technical maturity miscellany

(c) Alberto Magnelli (c. 1909)

I am often guilty of comparing down in socioeconomic matters - that is, when questions of UK social justice come up, my first thoughts are things like, “Yeah, but the British minimum wage is in the top 15% of global incomes”. I assess the British working class by reference to the global working class. This comparison is true and important, but for some purposes it is also stupid, since it distracts from ratios that would justify domestic intervention (ratios like the change in real wage over the past four years, or the change in capital’s share in national income in the past thirty).

When discussing British policy*, unless giant public transfers to GiveDirectly are in fact a politically viable option, it does not serve justice to paint the locally poor as globally rich. The point is that some people are grossly inefficiently rich on any reading, and it’s these that policy should hunt.**

However, remember that the converse – comparing up, to a better arrangement – often means making a comparison with something that doesn’t exist, never has, and may not be able to. (Or else, with Sweden.)

* As opposed to the (more) rationally amenable policy of the ideal state or other gathering.

** Similarly, when people (or I myself) complain about the tedium or inauthenticity of white-collar jobs, I retort, “But think of how painful and miserable and cold and hungry and scared and ignorant our savannah ancestors were. You have Holocene-world problems, and there is always an alternative". True, true, true and still not quite the point.


It’d be one thing if I was consistent in comparing down; we could then explain it as lack of ambition or imagination. (Look at the title of this blog!) But of course I compare up all the time - when I play music, I feel bad because I am not Coltrane; in writing, I am often aware of not being Nietzsche, or even Clive James. Also, when my food goes bad I opt not to eat it – when I might instead compare down to having no food at all and a skeletal death, curled up in the corner.

Also, gratitude: we know pretty well that intentionally reflecting on what you’re grateful for is a mentally healthful act. (It's comparing down to an alternative where you don’t have the things.) But it’s conservative, potentially; saying “what I have is good” reduces your incentive to improve the situation. Are the two package deals 1) gratitude & conservatism, or 2) aggro, envy, & progress? Yes, I think so, but we can always try to alternate.


For the first time in a year I really want home internet access. I want an m4a convertor, and a script that downloads TVTropes and the Stanford Encyclopaedia*, and to know the Gaelic for Gordon. Also I want the history and present disposition of the Argentine punk band Boom Boom Kid, and to hear my DJ mate’s new playlist, and to prove to my flatmate that Pluto has not been reinstated as a planet by an appropriate authority, nor do Chinese people customarily use newspaper for condoms.

Why go without? After all, there’s no strong argument against it: the ‘information overload’ hypothesis is really not well-founded, the educational potential of the net is, at last, better than most IRL schools’ [citation impossible], and one can avoid almost all of the unbelievably horrible things on it almost all of the time. I go without because four hours a week at the library is enough and because, these dry days, I actually read instead.

(There's also a sort of grey behavioural reason: when you have intermittent shortages of something, you can actually value it more, because you're prevented from getting habituated to it and using it in less satisfying, inefficient ways. "You don't take for granted what can't be taken for granted", basically. Žižek somewhere uses this as an argument in favour of Communism's inherently shoddy supply chains, but he says a lot of things.)

* Why download them? Perhaps this inclination is the same call obeyed by those tense Americans who stockpile beef jerky and isotonics in the cellar.


Think I've cracked why Rousseau annoys me so much: he’s a perfect storm of three things I cannot abide: loudly false social theory, self-inflicted suffering blamed on others, and certainty.


Words I have enjoyed lately:

  • ‘Destinesia’ (n., the state of not knowing what you went into this room for),

  • ‘Cryptomnesia’ (n., source amnesia, possibly leading to accidental plagiarism).

  • ‘Logophobia’ (n. see below)

  • ‘Undruggable’ (Corporatese a., compound which is not a commercially viable treatment)

  • ‘Disfellowship’ (Jehovah’s Witnessese, v., to formally shun an apostate)

  • ‘Sanforize’ (v. to process cotton in such a way that it shrinks fully before going on sale; by extension, to be Procrustean.

  • ‘Administrivia’ (n., Banal knowledge of procedure, file locations, system settings and all the little things that a vast number of people now must retain in the name of work)

  • ‘Poptimist’ (n., person who finds aesthetic or emotional or intellectual value in popular art, particularly music)

  • ‘Badwidth’ (n., capacity for malice)

  • 'Chipil' (Spanish n., the shock of anguish that builds before one cries);

  • ‘Kula’ (Trobriand n. and v., extraordinary trading circle in cultures around New Guinea, participation in which constitutes the traders’ public identity; by extension, any economic activity that is primarily status-seeking.)

  • 不是东西 (Mandarin, lit. ‘neither east nor west’; 'you are nothing'.

  • 半糖夫妻 (Mandarin n., lit. ‘half-sweet couple’: romantic partners who live apart during the week, often as a conscious attempt to preserve romance);

  • 调情 (Mandarin v., lit. ‘throw feelings’; the verb to flirt)


For people to behave as though their aim were to maximize a utility function, it is only necessary that their choice behavior be consistent. To challenge the theory, you therefore need to argue that people behave inconsistently, rather than that ‘they don’t really have utility generators inside’. As for the critics who claim that economists believe that people have little cash registers in their heads that respond only to dollars, they haven’t bothered to study the theory they are criticizing at all.

– Ken Binmore

For a long time I outright rejected utility functions as a silly, unfruitful way of thinking about humans. Functions are so far from how we understand ourselves – and anyway I was on a hippyish anti-formalism kick – and anyway the only contact I’d had with them was through the reactionary confection called microeconomics. (Or, more properly, normative neoclassical micro [NNM].)

But I found myself reading experimental psychologists on the things that actually, generally contribute to the human good, across cultures and across that deeper gulf, between individuals. And then collating these lists, and dividing them into their emotional and eudaemonaic parts, and ranking and relating them. And that’s a (decision-) utility function: the right causes (or constituents) of psychological benefit, in the right order.* This is precisely the kind of work that really does benefit from applying maths. (Maths, note, not ‘arithmetic’.) My accidental conversion has clarified the quiet necessity of utility functions, which are usually thought of as deluded, inhuman point-scoring devices, where they are thought of at all.

So from a certain elevation, it’s impossible for a clever agent not to have a utility function (if we add, somewhat dishonestly, ‘whether consciously or not’). Sure, humans are in fact neither consistent nor maths-loving enough to live up to the strict standards called, in these places, 'rationality'. (Definition of humanity: that which violates axioms.) Sure, the version taught in sophomore economics pretends, for the sake of a short lecture, that everyone’s is the same. (And moreover omits almost everything valuable, like the happiness of others, and mental goods like knowledge, and aesthetics, and ideological mobility, and simplicity of means...**)

* Clearly what I end up with here is not a function at all, but a half-assed objective list theory instead.

** Note that the NNM model also omits the large, craven Darwinian part of us – that which loves pecking order and relative resentments. Remember that, while Homo Oeconomicus is incapable of kindness, she is also never malicious or destructively proud or self-sabotaging). It’s this latter point – the omission of our petty evil from the model – that is by far the strongest argument against H. sapiens being H. oeconomicus, or even close relatives.


There is no greater sign of a fool than the thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him.

– Samuel Butler

So we have at least one utility function (which is not to say we are one). But we know about our grab-bag of utility functions only by indirect inference; we have them alongside other contradicting functions and higher-order functions; if we have just one, we'll never work it out.

So what? What does A General Ordinal Human Utility Function add, in exchange for its risky uniformity? Well – if you accept that you’re probably a fairly ordinary human, as many humans are – its prescriptions could actually divert you from things falsely thought to be good – e.g. loadsa money, fame, children. It can be a razor – “why am I doing this? What good does it do? None. So, I won’t do it.”

ANYWAY, the foregoing is so I can do a reductive summary of some psychologists (mostly Daniel Gilbert tbf):

  • Eudaemonia is a function of positive emotions, true beliefs, long, meaningful relationships, and progress on transcendent goals.

  • Positive emotions are a function of genes, love, health, absorption in tasks, absorption in oneself, sense of control over one’s outcomes, relative success***, and perceived existential momentum.

  • True beliefs are a function of exposure to evidence****, memory, methodological scepticism, curiosity, and rationality. Probably.

*** Relative to one’s peers and not any absolute measure, sadly.

**** I say this rather than "experience" because that implies anecdotes, and, while anecdotes are evidence, they are the lowest form, after rumour.


Discomfort with using maths to predict or prescribe human behaviour is a common feeling, and hardly baseless – there’s a long history of bad metrics, bad uses of good metrics, and false dawns behind it. But the core of the opposition is emotional: it would remain even if all economists and psychologists were always scrupulous and sophisticated modellers who reminded us that their constructs have limited validity and whatnot.

Call the fear of human behaviour being explained and, particularly, predicted, logophobia.* Say first that it is part intuitionism, part wishful thinking, and part sour grapes. Later, characterise it as a philosophy with certain distinctive tenets. (Flattery will make it easier for people to accept that they hold it already. And admitting you have an empirically naïve philosophy is the first step.) E.g.:

  1. A belief in the general superiority of intuitive reasoning.**
  2. A belief in the irreducibility of intuitive reasoning.
  3. A belief that emphasis on objectivity harms oppressed groups (since e.g. it’s likely to be technical, and they have reduced access to technical education).

* Academic radicals of the lC20th were in the habit of calling people with technical concerns logocentrists. This had a specific and meh scholarly meaning, but is used as an insult meaning “person who believes that facts are the main thing, and who thus keeps women down (or something)”. Qualifying this diss with the observation that it is a fact that some facts change in response to human agency,*** and that oppressive beliefs are errors, as well as morally wrong: so be it.

However, the entertaining and original philosopher of practical reason Nicholas Shackel shames my choice of name:

I unite them under the term [postmodernism] because, philosophically, they are united by a sceptical doctrine about rationality (which they mistake for a profound discovery): namely, that rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us, but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value. Opponents are held to disguise their self-interested construction of rationality behind a metaphysically inflated view of rationality in which Reason-with-a-capital-R is supposed to transcend the merely empirical selves of rational beings.

Let us name this sceptical doctrine. How about “logophobia”? It has much to recommend it. Patronising, question-begging, pre-emptive of further thought, ensuring easy evasion of the merely Gradgrindian question of the truth or falsity of the doctrine, so permitting us to move on swiftly to the fun of abusing logophobics. What more could one want from a term?

Alas, I am a dogged rationalist, and have renounced the pleasures of sophistical trickery. Instead I have named the doctrine “alogosia” to convey its denial of reason’s objectivity, and its purveyors “alogosists”, of which postmodernists are only the most recent.

** I say 'general' because you'd have to be dim to say that System 1 is never superior to explicit reasoning - e.g. at quickly removing your hand from a fire. And of course there's all sorts of ways you should seek skills in both. But for anything involving expensive or irreversible decisions, like those involving other people's well-being, please back away from the gut.

*** Or, more metaphysically expensively: it is a fact that potentialities are facts (?)


(c) Alberto Magnelli (1918)

...love, in some of its forms, is something that seeks to move beyond the very question of justification. No one asks me to justify my being related to my father or uncle or brother. I just am related to them… Love seeks to become a mere fact about how things are, one that stands beyond the challenge of justification. (That is one reason why it is usually already a sign of the breakdown or crumbling of a relationship, marital or friendship, when the question of justification comes back into view.)

the Anonymous Anti-Ethicist of 2003

It is icky to consider one’s romantic relationships as collections of properties. Even so, the extra-emotional side bears scrutiny; it is almost enough on its own:

  • Having the dumb delight of being in a tiny clique;
  • The economy (especially on rent);
  • Having a bed heater;
  • Having a reason to cook;
  • Having location (someone knowing where you are);
  • Having insurance against locking oneself out of one’s house;
  • Having the holy fact of inclusion in all someone else’s plans.


Some popular stereotypes of white people: they whine, they are bad at dancing and jumping, they suffer a basic inconsistency between actions and stated democratic principles. Perhaps these are America's doing, that land of the ridiculously specific racial generalisation.

The one I’ve found to have stuck, globally, is the white as potato eater. I heard this repeatedly in both China and Tanzania, and have read about it popping up in Latin America, where we first stole them. Indeed, my love of what Swahili speakers call ‘Irish potatoes’ raised chuckles in the way fried chicken might, in nastier quarters. Also, in Shanghai’s gay scene, a man who prefers white partners is a ‘potato queen’.

(While we’re at it, Chinese has loads of interesting slang for white people. The original was 大鼻子 (‘big noses’), but there’s also the (gendered) 三八 (“three eight”??), 老外 (‘ol’ stranger’, more of an honorific), the suggestive Cantonese 鬼佬 ('ghost dude') and archaic Cantonese 洋鬼子 (‘ocean ghost’). Some idle Beijing teenagers did once shout '紅毛鬼' (red-haired devil) at me, but clearly from a distance and without much conviction. (“Watch out, dude. I’ve heard those white guys all have these weird fighting powers. I think they call it ‘Ememay’.”))


Question that has been neglected in epistemology: rather than “what is knowledge?” or “what justifies belief?”, ask, “what is good knowledge?” *

Example: the Avogadro constant – the number of particles per fixed quantity of any substance – is 6.02214129×1023 . Also, the names of the Kardashian sisters are Kim, Khloé and Kourtney.

What does standard straw-man epistemology have to say about these two facts? Well, it might say that justifying belief in the second fact is much more direct and precisely accomplished; naming is a social stipulation, performatively true, and so theory-free; detecting the names of the Kardashians requires no extra scientific instrumentation, and no endorsement of unobservable entities like ‘molecules’. Assuming that both facts are knowledge (true, justified and suitably defeasible and so on), why is the first fact better knowledge?

For a start, let’s break the idea of the quality of knowledge into generality, durability, novelty, and utility. (A brief dude-bro justification of these: Generality, because explaining more of the world at a stroke is cool. Durability, because having to learn updates to facts you’ve already learned is not cool. Novelty, because surprising things are most cool. Utility, because the world sucks and some facts lead to it sucking less. Cool.)

Avogadro’s constant is absolutely general over all known elements; it has resisted 100 years of increasingly refined detections; it’s not new, but neither is it a household name and that’s really what I mean by novel; and it is very useful indeed in medicine, manufacturing, and research of all sorts. By translating any substance into a precise chemical measure, it links everyday experience to the micro-world that most of industrial civilisation depends on.

The fact of the names of the Kardashians is not at all general (applying to almost none of its natural set, “people with names”), not very durable (e.g. one day one of their names might change to Kim West), is quite novel (particularly taking the three sisters as a unique trigram), and totally useless (except for answering pub quiz questions). “QED.”

I suppose the quality question is neglected because 1) it isn't very contentious, and 2) a large part of the correct account will consist of the account shrugging its shoulders and conceding that most of the value of knowledge depends on millions of specific factors unamenable to philosophy, because utility depends on goals, and goals should depend on people. Another objection might be that this isn’t epistemology at all. Should epistemology have nothing to do with the evaluation of knowledge, once established as knowledge? (De praxes non disputandum?)

* I’m aware that Jonathan Kvanvig started a vaguely related debate with his book The Value of Knowledge, but that’s much more interesting and meta-epistemological than this. I also know that information science has its own hierarchy of epistemic things: first, data (observations), then information (summary of observations), then knowledge (critical synthesis of multiple bits of information). Good good, still not quite it. I do not mean “good” as just the practically applicable, or moral consequential, though these things will surely play a big role.


I feel cleaner after doing philosophy. Though I should know better, it is as if it were washing off the muck and amniotic concepts of my Darwinian ancestry and Anglo-European upbringing. This is the case even when I uncover inconsistencies in myself. The exposed surface shines; scar tissue doubly so.


When people talk about their career they mean their external career, the sequence of economic roles they have suffered. Only this of your history is decisive, because the point of talking careers is to gauge your ‘success’ against others’. Since everyone can understand a sequence of jobs as being more or less successful, the conversation is a handy reduction for the small of soul.

What gets relegated, in this pecking-order conception, is the internal career – one’s intellectual development, or, friendships, or whatever other projects you do for their own sake (a modded car, a garden, a long-form kata).

The internal career is of primary concern only to hippies, the religious, and (some of the remaining) artists and scholars. My whole blog’s an intermittently interesting attempt to chart mine; the shit I have done for cash doesn’t come in to it, yet. Certainly some of our contemporaries manage to avoid splitting themselves into two independent half-lives; of course there are external careers that are internally fruitful. (We sometimes call them vocations, an originally religious term. But no-one with a real vocation ever had any need of God telling them to do it.)

Mostly these people share a helpfully obsessive personality – in recent times, see Wittgenstein*, Isaiah Berlin, or, on a fleeting vita activa note, Chris McCandless. Where they survive, they receive adulation and found Schools of Thought. Where they don’t, they attain the dubious rewards eternal youth and saccharine biopics.

* The proximate reason that Alexander Grothendieck suffered is that he was utterly obsessed with two things in tension: pure mathematics and social justice.


Is writing arrogant? Is to write always to lecture? – Do you have to feel superior to lecture? Is the answer no as long as you keep putting question marks at the end?

(c) Alberto Magnelli (1971)


"a world where no such road will run
From you to me
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty."
           - Larkin

Who can’t see autumn coming?
Come cloudburst, who falls in?
Whose victories are numbing?
What was; where have I been?

What is, I don’t get out much:
am unemployed on call
since the sky hitched up its moving-parts
and bolted through the wall.

I who can’t hear for my own hum,
the undone product less than sum,
the dolt in longing for The Femme
what reason could there be?

Charges: blind to dimming ardour,
Trying badly, missing harder
Last resort hint chance discarder –
I would not blame you me.

What was was shock superfluity.
What was is repossessed.
None own their shares in earthly beauty.
Make do. Lie; “s’for the best”.



wandering in extremis of your
rambling curtilage, I stumble over
miles, miles of dull ramparts. Not yours;
this is your siege, an élite ignored
critique, a cottage industry of line-toers
dressing a dead man down. Or,
no not dead but petrefacted: a door
closed but leaking light & snores
enough for one interpretation more.


Been reading, Q2 2014

(c) "Bücherwaage" (1991) by Quint Buchholtz

We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us in a more articulate form what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now.

– Lydia Davis, jks

I lay under the mosquito net and thought white people were boobs. Africa has nothing to do with us and never will have… We are fools; we believe in words, not the reality which the words are supposed to describe. What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?

– Martha Gellhorn (1949)

Why write down what you've been reading?

Well, there's the happy, crass braggadocio of it (look upon my intake and despair); in addition I imagine it improves my reading (since when you know you’ll talk about something, you're forced to be critical); by scoring the greats I vent my vast stocks of ressentiment; it scratches a scrapbooking itch; a reading list is some defence against the disease cryptomnesia; when I mark something '5?' I suspect it’s greater than one reading. My past becomes less spectral, my interpretations less unbridledly vapid, the whole practice less vain. In the Biblical sense of vain, obviously.

A less self-obsessed reason to is that we are more or less accidentally biased against various sorts of people, and it's only with a method like this can one know oneself relevantly and do right by it. My claim is: measuring reading is necessary for intellectual justice.

1/5: No.   4/5: 4/5: Very good.
2/5: Meh.   4*/5: Amazing but once will do..
3/5: Skimmable.   5?/5: A possible vade mecum.
3*/5: Mind candy.   5/5: Encore. A life companion.


  • Ban this Filth!: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive (2012) ed. Ben Thomson. Rather than dismissing her as just the archetypal religious-conservative idiot, how about treating her as a scared and thus angry lady who prefigured modern ambivalence about the extremes of our culture? OK, so it turns out paying attention doesn’t make her less ridiculous, but she’s certainly no longer alone: moral criticism of pop is an enormous cottage internet industry by now. Her small-mindedness put her, somehow, on the same lines as compassionate ideology does some of our contemporaries. (The ends meet in the middle ?) Ahem: the actual book. Whitehouse’s letters are just boring, monotonous and prim – the patronising or bureaucratic replies from the BBC or Granada are much more interesting (in which the Establishment stands up for smut). Thomson’s a thorough but overheated curator – for instance when he likens Whitehouse to Lenin because they were each dead good at getting loads of people involved in things. (Call his enthusiasm Golden Hammer Marxism.) Thomson:
    "From feminist anti-porn campaigns to UK Uncut, the Taliban, and Mumsnet, Mary Whitehouse's monuments are all around us.
    Hrm: is she the reason people use complaint as a political tool? No! (Particularly not if you view protest as organised complaint. There is a distinction between complaint and protest - one is the expression of distaste, the other the ascription of injustice - but it's tricky for beasts like us to tell them strictly apart.) Was she the prototype? Yeah, OK. 2/5.

  • Saturn’s Children (2008) by Charles Stross. Morbid, playful. Robots emancipated by our death fall into slaving each other. Stross’ science makes it: he defamiliarises ordinary human conditions (e.g. water is just another arbitrary compound to them, and the emphasis on, well, time that fiction about humans finds it hard to do without is off), he focusses on the many many vagaries of spaceflight (“The dirty truth is that space travel is shit…”), and offers a harsh, clean sociology (“Architecture and economics are the unacknowledged products of planetography.”)... Prose is hard to describe: there’s definitely an Adams twinkle in there, but it’s buried beneath hard science, sexual complexity and glib lifts (“that corner of me which is forever Juliette”). His society’s accidental oligarchy is dissatisfying; the plot’s repetitive and disintegrates towards the end. Still cool, obtrusive. 3*/5. [Library]

  • New Yorker April 7th (2014). I expect to be equipped by this magazine, prepared for present trends and shibboleths and jargon, and this week certainly did. Some vital vocabulary for negotiating modern culture: Emily Nussbaum’s term ‘bad fans’ (people who identify with the nihilist protagonists of complex dramas, e.g. Tony Soprano, Walter White, sort-of Don Draper); the ‘creative bumbling’ of a veteran journalist (i.e. using stupidity as an elicitation technique). Then there's Jonathan Lethem’s touching piece about a man guilty about his meat-eating; it includes a daydream that I myself dreamed on long childhood car journeys (you imagine that your eyes are a huge great knife cutting away everything taller than you as you pass by, in the back seat. I wonder if it’s in the DSM? 'Juvenile Vehicular Megalopsychosis'). 4/5.

  • Reread aloud: The Fifth Elephant (1999) by Terry Pratchett. About oil, conservatism, the Inscrutable Balkans. The most literary of his excellent police books: telecomms as model and amplifier of emotional and cultural ties; contact with otherness as cause and defining feature of modernity. Less grandiosely, he trots out his satisfying werewolf point again: in actual fact, the creature that lies halfway between human and wolf is not a terrifying lunatic chimera but a dog. 4/5.

  • Travels with Myself and Another (1978) by Martha Gellhorn. Hilarious, patrician, blunt account of the worst of her many journeys, to: Guomindang China 1941, the U-boated Carribean 1942, East through West Africa 1949, liberal Russia 1966, hippie Israel 1971. Her uncompromising generalisations about the people she meets skirt racialism, particularly in the long Africa chapter (e.g. she categorises each new tribe by average attractiveness and prevailing smell; she calls ‘racial’ what we’d deem cultural traits; like many vets, she insists on using the word ‘Jap’). But her discrimination is as in ‘discriminating’: making just distinctions. She’s fair, keen to empathise -
    I said it stood to reason that we must smell in some disgusting way to them. Yes, said Aya, they say we have the ‘stale odour of corpses’; they find it sickening. This cheers me; fair’s fair; I don’t feel so mean-minded
    – a point you can find in p’Bitek, among others) and holds colonialists and bigots in far higher contempt (“it seems conceited to foist off our notions of religion, which we have never truly practised, onto people whose savagery is much more disorganised, personal and small-scale than ours”). My mate Paul – a noted cynic – believes, along with most of our generation, that travel is ennobling, inherently. It surely is not, but it certainly does put an edge on some folks’ writing. (Not their souls:
    One needs Equanil here too, not just in our white urban civilisation; tranquilisers against impatience, against the hysteria induced by heat, and the disgust at dirt”...
    ) Generous, stylish, and a fine if not superior substitute for going these places. 4*/5.

  • A Paradox of Ethical Vegetarianism (2000) by Kathryn Paxton George. Original, empirical, principled, and wrong. Appreciative dismissal forthcoming. 3*/5.

  • Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) by Melissa Mohr. Cool blast through three-and-a-bit millennia of talking Christ’s bowels and fucking shit. She distinguishes between ‘obscenities’ and ‘oaths’ (the first takes profane subjects, the second, sacred) and then between the proper and the vain oath (e.g. “Bejasus! Godammit! Hell’s teeth!”). Adding the generalisation that ‘we swear about what we care about’, she can use known changes in the expressive power of swearwords to cleverly trace the movement of taboos across cultures and over time. (Very broadly: power went from Shit’s precedence to Holy and now back and with more political terms.) Rome’s nasty little sexuality is seen to be the model of a lot of our crap associations; in the Middle Ages vain oaths were criminal while scholars and physicians used ‘cunt’ in textbooks without heat. In our time, racial slurs (very young as slurs – only WWII for real malevolence) have taken the biscuit from sex, excrement and God - which you can see as encouraging (if that means we now care about the targets of racial language) - or depressing (if that means we now care more about Race, dividing lines for their own sake). Mohr is full of fact without being trivial; and she lets graffiti, court records, and primary quotation damn the damnable – e.g. DH Lawrence’s holy cock-mysticism, the spume of Twitter bigots. 4/5. [Library]

  • Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001) by Lydia Davis. Went on guard when I heard that the title story’s one sentence long – speaking, as such conceits do, of the holy-urinal sort of superstitious art – but this is standout, a series of droll, exacting capsules and nutshells. A typical piece is one page long and part gag, part compulsive meditation, part confession of petty vice. Once you get over her diffident, terse non-being, it is fun stuff. The long piece on jury duty is best, its length and repetitious babble a symmetry of the trial. 4*/5.

  • Read aloud: Night Watch (2004) by Terry Pratchett. Perhaps his darkest book (though he never was just about puns and japes – consider the extent of extinction and futility in Strata). All about the Night, as in inherent human brutality and in being metaphysically lost. Remarkable for being about being the police in a police state. Cried my eyes out at the climax the first time, a decade ago. 3*/5.

"Der Gruss (1990) by Quint Buchholtz


  • Between Faith and Doubt: Dialogues on Religion and Reason (2010) by John Hick. Why would anyone want to take away someone else’s sense of the ultimate goodness and unity of things – want, that is, to be a New sort of atheist? Well, you might have misread history so that religious identity looms as the main cause of violence. Or you might note their continuing key role in keeping heinous patriarchal shit on the go (but this reasoning misses the long tradition of smuggling real progress in through churches). Better, you might view the act of worship as in fact degrading to the worshipper, or see the epistemology implicit in religious practice as an unhealthy stance to take to the world. (Preventing as it does healing doubt and honest, energetic inquiry; outmoded as it is given better methods at hand.) Anyway: Hick of the rearguard talks fairly and at length with a fictional scientistic interlocutor, demonstrating how, if the theist is willing to retreat ad hoc about ten times, scientism actually cannot touch them. Amusing example: Hick responds to the solid neurological explanation of religious experience by saying that this is all perfectly consistent with electrical induction in the right angular gyrus just enabling us to perceive the spiritual world. I adore bullet-biting of this magnitude. Hick ends this mostly fair tourney still “as certain as it is possible to be” about God, despite only having parried the critical arguments at great metaphysical cost. At least his atheist doesn’t convert at the end. 3/5. [Library]

  • Black Man (2012) by Richard Morgan. Another geno-soldiers-get-invented-banned-and-what-then chin-scratcher. Nearer us in time and space than his Kovacs novels (this isn’t interstellar) – but they’ve still all forgotten us, bar the historians. Morgan lets genetic determinism run away with the plot: everyone’s always explaining themselves with reference to their or others’ “wiring”. At one point the protagonist hears a similarity in two people’s diction and “wondered idly what genes the two men might share”. Also his theme, ‘GM humans as future Other’ gets ponderous inbetween the ultraviolence. But Morgan is always worthwhile: his books suspend the ideological alongside the unhappily sexual alongside big strange guns (e.g. an AIDS pistol, loaded with GM virus ‘Falwell’). More mature in some ways – there’s a feminist imam, and a religious character he doesn’t have violent contempt for – but also a bit busy and contralto. 3*/5. [Library]

  • Stross and Morgan refer to ‘black labs’ a lot – that is, dastardly underground geneticists. Every single time they did, I wondered what the authors had against Labradors. Sort it out.

  • The Adoption Papers (1991) by Jackie Kay. Strong, po-faced verse portrait of her own birth and adoption, in three voices. Really lovely details throughout – her mother hiding all her Communist décor for first meeting the birth mother; Kay kissing her poster of Angela Davis goodnight, a traumatic, funny dismissal of the idea that your real mother has to be your birth mother
    (“After mammy telt me she wisna my real mammy
    I wis scared to death she wis gonna melt…
    Meeting her bio-mum much later, Kay’s disillusionment is subtly and truly done: “the blood does not bind confusion” (mop it up, like carbon dioxide). It becomes apparent that Kay has just created the birth mother character – her mouth filled with vivid Plathian violence and articulate confusion not born out by the real woman. If so, more the better. See also ‘I try my absolute best’, a perfect snapshot of C20th hippy despair at agrichemicals. 4/5. [Library]

  • The Great Infidel: The Life of David Hume (2004) by Roderick Graham. Gossipy. Says at the start that he isn’t aiming at Hume’s thought or worldview – just his personality, context, happenstance – but since Hume spent a big chunk of his adult life alone thinking, this is quixotic, and Graham predictably does have to go into the Treatise and Essays and Dialogues (and to be frank he does so badly, uncritically). This is filled instead with all the bad reviews Hume got, and the clubs he got into, and the middlebrows that quarrelled with him rather than his eternal legacies, i.e. judgment under uncertainty, reason’s motivational inertia, cognitive naturalism, the frailty of natural theology, the kernel of all these ideas. The bit on Rousseau as incredible drama queen is good – here is R’s reaction to Hume looking at him:
    where, great God! did this good man borrow those eyes he fixes so sternly and unaccountably on his friends! My trouble increased even to a degree of fainting; and had I not been relieved by an effusion of tears, I’d been suffocated… in a transport, which I still remember with delight, I sprang on his neck, embraced him eagerly while almost choked with sobbing...
    Graham is super-fond of the C18th’s loud intellectual tribalism, but it’s not enough. 2/5. [Library]

  • Anselm (2009) by Visser and Williams. An Analyst metaphysician and a Catholic Medievalist walk into a bar… V&W manage to make light of a thousand years’ semantic drift and logical innovations; so their Anselm turns out to be an ingenious and honest rationalist wrestling with the many millstones of Christian lore. (e.g. Making original sin’s indiscriminate infinite hellfire seem just, making the Trinity seem unavoidable rather than a fundamental logical error enforced by terror.) Anselm’s work is a testament to the cornucopaic potential of motivated reasoning – a.k.a philosophy, in its middle millennium. A testament to something. 3/5.

  • Read aloud: Pyramids (1991), The Truth (2005), Unseen Academicals (2009), Thud! (2008), and Snuff (2012) by Terry Pratchett. The Disc grows modern, here gaining a media, sanitation, a soft-power politics, and institutionalised sport, to add to its latter-day civilian police, telecoms, and steam power. The key, most literary thing about the Discworld books is this modernisation, from magic to steampunk. (This happens comically rapidly – Colour of Magic, the first book, is standard non-chronistic High Fantasy, so, set circa circa 1200CE. Snuff takes place not twenty discursive years later – yet the central city is clearly Victorian. And that’s not including the burgeoning intercontinental fax network.) Technology is given its due, but the institutional side isn’t neglected. Modernity began with the despot Vetinari’s marketisation of crime, moves through ethnic diversity reforms and open-door immigration, and marches on and on. UA, the sport one, is solid, poignant. He doesn’t often let his wizards get earnest and truly develop – by this stage, magic is comic relief, no longer the determining power or symbol of the Disc. It just remains to be seen if democracy and international organisation settle in. Snuff is dark and politically worthy, but not his best. He’s been reusing jokes in recent books, and I refuse to speculate on the cause. The series is 4/5. [Library]

  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) by Iain M Banks. His last utopian statement. Tame by the histrionic standards of space opera and his own usual plot webs – though there are the usual infuriating Machiavellis and convincing dilemmas. Grim implications about immortality, decadence, international relations. Worth reading all of the Culture books for the discussions between AIs. 3/5. [Library]

  • Mao’s Great Famine (2010) by Frank Dikötter. Deadpan documentation of the most awe-inspiring and culpable misrule ever. (I don’t mean to weigh Mao’s 40 million counts of negligent manslaughter and 5m conspiracies-to-murder against e.g. the 12 millions of more intentional monsters; the exercise seems childish, past some asymptote of human suffering.) The Party took their land and animals, melted their pans and hoes, killed billions of birds and 40% of the trees in China, starved them until they sold their children, and them starved them some more. At the same time they exported 30 million tons of grain, mostly for guns. Historians are impressive for their readiness to sift through so much irrelevant tonnage – and so much that is boring even when relevant – just so as to be careful and good. Mao comes across as a self-deceiving sociopath; Zhou as a decent man nevertheless allowing atrocities. Heavier than The Black Book, than Primo Levi. 4/5. [Library]

  • Chuck Klosterman on Media and Culture (2009) by CK. Extraordinary raid on modern tyrannies. Of: contemporary sexuality, cereal adverts, the implications of the 00s pirate craze, questions in general, the Unabomber’s good point. Klosterman’s not going to get away without comparison to DFW – but he’s really good in his own way too. He’s a more relaxed, atheoretical Wallace, with pop music (rather than Art writing) at his core, and technology (rather than general Irony) as the source of his worries about us all. This slices through the reflexivity that causes modern confusions, while being mischievously reflexive himself (at one point he tells us that he once lied to an interviewer who had correctly identified Klosterman’s mouthpiece in one of his novels; Klosterman denied that he shared the character’s view in order to preserve a cheap narrative uncertainty for readers of the interview – but, of course, admitting that here undoes that cheap save for we third-order readers). Applied instance:
    We assume that commercials are not just informing us about purchasable products, because that would be crude and ineffective. We’re smarter than that. But that understanding makes us more vulnerable. We’ve become the ideal audience for advertising—consumers who intellectually magnify commercials in order to make them more trenchant and clever than they actually are. Our fluency with the language and motives of the advertiser induces us to create new, better meanings for whatever they show us. We do most of the work for them.
    Two quibbles: there is (what I take to be) a lack of ideological care (that, I take it, is what) you’d expect of pieces written for Esquire magazine. But he transcends it. He doesn’t resolve (as I think DFW mostly does) the tension between a) affirming low culture’s power and unique charms against bullshit classist disparagement, and b) despising its crudest, most conservative common denominators. Went through it in an hour, but the best hour of the year. 4*/5.

  • The Almost Totally Perfect People: The Nordic Miracle Examined (2014) by Michael Booth. Fault-finding things received opinion finds no fault with?: good. Booth’s says the weather, the expense, the pressurised homogeneity of ethnicity and manner leading to marginalisation, the hypocrisy (e.g. Statoil’s tar sands), and the diet are the only subtractions. The bit on their peerless state education (for decades Finnish kids have scored the highest on tests with the lowest inequality – but the kids’ own satisfaction with the system is the lowest on record) is good, basing the whole Miracle on their school system: “It is no coincidence that the region that is consistently judged to have the highest levels of wellbeing, also has the greatest equality of educational opportunity… To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need power over your own life…” How to recreate this, everywhere? He concludes that it’s a difficult-to-copy feedback loop from 1) actually respecting teachers and funding everyone’s Master’s, so 2) attracting excellent people, who 3) teach excellently and thus 1) earn the respect of their charges and society... Booth can be a bit glib (“Is it still racist if they’re rich?”), and is obsessed with tax to the point where he has to ask five different professors how on earth people don’t simply die from 50% income tax. But he gets into the cracks and his wonder and affection rise up afterward: “please don’t [form a separate Nordic Union]. Truly the rest of us would not stand a chance.” 3/5. [Library]

  • The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) by Richard Dawkins. He’s good when he sticks to his damn field! Loads of lovely examples and vivid analogies. The sidebar that naturalises human races is surprisingly careful and illuminating - that portion of the phenomenon that's genetic is more straightforward than I’d thought, in my Arts student way. (Though his placid definitiveness on the social interpretation is obvs controversial as hell. He’s an unqualified eliminativist, implying that the harm resulting from reifying race totally outweighs all gains from positive discrimination, which can’t be right.) I hadn’t heard of the ‘two-fold cost’ of sex before, super-interesting. Not as snarky as you’d expect, and full of alternative perspectives so long as they’re evolutionists’ perspectives. 4/5.

  • New Selected Poems 1984-2004 (2004) by Carol Ann Duffy. A world in a tone. I’d thought of her as sort of obvious – all first-order, meaning near the surface and all on worthy themes like childhood perversity and elderly loss. But her best (“Auden’s Alphabet”, “Shooting Stars”) unfold, see her wielding that obviousness and having fun with drudgery. More historical pieces than I expected, too. Impression: ‘dissolving into childhood’, life as school forever, if school is undemonstrative alienation and uninteresting torment. The epic autiobio documentary “Laughter of Stafford Girls’ School” is dead good; the key to it is that after the anti-authoritarian lark, the poem follows home the prim teachers who failed to control the ruckus, and imagines their own repression give way a touch; plus half a point. 4/5. [Library]


  • Intention (1957) by Elizabeth Anscombe. Christ: difficult. Very brief, very ordinary, and yet unsettling. Her language looks very clear – it’s jargon-free – but on engaging with it you'll see that it’s blurred, terse, arduous. She never introduces the question at hand, or have any introduction at all: on page 1 she just sets about the concept with that sort of Wittgensteinian observational-tragedy monologue. Anyway I think it’s about the problem of intention (‘what answers ‘why?’, and why?’ Or: ‘how can teleology be explained in terms of brute causation (science)?’). I think her central points are that: intentions are justified with reasons, not evidence; intentional explanation is not at all causal explanation; so intentional action is not amenable to a naturalist reduction (because to explain an action with reasons is precisely to not explain it with laws of nature); that intention is not a mental state but a process involving (?); that we have synthetic, non-observational, non-inferential knowledge of the world; that we have this simply because we know about our bodies and intentions. (OK, that needs filling-in to make it less misrepresentative: 1) if you don’t know that you are doing something, you’re not doing it intentionally; 2) if it’s only during, or after the fact that you infer you’re doing something, you can’t be doing it for reasons. So, if you are doing something intentional, you necessarily know you are doing it, and she thinks this knowledge isn’t based on observing oneself or post-hoc theorising. Intention was meant to be the first piece in the first 'proper', psychologised account of agency. (She thought one needed an action theory before one could have a real moral theory. But I think consequentialism sidesteps that need, just as it ducks the free-will responsibility question, and the warm-glow problem, and the meta-ethical status of moral language... But of course for humans the key need, the one consequentialism can never avoid, is people’s need for bullshit intuitions about their own importance and uniqueness.) ?/5. [Library]

  • Karl Marx (2003) by Francis Wheen. Portrait of Karl Jeremiah Wooster Cosby Marx. Wheen’s an ideal biographer: fearless, careful, eventually sympathetic. (So, ideal for the readers rather than the subject.) Most of his shortish book is debunking slanders; the rest is in cementing others. Was Marx a bully? No: bullies take weak targets. A dogmatist? No; spent twenty years researching one-quarter of his big book, and admired his bourgeois forebears Ricardo and Feuerbach. Was he a Whig ‘historian’? Sort of. Petty? Oh yes indeedy. A hypocrite idealist? Tried not to be. Anti-semite? Yes, or, used the language. Russophobe? Definitely somewhat. Bourgeois patriarch? Very much so. A heartless philanderer? Once. A show-off? Yup. I came up with an epitaph for him – “KM. Excellent journalist, journeyman economist, awful leader.” but I am not learned enough to assert it yet. Wheen is in a rush (Hegel’s system gets five lines) but he writes fantastically, has read everything and understood a great deal more than e.g. me. 4/5. [Library]

  • The Living End: The Future of Death, Aging and Immortality (2008) by Guy Brown. Cambridge neuroscientist lets himself go, speculating a bit aimlessly on the meaning and ends of present trends. He goes via Gilgamesh, Swift and Woolf as much as HeLa, Hayflick and Kirkwood. Core evidence-based conclusions are: Life expectancy increases are not slowing down much; dementia is exploding upwards; we know very little about aging and have almost no power over it (but a start has been made – e.g. we know inflammation is important if not the core – and ). The core attitudinal point is to view aging as a disease and death an injustice. Cute (“build a dream, write that novel… have lots of sex”), and it comes from a position of strength, but not so deep. I recommend instead Nick Bostrom(as kaleidoscopic booster), Bryan Appleyard (as somewhat sympathetic sceptic) and Michael Sandel and Habermas (as non-contemptible bioconservatives). 3/5.

  • On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013) by Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek. Echo-chamber dialogue about our barely recognised crimes against humanity. I have mixed feelings about Chomsky, beautiful fist of a man that he is. For half a century he hasn’t stopped talking about unbelievable global crimes that went unreported at the time, and are now unremembered, let alone punished. But. Full discussion here.

    Even given their slips and general exaggeration, there’s no way around some evidence-based conclusions: we are not in general a positive force in the world (almost no-one with power is); this is not well-known; as long as the US is legally immune from prosecution, international justice is a joke; we have very often given money and guns to the worst people in the world; we did this for money and control. 3/5* [Library]

    * Only to be skimmed if you already know about about Leopold II, Britain in Palestine, Operation Boot, Operation PBFORTUNE, Lumumba, the Plain of Jars, Pinochet, Noriega and Just Cause, Suharto, El Salvador, and that Iraq matter. If you don't, this is 4/5 if taken alongside Dikotter and Kolakowski.

  • On the Pleasure of Hating (1818ish) by William Hazlitt. Toty brace of magazine pieces in which he philosophises bare-knuckle fights, juggling, and yes petty hatred. He’s cute, what with his italicised phrases that are now clichés (“blue ruin”), his enthusiasm for enthusiasm, his mid-sentence verse quotations, his Latinate insults (“O procul, este profani”), and enthusiastic woe. is reaction to seeing someone juggle four balls at once:
    It makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is I can do as well as this? Nothing. What have I been doing all my life? … What abortions are these Essays! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do.
    The essay that’s from is about juggling and the concept Greatness and the character of a dear dead sportsman friend – and all this in 20 pages. Big man, only sometimes clotted in the seven-clause sentences of his age. 4/5.

  • Stories, Volume 1 (1884ish) by Anton Chekhov. Was expecting these to be very severe, but, though it has more than its share of erroneous suicides and fist-shaking dread, his tack is usually to laugh at the cold. ?/5

  • Most of Gwern.net (2008-2014) by Gwern Branwen. Fantastic freelance research into the technical and the existential, with practical recommendations aplenty. (For instance, I abuse melatonin after reading his argument, plus prudent second- and third- opinions which lack the key risk/reward reasoning.) I have never seen cost:benefit reasoning this inclusive and persuasive. His breadth, depth are plain, so I'll just link some important ones: on effective altruism, mathematical psychology and metamathematical risk, abortion, analysing the analysts, sceptical self-experimentation. I skipped the animé essays – but in light of his detailed, affirmative sociology of subcultures, they make perfect sense, probably even strictly (that is, as expected value). 4*/5.

…I choose the opposite. Instead of confronting reality and embracing the Experience of Being Alive, I will sit here and read about Animal Collective over the Internet. Again. I will read about Animal Collective again. And not because the content is important or amusing or well written, but because the content exists. Reading about Animal Collective has replaced being alive. I aspire to think of myself as an analog person, but I am not. I have been converted to digital without the remastering, and the fidelity is appalling.
- Chuck Klosterman

On ‘On Western Terrorism’ (2013) by Chomsky and Vltchek

(c) James Bridle (2013), "A Quiet Disposition"

On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare
by Noam Chomsky and André Vltchek.
(Pluto, 2013)

Rally round and settle in, once again, to hear the West’s most popular critic on his specialist subject: the barely recognised crimes of rich democracies. (Note, however, that this isn't really a book: it's a transcript of Chomsky in discussion with someone with even less ideological care than he. Also, the title is cool but misleading, since they don't actually go in to the plausible claim that the West's foreign policy has been terroristic, and since I don't think drones come up at all.) It is selective as history and nearly worthless as economics, but I do not begrudge Chomsky continuing his fifty-year marathon of talking about covert realpolitik: these sorts of manipulations are almost unreported at the time, go wholly unpunished, and are rapidly forgotten, but for him and his.

Like what? Well, begin with Leopold II, skip to the Enola Gay, or Britain's Palestine, Operation Boot, Operation PBFORTUNE, Lumumba, the Plain of Jars, and the long systematic atrocity "Operation Condor" (involving us and Pinochet, Noriega and Just Cause, Suharto, El Salvador), or that Iraq matter.

But even though it handles these demonstrably real Western crimes, On Western Terrorism turns out to be an echo-chamber - a mix of apparently detailed research (e.g. they appeal to some 'declassified embassy reports' to back up some claims) and pervasive confirmation bias.


The main problem's exaggeration. In one breath they move from a righteous skit on the original colonial genocides to a view of world politics in which everything that happens now is the outcome of decisions in Brussels and Washington. From “The West has, historically and recently, been hypocritically violent and anti-democratic” to “Everything bad in the world is due to the West”. That sounds like a sure straw man, but here’s the man himself:
The great majority of events that were causing the suffering of countless human beings all over the world were related to greed, to the desire to rule and to control coming almost exclusively from the ‘old continent’ and its powerful but ruthless offspring on the other shore.
(Oh? malaria? dysentery? precarious subsistence farming? Hutu-on-Tutsi genocide?) He’s at it again here:
although it is mostly Rwanda, Uganda who are murdering millions of innocent [Congolese] people, behind this are always Western geopolitical and economic interests.

Well. It's true that, as well as the flat-out murders in the links above, our governments bear shame for ignoring unbelievably destructive ongoing wars in e.g. the Congo. But failing to prevent murder is not murder, nor necessarily accessory to - especially if we remember that C&V’s judicious attitude to military intervention would have precluded direct action anyway. There is a logical chasm between what one could only perhaps prevent - given enough luck and blood - and what one is the cause of. (I agree that the two situations place similar responsibilities on us, by the way - but in the absence of simple solutions, that hypothetical responsibility does not make them the same.) Similarly: capitalism produces enormous inequality but mostly inadvertently relieves poverty: poverty is our default from before there was a world-system. But C&V and others of the demagogic school persist in blaming all the world's ills on rich bores whose uncaring exploitation often works better for the poor than altruistic direct action. (This is very counterintuitive; so much for intuition.)

Why do I disagree? They say it’s cos I’m a dupe:
There have been very sophisticated propaganda systems developed in the last hundred years and they colonized minds including the minds of the perpetrators. That’s why the intellectual classes in the West generally can’t see it.

I say it’s because while their description of our foreign policy is (depressingly) fair, on the foreign policy of rival governments they are uncritical, whitewashing, and on historical alternatives to our type of society they are naive and cherry-picking, where they give evidence at all. What might a real radical say in response to my aspersions? "Fuck balance! Balance is what lets them get away with it! Fuck evidence! Evidence is what makes people think I’m wrong!"

Vltchek is much more skewed than Chomsky. He’s earnest, and clearly devoted to first-hand reporting of the abuse of powerless people. But, oddly, depressingly, this immersion in the frontline has robbed him of perspective (and in fact it doesn't get more front-line: he was tortured in East Timor in 1996). He suffers the defining mistake of recent leftism: the enemy of my enemy error, where you'll approve of anyone who resists the West. In fact, his comments, taken over the whole book, amount to a flirting defence of totalitarianism - he romanticises the Soviets, Assad's Syria, and Ecuador. Both of them exchange the Eurocentric rose-tint of our mainstream for lenses warped in the reverse direction. And it all rests, ultimately, on tacit belief in the 'superior virtue of the oppressed' - the strange belief that being bombed makes the bomb recipient better than you. (Sure, they’re probably more virtuous than the bombers, but that’s not saying much.) Our governments being awful does not mean that others are not. Quite the reverse.

Also: Chomsky takes on the 'Black Book' of Communism not by challenging its accounting, but by saying that Western capitalism's toll was worse (no footnote, but see the lone India example below); and the Prague Spring is utterly minimised with the same ugly break-a-few-eggs fallacy. Vltchek:
Moscow’s invasion of 1968 to put down the Prague Spring was not necessarily something that should have happened... but there was no massacre performed by the Soviets; few people fell under the tanks. Most of what happened was accidents; some people who died were drunk.
(The direct death toll was 72 plus suicides, if that's what he means.)


That’s the first big problem. The other huge one is the complete lack of footnotes, even as they make the boldest possible claims. As a result, even I identified some errors in the course of my single superficial reading. (Ok, so some failings are just the vagaries of live dialogue as compared to writing; but Vltchek (or Pluto Press at least) would be forgiven for editing the damn thing for basic evidence.)

The only research cited in support of the claim that capitalism causes more excess death from starvation is Dreze and Sen's reputable 1981 study 'Hunger and Public Action (p.214 here). C&V use this to compare excess deaths in India (as an instance of a market democracy) in 1947-1979 with that of Communist China, pointing out that Dreze and Sen place the toll in India at some 100 million, next to China’s '25-30' million. (First cockup: citing thirty-year-old research underestimates the toll of Mao’s famine by perhaps 20m people.) But the comparison doesn't do the work they put it to (that is, condemning capitalism): India was almost an autarkic command economy (in which perhaps two-thirds of all formal, non-subsistence employment was public-sector) in that period; it does not serve them as an exemplar of neoliberal starvation.

Even if it did, we would again come up against their curious equation of failure to prevent an intractable thing with causing the thing in the first place. As far as I can tell, their reasoning really is: “Capitalism exists, and poverty exists, so, capitalism causes poverty.” But it would take one of two things for capitalism to be responsible for poverty: causation, as evidenced by e.g. a gross increase in the number of poor people under its penumbra; or its impeding a more effective solution to poverty. But the proportion of (utterly) poor people, in this supremely Late-capitalist world is the lowest it has ever been; and the remaining poverty is not at all simple to fix; and capitalist countries really did try, throwing enormous amounts of money and thought at the problem for going-on 70 years. To be responsible for poverty in the way C&V say, either capitalism or old socialism would have to be omnipotent, and - among other fairly strong disconfirmations for that idea - the 20th century shows both of those to be untrue. (The commercial success of Chomsky in his enormously capitalist society, is an extra data point toward rubbishing any strong statement about capitalism's mind-control powers.)

(Vltchek talks about global warming briefly, and I was about to reach for the recent debunking of claims of Polynesian evacuation – but in fact it turns out his sources were better; the president of Kiribati has since publicly floated a national evac plan.)

A less straightforward quibble: they think this book is about the West, I think it’s about humans with power.

I had believed Chomsky more humane than this talk makes him seem (see for example his sombre 90s piece on the Black Book) - that is, I want to pin the blame for this biased and maudlin tract on Vltchek. But his long-standing dismissal of some non-Western massacres at last makes me wonder.


On a less uninspired and dispiriting note: if there is a system less bad than Swedish capitalism, it does not exist in the past. So it must be imagined, negotiated, and tested. Chomsky and the other socially enraged ostalgiacs in his ambit are not mostly doing that; Erik Olin Wright and David Graber and Nancy Fraser and others are at least trying.

Finally, what’s so bad about being excessive and dogmatic in your criticism of awful things? (Why should anti-oppression efforts need to justify themselves? They're anti-oppression!) Well, apart from it being dangerous and ignoble to be so firmly wrong, taking this tack means that your true conclusions will be dismissed as just more of your unjustified excess.

But even given their slips, hyperbole, and complacency, there’s no way around some of C&V's key claims: Our governments have not in general been a positive force in the rest of the world; this is not well-known within our societies; as long as the US is legally immune from prosecution, international justice is a joke; we have often given money and guns to the worst people in the world; we did this for little more than control and for stuff.