Been Reading, Q1 2015

Self-criticism in Anderson (2005)

Goodness… You gotta make it out of badness...
cos there’s nothing else to make it out of.

– Robert Penn Warren

The craft of programming gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men, providing five kinds of joys:

• The joy of making things;
• The joy of making things that are useful to other people;
• The fascination of fashioning puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts;
• The joy of always learning, of a nonrepeating task;
• The delight of working in a medium so tractable — pure thought-stuff — which nevertheless exists, moves, and works in a way that word-objects do not.
– Fred Brooks

When I give something 5?/5 I'm predicting that I’ll reread the thing, not more. It's a hedged bet: I don't think the very greatest echelons of value can be known immediately. It takes time, and continuity, and the accumulation of meaning. Only if one’s appreciation survives the changes one goes through can you really say it's the top. Call no book favourite until you are dead.

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.


  • At the bells: The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy (2002) by Hilary Putnam. A remarkable piece of meta-ethics, established in large part by undermining... neoclassical economics.

    Important quibble: The title evokes sexy French relativism – e.g. there is no fact of the matter, il n’y a pas de hors-texte – whereas his actual thesis is that only the strictest, stupidest partition between facts and values collapsed. (A distinction is the mild statement that A is not the same thing as B – whereas a dichotomy is the strict logical exclusion of two things: ‘if something is A, it is a priori not B’.) A pedantic quibble: god he is fond of italics.

    Anyway. It collapsed, but still lives on in other fields, decades after the fall of the positivism that was the only thing motivating it. Book is: a scathing modern history of the distinction, a Pragmatic reconstruction, a love letter to Amartya Sen. Putnam blames the philosophical dichotomy for the failures of economics, and from there for real suffering.
    The word “cruel”... has a normative and indeed, ethical use. If one asks me what sort of person my child’s teacher is, and I say "he is very cruel," I have both criticized him as a teacher and…as a man. I do not have to add, "he is not a good teacher" or "he is not a good man." I cannot simply... say, "he is a very cruel person and a good man," and be understood. Yet "cruel" can also be used purely descriptively, as when a historian writes that a certain monarch was exceptionally cruel, or that the cruelties of the regime provoked a number of rebellions. "Cruel" simply ignores the supposed fact/value dichotomy and cheerfully allows itself to be used sometimes for a normative purpose and sometimes as a descriptive term. (Indeed, the same is true of the term "crime.")
  • Some claims: Factual and evaluative statements are necessarily entangled, since; Facts are ascertained as such only by the application of epistemic values: "coherence, plausibility, reasonableness, simplicity, and elegance... if these epistemic values do enable us to correctly describe the world... that is something we see through the lenses of those very values."; i.e. facts are thick too; i.e. he has been made to "rethinking the whole dogma (the last dogma of empiricism?) that facts are objective and values are subjective". Of course, coupled to his ditching foundationalism, this leads him a long way down the Rortyan road - 'science is just another social practice' yada yada - but he tries to salvage a sort of pragmatic objectivity for science. Dunno if he's winning, but I loved the race.

  • Twice: The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 by Czeslaw Milosz. Bought it for someone else, but couldn't give it away. Does much that I usually don’t appreciate – both Holocaust musing and the relative innocence of nature. But his indirectness and attentiveness lift it way, way beyond the ordinary run of those themes. Never mawkish. Epochal. Here, Here, Here, Here, Here, Here.

  • The Serpent’s Promise (2013) by Steve Jones. Interesting idea: take Bible literalists literally; see how much of the book’s many empirical claims are anywhere near right, re: cosmogony, hygiene, heredity, migration. Couple cool results –
    Today, each [Amish] mother has, on average, half a dozen children, and the community is growing at almost 10 per cent a year… At that rate the Amish could, by the middle of the next century, have a population equivalent to the whole of today’s United States...

    Many saints died in ‘the odour of sanctity’, a sweet smell supposed to mark the departure of the soul. The scent is that of acetone, made in the liver as its capital runs out.
    – but unstructured, often unclear, and tiring, in the main. Minus a half for having no citations for any of its thousand claims.

  • The Mythical Man-Month (1975) by Fred Brooks. How big teams make things. Also how awesome tech can feel:
    Too many interests, too many exciting opportunities for learning, research, and thought. What a marvellous predicament! Not only is the end not in sight, the pace is not slackening. We have many future joys.
    The oldest thing by far on my computing syllabus and nearly the most stylish.* Anniversary edition has a chapter which is just the whole book boiled down to its propositions, and whether or not they stood up twenty years later, which is a thing that most non-fiction could gravely benefit from. (You sometimes see the like of this in honest philosophy books, included as ‘analytical index’ or ‘prolegomenon’ or ‘exordium’.) Brooks is not merely exoteric, not just an IBM mook; suitably acerbic and suitably enthusiastic. The open secret of programming is that it is actually a whole barrel of fun, just one that scares the shit out of most people. NB: The Christian God rears up at unexpected intervals – and at one point Brooks recommends openly patriarchal programming teams on the model of “God’s plan for marriage”. But it doesn’t much get in the way.
    4/5. [Library]

    * (I set myself Shannon, Wang, Knuth.)

  • Hermione and Her Group of Serious Thinkers (1916) by Don Marquis. Funny, bitchy slander of the hippies and pseuds of a century ago. Vague, snobbish, hypocritical, self-congratulatory, appropriative: that is, not much has changed up to our New Agers and hipsters. Repetitive – too many puns about howdahs, etc – and more than three-quarters of it assumes the voices of rhythmically insufferable idiots. Its real value, apart from hammering home the difference between Marquis’ own true poetic voice and the banal vers libre he uses, is as history lesson. The Orientalist, relativist bohemian mysticism was far from an innovation of the Sixties. Notice that, even while despairing of Hermione, Marquis hangs around her all the same, a hanger-on to hangers-on. Give it an hour, do.

  • Reread, aloud: Monogamy (1996) by Adam Philips. Harsh, circuitous, questioning gobbets on the greatest secular religion. I guess he’s a bit overfond of the knowing paradox (“Seduction, the happy invention of need”; “The problem of a marriage is that it can never be called an affair”) – and of course aphorisms have to compress away the qualifications that could make them fairer, and easier to take in large doses.
    Infidelity is such a problem because we take monogamy for granted; we treat it as the norm. Perhaps we should take infidelity for granted, assume it with unharassed ease. Then we would be able to think about monogamy.

    There are no relationships without conflict. If psychoanalysis has a value, maybe one of its values is just that it abides by the idea that there is always going to be conflict… in a way the book holds out for the value of conflict [being to let] the diverse voices inside of oneself speak.
    But it’s non-partisan and original and funny and wise and I still haven’t absorbed the finer points.


  • The Black Halo: Collected English Stories (1977–1998) by Iain Crichton Smith. Best Scottish poet writes good Scottish stories about, mostly, terrible Scottish pragmatists. Steady observational tragedy, and quiet outcast statures. Recurring structure: a staid, professional male narrator tells us his profession on page 1 and admits a whole puckle of flaws. Recurring people: the censorious, crabbit islander who was not always so; the passionate and creative woman slowly eroded by island gossip, monotony, stasis; her husband, who knows this happened because of him. Most striking are ‘The Scream’, ‘What to do About Ralph?’, ‘The Spy’, and ‘The Exorcism’ – but particularly the latter, because I recognised the worst of myself in both the little bastard obsessed with Kierkegaard and the small-souled lecturer who saves him:
    I looked at him for a long time knowing that the agony was over… [But] how could I be sure that my own harmonious jealous biography had not been superimposed upon his life, as one writing upon another, in that wood where the birds sang with such sweetness defending their territory?
    Much more than clever. 5?/5.

  • Wars, Guns, and Votes (2010) by Paul Collier. Economist slices through much bullshit in the course of identifying empirical handles on democracy in the extremely-poor world. His work is deadly serious, innovative and data-rich; but this book is chatty and low on representations of his mostly unprecedented, mostly persuasive data. How much does an A-K cost in different parts of the world? Are peacekeepers worth it? Does democracy promote civil war in the absence of wealth? and such vital things.
    4/5. [Library]

  • The Hearts of Men (1983) by Barbara Ehrenreich. Unstereotypical gender sociology: traces the male revolt – years before the sexual revolution – against the comparably rigid breadwinner social role inflicted on them. At the time it was too universal to have a name; it was just known vaguely as 'Conformity' or 'Maturity'. On the white-collar worker:
    Their labor had a ghostly quantity that made it hard to quantify and even harder to link to the biochemistry of blood and tissues.
  • The key virtue of it is that she sympathises (more with the Vidals and Roths than the Menckens and Kerouacs, obviously - but in general too). The key thesis:
    In psychiatric theory and popular culture, the image of the irresponsible male blurred into the shadowy figure of the homosexual... Fear of homosexuality kept men in line as husbands and breadwinners; and, at the same time, the association with failure and immaturity made it almost impossible for homosexual men to assert a positive image...
    ! Her characteristic wit and resistance to received responses is much in evidence.
    4/5. [Library]

  • User Stories Applied (2005) by Mike Cohn. I only recently learned about a fundamental dichotomy in expressing oneself: you use either the 'esoteric' or the 'exoteric' mode. (The exoteric writer says exactly what she means, minimises ambiguity and tries to do everything with explicit reasoning, for the largest audience they can, with imagery and irony only as decoration. The esoteric writer – who is distinct from but often coterminous with the woo-woo mystical metaphysics fans also called esoteric – does the converse. Most ancient writers wrote esoterically, which is one reason that undergrads and other fools, like me, think that ancient writers are vague and low on content. Up to now, I have been confusing the rhetorical stance - see Heidegger, Deleuze, Derrida, Caputo - with the magickal crap. But so much of the Analytic / Continental divide can be explained in this single distinction! [The revival of the distinction is due to the lionized demon Leo Strauss.] Maths is an interesting border case, but its clarity and attempt to destroy ambiguity make it exoteric, I think.)

    The exoteric intention strikes me as firstly just good manners and important for intellectual honesty (accountability, critical clarity). But one thing I dislike about studying computer science is that all the materials are utterly exoteric. I crave art and irreverence in formal contexts, and that's always at least somewhat esoteric. The ‘Agile’ software thing strikes me as good, a way of making the hag-ridden and monstrously expensive dev process work. But all the material around Agile, LEAN (and the wider business-marketing-HR-systems theory blah that represents most employed adults’ only engagement with passably academic work) is so exoteric that something in me rebels.

  • Out of their Minds: The Lives of 15 Computer Scientists (1995) by Dennis Shasha & Cathy Lazere. An oral history of pioneer computing. These people aren't generally regarded as what they are: simply that sort of philosopher who actually solves problems or else rules out their possibility of solution.
    The four parts of this book reflect the four basic questions computer scientists have wrestled with in the last fifty years:
    • Linguists: How should I talk to the machine?
    • Algorithmists: What will solve a problem fast on my computer?
    • Architects: Can I build a better computer?
    • Sculptors of Intelligence: Can I write a program that can find its own solutions?
    The men here developed things modern life could not function without: high-level programming, the hard maths of networking, the hard maths of timestamping, shortest paths, probabilistic solutions to deterministic questions. Knuth comes out as so goddamn wholly loveable.
    4/5. [Library]

  • Naked Lunch (1959) by William Burroughs. Disgusting but virtuous. I liked his scientific reports more.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Get Doomed: A Fucking Novella (2015) by Paul Wilhelm Crowe. Scattered, scatological Robert Rankinism, written for a friend. Every chapter is called “In which Rupert finds a map”; there is no map and are no Ruperts. The fact that I am a principal sidekick in it (killed on page 3 by a tidal wave of kebab mank and reanimated as a Roomba with a T-Pain vocoder) is besides the besides.


  • Essays (1570-90) by Michel de Montaigne, via JM Cohen. Woosh. How many Renaissance people sound this modern, this undeluded? Essay on erectile dysfunction is very funny:
    I was shown a man whom the Bishop of Soissons had confirmed... he had been dumb from birth. and had been called Marie up to the age of twenty-two. He said that as he was straining to take a jump his male organs appeared. The girls of that neighbourhood still sing a song in which they warn one another not to take long strides or they may turn into boys...
  • Most of the others are just very wise and touching, as when he talks about his terrible memory, and misquotes Latin poetry by the bushel, from it. This was a very cut-down edition (only 100 pages, out of maybe 700 in the Complete edition) - probably what one wants, to begin with. Will be back.

  • A whole lorra stuff about pharmacy information systems. 3/5.

  • The Fly and the Fly-Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals (1962) by Ved Mehta. Curious portraits of Oxbridge people: the ordinary-language philosophers just as they were awaking from their long radical nap, and the arsey titans of Modern history (Trevor-Roper, Carr, Taylor, Namier). The book was originally a New Yorker series, fitting their house style – gossip on the transcendental – but there’s more gossip than concepts. We get to relive all the angry Times responses to bitchy reviews, learn what Toynbee ordered for dinner at the Athenaeum in late ’62; also the hair colour of everyone involved (Murdoch ‘straight and blonde, recalling the peasant aspect of Saint Joan’). To their faces, Mehta is way too much the deferential alumn, tentatively prodding the dons to be unkind about their peers.

    The humans are worth it if you already care: Austin and Namier are tragic hubristic husks; Hare, Ayer, and Toynbee’s charisma blare straight through Mehta’s quiet journalism. The common point is both fields' slow recovery from positivism/Wittgensteinian reductionism - the cautious return of theory, and of human posits. He has some spirit: after meeting Strawson he says “I took my leave of the scaled-down Kant.”; he finishes the book with this wonderful medievalism:
    Unless a philosopher finds for us an acceptable faith or synthesis – as Plato and Aristotle did together for their age, and St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant for theirs – we remain becalmed on a painted ocean of controversy, and for better or worse, insofar as the past is a compass to the future, there will never be anyone to whistle thrice for us and say, once and for all, ‘The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
    3/5 [Library] (4/5 if you like linguistic philosophy / British historiography).

  • Reread: Making Money (2008) by Terry Pratchett. One sitting. Salut. 4/5.

  • Vile Bodies (1930) by Evelyn Waugh. Another very dark, funny prod of the posh and awful. Lord Monomark, Ginger Littlejohn, Colonel Blount, The Drunken Major, Lottie Crump, The Honourable Agatha Runcible, Miles Malpractice... The Bright Young Things – who are dim – ludicrous wagers – which are won – and the runaway motorcars – oh. Jeeves and Wooster if it had death, teeth, madness and war in. Predicts the next war, or, rather, concocts it in order to punish the frivolous protagonists.

  • The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (1991) by David Stove. Funny, unfair, rabid dismissal of most philosophy ever. Uses ad hominem Bulwerism openly - despite that going against his own ideal of reason - because he views a great range of people as being too mad to engage with. His other move is to use the positivist's wood-chipper principle a lot: 'your position is literally meaningless; you're too stupid to see this', occasionally correctly. Attacks idealists mostly, including whole chapters making fun of Goodman, Nozick, and Popper(!) - but does not spare Mill ("here doing his usual service of making mistakes very clearly") and Russell, who you'd think were his kind of men. The last chapter is scary and hilarious and suggests the man's basic pain, underneath his roaring pessimism.
    4/5. (keep it away from freshers though)

  • Occasional Poets: an Anthology (1986), edited by Richard Adams. Poems from people not known as poets, yielding a equal mix of dedicatories, doggerel, and diamond. Their styles are mostly preserved, epitomised: the big grim novelists (Lessing, Coetzee, Fowles, Murdoch, Golding) write enormous grit-tooth verse;
    Heads bowed down or thrown
    Backward open-eyed
    Here and there are dark
    With terrible deaf pictures.
    Sounds rise up and vanish
    Into a pitted dome.
    It continues to rain.
    The acoustics being imperfect some people fidget.

    Something which is pure is come
    To a high magnetic field.
    Cry out as it passes on
    When shall we be healed?
  • Raymond Briggs, a quiet, brutal elegy; David Lodge, some good meta jokes; animal bits from Jan Morris and Stella Gibbons; Wodehouse, two wonderful gossipy hyperboles. Adams manages to pick out the only Naomi Mitchison poems I don’t like. A lot of unbridled sentiment, e.g. Arnold Wesker depressing his children, Francis King's lies spiralling down, Enoch Powell lying awake listening to his wife's asthma; the writers aren't expecting the irony-making pressures of publication, or the obsessive polishing of any work that will be identified with them. So it's free indeed. Until Adams.

– JM Coetzee

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