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

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