what I said to you in 2015

I reviewed Prévert, phenomenology of computing , and the New Testament in Scots. I reviewed Taleb as an evolutionary epistemologist and angry apolitician. I translated a Tang octave. I wrote a poem about the NHS. I again reflected on the awfulness of identity via a thought experiment. I translated a Golden Age Viennese lyric. I drew equivalences between key concepts in maths, object-oriented code, and metaphysics. I learned how to code out loud. I reviewed Putnam, Waugh and a sad Australian cynic.

I reviewed an appalling academic paper I was made to read. I psychologised academics who cling to one method. I enjoyed Werner Herzog and listed casualties in his vicinity. I made an attempt to criticise our new century's zeitgeist. I pulled fragments from DFW's last nachlass.

I reviewed the very best book on late-70s / early-80s pop music. I distinguished a toolchain from a stack. I reviewed lots of things I shouldn't have been reading and learned Javascript. I quoted Huxley's surprising last book: almost an anti-Brave New World. I Markov-chained myself, made an extended engineering metaphor for human virtue, and started collecting new and/or rare words, mostly about signal processing.

I listed more new and/or rare words, highly miscellaneously. I philosophised about age. I talked about my childhood engagement with maths. I reviewed Larkin, Yudkowsky, and Pessoa. I made Evgeny Morozov and Venkatesh Rao fight. I reviewed a Chomskyan work of sci-fi. I fell in love with Pessoa. I wrote a poem about the shape of life. I wrote a tiny thing about how you suck. I braced myself for a year of working with PHP. I listed more new and/or rare words, about outer space and deep code. I shared my dodgy bash wrappers over git. I quoted an amazing travel book about kāifàng China, last of its kind.

Previously: 2014.


Highlighted Passages in Thubron's Behind the Wall

A camera hung from every arm. And here I noticed first one of those small phenomena which (I thought fancifully) might unravel a whole society for me if I could only understand it: the flurry of Chinese snapshots was directed not at this beautiful and curious valley, but exclusively at one another. A place seemed to take its meaning only from a person's presence there. Sometimes I received the overwhelming impression that these snapshots were really statements of identity, that to be commemorated at a famous site was to be touched by its mana. 'You're travelling alone?' I was later asked, 'Then how do you manage to photograph?'

      ...These ritual snapshots seemed the heart of their journey. They never stopped to read the ancient poems carved in the cliffs, or to look down at the mottled beauty of the lake. I could not tell whether they admired the scenery at all, or simply cherished the idea of themselves in it.

      By nine o'clock at night the city is already closing itself away. A single thread of lights glows dimly above each street and a river of lampless bicyclists. The enormous lotus-bud columns of Changan Avenue sprout stately clusters of whitish orbs, but all the alleys and hutongs have darkened to threads. Here and there, a lit window hangs in the night like a lantern-slide. In its rectangle of grimy glass, a family huddles with lifted rice-bowls under a naked bulb, or sits round a television beneath walls pinned with garish calendars.
     As I walk across Tiananmen Square, ringed by its monstrous, soft-lit halls, I find couples sitting in the paved wastes alone, their arms circled about one another's backs or tucked-up knees. The girls bury their faces on their forearms or their partners' shins, as if in public contrition. A group of youths stands drinking orange-juice and listening to anaemic pop music on a transistor. Nearby an elderly man lies curled on the stones like a foetus, his head resting on a polythene bag, his eyes wide open and staring before him at nothing.
     In the neighbouring strips of public garden, the couples have locked their bicycles together on the paths, and monopolise a nearby pine or cypress tree. There they stand motionless, leaning against one another in the same half-forbidden tenderness, their eyes not meeting, their mouths not kissing - simply stand there in a frozen embrace, while bats flitter out over the square.

      At random points along the way, monkeys had set up toll-gates for food. If unrequited they could turn vicious, and it was the custom for pilgrims, after running out of propitiatory peanuts, to show them empty hands. I was tramping upward, my eyes on the stairway, when three hefty apes lumbered out of the bamboo... I tried to circumvent them. But they came at me with threatening coughs and squeals, and extorted my last biscuits.

The man went on: 'We found a porter who had been reading novels with a love interest. I don't mean porn. Just a personal story. This was decadent. We beat him unconscious, and burnt the books. Then he died.'
      I looked at him in astonishment, mesmerised, for some reason, by his immaculately pressed trousers. Once the armour of social constraint had been stripped from him, the person inside had been exposed as a baby: conscienceless. Was that China, I wondered, or just him? In any case, where was that feeling of pity which Mencius said was common to all men?

      The great altar had been laid out by mathematicians and astronomers, and was steeped in magic. Its lowest level symbolised man, its centre earth, its summit heaven. The 360 pillars of its balustrades represented the days of the lunar year, and the balustrades themselves ran in multiples of nine - the celestial number which divided the sectors of the Chinese heaven. In the stairways between each terrace the steps too numbered nine. From the centre of the topmost tier nine rings of paving-stones radiated out in concentric multiples of nine, and fanned down into the lower terraces, nine rows to each, in ever-expanding manifolds of nine.
      Into this haunted circle the emperor stepped at the winter solstice.

I started conversation with a weatherbeaten veteran fifteen yards away. 'Where are you from?'
      'I'm from England.'
      After a pause: 'Where's that?'
      'The other side of Russia.'
      A smile crept into his voice. 'Is that the same as America, then?'
      'No. It's an island. On its own.
      I added: 'It used to control Shanghai.'
      'I don't remember that...'

Life before Google (or rather Baidu):
     Down one of these streets, in a moment of surrealism, a student wavered up behind me on his bicycle and requested in punctilious English; 'Excuse me, sir, how many children did Charles Dickens have?'
     'Four,' I guessed.
     'Thank you, sir,' he said, and wobbled off into the crowds.

     All over the country, in town squares, factory halls and commune headquarters, the Great Helmsman has come crashing down, to be replaced by dancing-girls or rocks topped by stags and storks - or by resounding emptiness.
      'Do you miss them?' I asked. I was trying to imagine all the churches of Europe vanishing at a stroke.
      He countered: 'Wouldn't you miss it if every statue of your Queen disappeared?'
      'There aren't any,' I said. 'Statues usually go up after a person's dead.'
      He looked surprised, the laughed with a dry, nervous rattle. 'That's when ours come down.'

I knew he was hurt, because he was smiling.

...as the [Yangtze] river fell behind, I wondered if it were true (as some scholars thought) that the effort to master its awesome, meandering force - exacting a constant collective effort to build dikes and channels - explained the deep conformist instincts which infuse the Chinese still.

She began feeling sorry for me. She was boiling noodles on a little stove. 'Why aren't you married?'
      I had not the English, let alone the Mandarin, to answer this. I said: 'There must be Chinese men who don't marry, aren't there?' But I realised I'd never met one.

     We were on delicate ground. Either I was naive or he was paranoid. I was thinking: this is how totalitarianism works - by creating dementia, a conviction of all-seeing authority. But its inhuman efficiency is an invention of its victims. While he was thinking (perhaps): this is how totalitarianism works - by concealing its mechanisms so successfully from the innocent (and the stupid) that they do not know what is happening to them.

'I've heard about teachers being persecuted,' I said, 'but I can't imagine... in a place like this... by their own seminarists?' He was silent. 'Did they?'
     'Not me personally. But some of the teachers were... badly abused.'
      So his pupils, I thought, had turned out less Christian than Chinese. They had withdrawn, perhaps, into an ethos ancient in their history — a womb-world of submission to the group, a family obedience emanating out to the largest family of all, whose father was the emperor ruling by the Mandate of Heaven.
     Here, at worst, a person relinquished all responsibility, all self. Conscience was stillborn. To dissent was to defect from Nature, from the very order of things...

      ...Momentarily my head filled with savage, condescending notions. The Chinese (I raged mutely) knew cruelty and squalor enough in their hierarchy-ridden families, where wife-beating was common and equality unknown. Their massed millions made the individual expendable, almost valueless. Perhaps it was strange that any imaginative sympathy survived at all...
'This sort of thing isn't peculiar to my country,' the priest said: he might have been thought-reading. 'Look at Germany, Russia. Of course, those countries are not old civilisations like ours, but still...'
      Of course. I was wading into an ocean. He was listening patiently, but I could not assemble any coherent thoughts. I wanted to explain that it was not the presence of cruelty which surprised me, but some imbalance between obedience and mercy, the collapse of domestic compassion in the face of official demand, the refinements of tortures practiced against teachers and friends, the denunciation of parents - but I stumbled into inarticulacy. I was juggling only with my own values, not with theirs. I knew nothing.
      But I said, bluntly, insultingly: 'In Europe we sometimes think of the Chinese as cruel.'
      I was speaking to his faith, separating off his nationality. It was clumsy, unforgivable. At that moment I saw myself in his eyes: a spoilt Westerner, sentimentally concerned about pain, favouring an incontinent sympathy above moral decision.

Mao Zedong had described the peasant as a blank sheet of paper awaiting Revolutionary inscription, but in fact the paper had always been scored with a deep, incoherent language of its own. The old ways continue everywhere under Marxist disguise. Now, as in imperial times, rule is less by law than by a collective morality. Beneath the age-long supervision of one another in clans and street committees, lies the timeless ideal that a person melt harmoniously into the mass rather than visit his individuality upon it.

A Guomindang member, imprisoned by the PRC for 25 years:
" 'Why?' is not a Chinese question."

'Suffering? All that suffering?' The publisher glanced at the books in his lap with distaste. 'No, nothing much came out of the Cultural Revolution. No great novels, no genius.' The admission caused him some distress. 'Just mediocre talent. That's all.'
      'But there must have been something?' I was foolish, surprised. After the crushed idealism, the forced exile among the peasants, the broken careers and ambitions - hadn't that generation made any real testimony at all? 'If this had happened in Europe...'
      'This isn't Europe,' the man said. 'The educational standard of our youth simply isn't high enough.'
      'But it can't just be education... There were millions of them!'
      'No, it's not just that...'

The dance-floor filled. Young men in Sanyo t-shirts threw themselves into the mood. A few girls joined them... Only once did a swarthy youth and his gypsy-dark girl touch their backs together with a cursory wriggling. Immediately an official in a red arm-band pulled them off the floor...

I wanted to ask him other things, but most were too painful. I said obliquely; 'Do many people believe in an afterlife?'
      'Some. Perhaps not many. But I do not believe. I cannot believe.' Suddenly his face was contorted by mingled sorrow and bitterness, held in by a heart-rending laughter. 'We Chinese have a saying, "All that is born must die". But that doesn't stop this... this...' - he turned his forefinger against his body, insinuating it between his torn jacket, drilling inside - '...this grief.'
      In the naked room, with the single bulb slung in its doorway, his imagined loneliness was unbearable. I wanted to touch him, but remained inert. He seemed beyond pity. He was stricken instead by a terrible acquiescence - not the blinding loss or hope of Christian mourning, but a recognition of the balance and proportion in things. Suddenly his people seemed immeasurably old. Perhaps this, I thought, was why they sometimes seemed able to look on death - and even inflict it - unmoved. They were not less humane than we, only less illusioned.
      But it was only a passing thought.


comfy git

customising bash and gitconfig for fun and profit

Git is amazing but verbose. (The awkward length of its commands may well be a feature, since awkward things force us us think, and careful thinking kinda behooves nonlinear distributed development.)

We are trying to balance two forces: 1) every increase in typing ease means an increase in the risk of typo error. 2) Every ounce of effort that source control takes is subtracted from actual development.

The really terse aliases (one word, like "gits") require us to configure the bash shell rather than the git client running in it. First create a ".bashrc" file in your git bash current directory (i.e. in "~"):
touch ~/.bashrc
gedit ~/.bashrc
[Enter aliases you want, save]
source ~/.bashrc

For the git aliases just put em in here (starting with [alias] )
> gedit ~/.gitconfig

If you want to keep Git's excellent branch-name auto-complete working on your aliases, you'll need to add them in the .gitconfig as a separate word, hence my:
git ch
git br

I also have a setup script which updates the master branch and prunes deleted content. Run its name ('gup' or '. gitsetup.sh'), prepending a dot to break out of subshell context.

Scripts here.


Is this safe?

  • gup is safe because git checks if local changes would be overwritten before pulling.
  • del is safe because it's the soft delete version that can only delete fully merged things
  • The others are safe through the magic of bash functions.

Notable words, Q4 2015

  • telematics (n.): Telecommunications informatics; that is, horrendous employee micromanagement via wireless reporting devices.

  • scofflaw (n.): person who disrespects the law. Particularly of proud drinkers during Prohibition.

  • havey-cavey (adj.): dubious, shady, 'the property of having hidden metaphorical caves'?.

  • rive (v.): To split violently. See frost riving, the destruction of rock by repeated thermal contraction of water inside it. See also "reave".
  • lookbook (n.): A model's or photographer's portfolio. Awful

  • Ophiuchus (proper n.): A constellation and the 13th zodiac sign, excluded from the usual blah because astrology is a cold, dead system invented by people without a fraction of our information, maintained by people with no intellectual courage. Yet another world-cultural reference I received dimly and very indirectly from Final Fantasy. (see also Grendel, Behemoth, Leviathan, Gilgamesh, Quezacotl, Lamia, Wendigo, Sephirot, Heidegger, Bugenhagen...).

  • grex (Latin n.): 1. a crowd, a herd, a bundle; 2. particularly an aggregate of amoebae, formed for the purposes of mutual travel and food collection or 3. a hybrid plant created by artificially splicing parents of differing species.

  • blazar (n.): a small but unbelievably energetic quasar (i.e. a black-hole powered, 'optically violent' galactic nucleus with energy output hundreds of trillions of times one ordinary star's).

  • Relativistic jet (n.): A plasma death-ray tens of thousands of light-years long.

I'll partition off tech for those who can't care:

  • failover (n. / v.): a backup / to switch to backup. Just a weird clumsy word, poor thing.

  • l10n (n.): localisation. Awful

  • shadow app (n.): Software used at work despite not being approved by the IT department bureaucracy.

  • glob (v.): to attempt to pattern-match.

  • Glob (n.): a Martian God in Adventure Time, cf. "OH MY GLOB"

  • cleardown (n.): The ending of a phonecall. (By analogy, the deallocation of resources used to service network requests.) Perhaps due to the position of switches on the old switchboards.

  • bare-metal (a.): Of software: acting on the hardware directly, without OS mediation.

  • closure (n.): 1. a useful kind of active datum: a first-class function that can access variables in the scope it was defined in. 2. Sometimes refers to that subset of closures used for dynamic calls (callbacks). Sometimes wrongly used for any anonymous function.

  • thunk (n.): A unit resulting from compile-time memoization; when the code comes to run, the type has already been thought of: has been thunk.

  • userland (n.): the non-kernel portion of an OS; its API for all application software. One never actually sees the kernel running; only the phenomena of userland are present to us. The kernel must be pure and separated from the multiple evils of this, the Elk Cloner Era. Userland does the dirty elk-risk work.

  • PICNIC (n.): a software failure in which the Problem is In the Chair, Not in the Computer. See also PEBCAK, 1D10T, wetware bug, carbon-based error.

  • tooling (n.): process of customising one's toolchain, or one bit of software in it, often with shell scripts.
  • uncloud (v.): to remove your data or infrastructure or (...) from other people's computers.


Learn PHP Without Going Mad

(c) Ian Baker (2012)

PHP, the language which runs 80% of the known internet, is renowned for its fundamentally poor design. The language began as a few little functions letting non-programmers manage rudimentary web forms. But it has expanded into the 7th most popular language there is, a very fast, mature object-oriented thing which tries hard to manage its primary burden: itself. (Much of the horror has been patched over since PHP5, I am told by grizzled veterans.) The lead dev at my work, who's spent 10 years with it, admits that it "keeps you on your toes". (However, one would prefer that one's tools were transparent, an extension of the arm.)

Neal Stephenson notes that source code comments (the backstage cribs of your software)
read like the terse mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes. The general feel is of a thousand monumental but obscure struggles seen in the stop-action light of a strobe.
This struggle is the spirit of the PHP community: stoical mutual aid in the face of a great external force. Even better, there's a large disgruntled demographic who have written hundreds and hundreds of 'PHP sucks' articles; perversely, this is actually a very good thing for PHP - since the best way to learn something hard is through satire and clear-sighted criticism.

Six ways to learn PHP without hating everything:





(That is, use a nice opaque PHP framework from the start.)
  • For instance, Laravel is such a thick wrapper that you can forget you're writing PHP at all. (Needless to say this has costs.)


  • "PHP is the Nickelback of programming languages"
  • "PHP is the Orc of programming languages. Ugly. Doesn't respect the rules. A big headache to a lot of people who manage them. But still dominates most of the Middle Earth."
  • "PHP is your teenage sweetheart, the girl you first awkwardly fumbled around with that one summer. Think twice about a more serious relationship though - this girl has serious issues."
  • PHP is the Ford Pinto of programming languages (or, depending on who you ask, the Toyota Hilux).


the problem with other minds

I don't know what you're thinking, of course. Some people make much of this; all our thousands of languages are supposed to be bridges, however rickety and thin; half of all real and imagined tragedies turn on miscommunication; a large branch of world philosophy obsesses over the Angst of Being and the distant Other, incomprehensible, deep and sad.

The harsh light of Sturgeon's law is a great comfort here, since it implies we aren't missing much. 'It's no tragedy I am deaf by default if the world comprises mostly noise. Essential solitude is just a grander version of not having Twitter.'

But also that, were humanity better than it is - more thoughtful, more caring, more original, funnier - the situation would be more tragic. Because the feeling I have of missing out on you all would be, well, justified.


parabola not slide

What? Seest thou not how that the yeare as representing playne
The age of man, departes itself in quarters fowre? First bayne
And tender in the spring it is, even like a sucking babe.
...Then followeth Harvest when the heate of youth growes sumwhat cold,
Rype, meeld, disposed meane betwixt a yoongman and an old,
And sumwhat sprent with grayish heare. Then ugly winter last
Like age steales on with trembling steppes, all bald, or overcast
With shirle thinne heare as whyght as snowe. Our bodies also ay
Doo alter still from tyme to tyme, and never stand at stay.
Wee shall not bee the same wee were today or yisterday.
- Ovid

Winter is first. This is calendar view
not the popular petty grandiosity of life as year.
Sulk hard; see life Spring downward. The Gregorian
or astronomical fact is an unpolished scientistic compartment.
No one will have you heed it.

But childhood is a winter.
A moral desert, intellectual negligibility,
contagious illiberty, ruin of stores.
Our minds do alter and fly once thawed.
And no we will not be as we were! thank god.


Highlighted passages from The Book of Disquiet

My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.

Since we can't extract beauty from life, let's at least try to extract beauty from not being able to extract beauty from life.

I often wonder what kind of person I would be if I had been protected from the cold wind of fate by the screen of wealth... to reach the tawdry heights of being a good assistant book-keeper in a job that is about as demanding as an afternoon nap and offers a salary that gives me just enough to live on.

I know that, had that non-existent past existed, I would not now be capable of writing these pages, which, though few, I would have undoubtedly have only day-dreamed about given more comfortable circumstances. For banality is a form of intelligence, and reality, especially if it is brutish and rough, forms a natural complement to the soul. Much of what I feel and think I owe to my work as a book-keeper since the former exists as a negation of and flight from the latter.

Caesar gave the ultimate definition of ambition when he said: ‘Better to be the chief of a village than a subaltern in Rome’.

In these random impressions, with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. These are my confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it's because I have nothing to say.

And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the soul's salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life's pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.

Happy the creators of pessimistic systems! Besides taking refuge in the fact of having made something, they can exult in their explanation of universal suffering, and include themselves in it.

I don't complain about the world. I don't protest in the name of the universe. I'm not a pessimist. I suffer and complain, but I don't know if suffering is the norm, nor do I know if it's human to suffer. Why should I care to know? I'm not a pessimist. I'm sad.

Civilisation consists in giving something a name that doesn't belong to it and then dreaming over the result. And the false name joined to the true dream does create a new reality. The object does change into something else, because we make it change. We manufacture realities.

I belong to a generation that inherited disbelief in the Christian faith and created in itself a disbelief in all other faiths. Our fathers still had the believing impulse, which they transferred from Christianity to other forms of illusion. Some were champions of social equality, others were wholly enamoured of beauty, still others had faith in science and its achievements, and there were some who became even more Christian, resorting to various Easts and Wests in search of new religious forms to entertain their otherwise hollow consciousness of merely living.

Every gesture, however simple, violates an inner secret. Every gesture is a revolutionary act; an exile, perhaps, from the true ... of our intentions. Action is a disease of thought, a cancer of imagination. Action is self-exile. Every action is incomplete and flawed.

To attain the satisfaction of the mystic state without having to endure its rigours; to be the ecstatic followers of no god, the mystic or epopt with no initiation; to pass the days meditating on a paradise you don't believe in - all of this tastes good to the soul that knows it knows nothing.

Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is the spirit that is experienced. That is why there exist contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely, more tumultuously than others who have lived their lives purely externally.

I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me - this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we're mean-hearted but because we don't feel like unbuttoning our coat.

There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes to where life is not painful; nor is there a port of call where it is possible to forget.

I read and am liberated. I acquire objectivity. I cease being myself and so scattered. And what I read, instead of being like a nearly invisible suit that sometimes oppresses me, is the external world’s tremendous and remarkable clarity, the sun that sees everyone, the moon that splotches the still earth with shadows, the wide expanses that end in the sea, the blackly solid trees whose tops greenly wave, the steady peace of ponds on farms, the terraced slopes with their paths overgrown by grape-vines.

Each of us is several, is many,is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.

I never had anyone I could call “Master”. No Christ died for me. No Buddha showed me the right path. In the depths of my dreams no Apollo or Athena appeared to me to enlighten my soul.

I feel love for all this, perhaps because I have nothing else to love... even though nothing truly merits the love of any soul, if, out of sentiment, we must give it, I might as well lavish it on the smallness of an inkwell as on the grand indifference of the stars.

Let's buy books so as not to read them; let's go to concerts without caring to hear the music or see who's there; let's take long walks because we're sick of walking; and let's spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us.

When one of my Japanese teacups is broken, I imagine that the real cause was not the careless hand of a maid but the anxieties of the figures inhabiting the curves of that porcelain. Their grim decision to commit suicide doesn't shock me: they used the maid as one of us might use a gun.

I go forward slowly, dead, and my vision is no longer mine, it’s nothing: it’s only the vision of the human animal who, without wanting, inherited Greek culture, Roman order, Christian morality, and all the other illusions that constitute the civilization in which I feel. Where can the living be?

Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can't live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendours of the mind and the soul, in which case you're a noble slave, or an intelligent servant, but you're not free. And you can't hold this up as your own tragedy, for your birth is a tragedy of Fate alone. Hapless you are, however, if life itself so oppresses you that you're forced to become a slave. Hapless you are if, having been born free, with the capacity to be isolated and self-sufficient, poverty should force you to live with others.

A grand and twisted vision of the individual human:
One of my constant preoccupations is trying to understand how it is that other people exist, how it is that there are souls other than mine and consciousnesses not my own, which, because it is a consciousness, seems to me unique. I understand perfectly that the man before me uttering words similar to mine and making the same gestures I make, or could make, is in some way my fellow creature. However, I feel just the same about the people in illustrations I dream up, about the characters I see in novels or the dramatis personae on the stage who speak through the actors representing them.

I suppose no one truly admits the existence of another person. One might concede that the other person is alive and feels and thinks like oneself, but there will always be an element of difference, a perceptible discrepancy, that one cannot quite put one's finger on. There are figures from times past, fantasy-images in books that seem more real to us than these specimens of indifference-made-flesh who speak to us across the counters of bars, or catch our eye in trams, or brush past us in the empty randomness of the streets. The others are just part of the landscape for us, usually the invisible landscape of the familiar.

I feel closer ties and more intimate bonds with certain characters in books, with certain images I've seen in engravings, that with many supposedly real people, with that metaphysical absurdity known as 'flesh and blood'. In fact 'flesh and blood' describes them very well: they resemble cuts of meat laid on the butcher's marble slab, dead creatures bleeding as though still alive, the sirloin steaks and cutlets of Fate.

I'm not ashamed to feel this way because I know it's how everyone feels. The lack of respect between men, the indifference that allows them to kill others without compunction (as murderers do) or without thinking (as soldiers do), comes from the fact that no one pays due attention to the apparently abstruse idea that other people have souls too.

And again:
I have a very simple morality: not to do good or evil to anyone. Not to do evil, because it seems only fair that others enjoy the same right I demand for myself – not to be disturbed – and also because I think that the world doesn’t need more than the natural evils it already has. All of us in this world are living on board a ship that is sailing from one unknown port to another, and we should treat each other with a traveller’s cordiality.

Not to do good, because I don’t know what good is, nor even if I do it when I think I do. How do I know what evils I generate if I give a beggar money? How do I know what evils I produce if I teach or instruct? Not knowing, I refrain. And besides, I think that to help or clarify is, in a certain way, to commit the evil of interfering in the lives of others. Kindness depends on a whim of our mood, and we have no right to make others the victims of our whims, however humane or kind-hearted they may be. Good deeds are impositions; that’s why I categorically abhor them.

Perhaps it's my destiny to remain a book-keeper for ever and for poetry and literature to remain simply butterflies that alight on my head and merely underline my own ridiculousness by their very beauty.

I feel as if I'm always on the verge of waking up.

Very Late Review: Market Forces (2004) by Richard Morgan

So totally a book of its time: of cinematic Adbustersish rage and paranoia. By 2086, military aid has been fully privatised, making a free market out of unilateral political force:

All over the world, men and women still find causes worth killing and dying for. And who are we to argue with them? Have we lived in their circumstances? Have we felt what they feel? No. It is not our place to say if they are right or wrong. At Shorn Conflict Investments, we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay?

Morgan’s ultra-capitalism is internally coherent, but weighed down by Chomskyan exaggeration and a clumsy Mad Max road-rage system in which people drive FAST and MEAN to get corporate promotion. (Oh shit, metaphor.) Like many a bright-eyed anti-globaliser, Morgan tends to overdo it; at one point, a senior partner at Shorn erupts into a caricature of an inhuman plutocrat. I’ve added numbering to his rant because it is such a dense cluster of Morgan's (and the anti-globalisers') muddled good intentions:
Do you really think we can 0) afford to have the developing world develop? You think we could have survived the rise of a modern, articulated Chinese superpower twenty years ago? You think we could manage an Africa full of countries run by intelligent, a) uncorrupt democrats? Or a Latin America run by men like Barranco? Just imagine it for a moment. Whole populations getting 1) educated, and 2) healthy, and 3) secure, and 4) aspirational. 5) Women's right's, for god's sake! We can't afford these things to happen, Chris. Who's going to 6) soak up our subsidised food surplus for us? 7) Who's going to make our shoes and shirts? 8) Who's going to supply us with cheap labour and cheap raw materials? 9) Who's going to buy our arms?"

0) A totally false dichotomy: uncoerced trade is never zero-sum! Also, everyone has an economic interest in the economic development of the world; roughly, the richer my neighbours are, the more they can buy from me, the richer am I.
a) Corruption is terrible for business; it subsumes about one dollar in twenty of the entire world's output. Individually beneficial acts of bribery collectively lead to a ludicrously bad (and anti-capital!) state;
1) Education is good for economies, and thus good for the West (by point 0);
2) healthy workers are very good for economies;
3) suffering war disrupts consumer spending more than anything else (as opposed to the economics of inflicting war, admittedly, but that isn't the plutocrat's point);
4) (a certain limited form of) aspiration is the very heart of a consumer economy;
5) there were huge economic gains from feminism;
6) this is mildly true, but governmental horrors like the CAP give Morgan's rage some urgency;
7) By 2086? Robots; 8) By 2086? Robots;
9) This one is true and horrible.

This economic naivete is balanced by the characteristic virtues of Morgan’s writing: pace, cool uncliched weapons, his pro-social rage (here, wifebeaters and Nazis suffer retributive atrocities). In a rarity for SF, Morgan underestimates the rate of tech growth (by his 2086): for instance, their drones are much larger and more limited in application than ours are already. (The book is also a very good portrait of ordinary marital pain.)
One of his warders offered to let him have some books, but when the promised haul arrived, it consisted of a bare half-dozen battered paperbacks by authors Chris had never heard of. He picked one at random, a luridly violent far-future crime novel about a detective who could seemingly exchange bodies at will, but the subject matter was alien to him and his attention drifted: it all seemed very far-fetched.
A few nice meanings in there: Morgan's apparent self-deprecation is actually bragging about his still being in print in a hundred years; Kovacs is just this book's Faulkner character plus genetic mods; thus Faulkner finding the book "alien" is actually a serious comment on his lack of basic self-consciousness, and explains why the loss of Carla is so fatal to his character (can't introspect enough to prevent his fall). Crass and flashy, but politically and psychologically ambitious. I have read everything Morgan has written and will return.


Pair Review: Rao vs Morozov

Breaking Smart, 'Season' 1 (2015) by Venkatesh Rao.

A grandiose and low-res narrative covering all of history from the perspective of technology (or, rather, the perspective of the tech industry (or, rather, of the solutionists)) in 30,000 words. Rao is one of the big in-house theorists for Silicon Valley*, and this is reflected in his contagious enthusiasm for just how much is becoming possible so quickly, the degree to which this time actually is different ("Software is eating the world"). Second half of this season attempts to generalise software engineering ideas - Agile, forking, sprints and all that - to all human endeavour (...)
As a simple example, a 14-year-old teenager today (too young to show up in labor statistics) can learn programming, contribute significantly to open-source projects, and become a talented professional-grade programmer before age 18. This is breaking smart: an economic actor using early mastery of emerging technological leverage — in this case a young individual using software leverage — to wield disproportionate influence on the emerging future.

Only a tiny fraction of this enormously valuable activity — the cost of a laptop and an Internet connection — would show up in standard economic metrics. Based on visible economic impact alone, the effects of such activity might even show up as a negative, in the form of technology-driven deflation. But the hidden economic significance of such an invisible story is at least comparable to that of an 18-year-old paying $100,000 over four years to acquire a traditional college degree. In the most dramatic cases, it can be as high as the value of an entire industry.

The music industry is an example: a product created by a teenager, Shawn Fanning’s Napster, triggered a cascade of innovation whose primary visible impact has been the vertiginous decline of big record labels, but whose hidden impact includes an explosion in independent music production and rapid growth in the live-music sector.
Yeah, I hate the title phrase too. People got cross at him being pretentious about the format (long-form blog posts released in huge chunks, to binge on like a boxset) but I like it. Very exciting for techies, and readable for nontechies. just unreliable.


* See also Floridi, a deep but similarly narrative thinker. Compare the two to Freud and Marx: wonderfully original but mostly lacking justification.


To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) by Evgeny Morozov.

Sharp, original and broad mismash: an intellectual history of information technology, IP law, political economy, as well as an ok bit of polemical sociology and a theory of Design. His targets are the 'solutionists', those technocrat techies who derive from the half of the Enlightenment which became positivism. (It is roughly: the will to perfect things and people, plus theorism, plus economism, plus the sheer power and scope of modern software.) Morozov is, bluntly, afraid for us all because software is eating the world:
Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder and the opportunity to err, to sin: all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well... we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster cultural institutions that don't take risks and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable...
(The book is only rarely as alarmist as this.) He gives a helpful survey of the present-day gurus and scholars who are involved in the uncritical adulation or demonising of the internet and its associated ideology (hyper-efficiency for everything, transparency for everything, the benevolence of emergent social processes like markets, no need to pay artists or other intellect-workers). His first great distinction is between a solution to a problem and a response; the former is objective, final, uncontroversial (i.e. maths at its best) while a response is the partial, negotiated, and rarely decisive. The novelty, promise, and danger of the solutionists is that they proffer solutions to more and more of the world, particularly in politics.

Morozov is not the oppposite of Rao, because Rao is more subtle than people give him credit for, and no subtle thinker ever has a single opposite. But their values and policy recommendations are totally opposed.

His own ideological perch is really interesting: he's constantly emphasising practice over theory, admiring Oakeshott and Illich while emphasising that everyone of whatever politics should be worried about the hegemonic techies. It occurs to me that the word 'practice' is a way of smuggling in status quo bias without tripping people's political alarms: the conservative word for 'practice' is 'tradition'; the left word for it is 'culture'. All three concepts impede change, whether through fear and status quo bias or relativism. Morozov's bipartisan curmudgeonliness is charming, but this caution and cynicism echo throughout, in his worries about e.g. the infantilising effect of technical ease, speed, gamification. I'm no longer the kind of person who dismisses someone based only on political or existential differences, but I do distrust people who think that the world is fine as it is (rather than just incredibly better than the other points in history), or that states of affairs are justified by their longevity rather than their being good for people. Practices need justification; justification is the practice of reason; reason very often implies efficiency. He's not anti-rationalist, but the products he attacks stem from that good tree.

At one point he gets very excited over the idea of people giving each other ratings online and thereby creating new dystopian social control mechanisms; this bold conjecture has recently been confirmed by the imminent launch of Peeple. I was going to write something about how MeowMeowBeans paranoia is unnecessary - for we already endure dystopian ranking algorithms: your salary and your number of followers are already wildly globally dominant rank orders - but it certainly speaks well of his mental model that he saw this coming. Only an outbreak of common sense (leading to Peeple's abject failure) will prevent solutionist horrors.

Many of his points apply to two of my tribes, the rationalists and the effective altruists. (Who seek to theorise and thereby improve on our native knowledge-seeking and moral reasoning, respectively.) But I don't think his critique does much against them: efficiency is humane and common-sensical in a world with scarcity and miscoordination as deep as ours; inefficiency in science and medicine bankrupts and kills people; inefficiency in charity and aid prevents many, many lives being saved or transformed. The absurd examples Morozov rightly holds up (the BinCam, the publicising of weight gain) may be just misapplications of the principle. We are a long way from the point where politics, charity, academia, or even science are over-rationalised and losing their other virtues because of excess efficiency.

Returning to his beautiful quotation, the first above: but I do not deserve the freedom to believe harmful falsehoods, nor the freedom to hide my errors behind ambiguity; nor the freedom to throw away resources which others need. And I don't want the freedom to waste my life. Technology is the only untried way of responding to our grave Darwinian inheritance of intolerance, selfishness, and irrationality. But Morozov makes his case well about the specific case of technologised politics.



Been Reading, Q3 2015

(c) Grace Witherell (2015)

humans have thrived by turning every need — every vulnerability — into something high in its own right. Shelter becomes architecture. Reproduction gets wrapped in romance and love… think of all the cultural significance and artistry and labor that goes into [eating]. I wanted to bring that same creative power and meaning-making to death…

of BJ Miller

Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not building dams or spinning webs, but telling stories – more particularly concocting the story we tell others, and ourselves, about who we are... we do not consciously and deliberately figure out what narratives to tell and how to tell them; like spiderwebs, our tales are spun but for the most part we don’t spin them...

– Daniel Dennett

Unintentional quarterly theme is technology as the future of control and of freedom. So a lot of political sci-fi; nice brain-cooling fun while I hammered out a machine learning thesis way too late. I am not a 'solutionist', nor a techno-utopian about politics, nor a proto-guru. There is something wrong with the full anti-political technocratic air (this long thing does it smugly but not unfairly), which the Venkatesh Rao piece suffers. Even so, I trust nerds (sci-fi writers, devs, EAs) to handle speculative and theoretical politics more than I trust litérrateurs or traditional radicals; the latter too seldom have a sense of what has fundamentally changed about the world in the last 60 years, and little chance of grasping what is newly possible.

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

(I am constantly tempted to expand this scoring system, to give many separate scores for each book (e.g. "stylishness", "fun", "overall truth", "quality of justification", and well as "durability") and then sum them. Something holds me back; perhaps mere taste. Re-readability is not the only book virtue but it's the most significant single book virtue, the one that keeping a reading list is most concerned with. Signposts, breadcrumbs, flares for my future.)


  • Intuition Pumps (2012) by Daniel Dennett. A self-help book! in the form of a set of tricks and tools for good non-routine cognition. But it's utterly personable and scientifically charged, and a defence of naturalist semantics, mind, 'free' will, and philosophy itself, to boot. He’s so much more subtle than he’s given credit for – for instance, a large theme here is the central role of imagination in science and the other potent sorts of thought. I confess that I simply can’t conceive of some of his positions (e.g. 'qualia' being non-necessary illusions produced by theory); but one of the book’s burning points is that this may well be a failing of my person, and not his philosophy. Also a meta-philosophy:
    By working with scientists I get a rich diet of fascinating and problematic facts to think about, but by staying a philosopher without a lab or a research grant, I get to think about all the theories and experiments and never have to do the dishes.

    A good library has all the good books. A great library has all the books. If you really want to understand a great philosopher, you have to spend some time looking at the less great contemporaries and predecessors that are left in the shadows of the masters.
    Every book of his I read increases my respect and his breadth. (Though note Galen Strawson's rebuke to the narrativist theory of identity, 4* here.)
    4*/5 [Kristi]

  • Market Forces (2004) by Richard Morgan. So totally a book of its time: of cinematic Adbustersish rage and paranoia. By 2086, military aid has been fully privatised, making a free market out of unilateral political force:
    All over the world, men and women still find causes worth killing and dying for. And who are we to argue with them? Have we lived in their circumstances? Have we felt what they feel? No. It is not our place to say if they are right or wrong. At Shorn Conflict Investments, we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay?
    His economic naivete is balanced by his writing's characteristic virtues: pace, pro-social rage (here, wifebeaters and Nazis suffer retributive atrocities), cool uncliched weapons. In a rarity for SF, Morgan underestimates the rate of tech growth (by his 2086): for instance, their drones are much larger and more limited in application than ours are already. Crass and flashy, but politically and psychologically ambitious. I have read everything Morgan has written and will return. Full review here.
    3*/5. [Library]

  • Non-Materialist Physicalism’ (2015) by David Pearce. (Or, as he subtitles it in grand C17th fashion: The Hard Problem of Consciousness Solved; the Explanatory Gap Closed; the Binding Problem Tamed; Zombies Banished; and Physicalism Saved.) A detailed call for a experimental test of panpsychism; also an alternative quantum theory of mind to Orch-OR. So exciting! Not many writers make me feel I am on the edge of the world and world to come.

  • Island (1962) by Aldous Huxley. His last book: a half-rational vehicle for his late contrarian mystical worldview; in fact it reads as his making amends for the vivid bioconservative paranoia of Brave New World. It certainly handles the same themes, simply inverted in their consequences: we see drugs as enablers of enlightenment; a much healthier view of suffering, as a pointless trap; a surprisingly pragmatic view of genetic engineering; and a very balanced view of civilisation and economic development.

    So: he constructs a Taoist-Hindu-Buddhist utopia which mostly avoids primitivism and annoying mysticism for a sustainable East plus West non-industrial modernity. It's not my idea of paradise, but other people's utopias usually aren't. Moreover, it is a doomed utopia nestled in nasty 1950s international political economy. The animating enemy of Island is not the authoritarian consequences of technology, but what Scott Alexander calls Moloch: the forces of self-fulfilling inevitability and destructive competition.

    Protagonist is a mirror of John the Savage: an open-minded liar and shill, a fallen outsider who manages to undermine the utopia he infiltrates. Huxley himself is the model for him: in fact we can see Will's journey from cynical aestheticism to materialist spirituality as autobiography in allegory. The mystic character, Rani, is amazing: an enraging theosophical flake. This reflects well on Huxley's own weirdness: the Rani is as far from traditional organised religion as Huxley is from her.

    Given the times and his project, lots of Huxley's worldview have become clichés: e.g. “you forget to pay attention to what's happening. And that's the same as not being here and now ”. The prose is arch and syrupy but I like it. (BNW is saddled by the air of a smug jeremiad. Island is every bit as didactic but nowhere near as smug.) It's chock-full of bad poetry though. I love his use of reported speech to denote characters he disrespects: this saves him the bother of writing it and us the bother of reading and makes a conspiracy of us and Huxley:
    He turned to Will and treated him to a long and flowery farewell.

    In polysyllables, Mr Bahu hedged diplomatically. On the one hand, yes; but on the other hand, no. From one point of view, white; but from a different angle, distinctly black.
    Pala's structure is cool but not at all radical enough to solve what is wrong with us, I think – technology is controlled very carefully and considered one of the 'dozens' of fronts to aid people on. (Hypnotherapy and tantra are given way more credit than they deserve, for instance.) Is “one-third” of suffering intrinsic? I look forward to science seeing if that is the case. I elect Huxley into the hall of fame of people who make a very popular error and later recant to no acclaim. (Niels Bohr (and his memetically dominant false model), Frank Jackson, André Gide, Bertrand Russell, )
    4/5. [Library]

  • * Can we call a novel mistaken? As a whole, not in some particular claim of a character. 'Misguided', or ideologically harmful, maybe.


  • Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1992), ed. Anthony Thwaite. In which his sheer vulgarity and vitality show through. Letters were a massive part of his life, the only time he was (able to be) properly social or affectionate. Only shows his letters, not the interlocutors, which amplifies the grim humour and passive aggression. Couldn't believe how big a DH Lawrence fan he is.
    How little our careers express what lies in us, and yet how much time they take up. It's sad, really.
    I hate it when you go, for the dreary failure & selfishness on my part it seems to symbolise - this is nothing to do with Maeve, you've always come before her; it's my own unwillingness to give myself to anyone else that's at fault - like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of one's life...
    My great trouble, as usual, is that I lack desires. Life is to know what you want, & to get it. But I don’t feel I desire anything. I am unconvinced of the worth of literature. I don’t want money or position. I find it easier to abstain from women that sustain the trouble of them & the creakings of my own monastic personality.
    Silliness abounds, particularly in the spells where he and Amis are railing against the world:
    Now there can only be don't normally take anyone over 55, like to do a few tests if you don't mind, am returning it because it isn't really up to your own high standard, afraid I must stop coming Mr Larkin hope you find another cleaning lady to

    Totally obsessed with the passage of time throughout his entire life.
    I'm terrified of the thought of time passing (or whatever is meant by that phrase) whether I 'do' anything or not. In a way I may believe, deep down, that doing nothing acts as a brake on 'time's - it doesn't of course. It merely adds the torment of having done nothing, when the time comes when it really doesn't matter if you've done anything or not.
    His existential decline is so steep through the 70s that I actually couldn't finish, it was too sad.
    4/5. [Library]

  • The HTK Book (1989-2009). Dry as hygroscopic sand: the handbook for a powerful set of free open-source linguistics software. I based almost my whole MSc thesis on this software; I am not all that proud of the results, but I was thrown into a whole bunch of new things at once: acoustic analysis, phonetics, social signal processing, machine learning, Python, and eventually surfaced with a stronger mind. HTK (the Hidden Markov Modelling ToolKit) is the pre-eminent speech recognition software for linguistics research - that is, top-flight language modelling tools are freely available to all. But the barriers to anyone making use of this incredible research tool are unbelievably high: even if you know a decent amount about finite-state machines and statistics and scripting, you have to learn HTK's internal computer language, parse this manual, which assumes postgraduate linguistics, and then run your first halting attempts through a fully unforgiving DOS system in which missing newlines and unaligned file structures cause hours of debugging. We are so close to being able to understand ourselves and the fully specific linguistic ecology we and our friends inhabit, but because of bad design and writing, we are not there at all.

  • Sort of re-read: Rationality: from A-Z (2015) by Eliezer Yudkowsky. In which a very modern and rigorous form of rationalism is promoted, with buckets of scientific insights and a few genuine innovations* unified into a grand theory of reason and action: probability theory and decision theory. An ongoing concern. Yudkowsky’s writing suffers a particular phenomenon: we incorporate the ideas, but everyone begrudges the insight they glean from him and forget they ever thought otherwise. This is perhaps because his site laboured under a shallow pall of nerdiness (fan-fiction and Streisanding), a status deficit which prevents people from according the ideas their actual merit. His dismissive attitude to high-status people and ideas also drives a lot of people crazy, sometimes making them unable to care if the ideas are right. So we minimise his contribution to the life of the new mind, some of the brightest prospects in the dark world. This is unfair but the new mind is the thing, and much broader than him already.

  • *Yudkowsky's new ideas (not the mere popularisations):
    • The abstract research chain into FAI: i.e. logical uncertainty, tiling, corrigibility, value learning. The leading academic textbook on AI gives a full page to his ideas.
    • Pascal's mugging (see final footnote here).
    • A new completeness theorem in probabilistic logic, discussed by a big-name mathematical physicist here.
    • The term "Friendly AI"
    • Probably the first to tie the Jaynesian probability calculus plus the Heuristics and Biases program plus rule-utilitarianism.

  • The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism (1949) by Silone, Koestler, Fischer, Gide, Wright, and Spender. Remarkable accounts of conversion by the most independent and earliest ex-Communists. From where we stand, it is easy to write off their conversion because, well, "obviously Stalinism was fucked" - but many of the most brilliant people kept clinging on to it through Kronstadt, through Pitchfork, through the Volksaufstand, through Hungary, through Prague, and even today (Carr never acknowledged the genocides; Hobsbawm knew the death tolls and kept betting on red; Grover Furr is still teaching) even in Russia.
    Persuasion may play a part in a man's conversion; but only the part of bringing to its full and conscious climax a process which has been maturing in regions where no persuasion can penetrate. A faith is not acquired; it grows like a tree.
    Foreword, by what today's standards make a peculiarly intellectual MP, is careful to set itself apart from the red-bashing of the time and lay out its humane purpose: to understand the emotional appeal of communism (: a religious one) and the disillusionment that the very most independent communists had already suffered.
    no one who has not wrestled with Communism as a philosophy, and Communists as political opponents, can really understand the values of Western democracy. The Devil once lived in Heaven, and those who have not met him are unlikely to recognize an angel when they see one... The Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual, wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom.
    Silone’s testimony about the Comintern's sick irrationality would be enough to make the book prescient. Richard Wright’s account of the parties outside of Russia is another really chilling bit: the rot was deep and wide. This was my great-grandfather’s copy.

  • (Form warning: Arthur Koestler was himself a monstrous man.)


  • The Book of Disquiet (1912-1935) by Fernando Pessoa. Astonishing. A long series of eventless autobiographical sketches about being beautifully self-obsessed while working a shit job in a shit town. About a mind whose uniqueness was invisible during his life; about what we now call neuroatypicality; about everyday aesthetics. His obsessions are a cute fatalism, his inadequacy, nothingness and loneliness, but almost every passage is wise or funny or beautiful. I catch no despair off him. Shite into gold. Like Larkin if Larkin were likeable; like Montaigne if he were terser and darker. This paperback is a super-slim selection of the full chaotic archive he left behind. Ah! floreat inertia, the worker-poet distinctive and supreme. I read this while on a 22-hour international journey, unsleeping, undrinking, unreal; I prescribe the same conditions for you when you read him.
    5?/5 [Kristi]

  • The Master and Margarita (1940) by Mikhail Bulgakov. Faust in Moscow with laffs and a less-straightforward moral; also a solemn and harrowing Passion play; also a revenge play on the various apparatchiks and shill artists that made Bulgakov's life a constant question mark. I loved book one, in which the devil upends Stalinist control with seances, magic tricks, telegram lulz, and horrible trolling of only somewhat venal people.
    Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes!
    It has a sweet fairytale air over and above the murders and the Satanic chaos.
    Follow me reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out!
    Was wondering if it's a Christian novel, but the view of Christ is heretical to all balls. Yeshua to Pilate:
    In fact, I'm beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because [Mark] writes down what I said incorrectly.
    3*/5. [Kristi]

  • Glasshouse (2006) by Charlie Stross. Sickly-satisfying but blunt satire on memory, gender and the dark side of memes. A bunch of polymorphous, polyamorous, post-scarcity posthumans volunteer for a closed-system experiment replicating the strictures of 1990s Nacirema, and are quite rightly appalled by the prison of social norms and physical limitations. (Not to mention the sinister panopticon modifications of the experimenters, with a public point-scoring table of conformism and no contraception.) The space-opera frame (a software virus that censors people's minds) is good too, wielding the deepest creepiness: brainwashing which actually works.
    I've been thinking that maybe I lucked out with him - there's potential for abuse in this 'atomic relationship' thing...
    Time is a corrosive fluid, dissolving motivation, destroying novelty, and leaching the joy from life. But forgetting is a fraught process, one that is prone to transcription errors and personality flaws. Delete the wrong pattern, and you can end up becoming someone else. Memories exhibit dependencies, and their management is one of the highest medical art forms.
    Where would dictators be without our compliant amnesia? Make the collective lose its memory, you can conceal anything.
    At moments like this I hate being an unreconstructed human - an island of thinking jelly trapped in a bony carapace, endless milliseconds away from its lovers, forced to squeeze every meaning through a low-bandwidth speech channel. All men are islands, surrounded by the bottomless oceans of unthinking night.
    I love him for his quiet use of the technical for emotional ends, as when two characters "merge their deltas". The most interesting sci-fi writer alive?
    4/5. [Library]

  • Nexus (2011) by Ramez Naam. Deeply unsubtle bio-libertarian thriller. Tom Clancy plus software plus anti-statism plus globalisation. Lots of ideas; Naam knows enough about code and brain-machine interfaces to make gestures towards the big info-nano-tech turning point in our near-to-mid-future, and acknowledges the horrors it is likely to enable. ("The Chandler Act (aka the Emerging Technological Threats Act of 2032) is the opening salvo in a new War on Science. To understand the future course of this war, one need only look at the history of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Like those two manufactured "wars", this one will be never-ending, freedom-destroying, counterproductive, and ultimately understood to have caused far more damage than the supposed threat it was aimed at ever could have.") He has a nice message:
    Broad dissemination and individual choice turn most technologies into a plus. If only the elites have access, it’s a dystopia..
    But the cheap prose and action (and the abuse of Nietzsche) are too wearing, particularly coming right after Stross, a master thereof.
    2/5. [Library

  • Breaking Smart, 'Season' 1 (2015) by Venkatesh Rao. A grandiose low-res narrative covering all of history from the perspective of technology (or, rather, the perspective of the tech industry (or, rather, of the solutionists)) in 30,000 words. Rao is one of the big in-house theorists for Silicon Valley*, and this is reflected in his contagious enthusiasm for just how much is becoming possible so quickly, the degree to which this time actually is different ("Software is eating the world"). Second half of this season attempts to generalise software engineering ideas (Agile, forking, ) to all human endeavour (...) Yeah, I hate the title phrase too. People got cross at him being pretentious about the format (long-form blog posts released in huge chunks, to binge on like a boxset) but I like it. Very exciting for techies, and readable for nontechies. just unreliable. Full review here.

    * See also Floridi, a deep but similarly narrative thinker. Compare them to Freud and Marx: wonderfully original but lacking justification.

  • To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) by Evgeny Morozov. Sharp, original, and broad mismash: an intellectual history of information technology, law, political economy, as well as an ok bit of polemical sociology and theory of Design. His targets are the 'solutionists', those technocrat techies who derive from the half of the Enlightenment which became positivism. (It is roughly: the will to perfect things and people, plus theorism, plus economism, plus the sheer power and scope of modern software.) Morozov is, bluntly, afraid for us all because software is eating the world:
    Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder and the opportunity to err, to sin: all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well... we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster cultural institutions that don't take risks and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable...
    But I do not deserve the freedom to believe harmful falsehoods, nor the freedom to hide my errors behind ambiguity; nor the freedom to throw away resources which others need. And I don't want the freedom to waste my life. Technology is the only untried way of responding to our grave Darwinian inheritance of intolerance, selfishness, and irrationality. But Morozov makes his case well about the specific case of technologised politics. Full review here.
    4*/5. [Library]

  • Constructions: Making Sense of Things (1974) by Michael Frayn. Book of aphorisms, again glorifying unanalysed practice and the majority of the world which is beyond theory. Self-consciously Wittgensteinian (PI), as he declares repeatedly in the preface. This declaration is a shame, because it means that his nice-enough notes on perception, knowledge and emotion are vastly, vastly overshadowed by the giant spectre he has called up; it's PI without the thought experiments and devastating reductios. But a nice supplement to it:
    Look at your hand. Its structure does not match the structure of assertions, the structure of facts. Your hand is continuous. Assertions and facts are discontinuous.... You lift your index finger half an inch; it passes through a million facts. Look at the way your hand goes on and on, while the clock ticks, and the sun moves a little further across the sky.
    (The brutal conservative relativism underpinning PI is, needless to say, not addressed either.)
    3/5. [Library]

  • 'Fuck Nuance' (2015) by Kieran Healy. Exciting, drawling piece of methodology and philosophy from the first sociologist to impress me in a long time. It is a lot easier to believe that social science can be fixed when people like Healy are there, defying the field's stereotypes and clearly plotting a course in relation to other kinds of inquiry.

"If anything’s to be praised, it’s most likely how the west wind becomes the east wind, when a frozen bough sways leftward, voicing its creaking protests, and your cough flies across the Great Plains to Dakota’s forests. At noon, shouldering a shotgun, fire at what may well be a rabbit in snowfields, so that a shell widens the breach between the pen that puts up these limping awkward lines and the creature leaving real tracks in the white. On occasion the head combines its existence with that of a hand, not to fetch more lines but to cup an ear under the pouring slur of their common voice. Like a new centaur.

There is always a possibility left—to let yourself out to the street whose brown length will soothe the eye with doorways, the slender forking of willows, the patchwork puddles, with simply walking. The hair on my gourd is stirred by a breeze and the street, in distance, tapering to a V, is like a face to a chin; and a barking puppy flies out of a gateway like crumpled paper. A street. Some houses, let’s say, are better than others. To take one item, some have richer windows. What’s more, if you go insane, it won’t happen, at least, inside them.

... and when “the future” is uttered, swarms of mice rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece of ripened memory which is twice as hole-ridden as real cheese. After all these years it hardly matters who or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes, and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “do,” only their rustle. Life, that no one dares to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth, bares its teeth in a grin at each encounter. What gets left of a man amounts to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

Not that I am losing my grip; I am just tired of summer. You reach for a shirt in a drawer and the day is wasted. If only winter were here for snow to smother all these streets, these humans; but first, the blasted green. I would sleep in my clothes or just pluck a borrowed book, while what’s left of the year’s slack rhythm, like a dog abandoning its blind owner, crosses the road at the usual zebra. Freedom is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie, and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram nothing drops from your pale-blue eye."

- Brodsky


Story-telling pieces of maths

When I was wee and being taught maths in the bad standard manner, I instinctively came up with little characterisations of various mathematical objects, to protect myself from boredom:

  • The positive and negative numbers are mortally opposed armies; the modulus denotes the size of each army; each unit can handle one unit of the enemy before dying (evaporating together, in fact). Addition and subtraction are fair fights upon the field; multiplication and division are espionage and political overthrow. The negatives hate each other as much as they hate positives (-10 x -10 = 100). The positives are very simple and can be easily tricked into fighting for the other side (-1 x 1,000,000 = -1,000,000).

  • Differentiation is desecration and zoom. Integration is reconsecration and overview. Going by the basic fairy-tale story arc, then, differdesecration is never the real end-point; a calculation isn't complete until it is brought back to the initial function... (Here we see the beginning of a perverse side to telling maths stories; it brings arbitrary constraints on operations.)

  • Humans have no right to be using the infinite summation symbol so casually. It is a tense and crackling thing, like the Demon core.

  • I also had a distinct emotional bias against discrete mathematics. 'Discrete entities are fake human constructs; your units are suspended over deep blackness. The awkward, smooth, tricky, crackling continuous is the real.' (Despite appearances, quantum physics doesn't weigh against this metaphysics.)

  • The confusion matrix. Just get a deep sense of security and importance off it. Very glad we worked this out.


Why is this so twee? Among laypeople (who, like feudal peasants listening to a Latin Mass, are forced to put up with a lot of maths despite incomprehension) it is strange because maths is represented as inhuman and boring and not the kind of thing that takes or needs creativity. Among the cognoscenti it's a strange thing to do, because the above is undignified, and one of the big reasons to do Higher mathematics is that it lets you take on the fearsome and transcendent silence of (the lay conception of) maths; difficult, unnarrated mystery is very high status. (This makes Ben Orlin wonderful in yet another way.) Of course one of the things about humans is that they will find meaning, project meaning, anywhere.

adult content miscellany

Age is at least five different things which we currently treat as the same. (We do this by using just one integer, 'years since birth', as the only measure of it.) What several things is age?

  1. Historical periodisation. The person's place in history, extremely well covered by date of birth. Through DOB we get a sense of what cluster of opinions they will probably hold.

  2. Biological age. A person's general senescence. The age-integer is also used a proxy for how much help a person needs or deserves, with 65 years an arbitrary threshold in most of the developing world. (Philosophically, it would make a lot of sense to collapse old-age welfare into disability welfare, since old age is disability, and since both resource allocations seek the amelioration of a difficult life. But, politically, this would be a bad move for the old, since the current climate makes it pretty easy to slash disability while pensions are relatively sacrosanct.)

  3. Total subjective time. How much has the person consciously been through? This measure is not much respected yet; for instance, we call people who wake from long comas the age indicated by their date of birth, and expect the corresponding DOB behaviour from them. Interesting questions as to what dementia does to this variable - do forgotten experiences not count towards one's subjective age? does forgetting make you younger? - and I don't pretend to know.

  4. Social status allocated. (As opposed to the social status deserved...) Much of human history was gerontocratic: you served your time and earned power just by being old. Interestingly, this social pressure (which e.g. led to polygamy for the old élites) is at odds with the presumable motive of judging people by age type (2), as a proxy for reproductive fitness. By now, western cultures have overreached in the opposite direction, toward arbitrary disrespect.

  5. Wisdom and emotional maturity. We even try to use the age-integer as a measure of a person's profoundness and credibility, probably as a result of (4). (We refer to wise young people as 'old souls'.) When staying alive was a hard thing to do, this measure was potentially informative (even if it was just something like 'how much food I have stolen from others', 'how many successful lies I told' rather than 'how well my mind processed reality'). Now...

At the moment, the age-integer carries quite a lot of information about these things. But we can expect this to decline; technology is beginning to unpick the senses. (1) and (2) are already quite divergent: people with the same date of birth vary widely by metabolic and mental integrity. Genetic engineering could make this into a chasm: think of the editing of social scripts (4) needed to deal with a 100 year old competitive Olympean; an awoken cryonics survivor with two centuries between their DOB origin and the apparent wear on their body; living people who remember the days when women used to have to drag around new gestating people, often unto their death. Memory enhancements could affect (3), the phenomenology of age, very, very strongly (some fictional evidence here).

Much later, in space, time dilation and [whatever hibernation method sticks] could make (1), (2) and (3) diverge in complex fashions; when, in Interstellar, the doctor tells Cooper he looks good for being 127 years old, I think he is saying something importantly false, because (3) Cooper did not experience, and (2) his body does not wear, 80 of those years.

Some of you will be thinking 'Huh! The age-integer sucks. Let's not use numbers to categorise people'. On the contrary! we just need four good ones more.


Github pages are remarkable things: a public window on the complex and valuable* mental objects of some stranger. Well, 'so are blogs', you say. But Githubs are different: the projects therein will be totally opaque to most people outside of its relatively narrow corridor in technology. (Even techies often struggle to understand the point, sense, or structure of another's project.)

This total barrier to judgment just doesn't come up elsewhere: it is relatively easy, as an intelligent outsider, to get a rough sense of the value of any work written in prose. Sure, jargon can kill a sentence; an unheralded mathematical formula can foil an argumentative chain; appeal to invisible data can smuggle in a premise. But at the end of it, we still know if the writing is good, if the person is a clear thinker; we know if there is any use in us trying to evaluate the content. Code - personal, creative, fire-imbued code - gives us little of this sense if we are not already in the author's ambit.

* Consider the ~$2bn gift to humanity that is the Linux kernel.


Further chapters from the book of being quite clever but very strange:

Friend: "In the last seven days, I have applied to three jobs, and twelve women. I strongly suspect that given my skill set, I will find remuneration before having sex."

Me: "Moreover, by increasing your effort at either margin and timing the results, this method allows you to measure the exact ratio of your human capital in labour terms v. erotic capital!"


The year 2100 (or whatever): the world's crematoria are modified to sift the ashes of the deceased into carbon fibre, with which to construct Von Neumann probes; the chimney of the place is repurposed as a mass driver to launch the seeker into space. 'Ave atque vale; nunc laborare'.


(c) Ben Orlin (2015)

"A thing is a hole in a thing it is not."
- Carl Andre

And thus: a hole is a thing surrounded by what it isn't.


Web project: the epidemiology of Christianity. Interactive animation showing the shifting of national borders and the dynamics of missionaries, state power, and denomination schisms throughout the world. Inspired by this. (Later, of all Religions.) Shouldn't take more than 1000 hours of expensive and tedious work.


"What is our ‘culture’ made of? Sporranry, alcoholism, and the ludicrous appropriation
of the remains of Scotland’s Celtic fringe as national symbol…"
- Tom Nairn

Is it cultural appropriation when someone who isn't Scottish says 'Slainte'? Is it when someone who doesn't speak Gaelic does so? (Just kidding; I don't care. I actually want to talk about the category 'Anglo-Scot'.) Claim: Since about 1800, every non-island, non-Highland Scot has been an Anglo-Scot. Since about 1960 every non-island Scot has been.

The term used to have a particular meaning, for migrants crossing the border either way, or for folk of directly mixed parentage. But this latter mixing is pretty much true of everyone in Scotland now, and I'm not making any ethnic point. (Nor do I mean by 'Anglo-Scot' just 'possesses the English language' or 'has it as mother tongue'.) Anglo-Scots, these days, possess British perks while maintaining (a bit of) the status accruing to the exotic and the oppressed.

This optional Celtic whim allows us to duck the stigma of British imperial history and snobbery (compare the way that, during the global anti-Americanism of the last decade, Americans pretended to be Canadian when abroad). It's like having a dual passport to different historical and class pretences (aka 'identities').


- Richard Wright