17/04/2014

new start miscellany


'Adrift' (c) Andrew Wyeth (1982)


Talk is cheap; that's what's good about it.

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A friend recently told me he's never going to work in the private sector. Interesting thing to say - he's not so political, and was never before so programmatic. Apparently it's the temp-contract, high-pressure ugly bullshit of it motivating his labour boycott, more than the world-historical extractive-destructive part. There is a strong argument against such chastity, but I didn't press it too strongly, this time.

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Why in general is it harder to do things well than badly?
h₀: Because we define 'well' and 'badly' by how hard or time-intensive they are. (Boo! Constructivist cop-out boo!)
h1: Because good things tend to occupy lower-entropy states and, by the second law, so require more Work to create and maintain.
h2: Because we are tuned for satisficing ('good enough'), not optimisation ('good as possible'). On an evolutionary scale, maybe, we didn't have time to optimise anything, so hasty mediocrity is our default state.
h3: Or another evolutionary argument: maybe prehistoric 'savannah' tasks admit of fewer grades of quality than those stipulated by audiophiles or wine buffs today, so, again, our quality organs are underdeveloped. (The food is either dead enough or not dead enough?)
h4: Brute probability. Maybe the number of quality states of anything is just much smaller than the number of bad states. If you've spent much time among C20th modernism, this will seem plausible to you. 
 
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What does 'radical' mean? Half the people I read use it as a synonym of 'good'; the other half use it for 'exaggerated', 'unjustified'. OK: what do the claims that "Insanity is a sane response to an insane world"* and "the end goal of feminist revolution must be... not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself" and "There is no such thing as society" share?

'Radical's from the Latin radix: root, basis, origin. If you'll allow etymology - really only the study of dead social contexts - to guide us for a moment, then a radical is just someone who goes to the root of the problem (or thinks they do). In this sense all philosophers are radicals, even if they end up defending common sense from more interesting theories, as they very often do. (That's neat, but it doesn't cover the most common usage, which is something like "strongly and actively opposed to a current norm.")

After reading a bunch in those fields that motivate radicalism most - economics and sociology - I remain unsure that we have the capacities it would take to be radical properly, to find the real root of our problems. But attempts are often salutary.


* I wanted to attribute this to hippy wildcard RD Laing, but there's no actual instance in his writing.
 
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I was much vexed as a child by the thought that, since we are biochemical, thought must use up energy. Did this mean stupid people needed less food? Was meditation an ingenious latent response to a high famine risk? Was maths an underused dieting technique? Was I eating enough?

My infant reading of the biochem mind misconstrued a lot, but it's still a cool research programme indeed. Much later I learned that about a fifth of resting energy use is down to our 12W brain. Two large distinctions here, though: there's a difference between being used by the brain and being used in mental activity. ("The brain continuously slurps up huge amounts of energy for an organ of its size, regardless of whether we are tackling integral calculus or clicking through the week's top 10 LOLcats. Although firing neurons summon extra blood, oxygen and glucose, any local increases in energy consumption are tiny compared with the brain's gluttonous baseline intake.") And food in the gut is not like voltage in the circuit; it's more like coal in the boiler - a requirement for sustaining an equilbrium rather than a linear boost. The research is young and inconsistent, so no-one sensible is putting a kcal number on an hour of maths.

The calorific answer isn't really satisfying, anyway. What about going via information theory, with the brain as processor? The merest, indivisible unit of information is of course the bit - one 'yes' or 'no'. What's the energy requirement on a single on/off? How much less efficient than this is the brain? That approach turns out to be a bit of a dead-end too, since people have turned away from the idea of there even being a fundamental cost of information processing. (The fundamental cost supposedly comes when info is erased, not necessarily at manipulation.)


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Free jazz, abstract expressionism, anti-comedy: these things only convey their power if the audience knows what is not being done. Odd idea: enjoyment that needs knowledge, that is doomed to niche acceptance by that alone.
 
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The sad bit of the internet is the gap between what might have happened when most of the world got more or less unlimited free information - a grand flowering of culture, intellect, solidarity - and what did happen: the flowering of the cruelty of porn, vast disinformation, new kinds of mob, new ease with which to become a famous pariah (15 minutes of shame). We learned that the problem is not information, it's us.

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Consider collective identity a neurotoxin we take as an adverse medicine against a worse pathogen, institutionalised bigotry.
 
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Occasions on which science has ruined my pet philosophies:

  • Empathising-Systemising theory, vs my metaethics. In metaethics I incline to sentimentalism, which holds that our moral behaviour is much better explained by our emotional dispositions than by the information we have, or the rational processes we use on it. (The prediction of this is more empathy, more morals). However, I also endorse a kind of consequentialism, which stipulates: if more consequentialist, more (ultimately) moral. Simon Baron-Cohen's contested work on autism-spectrum children suggests that this conjunction of views is dogged with tension, since consequentialism is more likely to be found in people with low / nonstandard emotional attachments to others. That is:
    1.  Moral behaviour is a function of empathy.
    2.  The morality of behaviour is constituted by consequences.
    3.  However, there's some evidence for a trade-off between one's capacity for empathy and capacity for systematic thought.
    4.  And systematisers are much more likely to be consistent consequentialists.
    5.  So (1) is less true to the extent that (2) is true, and vice versa. Give up one.
    Is there any hope? Well, a number of psychologists are dead set against Baron-Cohen on all points, so maybe it'll fall down. But even if, as seems likely, he is made to drop the naff sex essentialism, the meddling trade-off could easily remain for all the sexes. And quite apart from tanking sentimentalist utilitarianism, this leads eventually to the idea of multiple brain systems reflecting multiple metaethics in each person: balls.

  • The adrenal nature of memory, vs resisting adolescent melodrama. It's a bit of a trek from the data to the philosophy here, but bear with me. All sorts of people share a tendency to seek out extreme experiences and melodramatic relationships. One thing underlying this behaviour is what I call the epiphany theory of identity: the idea that you are shaped and defined by a small number of really big life events - which also happen to be the ones you remember clearly. I hate it: it justifies all kinds of tasteless, myopic behaviour ("rockism"). But it actually has some direct biological backing. Argument:
    1.  We are constituted in large part by our memories.
    2.  Adrenaline is produced in response to extreme experiences (bad and good).
    3.  Adrenaline is involved in the strongest form of long-term potentiation; it lends itself to vivid and lasting memories.
    4.  So extreme experiences will have disproportionate weight in recall. (2&3)
    5.  So extreme experiences will disproportionately constitute the self. (1&4)
    C.  Therefore epiphany theory might well describe humans' actual experience of themselves (to some degree requiring experimental inquiry).
     
  • Special relativity, vs temporal presentism. I once argued for the deeply flawed metaphysical position Presentism, for a laugh. You have to give up a great deal to make it work, but things get serious when you realise it makes you challenge (the most sensible reading of) bloody Relativity:
    1. The Lorentzian interpretation of the] Theory of Special Relativity is true.  
    2. The 'present time' relative to an event on the worldline of an object O is the sum of all events that share a plane of simultaneity with x in O’s frame of reference. 
    3. There is at least one event E that both exists at the present time in my frame of reference, & is on the worldline of an object in motion relative to me.
    4. Therefore, there is at least one event E such that the present time relative to E is not the same present time relative to me [by 1&2&3] 
    5. Presentism is true iff there is a unique present time. 
    6. Therefore presentism is false [from 4 & 5]
    There are four simple ways out of this, each of approximately equal scientific horror: deny premise 1, interpreting fundamental physics to suit your prejudices; deny premise 2 and try and force an old Newtonian absolutism to fit modern physics; deny premise 3, implying I don't even know, weird solipsism; or deny premise 5, emptying presentism of its central tenet. To dig my essay out, I made the classic dishonest metaphysician's gambit, venturing that the unfalsifiability of my pet theory was a virtue ("SR is not strictly a theory of time at all, being instead a theory of the measurement of relations between physical events. Concededly, rendering light as absolute precludes the observation of absolute presentness, but, read as a scientific theory, SR does not strictly bear on whether the phenomenon ‘absolute simultaneity’ exists. If there were only the relation of simultaneity and if we are within that system, then there is small hope of divining its fundamental nature empirically. The massive intuitive cost of this route is in detaching metaphysics from regulation by science."). But there's no question this was pyrrhic and ugly.
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What are we to call selfish bravery? 'Recklessness'? 'Avarice'? 'Entrepreneurship'?

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Christian salvation involves the deformation of the self. (Slow clap: well done you.) But it deforms for simpler reasons than Nietzsche or Feuerbach's old grumpy individualism: far before one undertakes to flay oneself and reform, the basic shape of Heaven does for us. The Church has a standing retcon to explain just how nasty scheming bored creatures like us ever could get in: they distinguish the corrupt body from the real and shiny soul. But this clumsy medieval patch fails to understand just how much of us is bound up with our bodies and what happens to them. So, the eternal 'survival' offered has to be an attenuated kind. We'd stink up the place if we entered heaven without having changed considerably. Or, I would.


'Spring' (c) Andrew Wyeth (1978)



30/03/2014

Been reading, Q1 2014



(c) "The Arrow Collar Man" (1921) by Joseph Leyendecker

The birth of information theory came with a ruthless sacrifice of meaning: forget human psychology; abandon subjectivity… [but] who could love a theory giving false statements as much value as true statements? It was mechanical. It was dessicated… Has that hellish world, full of information and devoid of grace, arrived? A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging. Incessant chatter. The false driving out the true?

That is not the world I see.

- James Gleick

I publicly and fearlessly declare that anyone… who will examine my nature, my character, my morals, my likings, my pleasures, & my habits with his own eyes & can still believe me a dishonourable man, is a man who deserves to be stifled.
- Rousseau

as a young man I thought the ideal philosophical argument was one with the following property: someone who understood its premises and did not accept its conclusion would die.
- Robert Nozick


Another prejudice pointed out: I don’t review the blogs or articles I read. It’s not even that they’re too numerous to bother with, for I’ve no home internet access. I like to think this means I live among crystalline info. But I also don’t reflect on films – nor webcomics – nor the semiotics of my colleagues’ clothing choices: if the implicit criticism is that I and my nearest cultural kin - the temperamentally afk - are subject to a big old retrograde print fetish, then yes it's obviously so. It’s a fetish with implications, too, for the hardcore generalist, cos key work in many fields - maths, sociology, economics, physics - is only ever published in article form, at least until it appears in pop science books fifteen years later. Hoorah for Access to Research, then!

The fact remains: a book’s content is very likely to be more balanced, original, and stable than work that can be researched, composed, and published in the time before the lady at Costa starts to scowl at you for sitting with a laptop and a cold mochafrappalatino. Anyway there are two journals and some magazines in the following, leave me be.

1/5: Significantly false, clichéd, ugly, or corrupt. Waste no time.
2/5: Kinda dull or clumsy. Mere information. Enthusiasts only.
3/5: Some worth, skim it. 3.5/5: Excellent ephemera.
4/5: Good. Take your time. 4.5/5: Exceptional, but one reading caps it.
4.5*/5: First time; I suspect it’s 5/5.
5/5: Transformatory, peerless, durable. To be read every few years.

Am dissatisfied with my scale, emphasising though it does the highest single dimension of any piece: its extent. (By which I mean its durability under the disc-sander of our attention, its being larger than me in whatever terms seem good at the time of reading, beauty or multifariousness or originality or pathos.) The messy reality of writing gives the lie to my scale being numeric at all: fun is usually more exhaustible than meaning, so things which are just very good fun will get a 3.5/5 on this scale. Also, reward durability to social change; being larger than the moment it was composed in. Masterful but untransferable things like Svenonius’ Intellectual Foundation will make me redo the scale; she wrote in granite, but for a forever-limited audience. The problematics get several scores.


JAN
  • Knots (1970) by RD Laing. Wildcard psychologist writes meh tongue-twisters about the horror of recursivity.
    “JACK: Forgive me.
    JILL: No.
    JACK: I’ll never forgive you for not forgiving me.”
    His point’s that conflict escalates because we forget the original contention and argue about the argument instead. If this explanation is not exhaustive, it is anyway very satisfying. His logic’s more sophisticated than I expected – “Jack sees / that there is something Jill can’t see and Jack sees / that Jill can’t see she can’t see it. // Although Jack can see Jill can’t see she can’t see it / he can’t see that he can’t see it himself.” – but repetition kills the wit. 2/5.

  • A Writer at War: Letters & Diaries 1939-45 (2010) by Iris Murdoch, ed. Peter Conradi. Reading letters like these is panning with others’ gold-filled pans. Pleased to find her young and conceited – letters laced with ‘mon dieu!’s and ‘passim’s and ‘ye gods!’es. To my shame, these people are all always learning five languages at once, wittily discussing the exigencies of Turkish declaratives. Interesting how comfortable Conradi is to contradict her – apparently she excised quite a lot from her archive, mostly on sex. Some fuckups despite his obvious breadth (Thompson’s last letter is dated ’43 here!) and one piece of gratuitous dramaturgy: he includes only one reply from (admitted headfuck) David Hicks, making him seem sadistic rather than grudging and aloof. Her generosity / terrible co-dependence in the face of Hicks’ brutal breakup is too moving. 4/5.

  • A Bigger Picture (2012) by David Hockney. Superficially superficial, Hockney’s the rare man: wholly lovable, highly postmodern. This is a whole retrospective weighted towards his very recent and distinctive work in the Yorkshire woods. The words are less annoying than usual for coffee-table-badge books. Keep looking til you like it. 3.5/5.

  • Lost Worlds (2004) by Michael Bywater. “Remember, then, the founding principle of British public life, which is this: if you don’t know already, I’m certainly not going to tell you.” Ooft. Coruscating, funny list of things high and low which are no longer. He knows about apparently everything: network protocols and Latin conjugations, how meerschaums and primitive sweeties were made. It’s Grumpy Old Men except with teeth, wit, & iconoclasm and without mummery, ressentiment, & squidge. His fond memory of corporal punishment is put a bit irresponsibly, but generally he’s balanced, seeing what’s been gained by loss. An irresistible examination of our tendency to stupid nostalgia and stupid amnesia both. Never heard of him, watch for it. 4.5/5.

  • Read aloud: A Walk in the Woods (1997) by Bill Bryson. I don’t rate him – his matey adjectival register and cutesy knowledge get on my nerves – but this is really really 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). Comforting and galvanising. Even my townie girlfriend wants to go hiking now. 4/5.

  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) by Christopher Hitchens. GRAAAAAAAAAAAAR. 4/5. [Library]

  • Inventing the Enemy (2012) by Umberto Eco. More like it! Calm, panoptic and ennobling. (Funniest clause all month: “thus Lenin was a neo-Thomist – without of course realising it.”) There’s good sad Realism under his fun semiotic historicism: it’s only lazy academic cliques prevent people seeing that the critical realist & the pomo skylark can coexist. So it’s a surprise but not a shock to see him use basically Johnson’s defence against relativism. High larfs: Eco chides the Church with its own history! Title essay’s composed of quotations from virulent historical racists / misogynists / puritans: hard to read. He walks the difficult line between being maximally clear & slightly banal (thus he says things like “Fire is a metaphor for many impulses…”, but also: “Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.”). Whose side is he on? The text’s! 4.5/5. [Library]

  • The Confessions (1770) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau via JM Cohen. I am prejudiced against Rousseau, him with his straightforwardly false anthropology, melodramatic politics, and preposterous egotism. His three big legacies are even easier to disparage – ‘Revolution as salvation’, ‘Feelings as truer than thoughts’, and the ‘Noble savage’ dogma. This much arrayed against him, it’s miraculous that Confessions (‘the first modern autobiography’) is as clear and wise as it is – a deeply honest story by a deeply deluded man. (Just one instance of courage: to talk about being a sexual sub as a man in eC18th Europe!) A stroppy Forrest Gump – blundering into great events, loudly blaming them for the collision – but he is also large and savvy enough to test the great iconoclasts of his time. (Strong parallels with DH Lawrence, another supremely wilful, influential, and ridiculous soul. Virtue in spite of themselves.) Skim heavily. 3/5. [Library]

  • I’d Rather We Got Casinos & other Black Thoughts (2009) by Larry Wilmore. (As in, “Are you in favor of Black History Month?” “Hell no. Twenty-eight days of trivia to make up for centuries of oppression? I’d rather we got casinos.”) Irreverent about stuff good people don’t tend to be: ‘community leaders’, the funeral for the n-word, Jesus’ race, Katrina, Letter from Birmingham Jail, The Man. His patter gets pleasurably baroque: “A pudgy patron of society would suffer an indignity and cry out, “This is unmitigated gall! Unmitigated gall, I tell you!”… “the level of anger in a black church should be roughly equal to the level of anger in the brother attending said church. You’ll appreciate the attention to detail in the Afrocentric stained-glass windows as black Jesus, black Mary, and the black Apostles make even hard brothers nervous with their never-happy Ice Cube–like glares”… “THE SIMPSONS: Not racist but not very brotha friendly. FAMILY GUY: Racist but very brotha friendly.” Lines this good scattered throughout. 3/5.

  • Read aloud: A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh. Funny ruling-class tragedy like he always does. Was at the limits of my sight-reading here; Waugh’s timing and compression are too grand to be scudded aloud, really. Check this out for tight material symbolism: “Beaver had a dark little sitting-room (on the ground floor, behind the dining room) and his own telephone… objects that had stood in his father’s dressing room; indestructible presents for his wedding and twenty-first birthday, ivory, brass-bound, covered in pigskin, crested and gold-mounted, expressive of Edwardian masculinity…” (implies so much! That Beaver is subordinate to guests and his dead dad, who was married before 21, unlike him...). Is Brenda’s infidelity punished in a regressive Victorian way? Yes. But pater gets his too: the nasty colonialist final act is topped off with a crushing twist: Dickens unto death. 3.5/5.

  • Article: ‘Hume and Prejudice’ (1995) by Robert Palter. Close reading of exactly how le bon David totally dismissed one-sixth of the world on no evidence with invalid logic – mistaking contingency for essence, current state for all-time capacity. Palter breaks the question ‘How racist was Hume?’ into four. 1) ‘Of the people he is said to be racist about, who was he racist about?’ Black people: yes, in an egregious and cruel footnote. Also ‘passionately anti-slavery’, go figure. All other non-whites: at one point, but he contradicts himself in the same edition and in another retracts this idiocy. Jewish people: probably not. Irish: no. The French: no! 2) ‘What’s the damage?’ Unclear. Not an ‘enormous influence’ [cf. Popkins] anyway. Even some evidence that Hume galvanised his religious critics to be abolitionists, to spite him. 3) ‘Is racism entailed by any of his proper philosophical work?’ No, and his own social theory rebuts it. (“A small sect or society amidst a greater are commonly most regular in their morals; because they are more remarked, and the faults of individuals draw dishonour on the whole. The only exception to this rule is, when the superstition and prejudices of the large society are so strong as to throw an infamy on the smaller society, independent of their morals.”.) 4) ‘Was Hume a colonialist bigwig? – no. Palter sees Hume’s prejudice as a grave lapse of his own principles, a sorry indictment, but not the fundamental disqualification that some others do. 4/5.

  • How I Escaped my Certain Fate (2010) by Stewart Lee. An artist, with the bloat and near-repulsive belligerence that involves (“So all I’m saying, if you’ve not seen me before, yeah, is the jokes are 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 he 'portrays a smug wanker’.) 4/5. [Library]

  • Sociology, 7th Ed (2013) by Anthony Giddens and the other guy. I went to a lot of undergraduate lectures I wasn’t down for, and that’s about the extent of my sociological ‘training’. So at risk of making the mistake of disgruntled undergrads everywhere, and assuming that my fantastically limited understanding of a field is all the field is, I will say that even this shallow diet exhausted the field’s benefits, which are largely just new vocabulary rather than subterranean insight or scientific progress. (Kudos to Giddens for this passage then: “…is sociology merely a restatement, in abstract jargon, of things we already know? Sociology at its worst can be exactly that…”) Sociology is great at unpicking neoliberal delusions (roughly the set of things that say, “Everything bad is just a matter of individuals making free decisions, so back off”), but terrible at following through with the counterpart act of doubt: self-criticism, wondering if our neat Structural ‘explanations’ are as general, applicable, or explanatory as we like to think. Let’s get back to those good new words sociologists have dreamt up – ‘socialisation’ vs ‘structuration’, Verstehen oder Erklärung, or the disturbing hypothesis stereotype threat, or the master status of a given society, or the ‘manifest’ vs the ‘latent’ functions of an action. From who I am, interactionism is the really valuable strand (it is harder for us to disappear up our own ass with our ear that close to the ground). 4/5. [Library]

  • Read aloud: Night of the Living Trekkies (2010) by Kevin David Anderson. Unremitting. (I only know it’s crap even as fan service because I read this to a lifelong fan.) Plot brought to you by a cursory study of Resident Evil spin-offs, and prose by soap operas. 1/5.

  • All the Sad Young Literary Men (2009) by Keith Gesson. Ivy League Arts boys fail at life, measure themselves against Lenin, cut coupons – “At the same time, Mark had not been with a woman in many months. What would Lenin have done? Lenin would have called Mark’s hesitation a social-democratic scruple. It’s pretty clear what Lenin would have done.” – ‘blech’, you say. But it flows so smoothly that it’s effortlessly nommed and hard to hold its tragic treatment of untragic subjects against it. It follows history closely – we see [Al Gore]’s daughter at college, and a cartoon [Chomsky] – “Lomaski in his office was sweaty, skinny, ill-preserved, drinking tea after tea so that his teeth seemed to yellow while Sam watched”. There are gauche pictures of Hegel, Lincoln, Gore inserted intext in an equivocal Safran Foer way. Meh. The women – i.e. the boys’ ideas of the women – are the fixation, they set the structure and timbre and volume of all else. I think I am hard on it because it is so much the book I would write. Clever, but. (Extra half point for unclichéd Palestine bit.) 4/5.

  • Read aloud: Penguin American Supernatural Tales (2007) by ST Joshi. I usually find horror pathetic, but this cherry-pick of two centuries is varied, trend-setting, often golden. The phases: High Gothic lit to pulp to magic realism to splatterpunk, but blessedly omitting the most recent and hypersuccessful form, ‘paranormal romance’. Hawthorne, Poe, Bloch, Matheson, Oates. I have no patience for Lovecraft and his legion. 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 sidewise unnerves. 4/5.

  • Our Posthuman Future (2002) by Francis Fukuyama. Attack on transhumanism brought to you by a man most famous for being totally wrong. Now he worries that science is going to make life too easy – that overcoming human evolution’s horrible legacy issues (e.g. ubiquitous mental illness, moral myopia, unspeakable death) with biotechnology will amount to the death of the soul. (Where the soul is that which thrives on adversity, is real / spiritual / creative, and Takes Responsibility.) I shouldn’t mock; Fukuyama handles this fear secularly and reasonably, and the existential claim is not wrong by definition, and it is nice to see such a man endorse regulation for once. However, his arguments are piss-poor: he argues via 1) using fictional evidence – Brave New World and the Bible; by 2) suggesting, without evidence, that there are insurmountable trade-offs between longevity and cognition, happiness and creativity, and personality and freedom; and by 3) a truly massive suppressed premise: that Things are ok as they are (or, at least, as good as they get). The first section, laying out 2002’s cutting edge in life extension, neuropharmacology, and genetic engineering, is fair and good. He accuses bioethicists of being gung-ho shills for Industry, which is interesting, but untrue in my experience of them as timid precautionists with just about enough knowledge of the technicalities. YMMV. 3/5. (4/5 for newbies, alongside Bostrom’s 5s.) [Library]

  • The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K LeGuin. Michty me. Hot-foot mystical parable afloat on a bed of Tao, psychoanalysis, and Nietzsche. Bad guy’s a Grand Unscrupulous Utilitarian: excellent, manipulative, and innocently destructive (Confucius?). Her memorable para-omnipotent protagonist George Orr is put-upon, dismissible, infuriatingly passive (or, rather, wu wei): the Tao. Scifi has a lot of conventions which can easily end in literary clumsiness – think contrived alien names, more or less stupid extrapolations from current science, brooding passages about the damned Capitalised Social Change of Twenty-three-dickety-four – but LeGuin, even this early, was in charge of them. Munificent, a clusterbomb from page one. 4.5/5.


FEB

Two taking much of my spare time from now til August:

  • Open University TM129 (2013). It is mildly shameful to be unable to code in this day and age. Sort yourself out. 4/5.

  • Open University M248: Data analysis (2013). People sometimes claim that maths gets good just as soon you leave behind the rote and miserly formula-mongering of high school for the awing free space of proof's transcendent exploration (i.e., just after almost everyone gratefully leaves it behind.) Stats does not get more fun the deeper you go, but it does start to – contingently – have a go at making itself useful. Perhaps. Living up to its promise: of summarising a raucously uncertain reality, without adding delusions equal to those it destroys. 2/5 and 5/5.

  • Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Statistical Society, Volume 137, Series A (2012) by Various. Series A is the "less technical" of their three journals. I won’t pretend to be able to follow the dynamic-treatment analysis stuff, but there’s a cool bit on Carroll’s influence on stats and some dreary obituaries - including a fawning one for Imperial Tobacco’s head stats guy in the 50s and 60s! 2/5.

  • The Thistle & the Rose: 6 Centuries of Love & Hate between Scots & English (2005) by Allan Massie. Light, unpolemical history via small biographies of the obvious (Mary Queen, Scott, Livingstone, Buchan) and nearly unknown (Waugh’s granddad, a soldier called Henry Dundas). Charles Churchill on Scots:
    "Into our places, states and beds they creep;   
    They've got sense to get what we want sense to keep."
    Weighted towards mongrel literary figures and quashing polarisations; Anglo-Scots and pro-Stuart Englishmen feature heavily. He’s soft on empire and Thatcher, but this is out of an unjudgemental attitude in general. Welcome scepticism about some of our organising myths – the idea of a ‘race’ called the ‘Celts’, the idea that Scotland is or has ‘always’ been more Left (when e.g. half the votes in 1955 were Tory). 3/5.

  • Espedair Street (1987) by Iain Banks. First-person sulk by an ambivalently Scottish, ambivalently Left, ambivalently alive Standard Banks Man. Book aims to study spiritual clumsiness and pop music, ends up in a midlife crisis at 30. Has its moments (“We put a value on what we treasure, and so cheapen it”; “her blonde hair slid across the pillow like gold chains over snow (and for an instant I thought Suzanne takes you down…)”). 3/5.

  • Radical Renfrew (1990) ed. Tom Leonard. A nice thing about Britain, or the Old World at large, is that there’s a piece of art for most places. Thus even my tiny village has a passable ballad, ‘where the river meets the sea’, while my mate’s Wirral has a full seven hundred years of contempt to draw on, as well as my top album of 1998. Paisley has the first bit of Espedair Street – and, what's more, the hundreds of Industrial pamphlets and gazetteers that Tom Leonard dug through, finding it a hotbed of utopian socialism, zero-wave feminism and farmer’s rage. Moreover, he won: the wiki for Paisley has benefited from Leonard’s revisionism. (I don’t know if it’ll sink in with local schoolkids though; they’re more likely to raise a susurrus over the fact that Gerard Butler went to Paisley Grammar.) See here. 3/5.

  • Overtime (2009) by Charles Stross. Ace throwaway with British Men-in-Black; they've the organisational despair of Dilbert more than the existential awe of Lovecraft. (“My department, Forecasting Operations, is tasked with attempting to evaluate the efficacy of proposed action initiatives in pursuit of the organization’s goals—notably, the prevention of incursions by gibbering horrors from beyond space-time.”). Expected forbidding, stark post-Ballard nastiness, but it’s matey, British, nerdy (BBC, C++, and Bayes jokes). 3.5/5.

  • The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organisation (2000) by Elaine Svenonius. Commanding Analytic philosophy of libraries. Cold and relentlessly substantial, in full command of the many many issues entailed in cramming the output of humanity’s outputers into one framework. (It’s reassuring that someone is.) “Factual claims about the world constitute only a small subset of information broadly construed… It is not possible, at least without wincing, to refer to The Iliad, The Messiah, or the paintings in the Sistine Chapel as data, however endowed.” Info studies comes across as the most gargantuan construction, librarians building as they are the least ambiguous & most exhaustive language in the world: the god’s eye view of the diary of the human race. Read half, the remainder user’s details of bibliographic languages. It’s sufficient: now I know to hush & cross myself when a librarian enters the room. (Also: Imagine a better name for a library theorist than ‘Svenonius’!) 2/5 & 4.5/5.

  • Read aloud: The Gun Seller (2003) by Hugh Laurie. Urgh. Douglas Adams crossed with Ian Fleming, with more of the latter’s appalling clumsiness than Adams’ philosophical glee. Srs military-industrial politics addressed via flashy froth. I suppose his unmacho, anti-sex secret agent deserves applause, but the gauche chapter epigrams and LOUD joke prose were distressing. 2/5.

  • Governing the World: The History of an Idea (2011) by Mark Mazower. Casually brilliant and persuasive, readable and oddly fond history of the UN et plus alia. (I've never understood the fetish for national sovereignty - when you look at what states tend to do with it.) Practical cosmopolitanism - the promotion of any supranational structure at all - was for a long long time a view held only by strange peeps indeed - visionaries and ranters and scifi writers - until it was suddenly in the works, laboured over by full secretariats with big bucks. Mazower puzzles over why the US and Britain put so much into these structures when the previous world order suited them fine. Answer? Camouflage, of course. 4.5*/5.

  • Broken Angels (2005) by Richard Morgan. Morgan has carved out a niche near to Mieville’s scrimshaw métier: stylised, politically-literate hi-octane plotfests. This one’s less noir than war reportage. Kovacs - his broke-down hard-boiled super-soldier - is great, able to carry off the witty sociopathies of the action hero by virtue of involuntariness – the tropes having been brutally programmed into him. ‘Quell’, Morgan’s Marx-figure lurks larger here. There’s a bucket of great tech ideas, but they’re never the focus; the people scrambling in the wake of their machines are still recognisably human. Great names, too (a nuked town named “Sauberville”, a broker of mercenaries named “Semetaire”.) His many characters are vivid; his prose brash and stylish; his themes enormous, dark, and unmoping. 4.5/5.

  • Woken Furies (2009) by Richard Morgan. And why not? This one errs on the splattery side: cybersplatterpunk. Nasty, entertaining look at revolution and market forces. Quotable too. On privatising and repressive currents: “This enemy you cannot kill. You can only drive it back damaged into the depths, and teach your children to watch the waves for its return”; on political pieties: “it’s amazing how constant repetition can make even the most obvious truths irritating enough to disagree with”. Morgan still manages to surprise – e.g. the fully sadistic episode involving the massacre and torture of misogynistic priests is hard to forget. The sea planet itself is the best of the new characters, weird and postmodern in layout, mechanics, oligarchy, mores. The last of the Kovacs novels – I’ll miss his nasty universe, with its fully fleshed-out cybersociety – its religions still boycotting technologies, its new types of decision (“which clone should I repay if their interests conflict?”) and crime; its remarriage customs when one spouse gets a new body… It holds up. 3.5/5.

  • The New Yorker, Feb 17th-24th (2014). My 1st hardcopy of this patent blend of self-obsessed candy-floss and hard-rock social conscience. Puffs include the Orientalist ballets of Manhattan, two dozen in-joke drawings of past New Yorker covers, and a pathetic quest for the best Buffalo wings in NY. Bright political banners include pieces on discriminatory voter legislation; Amazon.com as an unprecedented malign influence on the book world (and moreover the republic of letters); and Adam Gopnik’s deft and equitable eye on the role of religion in today’s secular places, atheisms past and the wishful futility of natural theology and ‘reformed’ epistemology. Anthony Lane’s obit-filmography of Philip Seymour Hoffman is gushy, de trop, though I really liked him too. Final thought: We all live to some extent in a vicarious America; its pop and other muscular businesses have long ensured this. This magazine is shibboleth to America’s other, real glory: their omnivorous collation and perfection of the world’s ideas and arts. Even given the glory, it feels strange to submit voluntarily. 4/5.

  • Reread aloud: Guards, Guards! (1991) by Terry Pratchett. Even better than I remember. Feudal-fantasy satire in the voice of pubs of C20th England, with dragons, wizards and pre-Peel police wheedling, appealing to genetics, sod’s law, and an incongruous, dogged self-awareness. The prose is quieter (less self-referential and wilfully surreal) than his peers – Adams, Holt, Rankin – and in places reaches wisdom among levity. Discworld is his noble funhouse mirror of Britain, and Pratchett is very good at technology fads, social class, the duality of human nature, and the excruciating embarrassment of romance. Everything a growing boy needs. 4/5.

  • Fruit Gatherings (1916) by Rabindranath Tagore. Really wanted to like him – he’s such an inspiration in the abstract. But it’s unreconstructed Romanticism, based in cheap inversions (“the dignity of peasants! The worthlessness of wealth!”) but also an odd deathly religiosity . 3/5. I liked #8:

    Be ready to launch forth, my heart! and let those linger who must.
    For your name has been called in the morning sky.
    Wait for none!
    The desire of the bud is for the night and dew,
    but the blown flower cries for the freedom of light.
    Burst your sheath, my heart, and come forth!

MAR
  • The Information (2010) by James Gleick. Ah! I am a sucker for this form in pop science: “primary research into some unjustly obscure x, 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 for it”. Here X is information technology very broadly construed – so African talking drums, Morse, bioinformatics, memetics, Hawking radiation, Wiki, and so. 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 deeply scientific and metaphysical work. Loads and loads of tasty gobbets to boot (Lovelace: “I do not believe that my father was such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician)…” “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, unbleached by the drudgery, familiarity, and commercialism evoked in “I.T.”. 4.5/5.

  • OU TM129 (2013). How much less dystopian modern art would be if we only learned technology from the inside – the things we have built of tiny ons and offs!

  • OU M248 (2013). 2/5 & 5/5.

  • Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (2008) by Catherine Wilson. I’m a fan of Epicurus and Wilson both, so I was well-primed for this. (Check out her piece on Descartes, the bottom of p.87 on. Chutzpah out the wazoo.) She ranges over Epicurus’ many vindications in the C17th with style and irreverence; Wilson's histories evaluate their subjects in current terms as well as just mumphing over their contemporaneous development (“Spinoza’s tempering of his rejection of providence and his scorn for anthropomorphism and superstition with strong doses of Plato’s theory of the transcendence of mundane reality account for the somewhat peculiar fascination this philosopher exercises over some readers.”). This isn't unfair or anachronistic if you don't blame them for not getting it right - which means not praising Epicurus too much for guessing things in ways that accord with our world-view. Like every early-modern scholar I’ve ever taken the time to read, she's set on hailing the nervous Christian Epicurean Gassendi as the most overlooked pioneer in the philosophy of science. (At least the most overlooked outside of unsexy fields like agronomy or stats.) Nutritious, wry. 4/5.


  • Reread aloud: Men at Arms (1994) 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. 3/5.

  • We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet Interviews (2001) ed. Daniel Sinker. Stunning sift of the best from a good institution; PP showed up the ideology in things but also, more importantly, 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 (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) whose like 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, but 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. I feel his pain: my own attempt at the 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)...) While Sinker’s judgment is strong (cf. writing the oral history of Black Flag, with each member contradicting each other!), his prose gets seriously wearing. This is the real thing though: one type of inspirational young person in their own words. 4.5/5.

  • Reread aloud: Feet of Clay (1996) by TP. 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. 4/5.

  • New Yorker, March 10th (2014). Christ, Morsi is fucked. 4/5. New Yorker, March 17th (2014). Christ, ITER is fucked. 4/5. New Yorker, March 24th (2014). Eeh. Didn’t gel – there’s an inexplicable 10 page piece on a pricey brand of sportswear, a celebration of fucking video art, a hollow paean to Scarlett Johansson from the usually urbane Anthony Lane, a nasty short story about being old in Liverpool. Bit on Paul de Man by Louis Menand is worth the admission though. 3/5.

  • Jingo (1997) by Terry Pratchett. In a sentence: “War and diplomacy, race and nation: all fucking stupid, but what you gonna do?” 3.5/5.

  • The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (1982) by Lewis Hyde. A dreadful cover – until you see the testimonials from two badass novelists, DFW and Atwood. I spend a decent wedge of my time with art, but my ethics lead me to disparage artists (and anyone who picks lovely low-intensity bohemia) as shirking the demands of economic justice. (“the landlord is not interested in your book of translations the day the rent falls due… every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values?”). The gifty anthropology he relies on has been called into question (but see Graeber for masterful synthesis of the contemporary reckoning) but it doesn't affect the core, angry, joyous point. Hyde is successful in showing my disparagement to be sometimes less valid, but the point is that few artworks are gifts to the world in this grand manner, so few are socially valuable alternatives to activism. (What about private value – the joy and casual divinity of spending your days indoors on your art? Well, that’s different.) 4/5.

  • The Uses of Argument (1958) by Stephen Toulmin. I had presumed that 'ordinary-language philosophy' must have had some highlights before becoming the dead scapegoat it now is, but I hadn’t found any before this. (Does Ryle count?) This about logic and is yet gloriously not made of logic. Super-original still, full of things that the analysts at my university didn’t know or didn’t let on about (e.g. that the division between deductive and inductive reasoning is an extremely lazy partition obscuring four dichotomies; that the thing to watch out for in an argument is not really logical form but the field's own idiosyncracies). Exciting, even – the primacy of the informal over the formal! First essay asks if there is anything in common between modes of justification (of propositions like “It won’t rain tomorrow”, “The defendant pleads Not Guilty”, “Kleist is shit.”, “Epicurus influenced Boyle more than any other philosopher”). Second is a strange and not wholly fruitful go at informal probability theory, but the third through fifth's his application of his model to explain the good reasons that formal logic isn't generally very good in real argument. (The bad reason being that people are ignorant of its force.) Panoptic, interdisciplinary without generalising; dry in a very good way. A reconfiguring book, and I haven’t really gotten the half of it yet. 4.5*/5.


(more Leyendecker, c.1910)

as long as one believes that the evil man wears horns, one will not discover an evil man.
- Erich Fromm