Love Songs that are also Warnings to GTFO while you can

Me quitte. Baby please gon' go. Don't believe the hype. Think twice, it's alright. 'If you love them, warn them that you are awful and make everyone around you unhappy.' While there are plenty of egoist songs about how love sucks, or about banishing a wrong'un, songs which rebuff someone out of altruism take a leap of insight beyond most songwriters. (For reality is beyond them.)

1. Autoclave - MoGos
"Maybe it's the heat in here, maybe it's the pressure:
You ought to head for the exits, the sooner the better.
I am this great, unstable mass of blood and foam
And no one in her right mind would make her home my home

2. Absolutely Cuckoo - Magnetic Fields
"Don't fall in love with me yet / we've only recently met...
I only tell you this because / I'm easy to get rid of
But not if you fall in love...
Know now that I'm on the make / And if you make a mistake
My heart will certainly break / I'll have to jump in a lake
And all my friends will blame you / There's no telling what they'll do
It's only fair to tell you / I'm absolutely cuckoo.

3. Them's the Vagaries - Half Man Half Biscuit
"Now we've kissed I've writ this list, / I think you ought to know:
Well I’ll not sit backwards on the train / I can’t say I’ll always flush the chain
And what I call pleasure you may call pain / I’m talking five-day Tests
Prepare to lose your dignity as I ride to victory
Down the aisle at Tesco wearing nothing much at all...

4. Humpty Dumpty - Aimee Mann
"So get out while you can / Baby I'm pouring quick sand
And sinking is all I have planned / So better just go.
All the perfect drugs and superheros / Wouldn't be enough to bring me up to zero

5. Run (I'm a Natural Disaster) - Gnarls Barkley
when listened to after his Necromancer(!)(!)

"RUN! RUN AWAY! I have got a beast at bay...")

6. Good Girl - Roll Deep*
"Go ahead girl just be with him / I know I broke your heart so many times
But it's never tit-for tat, I could't allow that,
It can't be that / We both stay sacred and creative from the start
But now I've gone and lost my spark, I'm lost

7. Lachrymosity - Ed Harcourt
"You're much too good to me,
I'm wrapt in lachrymosity,
I'm a has-been no-good bastard
You're much too good for me...
Shared in the middle class is a penchant for misery,
They've seen that sorrow is not only bigotry...

8. Old Pervert - Robyn Hitchcock
"They say that I'm weird and disinfectant's the only thing I drink
Ah, but cleanliness of the soul is more important, don't you think?
And I could show you one or two things right there in my sink
I'm an old pervert and I just don't get around much anymore.


Two that don't fit, but are good and in the region:

9. Baby it's Cold in Here - Venture Bros
(Marriage as rage in amber - though they make up at the end. I just really like it.)

10. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden - Suicide Machines
"You better look before you leap / still water runs deep
and there won't always be someone there to pull you out / - you know what I'm talkin' about.

"Yeah, I'm crap, but come on a while."

There'll be fitting White Stripes, Arab Strap, Xiu Xiu, Tom Waits entries (not to mention grunge), but I haven't found them yet. (And I suppose 'Creep' also fits but, y'know.) See also please move on when I'm dead songs.

* Yeah so he's hardly sacrificing himself - he's not admitting much. But grime really did stretch hip-hop's emotional palette (where before, with few exceptions, there was only exploitative one-night stands or syrupy possessive monogamy.)



Say your workplace installed a machine by the door as you come in every morning. Say this machine's function was to turn off your consciousness, leaving (say) the body motive and intelligent, in a weak-AI way. Say that your work did not suffer in the least from the process. Say that at 5:30pm your body steps into the machine again and you are returned to yourself, unbored and pleasantly exerted.

This Anaesthetatron is less hedonistic than Nozick's Experience Machine, but still full enough of unreality to give a lot of us the creeps. But how many of us would use the machine regardless, on how many of our days? What does it say about our jobs or our minds that we would?


what's the highest moral wage?

(c) Jon Irving (2012), 'The Things I'll Have to Do Today Just to Eat'

Because giving money is regarded as an act of [unnecessary] charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified... To give money away is not charitable, or generous.

– Peter Singer

Forget about your worries and your strife; I mean the bare necessities,
That's why a bear can rest at ease with just the bare necessities of life...

– Terry Gilkyson

What amount of money can you rightly allocate to yourself, if you accept the premises of a hard-line consequentialist life? Call this amount the maximum consequentialist income (MCI), all earnings beyond which an ideal utilitarian would just give to effective causes.

We all know the minimum wage, but the idea of a maximum wage, like this MCI, is not common. The Soviet nomenklatura had one at first, though it was easily subverted and later abandoned completely. The Venezuelan civil service supposedly has one at the moment, though I imagine the same forces are acting on it as we speak. Those forces include our assumption of a right to unlimited accumulation, the Lake Wobegon effect, and magical thinking about the role of our effort in determining our earnings. Yet at least one group of people voluntarily impose a maximum wage on themselves to help others.

The classic argument for this, in case you're wondering what I'm on about:
  1. Many people suffer from lack of food, shelter or medical care.
  2. Suffering lack of food, shelter or medical care is bad.*
  3. "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it." (Strong Singer Principle)
  4. It is in our power to alleviate people's lack of food, shelter or medical care.
    • Since most British people have disposable income, broadly defined.
    • Since there are anti-poverty organisations who verifiably do alleviate poverty.**
  5. Aside from what I spend on necessities, my consumption is not of comparable moral importance.
  6. Therefore, give away what you earn above the cost of necessities (MCI)

A further argument for the MCI, from the nature of world wages:
  1. Accidents of birth place some of us in positions of high development and economic advantage, and most others in more or less terrible poverty. (Global moral luck)
  2. Your income has much more to do with the average productivity of your country than your own productivity. (Baumol effect plus borders)
  3. We can only deserve things we have some control over. (the Control principle: as applied here, 'if an accident of birth put me on track for higher wages, then I don't strictly deserve the surplus wage I receive.')
  4. Therefore, you don't strictly deserve the global surplus you receive.

If these arguments are right, it falls to the consequentialist to give away what they have not really earned and cannot use better than the world's extremely poor. The effective altruism movement tends to focus on percentages of income given or pledged - and this is only prudent, since it prevents the relatively low-income among us being turned off by stories of billionaires giving millions to thousands. (Incidentally, this calculator shows just how rich you are, even on UK minimum wage, as I am at time of writing.)

* This form of the argument mentions poverty relief for reasons of availability: these things don't work well without an example, and extreme poverty relief is an uncontroversially good thing. But the case for animal rights work or existential risk mitigation is often very strong indeed and I intend no prejudice.

A less unpopular form of the argument, which doesn't entail the MCI, runs as follows:
  1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
  2. "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought to do it.
  3. I can prevent people dying by giving more money to effective anti-poverty causes than I do.
  4. By giving more money to anti-poverty causes than I do, I would not be sacrificing anything morally significant.
  5. Therefore, I should give more to anti-poverty causes.

** Given reasonable interpersonal values, these organisations can use a unit of income thousands of times better than we can use it for ourselves, a margin far beyond econometric error or admin deadweight.)


APPROACH #A: Give yourself world average.

First let's try to calculate the MCI from the top-down. Since I'm no less worthy of consideration than anyone else, perhaps it's as simple as allocating oneself the global average income. For one childless person in OK health, then:

  • What's the average world income?: Something like £6,486 ($74tn / 7.13bn / £). But the mean is ridiculous, taking into account as it does the aneurysmally rich as if normal; let's take the median instead: the abysmal £1,772 at PPP. (World median household per capita / £).

  • Given the unemployed (6-9%), retirees (14%), children (26%) and those otherwise unable to work, only about two-fifths of the world is employed. So what's the average world salary? This is a hard question. Maybe £11,290. (Anyway it's not relevant for the fully strict utilitarian, see below.)

  • As you've probably noticed, this method has gone off the rails already: for a start, the most saintly (or monstrous) utilitarian must accept not the median but the marginal income ($730 a year). But much more because no-one can begin to live independently on £2000 a year, in Britain, except via homelessness or backwoods survivalism, neither of which conduce to many effective altruist jobs. (So the Singer principle is breached, and we try something else.)

    Of course this impossibility (even when you adjust for purchasing power) is the point about poverty, or 'average world income' as we're calling it. 

  • If that were not bad enough, there are also hard limits to the aggregate amount we should give, and these fall well before the marginal utility limit (at which we’re no better off than those we’re helping). There are least three large rule-utilitarian problems with a whole society becoming Singerian:
  1. Economic sustainability for donors. We're imagining an effective 75% remittance rate: the economic destructiveness of this cannot be overstated. A massive increase in giving is also a decrease by orders of magnitude in consumer spending, and so a proportionately tinier economy (millions of lost jobs, deflation, brain drain). There's also the foregone replacement of depleted capital stock, estimated at "11%" a year for Britain, whatever that means (chart 28 here) 200bn? I concede this point (as does Singer by the way), though the more idealistic of us can argue there’d be non-negligible positive effects from decreasing consumption, if the change was gradual enough. (Think about the environment alone.) When conceded, this leads to the oldest sticking point in the distributive book: the smaller slice of the bigger pie. We might give more overall with 15% of GNP than 40%, since total GNP would be that much bigger (and the country would still be there the following year). Where the line should be drawn is legendarily hard to say. 

  2. Perverse effects for recipients. Resource flows just one percent as large as the donation from hypothetical hyper-altruist Britain have in the past had 'hundreds' of severe perverse economic effects, from inflation to corruption to civil war. We sidestep this somewhat by emphasising that our work would be evidence-based (the 'effective' bit in effective altruism), but that much money is very unpredictable and genuinely hazardous.

  3. Cultural decline. Don't underestimate this; what becomes of culture, if no one pays for gigs or exhibits or such? (Even DIY nonprofit things rely on somebody willing to make a loss.) The consequentialist should be careful not to tear up all other kinds of value in pursuing economic justice, and become a mere 'machine for the redistribution of wealth'.

But these are irrelevant for our decision, since we can safely assume that we're acting 'at the margin', where there will be no mass movement toward radical giving.

One issue which does need solving now is the problem of composition. Note first that we know that the NGO Schistosomiasis Control Initiative can deworm someone for $1.28 including admin - a permanent substantial boost to one person's health, nutrition, and mental performance. Nothing I can get for myself can match this. (Nothing I could spend $1,000 on could.) So, naively it seems that any figure I set for the MCI could be eroded further, a dollar at a time, by applying the marginal utility rule - "Is this pie worth more to me than a deworming to someone in need? No." (ad infinitum).

The answer is to reject the use of marginal utility on its own; you need to derive a minimum baseline first. On which note:


APPROACH #B: Give yourself the sum of the cost of necessities.

Let's try from the bottom-up instead, adding basic annual costs, again for a childless Briton in OK health living in the average town:

  • Rent: £2700 (excluding London). ^
  • Food: £1500 (vegan...) ^^
  • Toiletries: £100? ^^^
  • Clothes: £200 (thrift threads). 
  • Bills: £1100 (incl internet). ^^^^
  • Tax: Depends entirely. Maybe £6500. *
  • Transport: £1300.**
  • 'Participation' (going out, gifts, misc): £500.***
  • MCI = £7400 + tax

Surprisingly neat. Of course most British people would consider this to be poverty itself (though that's an abuse of the word). And this does propose you live a student life forever, but that seems to be the price of virtue by these lights.

^ Average non-London rent: £684 a month; 684 x 12 = £8208 a year. This is for "homes", so it covers massive 5 bedroom places as well as bedsits though. The mode is 3 bedrooms (p.26 here) so let's run with that. Assuming you can find bohemians to share with, we'll divide this by (say) three tenants = £2736 each. The median will be lower (as will Scotland), but I don't want to just guess.

^^ £4 a day. Sparse: many pulses and little lush meat substitutes.

^^^ Yeah I dunno.

^^^^ UK average is £1,440, which seems high. (Mine was £940 between three people.)

* £26/week according to the JRF.

** On a £25k income, £5k income tax, £1.5k council tax. (For someone not pushing the earning-to-give line on the matter. Also without juggling tax brackets with deductibles and their shady kin.)

*** JRF says more like £2400 but they don't have bookish consequentialists in mind.


APPROACH #C: Give yourself a rich-world 'Living wage'

Or we could accept the estimates of British activists for British 'living wage'. The obsessive thrift and cosmopolitanism of the above seems to go against the work of lovely people like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and MIS towards ensuring a decent domestic minumum of about £16,000 (at 2013 prices).

In pushing in the direction of the much lower MCI, we might be seen to oppose the push for better wages for working-class British people (who are nonetheless, and at worst, still in the global top 20%). But thinking that the money should come from the lower end of the income spectrum is the same terrible mistake that people who rant about benefit scrounging instead of tax avoidance make: there's a vast amount of room for far less harmful redistribution at the top end.

The calculator here gives the UK living wage as&£16,852 for a singleton, at minimum (though it doesn't handle the flat-sharing setup I used in method B). This is what polled British people think one can really live on - "participating fully in the economic, social, and political life of the society in which they live". Who am I to say this is 'too much'? Well it's not too much, if we were the least well-off people in the world.  It's just that the SCI's $1 offer remains, and using method B's baseline instead of this one is equivalent to 4,800 more doses a year.



(c) Jon Irving (2011), 'Now We Build'

It was never contended by a sound utilitarian that the lover should kiss his mistress with an eye to the common weal.

– John Austin

The above took it for granted that strong individualist economic consequentialism is the right way to think about the right thing to do. I don't necessarily, though I respect it deeply. The real problem of utilitarianism (and other very demanding ethical schemes) is not that they require too much from us, but that they could easily be destructive of other (lesser) components of goodness when taken beyond the margin - I go into this in another blog post here. There's another! one about misgivings about the earn more to give more side of EA here, too

In short, a nasty consequence of strong consequentialism is that it invites us to disparage perfectly good activities (e.g. chess, poetry and anthropology) in the name of "People are dying!". The world according to Singer presents us with the choice of being irritating, or immoral.

My shonky solution is that we only have to maximise the extremely publicly-consequential components of our lives - roughly, career, consumption pattern, and ideology. Only those are worth the time it takes to do the research and run the optimisation properly, anyway. Maximise the big, satisfice the small. In this gap I plan to live.


virtue, work, and world to come [DRAFT]

A rich boy goes to college. He makes a lot of friends. They all think they are special and that they suffer in distinct ways, but they are all hurtling down the same world-historical funnel. They will attempt to professionalize their passions, or else just get jobs.

– Sam Lipsyte

Freedom in an unfree world is merely licence to exploit.

– Germaine Greer

[Epistemic status: Post is 60% incomplete, but I fully believe the gist of it.]
[Content note: suicide, people making the perfect the enemy of the good.]

Reportedly, the 'only really serious' philosophical question is whether or not to kill yourself. If we take the point of this to be that your answer to the suicide question might preclude you answering any other questions, and if the importance of a question is somehow transitive with the importance of questions it affects, then that's sort of true if you squint. But it is much more likely that you'll currently be faced with slightly less stark choices. Like: What will you (try to) do? Where will you do it? With whom?

"What will you do?" is the tough one: the other two usually follow in a straight line from it, even now, unless you choose to do nothing, or choose something that's wanted everywhere, like medicine, or web development, or having a really good flow.

But surprisingly few people explicitly think about these: instead you just fall into the job that happens to be going, and then you stay there if you can. (Or for academics: you slip into a degree based on your highest grades at school, and take on that field's fixations, and stay there if you can.) You live where you've always lived; and you go out with who you can. A default decision tree of life might run like this:

1)   What will you do with your life?
Don't really know. Money. House. Couple kids. Hobbies.

2)   Where?
Eh? Here. It's where all my stuff is.

3)   With who?
Well, with my mates, and Mr/Ms/Mx Right.

To get some help with (1), I spoke to the blue-sky pragmatists at 80,000 Hours about making myself useful (taking the 'effective altruism' omnibus). They're an ethical-career research group offering what you might call the Engineer's Guide to Moral Transcendence: they work by appeal to economics, cognitive science, and an arch-consequentialism. For people with the stomach for it, they recommend indirect altruism - things like 'Earning to Give', getting yourself a high income so as to sustain a high volume of charitable donation - as a surer, magnified way to benefit the world. This is because when we adjust for psychological availability, counterfactuals, and prestige, the effects of actions often turn out counterintuitive.

80k have a single pledge of membership: "I intend, at least in part, to use my career in an effective way to make the world a better place." Inevitable value conflicts aside ("better according to who?"), this is as good as anything so general can be.


0) Will you live?
Oh go on then.

1) What will you do?:
Help out.
a) How?
Professional effective altruism; doing as much good as possible.
i) Which 'ethical' career exactly?
Hm. Give me a minute; let me run the math.

Previously, I was inclined to just get myself two Professions (one pro bono professional role, and a moonlight public intellectual role), research a ruined geographical area, and get stuck in. (The initial list was public statistician / bioethicist / Teacher / Accountant; Dietitian.)

There is a shortage of meaningful jobs. This is probably not because people don't want to do them (the average British third-sector vacancy receives x application), but because there isn't the funding. Thus there is actually something prima facie wrong with ploughing on with that UN or whatever.
Three good reasons to Earn to Give, then:
1) It makes an actual difference. Terrible correlate!
  1. My labour is replaceable; in general, it just crowds out other people's.
  2. My donations are not.
2) You can fund multiple workers.
3) Not just preaching to the choir; into lucrative industries who are more likely indifferent and full of disposable income.

The unsexy and philosophically suspect mechanisms, maximisation and prioritisation take on enormous significance when lives are at stake.


‘Making a difference’, if it means anything, means bringing about good things that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. But then when people think about which careers are ethical, they often seem to focus on which careers do good directly – doctors, aid workers, campaigners etc... we want to bring about positive consequences that wouldn’t have happened otherwise: to really make a difference.

– Benjamin Todd

By connecting this vision with the mechanisms of labour and capital, 80k also raises a more systematic problem. In the face of grave ethical demands, how are our choices structured? Do we face a world where choosing a career is the most important decision we make? Or does this individual dilemma obscure a more complex and perhaps more contingent reality?

– Tom Cutterham

This hyperactive liberal humanism faces a lot of vitriol from the Left, though. Why not be a philanthropic banker? I've written an FAQ for this to prevent: none of the objections are fatal and many seem to me to be hollow applause lights.

Longer pieces criticising EA:
  1. Insider.
  2. Debate, one side ignoring probabilities.

Effective Altruism is part subversive, part conformist: subversive in its radical egalitarianism and its critique of complacent privilege; conformist in that it’s another force channeling us towards the traditional success model... the iron
logic of replaceability leaves many dreams dead on the ground, to be sure.
But is this a problem with EA as an ideology, or a problem with reality?

Rhys Southan

Further to not working in banking, but for non-ethical / non-political reasons:
  • It's boring.
  • The attitudes of the typical finance colleague are disgusting,
  • the common language of the whole professional sphere is disgusting,
  • the actions it enables are disgusting.
  • Worst of all, there's usually a vast split between the things that make you a good person and the things that make you a good worker. What we do at work leaks into our real lives. I'm determinist enough yet to admit that my surroundings can and will morph me - & who wants to be morphed, in habits, inner life and reference pool, into the compleat Accountant?
Sorted: no then. The gist of this debate about effective altruism is: "you can't do good without political engagement too". But social movements are also problematic. Further to not being a Trot:
  • We are working at the margin; we always base our decisions on the state of the rest of the structure and the tractability of the problems.
  • We maximise because, if one is undertaking a really effective type of action, small extra improvements can make a difference to hundreds of more lives.
  • Group dynamics (such as are found in social movements) distort us deeply: politics is the mind killer.
  • Group dynamics are also really boring.

Dhaliwal is obviously spot on about me and my sort: we have asked "what I can do?", rather than "what can we do?" I take this to be an argument for returning to my original plan, of a direct career in something helpful; while I eschew the larger and more tasteless transformatory political work, if I can give my life to direct work for the oppressed, I'm still not detached and contemptible.

Is that really solidarity? Not sure. Am I on the wrong side of history, then? Hardly. In the same way that no god who would punish me for my warranted doubts is worth abasing myself to anyway, no revolution who'd end me for deciding against their quixoticism is worth fomenting.
I want to be neither a high-impact shill nor an endless-vacation revolutionary. Thus do I learn the limits to my altruism: namely boredom, and suits (clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right).


Discussion of what might be lost when we follow very demanding ethics here.


  1. Give ‘em a bunch of stuff.
  2. Send some people to see what needs doing (Technical support)
  3. Give their governments a bunch of money.
    • Pros: Not remotely imperialistic. Prima facie efficient.
    • Cons: Corruption. Fungible with arms spending to an enormous, lethal degree (11%).
  4. Ask ‘em what they want and give ‘em a bunch of that stuff.
  5. Empirical development.

Among other things (mostly health interventions), turns out that “give ‘em a bunch of money” is a solid move.


They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
for trying to change the system from within.
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them.

– Leonard Cohen

The simplest objection to large giving pledges is simply that your money is yours: "I sold my labour to obtain this; so I get to decide what to do with it, no-one else has a claim to it." Textbook economics backs this territorial claim: "wages are just, because we are paid according to our relative productivity."

But the little-known fact of the matter, though, is that very little of your total wage is determined by your particular skills and negotiation. 3/4 of the average developed-world wage is a direct result of the wage level of the society you happened to be born to. In a strong sense: you are overpaid.

Most people in rich countries get the wages they do now only because they exclusively share their labour market with some very productive people, who outperform their counterparts in the developing countries by hundreds, or even thousands, of times... this kind of wage gap cannot be justified – how can you have two people doing the same job with equal efficiency being paid wages that are 20, 50, or even 100 times different.

- Ha-Joon Chang

This kind of moral luck is not tolerable.

What, then, is the highest wage one can justifiably allocate oneself? Or, to put it in a less loaded way, what is 'optimal'? I have a slightly shonky argument about this here.


With the caveat that I'd write critically about them, I joined Giving What We Can, anyway. With the caveat that it's messier than it looks, so should you.


Rorty and the Wild Party [DRAFT]

( or, the Problem of Pluralistic Consequentialism (or, What's the point if we can't have fun?) )

'The Battle of Love' by Cézanne (1880)

If I keep listening to Beethoven's Appassionata,
I won't be able to finish the revolution

- VI Lenin, though not really

People who sacrifice beauty for efficiency get what they deserve.

- Tom Robbins

Epistemic status: vague, grouchy, over-humanistic. 50%

In my teens I decided to rid myself of my guilt about guilty pleasures. I'd just admit to myself that I liked e.g. Kylie songs; I'd drop my ironic guard when I watched action films; I'd drop my masculine guard when I watched costume dramas. But the attempt to live up to strong moral consequentialism brings all that back in with vengeance: my morals tell me that everything I have that I do not need, in quite a strict sense of need, is possessed at the expense of some disadvantaged person's necessities. So much of my life is, or should be, guilty pleasure.

The last post was worried about the clash between social individualism and collectivism: what should someone who wants to help, promote justice, do? This one deals with a seemingly less morally significant, but actually much more grave clash, between romantic individualism and any activism. What should one do to promote all of, or the optimal tranche of, kinds of good things?

Richard Rorty calls the conflict between one's public moral desires and personal amoral desires after 'Trotsky' (the self as righteous instrument of social justice) and 'wild orchids' (the self as self: self-inventor, self-lover, self-satisfier). He also gave up trying to reconcile them, seeing, in philosophies past, a series of more or less deluded attempts at

holding reality and justice in a single vision. More specifically, [philosophers] want to unite their sense of moral and political responsibility with a grasp of the ultimate determinants of our fate. They want to see love, power and justice as coming together deep down in the nature of things, or in the human soul, or in the structure of language, or somewhere.

This is about right. I love Cézanne, but biographers like Alex Danchev who try to underwrite that love with gigantic claims of the artist's metaphysical and social importance are just straining to avoid choosing between their Trotsky and orchids. (In my case, Singer and Cézanne.)

Rorty accepts that value is several incoherent things, that you can't always or often have both e.g. justice and aesthetic decadence. He argues that the classic attempt to join goodness and truth (call it "value monism") is never going to work. This apparently self-serving pluralism is a dignified one because it can oppose a bad implication of unalloyed utilitarianism, namely:
Everything which isn't maximally ethical is immoral.
while still insisting on a moral life. (Meaning that the smaller pleasures and wonders of life - as represented by e.g. ice cream, regional poets, philosophers of dogs, and Medieval French Literature departments.)

This isn't quite the same as the Demandingness objection. Value pluralism: utility plus meaning


The pursuit of artistry... is by definition a subversion of the social contract, a forged-in-steel, plated-in-gold fuck-you to the notion of utilitarian enterprise.

- Bruce Stone

Nothing would count as a fulfilment in a world in which nothing is important but self-fulfilment.

- Charles Taylor

Even so, I take the following to be a fairly sturdy argument against any value-system that puts the most weight on aesthetics or entertainment:

Even if you believe that art is the most important thing in the world, logically you should still work to mitigate existential risks, since there will be no art if the world is destroyed, and little high aesthetic experience if the species dies. Similarly, there's a strong case that ethical aesthetes should work to raise others out of poverty, since many amazing potential artists are surely toiling at subsistence farming, or dying well before their productive years, right now.

That aesthetes do not generally act this way may tell us something about their real aim: it cannot be art per se that they wish to promote, but instead their own consumption of art. But then their task devolves to the ethical justification of extreme egoism, a tough sell in both rational and social terms.

Even if you believe that the point of it all is just enjoyment: if we are to make this premise anything more than mere special pleasing, we will choose to have less fun so that all may have fun one day.

This is the wonderful and twisty point about consequentialism: it reveals itself for most moral systems whenever they are applied, since moral systems tend to aim at promoting certain states, i.e. at causing some consequences rather than others.

You can either accept that your aesthetic value system implies normal consequentialist proximate goals, or you can place venal amounts of weight on your own experience of the aesthetic. I think those are the only good options, though I imagine aesthetes are likely find deontology or perfectionism tenable and appealing, unlike me.


I do not know if wisdom or truth-seeking is necessary for true value, as some have said. I do not know if pleasure is the only real value, with all other sorts of value really derived from how nice it is to contemplate having them, plus social delusions. I do not know that spiritual transcendence - some unworldly goal - is not what is really good. I do not know if the good is hopelessly culturally mediated, or even fragmented down to the level of billions of individual and incommensurable whims. I do not know if there is anything really good missing from a light cone tiled with hedonium and nothing else.

That is: we are sufficiently uncertain as to the nature of value to have to preserve many kinds of value, to ensure that we catch the real ones. (If there are real ones. If there aren't - if e.g. equipollent preference satisfaction is the only general statement of the good - then it will still be good to leave many kinds in place.) The world as conservation park, though hopefully without the predation that nature reserves have.

(Another excellent thing about EA, then, is that it admits confusion about both the means and what the ultimate ends are: we don't know which of the competing ideas of what action is for are most important, and we often don't know what to do to realise them. And science can help us find out. (This meta-ethical process, suitably narrowed to research on empirical questions, is called 'cause prioritisation' in the scene. We mostly centre on the avoidance of suffering, disease, and premature death, because those are prima facie the worst things in the world that currently exist.)


Aiming at strict consequentialist justice, means there will be no room for pootering about - except for that modicum of fun needed to keep the Instrument sane and not totally alienating everyone they meet. (Emma Goldman is perpetually misquoted on the matter.)

But there are values other than justice / utility, and virtues other than the obsessive propensity for moral action. This is a good and common reason to reject consequentialism in ethics: it's just too demanding, and in its haste to fix the world, it squashes out other components of the Good, like quiet private virtue.

Roughly, one of the other branches of the good is Meaning. Singer argues that a life of trying to help people is both good and meaningful. Secondary goals: Do not live for just the weekend; Do not suffer being subordinate to people you do not respect.

Worst of all, there's usually a vast split between the things that make you a good person and the things that make you a good worker. "A good life mainly depends on intangibles such as love, friendship, beauty, and virtue—things capitalism cannot produce and money cannot buy."

Redescription: "atomisation" or "increase in personal freedoms"?

But just as commercial life cannot supply large parts of the Good, neither can the saintly activist life. I wrote about this dilemma as being particularly stark in the counterculture here, but it applies to us all.


Our culture focusses on practicality. Good. But it expends that accumulation of practical (knowledge and willpower) in the main towards mere self-fulfillment. Boo. It's sort of admirable to resist the practicality trend, when done to e.g. foil neoliberalism*. But it's also simply not good enough. The world's a mess, we are not responsible but still have responsibility, and small improvements can be made with high confidence. The rest is rockism, i.e. romantic nihilism - a mindset which suits neoliberalism* fine.

* (or Shaitan, or whatever your worldview happens to call the ultimate corrupting agent or structure).

intersectionality, quality, shame

[Content note: internet social justice, discussion of rape.]

Been reading authors who pose a difficult question: how should we read talented people with serious moral or political failings? To catalogue them, Caitlin Moran was seen to be dismissive about black feminism; AA Gill kills sapient animals and insults ace women for fun; Malcolm X was (at one point) a violent pimp and burglar; and Rousseau abandoned his five children to their probable deaths and goes on about his superior virtue all the time.

(The dilemma is starker in the cases of private bigot Larkin, oblivious Nazi Heidegger, serial rapist Koestler, and straight-up serial killer Kaczynski, all of whom I’ve read with admiration and interest.)

The short answer’s that we totally can admire bad people's art or thoughts, and for a number of reasons: because it’s wrong to confuse the quality of a point with the status of the person who raised it; because we can separate our perception of something from our approval of it (we’re not so easily programmed by nasty artefacts!)*; because denying value to things of value does no-one any good; but most of all because talent is simply, often, sadly, independent of biography.** (Elsewhere I argue that the right move's to not pay for the work of bastards, and to tag them as what they are.)

In truisms: 'If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.' To attempt to understand is not to pardon, but to ignore is.


Against this uneasy pluralism, an unargued doctrine is doing the rounds:
'A person’s politics form a whole; if any part is unacceptable, then their whole politics are.' Or, even stronger: 'A person forms a moral whole; if someone does something questionable then they / everything associated with them is to be wholly rejected.'

Call this latter version Tumblr holism. We can reconstruct an argument for this, given ambient attitudes often displayed***:

  1. A person’s politics are rooted in their morals or psychology. ("The political is personal")
  2. If any part of their politics is bad, then their morals or their psychology is bad.
  3. For moral hygiene or for social deterrent, shun bad people.
    (because e.g. "One must be intolerant of intolerance.")
  4. So shun people with bad politics. (2+3)

  5. 'The personal is political'. Noncriminal private acts can be matters for public policy.
  6. So noncriminal private acts fall under the shun radius of premise 4. (4+5)
  7. So shun anyone who does wrong in their personal life. (4+6)

  8. Who a person chooses to be friends with reflects their politics. (see 5)
  9. So shun anyone who is friends with bad people. (4+8)

  10. A person's work necessarily reflects on their politics.
  11. So shun the work of anyone who does wrong. (4+10)

'The white-hot rage that dwells in compassion'. There’s a lot going on and going wrong here, even aside from only premise 1 and 5 being probably true. (And then not straightforwardly.) Mostly it strikes me as elevating a psychological defect – the ‘halo effect’, by which we automatically and illicitly transfer evaluations about a part of a thing to the whole – to the status of a moral imperative. And the holist throws away some of our most remarkable talents: the capacity to admire without agreeing, to admire work while condemning the worker, to distinguish use from mention, and saying from doing.

(I’m not making any big points about how taking things so personally makes a kind of good thought impossible, yet. And actually I agree you can't understand much that's wrong with society without grasping why some members of it are compelled to take horrible things personally, AKA 'identity politics'. Yet that view does not entail the Tumblrite quest for political purity.)

Some form of premise (5) is important if we're to disallow the old behind-closed-doors abuse: private vices can be indicative of public vices. But it would only unconditionally apply to more consistent agents than us: we are inconsistent beasties strange even to ourselves. 'The personal is political' says, 'Everything is connected'.

But not everything is connected, inside humans. Is Frege's anti-semitism 'connected' to his predicate logic? Is Hume's abolitionism connected to his racism? Only in the most general near-empty sense, that the views were endorsed at various points by the same mind. Be suspicious of any pat psychoanalytic unification of anyone, because they barely knew their own ideology from their elbow in life; no psychoanalyst could grasp the entirety of them. (Does this put too much emphasis on how bastards consider themselves? "Intention isn't magic", you say? No, I should think it's not. But the principle of charity can be.)

The key line is of course premise (3). It is an old, old urge, shared by people of all politics (except bloody centrists). Here it comes out as 'One must be intolerant of intolerance.' Well so I try to be, but nothing in that decree requires us to delude ourselves that our enemies are devoid of all virtue. But if you’re puritanical – believe that your politics are not only righteous, but the only way of resisting social evils – then a boycott of those who disagree with you seems to follow. But at our own expense too: it’s easy to see how this behaviour insulates us from real disconfirming evidence, and leads to the exaggeration of, well, everything.****

One-strike systems don’t serve justice because they neglect the omnipresent risk of our just cocking up. What's more, they could actually suppress potential reform – if a bastard is condemned from the start, he has no reason to change - and in fact is given grounds for entrenching his bastardy, and antagonising the good guys.

Also, wait. Does it make sense to extend holism to animals, those incontestable 'subalterns': the literally voiceless and literally erased? Ought we ostracise those who are not at least vegetarian, who are thereby reinforcing this most violent and unspoken of structures, and who are thus in breach of premise 5? The point is 40 years late as an original thought – feminists like Carol Adams have been linking meat to politics for ages – but current as a reductio of one-strike political ethics. What we’d gain in consistency and solidarity with the non-human, we’d much much more than lose in basic effectiveness. In fact it's hard to imagine a better strategy for making the movement irrelevant. (I direct you to the walking liability named Morrissey.) Apart from anything else, I’d never get to speak to any Italians ever again, and that’s a heavy burden.


Tumblr holism (and its attendant public shaming) is conducted in the name of the trendy concept intersectionality. In its sociological version, intersectionality covers some important obvious truths: that people are complicated - always belonging to more than one social group - and that treating them as if they were only e.g. ‘Chinese’ or just ‘a woman’ or ‘disabled’ will have nasty consequences, not least because stigmatised identities perhaps compound in unstraightforward ways. (e.g.: taking employment as a very rough measure of advantage: in the UK in 2011, the unemployment rate was about 6% for men, but 10% for men of Pakistani origin, and 15-20% for Pakistani women.) It also handles the converse: imagining that members of a group all experience the same pressures the same way could be harmful. Basically "people have got a lot going on: be careful".

But the applied pop versions are much less obvious and much more hazardous. They take the form of the above one-strike halo, premise (6), some cannibalistic habits, and a fatuous rule for all fiction and nonfiction: 'if you want to talk about anything you must talk about everything'.

(This last rule is a consequence of their strict and somewhat admirable attitude toward representing all groups in media: to omit any of the many, many sorts of person from your fiction or social commentary is said to be erasure or silencing, grave forms of oppression. The problem with the full-fat version of this attitude is simple: no-one can ever tell the whole truth because it'd take too long. So they're shouting at people who cannot ever satisfy them. But the 'Recognition' programme is sound in other ways, and a start can and should be made.) I suppose what they're after is a proportionate and meaningful share of creative direction and characters
("Hey, I count 15 principal characters in your show - to be fair, please make 8 of them women or non-white or both. Yours, The Internet")
but this isn't what the comments say. Still: fiction can be held to higher standards than reality, simply because it is easier to change.


Let's review the imputed argument for shunning anyone who has ever done anything bad and everything associated with them.

In premise 6, how wrong is wrong enough to earn a blanket ban? Well, SJ people don’t bin Rousseau on learning of his lapses in parenting, so mere callousness and irresponsibility don’t cut it (and anyway that was ages ago). Nor is it a matter of ordinary ethics or law – we don’t fret too much about Kaczynski for his horrific letter bombs. Larkin’s internal offences are enough though, despite never showing in his work or (reputedly) personal conduct.

Just there I marked normative terms with ` (not scare quotes!), because the use of "bad" there is not much connected to the general usage - "what causes suffering to anyone" or "what is unfair to anyone", say. The criterion is not universalist suffering but souped-up political correctness: whenever someone reinforces a bad 'structure', they have stepped outside polite society and the door is barred. The interpretation implied is basically discriminatory: only structural oppression can fill the 'bad politics' or 'bad private acts' clauses. White tears are for drinking, not for breaking lives over.

Against this, note that structures are averages; using them as blanket rules for individual cases (á la “all rich people are exploiters and bastards”) leads to a straitjacket of categories which real people rarely fit, which are self-fulfilling, and which straits intersectional people are meant to be opposed to.


There is actually one very good argument against reading bastards, though it has little to do with the bastards themselves: it's just that attention is a limited quantity, so by reading the bigoted (or just famous) you're sort of taking away time that could be spent on widely-ignored books by subaltern people. This is true enough, and I'm going out of my way to make my all-topics reading list half women, half nonwhite, and 6% LGBT (these aims somewhat biased toward my British part of the noösphere). There are enough books in the world by all sorts of people to make the usual objections to positive discrimination less relevant than they usually are.

The big problem with this is that the sexist (etc) state of fiction, nonfiction, and academia requires the perfect positive discriminator to avoid most books. But we were doing that anyway: the reading list of any halfway curious person is twice as long at least as their life time.


Reading bad people doesn't make the world worse; it almost certainly doesn't make you worse; and if you're not a tactless ass about it, it won't make any spaces unsafe - so (assuming you're a consequentialist, pardon) reading bad people is fine, so we do not need to actively police bad content out of our lives. The rest is symbolism; that is, the rest is noise.

Even though it is so conceptually troubled, Tumblr holism does have practical recommendations: where there is a choice between quality comrade and quality bigot, we ought opt for the one without unacceptable facets. (This is in fact probably the way to improve a public arena; swapping out bastards.*****)

Except Larkin is not interchangeable; no real poet is. I’m no Heideggerian, but H says interesting things, few of which imply totalitarianism (pace Levinas). Kaczynski is unrepentant about his utilitarian violence against the innocent - violence which his works certainly do incite; we need to understand what reasons a perhaps sane man could have had. Gill’s whole oeuvre is a game played with public pieties; he expects and accepts our rightful opprobrium. (It's a living.) Malcolm X had a road-to-Damascus moment on the road to Mecca and much of what he says after 1964 is amazing. His abstract endorsement of violence may even have been a decision-theory ploy ("You get freedom by letting your enemy know that you'll do anything to get your freedom.") Next to this lot Moran’s gaffe is more easily seen as the facetious thing it was, regarding one tv show rather than wholesale indifference to a tenth(?) of the entire world’s pain.

In any case we must read our opponents and grant them whatever truth and art they manage: our antagonist is our helper, whether they or we like it or not.



*  There are supposedly effects involving involuntary psychological 'contamination' and 'priming' of belief by irrelevant or vivid information. But these have been failing to replicate like crazy, and most were very temporary, and were never shown to affect core emotional /moral domains much.

Interesting, then, to note the similarity of the anti-Page 3 campaign and the old anti-GTA one: they each assume that portrayals are productive of sexism or violence rather than products of them, to some greater extent. Conservatives call this production the tendency to deprave or corrupt, which phrase makes it easier to see the condescension involved. The evidence is actually inconclusive on the social harm from porn, at least in terms of sex- or gender-related crime - since porn images may have effects on body image^^, and since the existence of No More Page 3 is constitutive proof of some harm. But you can and should support getting rid of Page 3 out of respect, rather than symbolic paranoia.^ Also on grounds of taste, but that can't be a sufficient argument for a democratic soul. The question to answer is not "Does Page 3 make people sexist?", but just “Is it sexist itself, and is that something we'd like to be different?”

^ And yet sexism is all over the place. If not our media, where are we to say it comes from? Well, that's a question to build a long academic career on answering, but the prevalence of patriarchal biz in literally all current and historical societies including the vast majority who lacked sexist mass media should perhaps point us elsewhere. If you care what I think, it could be: childhood exemplars, plus direct cultural cues like gendered reinforcement, plus religious hangovers, plus men's egoism and selective blindness^^^, plus women's 'defection', plus most of all simple mimicry and peer pressure, following some evolutionary seed or other.

^^ To what extent? Again, non-media sources are far better predictors of low esteem and dysmorphism. This surprisingly clear and thorough govt review found that: "The majority of research indicates that exposure to idealised body images can result in a small to moderate reduction in body satisfaction and body perception (e.g. Grabe, Ward, & Hyde 2008)... However, this finding is not universal. Some studies have failed to replicate the finding and have instead found that exposure to idealised body images has the same impact as being exposed to images of inanimate objects (e.g. pictures of homes and gardens, Holmstrom, 2004). For women who are only slightly bigger than the models used in the media, exposure to media images improved their body satisfaction (Holstrom, 2004)." Again, this does not excuse the somewhat lethal emphasis on certain body norms; it just shows that its effects are (blessedly?) limited, compared to the effect of peers and explicit ridicule.

^^^ i.e. 'privilege', an abused but still potent idea.

** If you don’t believe this – if you can think of no piece you admire in spite of its author, out of the predominating millions of masterful bastards in world culture – then your senses are terminally laden with your politics, and there might be nothing you can do to access the whole other world of value beyond the moral.

*** Actually three arguments occur to me: the above moral hygiene one; alternatively, the argument from mental hygiene or else this argument from emotional hygiene.
However, these arguments fail in our case, reading: reading problematic people is neither brainwashing nor an involuntary invasion. (I doubt the arguments apply to IRL interactions either, except insofar as it should be up to you who you spend your time around. For a much deeper discussion, do see Scott Alexander, a rich white straight nerd and a beautiful, profound person.)

**** To be clear, these writers deserve absolutely no special dispensation; talent in no way commutes bastardy. Polansi's impunity is a stain on French (and American) justice. But, again: to the extent that the work is untainted by their cruelty or stupidity, to that extent it remains great, and we're irrational to forget this.

That's the theory. Neil MacArthur calls the practical issue with handling the work of brilliant bigots in public the Koestler problem (after Arthur K, a voice of world conscience posthumously outed as a serial rapist). It is a doozy:

Given that famous intellectuals who are also sexual predators have their predations enabled by their celebrity, how are we to behave towards their work and ideas? Koestler is now long dead, so teaching and citing his work does not put anyone at risk. But pretend he were alive. Could we teach him, cite him, write about him? The simplest solution would be just to ignore him... [but] the view that we have an obligation not to promote the work of moral monsters runs hard against two other, very fundamental obligations we have as philosophers and academics: to expose our peers and students to critical discussion of the best, most important ideas available to us, and to give the originators of those ideas due credit for their insights...

At least in the classroom we could, I suppose, try to contextualise the work, by informing our students the sort of person the author was. But Koestler was never charged with a crime, and, though historians have managed to accumulate quite compelling evidence, it would surely have been slanderous during his lifetime to introduce his writings as the work of a rapist.

No easy response to this - though I take it that it is mostly safe to talk about dead bastards (apart from the weak incentive I suppose it gives people who value their intellectual legacy more than basic non-monstrousness).

**** This and much of my position relies on a solid distinction between public virtues and private virtues that holists are likely to reject. Such is political philosophy.

***** What about untalented people with serious moral or political failings?: Fuck em and everything they stand for.


Been reading, Q4 2013

(c) Timothy Leo Taranto, (2013) "Ernest Lemingway"

Here’s the bird that never flew,
Here’s the tree that never grew,
Here’s the bell that never rang,
Here’s the fish that never swam.”

- Glasgow city motto

Mankind has various ways, some of them too technical to register as art, of adding to the store of beautiful things.
- Clive James

Unemployment, so the library. (Free meaning, also free heating.) Worked back up to my big themes (Formal theory v informal humanity, Scottish independence, the contemporary Left). Books by Gill, Malcolm X, Rousseau, and Moran pose a really big question: how should we read people with moral or political failings? I blab on about this here

1/5: Avoid: significantly false and clichéd or ugly. 
2/5: For enthusiasts only, or, very bad prose with ok content.
3/5: Skim it, some worth. 
4/5: Read attentively; true, novel, or good. 
4*/5: Outstanding. 
5?/5: Outstanding, might reread it. 
5/5: Too much for one reading, or, deserving refreshing. Vade mecum.

  • Open the Door! (1920) by Catherine Carswell. Wise but wearing bildungsroman, full with super-Romantic sincerity. Joanna’s life is about embracing pleasure and freedom, but is suffused with the bible; even living godlessly, J thinks in its language and punishes herself in its mood. Unconventionally emotional: while she doesn’t love her husband (“What they had was not love, but it had beauty, and it served.”) and doesn’t grieve her mother’s death, Joanna (and Carswell) are brimming with strange new emotions: at one point she’s thrilled to ecstasy by a dripping tap. (“It was the still small voice of a new birth, of a new life, of a new world… For it was the voice before creation, secure, unearthly, frail as filigree yet faithful as a star.”) Ornamented, worthy, but hard work. Probably important.
    3/5. [Library]


  • Read on the bus: Moranthology (2012) by Caitlin Moran. Gleeful, rarely zany. I don’t laugh at books much, but snorted all the way through this on a long megabus. The middle section on class and gender is light and uncliched and makes her fall from grace among strict people all the sadder.

  • The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) by Oliver Sacks. Repetitive and overwrought, but also of course astonishing and extravagant and humane. Quirky case-study format and title suggest a voyeuristic pop sci jaunt, but it’s deadly serious, theoretically couched, concerned with the poor buggers’ well-being. He’s against “mindless neurology and bodiless psychology”, the long tradition of cognitive elitism and relegation of emotion and spirit in his field. “Disease is not always just an affliction, but sometimes a proud engine of altered states” – so a man with severe Tourette’s is an excellent pro jazz drummer, a woman with debilitating migraines is the polymath Hildegard of Bingen. Sacks has a funny habit of using philosophers’ names as misrepresentative pejoratives – a man with radical amnesia is a ‘Humean’ (a flow of unrelated sensations), a woman who loses sense of her own body has a ‘Wittgensteinian’ life (because doubting the hinge proposition ‘here is a hand’). Actually, that last one works, never mind.

  • Seeing Things (1991) by Seamus Heaney. Don’t like nature poets. I can’t pardon their casual nihilism about science and humanity, however much beautiful innocence they display. But Heaney’s a naturalist, not a nature poet. He talks about the same few things – stone, dirt, the nature of light for a child, the act of building, wind – hundreds of times and still casts newness. It hurts to read it, for some reason – he’s never miserable, and rarely handles tragedy explicitly, but I get tight behind my eyes, short of breath.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Read aloud: The Shape of the Violin (1997) by Andrea Camilleri. Cynical but not very cynical, funny but not very funny. Uses food for comic and existential relief between murders. Maybe Sicilians love the book's local colour, but meh. Half a point to compensate for translation.

  • A Point of View (2011) by Clive James. Ah! pleasure. What others get out of Wodehouse or Rowling, I get from this grumpy old Australian’s stoic nonfiction. Had my notebook handy the whole way through, sieving gold gobbets.
    4*/5. [Library]

  • The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009) by Chinua Achebe. Title suggests nostalgia for colonialism, a gag which needs you to know who he is to work. He waffles a bit, full of avuncular banality as well as post-colonial ire. The most shocking anecdote is of Jim Crow in Africa – up to 1961, black people had to sat behind a partition at the back of the bus, in fucking Zambia.
    3/5. [Library]

  • The Classical World: Homer to Hadrian (2005) by Robin Lane Fox. Was tired of my own titanic ignorance (Where was Carthage? Were Spartans Communist? Did Greeks ever love their wives? What did upper class women do all day?) and mostly got answers. Bit of a story-book, though he does always tell us when he papers over something controversial. Most common phrases in this are ‘surely’ and ‘in my view’ (e.g. he just says that the Greeks probably had our kind of parental affections), which is nice.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine (2013) by Paul Offit. Heinous illusions leech £200bn off the world’s vulnerables, annually. The problems of CAM have been covered with more originality and verve by Goldacre / Singh & Ernst, but Offit covers its history, as well as some newer meta-analyses (2005: n=136,000 finds increased mortality from dosing vitamin E. 2008: Cochrane (n=230,000) concludes multivits correlate weakly with increase in cancer and heart disease risk, further confirmed in 2011). But you can’t hear these ideas too often: there’s no such thing as conventional or alternative medicine (only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t); everything is chemicals; origin is irrelevant to chemistry; too much of a good thing is lethal; the natural is not always or generally good. I’d say Offit’s too quick to jump from the conclusive (weak-magnitude) evidence against multivitamins (particularly overdosing vitamins A, C, and E) to his simple attack on all supplementation. For instance: some two-thirds of the world is deficient in vitamin D; few people get enough magnesium through their food; and it’s uncontroversial that vegists should supplement B12 and creatine. But we’re not really in conflict, because he’d change his mind if he looked at the evidence, and we each accept that (public-funded) science will out the truth.
    Prose 2/5, ideas 4*/5. [Library]

  • Previous Convictions (2009) by AA Gill. What an excuse of a man he can be, but what a writer he always is. The piece on golf’s characteristic - hilarious, fluid, razor-bladed. The basic problem with him: his horror of golf would be better spent on actually horrific things (e.g. his own aestheticised violence). To be fair the second half’s travel pieces spend exactly that: from being right inamidst hallucinatory police brutality in Haiti, to the Africa pieces which buck stereotypes and complacency. There’s vast sensitivity or sensibility in him, but he pairs it with a kind of generalisation (e.g. “begging is a consequence of opportunity, not poverty”) and off-piste counter-PC phrasemaking, as if to shock us out of respecting him. He uses Jeremy Clarkson brilliantly – as stooge, counterpoint to Gill’s own professed post-masculine, pro-gay, pro-grey, pro-oppressed enlightenment. But then he reports all these uber-macho exploits and self-conscious leering at women. What compels him to be so indirect about being progressive,? It’s that he wants to be both LAD and liberal intellectual, but needs the approval of neither side.
    4/5. [Library]

  • Feynman (2011) by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick. Properly brilliant man with a peerless anti-authoritarian anti-pomp streak. But this is hagiography, presenting his good puns as profundities and his bad puns as good puns. It avoids his maths and almost avoids physics, which needless to say is vitiating in dealing with the Lives of technicians. Worthwhile for its 20-page comic distillation of his (already distilled) pop masterpiece QED.
    2/5. [Library]

  • My Shit Life So Far (2009) by Frankie Boyle. He is more than he’d have us think – but that isn’t saying much, since his core gag is wanking over inappropriate objects and taunting the weak. Book’s tolerable when he’s busy liking things – Chomsky’s politics, Grant Morrison’s comics, Moorcock, old Clydeside socialism – and hating on the powerful (he disses working in the civil service). A cursory rant against PC, which he bizarrely (satirically?) blames on the Mail. Humane islands in an insincere sea. On marriage: “Fuck it, I tried”; “we struggled along like badly set bones”. Makes Gill look like Tolstoy. Higher humour’s about laughing at yourself.

  • Read aloud: The City and the City (2009) by China Miéville. Heavy-handed metaphysical mystery (“there is another world - economic world, national world - visible but the vision suppressed”). His usual incandescence is present under a shade: the prose is conventional, with spectacular Miévillian words like ‘topolganger’ (identical-but-Other place) popping up only twice a chapter, rather than page. Similarly his characteristic details – protagonist Borlu is in an open relationship with a woman identified only as an economic historian. Hints of the Matrix’s ontological sensationalism and noir’s worn-out idioms, but it works because Mieville’s good enough (with ontology, but also generally) to redeem clichés. tC&tC twists repeatedly without losing credibility; the Cities’ omnimalevolent atmospheres make great noir. There’s even a rooftop showdown. An unfair consequence of extreme talent is that your ‘merely’ interesting well-constructed books are marked down, judged by ghostly expectations.

  • Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (2006) by Derek Wilson. Poppy, secularish, filled a large gap. Downplays Luther’s anti-Semitism, who knows if rightly. A huge, dictatorial person, without whom fake European unity could have continued and prevented Enlightenment and the attempt at real European unity.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Capital (2012) by John Lanchester. Grand account of London’s strange socio-emotional contortion up to 2008. When he listed the banker’s sky-high rationalised outgoings (“nanny: £20,000 plus employment tax nonsense”), I thought Capital was going to be a didactic book; when its first chapters revealed its prose to be plain story-book, I thought it was going to be pat and mundane. Instead it’s humane, deliberate and clear, implying radical critique while focussing on the inside of the matter, flicking between a dozen vivid characters (who collide neatly in the very way of The C21st Novel) and noting the sharp line between the City people and the immigrants who serve them. (There’s a sick sharp bit where a pro bono human rights lawyer is looking to be begged for their services.) Lanchester uses whodunit tension without detracting from Capital’s main achievement, which is engrossing ordinariness (traffic wardens and Polish rewiring, infidelious twinges and infant irrationality).
    4/5. [Library]

  • Celebrity Culture (2006) by Ellis Cashmore. Kinda lightweight sociology. Picked it because it asks the right questions in its Contents (“What part did consumer society play in making us dote on celebrities? When did the paparazzi appear and how do they pedestalise and destroy people? How are cosmetic surgery and the preoccupation with physical perfection linked to celebrity culture? Why have black celebrities been used as living proof of the end of racism? How have disgrace and sexual indignity helped some celebrities climb onto the A-list?”). But while chatty, he’s critical in an uncritical way, high on anecdote, low on data - and there are no footnotes. Cashmore’s answers are thus suspect, trendy. The big contrarian move in sociology is to view fans as active & canny manipulators of the ‘culture’ (…)

  • The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008) by Simon Critchley. List of little biographies, ends and attitudes to endings. Plenty of good anecdotes – Avicenna’s raging horn, Nietzsche’s supposed 'lethal masturbation', Ayer vs Tyson – but Critchley’s argument (“my constant concern in these seemingly morbid pages is the meaning and possibility of happiness”) is lost to me in the plurality of attitudes on display. His new canon is a success anyway, including as it does Mohists and Daoists, Christian saints, John Toland, women. Good toilet book, or introduction to (continental) philosophy.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Interpreting Pollock (1999) by Jeremy Lewison. Does Expressionism do anything but look cool and foil the old School of Paris? I’m a slave to content, so I resent the mindless haste and vitiating freedom of Pollock and Co’s anti-painting, born of the macho belief in chaos (cf. Hunter Thompson, Jim Morrison, Debord). But Pollock’s not empty nor, really, chaotic. Apart from anything else, he makes Picasso look smooth and Mannered, a useful service. Apart from anything else, nothing made or viewed by humans can be non-representational. I like Full Fathom Five & The Deep (1953).
    2/5 [Library]


  • Cultural Amnesia (2008) by Clive James. Dark, teeming cultural biography of C20th humanism and enemies. James homes down to “the relationship between Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front and Richard Burton’s pageboy haircut”. It’s full of faded and non-Anglo stars (Egon Friedell, Arthur Schnitzler, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Paz, Urena), villains (Brassilach, Celine, Pound, Sartre, Brecht), pop-defining celebrities (Beatrix Potter, Dick Cavett, Michael Mann) and sad outrage. It’s also or really an autobiography, a list of the people and one-liners that struck James as he travelled the century. WW2 and the Soviet Empire dominate as the most deadly instances of the theme “how politics invaded art and came close to killing it”. I can’t suggest this is inappropriate. Other themes: irrational violence, the nonconformist left, collaborators and fellow-travellers, Jewish achievements, the failure of totalitarian simplicity, ‘the American century’, rise and fall of jazz. He falls for clash-of-civilisation talk a bit, but he’s never conservative without a reason. I think what I love about him is that he stands up for boring truths – ‘it takes another power to keep a power in check’, “the law’s imperfections are tokens of its necessity” etc.
    5?/5. [Library]

  • Read loud: The Divine Comedy (2013) by Dante and Clive James. He claims Amnesia took him 40 years to write and that this translation took 50. Lucky he saw the two keystones to the end! I was surprised by how much of Dante’s this audacious fleshing out of vague Scripture is revenge verse; standing in judgment over historical (Alexander, Attila) and contemporary enemies (his Latin teacher). He was probably echoing Church proclamations, but still: the author as towering demigod. After Book One you’d be forgiven for thinking that most people in hell are Italian. It’s impossible to ignore Dante’s medieval sneer in places (even though he was a big liberal by the going standard): he parades the Church’s varied idiot retributions, some of which persist, e.g. promising suicidal folk that they are going to get fucked up, or having sweet modest Epicurus roasted alive forever for holding the soul to be mortal. The final, most irredeemable circle of hell is reserved for, well, me: childless anti-nationalist atheists. Didn't quite have the stamina, but I'll be back.
    4/5 but da capo. [Library]

  • Radical Evolution: The Promise and Perils of…  (2005) by Joel Garreau. Pop account of scary/apotheosising technological accelerations and explosions. (AKA transhumanism v bioconservatism.) We face four types of potentially dislocating technologies: Genetics, Robotics, Infotech and Nanotech. Garreau gives loads of stage time to two dogmatic cranks from each side: Kurzweil (booster technocrat), and Fukuyama (neocon fearmonger) as well as an unclassifiable polymath, Lanier. But this is the way science journalism is done, and Garreau is later courageous in half-endorsing the transcendent transhuman rationale of beautiful bioprogressive Bostrom. Unfortunately his prose is Gladwellian, full of glib pop references and leaden line-break punch-lines. Still a balanced intro to the scenarios and figureheads.
    Prose 2/5, object 4/5. [Library]

  • Fooled By Randomness (2004) by Nassim Taleb. I had skipped this, assuming I had the full contrarian worldview from Black Swan and Bed of Procrustes. But it’s a different beast, more playful and modest, with less of his latter-day overstatement and invalid ad hominems. As anti-disciplinary provocateur and writer of empirical art he is unbeaten (I rank him with Nietzsche for delightful arrogance and hard-ass enculturation.) Still, these ideas (from cognitive science and applied statistics) are hard: one needs several runs at them. Taleb is a great introduction, then Kahneman and Gigerenzer for the calm conservative estimate.

  • Identity and Violence (2006) by Amartya Sen. Nice: in one ugly sentence ‘how overlooking intersectionality ruins worldviews and gets folks killed’. He repeats this idea fifty times or so, but it’s a good one. It’s stats-free but I trust him, he’s proved his mastery. “Widespread interest in global inequalities, of which anti-globalization protests are a part, [is the] embodiment of what Hume was talking about in his claim that closer economic relations would bring distant people within the reach of a ‘gradual enlargement of our regards to justice’.”– neat, catching the antithesis in the thesis' process. Sen’s prose & I don’t get on: he’s clear and warm but studied in a way that chafes me.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Read aloud: Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Conan Doyle. Dull, four-fifths preamble. Got whodunit, didn’t see why.
    2/5. [Library]

  • The Great Equations (2008) by Robert Crease. Droll, scientifically proficient, philosophically superconductive. The cast is standard – ‘Pythagoras’, Newton, Euler, Boltzmann, Maxwell, Einstein, Heisenberg – but his treatment’s lucid and alive to the art and philosophy of the things. (Get this: “special use of language, often over the heads of untrained readers, that seeks to express truths concisely & with precision, that allows us to understand otherwise inaccessible things, changing our experience in the process” – equations, or poems?) Thermodynamics is best, casting physicists as Shakespearean (there were four suicides in the twelve of them). Crease wants science to have cultural presence, since at the moment it has authority, cultural reputation without real presence). He suggests that “science criticism” is the way to get this - not in the sense of know-nothing postmodernists attacking instrumentalist hegemony (Holmes on Cochrane), but as in the work of engaged human bridges between practitioners and audience. Every art has a surfeit of such critics. Pop science comes close, but it’s more often cheerleading and radical simplification than artful play on precedents, implications and meaning. Well, here’s at least one example. (See also the Edge and 3QuarksDaily people.)
    4/5. [Library]

  • Slavery by Another Name (2008) by Douglas Blackmon.
    The South deluded itself that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the with the illusion that it had freed the Negro.
    – MLK.
    Toe-curling account of the extra century of de facto slavery in America: hidden in plain sight from 1865-1945, hidden in archives and historians’ de-emphasis since then. ‘Jim Crow segregation’ is a grave euphemism. (I didn’t know the first thing about it, but assumed the South had something of the sort judging by lack of progress after formal emancipation.) Sham laws, racist courts, and ‘prisoner leasing’ led to millions of (especially) black men spending years in forced labour for ‘vagrancy’ (being black in the street). Blackmon’s research is no doubt exemplary, but his prose is a big dim bulb.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (2005) by Ziauddin Sardar. Wanted a life of Muhammad to match the life of Luther, but the available biographies were credulous, downplaying his Machiavellian – or rather, since successful, ‘Napoleonic’ – accomplishments and mercantile background. So, the ‘sceptical Muslim’ it is, and a good thing too: Sardar has been everywhere, involved in every big event in the Muslim world for 40 years. He gets beaten up by Iranian revolutionaries; sees Bin Laden in Peshawar in ‘85; is offered £5m by the Saudis to shut up; is at Anwar’s side in Malaysia; his nephew worked in the WTC in late 2001. He shows the full crushing procession of forces in Muslims’ lives – Western bootprints old and new, Israel locking up 1.6 million and scattering a million others to the wind, the former Ba’athists, the Brotherhood, the ‘simpleton’ Tablighi Jamaat, Saudi power soft and hard, and a dozen home-grown oppressions and gross inequalities. Sardar in the middle: willing the backward chaos to end, but recoiling from the resulting medieval theocracies. “But maybe paradise does not want to be found”.
    4/5. [Library]

  • Consider the Lobster (2005) by David Foster Wallace. Ah, ah. Postmodern and prescriptivist, enthusiastically wise, Wallace was the one, as loveable as intellectual, as iconoclastic as judicious. He’s the model of finding meaning in places beyond sanctioned loci like Dostoevsky and 9/11: in for example an old sincere conservative, in tennis, and arthropods. Not that he ‘found’ meaning: he generated it, erupting bittersweet priority over parts of the world held to be artless or empty. Theoretically rococo and colloquially concentrated. Our loss is marked. It’s disappointing that ‘Consider the Lobster’, his more or less honest analysis of vegetarianism, founders and shrinks from responsibility. (In short, the piece says “they feel: so why do we do this?”. But he asks: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental?” without discounting the latter weaselly ad hominem aspersion.) Tensions: he insisted on democratic clarity and yet wrote wilfully distracting pieces. But he’s one of the ones.

  • Both Flesh and Not (2012) by David Foster Wallace. Bravura essays from all over the cultural instant he encompassed and abruptly let go (1988-2007). They are I suppose dregs, but DFW’s dregs are better than decade-projects of others. I can’t help but see foreshadows of Infinite Jest: he touches on 1) the obsessive, commercial, and religious aspects of pro tennis, 2) the obstacles to good prose about or involving maths, 3) self-conscious engagement with pop (for how else can we understand a world constituted by and obsessed with pop?), 4) ‘interpretation-directing’ books (like Jest), and above all 5) on the need to build after waves of high-entropy postmodernism, to work past its crucial (but bewildering) negativities. It was ‘obvious’ to him that ordinary late-capitalist life is ‘at best empty and at worst evil’. But he was extraordinary; panoptic, judicious and sensationally beautiful, and that wasn’t enough either.

  • The Emotional Brain (1999) by Joseph LeDoux. Maybe a bit dated, but thoughtful and historical enough. His big contention’s that conscious feelings are red herrings: most emotional activity is demonstrably unconscious (though not in a Freudian way). So we should see emotions as products of several separate bodily-response systems: “the word ‘emotion’ does not refer to any thing the mind or brain really has or does”. Getting there takes a lot of careful conceptual work, debunking old artefacts (“the limbic system”), probing the line between cognition and emotion, evolved emotional setups and enculturated expressions of them. Rather than reporting his theories as settled, he lets us in to the history, experimental setups, and argue for his theory choices. He’s well-versed in the philosophy (he cites Rorty!), is a master of fear (research), and I feel smarter coming out of it.

  • The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge.

    Changing Places (1978). Beautiful 60s farce, mocking the zany side while accepting the force of the hippy challenge to all sorts of things, lastingly sexism. The jokes rely heavily on the difference in vitality and affluence between 60s Britain and California – one grey and without central heating, the other soaked in optimism, sex and cute subversions. 4/5.

    Small World (1984). Even better, more romantic and full of risky narrative moves – regular cinematic cuts, 40 characters in two dozen Richard-Curtis conjunctions, a character commenting on his narrative role, a cod-Japanese passage without articles... Generous and barbed and fun. 4*/5.

    Nice Work (1988). I suppose what I like most about Lodge is his marriage of (and subversion of) highfalutin Theory with daft romcom conventions. This last one’s grimmer – based more on the mutual misunderstanding and vices of literary theory and industry. Thatcher’s jaws lurk in the background. Also race. Robyn, his feminist protagonist is good and 3D, principled and struggling with the contradictions of the radical academic (their privileged position in a system they abhor, ‘revolutionary’ abstractions, the attack on logocentric realism leading to detachment from lived life where things happen). Robyn’s attitude to love inspired this great satire.

  • The Retreat of Reason (2006) by Anthony Browne. Pamphlet about PC by a man most famous for blaming Britain’s AIDS on African immigrants. Tricky: the pamphlet is pumped up with outrage, playing with the nastiest fire, and on the face of it his central claim's the most hallucinatory tabloid racism. On the other hand, he’s careful to list PC’s achievements, and official figures underlie his arguments. Like everyone, he tries to claim the rational high ground over his enemies, but the connection between identity politics and postmodern irreason is nowhere near the tight caustion he claims. However, reality is fucked up; if we can’t even test any hypothesis which offends anyone, then we really are doomed to delusion.

  • Reread: Scott and Scotland (1932) by Edwin Muir. Exciting, novel and almost totally wrong, in a fertile and important way. Muir diagnoses four hundred years of post-Reformation Scottish art as weak, makes giant claims about national psychology, and traces out a Scottish Renaissance at odds with the nationalists, MacDiarmid in particular (Muir thinks it’s not the Union’s fault but Knox’s.) A sort of radical conservatism. Pairing Muir with Allan Massie’s careful hatchet-introduction strikes me as a public service.

  • Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (1995) by Michael Eric Dyson. Because we have gotten better, old radicals often seem less radical over time. The pragmatic hedonism and secular calm of Epicurus was once fanatically detested, but is now a standard worldview (it's roughly that of the happy scientist); at one time Spinoza’s Ethics (determinism, Nature as deity, religious and political tolerance) was the wildest thing ever said in the history of the Christian world; Montesquieu’s disgust at aristocratic brutality, gross luxury and torture are commonplaces; Paine’s raging insistence on human rights and total secularism are very successful (in Europe at least); and anyone who disagrees with duBois’ or MLK’s aims is foolish or virulent. Malcolm X has not yet been so incorporated - but on reading his less demagogical stuff (not the early “TOO BLACK, TOO STRONG” variety) you wonder why. Might have been his influential homophobia, but that’s hardly stopped other thinkers. (This suggests it's because we have a false, caricature of him in mind, one that believes in whites-as-devils and Fanonian purifying violence.) Dyson does not skimp on his downsides, and tackles the thorniest idea in identity politics: that experience is absolute, and so understanding a group’s ideas and values requires group membership – that ideas have colour as people do.
    4/5. [Library]

  • The Secret Life of Numbers: 50 Easy Pieces (2006) by George Szpiro. Tiny happy columns on false proofs, primacy wars, Newton as a gigantic loon, and the Swiss maths scene. He assumes no background - explaining primes even - but is concise and so not hand-holding. Lots of repetition because originally standalone columns, lots of bucolia because he likes mathematicians so much. Harsh words for Wolfram, though. The banality of eternal truth:
    The next morning Mignotte informed him that he thought the proof [of the 500 hundred year old Catalan conjecture] was correct. They did not rejoice, but they were very happy.


  • Shakespeare is Hard, but So is Life (2002) by Fintan O’Toole. Angry. Angry at lazy teaching, angry at Aristotelian crap being applied to and vitiating Shakey, angry at four hundred years of racists reading Othello. Ra ra raar.

  • The Faber Book of Useful Verse (1988), ed. Simon Brett. Amusing mnemonics and proverbs, mostly from ancients and Victorians. Includes a canto explaining exactly how James Watt’s steam engine was different and several songs to remember the list of English monarchs and US presidencies, etc.

  • Selected (1993) by George Mackay Brown. Distrust and death but never self-pity; drowning and drama but wise. Of one place’s Vikings, fish, and pain – like Under Milk Wood without the japery and authorial distance. Seal Market is amazing; the Hamnavoe poems are so good I feel I’ve been there (which means I don’t have to go). Brown seems stuck writing about the Middle Ages – “what are these red things like tatties? (apples)”– but then the Middle Ages lasted right through to the 1960s, on Orkney. And since “a circle has no beginning or end. The symbol holds: people in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers of 3000 BC.”

  • DEC

  • Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) by David Graeber. Forceful anthropology against certain obvious delusions of economics (and from there to the entire globalised world). As exciting as polemic, reliable as literature review, his iconoclasm, logic and impressive clarity are the more impressive for my “bullshit detection” prejudice against anthropology. He goes into an array of new and fucked up human economies, slaving, . He’s careful with evidence, moving from what must be false (the idea that barter preceded money) to a grand identification of the market and the state and then (implicitly) to resistance to them. As someone who went through the great crypto-conservative fairytale that is ‘training’ in positive economics, I can’t fault his argument about barter, but his estimation of its significance is perhaps excessive. An anthropologist who cares about the balance of evidence? Take me now!
    5/5. [Library]

  • Empire (2000) by Hardt and Negri. What a crock of shit. Economics without reference to anything actually economic, Marxism without even speculative economics, melodrama without sweetness. Much less clotted than I’d expected.

  • True Brit (2004) by Kim Johnson “&” John Cleese. Superman Englishman, Jonah Jameson Murdoch. I don’t much care for the core commercial thing Marvel and DC do where they reboot series over and over with one new gimmick – Commie Hulk, Zombie Hulk, Nihilist Hulk. One good joke “We should have taught him to control himself, like a true Brit”.
    2/5. [Library]

  • Kick-Ass 2 (2013) by Millar and Romita Jr. Eh; art’s really good, dialogue and world are lazy, hardcorer-than-thou (the one centrefold is of a groin being bitten; “I feel like Rihanna after a quiet night in”). Inevitable matching gangs of vigilantes and villains form after pioneer, attendant cheap gags (“I’m Insect-Man!”). The bit where they tweet each other is good (and surreally true, á la the last Israel incursion). “I guess the cops couldn’t tell the heroes from the bad guys.” Yeah.
    2/5. [Library]

  • What Should a Person Be? (2010) by Sheila Heti. Ooft. Uncomfortable, nor in the way we’re used to. Autobiographical metafictional first-world problems: unrequited narcissism and joint solipsism. Also writer’s block. It’s hard to talk about pretentious things that know they are and discuss it well: this is sophomoric navel-gazing, but masterful about sophomorism and novel about the navel. So it directs interpretation – ‘I can’t call it wanky, it just called itself wanky’. Heti’s deadly serious about frivolous things, but also important ones (e.g. the passage detailing her sexual masochism, or ‘The White Men Go to Africa’, mocking poverty tourists.) The artistic equivalent of a hundred selfies. Distinctive and intended even when dull. The answer to the title is “My friend Margaux but not too much so” (twee and wilful and sceptical and direct).
    3/5. [Library]

  • The Art of Thinking Clearly (2013) by Rolf Dobelli. Shonky list of cognitive biases / love letter to Taleb. It has occasioned raging critique rather than reciprocation. At first I was very taken by Dobelli’s article ‘Why you shouldn’t read news’, and still think there’s something to it (particularly as goes news' inevitable over-dramatisation of reality via availability bias and our inbuilt credulity), but it’s all Taleb’s work, except unjustified and not actually good. (Consider that one is to free-ride and, in the hypothetical aggregate of a trend of people quitting news, suppress journalism’s deterrent effects on governmental and business malfeasance.) Anyway his Art isn’t well-organised or -conceptualised – he stretches the perhaps 20 reputable cognitive biases of Kahneman et al into 99 anecdotal smirks. (Redundancies: he splits illusion of control and action bias, the paradox of choice and decision fatigue...)– consider the ‘It’s-gotta-get-worse-before-it-gets-better effect’. The big problem for the heuristics and biases program is when you get contradictory pairs of biases – how can people be both ? The actual researchers have done well in synthesising these and providing base-rates for effect sizes (without which the programme is little more than a new way for intellectuals to insult each other). Dobelli offers no classification, effect sizes, or even citations (they’re hidden online), just clomping informational candy. Taleb for dummies. (Where Taleb is already Kahneman for dramatists.)
    2/5. [Library]

  • Statistics: Conventional Methods and Modern Insights (2009) by Rand Wilcox. Introductory versions of knowledge are usually misleading (e.g. the eukaryotic cell, first described to me as a circle with a dot in when it’s really a fourth-order factory crammed full of reflexive difficulty). Wilcox’s excellent obvious idea is to render advanced post-Fisher statistical fixes in ordinary language and teach them from the get-go, so to preclude the damaging simplification that most people (who don’t spend three years studying it) take away from Stats 101. (If Economics were to make the same qualifications in its freshman iteration, the business world would be unmasked as more obviously ideological and unjustified.) Wilcox’s big three modern fixes are Winsorizing, bootstrapped confidence intervals, and non-linear estimators of the Theil-Sen variety. It’s worth going for posher books on technical matters, since a single extra insight goes a long way there.

  • The Overflowing Brain: the Limits of Working Memory (2009) by Torkel Klingberg. Nice gentle probe of our faddish fear that tech is pumping too much info through us, and thereby vitiates our branes and produces ADHD. Working memory, if you haven’t heard, is trumpeted as the constitutive component of intelligence. Klingberg’s optimistic about it all, pointing to the Flynn effect as an epidemiological sign that we are (cognitively) ok with being overloaded. His own research is much more promising about training working memory and gF than others I’d read.

  • Prescriptions for the Mind: A Critical View of Contemporary Psychiatry (2008) by Joel Paris. Not what you’d expect (“DSM hiss!! Pharma woo!!”). An ‘evidence-based psychiatrist’ (a good guy), his main target is people who overinterpret current neuroscience and just churn out pills. He concedes that the old analysts were ‘brainless’ but calls the worst of the new brain-scan boom ‘mindless’. The evidence for talk therapy – things like CBT (for anxiety and personality disorders) – is much better than I’d thought, and Paris reckons this is now overlooked in favour of cheaper and truthier biological determinism. A good, hard thing to say: “What causes mental illness? By and large, advances in neuroscience notwithstanding, we still don’t know.”

  • Gods and Soldiers: Penguin Contemporary African Writing (2009). Africans set down in English, whether by birth or choice (or translation choice). ‘Contemporary’ is pushing it a bit, since these pieces are from the last sixty years, but the scope raises the bar. Achebe laid the ground for Anglophone (and Francophone) writing when mocking the incommensurability people. A piece about Aberdeen oil (Leila Aboulela)! 4/5.

  • The Ig Nobel Prize (2002) by Marc Abrahams. Sublimely silly: my favourite piece of modern art. The joke is the same each time – informality in formal contexts – but like modern art it’s the framing makes them. The titles alone: Williams & Newell (1993) ‘Salmonella Excretion in Joy-riding Pigs’; Wyatt  McNaughton (1993) ‘The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow’; Watanabe & Sakamoto (1995) “Pigeons’ Discrimination of Paintings by Monet & Picasso”; Solodi (1996) “Farting as a Defence against Unspeakable Dread”.

  • Triumph of the City: Our Greatest Invention (2011) by Ed Glaeser. Engrossing optimistic catalogue of counter-intuitions of urban economics: “poverty can mean a city’s doing well, since they wouldn’t stay, otherwise”, “cities are greener and more democratic (smaller houses, less travel, scale utilities)”, “zoning laws ensure prices are too high, apartments too small, congestion, sprawl, slums and corruption”, “people are less unhappy and less suicidal in cities”. Glaeser’s aims are larger than simple Gladwellian gee-whizz information: he’s out to get a prevailing anti-city mood (e.g. Blake, Rousseau, Thoreau, hippies). Explains why art is urban, why we didn’t have good ideas before settlements, the origins of the restaurant (in a crap Parisian health-food place), the skyscraper, and the global bank Chase Manhattan (in a scam defrauding money meant for NY’s first public water supply). Valuing the devalued, staying within evidential warrant, and honest about the achievements of public agencies, for an American economist.

  • The Selfish Capitalist (2008) by Oliver James. Much less glowing about the modern way. His thesis is the Spirit Level again: social inequality and stupid ultra-individualism of the last 30 years hurts everyone. Amazing how dated this seems when it discusses Cheney’s ties to Halliburton, or that John Perkins guy. Another world. James attacks CBT (praised for its effectiveness in Paris, above) as the psychic equivalent of overmedication – “society makes people anxious and then reprograms them to fit in with the anxiety” – which seems a bit much. Empirically dubious but at least clear.

  • Present Laughter (1982), ed. Alan Coren. Strange anthology of mostly amazing excerpts from e.g. Wodehouse, Naipaul, Thurber, Perelman, Joyce, Updike. I say strange because some of them are more poignant than funny, and the only connection seems to be that they tickled Coren. I say mostly cos there’s a couple of nasties mixed in (e.g. someone called Keith Waterhouse’s racist Caribbean calumny). But drowned out; see them as historical, what Punch magazine has always represented.

  • Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook (1993) ed. Emilie Amt. This is the thing: primary sources in all their muddled import, but abridged so as to avoid the four years of sifting it takes to know what’s important in a given historical period. Was surprised by how obsessed with precise fines pagan society was – you can tell the monotheists’ moralising from the lack of numbers. Many of the mortal heresies of the time were about giving women more respect – teaching them to read, letting them be judges… The tone of voice is often alien – and a good thing too.

  • A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (1999) ed. Noretta Koertge. Title is more strident than the contents. Their common target is the over-interpretation and over-socialised Foucauldian muddle of seeing society in supposedly objective scientific matters. Some – especially Collins – lump in dogmatic radfems with more scholarly and right-on constructivists. My admiration of Sokal grows - his entry is both the clearest and the most constructive. The book also furnished me with a large and excellent distinction, Phillip Kitcher's one between two incompatible but valuable modes of thought: the 'realist-rationalist' and the 'social-historicist', which form a spectrum that most people unforgiveably cluster at the ends of.

  • The Pursuit of Unhappiness (2009) by Daniel Haybron. I find it hard to think about happiness, and the first great thing this does is show I’m not alone. The next is to pick up an abandoned conception of happiness as (mere) emotional state, rather than common broad-base ideas – happiness as net pleasure, as being in a good overall situation, being treated justly, as the net outcome of a whole life (Solon), etc. The third is admitting the twin awful points that we are neither good judges of our own happiness nor skilled at pursuing happiness. He nonetheless resists the decentring findings of cognitive psychology (and they are frequently overturned). Haybron appreciates the virtue revolution in ethics while subordinating it to well-being. He has read everything. In a sweet but possibly inadmissible strategy, his paradigm for a happy society is an unnamed fishing community in an island somewhere on the Pacific – the tiny size, low-stress and natural fixations being emotionally 'best' for people. Yeah, maybe mate.

The placebo is a tangible object made essential in an age that feels uncomfortable with intangibles, an age that prefers to think that every inner effect must have an outer cause. Since it has size and shape and can be hand-held, the placebo satisfies the contemporary craving for visible mechanism. But the effect dissolves on scrutiny, telling us that it cannot relieve us of the need to think deeply about ourselves. The placebo, then, is an emissary between the will to live and the body. But the emissary is expendable.
- Norman Cousins