13/02/2013

winter miscellany



Whoah whoah whoah whoah whoah:

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Unrequited friendship is rare; we find it very hard to like people who dislike us. (And the reasons it's so easy to love those who do not love us... are scary and we'll leave the question alone.)


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The most scandalous book I've ever read is not by the Marquis de Sade or David Benatar (and is certainly not Fifty Shades of Grey). No; for I recently picked up Roald Dahl's 1979 comedy My Uncle Oswald.
 
 
In it, the eponymous rogue, along with a livestock scientist and a beautiful accomplice ("Yasmin Howcomely, a girl absolutely soaked in sex") set about date-raping the great men of early C20th Europe. Then blackmailing them. And stealing their semen, to sell off.
 
No, really; rape is the principal plot device of this short comic novel. By drugging such figures as Monet and Proust with a psychotic aphrodisiac - and then representing the encounter as their rape of her - the three conspirators collect a Nobel sperm bank. This is really not erotica; most of the men are disposed of in one pithy paragraph, with only comic details supplied. My Uncle Oswald anyway has a claim to be one of the first real person slashfics in history. What honours.
 
It's scandalous because of its levity, too. Its plot has more in common with A Serbian Film than with Carry On, and yet it keeps up the latter's matey banter. At one point Yasmin comes across Picasso, who promptly rapes and dismisses her, without need of the "Sudanese blister beetle" drug. Needless to say, this is tremendous sport:
 
"Do you know what he did afterwards?" Yasmin said. "He just buttoned up his trousers and said, ‘Thank you, mademoiselle. That was very refreshing. Now I must get back to my work.’ And he turned away, Oswald! He just turned away and started painting again!"
"He’s Spanish," I said, "like Alfonso." I stepped out of the car and cranked the starting handle and when I got back in again, Yasmin was tidying her hair in the car mirror.
"I hate to say it,” she said, "but I rather enjoyed that one."

 
The prowess of the drugged men is also a means for Oswald to reflect on them generally. (The volume of cum produced is shorthand for his esteem of them, e.g.: "Fifty straws from Kipling.") It leaves Dahl room to propound a general ranking of the giant personalities of the eC20th. For instance, Einstein and Freud are able to resist their inverted rape for some minutes, and this earns both respect and suspicion. And Yasmin judges greatness directly by sexual performance. Of Picasso:
 
"Tell me," I said, "is Monsieur Picasso a genius?"
"Yes," she said, "it was very strong. He shall be wildly famous one day."
 
And of Freud:
 
"You should have seen his face, Oswald. You really should have seen it. The Beetle was hitting him and the sexcrazy glint was coming into his eyes and he was beginning to flap his arms like an old crow. But I’ll say this for him. He didn’t jump me right away. He held off for at least a minute or so while he tried to analyze what the hell was happening. He looked down at his trousers. Then he looked up at me ... He was really very decent about it all. As soon as he’d had his first explosion, and although the Beetle was still hitting him hard, he jumped away and ran back to his desk stark naked and began writing notes. He must be terrifically strong-minded. Great intellectual curiosity."

 
I think the low point comes in My Uncle Oswald's treatment of Shaw, by this stage a celibate old man with a number of chronic illnesses. They drug him three times the dose and:
 
"Who is there?" shouted a voice from behind the hut. It was a male voice, but high-pitched and almost squeaky. Oh God, I though, the man is a eunuch after all...

[after]... I heard a yell from the garden and in the half-darkness I saw this tall, ghostlike, whitebearded figure charging down upon us stark naked and yelling, "Come back, you strumpet! I haven’t finished with you yet!"

...I saw Mr. Shaw capering about on the sidewalk under the gaslight, white-skinned all over save for a pair of socks on his feet, bearded above and bearded below as well, with his massive pink member protruding like a sawn-off shotgun from the lower beard. It was a sight I shall not readily forget, this mighty and supercilious playwright who had always mocked the passions of the flesh, himself impaled now upon the sword of lust..."

Thus he is made into a real man - no more the humourless vegetarian prude. All very sad standard oppression, in "one of [Dahl's] lightest comic works".
 
Oswald is not Dahl; some of Oswald's opinions of his victims are cartoonishly snobbish; his actions are amoral; and he receives a brutal comeuppance for exploiting Yasmin that, it's implied, he never emotionally recovers from. It's a dazzling and ridiculous book, and as far as I can tell it has evaded all opprobrium because it was published in the gap between the sexual revolution and the rise of popular political correctness. Do you feel fine with this?
 

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"Many scientists are neurologically stale individuals: wholly uninvigorating. They strive away on whimsical applications because "that's what science is". While I can see where they're coming from - it's very good fun to immerse yourself in an application (say, making a better engine using physical arguments) - these people are technologists rather than natural philosophers."
- James Reid

As with all old institutions, the BBC has a lot of hangups, hangovers and strange crannies. (Think of the way that their ethics programme is still considered part of their "Religious" programming.) But this can be serendipitous too. Note the following quirky categorisation on their News site:


Now, "Environment vs Technology" would be one thing. Straightforward, if not an airtight opposition for all time. And in the quote just there James explains how the counterintuitive split "Science vs Technology" might be justified in noble terms.

But "Science and Environment"? That offers us a much better stereotype for scientists! (If you actually stop to think about the scientists you know/have watched on telly...): 

"When some portion of the biosphere is rather unpopular with the human race—a crocodile, a dandelion, a stony valley, a snowstorm, an odd-shaped flint—there are three sorts of human being who are particularly likely still to see point in it and befriend it. They are poets, scientists and children. Inside each of us, I suggest, representatives of all these groups can be found."
- Mary Midgley
 
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Will artificial intelligences have unconscious minds?

On the face of it, no; the AGI is to be a much cleaner system than ourselves. What with their exhaustive, recordable information sequences, there's no reason it can't have access to its own logs or code even. An AGI might be said to lack the mind's heuristic "System 1" entirely, just running a kind of System 2 very fucking fast instead.

Does this imply it's lacking in some way? What might it miss out on by being fully formal and epistemically internalised?
  • Creativity? Quite a lot of people put enormous importance on our unconsciouses. It is supposed to be the origin and fount of all our intentions and habits and personal mythology. Less credulously, we suspect that creativity is unconscious - and since David Deutsch holds that creativity is the "core functionality" and "defining attribute" of real intelligence, this is a matter of serious importance for AI techs.
  • The numinous? It would be a fascinating sight, seeing which world religion would allow nonhuman converts first. (Oh wait: it will of course be Buddhism. Duh. Online in 1994!) But would the AGI bother? Or be able to? 
  • Csikzentmihalyi's Flow? That is, will the AGI never get happily engrossed?
  • Intuition? Well, that's mostly good riddance. As Stuart Sutherland says, "Intuition is that strange instinct that tells a person he is right, whether he is or not."

No; the things it will miss out on without a dark mental backroom are prejudices, neuroses, and epistemic arrogance. (This we pray.)


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The final fuck is not approved for funding; consequent fucks must look elsewhere, for bread and apparatus. Absent yourself, apparatchik: you're not wanted, even though you may well be needed. My manifold disdain slinks along the ground of the logical space until I am distant from myself. Non-local. A twitched paradigm.

(That ^^^ was automatic writing; which I reckon an AGI could write an algorithm for - e.g. "link vocabulary with relaxed grammar with an eye to ironies, puns and resonances" - in about 10 seconds.)


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One of the best first lines I've ever seen:

"He was born in Paris in a big white house in a lane off Avenue Foch. Of a mother blonde and beautiful and a father quiet and rich."
- JP Donleavy,
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B

The book itself is sub-Wodehouse bawdiness, but my eyes are still tickled every time.


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Consider suicide the most general complaint one can make. A stinging review of one's experiences, acquaintances, possessions, and cultural position. A monologue without possible retraction or edit. An uninvited housecall.


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My granda: "Och. Snae use, you knockin in yer heid wi learnin... swannin aboot wi a paper in yer haund. Ging an dae sumhin!"

Yessir.



simplified humanism

death can't resist us;
we batter down death's door,
unconcerned about our lateness
and the shit we track into
death's carpets.

death is a meek curate, tolerant
and up all hours just in case.
Pray spare death.
Neither go gentle nor brash headlong
into death's good night, the pavement.

we might let death retire -
revoke our entitlement -
give over giving out -
somehow leave death alone.
[PERMA LINK]