multifarious miscellany

Stable breeder in Conway's Game of Life. Original author one 'Hyperdeath'

One of my computer science lecturers does philosophy in passing while discussing superficially unphilosophical things like Harvard vs Princeton and the gubbins of molecular computing. (Molecular as in Hofstadter's comment: "Looking at a program written in machine language is vaguely comparable to looking at a DNA molecule atom by atom.") It is gigantic stuff:

  • "People always define computers as 'data-processing machines' - which they are not and cannot be, because data are mental events. Machines process representations - and all this is is us using the physical world to help us with the mental world we have such limited range within (usually to help us with the physical world we have such limited control over). (This is also why the infinite cannot be properly represented, because there is nothing usably physical for the purpose.) (In the reified field that gets called "Computing", we happen to use voltages to represent mental events, but I seriously encourage you to consider computing less narrowly; you will never be right, otherwise.)

    Human language being what it is, the category error of "data" as data representation has by now been thoroughly inscribed. We - the truth - lost. So you'll hear me say that 'the system is processing data'. But I don't mean it."

  • "We write programs* with a program** which feeds a program*** that produces the usable program**** - and all of these are running on a metaphor for a machine^."

  • "Transmission is strictly limited by each component, of course. If you send a message faster than either the transmitter can pulse, than the channel can discretely convey, or the receiver-decoder can parse, it will be lost, or useless, or worse. (Faulty data is worse than no data because it deceives us.)"

  • (If you consider the message a thought, the wire human language, the decoder your poor interlocutor!)

  • "You might think that your high-level source code is a long-winded way of handling data. In reality - that is, in the processor..."

- Lewis Mackenzie

* Source code.
** Editor.
*** Compiler.
**** Executable.
^ Operating system.


Consequentialism makes morals all a matter of policy decisions, and so every individual person a government (a government of themselves). This stance appalls a diverse set of people in slightly different ways - but for now I just want you to notice that this is Hobbes' Leviathan metaphor ^^ backwards.

(Similarly, consider the noble literal meaning of "constituency": the term wants us to think of a political seat as constituted of its constituents; the seat is supposedly nothing without them.)

(Tenuously related: Luciano Floridi's exciting idea of people as 'multi-agent systems', in unibus pluram. Everyone a bunch of pieces lashed together and with all the usual crippling information asymmetries and moral hazard of such organisations.)


Hard ideas I use without really understanding them (that, is, without strictly knowing their definition or the full dynamics of their components):
  • “Distribution” (in statistics)
  • “Object” (in programming)
  • “Deixis” (in linguistics
    - 'indexical' in philosophy)
  • "Twistor" (in physics)
  • “Being” (in anything)
  • Free play” (in France)
  • “Mind”
Loads of people understand the first four, so there is hope. And the last three may be entirely meaningless, so there is hope.


At uni I became very worried that getting really invested in any field would block one's understanding of most of the world, cos, well, 'if all you have is a hammer'. Some excellent jaded people have coined words for this: trained incapacity, professional deformation, or, most dramatically, occupational psychosis.

The thought was that each field only gets at one piece of reality*, and that the assumptions of fields may prevent you grasping results in others (in some way above just the study of one taking up your time for the others). Since people are bad at changing their minds, and soon get tribal about their field, I worried that people would go through life with one methodological lens, the exact one based on a near-arbitrary decision taken as a teenager (enrollment). And this would be absurd.

As it is I needn't have worried, because the sheer indifference of my peers prevented such high methodological concerns.** Even the Arts kids – who should really possess some passion or grand programme, given the economic opportunity cost of their choice of programme*** – showed minimal affinity, with most never speaking in tutorials and scarcely reading anything. (Larger evidence for this suspicious economism below.****)

Glum hypothesis: Professional deformation isn't a problem, because what people actually do upon graduating is sell their books and try to never think about it ever again. And they prosper.

* My kind are supposed to accept but one whole world with a future grand reduction of all things to fundamental physics. But an equally crunchy alternative is offered by Turing's notion of levels of abstraction: just as there's no question of motion without a set frame of reference, it might be that there's no talk of explanation without a specified level of abstraction. The physical, the social, the mental and the formal all seem to occupy different LoAs (though I'm very open to the idea that the last two might end up the same one, as in e.g. this bold jaunt).

** A striking instance in the first week of class: The lecturer, a world authority on Dickens, read out the Want and Ignorance segment from Christmas Carol, and then wept openly at the front of the lecture. The chatter on the way out was just bemused and dismissive. Two lads in the row behind me laughed.

*** e.g. Page 29-30 here, Page 8 here.

**** e.g. UNESCO reckon that 32% of the right age bracket enrolled in some kind of formal higher education in 2012; but only a tiny fraction of that number sign up for the same content when it's free but with no big formal certificate at the end. (And 90% of that tiny fraction actually drop out.) Something like 17% of all Americans have a degree.

Actually, I can believe that 17% of all people are somewhat intellectually engaged - after some knowledge for knowledge's sake - but they maybe don't overlap much with 'degree-holders'.


No human has ever been a rationalist, not on the harsh definition (‘Person who lets nothing but evidence determine their beliefs and follows up the rest properly’). So we say ‘aspiring rationalist’, or ‘approximating the rational’. Somewhat less than maximally perverse.


Isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life & sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, & the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.
- Philip Roth

The root of the word 'happy' is the word 'hap' (that is, luck). i.e., They were once regarded as the same, i.e. There was no way to make yourself happy; you just had to be very lucky to be happy. And still?


The motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfilment and professional conscientiousness. The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these — in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it. That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance. Except in rare psychopaths, we attribute it to the will.
- Mary Midgley

So for instance belonging enables ostracism; thought enables illusion; empathy enables apologism; irreverence enables shallowness; security enables complacency; curiosity enables weapons; independence enables loneliness; pure reason enables monsters; taste enables snobs; gumption enables evil.


New HMHB album! This has excited me so much that I spontaneously came up with some chorus lines for the next one:

  • "I'll unseat your helpmeet with Peartiser 'n Kopparberg..."
  • "Cheapest ostrich burger inside the M25!"
  • "Ruby Wax has an MA in Mindfulness! Well that's okay then!"
  • "...and I wish that no-one else ever gets any wishes."


Quarreled with a humanist friend who upheld some of the old good stereotypes of AI villains: computers with explosive cognitive dissonance, beaten by the fundamental gaps in logic itself, or the fundamental gulf between logic and the world, or by getting stuck in perverse optimisation. Thus human superiority is regained: it lies in our 'paradox-absorbing crumple zones'! (In humans these are located all over the head.)

But... default logic exists, and floating-point numbers do very well at modelling the arbitrarily precise without preventing serial computations, and we already have agents which satisfice (although). Fine it is probably impossible to make a functioning computer unfazed by logical errors; however, an intelligence running on a computer is not necessarily a computer (just as I am not exactly my brain).

Real AI villains could be more terrifying still: they might eradicate us without hatred or even any active intent. The nightmare is being destroyed because beneath notice, irrelevant to the quest to make paperclip all that is.


What does programming do to programmers?

Not many people are trying to find out, if this lacklustre thing is an accurate summary of the field. Well, computer science is what Taleb calls ludic, an artificially understandable and predictable domain.* So there's definitely a sense of power involved. You solve a hundred tiny problems a day, make consequential decisions that get instant feedback, and you operationalise the abstract so to better paw at it.

But it is also banal. In isolation each line of code is laughably simple - stripped of all hauteur and connotation and ambiguity. To force oneself to think like this, 8 hours a day... Breaking up one's thoughts like this could make for unripe thought; what if working at low levels made it harder to skip up to high levels. (In CS, "high-level" means "closer to human language", roughly. Ha.)

Paranoid null hypothesis: Speaking to machines comes at the expense of speaking to humans.

Luckily, and whatever the stereotype wants you to picture, this doesn't happen reliably: clear thought is clear thought in whatever language, and reductionism has magnificence in. The cosmically important lesson of the intellectual toy Conway's Game of Life is that sophistication and uniqueness result from a tiny number of wholly mechanical elements. (And how!)

* Though obv it floats in the broken world - consider things like the Intel FDIV bug.


I had an idea about the durability of knowledge, an idea which has been covered better under 'the half-life of facts'. Knowledge* can be fragile in a few ways:

  1. Because of error: that is, the field is immature and produces bad predictions. (Conversely, theories that cover enough of the domain to defang or incorporate anomalies are durable). (Epistemic fragility)

  2. Because the token of the knowledge, the psychological instantiation of the fact, is hard to retain. (Psychological fragility).

  3. Because the relevant part of the world actually changes its behaviour. (Ontological fragility)

(Type 2 is just one's memory width meeting abstraction meeting complexity, plainly. But it goes a bit deeper - consider the way that Alzheimereans retain musical ability well into their loss of self.)

Type 3 is a defining feature of social systems: basically anything involving people will have this recursive ontological instability ("Hey, they're treating us like animals! Let's shit on their floor!"). It is the other reason that 'hard' social science is impossible (the first being that you can rarely experiment properly and so can never really unpick causal variables).

Why care about this, philosophically? Well, because as long as you have an idea of your phenomenon's ontological durability, type (1) is a pretty good measure of a field's maturity!

* Yes, yes, I'm equivocating: I mean here "what is taken to be knowledge, the best unrefuted explanation" rather than "absolutely true correspondence between mind and reality".


Been reading, Q3 2014

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.
- Neal Stephenson

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.
- the Unknown Anti-Ethicist

Why not write down what you’ve been reading?

Well, it’s pompous. It also adds a loud implicit audience - yourself - who gawks over your shoulder and interrupts to say what they fucking think. (Fiction benefits from leaving behind such gremlins as your tutors and yourself.) There’s also some pressure to rush the reading and keep up with yourself. Also, forcing out reviews of things is a recipe for banality and witless caution (see any newspaper with a small review staff). And, of course, time spent writing is time not reading.

1/5: No.4/5: Got to me.
2/5: Vitiated.4.5/5: Amazed.
3/5: Skimmed.4*/5: I’ll be back.
3*/5: Mind candy.5/5: Encore.

  • Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (2009) by Eveline Chao. Actually I was - but only because my laoshi was a saucy linguistics grad who warned me not to practice the tricky phoneme or on the street, or ever to shout “3-8!”. Anyway this is dead funny and valuable for understanding the place’s otherwise inaccessible working-class or web or queer registers – and as a way of generally not seeming like a prig. So: language is fossilised sociology; Chao excavates what would take us decades. She begins with slurs of all sorts, but doesn’t list any homophobia – claiming it isn’t a well-rooted hatred there (…). There’s loads and loads of ableism, though. Gets more serious as it goes, with whole chapters on gay culture and web ‘activism’ (恶搞 is ‘evildoings’, lulz). This turns up details like the infallibly hilarious “potato queen”. I also loved her decoding the ancient innuendoes: 云雨 (clouds and rain), 鱼水之欢 (the fish and the water, happy together), 余桃 (sharing peaches), or “playing the bamboo flute” or “bamboo harmonica”. (BTW, the title term is 牛屄 – ‘Cow-cunt’ – and means “Awesome!”.) 4/5 for subcultures.

  • Capital in the 21st Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty. Well then! Long separate blog review in the works. Was swooning by the end of the preface ("To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage of being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything."). He's understandably keen to emphasise his ideological hygiene - but, as the Tory media correctly noted, the act of paying attention to inequality is itself a weakly left-wing act. With a few more diagrams and boxed definitions, this would make an excellent intro macro textbook, gentle and empirically obsessive as it is. Policy chapter is superb an' all. Weighed down only by (forgiveable) overstatement of its own achievement (“the fundamental laws of capitalism”). Lot of redundancy - whoa-there steady-now summary paragraphs every few pages - but I suppose that's what you need to do if you aim to be understood by policymakers. 4.5/5. [Library]

  • Deaf Sentence (2008) by David Lodge. Gentle, silly-solemn, but limp campus novel. Examines middle-class middle-age without angst, despite the narrator’s being very hard of hearing. There’s a sudden tokenistic Auschwitz section which gets about one page of build-up and is soon left behind (when the actual plot revives itself). Its affairs are less farcical, ambitions less contemptible, plot less unabashedly neat (though there is this: “Perhaps one day we’ll turn up in a campus novel” – “God, I hope not”), and I miss all that of Lodge. 3/5. [In one sitting]

  • Even As We Speak: Essays 1993-2001 (2002) by Clive James. The last twenty years see James taking his dark intellectual turn to the history of totalitarianism, and bringing 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 is complex, but 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 tbh – Hitler references turn up in his sunny, giddy Sydney Olympics pieces! Then there’s his 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. 3.5/5. [Library]

  • The Rhesus Chart (2014) by Charles Stross. Brave, for a writer of taste to write a vampire book, these days. But then in a sense Stross doesn’t give a shit, since he has written a vampire book in which the vampires are literally high-frequency investment bankers who become vampires literally because of high-frequency investment banking. Then there’s his occult computer science (“Magic is a side-effect of certain classes of mathematics… Sensible magicians use computers.”). Stross is the only writer I know who depicts the corporate/bureaucratic way of life, as well as just its deadening language. Millions of people now spend much of their lives within a structure encouraging this mindset; we need art that knows its vagaries and petty circumlocutions and administrivia. So, extra half-point for detailed solidarity with the office drone. And the TVTropes reference. 3/5. [Library]

  • Reread: Collected Poems (1988) by Philip Larkin. Of the consuming fear of death, sexual frustration, impostor syndrome: Britain. (In fact this is the apotheosis of male British misery: Housman, if he was honest about his appetites; Lawrence with a sense of humour; Auden plus even more jazz.) He was forever overawed by lack of control over his life; we are left with his superlative control of form. Motifs are well-known: the hostile wind heard from the cold attic; the diminishing of strength; the fall of desire - without a matching fall in the desire to desire; the conviction that age is not running out of time, but running out of self. These are not moans: he loves jazz and booze and other things that make death recede. He’s vulgar, and wields it, but never as a punchline; what starts with “Groping back to bed after a piss” will end with the universe: “The hardness and the brightness and plain / far-reaching singleness of that wide stare / Is a reminder of the strength and the pain / Of being young; that it can’t come again, / But is for others undiminished somewhere.” There’s too much in this volume. I mean that as criticism of its editor, not as expression of Larkin’s o’erflowing sublimity. But that too, actually: “Sad Steps”, “Aubade”, “For Sidney Bechet”, "No Road", and “Continuing to Live” are among my favourites. By ’72 his bitterness and fear had overcome his basic kindness, and he dried up, leaving doggerel for mates and nasty biz like “The Old Fools” or “The Card Players”. And yet even after three years of this came “Aubade”. I avoided the juvenilia, perhaps even out of superstitious respect. 5/5.


  • The Good Women of China (2002) by Xinran. Ripping, horrible portrait of patriarchal suffering – but undermined by the editing process; the narrative she ties the various cases of abuse, suppression and loss is too neat for my jaded nonfiction hopper. (I apologise if she just had a very cinematic few years as the most famous woman in the country, bearing witness, but the coincidences make it difficult to take it too seriously. I don’t actually doubt that the interviews happened, nor that she received the aggregate worry and misery for millions; so I’m not sure which part I’m taking issue with. The unnatural dovetail. China comes across here as a little village where Xinran was wise mother, and all distant rumours burst into her life. (Maybe my reaction is just a cheap defence mechanism against the thought of an 11 year old repeatedly giving themselves pneumonia to avoid their rapist father and other such tales of ordinary madness.) Nothing in the text matches the simple implicit horror of the hanzi on the cover: “nu” (female), nu+er (female + housework = woman), hao (female + son = good, The Good). Even granting that it is much easier to see oppression in cultures other than your own... 3/5.

  • In the Beginning was the Command Line (1999) by Neal Stephenson. Classic, cynical cultural history of popular computing. Also a noob-friendly guide to breaking free. (As such it's 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 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. “Apple are doomed because they are obsessed with hardware”). But astonishingly, most have not – and how many other tech articles from the 90s are still worth a single minute of your time? 4.5/5 for noobs like me.
  • * He uses this very metaphor in this short essay.

  • Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Fooled the World (2009) by Barbara Ehrenreich. Sharp, sharp! Blames the grinning tendency in its many forms – the New Age mystic sort, the New Age pseudoscience sort, the self-help, motivational, pink ribbon, megachurch, and positive psychology forms – for much suffering and tastelessness, including the whole 2008 financial crisis. And she writes with gigantic sardonic muscle: “I felt at that moment, and for the first time in this friendly crowd, absolutely alone. If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal taste, then what kind of reality did she and I share?… To base a belief or worldview on science is to is to reach out to the nonbelievers and the uninitiated, to say that they too can come to the same conclusions if they make the same systematic observations and inferences. The alternative is to base one’s worldview on revelation or mystical insight, and these things cannot be reliably shared with others. So there’s something deeply sociable about science; it rests entirely on observations that can be shared with and repeated by others… It is a glorious universe the positive thinkers have come up with, a vast, shimmering aurora borealis… It’s just a god-awful lonely place.” Was a bit disturbed by her personal impressions of the legit psychologists (Seligman’s profiteering and evasiveness, the apolitical blitheness of it). 4/5.

  • I, Robot (1940-1950) by Isaac Asimov. So sunny! So clumsy! (“His dark eyes smoldered.”) So misanthropic! (The humans call the bots “Boy”, who call humans “master”.) So warmly cool! 3/5. (The story ‘Evidence’ is 4/5.)

  • Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise of Living Alone (2013) by Eric Klinenberg. This research is very important – tracing the ideological roots of normative pairing, looking at chimps and orangutans and showing the deep flaws in the research that claims that married people are on average happier. But that’s all covered in the preface, and Klinenberg’s prose is canting and repetitive – after chapter 4 I could not stand any more of his interviewees’ corporate self-conceptions and language (“I needed this in order to grow as a person”). It is wholly cool and righteous to live alone; but talking about it this way is revolting. 3/5, once you’ve absorbed the headline.

  • Cash (1997) by Johnny Cash. Oh no! Just a list of sentences, and bucolic, undirected sentences at that. The origin story is obviously compelling, and the Sun records bit is tasty. But he fails to say anything very interesting about the road, the drugs, or the country Scene which he so resents, nor the amazing Rubin work which brought him back his immortality. There are flashes of spirit (“As I’ve often said, I grew up under socialism, and it saved my family”), but otherwise this is one long Acknowledgments page. 2/5.

  • The End of an Old Song (1957) by JD Scott. Good, nasty coming of age story of some Borders boys, one diffident and Carawayan, one coiled and voracious. The narrator's one distinguishing quality is eloquence about his friend, and for once this device is not taken for granted – people remark on his skill at describing and paeaning Alastair. He reuses certain idiosyncratic, ear-worm words – “illimitable”, “aviary” as an adjective for a woman – to great effect. (‘“She’s English.” I said. Alastair made a Scotch noise in the back of his throat.’) Annoyed at the conclusion – there’s an Oxfordian twist that I resent. But the details make it – rationing, the Scotch cringe, the good, miserable wages of sin. 4/5.

  • Hyperion (1997) by Dan Simmons. Starts terribly, with the broody protagonist playing a grand piano outside in a storm. Also, despite being set in 3200CE or whatev, it makes a gauche number of leaden references to the culture of C20th Earth. But the structure (6 tales from 7 travellers, from Chaucer) and the sheer variety of styles and themes soon kick in and drag you through its delicious cyber-goth intrigue. The poet character is fucking annoying, but he’s meant to be. (The key problem of metafiction: to write a great poet character, you really have to be a great poet yourself. Nabokov was, but even he dodged the issue by making Pale Fire about a flawed poet.) At one point it implies that Keats’ poems were retrocaused by the schemes of time-travelling AIs, which is a thing that must be admired. 4/5.

  • Government Expenditure Review Scotland 2014, and the Dunleavy Report, and the McCrone Report, and the Stiglitz Currency Advice, and the Fucking News (2014).

  • Why Moral Theory is Boring and Corrupt (c. 2009) by the Unknown Anti-ethicist. …And redundant, procrustean, and worse than nothing to boot! Interesting iconoclasm uploaded to the Open University unsigned. Their criticisms of thought-experiments and the absence of real emotional phenomenology from academic ethics are not unprecedented, but the constructive answer offered here is: “instead of calculation or logic-chopping, just love”. There are no hatchet jobs on humans here; the axe is for concepts and methodology. (Singer is cited as an example of what not to do, but not cruelly.) I think their attack on the psychological possibility of having a Master Factor ethical life by holding apart the criterion of rightness from the deliberative procedure is the only key wrong part of this; but if you disagree, then you may well never have to read moral theory ever again (just novels instead). I wonder whether they really couldn’t publish this under their own name. Anonymity has certainly suppressed interest, which, given this paper's power, speaks very ill of the ability of philosophers to transcend social pressure. (PhilPapers records just 97 downloads for the paper.) 4.5/5.

  • The Atrocity Archives (2001) by Charlie Stross. Four books in, I’m starting to get annoyed at every character sharing Stross’ fondness for naff nerd references at moments of high drama. But it took four books. So! Nazi mages, Turing as founder of scientific magic, and some very rigorous nonsense – e.g. the killer gaze of the Medusa is modernised as a quantum observer-effect in which the collapse of a super-position adds protons to carbon nuclei, forming silicon(!) Cosma Shalizi calls it ‘mind candy’, which is perfect. 3*/5. [Library]

  • In the Light of What We Know (2014) by Zia Haider Rahman. Two globish co-dependents of unequal intelligence but equal mawkishness take turns at monologue, for ages and ages. One’s oracular, the other Boswellian, which means that both talk about the nasty past of the oracular one, Zafar. Everyone’s always trying to educate everyone else, without invitation. Tragic, panoptic, and handles critical C21st problems – neocolonialism, quant finance, the ineffectiveness of NGOs, the nature of the transnational élite that administers all these things. But also dull, overwritten and clumsily polymathic (characters can be found over-reading, variously, Gödel, Middlemarch, the birth of Bangladesh, the Brit-pop band James). The book is aware of its pomp – there’s a long discussion of sincerity as virtue and vice, a raging attack on Anglophone Indian literature, and Zafar quotes more and more as he disintegrates, suggesting that the book’s larding of quotations is a knowing prop. But while I don’t know whether it’s Zafar or Rahman that the book’s clumsiness is rooted in, I don’t have to, to know that his conceit of desperate knowledge didn’t take root in me.

    I shouldn’t say panoptic: there’s only one woman in this, really, and we don’t see much even of her except as deceiver and appalling vehicle for privilege. Chapter 14’s good – a big bickering, drunken dinner with Pakistani elites, and there are details to admire throughout (Zafar broods over microaggressions, and some of his apercus are sparkling – like his characterisation of maths as “thinking without the encumbrance of knowledge”, or his likening of a good essay to “a good dress – long enough to cover the important bits, short enough to be interesting”). Last, very superficially: there are no speech marks, and this deadens the dialogue for me; it makes everything look past-tense and snarky. (Ok sure this works incredibly well in Blood Meridian, but only because all the men in that are wholly dead inside). Will Self minus electricity; Coetzee minus originality and 12-gauge philosophical calibre. Speaking as a pompous generalist and an inveterate over-writer… 3/5.

  • Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated by Olena Bormashenko. Ah, great! 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 with subtlety (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 bubbling under their dismal economics rings out without catching in the barrel: “HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE; LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!” 4/5. [Library]

  • Gave up: Another Country (1952) by James Baldwin. Doubtlessly important, but formally and lyrically grim. Impossibility of interracial love among racism, impossibility of calm for anyone with any really big plans, impossibility of sexual satisfaction, impossibility of peace for a manly man, impossibility of finishing the damn thing. [Library]

  • The Signal and the Noise (2013) by Nate Silver. A nice surprise! He's very pleased with himself (as well as being pleased with the Bayesian methods he owes his success to). But arrogance can be earned. (A minor peeve: the hot topics "data science" and "big data" are really just good old Victorian statistics with a sprinkling of Silicon Vally fairy dust. But don't tell anyone I said so, or my wage will drop 30%.) 4/5. [Library]

  • Reread: The Pleasures of the Damned (2009) by Bukowski. The anti-social phallocrat waves his pen in the wee small hours – yet often manages beauty. It’s a Best-of, but actually not his best. Bukowski is Springsteen after Rosalita, Mary, Janey, Sandy, Trudy and the rest have either moved town forever to get away from him, or died. 3*/5

  • Big Java – Late Objects (2013) by Cay Horstmann. And again I sign away my mind’s dirigible dilettantism for a whole damn year. I got a lot more out of Codecademy and being shut in a room until I eventually produce working code, though. 2/5. [Library]

Among the taller wood with ivy hung,
The old fox plays and dances round her young.
She snuffs and barks if any passes by
And swings her tail and turns prepared to fly.
The horseman hurries by, she bolts to see,

And turns agen, from danger never free.
If any stands she runs among the poles
And barks and snaps and drives them in the holes.
The shepherd sees them and the boy goes by
And gets a stick and prongs the hole to try.
They get all still and lie in safety sure,
And out again when everything’s secure,
And start and snap at blackbirds bouncing by
To fight and catch the great white butterfly.

- John Clare