Been reading, Q1 2014

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

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

That is not the world I see.
- James Gleick

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

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

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

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

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

Am dissatisfied with my scale, emphasising though it does the highest single dimension of any piece: its extent. (By which I mean its durability under the disc-sander of our attention, its being larger than me in whatever terms seem good at the time of reading, beauty or multifariousness or originality or pathos.) The messy reality of writing gives the lie to my scale being numeric at all: fun is usually more exhaustible than meaning, so things which are just very good fun will get a 3*/5 on this scale. Also, reward durability to social change; being larger than the moment it was composed in. Masterful but untransferable things like Svenonius’ Intellectual Foundation will make me redo the scale; she wrote in granite, but for a forever-limited audience. The problematics get several scores.

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

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

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

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

  • Read aloud: A Walk in the Woods (1997) by Bill Bryson. I don’t rate him – his matey adjectival register and cutesy knowledge get on my nerves – but this is really really great. Dead funny throughout, free of bluster, and passionate about marginal researches (the fate of the hemlock tree in Northeast America, the punctuated history of very long US roads). Comforting and galvanising. Even my townie girlfriend wants to go hiking now.

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

  • Inventing the Enemy (2012) by Umberto Eco. More like it! Calm, panoptic and ennobling. (Funniest clause all month: “thus Lenin was a neo-Thomist – without of course realising it.”) There’s good sad Realism under his fun semiotic historicism: it’s only lazy academic cliques prevent people seeing that the critical realist & the pomo skylark can coexist. So it’s a surprise but not a shock to see him use basically Johnson’s defence against relativism. High larfs: Eco chides the Church with its own history! Title essay’s composed of quotations from virulent historical racists / misogynists / puritans: hard to read. He walks the difficult line between being maximally clear & slightly banal (thus he says things like “Fire is a metaphor for many impulses…”, but also:
    Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.
    ). Whose side is he on? The text’s!
    4/5. [Library]

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

  • I’d Rather We Got Casinos & other Black Thoughts (2009) by Larry Wilmore. (As in, “Are you in favor of Black History Month?” “Hell no. Twenty-eight days of trivia to make up for centuries of oppression? I’d rather we got casinos.”) Irreverent about stuff good people don’t tend to be: ‘community leaders’, the funeral for the n-word, Jesus’ race, Katrina, Letter from Birmingham Jail, The Man. His patter gets pleasurably baroque:
    A pudgy patron of society would suffer an indignity and cry out, 'This is unmitigated gall! Unmitigated gall, I tell you!'”…

    the level of anger in a black church should be roughly equal to the level of anger in the brother attending said church. You’ll appreciate the attention to detail in the Afrocentric stained-glass windows as black Jesus, black Mary, and the black Apostles make even hard brothers nervous with their never-happy Ice Cube–like glares”…

    “THE SIMPSONS: Not racist but not very brotha friendly.
    FAMILY GUY: Racist but very brotha friendly.
    Lines this good scattered throughout.

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

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

  • How I Escaped my Certain Fate (2010) by Stewart Lee. An artist, with the bloat and near-repulsive belligerence that involves (“So all I’m saying, if you’ve not seen me before, yeah, is the jokes are there, but some of you, you might have to raise your game.”). Book has tons of general merit: it’s about trying to be artful in a genre where populism is a condition of being recognised as a practitioner at all. And Lee just has his shit worked out, is by turns harshly enlightening and plaintively endearing. (“Basically there’s a whole generation of people who’ve confused political correctness with health and safety regulation. ‘It’s gone mad. They saying I can’t have an electric fire in the bath any more, Stew, in case queers see it.’”) I even love his intellectual flab: the Wire mag chat, ignoble snarking, and attempt at epic free verse. I trust him – but you can’t trust him. (Recent shows are founded on outrageous lies, satirising spin/smear cultures in our media and government and employers and friends.) Hard to know who the joke-explaining footnotes are for – since his fans already get it, and no-one else’s going to read this. That said, if you don’t like him or don’t know about him, please read this. (For instance, he explains that he 'portrays a smug wanker’.)
    4/5. [Library]

  • Sociology, 7th Ed (2013) by Anthony Giddens and the other guy. I went to a lot of lectures I wasn’t down for, and that’s about the extent of my sociological ‘training’. I am thus at risk of making the mistake of disgruntled undergrads everywhere and assuming that my fantastically limited understanding of a field is all the field is, but: I worry that even this shallow diet exhausted the potential intellectual benefits of the field. Owing to blameless methodological holdups (e.g. the 'causal density' of human behaviour, that little experimentation is possible or fruitful, Hawthorne effects, low statistical power), the benefits are, perhaps, a matter of offering reminders and details of structural oppression, and some new vocabulary - rather than subterranean insight, or either predictive or explanatory progress in the understanding of societies. That's not nothing. Kudos to Giddens for this passage then: “…is sociology merely a restatement, in abstract jargon, of things we already know? Sociology at its worst can be exactly that…”

    It is good at first-order description – social behaviour is incredibly diverse, and that diversity is now subject to accelerating growth in most of the world - to the point where few of us would ever know about the other half’s behaviours without social research. Also we can probably never be reminded enough about the ways in which people are grouped up and done down. I suppose I’m just unconvinced of the use of further elaborations, provided that one already doesn’t ever persecute behaviours out of ignorance. (That’s a vital role for it then: looking at which laws and policies affect whom unfairly, at which common notions inadvertently hurt people.) Sociology can be great at unpicking ‘neoliberal’ delusions (roughly the set of theodicies that say, “Everything ‘bad’ is just individuals making free decisions, so back off”) – but is (usually) terrible at following through with the counterpart act of constructive doubt: self-criticism, wondering if our neat structural ‘explanations’ are as general, applicable, or explanatory as we like to think. Finally, my own values certainly constrain my opinion of the field, because it trucks mostly in collective identity, which I see as a series of enormous blocks to human dignity and understanding.

    Let’s get back to those good new words sociologists have dreamt up – ‘socialisation’ vs ‘structuration’, Verstehen oder Erklärung, or the disturbing hypothesis stereotype threat, or the master status of a given society, or the ‘manifest’ vs the ‘latent’ functions of an action. Interactionism is the really valuable strand (it is harder for us to disappear up our own ass with our ear that close to the ground).
    3/5. [Library]

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

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

  • Read aloud: Penguin American Supernatural Tales (2007) by ST Joshi. I usually find horror pathetic, but this cherry-pick of two centuries is varied, trend-setting, often golden. The phases: High Gothic lit to pulp to magic realism to splatterpunk, but blessedly omitting the most recent and hypersuccessful form, ‘paranormal romance’. Hawthorne, Poe, Bloch, Matheson, Oates. I have no patience for Lovecraft and his legion. Henry James’ prose is every bit as clotted and unpronounceable as reputed. High point (apart from Poe’s ‘House of Usher’ – a hellhound in a fluffy corset) is probs Theodore Klein’s ‘The Events at Poroth Farm’, a queer sleepy beast with its own internal supernatural anthology and sidewise unnerves.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organisation (2000) by Elaine Svenonius. Commanding Analytic philosophy of libraries. Cold and relentlessly substantial, in full command of the many many issues entailed in cramming the output of humanity’s outputers into one framework. (It’s reassuring that someone is.)
    Factual claims about the world constitute only a small subset of information broadly construed… It is not possible, at least without wincing, to refer to The Iliad, The Messiah, or the paintings in the Sistine Chapel as data...
    Info studies comes across as the most gargantuan construction, librarians building as they are the least ambiguous & most exhaustive language in the world: the god’s eye view of the diary of the human race. Read half, the remainder user’s details of bibliographic languages. It’s sufficient: now I know to hush & cross myself when a librarian enters the room. (Also: Imagine a better name for a library theorist than ‘Svenonius’!)
    2/5 & 4*/5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • The Information (2010) by James Gleick. Ah! I am a sucker for this form in pop science: “primary research into some unjustly obscure x, pulling together the historical and scientific strands, revealing the excitement and transcendence in the unsexy, un-Arts thing, and making the reader feel smarter and more solidly located in the modern world for it”. Here X is information technology very broadly construed – so African talking drums, Morse, bioinformatics, memetics, Hawking radiation, Wiki, and so. I’d never heard of the hero of the tale, Claude Shannon, because he was quiet and didn’t make any metaphysical claims for his deeply scientific and metaphysical work. Loads and loads of tasty gobbets to boot
    I do not believe that my father was such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician)…” - Lovelace

    A theoretical physicist acts as a very clever coding algorithm.

    Across the centuries they all felt the joy in reckoning: Napier and Briggs, Kepler and Babbage, making their lists, building their towers…
    Shot through with the joy of discovery, and all of it unbleached by the drudgery, familiarity, and commercialism evoked in “I.T.”.

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

  • OU M248 (2013).
    2/5 & 5/5.

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

  • Reread aloud: Men at Arms (1994) by Terry Pratchett. S’ok. Identity politics and gun control – so, a very American British fantasy. Works: my audience squealed in horror at the right places, the deaths of fond characters.

  • We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet Interviews (2001) ed. Daniel Sinker. Stunning sift of the best from a good institution; PP showed up the ideology in things but also, more importantly, the muddiness of the ideology in things; the genuinely thoughtful people here interviewed share a tendency to blur party lines. There are radicals talking radically in the usual manner (Chomsky, Biafra) but also practitioners (the Central Ohio Abortion Access Fund and the remarkable Voices in the Wilderness), iconoclasts of iconoclasm (Hanna, Mackaye) and even a few apolitical ethical-egoist libertines (Albini, Frank Kozik) whose like are common in punk but rare in its commentary. Sinker’s super-earnest intro text inserts all the right misgivings about Chumbawumba’s entryism or Kozik’s blithe first-generation patriotism, but he somehow retains his beautiful faith in ‘Punk’ (as empowering civil-disobedient grass-roots social justice) in the face of vast variation in actual punks.

    My own attempt at the social meaning of punk gave up on seeing it as one thing (or even as generally good things) entirely. What are we to judge a social phenomenon by? Its majority expression? Its noblest exemplars? Its effects? (Which in punk’s case, let’s not flatter ourselves, were aesthetic rather than straightforwardly political: there is now slight freedom in clothing and hair colour in the workplaces of the land; there is now a standard pretence to deviance in all youth movements (e.g. pop music)...) While Sinker’s judgment is strong (cf. writing the oral history of Black Flag, with each member contradicting each other!), his prose gets seriously wearing. This is the real thing though: one type of inspirational young person in their own words.

  • Reread aloud: Feet of Clay (1996) by TP. Another monarchist plot, another wonderful slice of Vimes. This instalment, one of his increasingly cinematic plots, pivots on the enduringly poignant trope of the Golem, the put-upon automata given life by holy words. Their persecution doesn’t quite map to any one political issue, a point in favour really– they echo slavery, class struggle, and A.I. Pratchett also stretches to get a big bad pun into every scene, with mixed but gladdening results.

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

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

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

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

(more Leyendecker, c.1910)
as long as one believes that the evil man wears horns, one will not discover an evil man.
- Erich Fromm


create table person

name TEXT,
market_position CONTINUUM {buffett - lumpen}
ascribed_gender BINARY {"M"/"F"},
gender_identity FREETEXT,
ascribed_ethnicity UNFREETEXT,
ethnic_identity UNFREETEXT,
extraversion CONTINUUM
openness CONTINUUM
conscientiousness CONTINUUM
agreeableness CONTINUUM
neuroticism CONTINUUM e.g.
- spiders
- dentist
- gays
- people
thriftiness CONTINUUM {"cheapass"-""}
disability CONTINUUM
(debilitating-borderline, visible-invisible, legitimated-not
privilege INTEGER. NEG INTEGER in Context:{Left-wing},
professed_likes {Giorgio_Agamben, Merzbow & social_justice}
likes {Ken_Follett, Cyndi_Lauper & steak}
knowledge COMBINATORIAL, f(memory, scepticism, creativity)
credentials YEARS_EDUCATION,
rationality PROB,
relation_w_god LIKERT,
morals CAT {Y/N/Quasi-realism},
politics PARTITION {IF L then spurn, IF R then belittle}
remaining_lifespan CONSTANT (not_long_enough)

WHERE credentials < knowledge, file under "Ignored".
WHERE credentials > knowledge, file under "Ponce".
WHERE knowledge >0.5 & relation_w_god >3, file person under "Pain".
WHERE politics = N/A, file under "conservative".
WHERE st.dev(politics) high, scale up amount of world denied & rejected.
WHERE ascribed_gender =/= gender_identity, file under "Pain" (IF ascribed=PRIMARY KEY).
WHERE ascribed_gender =F, create column "ascribed_rationality" (= 0.5 x rationality).
WHERE ascribed_gender =M & height >mean height, scale up market_position.
WHERE body_police is untriggered, scale up market_position.
WHERE rationality high, scale down phobias.
WHERE rationality high, scale down precedence of default PRIMARY KEYS.
IF gender_identity=shrug, & ethnicity=uncorrelated, & body_policing=null, & bank_balance >=needs, & disability=destigmatised&optional, & phobias=null, & thriftiness=MAX & {morals, likes}=PRIMARY KEY, THEN you are dreaming;



(c) Edel Rodriguez (2012)

Those whom heaven helps, call the kin of heaven. They do not learn it by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not come to it with reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. (Those who cannot do so will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.)

– Zhuangzi

The thing about doing maths - that is, "higher" maths, the kind of maths that doesn't have or need real-life instances, that in its purest Form doesn't need even a mental instance - is that you're teetering on the edge of senselessness all the time. It is the zero-gravity circus of the mind. Proofs are tightropes, sure, but you can never tell if you're really on one until you get to the assumed other side, and look back, and, in my case, find yourself not smugly bowing to the audience, but crashing to the ground, impacting a surface which is not in fact there. But decelerating painfully all the same.

So people like me, who generate their own gravity, who cannot see where to stand or jump to, depend on others. Acrobats: the magnetic Crouching Tigers who rigged up the ropes and rest platforms that are all the circus is in the first place. (Without whom no circus at all.) Once in a while one of them goes further, shoots the moon, leaps clean over obstacles the likes of me had either not even known were there, or had assumed were innavigable. Leaps like that weave the lot into shapes never suspected, make the wires of the inhuman network sing.


"The essence of mathematics is its freedom."

– Georg Cantor

(All very well to say if you happen to have wings. Maths is creative, but not in the la-la-la finger-paint expressionist way that the artists' monopoly on the idea would have you expect. One must be humiliated by logical figments for hundreds of bloody hours before one can express oneself, in maths.)


Is maths really like that, a romp for Great People alone? Uniquely, I think that it is - though it's possible my wounded intellectual pride needs to think so - since if it can deem me congenitally unable to excel, I can't be held responsible for my mathematical mediocrity. Hero worship helps a lot when the only other creatures you meet are the silent and deathless entities called Forms. The fight for understanding is the same everywhere, but it's particularly galling in maths, where geniuses and machines can zip past you at speeds and thus ranges you will never ever reach.


"Years ago I got off the mathematics train at Quadratic Equations—a neat, airy little station with trellis, ivy, roses, a sunlit platform. There was just a hint of weirdness now and then—stationmaster made clicking noises in his throat, there was an occasional far-off harmonious humming in the sky, strange bells rang; one knew the frontier was not far away, where the line crosses into the vast country of Incomprehensibility, the jagged peaks of the Calculus Mountains standing up, a day's journey over its illimitable plains.

The train thundered off into those no doubt exhilarating spaces, but without me. I sniffed the mountainy air a little, then I crossed the line by the footbridge and went back in a fusty suburban train to my home town. Contemptible Ignorance. This train had no engine; it was simply a train of carriages rolling gently down through the warm orchards of Amnesia Hill

– Paul Jennings


The mathematical fledgling is robbed three times over:

She's robbed of the cheap rebellion and self-definition allowed by other academic fields - she doesn't get to act out, because basically the whole edifice of maths is there for good and stated reasons; and since the past masters can't be avoided, because maths is essentially accumulative: a tower stacked higher by generational strata. Nor even is jumping in at the 13th floor possible (again, for those of us without wings). So she's surrounded by authority of a qualitatively different sort from the soft animal social-psychological influence in English or Sociology (or Climatology): who can face down Proof? The tower wants new storeys, maybe bridges between neighbouring totems, but almost never creative destruction or greenfield construction like others delight in.

Relatedly, she's robbed of the possibility of sustainable bullshit. (Improvised or free-play maths does not end well. Nor begin.)

Worst of all - after being made to work on the same old building site, made to make sense constantly, horribly, she is robbed of schadenfreude: all one mostly sees of others is the perfected work of bloody meritocrats - who are anyway the most intolerable sort of predecessor.


In real life, all '=' are ≈.


An exciting thing about stats: its greatest and most constructive critics are also far and away the most readable, artful people in the field. Admittedly this can only be true because statisticians are the dryest culture on earth, with no lightness, allusion, irony, aporia, or humour (in their publications). So it's a duty and a pleasure to start off with the following - and how many pleasurable duties are there in this world?

  • Deirdre McCloskey & Stephen Ziliak. They have for two or three decades pointed out the methodological dishonesty involved in the standard statistical practice of a great many fields: 'null hypothesis testing' uses a constrained and ridiculous idea of 'significance', and genuinely distorts research. Anyway everything McCloskey writes is worth reading - her point is that there is no free lunch.

  • Taleb. Makes many cool points about misapplication and misassumption, but the big lesson is: "Bell-curve statistics are sometimes lethal and immoral, most obviously in 'high' finance." Some of his recent extensions over-reach, are maybe guilty of the centralisation and big-picture generalisation he so deftly identifies in others held to be scientific.

  • William Kruskal. Fairly conventional, super-clever, dry stat bloke, until that is his 1982 American Stat Association address, a rollicking philosophical indictment of basically all applied linear modelling via Hume and Jesus Christ. (Yes, ok I do get excited when non-philosophers talk philosophy, and yes ok it's hardly hard to - but they get things done when they do it!)

  • Richard Berk & David Freedman. Again: standard career in stats, though being less boring, then BOOM an eruption of methodological whupass. Lesson: trust no social scientist until they have explained just how it was that their convenience sample of convicts were magically picked up by the criminal justice system totally independently of each other.

  • Paul Meehl. His "Tabular Asterisks" is philosophically deep, psychologically dismissive, and animatingly angry.

You could argue that it's only non-statisticians who make such crass Procrustean errors with stats - that the project of Robust statistics is well underway and universally welcomed - that these people are not mavericks but tenured and tolerated court-jesters - and that since only statisticians read about the methodology of stats the above papers are doomed to irrelevance. But the errors live on all over the place, making a mockery of science - and one big reason they do is that reading the average stats text is a revolting experience. Everyone should read Taleb and McCloskey - and, delightfully, most people can, because they're genuine stylists.

(Special mention for Andy Fields, who writes the funniest introductory stats. A man unafraid to display a proud dripping-blood gif in 2014.)


The scalpel brackets out the person to get at the body: there's no other way. The statistical model brackets out the person to get at your ideal analytic Unit: there might be.


Why are statistical methods so central to science? And given that's so, why is the good kind of Bayesianism still not used? Is the answer to each of these that statistics is there to offer empirical enquiries a veneer of utter objectivity - and because subjective Bayesianism freely admits it is just a veneer?

"The laudable view that science should embrace subjective statistics [in the Bayesian sense] falls on deaf ears: scientists come to statistics because they wish it to provide objective validation of their science. I mention the superficiality of this sociological rationale because it does not reflect the depth of what subjective Bayesian statistics actually achieves - a readily understandable communication of the observed data's information for any scientific question that is posed."

James Berger


Ineliminable patches of subjectivity (and so bias, and so perhaps prejudice) in applied statistics:
  1. Choice of study subject
  2. Model choice.
  3. Choosing the final p-value.
  4. Defining a 'population' in the first place.
  5. Isolating variables from the phenomenon? - nah, we have Factor analysis now.
  6. Choice of test stat? (Since all have countervailing assumptions) - nah, we have Robust tests now.
  7. Status quo bias?


The infinite! No other question has ever moved so profoundly the spirit of man."

– David Hilbert

Hippies, monotheists, and mathematicians love trying to face infinity. In so doing they always come face to face with their own impotence instead, but it doesn't stop them. Half of them are seeking out this metaphysical failure - as if being bad at seeing God was evidence of Him, as if (what they hope is) apophasis were proof. "Yay incapacity!" say Dante, Leopardi, Bruno, and millions upon millions of pseuds. "More things on heaven and earth" say middlebrows all over this happy world. (This passivity and intellectual sleep makes sense: Infinity itself is macho - come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-yer-large-enough. Yet gentle Cantor made it bleed.)


A pep talk for myself:

Humans summarise reality. We can't avoid it: it's wired-in. But even if it wasn't, reality's too big, our attention too short & too narrow, and our need for action too basic for us to do anything much else.* (Imagine acting without summary: you can't imagine it, but if you could you'd see death, a hastily hastened death.)

When we summarise badly we lose touch with the world. And this we all surely do: we call this 'error', 'delusion', 'stereotype'. (Those things people on the Other Team have.) When we fail to summarise at all, as some unfortunates with unusual neurology do, the world becomes a terrible chaotic flow, beyond category, absurd. (You will have had an inkling of the perspective on a comedown from certain compounds, or from your really really close reading of French philosophy.) And yet we have hold of something, most of the time.

The formal method of summarising well is called statistics, & despite the exciting preamble I just gave, it is commonly maligned, & very commonly abused, & hard, & dry as a pint of sand. When - when - you falter and despise it & cannot even derive joy from the irreplicable insight it gives you into modern physics** - try to remember that without it you are totally doomed to be a bigot, a dupe and a throwback.

* Monks and nuns of various sorts have a good old go at doing something else. But it amounts to trying to get used to the world-as-terrible-chaos - and that's not on in a world which can still be improved by action.

** The world as it weirdly is, all down there and all up There.