"To sing in green" by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Didn’t you hear, in here,
How music prowled the house?
The night was hard and lightless
But out there on a stiff stone
larking – that was me.

I said all I could:
"Dear, you're everything to me!"
But the east shoved out new light
and the harsh day drove me home.
My mouth was shut again.

Under a murky weighted sky
So lonely we were,
Cleaved from the other!
But no more:
The air blows free and fro;
And the whole world inamidst us
Shines as if glass.

The stars arose, were
Shown shimmering on us,
And even they knew:
So strong and stronger their splendour
That we sighed,
Lay blissful, captured
by other's touch.

My beloved spoke: "I'll not block you;
You owe me nothing.
Folk should not be kept –
They weren't born to trust so.

Hit the road, my friend,
Behold land upon land
Try out many beds
Take many women by the hand.

If a wine’s too sour for you,
Go drink Malvasia –
But if my mouth is sweeter,
Only then come to me!”

[Rhymed version planned...]



Hörtest du denn nicht hinein,
Daß Musik das Haus umschlich?
Nacht war schwer und ohne Schein,
Doch der sanft auf hartem Stein
Lag und spielte, das war ich.

Was ich konnte, sprach ich aus:
"Liebste du, mein Alles du!"
Östlich brach ein Licht heraus,
Schwerer Tag trieb mich nach Haus.
Und mein Mund ist wieder zu.

War der Himmel trüb und schwer,
Waren einsam wir so sehr,
Voneinander abgeschnitten!
Aber das ist nun nicht mehr:
Lüfte fließen hin und her;
Und die ganze Welt inmitten
Glänzt, als ob sie gläsern wär.

Sterne kamen aufgegangen,
Flimmern mein- und deinen Wangen,
Und sie wissens auch:
Stark und stärker wird ihr Prangen;
Und wir atmen mit Verlangen,
Liegen selig wie gefangen,
Spüren eins des andern Hauch.

Die Liebste sprach: »Ich halt dich nicht,
Du hast mir nichts geschworn.
Die Menschen soll man halten nicht,
Sind nicht zur Treu geborn.

Zieh deine Straßen hin, mein Freund,
Beschau dir Land um Land,
In vielen Betten ruh dich aus,
Viel Frauen nimm bei der Hand.

Wo dir der Wein zu sauer ist,
Da trink du Malvasier,
Und wenn mein Mund dir süßer ist,
So komm nur wieder zu mir!«



the awful world as one

Question was "What would the world be like if everyone was like you?" People took a couple of very different scenarios from that: either physical identity (a world of clones, body and mind) or philosophical identity (a world in which everyone shared your values) or both (because of confusion between those two, or some mind-body identity intuition), or even neither (because focussing on behaviour only). One friend asked if Uma Thurman would have a beard like him, a line of inquiry which got obscene very quickly.

Most people assumed that 7 billion people would morph overnight, and that the great new Them would have to deal with the world as it is currently (scarcity, egotism, path dependency, cognitive bias), rather than bending any other variables to make e.g. perfect uniform social justice possible.

The intuition pump was for people to report the things they see as essential about themselves. (Can someone have your exact values or personality without also having your body, rocking your style?)

What would the world be like if everyone was like you?

HP: Heaven, due to lack of you.

BM: Fucking awesome!!

QB: A lot quieter.

MJ: All barbers would go out of business. The hi-tech economy would collapse as everyone moved to the supply side. There would be famines and flooding, since no-one could be bothered doing anything so boring as civil engineering. World leaders would legalise all drugs, but the market would collapse because of almost no demand. There would be no war - only melodramatic internet posts. And every shoe would be urinated upon!

Eventually society would stabilise, but to a flat and apathetic state. Beards would be filled with semen wherever you went. No-one would work, other than to reprogram the food and building machines. There would be no art, because everyone would already know that they are altogether MJ, as one beard growing into eternity. Wait, will Uma Thurman go around in a lumberjack shirt with a beard, drinking beer and making Linux puns? (...)

Everyone will be sterile and there will be no children. We will clone both short and tall women and tall dudes in vats. Everyone will be promiscuous. All tall women will fancy short women and likewise all men will fancy short women. Other couplings will occur due to desperation and alcohol use.
(He sensed the question's ambiguity.)

MN: Less productive, more creatively based and less of a sense of capitalism - if that makes sense. I think the world would have potential that would never quite peak past mediocrity. That's okay though. - There's worse things.

JM: Ever see The Tale of the Princess Kaguya? Well, the world would be the Moon Kingdom from that.

CP: You know the blood ocean lizard orgy hallucination from Fear and Loathing? (BLOOD FLOWS FREELY onto the floor. DUKE keeps his voice low: Order some golf shoes. Otherwise, we'll never get out of this place alive. It's impossible to walk in this muck -- no footing at all...)

JW: It'd be crap because all would be knowable. I suppose it could be ignorantly blissful too.

LB: It would see everyone looking in bins - but there's no food waste cos everyone's already taken it. Buses would be littered with rolling papers and apple cores, if there were even buses which there wouldn't be because I can't drive and everyone is like me. Everyone is intoxicated but there isn't any random drunken violence either. Thankfully everyone is not like me.
(Behavioural only!)

CWR: Most of the economy would be devoted to practical jokes and deception. They would survive because they all like sustainable farming. The naming system would be based on feats like in fantasy novels: R the Inept, R the Even More Hilarious.

HJ: France.

The general answer, applicable to all, is: "the economy would tank, life would be very very hard, and most of sexuality would evaporate".


wait in room

Buro meets ochlo
and neither yields; instead
there's a steady faceplant meld
of rule with weeping exception.
Christ. Reach me a nothing,
save me a stay!

If you are given pause — if
you give me a bed larger than I need
and heed the answer retrodicted —
you will brush the wrecks of timetables from me,
wash my shoulders of lead,
and see in me hot and fragile seas.

To leave me ungeneralised.


'Rain Clearance' by Dù Fǔ

for Qiu Ji

Sky emptied, the autumn cloud thins;
A west wind spans a myriad fields.
The morning scene is good — cleared:
Long rain has left us land.
Tight willows show sparse green,
Uphill, pears are flowering red.
Upstairs, a reed pipe plays;
One goose rises in plain air.


雨晴 (一作秋霽)





杜甫 (758 CE)


Very Late Review: Antifragile (2012) by Nassim Taleb

(c) 'Accidental Fish', 2013

"Nothing convinces us of our capacity to make choices — nothing sustains our illusion of freedom — more than our ability to regularise our behaviour. nothing is more capable of destroying our interest and our pleasure in what we do.

If it is the predictable that stupifies us and the unpredictable that terrorises us, what should we do? If we are always caught between risk and resignation, between confidence and catastrophe, how can we decide what to do next?

— Adam Phillips

My problem is what my mother kept telling me:
I'm too messianic in my views.


The most ambitious and messy book in his idiosyncratic four-volume work of evolutionary epistemology, the 'Incerto'. (It is Fooled By Randomness, Black Swan, Bed of Procrustes, and yonder.) The former three books are largely critical, hacking away at theory-blindness, model error, and the many kinds of people he sees as possessing unearned status (economists, journalists, consultants, business-book writers): this is the upswing, a chaotic attempt to give general positive advice in a world that dooms general positive advice.

Every other page has something worth hearing, for its iconoclasm, or a Latin gobbet, or catty anecdote, if not something globally and evidently true. I think he is right about 30% of the time, which is among the highest credences I have for anyone. I only think I am 35% right, for instance.* But a core point of his system is that his approach should work even given our huge and partially intractable ignorance.

The core point, repeated a hundred times for various domains:

In real life, many systems deteriorate without an irregular supply of stressors (non-fatal negative events), and actually benefit from them by constructively overreacting. By robbing such 'antifragile' systems of stressors, modern approaches to managing them do damage in the guise of helping out.**

This observation leads to his grand theory of everything: every system is either fragile (damaged by volatility), robust (resistant to damage from volatility), or antifragile. This isn't a trivial distinction, because each has formal properties that allow us to change arrangements to, firstly, prevent explosions, and then to gain from chance volatility.

Biology is definitely one of these antifragile systems***; his case that, absent gross financialisation, the global economy would be one is convincing too; and the idea's at least plausible when applied to the cultivation of virtue or existential strength in a single person. The danger with this - an indissoluble danger because there can be no general strategy to avoid it - is that in welcoming constructive stress we'll miss the point at which the welcomed dose turns destructive (where fasting starts to atrophy, where training becomes masochism, where critique becomes pogrom, where sink-or-swim encouragement turns abuse).

* This claim is remarkable for both its extreme vagueness and apparent arrogance. Here is a post to handle the former fact. And the latter:

It might strike you as beyond arrogant to assume that you just so happen to be the most reliable inference device in the world, but that doesn't (have to) follow from my claim above, which results from the trivial thought “I believe my own beliefs most”, instead.

(Consider the converse: if I came to view anyone as more reliable than me, the rational thing to do would be to incorporate their truer views (and, better, their methods) until I again thought of myself as at least their equal. So, either one believes the superficially arrogant position “I believe my beliefs most” – or else one must believe that one is incapable of adapting enough to superior methods when faced with them, or else one must believe that one cannot know which methods are best. So the above assumption is more about having a high opinion of rational adjustment than impossible egotism, I think.

Good news! We can now calibrate ourselves, at least for the most sensational and available predictions using this cool thing.^

Finally!: The fully-unpacked, properly defensible assumption might be something more like: “I am the agent that I know to be most transparently reliable or unreliable; I assume I’m adjusting properly to better methods; as such I have at least equal confidence in my own belief set, compared to the best known alternative agent's.”)

^ You might wonder if this argument suggests that I should have 100% confidence in my beliefs. No; even if I was the best inferrer, I would suffer uncertainty because of the opacity of my errors: that is, I know I'm often not right but don't know exactly whereabouts I'm not right. Also from the unsystematic internal PredictionBook every non-psychopath has ("wisdom is knowing you'll be an idiot in the future"). And another source of uncertainty is down to the unknowable (like what stocks will crash next week).

I do worry that, whatever my particular self-credence estimate is, the whole approach is subtly wrong somewhere – since "40%" gives the impression that I think of myself as a worse guide to the world than dumb chance^^ – but I think it works. Particularly if much of the missing 60% is made of safe scepticism rather than errors.

^^ For binary event spaces – but, really, how many of those are there in real life?

** He credits the formal basis of all this to Jensen's inequality, in a chapter which might be the clearest expression of the idea there is.

*** (In particular species-level evolution, but also organism-level health.)


Some pigeonholes you might think to put all this in:

  • Conservative? Yes; but a good-hearted Burkean (“Antifragility implies that the old is superior to the new… What survives must be good at serving some purpose that time can see but our eyes and logical faculties can’t capture…”). Most people are conservative over some things (e.g. the natural world; we just happen to call that conservationism instead). Also approves of any high technology that removes anything he views as a disease of civilisation, like these things were supposed to be. So, in general, conservative only in the sense that existential risk people are.*

  • Economic conservatism. Only sort of; he's a trader, and would have speculation free to flow provided that deposit banks were nationalised first, and prioritises deficit reduction in a way we associate with conservatives but which e.g. Sweden pulled off without any lasting social justice sting. More formally he is against centralisation on both moral and technical grounds; that is likely a principle with some conservative effects, justified, in theory, by its keeping us alive. (Life-critical politics.)

  • Laissez faire? No: he recommends radical change to e.g. science funding, but no decrease. Big fan of Switzerland’s government, read into that what you will. He sees “optionality”, an originally financial concept, as the solution to fragility risks and the key to success in every domain there is. This isn’t at all as economistic as it sounds; the sacred and the humane somehow fit perfectly into his core rationalist agenda, persistence through change.

  • Social conservatism? No sign; no discussion of discrimination. Some people think such abstention is oppressive, but they are probably wrong.

  • Social Darwinist? Nah.

  • Bioconservative? Absolutely; he describes himself as the ‘diametric’ opposite of Ray Kurzweil, and he’s in full uproar over the global risk posed by synthetic biology (and recently fleshed out this horror in highly rigorous terms).

  • Anti-intellectual? Not at all! Only anti-academia, and they still do not represent the whole of quality intellectual life. Hates irresponsible ‘canned methods of inference’ too (statistical significance, etc).

  • Lacrimist? (That is, does he glorify suffering?) Not quite. He certainly views comfort as vitiating. His opposition to transhumanism is too quick and doesn't take the moral challenge of a world of pained beings seriously enough, for me.

  • Macho? Hm. Well, nature has made certain challenging actions optimal. Amusing proto-paleo attitude, too:
    I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean.

* His work fits the x-risk paradigm very well, but he developed his edifice in complete isolation from them, and has an uncompromising scepticism about expected value that might not make cross-overs all that fruitful.


How original is the core point, really?

Well, who cares? His claim is that he had to invent the word 'antifragile', not the idea. He says, idiosyncratically, that Seneca and Nietzsche had the nub of the idea, and Jensen the formal essence; Darwin certainly did too. "Resilience engineering" and in computing, 'defensive programming' (b. 1998) and 'self-healing systems' (b. 2001) are at least on the same track, though not getting beyond a lively sort of robustness. But I doubt that most systems can become antifragile - e.g. it's hard to imagine an antifragile jet engine (one that harvests bird strikes for fuel, or soot cleaning)? So maybe it's only the grand generalisation to all design that's new.


Gripes: His footnotes are collected by theme rather than linked to his claims directly, which makes it so difficult to follow up his sources that his credibility suffers. He namedrops, which is not the same as showing his working. I would really like to see his backing for his cool claims (about e.g. an irregular sleep pattern as a good thing, or things like ‘I suspect that thermal comfort ages people’), but it’s hidden away and often one-study. (Again: apparently one-study, since his working is not easily on show.)

He has a surprisingly high opinion of Steve Jobs – who I view as a grand example of an empty suit: there are 9 references to Jobs’ hokey shark-wisdom, (where Gigerenzer and Mandelbrot get 8, Jensen gets 7, Marx 7). Does Jobs really count as a ‘practitioner’ with ‘skin in the game’? Eh.

His homebrew jargon starts to drag – some sentences are wholly composed of his neologisms plus a barrel of articles and prepositions. (I used the glossary early and often.) Repetitive: tells what he’ll tell you, tells you he’s told you. Some passages really suffer from his wholesale hostility to copy-editing; there are some flatly bad sentences here. And he namedrops a lot, more than fair attribution of ideas – there are several passages that are just lists of people he likes (e.g. p.257-8).

I don't see that it's worthwhile to criticise his arrogant style; it's what animates his points, and he never uses it on weak targets.

Lastly, he sometimes makes of a system’s persistence the highest good. (Where its persistence is to be contrasted with mere stability.) This is in tension with his wonderful emphasis on artistic and quasi-sacred values elsewhere in the book.

But it talks about everything, is historically wide-eyed, relentlessly rational, and often funny. And the method-worldview-style it suggests might stop life crushing us utterly.


Been reading, Q4 2014

Cover of Colin Farrelly's 'Introduction to Political Theory' – unsigned.

Human beings differ from other animals because they are sufficiently intelligent to wish that they could stop working and reasoning – and free enough to toil harder than other creatures to pursue both these aims in order to eventually enjoy free time.

It follows that Homo faber and Homo sapiens are only contingent consequences of the truly essential Homo ludens. The fact that philosophers do not typically endorse this view only clarifies why they rarely qualify as champions of common sense…

– Luciano Floridi

Aa our knawledge is hauflin; aa our prophesíein is hauflin: but whan the perfyte is comed, the onperfyte will be by wi. In my bairn days, I hed the speech o a bairn, the thochts o a bairn, the mind o a bairn, but nou at I am grown manmuckle, I am through wi aathing bairnlie… In smaa: there is three things bides for ey: faith, howp, luve. But the grytest o the three is luve.

– I Corinthians 13, via William Lorimer

Formal education is really interfering with my studies.

1/5: No.   4/5: Got to me.
2/5: Meh.   4*/5: Amazing but just once, probably.
3/5: Skimmable.   5?/5: Reconfiguring, will be back.
3*/5: Mind candy.
5/5: Encore, the highest praise.

  • Anthologie Prévert (1981) by Jacques Prévert. Hooray for the only poems I can read in French! Nursery rhymes, but with razorwire not far beneath. The simplicity (loads of basic nouns repeated dozens of times – “oiseaux” and “roi”, “oiseaux” and “roi”) makes me look look nervily over my shoulder – for the real attacker. ‘Chant Song’ is so gorgeous, daft.

  • Andromache (1990) by Douglas Dunn. Epic verse sounds pat to me, and doubly so when it’s forced to fit dialogue: mumming couples expositing couplets. (“I’ll kill myself. That final ploy shall save / My honour. Then I’ll give back from the grave / What I owe Pyrrhus.”) Not Dunn’s fault – the pentameter’s solid, but 3/5 is the highest I can give epic couplets cos I am limited and jaded. And he agrees: “It was a bloody hard piece of work… and I think it was universally agreed that I didn’t fully succeed.”

  • The Regulars (2004) by Sarah Stolfa. Very exposed and yet kind portraits from a Philadelphia bar she tended. No action soever, just an ordinary sleazy goofy beauty. All worth it. Foreword from Jonathan Franzen is full-on ‘eh’.

  • Antifragile (2012) by Nassim Taleb. The most ambitious and messy book in his four-volume Incerto. This is vast, chaotic philosophy of resistance, equal parts artful and rigorous. Every other page has something worth hearing (for its iconoclasm, or a Latin gobbet, or catty anecdote), if not something globally and evidently true. (I think he is right about 35% of the time, which is among the highest credences I have for anyone. I only think I am 40% right, for instance.) The core point, repeated a couple of hundred times for various domains:
    In real life, many systems deteriorate without an irregular supply of stressors (non-fatal negative events), and actually benefit from them by overreacting and building spare capacity. By robbing such 'antifragile' systems of stressors, modern approaches to managing them do damage in the guise of helping out.
    There's a whole bunch superficially wrong with the book; I discuss my gripes in more detail here. But it talks about everything, is historically wide-eyed, relentlessly rational, and often funny. Also the method-worldview-style it suggests might be one way to stop life crushing us utterly.

  • Aloud: The Stairwell (2014) by Michael Longley. Flickers between the Classical general and the wattle-byre specific. All really personal – but not in the universally interesting melodramatic way. It is personal in the way that hanging around the vestibule of a friend of a friend of a friend’s house when one didn’t know they were dropping past and one quite needs the toilet is personal. Also, it’s full up with the (apparently haute Irish?) obsession with Attic Greece. One or two amazing ones – see “Amelia’s Poem” at the bottom of this.


  • Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction (2001) by Luciano Floridi. Whistle-stop hyperbole in the way of Continentals, but grounded by its technical knowledge and techno-optimism:
    The history of modern thought has been characterised by an increasing gap between mind and reality. It is a process of epistemic detachment which has been irresistible ever since it began, and quite inevitably so. Knowledge develops as mind’s answer to the presence of the non-mental. It is the means whereby the subject establishes a minimal distance, and emancipates itself, from the object. The rise of dualism and the escalating interaction between traditional knowledge, as an object, and innovative knowledge, as a further reaction to it, has led to the emergence of a new world.
    Notice the skilled and non-fatuous use of phenomenological blah! Chapter 2, his fast and very formal discussion of Boole, Gödel and Turing, took me about half a week. The tiny concluding chapter – in which he locates computers in the history of human freedom, as Hephaestean handmaids – makes me giddy. Slightly dated where it talks PC specs, and he loves a goofy neologism (“egology”, “corporeal membranes”), but grand, sceptical, grand, supervenient.

    (His ‘Informational Nature of Personal Identity’ and ‘Turing’s Three Lessons’ are 4*/5.)

  • Surviving (2009) by Allan Massie. Drunk or ex-drunk Anglos bitch around Rome. Some of the literary references are a bit much (“The boy was reading Stendhal; how bad could he be?”) but the nasty driving fatigue underneath is good. Has a really ugly binding and font, so I’ve compensated the score in case I am shallow.

  • Aloud: ‘The’ ‘“Rubaiyyat’” of ‘Omar Khayyam’ (2014) by Vanessa Hodgkinson. I use those apostrophes advisedly. Gaudy and hectic word-association, with only tenuous formal or thematic links to Khayyam, but fizzing with verve of its own. (Vine is a video fragment public diary; Wine is an excellent Windows emulator.) Teeming with clumsy nerdy ephemera, but I think it will be worth reading in 10 years. Let's see. Works much better aloud.

  • Rationality for Mortals (2008) by Gerd Gigerenzer. Yet another volley in the ‘rationality wars’. GG sets himself against the heuristics and biases folk (though note he is also not of the fatuous constructionist camp which says, roughly: ‘it’s impossible for everyone to be irrational, because reason is only social, so we are the measure of it’) by minimising the apparent irrationality uncovered by the cognitive sciences in the last little while. Key claims:
    1. Heuristics are not just faster or more tractable, but better than Bayesian formalism.
    2. People are not flawed Bayesians but natural frequentists.
    But though his work on presenting natural frequencies is super-important, and his points about actual decisions always being 'ecological' (rather than a mathematical problem) I suspect he's (still) 1) attacking a straw version of Kahneman-Gilovich-Slovic-Stanovich: no-one is saying that perfect, everyday Bayesian algorithmics is attainable by humans; nor are the misconceptions in table 1.1 (p.9) ever stated so strongly. Also 2) GG's evidence on e.g. the framing of the conjunction fallacy doesn't replicate. But anyway this is well-argued, well-written, scientific in the highest sense, and wrong? Read this instead.


  • Reread: Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853) by Herman Melville. One of the Frankensteins, those endlessly interpretable load-bearing columns dotted around literature. Of negation, dignity, irrationality, silence, impermeability. What is Bartleby, if not just depressed or hyper-lazy? Well there’s the defensive Stoic catatonia, or wu wei; Bartleby as crypto-proto-Marxist; Bartleby as waning Übermensch, squatter monk, annoying Christ; Bartleby as dissociating schizophrene or autist; Bartleby as Death of Dead Letters; Bartleby as PTSD ghost; Bartleby as all our inarticulate idiosyncracy; as utter Other – “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” Some people (e.g. Blanchot, Hardt & Negri, Setiya) view him as heroic, but he’s more hallucinogenic and morbid: he lacks everything but refusal; he throws his life away. And that’s a living death, a non-human void (“I never feel so private as when I know [Bartleby is] here”).
    So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.
    That copyists are an extinct breed only adds to the seething flavour; it is possible that OCR and distributed Captchas could have minimised Bartleby’s suffering - that the condition the piece wrangles with isn’t eternal. What would Bartleby be today? Not, I think, an Occupier; rather a impassive backstreets bookshop owner, or a kombucha stallholder or whatnot. I prefer to read Melville’s voice - waffling Victorian persiflage - as an assumed decoration for the windbag lawyer’s voice (however much Moby Dick shouts otherwise).

  • Question Everything (2014) by New Scientist readers. 132 lovely earthings of sky-high theory. Not much new to me, but was vital as refresher course and mind candy. The tacit connections between the answers are the real thing – for instance, I guessed (wrongly) that synchrotron radiation and Cherenkov radiation were based on the same mechanism, and feel very happy that a quick and public disconfirmation was available. Here (and Quora is apparently very good becuase of its paywall).

  • The Blunders of Our Governments (2013) by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. Insofar as anything is uncontroversial in politics – the most mired of intellectual backwaters – this sticks to uncontroversial blunders. So we only get the internally incoherent or screwy policies like Suez; poll tax; ERM Black Wednesday. (The book’s larger point is that there are more and more of these to come, because of the shape of Westminster’s gears.) A compressed, formal style – hiding its anger, so ministerial ignorance and snobbishness gets called "cultural disconnect" – but constructive and schadenfreudish too. First chapter is a list of state successes (green belts, social housing boom and sale, Clean Air, seat belts, vaccinations, minimum wage, smoking ban, swine flu prep) included as a counter-libertarian tonic before launching into the peaky blunders. (This first chapter actually made my chest swell.)

  • The Reith Lectures 2014 by Atul Gawande. Cool stories, world-changing practical interventions - but indifferent philosophy. Of systems, fallibility, humaneness. As with other systems theorists like Meadows, I accept the general swing – ‘this shit is hard; the pieces don't show the whole’ – but don’t see how their proposals are actually different from classic reductionism (that dirty word which is in fact clean practice). A checklist is a reduction of a chaotic array of options into atoms of action! A system can only be specified if you understand what are interacting. The points about treating patients like humans are presumably right but not that simple to implement without first lessening medics' workloads a whole lot?

    (Cites ‘Towards a Theory of Medical Fallibility’ (1975) by MacIntyre and Gorovitz. 4*/5.)

  • Reliable Essays (2001) by Clive James. Mostly haute subjects here, always bas on crap. He: brags about having spotted Heaney’s ambit very early, points out the fatal ideological flaws in both Mailer and Greer, fiercely challenges translations from the Italian, the Russian, the German; summarises every major photography book of the late 70s; shows that liberalism and classicism remain standing, “less bad than all the others” even after the sustained insult of C20th Theory; and other such generalist feats. The titles of the last two sections – “Almost Literature” and “Practically Art” – are scale models of both his style and critical mission: to raise the foully sunken, or shield the great assailed.

  • Dictionary of Received Ideas (1870s) by Gustave Flaubert. Stuff White People Like plus Speak your Branes, for C19th France: the contradictory and petty zeitgeist. I myself have used 'alabaster' to describe a woman, whoops.

  • In one sitting in a hotel café: Wolf in White Van (2014) by John Darnielle. Scrunched-up, guileless portrait of outcast youth via choose-your-own-adventure and emotional reconstruction. Though first-person, it circles the ruined protagonist Sean warily, not looking directly at him in his isolation, powerlessness, and very occasional gratuitous joy. A couple of those Darnielle lines resonate out from the hurt and 80s ephemera – “[All I knew of Lance were] the parts he hadn’t been able to stop himself from mentioning, the pieces of himself that flew naturally from him like sparks from a torch”, “…No shortage of things still left to do” – but JD is not so concerned with making the narrator lyrical; in fact a large theme is that Sean (as with Lance’s folly) is mundane and inexplicable, even to himself. Out of character. And, as always with Darnielle we get the quiet or defiant or perverse or poetic appreciation of the devalued (p.186!). (Alan Bennett: “Oh, I’m unhappy, but not unhappy about it”. Darnielle:
    the Sean who built the [game] is as distant from me now as the Sean who blew his face off is from both of us. All three live in me, I guess, but those two, and God knows how many others, are like fading scents. I know they’re still there. I could find them if I needed them. But I don’t need them, and one of them survives only in bits and pieces. They certainly don’t need me. They are complete just as they are.

  • The New Testament in Scots (1967 CE) by William Lorimer. In the form that survived, Scots is a uniformly profane language – not in the sense of profanity, but as in worldly and comic and demotic. Some of that opinion is classist stereotype; it certainly wasn't true four hundred years ago (the devotional poems of Dunbar and Henryson stand up to the sacred efforts in any language); but most is real, down to Knox's decision on a legally-mandatory bible in English, but even more to the cultural capture of the nation’s Anglicised elites, but even more than that to the simple dictates of shared economic activity, over three hundred years: i.e. we gave English our sacred talk, then we gave English our intellectual talk, and then trade talk, and law talk, and all their formal accoutrements. Until only the informal and proletarian was left. Atweill, the kitsch prevails (“Hoots ma wee bonnie lassie! Ahiiii wid wauk fyv hhundrid myles”). When Lorimer wrote this, the dialectisation of Scots, and the cutesy granny-aff-a-bus process wasn’t so advanced - but this is the register we moderns read it in, unless we are rural and lucky.

    (Nasty but probable thing I once heard a linguist lecture on: relatively few languages develop the scientific-philosophical register and benefit from its sharpening vocabularies. He reckoned that only nine ever have, fully: Chinese, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Russian, German, French, English. Scots definitely had speakers sophisticated enough, in its High Medieval heyday, but the internationalist use of Latin precluded it.)

    Lorimer saw a Bible translation as one of two conditions that would revitalise Scots. (The language, rather than the dialect Scots English.) (The other big brick being the great Dictionary.) Well, we have both now, and they are not enough. I think the argument for bringing back languages is only superficially the humane one, since language is for communication first, and our condition is more and more a global one. (I find it difficult to fault Katja Grace’s analysis: the standard arguments fail, and the present matters more than the past, because it is where value actually happens.)

    Lorimer translated it straight from the Koine Greek over a full decade, finishing the second draft just before his death. The art comes in his rendering the apostles with their own voice and distinctive idiolect. (Paul is, here as ever, a nasty little man: smug and litigious.) While I’m very glad this exists, the book itself can do little for me, whatever language it’s wearing. (Nothing takes me further from religious awe than the actual things we said God said. Hauflin’ indeed.)


“Amelia, your newborn name
Combines with the midwife’s word
And, like smoke from driftwood fires
Wafts over the lochside road
Past the wattle byre – hay bales
For ponies, Silver and Whisper –
Between drystone walls’ river-
Rounded moss-clad ferny stones,
Through the fenceless gate and gorse
To the flat erratic boulder
Where otters and your mother rest,
Spraints black as your meconium,
Fish bones, fish scales, shitty sequins
Reflecting what light remains.

- Michael Longley.