and how many other tech articles from the 90s are still worth a single minute of your time?
* He uses this very metaphor in this short essay.
|CLOSURE (2013) by Why The Lucky Stiff
||[Downloadable here and only here.]
This is a wilfully glitchy, difficult, intense bundle of handwritten sketches about unspecifiable loss, faltering ambition, unchecked and uncaught exceptions. Why he doesn't program any more. It is autobiographical but most of it is probably not literally true.
The 95 stories, each brutally truncated:
ACCIDENT.pdf, ACCOUNTS.pdf, AMANDA.pdf, ATTEMPT.pdf, AWAKEN.pdf, BIBLICAL.pdf, BLANK.pdf, BOOMS.pdf, BRICKS.pdf, BURN.pdf, BUSTS.pdf, CAPRICE.pdf, CLOWNS.pdf, CONFLICTING.pdf, CORRUPTION.pdf, DELIRIUM.pdf, DESOLEE.pdf, DISCLAIMER.pdf, ELEVENTH.pdf, EXPERTS.pdf, EYES.pdf, FALLEN.pdf, FAREWELL.pdf, FIGHTS.pdf, FIRELESS.pdf, FLIPPED.pdf, FOOLS.pdf, FORGIVABLE.pdf, FRIGHTS.pdf, GAIMAN.pdf, GINGERBREAD.pdf, HELLOYES.pdf, HERBERT.pdf, HO.pdf, HOLES.pdf, HOMEWORK.pdf, IDEAS.pdf, IDOLATRY.pdf, IMPERSON.pdf, INVESTMENT.pdf, ITISUS.pdf, JERKS.pdf, JUXT.pdf, KIDS.pdf, LEAPS.pdf, LEVELS.pdf, LOGICAL.pdf, LOOKUP.pdf, MEANING.pdf, MIMICS.pdf, MISSING.pdf, MOLDED.pdf, NO.pdf, NOTES.pdf, NOTHIN.pdf, NOTYET.pdf, OBVIOUS.pdf, OUTRAGE.pdf, PASSAGES.pdf, PEANUTS.pdf, PIRATEO.pdf, PITHY.pdf, POULET.pdf, PRESENTLY.pdf, PROFESSORS.pdf, READING.pdf, REALITY.pdf, REASON.pdf, RECEIPT.pdf, RELATED.pdf, RESPONSIBLE.pdf, REVERSE.pdf, RIP.pdf, SACRED.pdf, SEAWATER.pdf, SENSORED.pdf, SOLICIT.pdf, SPAWN.pdf, SPENT.pdf, STACKS.pdf, STINKS.pdf, TABLETS.pdf, TEST.pdf, THEFT.pdf, TIGHT.pdf, TORN.pdf, TRESMAL.pdf, TRIALS.pdf, TRUMPETS.pdf, UNBOUND.pdf, URGENTLY.pdf, WELLWELL.pdf, WHATSUPDOC.pdf, YOU.pdf, YOUGETIT.pdf
Along with Gwern and Perlis, _why is one of our developer-artists. Art about code. So this is conceptualism that I don't immediately despise.
(A closure is a neat piece of code that can remember what has happened, knows what's going on outside, beyond what the code explicitly mentions.)
We get dead-format nostalgia, memery, a handwritten stretch of Ruby, and reflections on feeling inferior to Franz Kafka, of all people.
_why has a unique voice. That is a banal thing to say, but it is true here as I suspect it is not elsewhere. There are only two technical passages, one litany of relief from enterprise development, and one entire module in handwriting.
There is torment. Keep up the names: he is the Simon Weil, the Tristram Shandy of web development, the DFW of running out of ritalin. Unquiet introversion.
Can anyone that has had a blog be called private? (Where are all the introverts these days? Technology has upgraded introverts into - soft extroverts I guess.)
Here are his self-hating notes in the margin of his beautiful, kind comment on Shymalan's The Happening:
Perhaps the greatest pain of talking about art is how shallow it is compared to the actual experience of watching movie/song/etc... previously I had criticized the kinds of small talk discussions, particularly discussions about music, because they revolved around "Did you like this? Have you heard that?" and never went anywhere beyond that...
Those pointless discussions that had always left me feeling empty, never able to talk about the beauty of music itself adequately, just the names and the styles... But why would anyone want to have a meaningful discussion all the time?
In a way I feel that's the point of being candid. To expose how shameful I am.
Wilfully awkward, marginal, analogue. He calls himself the Professor, as an insult.
The PDF is of images, not text: you cannot copy anything without putting in the effort. Old misaligned book scans, dumb Gorey cartoon jokes, an itemized grocery bill, astute literary notes on Kafka, Ishiguro, Gaiman. He lives now with extreme thrift and extreme technophobia, slamming down his friend's phone when she browses it during conversation. He makes seawater bread instead of web apps.
The harsh jump-cut absurdism between the sketches is not genuine - they are all linked. Not sure what by, but I say so.
I must strictly require you that, if you are to continue reading and go with me on this sally, that you resist from looking up anything to do with the book SACRED CLOWNS. This is paramount. I know the urge must be incredible to go out with your smartphones and to find out if the book is real, but I must INSIST that you just let it be. I don't know if it's possible for you to exercise that kind of self-restraint in this modern age, but you must. Of all the things I could ask of you, this seems so small and simple. Can you do this for me?
(I did resist, but it was actually hard to.)
I usually don't rate merely formal experiment, intentional awkwardness. But the warmth of his great first book and the constant self-deprecation and plaintive concrete detail make it easy.
"What's your name?"
"I won't say"
"It's just a name, mate! Doesn't mean anything to hide it!
"It doesn't mean anything to say it!" I yelled
Someone is squatting his old site. I wonder if it's _why; if the banal entrepreneurial positivity on it is him continuing CLOSURE. Since the book refuses to end; this is the last page:
4/5 but only if you care already.
|Algorithmics: The Spirit of Computing (1987) by David Harel
||A thing of beauty: an attempt at a work of computer science that doesn’t date. It's general abstract introductory matter. The field is hugely consequential: different algorithms for the same task can differ in performance by a factor of trillions.
Bible quotations book-end each chapter and give this a frisson of something other.
|Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation (2015) by Laboria Cuboniks
|The Mating Season (Jeeves, #9) (1949) by P.G. Wodehouse
“Still,” I said, feeling that it was worth trying, “it’s part of the great web, what?”
“One of Marcus Aurelius’s cracks. He said: Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of
the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web. ”
From the brusque manner in which he damned and blasted Marcus Aurelius, I gathered that, just as had happened when Jeeves sprang it on me, the gag had failed to bring balm. I hadn't had much hope that it would. I doubt, as a matter of fact, if Marcus Aurelius’s material is ever the stuff to give the troops at a moment when they have just stubbed their toe on the brick of Fate. You want to wait till the agony has abated.
Wooster's taboo: None; using a port decanter as a conductor's baton while standing on a chair bellowing hunting doggerel.
Triangle: Wooster - the Bassett - Gussie - Corky - Esmond - Gertrude - Catsmeat - Queenie - Dobbs.*
Subplot: Arresting a dog, kidnapping, converting an atheist.
Aunt: Agatha and five others
Antagonist: Dame Daphne Winkworth, the Bassett, Agatha
Expedient: treble impersonation, comedic Irish crosstalk, luring a schoolboy with a starlet, coshing a cop to convert him to Christianity.
* It is vital to have an odd number of people in the love 'triangle', so that they can all be paired off at the end, sparing Wooster.
|Ethel and Ernest (1999) by Raymond Briggs
|The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (2001) by William Easterly
||Extremely important and readable empirical summary of the (C20th) failure of directed "development" aid (that is, capital aimed at a self-sustaining anti-poverty outcome).
|Against Method (1975) by Paul Karl Feyerabend
||A common misconception is that this book disses scientists. It doesn't; it tells philosophers of science that they've failed and should go home.
Has an "Analytical Index", a table of contents which contains the principal argument. This should be mandatory in nonfiction.
|Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (Faber Library) (1970) by Ted Hughes
||Metal af. Good after a breakup.
|Master of Reality (2008) by John Darnielle
||Crushing, beautiful portrait of teenage alienation, institutionalisation, and 'Sabbath, from an author uniquely placed to deal with these things (as an ex-desperate-teen, ex-psychiatric-nurse, metal fan, America's greatest lyricist of neurosis). Heavy.
It doesn't matter if you've never heard or never liked Sabbath. This explains it regardless, and might unlock it. His best prose (though his lyrics 1995-2004 are his best words).
(From dear James)
|At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O'Brien
||Postmodernism is completely fine if it's as fun as this.
|Studies in the Way of Words (1989) by Paul Grice
|The Habit of Art (2009) by Alan Bennett
|Previous Convictions: Assignments From Here and There (2006) by A.A. Gill
||What an excuse of a man he can be, but what a writer he always is. The piece on golf is characteristic - hilarious, fluid, razor-bladed.
The basic problem with him: his horror of golf would be better spent on actually horrific things (e.g. his own aestheticised violence). To be fair the second half’s travel pieces spend exactly that: from being right inamidst hallucinatory police brutality in Haiti, to the Africa pieces which buck stereotypes and complacency. He has vast sensitivity or sensibility, but he pairs it with a kind of generalisation (e.g. “begging is a consequence of opportunity, not poverty”) and off-piste counter-PC phrasemaking, as if to shock us out of respecting him.
He uses his friend Jeremy Clarkson brilliantly – as stooge, dim counterpoint to Gill’s own professed post-masculine, pro-gay, pro-grey, pro-oppressed enlightenment. But then Gill reports all these uber-macho exploits and self-conscious leering at women. What compels him to be so indirect about being progressive? It’s that he wants to be both LAD and liberal intellectual, and but needs the approval of neither side.
|How I Escaped My Certain Fate (2010) by Stewart Lee
||A comedian and an artist - with some of the bloat and near-repulsive belligerence that entails
If you've not seen me before, right, a lot of what I do, er, it's not jokes as such, it can just be funny kind of ideas or little, er, weird turns of phrase like that, yeah? So, 'owner-operator of an enchanted beanstalk', yeah? And that's a giant, isn't it, a giant... So all I’m saying, if you’ve not seen me before, yeah, is the jokes are there, they're there, but some of you, you might have to raise your game.
Book has tons of general merit: it’s about trying to be artful in a genre where populism is a condition of being recognised as a practitioner at all. And Lee just has his shit worked out, is by turns harshly enlightening and plaintively endearing.
Basically there’s a whole generation of people who’ve confused political correctness with health and safety regulation. ‘It’s gone mad. They saying I can’t have an electric fire in the bath any more, Stew, in case queers see it.’
I even love his intellectual flab: the Wire mag chat, ignoble snarking, and attempt at epic free verse. I trust him – but you can’t trust him. (Recent shows are founded on outrageous lies, satirising spin/smear cultures in our media and government and employers and friends.) Hard to know who the joke-explaining footnotes are for – since his fans already get it, and no-one else’s going to read this. That said, if you don’t like him or don’t know about him, please read this. For instance, he explains that onstage he 'portrays a smug wanker’.
|How to Do Things with Words (1955) by J.L. Austin
|The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) by Thorstein Veblen
|Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) by Isaiah Berlin
|North (1975) by Seamus Heaney
|Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011) by David Bellos
||Good strident stuff, wrestling against the prevailing pessimistic dogmas of English lit and ling. (e.g. "We can never fully understand each other as individuals or cultures." "Truth is just power.")
This is a poppy treatment of his own work, but still manages to pack in a lot of brilliant (original?) theory, a refutation of Sapir-Whorf in four pages, and lots of charming stats about the state of world languages today. I imagine he's a great teacher.
(From dear James)
|Two Dogmas of Empiricism () by Willard Van Orman Quine
|A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works (1994) by Baruch Spinoza
||Hard to imagine now how shocking this was in 1664 ("God is not a person; there is no free will; tolerance is the only rational politics").
Trying to understand Spinoza without Curley's notes (which are about twice as long as the primary material) is a decade's work.
|Twilight of the Idols (1888) by Friedrich Nietzsche
||In one sentence: the cleverest troll in history tries to say 400 things at once.
The easiest way into him. He is among the most misunderstood people ever, and his prose, so contradictory and esoteric, sarcastic and pompous, is a large reason for this, though second to his C20th mistreatment.
Hollingdale's translation is best, though I plan to crawl through the original at some point.
- Galef type:
Theory 2 & 3 - models of what makes something succeed or fail, & a problem statement
Values 1 - make an explicit argument about values.
|On Denoting () by Bertrand Russell
|The Problems of Philosophy (1912) by Bertrand Russell
|The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it (2002) by Joshua D. Greene
||The first PhD I ever read: a witty and authoritative piece of meta-ethics. He surveys every large approach to morals using strong naturalism as a criterion, and concludes that anti-realist utilitarianism is the least unsatisfying option.
I suppose this is only worth reading if you are both very convinced of naturalism and radically unsure about what constitutes goodness; otherwise you should just study practical ethics already.
|Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction (1998) by John Heil
|The Complete Maus (1980) by Art Spiegelman
|The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg
|Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) by David Simon
||Character study of twenty vengeful people and the awful, indispensable institution they serve and constitute. The detectives are intelligent and hilarious, but have to navigate two extreme and depressing environments: the streets and City Hall, violence and politics.
Simon was embedded with them, and completely effaces himself, makes this novelistic. We get a glorious outsider view, see things the detectives don't:
[The detective] glides past the lockup without looking inside, and so doesn't see the final, unmistakable expression on Robert Frazier's face. Pure murderous hate.
He gives a complete chapter to most of the detectives, tracking them through a couple of sordid weeks. They are all distinctive, sharp in different ways, but this approach means it stretches on.
Also a study of the incredibly poor incentives the bureaucracy gives the detectives: they're rewarded for arrests, not convictions, and individually penalised for open homicides. I don't want to think about what this did to their false arrest rate.
A case in which the pathologist's finding is being pended is not, to the police department, a murder. And if it isn't a murder, it doesn't go up on the board. And if it isn't up on the board, it doesn't really exist.
No weight was given to the difficulty of the case - whether witnesses remained at the scene, whether physical evidence existed, whether the weapon was found. All this killed inter-squad cooperation, and led to infighting over dumb luck of the draw.
In human terms, the scene at 3002 McElderry Street was a massacre; in the statistical terms of urban homicide work, it was the stuff from which a detective fashions dreams.
(No other crime counted in the stats, despite Homicide also covering accidental deaths and suicides. This was an incentive to frame things as e.g. suicide if at all possible.)
the chance of actually being convicted of a crime after being identified by authorities is about 60 percent. And if you factor in those unsolved homicides, the chance of being cuaght and convicted for taking a life in Baltimore is just over 40 percent [in 1988].
You might conclude - falsely - that internal stats are worse than nothing - but only stats as bad as these are. A classic of informal institutional economics.
The nationwide murder 'clearance rate' (arrest rate) was 70%. Amazing that it was this high, in that comparatively low-surveillance, low-social-trust place.
The [squad's] clearance rate - murders closed by arrest - is now 36 percent and falling, a... threat to [Lieutenant] Gary D’Addario’s tenure. The board that gave His Eminence reason for concern six weeks ago has continued to fill with open murders, and it is on D’Addario’s side of the wall that the names are writ in red. Of the twenty-five homicides handled by Dee’s three squads, only five are down; whereas Stanton’s shift has cleared ten of sixteen...
There is no point in explaining that three fifths of D’Addario’s homicides happen to be drug-related, just as seven of those solved by Stanton’s shift are domestics or other arguments... It is the unrepentant worship of statistics that forms the true orthodoxy of any modern police department.
More incentive analysis, on police shootings and the shameful closing of ranks:
In the United States, only a cop has the right to kill as an act of personal deliberation and action. To that end, Scotty McCown and three thousand other men and women were sent out on the streets of Baltimore with .38-caliber Smith&Wessons, for which they received several weeks of academy firearms training augmented by one trip to the police firing range every year. Coupled with an individual officer’s judgement, that is deemed expertise enough to make the right decision every time.
It is a lie. It is a lie the police department tolerates because to do otherwise would shatter the myth of infallibility on which rests its authority for lethal force. And it is a lie that the public demands, because to do otherwise would expose a terrifying ambiguity. The false certainty, the myth of perfection, on which our culture feeds…
There's so much careful and sympathetic detail about the job (and no deep portrait of any suspects), that Simon risks partisanship - writing "copaganda", as internet radicals call it. Anyone who's seen The Wire knows this isn't a problem. (He has solidarity with the rank and file, and contempt for the suits.)
for the black, inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore, the city's finest were for generations merely another plague to endure: poverty, ignorance, despair, police.
Speaking of which: This is not at all made redundant by The Wire - the show has an entire pathos-pathetic angle (the anti-authority cop) missing here, and this is more focussed on the law side.
Their humour is fantastically sick.
the application of criteria such as comfort and amusement to the autopsy room is ample proof of a homicide man's peculiar and sustaining psychology. But for the detectives, the most appalling visions have always demanded the greatest detachment...
Someone on Hacker News was up on their high horse about the black humour of medics recently. This strikes me as perfectly backwards. I would much prefer a doctor (or a detective) with a nasty sense of humour: it suggests emotional detachment, so they're more likely to think clearly; and it certainly has a cathartic and bonding role, improving their health and teamwork. This idiotically literal, first-order model of psychology (as if people were so easy to program!) is everywhere, for instance all discourse about fake news, porn, and violent computer games.
The section about the idiocy and arbitrariness of juries is sickening and I recommend that you don't read it if you want to continue thinking well of your society.
The operant logic of a Baltimore city jury is as fantastical a process as any other of our universe’s mysteries. This one is innocent because he seemed so polite and well spoken on the stand, that one because there were no fingerprints on the weapon to corroborate the testimony of four witnesses. And this one over here is telling the truth when he says he was beaten into a confession; we know that, of course, because why else would anyone willingly confess to a crime if he wasn’t beaten?
The other eight jurors offered little opinion except to say they would vote for whatever was agreed upon... It was the Memorial Day weekend. They wanted to go home...
"What brought you all around to first-degree?" he asks.
"I wasn't going to budge and that other woman, the one in the back row, she wasn't going to change her mind either. She was for first-degree from the very beginning, too. After a while, everyone wanted to go home, I guess."
The book has aged badly in one way: Simon completely falls for two entrenched bits of pseudoscience, the polygraph and profiling. But many people still believe in these things, and anyway it's a rare lapse of scepticism, for him.
I think this is the first 'true crime' book I've read. Don't know if this is the pinnacle of the genre, then, or if the genre's better than literary people think.
|Collected Poems (1985) by Norman MacCaig
|Collected Poems I, 1909-1939 (1951) by William Carlos Williams
|The Information (1995) by Martin Amis
||Scalding and fantastical send-up of novelists and readers. About a nasty little man made insane by being low status - or, rather, by his friend becoming high status. He's completely destroyed by valuing position so much, by his crab mind:
Richard, who would not mind being poor if no one was rich, who would not mind looking rough if no one looked smooth, who would not mind being old if no one was young.
This is all the worse because he has taste and good ideas, between his maudlin self-pity and terrible ideas:
It would be a book accounting for the decline of the status and virtue of literary protagonists. First gods, then demigods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers,then burghers and merchants and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me. Then maniacs and murderers, tramps, mobs, rabble, flotsam, vermin.
Literature describes a descent... Literature, for a while, can be about us... about writers. But that won't last long. How do we burst clear of all this?
Richard's complete, painful self-absorption shows that literary envy, male rivalry, and the fear of death are similar if not the same: childish rage when you can't get what you want.
Amis keeps interrupting Richard (himself) to talk about outer space, the fate of stars, the rounding error that we are: Amis undercuts pathetic irony with ultimate meaning, which is the reverse of the usual trick. I think this author insertion is why people call it 'postmodern', though of course it's an ancient trick and Amis doesn't share their mean ideology. There's also self-reference:
What was Richard? He was a revenger, in what was probably intended to be a comedy.
Or maybe it's because Richard is a bland modernist (which here means: no fun) and Amis is taken not to be. Richard has violent thoughts and a violent worldview but is not violent, he fails to be violent; and Amis contains that container.
There are unannounced focal shifts every couple pages, three of which focalisations sound very similar to each other (whether psycho Steve, revenger Richard, misanthrope Martin).
This, surely, is how we account for the darkness and the helpless melancholy of twentieth-century literature. These writers, these dreamers and seekers, stood huddled like shivering foundlings on the cliffs of a strange new world: one with no servants in it.
It's not just about books; the underworld of 90s Britain also gets it:
the criminal resembles the artist in his pretensions, his incompetence, and his self-pity.
You have to go a very long way - through tell of murdered children, celebrated suicides, denied misogyny, embraced misandry, deep duplicity - to get the merest possibility of redemption and getting over yourself. (And even that subverted: The season of comedy... Decorum will be observed.) The middle drags terribly. It's worth it.
* The titular Information is hard truths, avoided thoughts, intimations of inadequacy and mortality.
The information is advertising a symposium of pain. Pains of all faiths and all denominations... It is ordinary and everyday. On the beach the waves do it ceaselessly, gathering mass and body, climbing until they break and are then resummoned into generality with a sound like breath sucked in between the teeth.
Weakness will get you where you are weakest. Weakness will be strong and bold, and make for your weak spot. If in the head, then in the head. If in the heart, then in the heart. If in the loins, then in the loins... The information is nothing. Nothing: the answer is so many of our questions. What will happen to me when I die? What is death anyway? Is there anything I can do about that? Of what does the universe primarily consist? What is the measure of our influence within it? What is our span, in cosmic time?
* Richard's friend is called Gwyn (Welsh for blessed).
* His book 'Untitled' is so serious that it causes its readers physical harm, like a petty version of the samizdat in Infinite Jest.
* Amis is more like Gwyn than Richard in career terms (got an unprecedented £500k advance for this) but is obviously temperamentally more like Richard.
* The more literary a work, the less it says plainly: the fewer hints you get. That is, *puzzles* are part of the essence of literariness. The bad reading of this is that it's all about showing off: how clever and sphinxish the author is, how clever and oedipal the reader, how able to delay gratification (or go without it) each is. Amis' books are quite puzzley, Richard's very much so, Gwyn's not a jot.
* This line works as a diss on New Labour:
It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour except the government.
even though the book was written in 1994, before New Labour. A joke which survives inversion!
* Presented without comment.
|A Question of Attribution () by Alan Bennett
|An Englishman Abroad (2001) by Alan Bennett
|Untold Stories (2001) by Alan Bennett
|The History Boys (2004) by Alan Bennett
|Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (2000) by Douglas Wolk
||I was trying to get a handle on all of pop music - pop, that is, in the broad sense that anything that couldn't get played in a fancy concert hall is pop, that anything newer than Gershwin is pop. I spent years on this endeavour, eventually reaching the Scaruffian fringes: everything at least heard of, every landmark clung to by fingertips. I'm not sure why I did it.
Or, I know but it isn't pretty: The people who know most about music are the ones who need it most: need it as a pretext to wear headphones and not talk to people, need it as vicarious catharsis for things felt but never said, need it as a gigantic arena for countercultural status, where if you only put in a thousand hours of skronk and dischord, then you're a thousand hours ahead of someone.
Reading Lester Bangs on the Comedian Harmonists (!), included here, remains one of the most powerful moments in my entire reading life. The unsurpassing joy of discovery, of crossing cultures, of fandom.
|Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag (1994) by Henry Rollins
||Chronicle of violence, censorship via nightstick, nervous breakdowns, mental illness, ridiculously hard work, and poverty - most of it welcomed in.
Rollins was a literally Romantic introvert in an unbelievably macho environment. (You might find this hard to believe if you watch the above videos but it's true.) He got better: he's now a strange sort of public intellectual, Iggy Pop with more pretensions, political snark, and appetite for extremity.
Get in the Van is overwrought and self-absorbed and self-defeating. It is great. Bukowski with a 100W amp, Palahniuk if Palahniuk was in any sense real, a Russian Soul in California.
(Read Punk Planet's oral history of Black Flag for counterclaims to half of this book. For once I don't mind what's true.)
|Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 (2001) by Michael Azerrad
||Unsurpassed writing about a tiny but hyperinfluential moment in unpopular music. One of the few writers I've seen give the Minutemen their due as the greatest flowering of global punk.
|The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (1995) by Bill Watterson
||Elevates its medium.
|The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1) (1980) by Gene Wolfe
||Wonderful. Rivals Earthsea as the wisest and subtlest Fantasy, for people who don't like Fantasy. Fast-moving, full of ironies, antimonies, and ambivalent symbolism - the kind which doesn't hit you over the head (I'm thinking of Gandalf changing colour hmmmmmm). |
There's a dozen memorable characters in 300pp (Gurloes, Thecla, Agilus, Agia, Talos, Ultan, Inire, Eata, Baldanders, the man himself), even though many appear for just one scene. And there's a very unobtrusive frame narrative which deepens and undermines things.
And under all that: the beautiful post-post-apocalyptic layer: New Sun is actually science fiction, about what happens when the great project, Progress, collapses; what happens after thousands of years of decay.
those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroded metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every colour are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded by aeons of tumbling in the clamorous sea.</i>
It is Clarkean: The book is unconcerned whether strange events are due to obscure high technology, psychological trickery, or bonafide supernatural force.
Because Wolfe is a bit difficult, it's not too incongruous to bring up Grand Narrative now: sure, the French theorists were wrong to suggest that such ideas are dead in our time (or bad, if alive) but they certainly could die, and Wolfe explores what that'd be like. Nessus has no master idea - not even god, not even family, not even order. (Or maybe it's class again.)
"Severian. Name for me the seven principles of governance."
A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, "Anarchy . . ."
"That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts."
"Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to the bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them and numerous other elements, largely ideal."
"Tolerable. Of these, which is the earlier form, and which the highest?"
"The development is in the order given, Master," I said. "But I do not rrecall that you ever asked us before which was highest."
Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire. "Which is the highest, Severian?"
"The last, Master?"
"You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?"
"Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?"
I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was too much filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.
"Answer me, Severian."
"The first, if I have any."
"To the person of the monarch?"
"Yes, because there is no succession."
(Dune occupies the same SFF feudalist netherland as this, but is much clumsier, occasionally contemptible.)
How do you write a truly immoral sympathetic character? (In this case, the most immoral: who does the worst thing you can do.) I think the answer is simple: detail. Make it first-person and simply show the ordinary range of interests, foibles, enculturation, passions. The reader does the rest. (Compare Lolita, Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner, Wasp Factory, Crime and Punishment...)
Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man's idea of simplicity. Just as a courtier forms himself into something brilliant and involved, midway between a dancing master and a diplomacist, with a touch of assassin if needed, so Master Gurloes had shaped himself to be the dull creature a pursuivant or bailiff expected to see when he summoned the head of our guild, and that is the only thing a real torturer cannot be. The strain showed; though every part of Gurloes was as it should have been, none of the parts fit... He ate too much and too seldom, read when he thought no one knew of it, and visited certain of our clients, including one on the third level, to talk of things none of us eaves-dropping in the corridor outside could understand. His eyes were refulgent, brighter than any woman's.
Severian is completely cold-blooded about violence while still being notably heroic and sentimental. (Ok he doesn't actually torture anyone.)
By the use of the language of sorrow I had for the time being obliterated my sorrow - so powerful is the charm of words, which for us reduces to manageable entities all the passions that would otherwise madden and destroy...
The heroism is natural and plausible, because he dooms himself in the middle of the book, so everything that happens is a bonus to him, so he takes bandits and duels and unlikely undertakings in his stride, which is an enviable attitude.
One of many lovely details: all the Latin is subtly wrong: 'terminus est' taken to be 'this is the line of division' rather than 'this is the end'; 'felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa', 'Men wait long for happiness'. But most of the rest of the jargon is historically accurate: 'hydrargyrum' for mercury, 'hipparch' for cavalier, 'archon' for lord, 'carnifex' for butcher, 'matross' for junior soldier, etc.
The second half, the quest with Agia and Dorcas, reminds me of 'Before Sunrise', of all things: glittering words exchanged by the young and instantly intimate. The writing is so fine and uncliched that it pulls off unreconstructed romance in the midst of post-apocalyptic feudalism. In general, the feudal trappings justify Wolfe's ornate prose well. Severian often says things that are wise to us, and the things which aren't make sense in brutal context:
the pattern of our guild is repeated mindlessly (like the repetitions of Father Inire's mirrors in the House Absolute) in the societies of every trade, so that they are all of them torturers, just as we. His quarry stands to the hunter as our clients to us; those who buy to the tradesman; the enemies of the Commonwealth to the soldier; the governed to the governors; men to women. All love that which they destroy.
Nietzsche on the wheel:
Weak people believe what is forced on them. Strong people what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real. What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it.
Probably 5/5 on re-read.
PS: I can't decide if this or Fall of Hyperion has the lower quality-of-book : awfulness-of-cover ratio.</td>
|23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (2010) by Ha-Joon Chang
||Chatty, thoughtful introduction to some hard truths of economic development. Not actually anti-capitalist, except in the mild sense that we all should be (that is, critical of market failure, cronyism, corporate welfare and socialised risk, regulatory capture, negative-sum nationalism, casino capital, ...).
The soundest and most important of the 23 points is the surprising fact that no currently-developed economy ever managed to industrialise without initially using trade barriers. (This is covered better in Chang's Kicking Away the Ladder, with its extensive details of postwar South Korea's shocking illiberalism: for instance, importing hi-tech goods was a serious crime for decades.) This wasn't well-known even in the Development circles I was moving in.
The other propositions, I can't remember well enough to endorse or deny, but it left a vague good impression.
|The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poems 1951-1993 (2007) by Charles Bukowski
||An anti-social phallocrat waves his pen in the wee small hours – yet often achieves beauty. This is a Best-of, but actually not his best. Still a very good way in.
Bukowski is Springsteen after Rosalita, Mary, Janey, Sandy, Trudy and the rest either moved town forever to get away from him or died.
|The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle, #4) (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
|Never Mind (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn
||Tense, effortless, funny, devastating. A single day among the melting upper-class, building up to a dinner party - but eliding the contempt we might feel with pathos and pain and humour.
The dialogue is consistently impressive. Victor is the most convincing philosopher character I've seen - neurotic, analytic, too in his head to be harmful. Patrick's model of the world is slightly too sophisticated model for a five-year-old, but the scene in which he's introduced is the most convincing childlike prose:
Patrick walked towards the well. In his hand he carried a grey plastic sword with a gold handle, and swished it at the pink flowers of the valerian plants that grew out of the terrace wall. When there was a snail on one of the fennel stems, he sliced his sword down the stalk and made it fall off. If he killed a snail he had to stamp on it quickly and then run away, because it went all squishy like blowing your nose. Then he would go back and have a look at the broken brown shell stuck in the soft grey flesh, and would wish he hadn’t done it. It wasn’t fair to squash the snails after it rained because they came out to play, bathing in the pools under the dripping leaves and stretching out their horns. When he touched their horns they darted back and his hand darted back as well. For snails he was like a grown-up.
And the venomous, purely perverse relationship of his parents produces gasping lines like
At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.
I stumble over David, the charming psychopath rampant. It is too hard to understand intentional evil, even when snobbery, tough love parenting and simple rage are proffered as explanations. I had a petite mort at the end. Really fantastic.
In one sitting.
|Hogfather (Discworld, #20; Death, #4) (1996) by Terry Pratchett
|The Last Continent (Discworld, #22; Rincewind #6) (1998) by Terry Pratchett
|My Man Jeeves (Jeeves, #1) (1919) by P.G. Wodehouse
||The first Jeeves collection, including several stories told by a proto-Wooster called "Reggie Pepper". PG's prose is slightly less glowing and divine at this early juncture, but it still makes me smile on every fourth page.
|The Nice and the Good (1968) by Iris Murdoch
||A joy, a dirge, and so sincere I cried. Both a tame London murder mystery and a sliding-doors comedy of manners in Dorset, the two plots dreaming each other, running laminar. These mere genres are electrified by Murdoch's ethics and filled up with her wit. Like Greene, she is the apotheosis of trash conventions. I feel I am a better person afterward, or at least a better fool. The following derives its power from 200 pages of buildup suddenly letting loose, but it might give you an idea:
Jealousy is the most natural to us of the really wicked passions... It must be resisted with every honest cunning and with deliberate generous thoughts, however abstract and empty these may seem in comparison with that wicked strength. Think about the virtue that you need and call it generosity, magnanimity, charity. You are young, Jessica, and you are very delightful – may I just take your hand, so? – and the world is not spoilt for you yet. There is no merit, Jessica, in a faithfulness which is poison to you and captivity to him. You have nothing to gain here except by losing. You wish to act out your love, to give it body, but there is only one act left to you that is truly loving and that is to let him go, gently and without resentment.
Put all your, energy into that and you will win from the world of the spirit a grace which you cannot now even dream of. For there is grace, Jessica, there are principalities and powers, there is unknown good which flies magnetically toward the good we know. And suppose that you had found what you were looking for, my dear child? Would you not have been led on from jealousy through deceit into cruelty? Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past...
An essay on the benefits and limits of polyamory; on the trials of self-conscious virtue; an extended gag about virtue's unlikeability. I love the appalling drawling fops Octavian and Kate, I love the notably indistinct Fivey, and I clutch Ducane to myself like a home-knitted scarf against strong winter wind. So pure!
|Thief of Time (Discworld, #26; Death, #5) (2001) by Terry Pratchett
|The Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka
||Hard to believe, but I missed the obvious metaphor when I read it first, as a teenager.
The selection I have also contains the lovely sanguine piece 'The Aeroplanes at Brescia', the first in a series of travel vignettes he planned to write and sell. I don't suppose it would be as interesting without the tragic backdrop of Kafka, without it representing such a different route through history, that fucking scumbag, history.
|Interesting Times (Discworld, #17; Rincewind #5) (1994) by Terry Pratchett
|Men at Arms (Discworld, #15; City Watch #2) (1993) by Terry Pratchett
||S’ok. Identity politics and gun control – so, a very American British fantasy. Works: my audience squealed in horror at the right places, the deaths of fond characters.
|Thud! (Discworld, #34; City Watch #7) (2005) by Terry Pratchett
||See here for my theory of Discworld international development.
|The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24; City Watch, #5) (1999) by Terry Pratchett
||About oil, conservatism, the Inscrutable Balkans. The most literary of his excellent police books: telecomms as model and amplifier of emotional and cultural ties; contact with otherness as cause and defining feature of modernity.
Less grandiosely, he trots out his satisfying werewolf point again: in actual fact, the creature inbetween human and wolf is not a terrifying lunatic chimera but a dog.
|Mother's Milk (2005) by Edward St. Aubyn
|The Twits (1980) by Roald Dahl
|Matter (Culture, #8) (2008) by Iain M. Banks
||This entry's mostly set on a C17th world, the rest given over to barely interesting galactic politics. The Culture novels feel free to wave away technological plot devices with talk of "energy grid!" or "nanotech!", but Banks shows off hard-scifi cred here, giving a few lovely, moving images based on meteorology and astrophysics. On the current-affairs blogosphere:
A rapidly expanding but almost entirely vapid cloud of comment, analysis, speculation and exploitation...Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying the wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths,our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness.
Ending is good and brutal, made me stop and infer for ten mins afterward. So, yeah, Banks has been playing the same "ooh, neo-colonialism", "ooh, consequences", "ooh, angst in utopia" note for a while. But hey it's a good note.
|Esio Trot (1990) by Roald Dahl
|Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (2014) by Rebecca Goldstein
||It is very hard to say anything new about Plato. Except, of course it isn't, because he spoke in the most general possible terms, and the world continues to do unprecedented things and so allow for new commentary and new applications of Plato. It will always be possible to say something new about Plato because, until the heat death draws near, it will be possible to say something new about the world, and criticism should relate the old but general with the new and unanalysed.
This was really deep fun: Goldstein debunks a great deal about him via close-reading (e.g.: that Plato's book, Πολιτεία, has no etymological or structural relation to modern republics). Some very moving chapters, too, particularly the neuroscientist dialogue: she renders this man we know almost nothing personal about as polite, curious and modest, willing to suspend judgment on e.g. our popular democracy. The titular chapter is best, involving the philosopher wrestling with one imperfect implementation of his epistemocracy, the data-mining Silicon Valley engineer:
"You're telling me that the purpose of all of this knowledge is merely to make money? Greed is driving the great search engine for knowledge? This bewilders me... How can those who possess all knowledge, which must include the knowledge of the life most worth living, be interested in using knowledge only for the insignificant aim of making money?"Goldstein's move for each chapter is to draw out an inconsistency in Plato that later became a persistent philosophical dichotomy; the chapters are all classical dialogues, actually trialogues at least. Also she makes us note how little explanation of modern culture Plato would actually need to be able to deploy his existing arguments. Witty and persuasive. (You'd think I'd need no persuading of the eternal value of philosophy, and nor do I, but I'd no intention of studying Plato properly before this.)
"Plato, I said, I think you have a somewhat exalted view of Google and the nerds who work here."
"Nerds?" he said. "Another word I do not know."
Well, again I was in a somewhat awkward position, since I didn't want to offend Plato, who struck me, despite his eye contact and excellent manners, as a nerd par excellence. So I fell back on something I'd once heard... that the word was originally "knurd", which is "drunk" spelled backwards, and was used for students who would rather study than party.
"And the people who work here at Google are all nerds?"
"I would say each and every one." I smiled at him.
He smiled and looked around the café as if he had died and gone to philosophers' heaven.
"My chosen term for nerd", he said, "is philosopher-king".
In one sentence: Plato wanders contemporary America, Chromebook tucked under his arm, looking to understand the few ways we are radically different.
|Carry On, Jeeves (Jeeves, #3) (1925) by P.G. Wodehouse
|Witches Abroad (Discworld, #12; Witches #3) (1991) by Terry Pratchett
|The Crow Road (1992) by Iain Banks
||Had an enormous impact on me the first time (I was 16), but very little the 2nd (I was 23).
|Witch Wood (1927) by John Buchan
||Ornate and surprisingly subtle picture of the Scots Borders during the Reformation. Mystery novel without a detective. Went into this with unfair scepticism but was impressed by his making boring theological debates dramatic, and by his unsentimental nature prose. I also learned lots of words.
|Lanark (1981) by Alasdair Gray
|The Squashed Philosophers (2005) by Glyn Lloyd-Hughes
||Excellent way in for a teenager. Almost primary sources; someone else simulating you if you had the attention span to find the highlights.
|Cujo (1981) by Stephen King
|The Truth (Discworld, #25; Industrial Revolution, #2) (2000) by Terry Pratchett
||The Disc grew modern, gaining a media (The Truth), sanitation (also The Truth), soft-power politics (Jingo!, Thud!), and institutionalised sport (Unseen Academicals), to add to its latter-day civilian police (Men at Arms), telecoms (Fifth Elephant, and steam power (Raising Steam).
The most literary thing about the Discworld books is this modernisation, from magic to steampunk. This happens comically rapidly – Colour of Magic, the first book, is standard non-chronistic High Fantasy, so, set circa circa 1200CE. Snuff takes place not twenty-five discursive years later – yet the central city is clearly Victorian. And that’s not including the burgeoning intercontinental fax network.
Technology is given its due, but not to the neglect of the institutional side. Disc modernity began with the despot Vetinari’s marketisation of crime, moves through ethnic diversity reforms and open-door immigration, and marches on and on. UA, the sport one, is solid, poignant. He doesn’t often let his wizards get earnest and truly develop – by this stage, magic is comic relief, no longer the determining power or symbol of the Disc.
Snuff is dark and politically worthy, but not his best. He’s been reusing jokes in recent books, and I refuse to speculate on the cause.
|The Power and the Glory (1940) by Graham Greene
||Funny I don't find Greene's themes obnoxious, compared to say Waugh.
|Changing Places (1975) by David Lodge
|Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Charlie Bucket, #2) (1972) by Roald Dahl
|The Other Wind (Earthsea Cycle, #6) (2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin
|Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (Jeeves, #11) (1954) by P.G. Wodehouse
Triangle: Cheesewright - Florence Craye - Gorringe - Wooster
Subplot: Selling 'Milady's Boudoir'
Expedient: Accidental balcony romance, accidental theft, several Jeeves specials.
|Lords and Ladies (Discworld, #14; Witches #4) (1992) by Terry Pratchett
|Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady Strugatsky
||Good stuff! Earthy, economic sci-fi; aliens visit, ignore us entirely, and soon leave, leaving behind only transcendent junk and horror-film phenomena from their little picnic. Prose is lovely and plain, translated brilliantly by the mathematician Olena Bormashenko (we get “scabby”, “sham”, “mange”). |
The ordinary, crude protagonist Red is scrabbling illegally to provide for his mutant family (the Strugatskys use cash and cash pressure amazingly, grounding the whole cosmic fantasy in commerce, crime, exploitation). Every time Red gets cash, he throws it away – in someone’s face as an insult, in someone’s face as a distraction to evade capture, or just away.
No explanations except bureaucratic filler; no salvation, just dumb defiance. A really nice original touch is that Red interprets the body language of his friends in extreme detail – a scratched nose means, to him, “Whoah, Red, be careful how rough you play with the new kid”.
Also notable for being a Soviet novel set in mid-west America, evoked very, very well. And the Russian Soul under their dismal economics rings out without catching in the barrel:
HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE; LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!</i></td>
|The BFG (1982) by Roald Dahl
|Some Hope (1994) by Edward St. Aubyn
|A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1) (1992) by Vernor Vinge
||Deeply satisfying space opera. I thought of The Fifth Element and the Culture throughout, it is as stylish as these while being more serious. Software permeates the book in a way it unforgiveably doesn't in most scifi. Vinge is a master of dramatic irony - the reader wriggles with knowledge of treachery for hundreds of pages.
His cool, medieval dog aliens are less interesting to me than the space opera bit, but you have to admire the craft involved in them. The big bad is genuinely unnerving. An elevation of plotfests.
|Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison
||Scathing about all social strata
|Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler
||Relentlessly idiomatic. Hollow like a bell. Marlowe is not presented as feeling anything except incessant fatigue and occasional lust. The prose is fast and somehow innocent though surrounded by darkness:
The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.
A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step. The large face looked at me. A deep soft voice said to me, quietly:
"Smokes in here, huh? Tie that for me, pal."
It was dark in there. It was quiet. From up above came vague sounds of humanity, but we were alone on the stairs. The big man stared at me solemnly and went on wrecking my shoulder with his hand.
"A dinge," he said. "I just thrown him out. You seen me throw him out?"
Sure, Noir is cliche now, but we should try to stop Seinfeld effects from undermining original work. And I think he really was original.
You could get to like that face a lot. Glamoured up blondes were a dime a dozen, but that was a face that would wear. I smiled at it.
Give him enough time and pay him enough money and he'll cure anything from a jaded husband to a grasshopper plague. He would be an expert in frustrated love affairs, women who slept alone and didn't like it, wandering boys and girls who didn't write home, sell the property now or hold it for another year, will this part hurt me with my public or make me seem more versatile? Men would sneak in on him too, big strong guys that roared like lions around their offices and were all cold mush under their vests. But mostly it would be women, fat women that panted and thin women that burned, old women that dreamed and young women that thought they might have Electra complexes, women of all sizes, shapes and ages, but with one thing in common—money. No Thursdays at the County Hospital for Mr. Jules Amthor.
"You lied to me."
"It was a pleasure."
He was silent a moment, as if deciding something. "We'll let that pass," he said. "I've seen her. She came in and told me her story. She's the daughter of a man I knew and respected, as it happens... Well, that's all. Remember what I told you last night. Don't try getting ideas about this case. All we want from you is silence. Otherwise—"
He paused. I yawned into the mouthpiece.
"I heard that," he snapped. "Perhaps you think I'm not in a position to make that stick. I am. One false move out of you and you'll be locked up as a material witness."
"You mean the papers are not to get the case?"
"They'll get the murder—but they won't know what's behind it."
"Neither do you," I said.
"I've warned you twice now," he said. "The third time is out."
"You're doing a lot of talking," I said, "for a guy that holds cards."
I got the phone hung in my face for that
Learned a lot of words, had a lot of fun. Power in simplicity.
I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
|Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2) (1994) by Greg Egan
||The best-written info-dump ever. Egan's predictions for the near-future are looking really good 25 years on: the dominance of cloud computing, the digital-nomad life, spam filters, molecular-chem composer VR ... Still some amusing bits of course, e.g. "He was using more computing power than Fujitsu."
Reading about the legal expert-system she has free access to, I itched for the future to arrive.
There are a few logical holes in the plot which Egan helpfully erratas here.
|Nice Work (1988) by David Lodge
|The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath
|Medea. Stimmen (1996) by Christa Wolf
|The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
|Use of Weapons (Culture, #3) (1990) by Iain M. Banks
||The protagonist is cartoonish, full of piratical energy, but saved from a boring super-soldier effect by pathos of the Bad Lieutenant variety. Banks was always quite open about how didactic the sci-fi novels were; they are saved by his sheer inventiveness and the grand psychological realism amidst the technological fantasy.
: What do humans have to offer, after the singularity? What skills are scarce? Banks' answer is: "a lack of scruples; excessive force; the ability to not care." We should be so lucky.
This scene had a large effect on me as a child:
'Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. "But look; this table's clean.'
He agreed that the table was clean.
"Usually,' the man said. "I work on alien -- no offence -- alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my specialty ... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But ... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled ... but,' he slapped the table, "when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement."
"But in the end, it's still cleaning a table."
"And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.
He smiled in response to the man's grin, "Well, yes.'
'But then what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either?'
I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people."
As did this, before I studied formal philosophy and received a resounding confirmation of it:
“Aw, come on; argue, dammit.”
“I don’t believe in argument,” he said, looking out into the darkness.
“You don’t?” Erens said, genuinely surprised. “Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”
“It’s not cynicism,” he said flatly. “I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.”
“Oh well, thank you.”
“It’s comforting, I suppose.” He watched the stars wheel, like absurdly slow shells seen at night: rising, peaking, falling...(And reminded himself that the stars too would explode, perhaps, one day.) “Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,” he said. “And I think they know in their hearts that other people are just the same, and one of the reasons people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.”
"Yes, excuses," he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. "I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you're supposed to argue about, come later. They're the least important part of the belief. That's why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place." He looked at Erens. "You've attacked the wrong thing.”
But this was also before I got into technical pursuits which lend us hope that the above grim realism can be defeated by self-awareness, quantification, and epistemic care. Sometimes.
|The Player of Games (Culture, #2) (1988) by Iain M. Banks
|Wyrd Sisters (Discworld, #6; Witches #2) (1988) by Terry Pratchett
|A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1) (1968) by Ursula K. Le Guin
|The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) (1995) by Philip Pullman
|The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkien
|The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2) (1997) by Philip Pullman
|Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle, #4) (1990) by Ursula K. Le Guin
|Small World (1984) by David Lodge
|A Widow for One Year (1998) by John Irving
|Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
|Feet of Clay (Discworld, #19; City Watch, #3) (1996) by Terry Pratchett
||Another monarchist plot, another wonderful slice of Vimes. This instalment, one of his increasingly cinematic plots, pivots on the enduringly poignant trope of the Golem, the put-upon automata given life by holy words. Their persecution doesn’t quite map to any one political issue, a point in favour really– they echo slavery, class struggle, and A.I. Pratchett also stretches to get a big bad pun into every scene, with mixed but gladdening results.
|Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31; Industrial Revolution, #3) (2003) by Terry Pratchett
||He really could pluck anything out of the superficially cliched, superficially zany world he built. Here, Balkanization, first wave feminism and two dozen good characters summoned up and put down.
|Night Watch (Discworld, #29; City Watch, #6) (2002) by Terry Pratchett
||Perhaps his darkest book (though he never was just about puns and japes – consider the extent of extinction and futility in Strata). All about the Night, as in inherent human brutality and in being metaphysically lost. Remarkable for being about being the police in a police state. Cried my eyes out at the climax the first time, a decade ago.
|Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) by Roald Dahl
|The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus
|Sourcery (Discworld, #5; Rincewind #3) (1988) by Terry Pratchett
||Rincewind starts to become an actual character rather than a reaction shot.
|The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster
|| In one sentence: An invitation to reason by way of reified puns and embodied binaries.
- Galef type:
Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &
Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.
|The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1) (1954) by J.R.R. Tolkien
|The Campus Trilogy (1993) by David Lodge
Changing Places (1978). Beautiful 60s farce, mocking the zany side while accepting the force of the hippy challenge to all sorts of things, lastingly sexism. The jokes rely heavily on the difference in vitality and affluence between 60s Britain and California – one grey and without central heating, the other soaked in optimism, sex and cute subversions.
Small World (1984). Even better, more romantic and full of risky narrative moves – regular cinematic cuts, 40 characters in two dozen Richard-Curtis conjunctions, a character commenting on his narrative role, a cod-Japanese passage without articles... Generous and barbed and fun. 4*/5.
Nice Work (1988). I suppose what I like most about Lodge is his marriage of (and subversion of) highfalutin Theory with daft romcom conventions. This last one’s grimmer – based more on the mutual misunderstanding and vices of literary theory and industry. Thatcher’s jaws lurk in the background. Also race. Robyn, his feminist protagonist is good and 3D, principled and struggling with the contradictions of the radical academic (their privileged position in a system they abhor, ‘revolutionary’ abstractions, the attack on logocentric realism leading to detachment from lived life where things happen). Robyn’s attitude to love inspired this great satire.
|Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
||Features befitting a great book: stunning detail, well-historicised prose, engaging characters, intricate narrative structure, embrace of multiple genres. But it's too clean, somehow.
Though it depicts predation by the worst of us; though its dystopia is one Pop-Hegel extrapolation from our current world-system, it's not as challenging as it thinks it is.
It consists of ten sudden narrative shifts, moving back and fore four or five centuries. These sections are connected by each having a 'reader' (the opening sea journal is read by the second narrator, the Romantic composer, whose letters are obsessed over by the journalist, whose memoir is seen by the hack editor, whose tale is seen in an ancient film by the saintly clone, who is remembered as a god in the post-apocalypse story that is as far forward as we see. (They are also connected by a reincarnation overlay - but, apart from giving brutal history more chances to be brutal to the same people, I don't really get it.)
The bit with the composer, Frobisher, is my favourite: he transcends his cheeky bohemian archetype and becomes horribly tragic despite his pig-headedness and camp pretension.
The last line, returning to the original Victorian narrator, is a good summary of the book's wounded, pessimistic collectivism:
He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?
So: Enjoyable and ambitious, unsatisfying.
|Mort (Discworld, #4; Death, #1) (1987) by Terry Pratchett
|All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1) (1992) by Cormac McCarthy
||Wonderful. About two boys who are not boys, mostly because they don't want to be. They are only 16 but already have the skill and stoicism which actually constitute adulthood, rather than mere age. It is also about law and morals and power and the chasms between these things. Also suddenly, bizarrely, about pre- and post-revolutionary Mexico.
They were zacateros headed into the mountains to gather chino grass. If they were surprised to see Americans horseback in that country they gave no sign... They themselves were a rough lot, dressed half in rags, their hats marbled with grease and sweat, their boots mended with raw cowhide... They looked out over the terrain as if it were a problem to them. Something they'd not quite decided about.
They pulled the wet saddles off the horses and hobbled them and walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before... something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.
The country rolled away to the west through broken light and shadow and the distant summer storms a hundred miles downcountry to where the cordilleras rose and sank in the haze in a frail last shimmering restraint alike of the earth and the eye beholding it.
Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all was probably an illusion.
I remain amazed by McCarthy's ability to use the most hollow and worn-out tropes - horse whispering, the stableboy and heredera, cowboys and varmints, injustice and redemption, the climactic shootout - and make them new, blasting through your cynicism with sheer force of prose. It's a dark book, but I laughed a lot, mostly at the boys' philosophising, which natural creasing I recognise from most boys I have known, educated or not.
My daddy run off from home when he was fifteen. Otherwise I'd of been born in Alabama.
You wouldn't of been born at all.
What makes you say that?
Cause your mama's from San Angelo and he never would of met her.
He'd of met somebody.
So would she. So?
So you wouldn't of been born.
I dont see why you say that. I'd of been born somewheres.
Well why not?
If your mama had a baby with her other husband and your daddy had one with his other wife which one would you be?
I wouldn't be neither of em.
Rawlins lay watching the stars. After a while he said: I could still be born. I might look different or somethin.
If God wanted me to be born I'd be born.
And if He didnt you wouldnt.
You're makin my goddamn head hurt.
I know it. I'm makin my own hurt.
You ever get ill at ease? said Rawlins.
I dont know. About anything. Just ill at ease.
Sometimes. If you're someplace you aint supposed to be I guess you'd be ill at ease. Should be anyways.
Well suppose you were ill at ease and didnt know why. Would that mean that you might be someplace you wasnt supposed to be and didnt know it?
You are disoriented when John goes home, to 1950s Texas; the rest of the novel operates with early nineteenth century logic and props. You wake up from a long nightmare into the modern dreamtime.
|Cosmopolis (2003) by Don DeLillo
|The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981) by Douglas R. Hofstadter
||Wonderful: giant concepts conveyed through excerpts of great fiction.
|Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) (2005) by Christopher Hitchens
||Short critical portrait of a grand hypocrite.
where Locke had spoken of "life, liberty, and property" as natural rights, Jefferson famously wrote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"... given the advantageous social position occupied by the delegates at Philadelphia, it is very striking indeed that [this] should have taken precedence over property.
I was worried that Hitchens might have gone soft over his adopted land but it's full of this kind of thing:
A bad conscience, evidenced by slovenly and contradictory argument, is apparent in almost every paragraph of his discourse on [slavery].
as well as his humourlessness, adultery, self-service, self-pity, horrendous partisanship, and, surprisingly, bloody ruthlessness. Jefferson:
what signify a few lives lost in a century or two? the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it's natural manure.
(He was pro-Jacobin for a terribly long time.)
Try and judge him fairly. How did his actions (not his words lol) compare to the prevailing spirit?:
* Democracy: Well above average, even revolutionary US average.
* Slaves: Hard to say. Inherited 200. Freed only 7. Tried to write a condemnation of slavery into the Declaration. Wrote a bill banning slavery in new states, narrowly lost the vote. "Even as he yearned to get rid of them, he refused to let them go"
* Native Americans: Average, bad.
* Freedom of speech: Average. Had paid shills in the gutter press throughout his career, and prosecuted enemy journalists for Sedition.
* Freedom of religion: Well above average.
* Women: Average, bad.
* Working-class: Above average in intention, protecting the "plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry". Pretty populist, constantly ranting about bankers and tipping the political balance away from cities.
The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.
His fear of a freedmen uprising apparently paralysed him. The conventional wisdom around 1800 was that you couldn't just free the slaves, you'd also have to deport them (to e.g. Sierra Leone like the British) to prevent them taking their rightful vengeance on the planters. His turning on the Haitians for similar reasons is one of the saddest and dumbest moments in a life of compromise.
Whatever view one takes of Burke's deepening pessimism and dogmatic adherence to the virtues of Church and King, the fact is that after the summer of 1791 the Jacobins did their best to prove him right.
Deleted scene from the Declaration of Independence:
[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.
And Hitchen's final exceptionalist thought:
The French Revolution destroyed itself in Jefferson's own lifetime. More modern revolutions have destroyed themselves and others. If the American Revolution, with its... gradual enfranchisement of those excluded or worse at its founding, has often betrayed itself at home and abroad, it nevertheless remains the only revolution that still retains any power to inspire."
|A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form (2009) by Paul Lockhart
if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they're right...
[Excerpt free here]
|The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007) by Paul Collier
|A Season in Hell (1873) by Arthur Rimbaud
||Trembling / thrashing.
|Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science (2003) by Steve Fuller
|Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce
|Step Aside, Pops (Hark! A Vagrant, #2) (2015) by Kate Beaton
||So silly but also so sensible.
|Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (1993) by Adrienne Rich
||Poems are better than the prose, early better than late, but all are pretty good.
Be proud, when you have set
The final spoke of flame
In that prismatic wheel,
And nothing’s left this day
Except to see the sun
Shine on the false and the true,
And know that Africa
Will yield you more to do.
She has a bad habit, common in critical theory, of confusing possible nasty interpretations of texts with the author's intention or with reality, and so dismissing the work. But, along with Greer, Dworkin, Young, and Sontag I don't think I'll stop reading her, no matter how much I disagree.
|Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket, #1) (1964) by Roald Dahl
|The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe
|Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005) by Simon Reynolds
An exhaustive essay on art and/versus pop, politics and/versus aesthetics, intellect and/versus passion, and on how seriously music should, in general, be taken. He reads post-punk as far wider than the sombre anti-rock art-school thing people usually take it to be - so he includes Human League and ABC as post-punks with emphasis on the post:
To varying degrees, all these groups grasped the importance of image, its power to seduce and motivate. And they all coated their music in a patina of commercial gloss, some of them pursuing a strategy of entryism, while others simply revelled in sonic luxury for the sheer glam thrill of it; it's simply inaccurate to portray New Pop, as some histories of the period have, as a 'like punk never happened' scenario. Almost all of the groups had some connection to punk...
New Pop was about making the best of the inevitable - synths and drum machines, video, the return of glamour. Colour, dance, fun and style were sanctioned as both strategically necessary (the terms of entry into pop) and pleasurable (now acceptable, with the rejection of post-punk's guilt-racked puritanism).
His scope is total: everything's here (except for oi, hardcore, Ramonescore - i.e. the people who failed to make it past punk). Reynolds divides the genre/period in three broad camps:
- modernists (PiL, Cab Vol, No Wave, industrial, SST prog-punk),
- post-pop (New Pop, electro, mutant disco, synth)
- retro-eclectics (two-tone, Goth, neo-mods).
He gives chapters to the Other Places of lC20th popular music: whether Akron (Devo, Pere Ubu), Leeds (Gang of Four, Mekons), Sheffield (Cabaret Voltaire, Human League), Edinburgh (Fire Engines, Josef K, Associates). There is a covert critique of punk (that is, the messianic punks) throughout the book:
Elsewhere, The Heartbreakers' stodge of refried Chuck Berry was barely more advanced than British pub rock; Dr Feelgood on an IV drip of smack rather than lager...
While the committed activists spouted the textbook party line, a more diffuse left-wing academic culture existed based on a sort of ideological pick 'n' mix: a trendy-lefty autodidactism fuelled by second-hand paperbacks and beginner's guides to Gramsci, Lukacs, and Althusser , garnished with Situationism...
Blending often-incompatible systems of thought, the resulting hodge-podge lacked rigour from the stern standpoint of academics and ideologues alike. But in rock music, a little rigour is rather bracing and galvanising. In the grand tradition of British art-rock, theory helped them achieve the sort of conceptual breakthroughs that more organically evolving groups never reach.
Instead, his favourites are the gorgeous misfits-among-misfits, who managed to be neither modernist nor entryist nor shill: Talking Heads, Meat Puppets, Associates, Japan. Crucially, he is charitable to all the tributaries: chart-hungry post-pop, politically-rabid modernism and the interminable ugliness of Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse and No Wave: this makes Rip It Up real history rather than hagiography, and so much more than I or anyone has managed.
He has more critical acumen than any of the mooks in the brainy bands; more love than the fey melodists. I have lived in the post-punk woods - too jaded and too hopeful to be a punk - for getting on a decade, and I thought myself a connoisseur: until now I was not.
|Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) by Richard P. Feynman
|Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past (2010) by Simon Reynolds
||Omnivorous, unifying, funny.
|Monogamy (1996) by Adam Phillips
|| In one sentence: Harsh, circuitous, critical aphorisms on the greatest secular religion.|
To be read : At the start of every new relationship; when your contempt of psychotherapy boils over and needs correction.
I guess he’s a bit overfond of knowing paradox (“Seduction, the happy invention of need”; “The problem of a marriage is that it can never be called an affair”) – and of course aphorisms have to compress away the qualifications that would make them fairer, and so easier to take in large doses.
Infidelity is such a problem because we take monogamy for granted; we treat it as the norm. Perhaps we should take infidelity for granted, assume it with unharassed ease. Then we would be able to think about monogamy.
There are no relationships without conflict. If psychoanalysis has a value, maybe one of its values is just that it abides by the idea that there is always going to be conflict… in a way the book holds out for the value of conflict [being to let] the diverse voices inside of oneself speak.
But it’s non-partisan (not anti-monogamy, not anti-polyamory) and original and funny and wise and I still haven’t absorbed the finer points.
- Galef type: </td>
Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &
Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.
|Women's Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology (1995) by Jane Dowson
||Raising up great obscure things is one of the main points of having academics around. However, half the poets in this actually refused to be segregated in their lifetime (that is, refused to be anthologised as women, or at all). Dowson is candid about this, and half the book is just suggestive little biographies as a result.
She is shackled to the humanities' chaste, hyper-qualified prose ("I have tried to illustrate that through their interrogations of national and international affairs, their preoccupations with cultural politics and their experiments with language and form... rejects the language of centrality and dominance...") and their fear of judgment / love of equivocation ("If consensus over a 'good poem' is neither desirable nor possible, then value is largely determined by context..."), it's not exactly hateful.
Whether through Dowson's bias or the necessities of the time, these poets are even more independent than their male counterparts. Of those selected, Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell are already fully reclaimed as the canonical boss ladies they are. Two big oversights of mine: Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townshend Warner. Mitchison is amazing - wise when wounded, droll and passionate, politicised but never journalistic: check out "To Some Young Communists", "Woman Alone", "Old Love and New Love". Warner is both blunt and metaphysical. (Others are just passable. Vita Sackville-West's are surprisingly poor, in fact. Highlights: "Beauty the Lover's Gift?" (bitter objectification); "Pastoral" (Manly Hopkins after empire). "A Woman Knitting" (the infinite in the finite); "Song of the Virtuous Female Spider" (satirising pious motherhood clichés); "The Sick Assailant" (rare for the time: male violence focus); "On August the Thirteenth" (on abruptness, gentle impotence of human pretensions).
|The Rorty Reader (2010) by Christopher J. Voparil
||Encompassing and uplifting. I've been in love with the idea of Rorty for years. (He is: the renegade Analytic, the outrageous unifier, the literary soul, the pessimistic utopian, the great puncturer, and the bravest postmodernist by far - because he just comes out and says it, bites the bizarre bullets.)
Here he is illuminating about philosophy of mind, poetry, foundationalism, the public/private divide, feminism, America, MacKinnon, Derrida, Davidson, and Dewey (obvs), among lots of other things. One can usually taste meanness in postmodern writing - stemming, I suppose, from our sense of being undermined by it - but never in Rorty. He is utterly clear, original and sometimes funny, and yet the realest postmodernist of all.
Not sure what I'd think of it these days.
|Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media (2008) by Nick Davies
||Calm hatchet job on what I will call mainstream media - but don’t thereby imagine me in a tin hat. I was on a news diet anyway (though this doesn’t mean disengaged), so this told me what I’d already nastily assumed: commercial ownership of outlets means vast staff cuts and over-milked productivity; which mean no time to research or check facts; which means “churnalism”, the frantic-lazy reproduction of PR and State material, and worse, their interpretations. (88% of all UK stories are now based on press releases. This trend includes the Guardian (50%) and Times (59%).)
His model of the origin of hysteric snowball stories like the Millennium Bug or Diana’s death is brilliant and convincing, disparaging conspiracy-theory suspicions
1. Uncertainty exists.
2. An expert sexes up the dangers to increase popular impact.
3. Impact stirs commerce, who exaggerate for gain.
4. Exaggeration is absorbed by cranks (cultists, columnists), who begin to scream.)
Economise, kowtow, slink, hegemonise, neutralise, service, decontextualise, validate, exaggerate and conform: the rules of production. Was balling my fists through most of this.
Essential for people in Britain.
|The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (2008) by Tim Harford
||Celebration of the universality / imperialism of economics (the application of the field’s hard-nosed acquisitory rational choice theory to more and more human phenomena - crime, romance, addiction, corporate pay, and The Ascent of Man). Harford is better than Levitt - to whom the books owes its format, cheek and some of the original research - because he’s less amused about the unflattering and anti-humanist results people have uncovered.
Some of the research is astonishing – and contentious (I have in mind the 2005 paper that purported to show significant shifts in [expressed] sexuality as the AIDS epidemic peaked, in proportion to how well people personally knew sufferers, “cost of AIDS”.) In any case, Harford writes extremely clearly about technical things, and the research can’t be ignored, because it suggests routes for generalised policy (rather than cynical rules to apply to all individual cases).
Extra point for his lovely immanent-performative ontology of maths: he claims cricket players and economic actors are doing maths unconsciously when they catch a ball or opt for an optimum (third-order differentials). This implies that sunflowers are mathematicians - that all the world is not merely describable with maths, but acts as maths, is maths. I don’t believe this, but isn’t it lovely?
|Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings (2009) by John N. Gray
||Hard to read - not for his prose, which is luminous and droll, but because he disagrees with almost everything almost everyone holds dear (whether reason, science, or organised social movements are your tool for improving the world). Tory anti-speciesism, anti-Enlightenment anti-cruelty(??)
These span his career, satirising Marxists and Neocons, eulogising Santayana and explaining why communism sucks and doesn’t work, and why liberalism is cute but doesn’t work. (I paraphrase somewhat.) This leaves only Stoicism and resistance to dangerous meddlers as the ‘good’ life.
Lucid, unclassifiable, horrific.
|The Meaning of Recognition (2005) by Clive James
||Funny polticial and cultural digs (his series on the 2005 UK general election is acid and insightful). I needed to read someone who doesn’t believe that everything personal is political tbf. (Larkin is a great poet and was a terrible man – why is this so difficult for people to accept? Is it just the halo effect?)
His long essay on Isaiah Berlin is fantastic and contentious, and his retorts to the professional philosophers who come at him about it devastating, inspiring.
|Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009) by Barbara Demick
Horrible portrait of a deluded and brutalised country. You’ve probably already imagined the political religion, the incompetence and manipulation of the cadres: here are some of the only first-person accounts. The dozen defectors she interviews agree on enough to lend some confidence.
She repeats entire sentences verbatim at various parts of the book, and runs out of ways to reflect somberly on collective madness and individual caprice (fair enough). It’s hard to see a country in which 10% of the population die of state-caused starvation ever rising up. No
|A Chinese Anthology: A Collection Of Chinese Folktales And Fables (1973) by Raymond van Over
||Bunch of parables and fairytales taken from three millenia. Fun, and Other to me. Van Over has a thing for Pu Songling, the vernacular master of the form shunned by the mandarin system because of his colloquial and ornamental style. I’m not sure I learned much, but it beats Aesop.
|The Social Construction of What? (1999) by Ian Hacking
||Balanced analysis of this usually partisan matter. Hacking is the first scientific constructionist to not irritate me. He concludes that, at least in science, social construction happens and can't just be dismissed by appeal to the Context of Justification. This is more plausible because (where, with e.g. Bruno Latour it isn't clear) he has clearly properly studied the science he covers.
The section where he tries to navigate the trade-off between realism's history of oppression, and relativism's potential for totalitarian abuse is touching. (He concludes that he just is "of the wrong generation" to get behind radical constructionisms!)
The first section - just a huge long disambiguation of all the different things people mean when they say something is socially constructed - is 5/5 please read it. Required reading for anyone who wants to use, or dismiss, the concept.
|Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (2008) by Gary F. Marcus
||Funny and humane work of evolutionary psychology. Like Thinking, Fast and Slow but he tries to explain the many cognitive biases in terms of evolutionary adaptations.
Relies on classic (old) behavioural experiments. So, not sure if this holds up better than Kahneman under the replication crisis assault.
|We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (2001) by Daniel Sinker
||My teenage heroes, some of them teenaged at the time. Uniquely in punk, PP showed the muddiness of the ideology in things; the genuinely thoughtful people here interviewed share a tendency to blur party lines.
There are radicals talking radically in the usual manner (Chomsky, Biafra) but also practitioners of social good (the Central Ohio Abortion Access Fund and the remarkable Voices in the Wilderness), iconoclasts of iconoclasm (Hanna, Mackaye) and even a few apolitical ethical-egoist libertines (Albini, Frank Kozik) who are common in punk, but rare in its commentary.
Sinker’s super-earnest intro text inserts all the right misgivings about Chumbawumba’s entryism or Kozik’s blithe first-generation patriotism; he somehow retains his beautiful faith in ‘Punk’ (as empowering civil-disobedient grass-roots social justice) in the face of vast variation in actual punks.
My own attempt at the social meaning of punk gave up on seeing it as one thing (or even as generally good things) entirely. What are we to judge a social phenomenon by? Its majority expression? Its noblest exemplars? Its effects? (Which in punk’s case, let’s not flatter ourselves, were aesthetic rather than straightforwardly political: there is now slight freedom in clothing and hair colour in the workplaces of the land; there is now a standard pretence to deviance in all youth movements (e.g. pop music)...)
Sinker’s judgment is strong (cf. writing the oral history of Black Flag, with each member contradicting each other!), but his prose is wearing.
This is the real thing though: one type of inspirational, anti-inspirational person, in their own words.
|American Supernatural Tales (2007) by S.T. Joshi
||I usually find horror fiction sort of pathetic, but this cherry-picking of two centuries is varied, trend-setting, often golden. Hawthorne, Poe, Bloch, Matheson, Oates. I have no patience for Lovecraft and his legion.
The phases: High Gothic to Pulp to magic realism to splatterpunk, blessedly omitting the most recent and hypersuccessful form, urban fantasy / paranormal romance. Henry James’ prose is every bit as clotted and unpronounceable as reputed. High point (apart from Poe’s ‘House of Usher’ – a hellhound in a fluffy corset) is probs Theodore Klein’s ‘The Events at Poroth Farm’, a queer sleepy beast with its own internal supernatural anthology and unnerving sidelong glances.
|Moranthology (2012) by Caitlin Moran
||Gleeful and rarely zany. I don’t laugh at books much, but snorted all the way through this on a long megabus. The middle section on class and gender is light and uncliched and makes her fall from grace among pious people all the sadder. We need people who can talk about these things without sounding like an appalling prig.
|What the Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley (2010) by David Shrigley
||Hilarious, abject, shoddy. Magical realism if magic were shit and made you look an idiot. Voices from the last bus and the dawn of time, from dank cells and strip-lit service stations. Against institutional art and other pretences, and against indifference, and against no fun.
|So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson
||Investigation of what angry people are doing to jokers and liars and fools, generally on the internet, generally on political grounds. We send them death threats, we photoshop them into animal porn, we doxx them, we get them fired. If Ronson's shock and remorse at being part of this could spread, the most distinctive depressing part of modern life would evaporate.
There is only one representative of the online shamers here (besides Ronson, who is reformed). You realise quickly that she is not especially hateful: she's just dim – she still thinks shaming is great, even after suffering it horribly and losing her job as a result of her own aggressive humourlessness and insensitivity. In her interview with Ronson, she shows no signs of empathy or learning. It is a tragic example of how addling identity can be.
One essential passage - the payload inamongst Ronson's ordinariness and self-deprecation: a human-rights lawyer points out the emotional power of noncriminal acts:
“Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way. Question One: What’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud. Question Two: What’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you? Question Three: Which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”
The worst criminal act that has ever been committed against me was burglary. How damaging was it? Hardly damaging at all. I felt theoretically violated at the idea of a stranger wandering through my house. But I got the insurance money. I was mugged one time. I was eighteen. The man who mugged me was an alcoholic. He saw me coming out of a supermarket. “Give me your alcohol,” he yelled. He punched me in the face, grabbed my groceries, and ran away. There wasn’t any alcohol in my bag. I was upset for a few weeks, but it passed.
And what was the worst thing I had ever done to someone? It was a terrible thing. It was devastating for them. It wasn’t against the law.
Clive’s point was that the criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners — young, black — have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time — bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.
(It has been claimed that this phase of internet social justice is on its way out - that the tactic is now to "call in"- that is, to correct an offender, but also to appeal to the offender's humanity, to try to bridge the gap. We can hope this will gain traction (3 years and counting...). In the meantime a roaring subculture has been founded upon the glorification of bad behaviour and utterly unpersuasive flames.)
Ronson's possible solutions to finding yourself shamed: you can 1) refuse to feel bad (or at least refuse to show them you're bleeding), own the thing they're trying to shame you for, like Max Mosley. This only works sometimes. 2) You can hide from the internet, try to SEO the affair down to Google page 3, where no-one goes, like someone it would be counterproductive to name. 3) You can start over, asking for forgiveness like Jonah Lehrer. (There is none; the internet is not interested in you improving your behaviour.)
[Theory #3, Values #1]</li>
|American Hippopotamus (2013) by Jon Mooallem
||American Hippopotamus</i></b>. Blasted through this nonfiction novella with great delight; so much astonishing Victorian detail, so much damn fun. The story of two hardcore spies, American and Boer, who ranged over the eC20th, blowing things up and meeting presidents and dissing Churchill’s fitness level and mining by hand as an anti-fascist action and striking oil and maybe killing lords – who campaigned together to bring an invasive species in to eat another invasive species and introduce a new meat animal to America. Duquesne to Burnham:
To my friendly enemy, the greatest scout in the world, whose
eyes were the vision of an empire. I craved the honour of killing him,
but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.
So damn fun, and, in the last instance, also deep. Mooallem reproaches us for having clicked on American Hippopotamus to make fun of the men. But:
Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots. That same runoff also sloshes down the Mississippi River to its mouth, pooling into one of the world’s biggest aquatic dead zones, seven or eight thousand square miles large at times...
These aren’t problems that America created so much as ones we’ve watched happen — consequences of our having ducked other, earlier problems by rigging together relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough. We answered the Meat Question. But there were more meat questions ahead.
Simple, thoughtful, astonishingly well-written.
|The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves, #2) (1923) by P.G. Wodehouse
||Musical, uplifting, and still so, so funny. Each story draws on a very small pool of the exact same jokes (Jeeves hates a new piece of Wooster's wardrobe; little old lady Aunt Agatha is completely inexorable; shit gambling on unconventional sports, headgear is misappropriated, monsters are slain) and only four supporting characters (Pals, Uncles/Fathers-in-law, Aunts/Fiancees, Trade). But they only gain from the repetition somehow.
Even here, in Wodehouse's smiling, sun-dappled imperial nest, there are echoes from reality: for instance The War as well as the spiky and still-reigning art it set alight:
I suppose every chappie in the world has black periods in his life to which he can’t look back without the smouldering eye and the silent shudder. Some coves, if you can judge by the novels you read nowadays, have them practically all the time...
"Were you in the First World War, Jeeves?"
"I dabbled in it to a certain extent, m’lord."
"I'm lonely, Jeeves."
"You have a great many friends, sir."
"What's the good of friends?"
"Emerson," I reminded him, "says a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature, sir."
"Well you can tell Emerson from me next time you see him he's an ass."
"Very good, sir."
So frivolous it loops back round to profound.
|Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (2012) by Ben Goldacre
||Or - his preferred book title - The Information Architecture of Medicine has Several Interesting Flaws, Many of Which Inflict Avoidable Harm on Patients, But All of Which are Amenable to Cost-Effective Change, Were There to be Adequate Public and Political Will. An empirically rigorous angry manifesto!
Here are all of the book's theses in one paragraph, which is another thing I love nonfiction writers doing:
Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.
In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most part they have failed; so all of these programs persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.
[Low external validity] can make a trial completely irrelevant to real-world populations, yet it is absolutely routine in research, which is conducted on tight budgets, to tight schedules, for fast results, by people who don’t mind if their results are irrelevant to real-world clinical questions. This is a quiet, dismal scandal. There’s no dramatic newspaper headline, and no single killer drug: just a slow and unnecessary pollution of almost the entire evidence base in medicine.
Exactly as fair to pharma as it deserves and no more ("there is no medicine without medicines"). Business gimps sometimes use the term "thought leader", meaning powerful, original thinker (they usually use it spuriously). Goldacre actually is one. Please at least join AllTrials.
|Chuck Klosterman on Media and Culture: A Collection of Previously Published Essays (2010) by Chuck Klosterman
||Exciting raids on petty tyrannies. Of: contemporary sexuality, cereal adverts, the implications of the 00s pirate craze, questions in general, the Unabomber’s good point. Klosterman’s not going to get away without comparison to DFW – but he’s really good in his own way too. He’s a more relaxed, atheoretical Wallace, with pop music (rather than Art writing) at his core, and technology (rather than general Irony) as the source of his worries about us all.
This slices through the reflexivity that causes modern confusions, while being mischievously reflexive himself (at one point he tells us that he once lied to an interviewer who had correctly identified Klosterman’s mouthpiece in one of his novels; Klosterman denied that he shared the character’s view in order to preserve a cheap narrative uncertainty for readers of the interview – but, of course, admitting that here undoes that cheap save for we third-order readers).
“We assume that commercials are not just informing us about purchasable products, because that would be crude and ineffective. We’re smarter than that. But that understanding makes us more vulnerable. We’ve become the ideal audience for advertising—consumers who intellectually magnify commercials in order to make them more trenchant and clever than they actually are. Our fluency with the language and motives of the advertiser induces us to create new, better meanings for whatever they show us. We do most of the work for them.”
Two quibbles: there is (what I take to be) a lack of ideological care you’d expect of pieces written for Esquire magazine. He doesn’t resolve (as I think DFW mostly does) the tension between a) affirming low culture’s power and unique charms against bullshit classist disparagement, and b) despising its crudest, most conservative common denominators.
Went through it in an hour.
|The Selfish Gene (1976) by Richard Dawkins
|The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) by Christopher Hitchens
||No indictment: an indictment on all of us.
|The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (2004) by Richard Dawkins
||Loads of lovely examples and vivid analogies. The sidebar on races is surprisingly careful and illuminating - that portion of the phenomenon that's genetic is more straightforward than I’d thought, in my Arts student way.
(Though his placid definitiveness about the social interpretation is obvs controversial as hell. He’s a strict philosophical eliminativist, implying that the harm resulting from reifying race totally outweighs all gains from positive discrimination. This is unclear to say the least.)
I hadn’t heard of the ‘two-fold cost’ of sex before, super-interesting.
Not as snarky as you’d expect, and full of alternative perspectives so long as they’re other evolutionists’ perspectives.
|Mao's Great Famine: The History Of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (2010) by Frank Dikötter
||Deadpan documentation of the most awe-inspiring and culpable misrule ever. (I don’t mean to weigh Mao’s 40 million counts of negligent manslaughter and 5m conspiracies-to-murder against e.g. the 12 millions of more intentional monsters; the exercise seems childish, past some asymptote of human suffering.) The Party took their land and animals, melted their pans and hoes, killed billions of birds and 40% of the trees in China, starved them until they sold their children, and them starved them some more. At the same time they exported 30 million tons of grain, mostly for guns.
Historians are impressive for their readiness to sift through so much irrelevant tonnage – and so much that is boring even when relevant – just so as to be careful and good.
Mao comes across as a self-deceiving sociopath; Zhou as a decent man nevertheless permitting atrocities. Heavier than The Black Book, than Primo Levi.
|Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) by Lydia Davis
We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us in a more articulate form what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now.
Went on my guard when I heard that the title story was one sentence long – speaking, as such conceits do, of holy-urinal superstitious art – but this is actually a standout, a series of droll, exacting capsules and nutshells.
A typical piece is one page long and part gag, part compulsive meditation, part confession of petty vice. Once you get over her diffident, terse non-being, it is fun stuff. The long piece on jury duty is best, its length and repetitious babble a symmetry of the trial.
|Why Moral Theory is Boring and Corrupt () by Anonymous
||by the Unknown Anti-ethicist.
to say that love is what motivates most of us who are neither complete bastards nor distracted by secondary concerns such as “what other people will think” – to say this is not to say anything very neat or tidy. But that too is as it should be.
Full review here
|Even As We Speak: New Essays 1993-2001 (2001) by Clive James
||The last twenty years see James taking a turn from light entertainment to the history of totalitarianism. He then brings it into everything, everything else, dragging Hitler and Stalin around like the stations of the cross.
His long excoriation of Daniel Goldhagen is angry, entertaining, and an education in itself. (The question the two men are at odds over is, “How could civilised, literate, assimilative Germany Do Such Things?” Goldhagen says: 'because they – all Germans – were eliminationists just itching for an excuse'. James’ answer instead puts due weight on the simplest explanation: 'they did it because a single word of dissent meant death, for any of them'.)
James is a bit obsessed by his chosen field – Hitler references turn up in his sunny, giddy Sydney Olympics pieces! Then there’s an ornately maudlin account of his acquaintance with Diana Spenser. (I spent a little while trying to pigeonhole his politics recently – this non-republican, anti-Marxist, pro-American-culture hobnobber – and decided it is wrong to call him right-wing. “Democracy is really valuable only for what it prevents…”)
Funny, profound in places, but his late themes had solidified already and are covered better in A Point of View and Cultural Amnesia.
- Galef type:
Data 3 - highlights patterns in the world
Values 1 - an explicit argument about values .
|An Encyclopaedia of Myself (2014) by Jonathan Meades
Access to the Unknown
The best documentarian and architecture critic in Britain - also "the best amateur chef in the world" (cf. Marco Pierre-White) - writes about his childhood in a brutal panoptic manner. His unsentimentality about himself, his mother, his horrible uncles, is startling, even speaking as a fan of his sarky and acid programmes. It's not exactly linear: there are several odd repetitions and filling-ins, mimicking the meandering of memory. Still, Meades' prose makes them worthwhile twice over:
When, after they had both died, I sold my parents' house, I got rid of a cupboardful of toys which had collected decades' dust, and a bookcase of Eagle annuals, Tiger annuals, Buffalo Bill annuals and so on. I picked through tins of broken pens and perished erasers. I excitedly anticipated the past to come rushing back. Each of these rusty, tarnished pieces of metal or plastic is, surely, a potential madeleine, a mnemonic of some bright day in 1959. They were, however, doggedly mute.
It took time in that house whose purpose was finished to realise that this was a pitiful and self-pitying exercise: I was trying to freeze myself, to transport myself back to the land of lost content which had, actually, been no such thing. I was trying to do to myself what parents do to their children.
No girls meant no calm solicitude, no sweet fragrance of talc and cleanliness, but, rahter, the soilpipe smell of almost a hundred shrieking, blubbing, chucking, grubby, boisterous, energetic, savage, merciless small boys... Kissing was of course sissy. In the Cathedral School's swimming-pool changing hut, a riot of asbestos, just-prepubescent boys boxed with their penises in friendly companionabiity and competitive violence: he who drew blood won. They aptly dignified this as 'cockfighting', insouciantly associating covert pugilism with the hedgerow gamblers' sport conducted between roofless brick cowsheds where flames from pyres of palettes relieve the ruined farmyard's midden chill and lend ceremony to the bucolic rite.
Some fleshpot, Southampton: the Port Said of the Solent. A poor whore has only to sit in a window in Derby Road, and a major police operation will be launched. All the coppers who've been on Cottage Patrol squeeze out from beneath the rafter to race a mile east from the Common. Their route takes them past Great Aunt Doll's chaotic bungalow where there were peals of dirty laughter and sweet sherry and sweet Marsala, and a room heated to eighty degrees and fish and chips for a dozen in an enamel bowl, and gossip and ribbing and silly stories, and gaspers, and will someone let the dog out else he's going to wee on the couch, and Jonathan you better go with him if you want a widdle cos Eric's been and done a big one...
I had emerged [from Sunday School] a materialist. It was, equally, the first time I had walked out of anything, that I had had the nerve to walk out. Thus was a lifelong habit initiated. Cinemas, jobs, sexual relationships, exams, opportunities, marriages, commitments, professional partnerships, schools, theatrical performances (a specialty), parties, expeditions, dinners, homes, prior arrangements - I've walked out of them all, often.
The whole book is anomalous - it is sustained emotional recollection by a professed enemy of nostalgia:
Nostalgia is not simply a yearning for a lost home, a yearning which can never be satisfied by revisiting that home, which could only be satisfied by becoming once more the child who inhabited that home, at that time. It is also primitive, pre-rational, pre-learning. It quashes developed taste, aesthetic preference, learnt refinements. It insists that the chance associations of infancy are more obstinately enduring than the chosen positions of our subsequent sentience. It tells us that we are lifers in a mnemonic prison from which there is no reprieve.
But then the man's an anomaly: a razorish rationalist, a scathing positivist about the arts, who has devoted his life to them. (They were accompanied by their arty and - it follows - entirely artless friends.)
His childhood was not like other children's in Fifties Britain. (I'm comparing his to Bennett, Hitchens, wrongly also Clive James.) His parents quietly rewarded his not conforming, and he ate Afghan curry throughout (his father was stationed in Iraq and brought back a tonne of spices). He grew up surrounded by clergy and the weapons scientists of the Downs:
I pictured the Red Menace - a cannibalistic giant whose face was impasted with human gristle and blood; bullnecked mass murderers weighed down by medals; cloud seeding; barbed wire; secret policemen; evil scientists; informers; torturers; factories as big as cities; insanitary collective farms; starvation; deportations. 'You're going to Siberia!' was a playground taunt of the Fifties.
(He really likes the biological warfare men, in maybe the biggest piece of contrarianism in this large contrary book.)
The book stops when he's only 17 - but there are so, so many deaths in it. Maybe 70, counting the drowned calf; my total by that age was 3. Let's say he delights in the contrast with today, not in the deaths themselves.
For all they spoke of death, I might have believed we live perpetually, growing ever more crooked, more and more dried up, more rasping, more fearful. (I obviously didn't know that it was death's proximity that caused the eyes of the very old to communicate unimaginable terror.) ...The names of the dead were dropped from conversation, as one might drop that of a disloyal friend. Death seemed to be a kind of disgrace... The rare times they were remembered, it was with irked brusqueness.
It is very easy to put him in a bad light; he makes it easy for you, because he is always absolutely emphatic, usually vitriolic, and often wrong. (The things he's wrong about include vegetarians, anti-racism overall*, arguably human rights.**)
Where would we be without monotheism, fasts, judicial impartiality, the eucharist, sincerity, pork's proscription, Allah's ninety-nine names and seventy-two virgins, weather forecasts, life plans, political visions, conjugated magpies, circumcision, sacred cows, the power of prayer, insurance policies, gurus' prescriptions, the common good, astrology? Where indeed? But those are the big lies.
Picturing the equine Princess Royal is a sure way of inhibiting orgasm and prolonging enjoyment, so long as one doesn't picture her for too long and so risk flaccidity.
stoical meiosis was normal in a generation which denied itself deep immersion in feeling, had not learned to wallow in empathy, understood an outpouring to be the discharge of cloacal sewage. The lexicon of demonstrative care had yet to be coined; the people's absurd princess had yet to be born; the mistakenly unaborted Blair had yet to perfect the catch of tremulous sincerity in his voice.
my mother had assured me that the old testament was risible tosh. And so it is. So, of course, are all 'holy' books. But risible tosh can be persuasive.
The desert landscape [in Iraq] is relentlessly grim. There was indigenous hostility to contend with. The Arab world was broadly sympathetic to the Axis powers. (The Nazis' successors are not the lost causists of the BNP, NPD and Vlaams Belang but the totalitarian Islamist post-Khomeini terror states... The Arab armies included Bosnian Muslim veterans of the Handzar SS brigades... The entire sentimental Arabist package, the tradition of the fawning British buggerocracy - Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, St John Philby, Glubb Pasha, Wilfred Thesiger and countless other aristocratic eccentrics - had become la pensee unique of the army's higher strata. It was also (not that its adherents acknowledged it) effete, misogynistic, irrational, anti-urban, Luddite and gullible.
Antiquarian pillage is hardly scholarly and far from scientific, but its perpetrators were not culpable of the misanthropic relativism which grants rights to ancient amphorae and entitlements to yokes' remnants. Nor did they conceive of history in terms of movements, big ideas and sweeping theses. Their empiricism militated against generalisation.
The tyranny of minorities had caused the atomisation of England. The damage is repairable - by state terror or mob rule. But since the state's treasonable clerks are the very cause of the embuggerance we can be sure that it will do nothing. And a mob needs a leader to bring its hatred to the boil, foment its venom, drive it on. It needs the Duke of Edinburgh. Much as he might wish it he won't be around.
Consider that last one: it is natural to read in it a fascist glee - but it isn't that at all. It is rather the dread of inevitable deadlock and looming contradictions. There's no relish, only misplaced fear. But you need to have read his contempt of fascists (and of Philip) and his fear of totalitarianism before, for it to sound like that.
Why isn't the cannibal internet calling him out? Because he is in the grey zone of non-celebrity? Because he is too old to shame? Because he isn't on Twitter? Anyway: He is neither a bigot (offensive because hateful and ignorant), nor a clickbait troll (intentionally, insincerely offensive), nor an aged victim of social drift (obliviously offensive): he has not defaulted to these opinions; he was never much tied to his time's prevailing prejudices, whether it's Fifties' conformism and class obsession or Noughties PC and pomo. His antipathies are reasoned and he refuses to pander. Compare this passage to e.g. what Yiannopoulos was finally banished for:
The formula states that adults are wicked predators, children are innocent prey. In the hierarchy of abuse, paedophilia (which may be literally that, liking children) is demonised, fetishised. It has giddily attained equal status with race crime... Homo faber. Isn't he just? Man has devised multitudinous forms of child abuse which are not sexual. Their immeasurable consequences may, however, be just as grave as those of sexual abuse.
Child soldier, child slave, child labourer, child miner, child skiv, child beggar, child bloody from scrounging in the shambles.
The book is highly abridged (only up to cram school) and still a bit too long. Before reading this you should first watch any 10 of these films.
* If you insist on challenging the worst e.g. woke, trivial internet activism, you have to say that's what you're against: Meades is being uncharacteristically imprecise, and decimating sympathy as a result. "Against (actually-existing) anti-racism" is not the same as "pro-racism", but people will read you that way unless you give them explicit reason not to. (And even then.)
** Rights are only good if they produce good outcomes; lots of people all over the world think in terms of imperatives and absolutes and it is almost futile to argue about it; thus rights can be a useful fiction. Meades again spits on "rights" in general without laying out this or any other philosophical objection, without showing us what he's for and so allowing people to not think the worst.
|New Year Letter (1941) by W.H. Auden
||800 heroic couplets written off the cuff for a friend. Pompous, showy, and forced: I love his idiocies, I love his verse footnotes, which are as long as the original poem again and arraying all his beetling, piecemeal research into his age at least: cell biology, crank psychoanalysis, early sociology, Nietzsche, Nietzsche, all the arts and sciences nominally in his pocket. Anyway half of the idiocy is forced on him by the genre, epic verse, which always sounds damn silly to me (not that I mind silliness in my high art, but I do mind people being silly and not admitting it):
Tonight a scrambling decade ends,
And strangers, enemies and friends
Stand once more puzzled underneath
The signpost on the barren heath
Where the rough mountain track divides...
A weary Asia out of sight
Is tugging gently at the night,
Uncovering a restless race;
Clocks shoo the childhood from its face,
And accurate machines begin
To concentrate its adults in
A narrow day to exercise
Their gifts in some cramped enterprise.
How few pretend to like it: O,
Three quarters of these people know
Instinctively what ought to be
The nature of society
And how they'd live there if they could.
If it were easy to be good,
And cheap, and plain as evil, how
We all would be its members now...
How grandly would our virtues bloom
In a more conscionable dust
Where Freedom dwells because it must,
Necessity because it can,
And men confederate in Man.
But wishes are not horses, this
Annus is not mirabilis;
Day breaks upon the world we know
Of war and wastefulness and woe...
The New Year brings an earth afraid,
Democracy a ready-made
And noisy tradesman's slogan, and
The poor betrayed into the hand
Of lackeys with ideas, and truth
Whipped by their elders out of youth,
The peaceful fainting in their tracks
With martyrs' tombstones on their backs,
And culture on all fours to greet A butch and criminal elite,
While in the vale of silly sheep
Rheumatic old patricians weep...
One critic, screwing up all his strength, called Auden's bad style, which NYL is supposed to be an instance of, "snide bright jargon", which is a perfect compliment! (if you don't view limpid repetition of what every other sensitive outsider has said before you as poetry's point.) I've not read it alone on New Year's Eve like you ought to, but I will.
|For the Motherboard: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám () by Vanessa Hodgkinson
||Gaudy and hectic word-associations, with only tenuous formal or thematic links to the actual Rubáiyát, presenting itself as a translation but fizzing with verve of its own. A nerd culture devotional.
(Vine was a video fragment website; Wine is an excellent Windows emulator.)
Teeming with clumsy nerdy ephemera, but I think it will be worth reading in 10 years. Let's see. Works much better aloud.
Free! here: ‘The’ ‘“Rubaiyyat’” of ‘Omar Khayyam’</b></i>
|Collected Poems (1962) by Federico García Lorca
||2007: I used to love people for getting shot.
|Occasional Poets () by Richard Adams
||Poems from people not known as poets, yielding a equal mix of dedicatories, doggerel, and diamond. Their styles are mostly preserved, epitomised: the big grim novelists (Lessing, Coetzee, Fowles, Murdoch, Golding) write enormous grit-tooth verse;
Heads bowed down or thrown
Here and there are dark
With terrible deaf pictures.
Sounds rise up and vanish
Into a pitted dome.
It continues to rain.
The acoustics being imperfect some people fidget.
Something which is pure is come
To a high magnetic field.
Cry out as it passes on When shall we be healed?
Raymond Briggs, a quiet, brutal elegy; David Lodge, some good meta jokes; animal bits from Jan Morris and Stella Gibbons; Wodehouse, two wonderful gossipy hyperboles. Adams manages to pick out the only Naomi Mitchison poems I don’t like. A lot of unbridled sentiment, e.g. Arnold Wesker depressing his children, Francis King's lies spiralling down, Enoch Powell lying awake listening to his wife's asthma; the writers aren't expecting the irony-making pressures of publication, or the obsessive polishing of any work that will be identified with them. So it's free indeed. Until Adams.
|The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 (2001) by Iain Crichton Smith
||Best Scottish poet writes good Scottish stories about, mostly, terrible Scottish pragmatists. Steady observational tragedy, and quiet outcast statures. Recurring structure: a staid, professional male narrator tells us his profession on page 1 and admits a whole puckle of flaws. Recurring people: the censorious, crabbit islander who was not always so; the passionate and creative woman slowly eroded by island gossip, monotony, stasis; her husband, who knows this happened because of him.
Most striking are ‘The Scream’, ‘What to do About Ralph?’, ‘The Spy’, and ‘The Exorcism’ – but particularly the latter, because I recognised the worst of myself in both the little bastard obsessed with Kierkegaard and the small-souled lecturer who saves him:
I looked at him for a long time knowing that the agony was over… [But] how could I be sure that my own harmonious jealous biography had not been superimposed upon his life, as one writing upon another, in that wood where the birds sang with such sweetness defending their territory?
Much more than clever.
|The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (1975) by Frederick P. Brooks Jr.
||How big teams make things. How awesome tech feels on the inside:
Too many interests, too many exciting opportunities for learning, research, and thought. What a marvellous predicament! Not only is the end not in sight, the pace is not slackening. We have many future joys.
The oldest thing by far on my computing syllabus and nearly the most stylish.* This anniversary edition has a chapter which is just the whole book boiled down to its propositions and whether or not they stood up twenty years later, which is a thing that other non-fiction could gravely benefit from. (You sometimes see the like of this in honest philosophy books, included as ‘analytical index’ or ‘prolegomenon’ or ‘exordium’.) Brooks is not merely exoteric, not just an IBM mook; suitably acerbic and suitably enthusiastic.
The open secret of programming is that it is actually a whole barrel of fun, just one that baffles, bores or scares outsiders:
The craft of programming gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men, providing five kinds of joys:
• The joy of making things;
• The joy of making things that are useful to other people;
• The fascination of fashioning puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts;
• The joy of always learning, of a nonrepeating task;
• The delight of working in a medium so tractable — pure thought-stuff — which nevertheless exists, moves, and works in a way that word-objects do not.
(NB: The Christian God rears up at unexpected intervals – and at one point Brooks recommends openly patriarchal programming teams - on the model of “God’s plan for marriage”. But this lone wacko note doesn't get in the way.)
* (I set myself Shannon, Wang, Knuth.)
|The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays (2002) by Hilary Putnam
||Remarkable meta-ethics, which establishes itself in large part by undermining neoclassical economics. Important quibble: The title evokes sexy French relativism – e.g. there is no fact of the matter, il n’y a pas de hors-texte – whereas his actual thesis is that only the strictest, stupidest partition between facts and values collapsed. (A distinction is the mild statement that A is not the same thing as B – whereas a dichotomy is the strict logical exclusion of two things: ‘if something is A, it is a priori not B’.) A pedantic quibble: god he is fond of italics.
Anyway. It collapsed, but still lives on in other fields, decades after the fall of the positivism that was the only thing motivating it. Book is: a scathing modern history of the distinction, a Pragmatic reconstruction, a love letter to Amartya Sen. Putnam blames the philosophical dichotomy for the failures of economics, and from there for real suffering.
The word “cruel”... has a normative and indeed, ethical use. If one asks me what sort of person my child’s teacher is, and I say "he is very cruel," I have both criticized him as a teacher and…as a man. I do not have to add, "he is not a good teacher" or "he is not a good man." I cannot simply... say, "he is a very cruel person and a good man," and be understood. Yet "cruel" can also be used purely descriptively, as when a historian writes that a certain monarch was exceptionally cruel, or that the cruelties of the regime provoked a number of rebellions. "Cruel" simply ignores the supposed fact/value dichotomy and cheerfully allows itself to be used sometimes for a normative purpose and sometimes as a descriptive term. (Indeed, the same is true of the term "crime.")
Some claims: Factual and evaluative statements are necessarily entangled, since; Facts are ascertained as such only by the application of epistemic values: "coherence, plausibility, reasonableness, simplicity, and elegance... if these epistemic values do enable us to correctly describe the world... that is something we see through the lenses of those very values."; i.e. facts are thick too; i.e. he has been made to "rethinking the whole dogma (the last dogma of empiricism?) that facts are objective and values are subjective". Of course, coupled to his ditching foundationalism, this leads him a long way down the Rortyan road - 'science is just another social practice' yada yada - but he tries to salvage a sort of pragmatic objectivity for science. Dunno if he's winning, but I loved the race.
|Human Chain (2010) by Seamus Heaney
||As ever, it’s of hands, eels, parents, wakes, digging, kennings, regret, the RUC, Cuchulain, and Caesar. Fully half are in memoriams. You have to be brave or famous to write this plainly. Plainness can be mistaken for absence of technique – ‘here, I could do that’ – but here it is very, very obvious that I could not. Feel your tongue:
It’s winter at the seaside where they’ve gone
For the wedding meal. And I am at the table,
A skirl of gulls. A smell of cooking fish.
Plump dormant silver. Stranded silence. Tears.
Their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish.
And leaves them to it, under chandeliers.
And to all the anniversaries of this
They are not ever going to observe
Or mention even in the years to come.
And now the man who drove them here will drive
Them back, and by evening we’ll be home.
Best are ‘A Herbal’, ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Loughanure’, and ‘Route 110’, an odyssey about buying a second-hand copy of the Aeneid and then trying to go home.
|A Mathematician's Apology (1940) by G.H. Hardy
|Non-Materialist Physicalism: An experimentally testable conjecture () by David Pearce
|Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (2013) by Daniel C. Dennett
||A self-help book! in the form of a set of tricks and tools for good non-routine cognition. But it's utterly personable and scientifically charged, and a defence of naturalist semantics, mind, 'free' will, and philosophy itself, to boot. He's so much more subtle than he's given credit for; for instance, a large theme here is the central role of imagination in science and the other potent sorts of thought. I confess that I simply can't conceive of some of his positions (e.g. 'qualia' being illusions); but one of the book's burning points is that this may be a failing of my person and not his philosophy.
Also a meta-philosophy:
By working with scientists I get a rich diet of fascinating and problematic facts to think about, but by staying a philosopher without a lab or a research grant, I get to think about all the theories and experiments and never have to do the dishes.
A good library has all the good books. A great library has all the books. If you really want to understand a great philosopher, you have to spend some time looking at the less great contemporaries and predecessors that are left in the shadows of the masters.
Every book of his I read increases my respect. (Though note Galen Strawson's rebuke to Dennett's narrativist theory of identity, 4* here.)
|Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism (2009) by Joseph Heath
|The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg (2008) by Robert P. Crease
||Droll, scientifically proficient, philosophically superconductive. The cast is standard – ‘Pythagoras’, Newton, Euler, Boltzmann, Maxwell, Einstein, Heisenberg – but his treatment’s lucid and alive to the art and philosophy of the things.
(Get this: “special use of language, often over the heads of untrained readers, that seeks to express truths concisely & with precision, that allows us to understand otherwise inaccessible things, changing our experience in the process” – equations, or poems?)
Thermodynamics is best, casting physicists as Shakespearean (there were four suicides in the twelve of them). Crease wants science to have cultural presence, since at the moment it has authority, cultural reputation without real presence. He suggests that “science criticism” is the way to get this - not in the sense of know-nothing postmodernists attacking instrumentalist hegemony (Holmes on Cochrane), but as in the work of engaged human bridges between practitioners and audience.
Every art has a surfeit of such critics. Pop-science comes close, but it’s more often cheerleading and radical simplification than artful play on precedents, implications and meaning. Well, here’s at least one example. (See also the Edge and 3QuarksDaily people.)
|Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China (1987) by Colin Thubron
|Arhat statues surfing at Qiongzhu Temple
, (c) Li Guangxiu (c.1890)
A stunning travel book in the best aristocratic tradition of wandering about talking to people and expecting monasteries to put you up unannounced. But it's as much moral as geographic or historical. China had only just opened up to foreigners, again; the Cultural Revolution, just 15 years past, looms large. A lost generation. In fact the book is obsessed with the difficult question, "How could they do that to themselves?", a focus which makes it excellent, informal long-form journalism as much as gentleman's what-ho travel narrative.
The man went on: 'We found a porter who had been reading novels with a love interest. I don't mean porn. Just a personal story. This was decadent. We beat him unconscious, and burnt the books. Then he died.'
I looked at him in astonishment, mesmerised, for some reason, by his immaculately pressed trousers. Once the armour of social constraint had been stripped from him, the person inside had been exposed as a baby: conscienceless. Was that China, I wondered, or just him? In any case, where was that feeling of pity which Mencius said was common to all men?
The question isn't as simply answered as it is for Hitler's Germany (answer: "Because the merest dissent by any German meant death") nor even as it is for Stalinist Russia (since the unbelievable violence of the Holodomor and gulags was meted out by a comparatively small number of people). Millions of educated Red Guards brutalised millions of untrendy people without much central control at all (indeed, they often revolted against and scared the shit out of the PLA and the apparatchiks).
Thubron's important points include: that the Party cadres are nothing more than the latest garb of the long, long line of elite mandarins. So the poor Laobaixing got all the downside of an absolutist bureaucracy plus all the incompetence and terror caused by people who think that violent unending revolution is desirable. Another large theme is the appalling state of women: The patriarchy there was without even the paltry sweetener of chivalry - married off at 14 if not murdered as infants; old women sitting in the aisles of busses while young men lounge, etc, etc.
Many of the people he meets (mostly lower-middle-class) were (are?) unbelievably obsessed with class, even after forty years of 'communist' rule; the brief, cursory glorification of the nongmin bounced back as soon as the big sticks went away. He calculates the cost of things - TVs, train tickets, hotel whiskies - in that most decent of measures, fractions of an average worker's monthly wage.
There is, already in 1987, an ambitious, irreverent, apolitical youth which any graduate of a Western university will now recognise readily.** The modern Modern China - Deng's China - is visible here, just. Thubron watches the future radiating out from the city:
Under the enormous vault of the station hall there resounds the tramp of a newly mobilised peasantry. I have seen them before all over the city: families arrived to buy or trade, sleeping under bridges or in shop porches with cap over their eyes. Now they step on to the escalators as gingerly as Western eight-year-olds, laden with rope-trussed boxes, newly bought televisions, chickens in hampers, radios, bags spilling out fruit and biscuits - bearing El Dorado back to the village. They overflow the waiting-rooms and camp against every wall behind their baggage palisades, snoring open-mouthed through the din with the detachment of Brueghel swineherds, their children in their arms.
His wit, compassionate anger, gravitas, and grasp of the detail of how messily old collides with new: all recall my favourite critic, Jonathan Meades. (Though Meades is a bit too refined to be easily imagined sleeping fifth-class amidst spit and melon rind, or buying a barn owl in a meat market just to set it free.)
He reports much local bullshit, sarcastically (e.g. Northerners' notion that 'moral integrity' decreases as you go south). This makes it sometimes difficult to know which reportage he endorses: thus, a couple of outlandish claims are possibly deadpan jokes (e.g. only '100' cars on mainland China in 1987?? Human flesh on sale in Canton?
Unsurprisingly, the book received a dab of cursory post-colonial critique.* This is unsurprising because he is interested in testing stereotypes out - in particular, finding out if innate cruelty enabled the Cultural Revolution; it is thus not unfair to imagine the book as a Eurocentric hatchet job. But this dismissive cynicism is only possible before you've heard his frank encounters with a hundred vivid, intelligent, and mournful locals, seen his solid grasp of the history of the dynasties and of 'pedantic and kindly' Confucianism. (Which is the best description of it I've ever seen.)
Those interviews are novelistic - impossibly sincere, compressed, tragic, poetic - and far beyond anything I could elicit as a foreigner, in my summer there. But you believe him even so. Anyway he doesn't pretend to have answered his burning question:
'This sort of thing isn't peculiar to my country,' the priest said: he might have been thought-reading. 'Look at Germany, Russia. Of course, those countries are not old civilisations like ours, but still...'
Of course. I was wading into an ocean. He was listening patiently, but I could not assemble any coherent thoughts. I wanted to explain that it was not the presence of cruelty which surprised me, but some imbalance between obedience and mercy, the collapse of domestic compassion in the face of official demand, the refinements of tortures practiced against teachers and friends, the denunciation of parents - but I stumbled into inarticulacy. I was juggling only with my own values, not with theirs. I knew nothing.
I oughtn't skimp on the book's adventure-story side just because it happens to be a beautiful and humane psychological portrait; the prose is persistently gorgeous, the sights are dryly and comprehensively evoked, and Thubron presents himself as a very fine comic character to boot. My favourite China book.
* Anti-Eurocentrism used to minimise totalitarian genocide can be found in the critical discussion of Thubron here, the snob passage around the dismaying line: "In Thurbron's mind, the Cultural Revolution reached the epitome of atrocities in terms of intensity and scope..." (emphasis mine). That author also takes the prize for most dishonest truncation of the week, since Thubron's monologue goes on to display an odd cultural sensitivity in the face of cultural horror (see "This sort of thing", above).
** There must be a better word for 'occidentaphile' than that itself.
|Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995) by Richard Webster
||What a fucking book! Title is apt and cleverer than it looks: this is not just a comprehensive catalogue of the errors and lies Freud told throughout his career - some of them criminally negligent and emotionally abusive - but also a psychological explanation of why he made them. (Roughly: Lust for fame, cocaine, and a misplaced fervour in a particular numerological sort of neurology.)
Full discussion forthcoming, after re-read.
|Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (2018) by Sabine Hossenfelder
||A look at high-energy particle physics* in its present nightmare (of deep inconsistency and vastly expensive new data). Her thesis is that the problem is sociological and aesthetic: in the absence of new data sources, we form cliques and regroup around incompatible, unempirical beauty intuitions. |
it leads me to conjecture that the laws of nature are beautiful because physicists constantly tell each other those laws are beautiful.
experimentalists working with a detector developed to catch neutrinos reported on the first “interesting bounds on galactic cold dark matter and on light bosons emitted from the sun.” In plain English, “interesting bounds” means they didn’t find anything. Various other neutrino experiments at the time also obtained interesting bounds.
Her prescription is that we should stop limiting the field so heavily with naturalness or geometric naturalness or symmetry or unification or anti-fine-tuning intuitions, which collectively she (following her field) calls "beauty". Since Physical beauty is quite distinct from natural-language "beauty", I think it'd be better if we left those five components under a different name.
Filled with interviews with some of the cleverest, deepest physicists of our time (Arkani-Harked, Wilczek, Weinberg, Lisi, Polchinski) and the several bandwagons they lead, blind, in different directions. Hossenfelder herself is funny, self-critical, scrupulously clear: the kind of curmudgeonly, unbiddable empiricist we always need.
“You ask, why do people still work on it?” Nima [Arkani-Harked] continues. “It’s in fact very funny. As I said, the best people had a pretty good idea what was going on—they were not sitting on their hands waiting for gluinos to pour out of the LHC. They also had a pretty level reaction to the data.”
But not one of those “best people” spoke up and called bullshit on the widely circulated story that the LHC had a good chance of seeing supersymmetry or dark matter particles. I’m not sure which I find worse, scientists who believe in arguments from beauty or scientists who deliberately mislead the public about prospects of costly experiments.
Nima continues: “The people who were sure it would be there are now positive it’s not there. There are people now who speak about being depressed or worried or scared. It drives me nuts. It’s ludicrously narcissistic. Who the fuck cares about you and your little life? Other than you yourself, of course.”
He isn’t speaking about me, but he might as well be, I think. Maybe I’m just here to find an excuse for leaving academia because I’m disillusioned, unable to stay motivated through all the null results. And what an amazing excuse I have come up with—blaming a scientific community for misusing the scientific method.
On the plane back to Frankfurt, bereft of Nima’s enthusiasm, I understand why he has become so influential. In contrast to me, he believes in what he does.
That sweet bitterness is telling; Hossenfelder is the broke-down hard-boiled P.I. of particle physics.
I shouldn’t be here, I should be at my desk, reading a paper, drafting a proposal, or at least writing a referee report. I shouldn’t psychoanalyze a community that neither needs nor wants therapy.
I hook onto the Wi-Fi. After a week of nonstop travel, my inbox is filling with urgent messages. There are two unhappy editors complaining about overdue reports, a journalist asking for comment, a student asking for advice. A form to be signed, a meeting to be rescheduled, two phone calls to be made, a conference invitation that needs to be politely declined. A collaborator returns the draft of a grant proposal for revision.
I remember reading biographies of last century’s heroes, picturing theoretical physicists as people puffing pipes in leather armchairs while thinking big thoughts.</i>
Her exposition is impressively clear, covering the whole standard model (and quantum mechanics, and much of modern cosmology) in plain diagrams and terse language. (Though, as usual with pop science, one can't really spot where the simplifications are misleading unless you're already an insider.)
The heavies are in general very open and undogmatic about the state of things (they can afford to be, what with tenure). Weinberg:
I don’t know how much elementary particle physics can improve over what we have now. I just don’t know. I think it’s important to try and continue to do experiments, to continue to build large facilities… But where it will end up I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t just stop where it is now. Because I don’t find this entirely satisfying…
I don’t take seriously any negative conclusion that the fact that the LHC hasn’t seen anything beyond the standard model shows that there isn’t anything that will solve the naturalness problem… Supersymmetry hasn’t been ruled out because it’s too vague about what it predicts.
(There's a nice bit where Weinberg hears a new philosophical/historical theory of physics - that the revolutions always involve overthrowing an old aesthetic principle - and is immediately nerd-sniped and charmed by it. Also Wilczek:
According to McAllister, scientists don’t throw out everything during a revolution; they only throw out their conception of beauty. So whenever there is a revolution in science, they have to come up with a new idea of beauty. He lists some examples for this: the steady state universe, quantum mechanics, et cetera.)
“If that was true,” I go on, “it would tell me that getting stuck on the ideas of beauty from the past is exactly the wrong thing to do.”
“Yes, right,” Frank says. “It’s normally a good guiding principle. But occasionally you have to introduce something new. In each of these examples you find, though, that the new ideas are beautiful too.”
“But people only found that new beauty after data forced them to look at it,” I point out. “And I’m worried we might not be able to get there. Because we are stuck on this old idea of beauty that we use to construct theories and to propose experiments to test them.”
“You might be right."</i>
She even seeks out the ugliest theories, like Xiao-Gang Wen's string-net condensation, trying to find her own aesthetic limits:
I am skeptical, but I tell myself to be more open-minded. Isn’t this what I was looking for, something off the well-trodden path? Is it really any weirder to believe everything is made of qubits than of strings or loops or some 248-dimensional representation of a giant Lie algebra?
How patently absurd it must appear to someone who last had contact with physics in eleventh grade that people get paid for ideas like that. But then, I think, people also get paid for throwing balls through hoops.
This bit understates a real problem (it implies we don't use Solomonoff induction out of pique rather than incomputability):
A way to objectively quantify simplicity is by computational complexity, which is measured by the length of a computer program that executes a calculation. Computational complexity is in principle quantifiable for any theory that can be converted into computer code, which includes the type of theories we currently use in physics. We are not computers, however, and computational complexity is therefore not a measure we actually use. The human idea of simplicity is instead very much based on ease of applicability, which is closely tied to our ability to grasp an idea, hold it in mind, and push it around until a paper falls out.
Better than The Trouble with Physics which I also liked (though he was narrower and less balanced about string theory). Maybe 5/5 if I reread it. Her blog is extremely worthwhile and more technical and thus less untrue.
* OK, "high-energy particle physicists and also Grand Unified Theorists of whatever stripe including some cosmologists". But it is wrong to say that "physics" tout court has a crisis, nor indeed does Hossenfelder say this. (She didn't choose her own subtitle.)</td>
|Awakenings (1973) by Oliver Sacks
||An oppressive book or a book about the maximal oppression. It is a dozen case studies of profoundly frozen people: contorted, whispering, impassive for decades - at best. It describes one of the most poignant real events I think I've ever heard of: the medical reversal of effective, affective death - and but only a temporary reversal. Sacks really hadn't developed his style by this point: I quite liked the technical medical report feel, but it both highly technical and highly melodramatic: there is much of infinitudes of the soul, titratabilities, and perseveratably festinative resipiscences in it. Also a nice subtle stylistic note: he breaks apart dead metaphors to revive them (e.g. "wild life", "death bed").
Also lacking is his later grand balancing of romance with reason.* For instance, he falls right off the edge on pp.97, seeing numbers as enemies of people:
I suddenly realised the infinite nature, the qualitative infinity of the phenomenon... One speaks of infinite anguishes, poignancies, desires, and joys - and one does so naturally, with no sense of paradox - i.e. one conceives of them in a metaphysical sense. But Parkinsonism - wasn't this categorically different? Was it not a simple, mechanical disorder of function - something essentially finite, something which could be measured in the divisions of a suitable scale? ... When I saw Hester, I suddenly realised that all I had thought about the finite, ponderable, numerable nature of Parkinsonism was nonsense. I suddenly realized, at this moment, that Parkisonism could in no sense be seen as a thing which increased or decreased by finite increments... that it was anumerical; that from its first, infinitesimal intimation it could proceed by an infinite multitude of infinitesimal increments to an infinite, and then more infinite, and still more infinite, degree of severity... [Footnote twenty years later] I see it as requiring models or concepts which had not been created in the 1960s, in particular those of chaos and nonlinear dynamics.
We rationalize, we dissimilate, we pretend: we pretend that modern medicine is a rational science, all facts, no nonsense, and just what it seems. But we have only to tap its glossy veneer for it to split wide open, and reveal to us its roots and foundations, its old dark heart of metaphysics, mysticism, magic, and myth. Medicine is the oldest of the arts, and the oldest of the sciences: would one not expect it to spring from the deepest knowledge and feelings we have?
It's a repetitive book for a maximally repetitive disease. The wonder and personalising detail he lavishes on each case aren't enough to get me past the surprising uniformity of the bizarre symptoms and the hell of it all. Just as well I'm not a doctor.
* Call it the classical vs the romantic (as does Pirsig), Erklaerung oder Verstehen (as in Dilthey, Weber), the outside view v the inside view (Kahneman), or Logos v Mythos (as twere in ancient Greece).
|Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (2015) by Randall Munroe
||So wonderful; technical diagrams big and small, annotated with only the 1000 ("ten hundred") most common words. (This is as often poetic as it is clumsy; Munroe renders a nuclear bomb a "machine for burning cities".)
|Rain (2009) by Don Paterson
||Wonderful: sincere, grotesque, solemn and shrugging; both elemental and goofy. Rhymes are delivered straight. Going by the ambient temperature and the coverage of light, Paterson lives very near to outer space.
so for all that we are one machine
ploughing through the sea and gale
I know your impulse and design
no better than the keel the sail
A unique, dry view of family life here; sneaking downstairs so as not to disturb them with your inexplicable angst.
There's even a painfully goofy evocation of the mating call of the Wire magazine reader:
Though I should confess that at times I find your habit of maxxing
the range with those bat-scaring frequencies ring-modulated
sine-bursts and the more distressing psychoacoustic properties
of phase inversion in the sub-bass frequencies somewhat taxing
you are nonetheless beautiful as the mighty Boards
themselves in your shameless organicising of the code.
Which is best read as a scherzo. Half of it's written for a dead friend or in homage to lesser-known world poets; I rarely get poems like that. I don't know why I'm cavilling; this is the best collection I've read since... the last Don Paterson. Sentimental by his standards but bruising by poetry in general's. Teetering upright.
|Selected Poems (2011) by Jaan Kaplinski
||A very broad swathe from Estonia's most stately rustic. He keeps a high eyrie but has a fatherly musk as well. It's a chilly nest though - occasionally anti-human:
It gets cold in the evening. The sky clears.
The wind dies out, and the smoke
rises straight up. The flowering maple
no longer buzzes. A carp
plops in the pond. An owl hoots twice
in its nest in the ash tree.
The children are asleep. On the stairs,
a long row of shoes and rubber boots.
It happened near Viljandi: an imbecile boy
poured gasoline on the neighbour's three-year-old
and set him on fire. I ran for milk.
You could see the yellow maple from far off
between the birches and the spruce. The evening star
was shining above the storehouse. The boy survived,
probably maimed for life. The night will bring frost.
He gets called a particularly European (a particularly Unionised) poet, and this is true enough: Kant's rationalist cool and Smith's pragmatism really are pedal notes in him. But there are snippets of nine languages in this mid-sized selection, including Sanskrit and Japanese (the ukiyo-e/mono-no-aware rhythms of which he owes a great deal to) and a poke of originals in pragmatic, wriggling English. That is, he's really a globalist. His own Estonian ("serious, greyish") is of course not remotely Indo-European, instead fluting and crashing, riverine, out of the Urals. (It would be silly to say that his work's bleak because some people he is descended from came from Siberia, but if I were a marketer rather than a gadfly it would be a good hook.) Let's complicate matters with two other sides, the paternal domestic and the wide-eyed enquirer:
Lines do not perhaps exist; there are only points.
Just as there are no constellations, only stars
which we combine into water-carriers, fish, rams,
virgins, scorpions and ourselves…
Constellations, contours, profiles,
outlines, ground plans, principles, reasons,
ulterior motives and consequences…
A solitary birch holds onto its last leaves by the woodshed.
Or the leaves hold onto the birch.
Or there is someone holds onto both,
a child holding his father's and mother's hands at once.
I am sorry for them – the child, the leaves
the father, the birch and the mother.
But I do not know, really, for whom: if the birch exists,
if there are only points. I do not want the winter.
But I do not know whether the winter really exists. There are only points.
There are only molecules and atoms, which increasingly slowly,
which is roughly the same as saying: warms disperses
throughout space. Both the child's hands were cold.
Night is coming - light is roughly the same as warmth.
Light scatters in the empty room. New thoughts
come so seldom. Your hand is warm. So is the night.
The poem is ready. If the poem exists at all:
there are only points. It is dark.
This wonderful latter aside (and anti-poetry though he is) I do not like him constantly bringing up poetry; the poems where he does are often po-faced and contentless. But he is a master and it's his business what he chooses to cool by just gazing at it.
|Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
"Nothing convinces us of our capacity to make choices — nothing sustains our illusion of freedom — more than our ability to regularise our behaviour. nothing is more capable of destroying our interest and our pleasure in what we do.
If it is the predictable that stupifies us and the unpredictable that terrorises us, what should we do? If we are always caught between risk and resignation, between confidence and catastrophe, how can we decide what to do next?
— Adam PhillipsMy problem is what my mother kept telling me: I'm too messianic in my views.
The most ambitious and messy book in his idiosyncratic four-volume work of evolutionary epistemology, the 'Incerto'. (It is Fooled By Randomness, Black Swan, Bed of Procrustes, and yonder.) The former three books are largely critical, hacking away at theory-blindness, model error, and the many kinds of people he sees as possessing unearned status (economists, journalists, consultants, business-book writers): this is the upswing, a chaotic attempt to give general positive advice in a world that dooms general positive advice.
Every other page has something worth hearing, for its iconoclasm, or a Latin gobbet, or catty anecdote, if not something globally and evidently true. I think he is right about 30% of the time, which is among the highest credences I have for anyone. I only think I am 35% right, for instance.* But a core point of his system is that his approach should work even given our huge and partially intractable ignorance.
The core point, repeated a hundred times for various domains:
In real life, many systems deteriorate without an irregular supply of
stressors (non-fatal negative events), and actually benefit from them by constructively overreacting. By robbing such 'antifragile' systems of stressors, modern approaches to managing
them do damage in the guise of helping out.**
This observation leads to his grand theory of everything: every system is either fragile (damaged by volatility), robust (resistant to damage from volatility), or antifragile. This isn't a trivial distinction, because each has formal properties that allow us to change arrangements to, firstly, prevent explosions, and then to gain from chance volatility.
Biology is definitely one of these antifragile systems***; his case that, absent gross financialisation, the global economy would be one is convincing too; and the idea's at least plausible when applied to the cultivation of virtue or existential strength in a single person. The danger with this - an indissoluble danger because there can be no general strategy to avoid it - is that in welcoming constructive stress we'll miss the point at which the welcomed dose turns destructive (where fasting starts to atrophy, where training becomes masochism, where critique becomes pogrom, where sink-or-swim encouragement turns abuse).
* This claim is remarkable for both its extreme vagueness and apparent arrogance. Here is a post to handle the former fact. And the latter:
It might strike you as beyond arrogant to assume that you just so happen to be the most reliable inference device in the world, but that doesn't (have to) follow from my claim above, which results from the trivial thought “I believe my own beliefs most”, instead.
(Consider the converse: if I came to view anyone as more reliable than me, the rational thing to do would be to incorporate their truer views (and, better, their methods) until I again thought of myself as at least their equal. So, either one believes the superficially arrogant position “I believe my beliefs most” – or else one must believe that one is incapable of adapting enough to superior methods when faced with them, or else one must believe that one cannot know which methods are best. So the above assumption is more about having a high opinion of rational adjustment than impossible egotism, I think.
Good news! We can now calibrate ourselves, at least for the most sensational and available predictions using this cool thing.^
Finally!: The fully-unpacked, properly defensible assumption might be something more like: “I am the agent that I know to be most transparently reliable or unreliable; I assume I’m adjusting properly to better methods; as such I have at least equal confidence in my own belief set, compared to the best known alternative agent's.”)
^ You might wonder if this argument suggests that I should have 100% confidence in my beliefs. No; even if I was the best inferrer, I would suffer uncertainty because of the opacity of my errors: that is, I know I'm often not right but don't know exactly whereabouts I'm not right. Also from the unsystematic internal PredictionBook every non-psychopath has ("wisdom is knowing you'll be an idiot in the future"). And another source of uncertainty is down to the unknowable (like what stocks will crash next week).
I do worry that, whatever my particular self-credence estimate is, the whole approach is subtly wrong somewhere – since "40%" gives the impression that I think of myself as a worse guide to the world than dumb chance^^ – but I think it works. Particularly if much of the missing 60% is made of safe scepticism rather than errors.
^^ For binary event spaces – but, really, how many of those are there in real life?
** He credits the formal basis of all this to Jensen's inequality, in a chapter which might be the clearest expression of the idea there is.
*** (In particular species-level evolution, but also organism-level health.)
Some pigeonholes you might think to put all this in:
- Conservative? Yes; but a good-hearted Burkean (“Antifragility implies that the old is superior to the new… What survives must be good at serving some purpose that time can see but our eyes and logical faculties can’t capture…”). Most people are conservative over some things (e.g. the natural world; we just happen to call that conservationism instead). Also approves of any high technology that removes anything he views as a disease of civilisation, like these things were supposed to be. So, in general, conservative only in the sense that existential risk people are.*
- Economic conservatism. Only sort of; he's a trader, and would have speculation free to flow provided that deposit banks were nationalised first, and prioritises deficit reduction in a way we associate with conservatives but which e.g. Sweden pulled off without any lasting social justice sting. More formally he is against centralisation on both moral and technical grounds; that is likely a principle with some conservative effects, justified, in theory, by its keeping us alive. (Life-critical politics.)
- Laissez faire? No: he recommends radical change to e.g. science funding, but no decrease. Big fan of Switzerland’s government, read into that what you will. He sees “optionality”, an originally financial concept, as the solution to fragility risks and the key to success in every domain there is. This isn’t at all as economistic as it sounds; the sacred and the humane somehow fit perfectly into his core rationalist agenda, persistence through change.
- Social conservatism? No sign; no discussion of discrimination. Some people think such abstention is oppressive, but they are probably wrong.
- Social Darwinist? Nah.
- Bioconservative? Absolutely; he describes himself as the ‘diametric’ opposite of Ray Kurzweil, and he’s in full uproar over the global risk posed by synthetic biology (and recently fleshed out this horror in highly rigorous terms).
- Anti-intellectual? Not at all! Only anti-academia, and they still do not represent the whole of quality intellectual life. Hates irresponsible ‘canned methods of inference’ too (statistical significance, etc).
- Lacrimist? (That is, does he glorify suffering?) Not quite. He certainly views comfort as vitiating. His opposition to transhumanism is too quick and doesn't take the moral challenge of a world of pained beings seriously enough, for me.
- Macho? Hm. Well, nature has made certain challenging actions optimal. Amusing proto-paleo attitude, too:
I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean.
* His work fits the x-risk paradigm very well, but he developed his edifice in complete isolation from them, and has an uncompromising scepticism about expected value that might not make cross-overs all that fruitful.
How original is the core point, really?
Well, who cares? His claim is that he had to invent the word 'antifragile', not the idea. He says, idiosyncratically, that Seneca and Nietzsche had the nub of the idea, and Jensen the formal essence; Darwin certainly did too. "Resilience engineering" and in computing, 'defensive programming' (b. 1998) and 'self-healing systems' (b. 2001) are at least on the same track, though not getting beyond a lively sort of robustness. But I doubt that most systems can become antifragile - e.g. it's hard to imagine an antifragile jet engine (one that harvests bird strikes for fuel, or soot cleaning)? So maybe it's only the grand generalisation to all design that's new.
Gripes: His footnotes are collected by theme rather than linked to his claims directly, which makes it so difficult to follow up his sources that his credibility suffers. He namedrops, which is not the same as showing his working. I would really like to see his backing for his cool claims (about e.g. an irregular sleep pattern as a good thing, or things like ‘I suspect that thermal comfort ages people’), but it’s hidden away and often one-study. (Again: apparently one-study, since his working is not easily on show.)
He has a surprisingly high opinion of Steve Jobs – who I view as a grand example of an empty suit: there are 9 references to Jobs’ hokey shark-wisdom, (where Gigerenzer and Mandelbrot get 8, Jensen gets 7, Marx 7). Does Jobs really count as a ‘practitioner’ with ‘skin in the game’? Eh.
His homebrew jargon starts to drag – some sentences are wholly composed of his neologisms plus a barrel of articles and prepositions. (I used the glossary early and often.) Repetitive: tells what he’ll tell you, tells you he’s told you. Some passages really suffer from his wholesale hostility to copy-editing; there are some flatly bad sentences here. And he namedrops a lot, more than fair attribution of ideas – there are several passages that are just lists of people he likes (e.g. p.257-8).
I don't see that it's worthwhile to criticise his arrogant style; it's what animates his points, and he never uses it on weak targets.
Lastly, he sometimes makes of a system’s persistence the highest good. (Where its persistence is to be contrasted with mere stability.) This is in tension with his wonderful emphasis on artistic and quasi-sacred values elsewhere in the book.
But it talks about everything, is historically wide-eyed, relentlessly rational, and often funny. And the method-worldview-style it suggests might stop life crushing us utterly.
|The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964) by Anthony Thwaite
||I feel able to say it at last: haiku is pathological, a genre absolutely limited to the engraving of flat single images. And single (or paired) verbal images of nature do nothing for me; it is relation and juxtaposition and story and reductios and original presentation that give images life. The haiku leaves almost no room for these. (This is not about length; the senryu retains wonderful possibilities, because they are animated by satire rather than po-faced nature-worship. Jokes can stand alone.)
This book cannot be blamed for being half haiku, because that mechanical law ruled Japanese poetry for thousands of years and this is first of all a historical selection. Lots more to see.
Currently I am only fond of the ancient gnostic hermits and the droll postwar internationalists (no multi-culturalists here). Many of the others emote at us too directly - the likes of "Oh how // I miss my wife // out here // on the border wall" - which brittle superficiality fails Wei Tai's test and mine. In general their ancients have dated much better than ours, perhaps because they grokked ironic minimalism a thousand years before us.
The emperors and shoguns all write poetry, are still all required to profess about the land that they perch upon. Meiji:
In newspapers, all seethe doings of the world,which lead nowhere.Better never written!
Amen. I liked Yamanoue Okura, Yakamochi, the Kokinshū, Ki Tsurayuki, Tsuboi Shigeji, Kaneko Mitsuhara, Takahashi Mutsuo. I absolutely do not have sufficient knowledge to stop there. Skip Bownas' enormous Preface too, you don't need it.
In one sentence: 無.
|Herzog on Herzog (2003) by Paul Cronin
||Luminary. Herzog is a contrived and dour and absurd man, and yet charming and sincere. Here is him describing one 6 month block of his youth: |
I ended up penniless and was pushed around from place to place for weeks until finally I was picked up on a country road by the Franklin family. The mother had six children between seventeen and twenty-seven, her husband had died and there was a ninety-three-year-old grandmother. I owe them so much, this wonderful, crazy family who put me up in an attic... Of course I needed to earn some money, so I started to work on a project that was part of a series of films for NASA. That I made films for NASA always appears on those five-line biographies, and even if it is somehow true, it is completely irrelevant. I did have access to certain restricted areas and was able to talk to many of the scientists, but just before I was about to start work on the film they ran a security check...
It was evident I was about to be expelled from the country... so I took a rusty old Volkswagen and went to New York during a very bitter winter. I lived in the car for some time, even though its floor as rusted right through and I had a cast on my leg at the time because I had broken it quite badly after jumping out of a window... at night, when it gets cold, say at 3 or 4 a.m., the homeless of New York - who live almost like Neanderthal men - come and gather together on some empty, utterly desolate street and stand over fires they have kindled in the metal rubbish bins without speaking a word. Eventually I just cut the whole cast off with a pair of poultry shears and fled across the border into
His whole life is lived with this undemonstrative fervour.
The interviewer is completely uninspired: he just works his way stolidly through Herzog's back catalogue, with no insight into anything much ("Precautions Against Fanatics was your first colour film, a bizarre comedy set at a racetrack where various individuals feel it necessary to protect the animals from local 'fanatics'. Any comments?"); we are fortunate that Herzog is self-stimulating and full of himself. I'll just let him show you how good he is:
I have never been one of those who cares about happiness. Happiness is a strange notion. I am just not made for it. It has never been a goal of mine; I do not think in those terms. It seems to be a goal
in life for many people, but I have no goals in life.
I am someone who takes everything very literally... I am like a Bavarian bullfrog just squatting there, brooding. I have never been capable of discussing art with people. I just cannot cope with irony. The French love to play with their words and to master French is to be a master of irony. Technically, I am able to speak the language - I know the words and verbs - but will do so only when I am really forced to.
I was forbidden to use fireworks. I told the army major that it was essential for the film. 'You'll be arrested,' he said. 'Then arrest me,' I said, 'but know that I will not be unarmed tomorrow. And the first man who touches me will drop down dead with me.' The next day there were fifty policemen and soldiers standing watching me work, plus a few thousand people from the town who wanted to see the fireworks. Of course, I was not armed, but how were they to know? Nobody complained or said anything. So through all these incidents I learned very quickly that this was the very nature of filmmaking.</i>
Everything he makes is worth your time (even Dinotasia is so bad it's good).</td>
|The State of the Art (Culture, #4) (1991) by Iain M. Banks
|The Dispossessed (Hainish Cycle, #6) (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin
||Pompous. Lots of tragic ellipsis. A rare misstep of style, even though the world and its issues are still great, and the progress of a great mind burgeoning amongst strict collectivism is done well. It reads like a debut novel or a draft - good but rough. I suppose I will hail her versatility anyway.
Her characteristic ambiguity and fairness are still here though. The sexist, rankist, capitalist ("propertarian") Urrasites are still inventive, tasteful, and ambitious; the anarchist, egalitarian, promiscuous Odonians are still given to egotism, tribalism and petty brutality. They can be relied on, like all of us to tolerate anything except the outgroup:
'You can only crush [ideas] by ignoring them. By refusing to think — refusing to change. And that's precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can't, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words he has power over you. Where does he get it from?
Not from vested authority, there isn't any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn't any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That's the power structure he's part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.'
Shevek leaned his hands on the window sill, looking through the dim reflections on the pane into the darkness outside. He said at last 'Crazy talk, Dap.'
'No, brother, I’m sane. What drives people crazy is trying to live outside reality. Reality is terrible. It can kill you. Given time, it certainly will kill you. But it’s the lies that make you want to kill yourself.'
Shevek turned around to face him. 'But you can’t seriously talk of a government, here!'
'Tomar’s Definition: ‘Government: the legal use of power to maintain and extend power.’ Replace ‘legal’ with ‘customary’... Shev, did you ever think that what the analogic mode calls ‘disease,’ social disaffection, discontent, alienation, that this might analogically also be called pain – what you meant when you talked about pain, suffering? And that, like pain, it serves a function in the organism?... I speak of spiritual suffering! Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life – is anything more basic to Odonian thought than that? But nothing changes any more! ... On Urras they have government by the minority. Here we have government by the majority. But it is government!'
I don't think her Anarres economy would work even as well as it is depicted as doing, but she has at least thought about it (admits that there would need to be a centralised computer, admits all kinds of shortages). This is not polemic, then; it just doesn't manage her usual grace when dealing with huge dilemmas. A great book by anyone else.
|The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin
|The View from the Ground (1988) by Martha Gellhorn
||My favourite reporter; a great, compulsive, austere, compassionate writer. Better than Fermor when happy, better than Orwell when irate. I am always interested in what she has to say about literally anything: this edition covers her peacetime reporting, which is to say her poverty-and-rubble-reconstruction reporting: Great Depression Deep South; the arts in Communist Poland; the difficult path to democracy in Spain; Thatcher and the miners (...) She ranges over the whole sad half-century, bringing her maternal, judgmental, sardonic history to bear on what could otherwise have been ordinary journalism. Chastises communists and capitalists, liars, mercenaries and torturers of whatever justification. Never mentions her gender; she never let anyone stop her for any reason, let alone that.
Her natural, common-sense compassion and fairness only cracks when it comes to Palestine; she contorts herself terribly in the face of shocking Nasserian anti-Semitism. It's not a whitewash; she talks to dozens of Palestinians in Jordan and Gaza, covers the Irgun and the bulldozers. But she is totally defensive about the Balfour Declaration and the Six Day War; is unusually eager to show up the many fibs of the Palestinian refugees (: confirmation bias); and excludes their self-determination alone among the nations of the earth:
Arafat has had enough protection money from the oil Arabs to finance the education of two generations of young Palestinians, a chance to rise beyond the poverty of the camps into a good self-reliant life. Instead he has recruited two generations for training only in the use of guns and plastique, and insisted on a futile goal: Palestine for the Palestinians...
If I had been twenty years younger, I would have got myself to Vietnam somehow and joined the Vietcong, though handicapped by my height. Not much use for digging tunnels. Vietnam for the Vietnamese. Afghanistan for the Afghans. El Salvador for the Salvadorans. Nicaragua for the Nicaraguans. The inherent right of all peoples to self-determination. If they need civil war to determine how they shall be governed, that is their business and nobody else's.
How many deep inconsistencies are we allowed, before we stop being great? I don't know exactly, but more than one.
|Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978) by Mary Midgley
||I have a bad habit when reading philosophy; I sometimes get deeply impressed by a book, so that it changes my view, but then forget that I ever thought otherwise. Midgley is so good I am prevented from this: I know I couldn't have come up with that.
This is her engaging with evolutionary biology and ethology, as they speak to the old ancient questions. Enormous thoughts, all expressed with perfect wryness and tact. I get the same feeling of mental grinding from Midgley as I do from Wittgenstein or Anscombe - too dense with thought to skim - but Midgley is actually readable.
Full review, anatomising the arguments, forthcoming.
|Keeping On Keeping On (2016) by Alan Bennett
||Diaries in the lee of becoming actually famous. I love him dearly and bolted all 700pp in a couple of days. General sense of him reaping decades of quiet acclaim: he bumps into well-wishers and heavy-hitters (Stoppard, Dench, MacKellen) every week or so.
One of the reasons I love him is that I had a very similar adolescence to his. He remains reserved, kind though grumpy:
Being in love unhappily singled you out, I thought, it drafted you into an aristocracy. It was more than just a badge of being gay but rather an ordeal you were called upon to undergo if only to transcend it and reach a sublimity denied to other mortals.
In the evening to the New York Public Library where I am to be made a Library Lion... There are half a dozen of us being lionised and we are lined up and photographed and made much of before going upstairs to a magnificent supper, getting home thoroughly knackered around 11. How people lead a social life is beyond me.
I clung far too long to the notion that shyness was a virtue and not, as I came too late to see, a bore.
He still feels outside of things, for all his reminiscences of dinner with Harold Wilson or Liz Taylor perching on his knee. On winning a Tony for Best Play aged 72:
I am thrust blinking on to a stage facing a battery of lights while questions come out of the darkness, the best of which is: ‘Do you think this award will kick-start your career?'
Talks so much about 50s Yorkshire. (People in general seem to think about their childhoods more than I do. (or just writers?)) I suppose he is taken to be a twee writer for this nostalgia, along with his cuddly speaking voice. But he simply isn't twee - he is the author of several of the finest nihilist soliloquoys in English literature. You may know the ignorance of people by their use of this stereotype.
He is touchingly agitated by British politics, in the exact way I used to be. His protests are unprogrammatic, based simply on the meanness or indignity or cowardice of the policy at hand, whether it's a Labour or Tory hand;
I wanted a Labour government so that I could stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well-intentioned. Now we have another decade of the self-interested and the self-seeking, ready to sell off what’s left of our liberal institutions and loot the rest to their own advantage. It’s not a government of the nation but a government of half the nation, a true legacy of Mrs Thatcher...
I’ve always thought that this was a pretty fair description of that blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism which does duty for my political views. I am an old modernian... [Over the past 30 years] one has only had to stand still to become a radical.
With the fading of the old loud left, and the abject failure of the sneering theoretical sort, unpretentious justice of this sort might motivate people, even/especially opportunist Brexiters. So to the defence of public libraries, the unprecedented conviction of policemen who murder, the provision of good to all.
[Data #1, Values #3, Thinking #3]
|The Science of Discworld (The Science of Discworld, #1) (1999) by Terry Pratchett
|Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (2013) by Shaun Usher
|Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence (1997) by Geoff Dyer
||A book about an unwritten book about a writer I don't like much. And it's amazing! Not a study of Lawrence, a study of trying to write when you lack an iron will. So also a study of all work, so a study of the hard generation of value, and so, despite appearances, a study of what matters.
The prose is circuitous, cantatory, shaggy-dog, but never dull:
Oxford! Now if there is one place on earth where you cannot, where it is physically impossible to write a book about Lawrence it is here, in Oxford. You could write a book about plenty of writers in Oxford: Hardy, or Joyce even — people are probably doing just that, even now, dozens of them — but not Lawrence. If there is one person you cannot write a book about here, in Oxford, it is Lawrence. So I have made doubly sure that there is no chance of my finishing my study of Lawrence: he is the one person you cannot write about here, in Oxford; and Oxford is the one place where you cannot write about Lawrence.
When I say you can’t possibly write a book about Lawrence in Oxford that is not to be taken too literally. At this moment, within a few miles of my flat, dozens of people are probably writing books about Lawrence. That tapping I can hear through my open window is probably someone writing a book or a thesis or preparing a lecture, or, at the very least, doing an essay on D. H. Lawrence. It can be done. It can be done — but it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done. You can’t write a half-decent book about Lawrence in Oxford, can’t write any kind of book about Lawrence without betraying him totally. By doing so you immediately disqualify yourself, render yourself ineligible. It is like spitting on his grave.
For a while I amused myself by seeing how many consecutive sentences used the same phrase, in a running stitch motif. He is playing a character, but like Rob Brydon does: only slightly heightened.
One long stream of scenes, unthemed, unbracketed. He is the critic I would have hoped to be: sceptical of the novel, sceptical of the spiritual pretensions of artists, sceptical of children, sceptical of travel and sceptical of home, sceptical of self. He is free to admit his boredom and his joy, unlike the academic critics he often erupts against. Here is the key passage (not that you can trust him to cleave to it twenty years or minutes on):
Hearing that I was ‘working on Lawrence’, an acquaintance lent me a book he thought I might find interesting: A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, edited by Peter Widdowson. I glanced at the contents page: old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchard on ‘Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality’ (in the section on ‘Gender, Sexuality, Feminism’), Daniel J. Schneider on ‘Alternatives to Logocentrism in D. H. Lawrence’ (in the section featuring ‘Post-Structuralist Turns’). I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on ‘Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence’ and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad...
I burned it in self-defence. It was the book or me - writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch. I recently met an academic who said that he taught German literature. I was aghast: to think, this man who had been in universities all his life was teaching Rilke. Rilke! Oh, it was too much to bear. You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves. I was beside myself with indignation. I wanted to maim and harm this polite, well-meaning academic who, for all I knew, was a brilliant teacher who had turned on generations of students to the Duino Elegies. Still, I thought to myself the following morning when I had calmed down, the general point stands: how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?
Now, criticism is an integral part of the literary tradition and academics can sometimes write excellent works of criticism but these are exceptions - the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of books by academics, especially books like that Longman Reader are a crime against literature.
The final passage hits you over the head with what you have certainly already worked out, but it is still very powerful. Dyer is inspiring, pure nevertheless:
One way or another we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence. Even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions, still we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D. H. Lawrence. The world over, from Taos to Taormina, from the places we have visited to countries we will never set foot in, the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D. H. Lawrence.
|Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin: An Anthology (2014) by Alan Bennett
||Hardy, Housman, Auden, Betjeman, Larkin, MacNeice: all men who tended to emphasise the tragic. (You think Betjeman didn't, but you might be confusing his writing, full of loss and pettiness, with his foppy, daffy TV persona.)
Wonderful, this - parallel poems and commentaries - covering the famous gobbets dutifully, but also picking excerpts which rarely come to light. The commentary is more clipped and sardonic than you might expect from Bennett, if you know him only by reputation / caricature.
The cover shown above is much more beautiful than the cover I had.
|Making Malcolm: The Myth And Meaning Of Malcolm X (1995) by Michael Eric Dyson
||Because we have gotten better, old radicals often seem less radical over time. The pragmatic hedonism and secular calm of Epicurus was once fanatically detested, but is now a standard worldview (it's roughly that of the happy scientist); at one time Spinoza’s Ethics (determinism, Nature as deity, religious and political tolerance) was the wildest thing ever said in the history of the Christian world; Montesquieu’s disgust at aristocratic brutality, gross luxury and torture are commonplaces; Paine’s raging insistence on human rights and total secularism are very successful (in Europe at least); and anyone who disagrees with duBois’ or MLK’s aims is foolish or virulent.
Malcolm X has not yet been incorporated in this way - but, reading his less ranty stuff (not the early “TOO BLACK, TOO STRONG” variety) you wonder why. Might have been his influential homophobia, but that’s hardly stopped other thinkers. (This suggests it's because we have a false, caricature of him in mind, one that believes in whites-as-devils and Fanonian purifying violence.)
Dyson does not skimp on his downsides, and tackles the thorniest idea in identity politics: that experience is absolute, and so understanding a group’s ideas and values requires group membership – that ideas have colour as people do.
|The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996) by Joseph E. LeDoux
||Maybe a bit dated, but thoughtful and historical enough to pull through.
His big contention’s that conscious feelings are red herrings: most emotional activity is demonstrably unconscious (though not in a Freudian way). So we should see emotions as products of several separate bodily-response systems: “the word ‘emotion’ does not refer to any thing the mind or brain really has or does”.
Getting there takes a lot of careful conceptual work, debunking old artefacts (“the limbic system”), probing the line between cognition and emotion, evolved emotional setups and enculturated expressions of them. Rather than reporting his theories as settled, he lets us in to the history, experimental setups, and argue for his theory choices. He’s well-versed in the philosophy (he cites Rorty!), is a master of fear (research), and I feel smarter coming out of it.
|Both Flesh and Not: Essays (2012) by David Foster Wallace
||Bravura essays from all over the cultural instant he encompassed and abruptly let go (1988-2007).
They are I suppose dregs, but DFW’s dregs are better than the decade-projects of others. You can’t help seeing foreshadows of Infinite Jest: he touches on 1) the obsessive, commercial, and religious aspects of pro tennis, 2) the obstacles to good prose about or involving maths, 3) self-conscious engagement with pop (for how else can we understand a world constituted by and obsessed with pop?), 4) ‘interpretation-directing’ books (like Jest), and above all 5) on the need to build after waves of high-entropy postmodernism, to work past its crucial (but bewildering) negativities.
It was ‘obvious’ to him that ordinary late-capitalist life is ‘at best empty and at worst evil’. But he was extraordinary; panoptic, judicious and sensationally beautiful, and that wasn’t enough either.
|Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005) by David Foster Wallace
||Ah, ah. Postmodern and prescriptivist, enthusiastically wise, Wallace was the one, as loveable as intellectual, as iconoclastic as judicious. He’s a model of finding meaning in places beyond sanctioned loci (like Dostoevsky and 9/11, which he also finds meaning in): in for example an old sincere conservative, in tennis, and arthropods.
Not that he ‘found’ meaning: he generated it, erupting bittersweet priority over parts of the world held to be artless or empty. Theoretically rococo and colloquially concentrated. Our loss is marked.
It’s disappointing that ‘Consider the Lobster’, his more or less honest analysis of vegetarianism, founders and shrinks from responsibility. (In short, the piece says “they feel: so why do we do this?”. But he asks: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental?” without actually discounting the latter weaselly ad hominem aspersion.)
Tensions: he insisted on 'democratic' clarity and yet wrote wilfully distracting pieces. But he’s one of the ones.
|Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
||I had skipped this, assuming I received the full contrarian worldview from Black Swan and Bed of Procrustes. But it’s a different beast, more playful and modest, with less of his latter-day overstatement and invalid ad hominems.
As anti-disciplinary provocateur and writer of empirical art he is unbeaten (I rank him with Nietzsche for delightful arrogance and hard-ass enculturation.) Still, these ideas (from cognitive science and applied statistics) are hard: one needs several runs at them. Taleb is a great introduction, then Kahneman and Gigerenzer for the calm conservative estimate.
|A Point of View (2011) by Clive James
|| In one sentence: Sometimes age actually does allow for wisdom to accumulate.
To be read when: whenever.
I came to liberalism late, after radical teens. By the time I found James, I was withering sick from years of people and books attacking the modern world, spending all their time reducing absolutely everything in life to its politics.
(Larkin is a great poet and was a terrible man, easy as that – but this tension is unbearable to some, who throw out his great work and try to shame those who don't.)
Clive James is the consummate droll liberal railing against both wings of partisans: he’s against celebrity culture, Ostalgie, and anti-American critical-theoretical cuteness, but also ‘clash of civilisation’ nonsense, socially destructive austerity and conservatism in the arts.
What others get out of Wodehouse or Rowling, I get from this grumpy old Australian’s stoic nonfiction. I had my notebook handy the whole way through, sieving out gold gobbets of late style.
His essays are a space beyond the culture war, where the personal is not usually political. He is one of the greatest living stylists, would deserve study for that alone.
His long essay on Isaiah Berlin is fantastic and contentious, and his retorts to the professional philosophers who come at him about it are devastating, inspiring.
Unlike say Geoff Dyer, to whom he is similar, James doesn't have academic standing. So his work is at risk of fading away, without their dull but chronic oxygen.
|Some Thoughts on the Common Toad (1947) by George Orwell
||So lucid. 'Killing an Elephant' is, surprisingly, the most powerful animal rights essay I've read in years.
I think he'd struggle to get his essay on Dali published these days, maybe not even in the Spectator: we aren't able to think of art in these moral terms any more:
[Dali's autobiography] is a book that stinks. If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would — a thought that might please Dali, who before wooing his future wife for the first time rubbed himself all over with an ointment made of goat's dung boiled up in fish glue. But against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard worker. He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings. And these two sets of facts, taken together, raise a question which for lack of any basis of agreement seldom gets a real discussion.
The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even — since some of Dali's pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard — on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.
Now, if you showed this book, with its illustrations, to Lord Elton, to Mr. Alfred Noyes, to The Times leader writers who exult over the ‘eclipse of the highbrow’ — in fact, to any ‘sensible’ art-hating English person — it is easy to imagine what kind of response you would get. They would flatly refuse to see any merit in Dali whatever. Such people are not only unable to admit that what is morally degraded can be жsthetically right, but their real demand of every artist is that he shall pat them on the back and tell them that thought is unnecessary. And they can be especially dangerous at a time like the present, when the Ministry of Information and the British Council put power into their hands. For their impulse is not only to crush every new talent as it appears, but to castrate the past as well. Witness the renewed highbrow-baiting that is now going on in this country and America, with its outcry not only against Joyce, Proust and Lawrence, but even against T. S. Eliot.
But if you talk to the kind of person who can see Dali's merits, the response that you get is not as a rule very much better. If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don't like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the жsthetic sense. Since ‘Mannequin rotting in a taxicab’ is a good composition. And between these two fallacies there is no middle position, but we seldom hear much about it. On the one side Kulturbolschevismus: on the other (though the phrase itself is out of fashion) ‘Art for Art's sake.’ Obscenity is a very difficult question to discuss honestly. People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.
suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow; suppose that your real gift is for a detailed, academic, representational style of drawing, your real métier to be an illustrator of scientific textbooks. How then do you become Napoleon? There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor across the face with a whip and break his spectacles — or, at any rate, dream about doing such things. Twenty years later, gouge the eyes out of dead donkeys with a pair of scissors. Along those lines you can always feel yourself original. And after all, it pays! ... If you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back.
|Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992) by James Gleick
||Engrossing and detailed. Feynman is different from other first-rank minds: he values clarity and humour above all. He's a slightly hazardous role model though: his sheer speed, creativity, and high standards, which justify his arrogance and deviance, cannot be emulated by ordinary people; his mantra - "disregard [what other people are doing]" - is similarly high-risk; and his pickup-artistry after Arline died is at least icky. But the big accessible hazard is his thrilling science-supremacism. Gleick:
Feynman told them [his self-spun legend]:
how he became known in Far Rockaway as the boy who fixed radios by thinking; how he asked a Princeton librarian for the map of the cat; how his father taught him to see through the tricks of circus mind readers; how he outwitted painters, mathematicians, philosophers, and psychiatrists.
For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
His cheeky scientism will make unread teenagers insufferable at parties. More seriously, it could return our scientists to unreflective, uninspired positivism. But his anti-authoritarianism, his anti-pretension, his honest and sweeping scepticism, his existential peace, more than compensate. Filtering out the above, his life is an enormously fruitful applied epistemology.
It is shocking, to anyone who knows the modern salami-slicing academic world, to hear how many breakthroughs he didn't publish, just out of high standards:
A great physicist who accumulated knowledge without taking the trouble to publish could be a genuine danger to his colleagues. At best it was unnerving to learn that one’s potentially career-advancing discovery had been, to Feynman, below the threshold of publishability. At worst it undermined one’s confidence in the landscape of the known and not known.
And how he resisted emeritus disease to the end. Hawking: “We may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature,”. Feynman:
I’ve had a lifetime of that. I’ve had a lifetime of people who believe that the answer is just around the corner. But again and again it’s been a failure. Eddington, who thought that with the theory of electrons and quantum mechanics everything was going to be simple... Einstein, who thought that he had a unified theory just around the corner but didn’t know anything about nuclei and was unable of course to guess it... People think they’re very close to the answer, but I don’t think so...
Whether or not nature has an ultimate, simple, unified, beautiful form is an open question, and I don’t want to say either way.
Feynman's ideas are still completely modern. He'll be modern for a long time to come, too: as the main theorist of the path integral formulation of QM, the first theorist of nanotechnology and quantum computing, as storyteller, as a complete master of applied epistemology for humans.
|The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin
||I read the Illustrated Edition (2008) put together by David Quammen, which is very beautiful. Filled with sketches, portraits, maps and suggestive remarks from the diaries. Particularly good if, like me, you've struggled with the plaintext.
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection.
Looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends, as has been so often remarked, to exterminate the parent forms and the intermediate links. Consequently evidence of their former existence could be found only amongst fossil remains
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
(That last sentence had "by the Creator" tacked on in the second edition.)
You would never guess the prose was written in a rush: possibly because the arguments were formed at the slowest possible rate.
|The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) by Alex Ross
|McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope (2000) by David Foster Wallace
|A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997) by David Foster Wallace
|The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (2008) by Daniel M. Haybron
|The Marxists (1962) by C. Wright Mills
|The Way Things Are (-55) by Lucretius
|Fooled By Randomness & The Black Swan: Two Books In One (2008) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
|Extending Ourselves: Computational Science, Empiricism, and Scientific Method (2004) by Paul Humphreys