pessimal miscellany

From 2008: the first original philosophical argument I remember making:

  1. Searle: "all purely syntactic systems lack subjective experiences."
  2. Searle: "I have subjective experiences."
  3. So Searle: "I am not a purely syntactic system." (modus tollens, 1&2)

  4. The only system that Searle has knowledge about the subjective experiences of is himself.
  5. So if Searle is not a purely syntactic system, he has no knowledge of what it is like to be a purely syntactic system,
  6. He cannot therefore cannot assert premise 1. (5 & the knowledge account of assertion).
  7. If Searle is a purely syntactic system, (1) is false. (by 2)
  8. Therefore premise (1) is either unwarranted or false. (by 6&7)

(These days I wouldn't use infallibilist knowledge as the baseball bat I did; I'd go for probabilism instead. And I'd do something against Searle's odd dichotomy between representational machines who are 'pure' syntax vs those which are fully semantic. But it is pretty entertaining as it is.)


Reviving a dead metaphor, "You're not pulling your weight". Had never considered the sound mechanical argument behind this snark. Consider the ideal rocket equation :

\Delta velocity = \begin{tabular}{l} exhaust\\velocity\end{tabular} \times \ln \ \frac {total \ mass}{final \ mass}

If a team's output in a given period is its velocity, and if we add your mass (salary + the inherent marginal co-ordination burden of larger teams) to the 'final' (payload) mass, then you are not pulling your weight if your mass is greater than your specific impulse (actual work accomplished / helpful ideas contributed). If you don't push your weight, you decrease the rocket's velocity. Measuring one's actual productivity is scary and unflattering and illiberal.

Ok, human teams are maybe unlike rockets in a couple ways (e.g. rockets are easier to steer; if they really followed Tsiolkovski, large organisations would achieve almost nothing - as opposed to the present output of almost nothing per capita) but I enjoy this.


medical students forget roughly 25–35% of basic science knowledge after one year, more than 50% by the next year, and 80–85% after 25 years...

- based on this and this.

How much of what they learn in school do average adults remember later? It's not awfully well-studied, but: perhaps less than 10%. Heavens, how does society not collapse? Well, most obviously: because we have search engines instead of knowledge. But how did society not collapse before them, then?

The dreary answer is that most people's lives do not actually depend on their own (or the masses') abstract knowledge; rather they depend on artefacts with only a few other people's knowledge embedded (and, now, sometimes with no-one's knowledge embedded.)

Or, how about: in order to accomplish stuff, you must know a lot of things but you needn't know it all at the same time. (Or: the space complexity of an intellectual life is surprisingly low.) Also the pompous suggestion by educators that they don't just impart information, but teach people 'how to think' is - surprisingly - not refuted by the available evidence.


What are the conditions of evil?

  • Socrates: "There is only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance". But we know that ignorance is not necessary for evil.

  • Schelling: "whoever has... not the force in himself to do evil is also not fit for good." But it's not clear that agency is necessary for evil.

  • Kant: "In regard to his natural obligations, nobody can be in error; for the natural moral laws cannot be unknown to anyone, in that they lie in reason for all..." But this is obviously wrong.

  • Kant: "Morality is thus the relation of actions to the autonomy of the [good] will... An action that can coexist with the autonomy of the will is permitted; one that does not accord with it is forbidden. A will whose maxims necessarily harmonize with the laws of autonomy is a holy, absolutely good will." But honest and good people can commit evil.

  • Kant: "the habit of regarding the absence of vice... as virtue - must be designated a radical perversity of the human heart". But having the wrong values is not necessary for evil.

  • Bostrom: "Evil may not even require the merest negative feeling or evaluation."


The usual way people have their minds blown by cosmology is simple scale; our infinitesimal size seems to imply infinitesimal importance. But we are roundly unsuperlative creatures:

i.e. We live in the bottom-left corner of almost everything. (This is not surprising; only the ways we deviate from galactic average need explanation; it would be stranger if we already existed at galactic maxima.) For now.

* Except the world's top man himself:
It's not as simple as saying "a point-mass black hole" - Mathematically there is not a theoretical limit to gravitational field strength, sir! The black hole's singularity is precisely a point at which the (semi-Riemannian) scalar curvature is singular. Physically of course, I doubt anything is infinite - so the singularity would be realised physically as being some batshit insanely big scalar.

(That actually begs an interesting question: in a suitable decomposition of the spacetime: is the Riemannian scalar curvature necessarily also singular? I'll investigate! It's probably too difficult for me though!)

There's a fringe view that I absolutely love, that the black hole's singularity is just an artefact of manifold theory - and if we moved to a coarser, algebraic description of spacetime physics, it wouldn't occur at all.


There are, we know, genes that greatly increase your risk of systematic, consuming, unbearable sadness. The theory of diathesis lets us deal with the fact that genetics is rarely the neat deterministic, monogenic thing we had hoped. But there may be less obvious diatheses - 'genes for sadness' - just because there are thousands of the bastards that could combine to produce human tragedy.

Consider recent work by Albert Tenesa and co.: they claim to have found genes for attraction-to-people-of-the-same-height-as-you. Stature is extremely heritable; if one had tall parents and Tenesa's height-attraction prodrome: you might find an extremely tall person attracted (only) to implausibly tall people.


What the world needs now is abstract sexuality visualisation software.


identitarianism* (n.): Belief that a person's group memberships are the most important thing about them. (Or whose acts imply this.) It is the hypernym which covers nationalism, filial piety, racism, and internet social justice.

Identitarian intellectuals have one very great advantage: their worldview shares in the strongest and most universal feature of human life: obsessive and exclusive tribalism. This is also their great horrifying feature for the same reason.

Research into what frees people from the mindset would be deeply valuable, I think. Would we be able to kill at all if we did not other the victim in some way? Has anyone (sane) ever killed someone they viewed as metaphysically close? Eh, probably.

* (TIL that the term "identitarian" has been appropriated by some French fascists. Which is annoying, because I want a fair descriptive term (no unspeak) and this did the job very well.)


The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.
- Auden

At first sight, the idea of any rules or principles being superimposed on the creative mind seems more likely to hinder than to help, but this is quite untrue in practice. Disciplined thinking focuses inspiration rather than blinkers it.
- G. L. Glegg

I took on a job doing closed captioning because I found I had an easier time writing. Just something about talking to people and watching weird media made the writing a lot easier. My new theory of self was that you can't write well unless you have a little strife in your life... The problem was I didn't want to quit my job and have readership fall off because I couldn't write, so my crazy idea would be to go back to school full-time.
- Zach Weiner

A classic but underrated view of life and self: it is not unlimited freedom but constraint that produces creativity. This is certainly true of me: it is not unless I have a formal obligation to defy that I create anything. Worked out a mechanism for why; call it the pinctadan itch.:

  1. I am fundamentally childish and require a steady stream of variety.
  2. Having a job regularises my week: without extra effort, all days resemble each other.
  3. Intolerable resentment ensues. I am forced to produce sparks to satisfy my basic drives.

I have always craved variety and abstraction (experience of aggregates; height; the view from nowhere; above individual events and my individual self). One's the enemy of the other, of course.

What can you do? You can vary your surroundings or you can vary the furnishings of your mind. In fact three of the most common broad ways of living divide right down this line - bohemianism (artists, students, hipsters), 'grown-up' professionalism, and nerd culture (which straddles the line).

The nature of mainstream work precludes much variety in your external surroundings from day to day; so you have to internalise variety. Bohemian life precludes all sorts of things, but it does let you sample any part of reality which does not require money or power (insofar as your Couchsurfing and Workaway rep is good).

  • To maximise external variety, one goes backpacking around the world, takes on temp jobs intentionally, has casual sex off the escalator, and presumably gets into fights with strangers and acts like Jason Statham in Crank.

  • To maximise internal variety ones reads broadly, keeps up with new music, takes drugs, changes hobbies a lot and thinks.

  • To minimise social disapproval, one has a desk job, a spouse, a football team, a mortgage, a child, etc.

What's the point? Not everyone's as psychologically simplistic as me; the above three things are hardly the only goals.

Sure; but the above seems to explain a lot of people's behaviour (which, as we know, is often very far from goals). These are the two great everyday cultures, and you will have to find a route between their mutually dissatisfying posts. Are nerds a mass, long-term way of adulting yet?


Regex is pretty much what I thought programming would be before I started: terse, impenetrable, enabling you to do things that others simply cannot do. Pure reason.

I rarely feel in command of 4 billion robots, except when they are faithfully tearing through an entire hard drive with my pattern the only stamp upon their mind. (I also get this feeling when my Project Euler solutions don't terminate.)


Seeking the album You Forgot it In People, I accidentally searched for "Broken Social Science".


Levels of meniality:
  1. Being told what needs doing (illiberty of proximate goals)
  2. Being told how to do it (illiberty of judgment)
  3. Being told when exactly to do it (illiberty of pace)
  4. Being forbidden from doing it otherwise (illiberty of means)
  5. Being punished for not doing it (enforcement).
  6. Being punished for not doing it that way (procedure enforcement).
  7. Being actively, constantly measured (no privacy).
  8. A Total institution: what to do, what not to do, precisely when, and no escape (panopticon)
  9. Slavery
  10. .
Almost all jobs are level 1 at least; it's almost the definition. Telematics is quickly making non-professional jobs a level 4, and the professionals are not far behind.

I can't find the reference, or the actual terms, and I don't really want to read legal theorists ever, but: I remember a great distinction about 'English' versus 'Prussian' philosophies of law. The so-called English paradigm is: Ban certain actions; everything else, what the law does not mention, is permitted. The 'Prussian' bans everything except what law explictly condones. I honestly don't understand how anyone can view the latter philosophy as good and helpful and not squashing almost everything worthwhile out of life.


"Fuck this, I'm away home"

All images public domain at the British Library's Flickr.


Implicit social theory in Civilization

Poster for Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)

The fact remains, though, that Civilization V, with thirty million man hours recorded on Steam alone, is among the most popular “historical documents” today, and the values implicit in its many systems have been and continue to be communicated to millions of players.
- Will Parton

'what did I learn in high school about history?' The Pyramids. The Great Wall. Things like that. Those things have got to show up in the game, because when you see them, when you run into them, you go, "Oh, I know, I've heard of that, I'm a smart person, I know this stuff." So we wanted to put in the game, but then the question was 'What effect would it have?' If it was going to be a Wonder of the World, it had better be pretty dramatic. That was another rule of the game: stuff had to really feel important...
- Sid Meier

Further to intellectualising a computer game, this time Civ V:

  • The tech tree has all kinds of interesting goofy deterministic links which mix up the material conditions for a technical breakthrough, the social pressures that led to it, and the intellectual dependencies between concepts - for instance, it's very plausible that horseback riding was in fact materially necessary for a civil service in any large country (rather than being an inseparable idea), but the fifth tech tree suggests that there could have been no compass without formal theology which is false except in the social-motivation sense... Each of the games has its own idiosyncratic version of the tree - all deterministic to date, even Beyond Earth's slightly more realistic sci-fi actor network.
  • Any civ can win. Since the playable civs are pretty well distributed throughout human history and geography, this has a point. They're not balanced by any means - Bismarck! - but not even the most rabid relativist anthropologist has ever held that all cultural traits were equal in their potential for domination.
  • If you commit genocide in the early game, before you have contacted other civilizations, there is no diplomatic penalty to even the most brutal and traitorous warfare. (Who now remembers the Armenians?)
  • Trade routes spread both science and religion; without trade, science will not spread between civs.
  • There is a totally rigid division of humans into violent nomads and static States. There can be no commerce, negotiation, or peaceful coexistence with them.
  • Civic unrest is caused by a very small set of things: long wars, occupying foreign cities, overpopulation and having many cities(??)
  • Money, culture, and science can all be bought by diverting your economic production; Faith never can be. (This is true, but since the integer Faith measures a civ's (nominal) acceptance of a religion rather than the full-souled internalisation of its tenets, there is space to separate out a Faith stat from a Mere Profession stat. Money very often buys the latter, IRL.)
  • Great people are only produced by societies which actively create cultural conditions: in particular, which have communities of specialists passing on the know-how and incrementally improving the art.
  • It takes twice as much faith to produce an Inquisitor (who persecutes other religions) compared to a missionary (who spreads their own).
  • Small nations enable the great slippery slopes of history; they are manipulated, extorted from, spoken for and stomped on by the large civs.
  • Infrastructure - in particular, roads - is a massive part of every civ's budget, second only to the army. This is not so now, but may have been back in the day.
  • Verbatim: "Once the player either reaches the Modern era or finishes three factories, he or she will have to choose an ideology to continue the game."
  • Slavery - a very stable policy option in Civ IV, often persisting right up to the C20th - is no longer available in any era.

Of course, I've no idea how much of this is the result of the developers' historical (and geological) background and how much is a simple fudge for gameplay that people like me project theory on. (As always in hermeneutics, we can duck any impropriety caused by uncertainty just by talking about what the game implies (rather than what the developers hold).)

Not an ideological point, but just an example of detail few other games have:
  • You can still sell off the buildings in a city you are presently burning to the ground.



the only beautiful object, event, or abstraction
of any kind within shooting distance of Riga airport
is the spew of a squat smokestack,
a pure grey stream of hot sideshow.
parthenogenetic and progeroid.

a boiled definition, lit to make
many monochromes gently washing out,
a collective paling, lines breaking, becoming
the static milk-blue back of this, a winter.
beside it snow is mute. clouds don't intrude.

and I could study this! Really; not by eye
or for mere art. Given the itch persisting
I might spend a week with the profound and careful dead.
the incidental vapour painting has a million twins running
the self-same script of physical law, an amortised script probably known.

on average each twin seen truly.
we found out the world without us. after finding, made it reel.
components written in the flames underneath
choke mutely. my stoichiometrist mate
can code its dead language in a trice.

its dynamics solve for seven unknowns, but can too be given
in the eternal manner, since Boyle and Navier-Stokes
who solved mysteries you would have been satisfied with
- are satisfied with, since ignorant amidst free knowledge -
which mysteries I am seen enjoying in the first two stanzas.

macro effects ongoing on the frontages, temperature and health
of Riga etc are knowable but not known and not soon. Dark significant guesses
are nailed on the door. The models lift off, freed from obvious
falsehood by tiny effects in giant interactions, hiding the signal
so we foolishly think what we happily will.

and the present effect - one unit of pleasure and motive
in a youngish half-educated traveller - is known, shakily, in principle,
from parts of its outside: the sparkling in my C fibres or Hebbian knots or GABA wheels.
even the heart may be knowable
given much stronger light and unchristian programme.

in the absence of peak oil, the absence of compelling books,
the absence of monkey-wrenchers, in the presence of the deep absence
that airports consist in, a cloud factory pours.
it ignores my head, dipped in notebook, ignores the folly and doom
symbolism people give it, ignores everything except pressures, gravities, van der Waals

and future soon.


Been Reading, Q4 2015

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and recgular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

– GK Chesterton

When you become frustrated with computers, please remember they are only cleverly-arranged sand. (When you become frustrated with people...)

– Gwern Branwen

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 continue to overthink this model which has relevance only to me and even then only sometimes. This time: if I reread a book, need I then award it a 5/5, since it has in fact proven to be re-readable? Or only if I subsequently think I will read it again? This petty point reveals a somewhat less petty one: Is the above scale purely descriptive of durability - or what's to stop me from weaselling out of marking as 5 those low-status things I actually love?


  • Twice aloud: Rain (2009) by Don Paterson. Wonderful: sincere, grotesque, solemn and shrugging; both elemental and goofy. Rhymes are delivered straight. Going by the ambient temperature and the coverage of light, Paterson lives very near to outer space.
    so for all that we are one machine
    ploughing through the sea and gale
    I know your impulse and design
    no better than the keel the sail
    A unique, dry view of family life here; sneaking downstairs so as not to disturb them with your inexplicable angst. There's even a painfully goofy evocation of the mating call of the Wire magazine reader:
    Though I should confess that at times I find your habit of maxxing
    the range with those bat-scaring frequencies ring-modulated
    sine-bursts and the more distressing psychoacoustic properties
    of phase inversion in the sub-bass frequencies somewhat taxing
    you are nonetheless beautiful as the mighty Boards
    themselves in your shameless organicising of the code.
    Which is best read as a scherzo. Half of it's written for a dead friend or in homage to lesser-known world poets; I rarely get poems like that. I don't know why I'm cavilling; this is the best collection I've read since... the last Don Paterson. Sentimental by his standards but bruising by poetry in general's. Teetering upright.
    5?/5. [Library]

  • Aloud: De Origine et situ Germanorum (98) by Publius Tacitus, translated by Lamberto Bozzi (2012). Versified, and well, which makes even the boring bits about ploughs a pleasure. We had a long inconclusive discussion about how many of the claims are likely to be complete bullshit. Most interesting were: the prevalence of Greek myths among the Goths, and Tacitus' very early cross-cultural approval of some things.
    For when on chastity a woman cheats
    She finds no mercy among the tribesmen
    And cannot come by a husband again
    No matter how young and rich and fair
    Nobody laughs at these vices
    Or calls corruption a sign of the times.

    Better still are the nations in those climes Where virgins once only marry, Willing for the right mate to tarry; They take one husband, one body, one life - No other thought or longing needs a wife Who loves more than her man the married state...
    Nowhere near as racist as expected!

  • J (2014) by Howard Jacobson. Picked this up looking for a laugh, but my god. Of sordid, heartbroken, soft totalitarianism. The ineliminable danger of being different, and the specific danger for one difference in particular, which I'll let you discover. A companion piece to The Book of Dave, underneath Britain's (and humanity's) downside. Britain insulates itself against a self-inflicted atrocity by pushing away history and strongly banning modernist or pessimist ideas and people. So many despicable characters, like the art professor who defines everything by how little it reflects darkness or human brutality, 'primitivism' and 'degeneracy' (the irony being that this attitude, of art as mere grinning decoration, is itself a backslide from modernism, however empty and stupid much conceptual art is).
    There was something uncanny about her, the seriousness with which she took her work, her obduracy, the size of her vocabulary, the lack of bounce in her hair, the flat shoes she wore, her failure often to get a joke, her way of overdoing sympathy as as though understanding beat snogging.
    The book (if not Jacobson) has a terrifying attitude towards bigotry: that it's never going away because it based on the deep need of exclusive identity, that bad marriages and ethnic atrocities appeal to something much deeper and more formal than what happens to have been socialised into us. 'Necessary Opposites', as he puts it:
    '...Identity is nothing but illusion.'
    'If it's all illusion, why has it caused so much misery?' ...

    'Only when we have a different state to strive against do we have reason to strive at all. And different people the same. I am me because I am not her, or you. If we were all red earthworms there'd be no point in life. Identity is just the name we give to making ourselves distinct.'
    'So you're saying it's irrelevant what our identities really are? As long as we assume one and fight against someone else's.'
    'I'd say so, yes. Pretty much.'
    'Isn't that a bit arbitrary?'
    'Perhaps. But isn't everything? There's no design.'
    It starts slow, give it 50 pages to worm its way.
    4/5. [Library]

  • Bitter Experience Has Taught Me (2013) by Nicholas Lezard. Smooth, uninspired columns about bohemia (that is, bourgeois poverty), knitted together post hoc. I really like his book reviews - they are breezy, fearless, concise and yet unhurried. But this isn't very funny and not all that bitter, apart from in a few apercus:
    For a long time I believed anal sex was how lawyers were conceived.
    His straddling class lines is interesting - his private schooling, Booker dinner invites, and going out with Allegra Mostyn-Owen clash well with his freeloading, bread-line salary (net of child support) and thieving of ashtrays from embassy mixers. I may be down on him because I used Pessoa as reference class and not Tim Dowling or Saki.
    2/5. [Library]

  • The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) and Carry On, Jeeves (1925) by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Musical, uplifting, and still so, so funny. Each story draws on a very small pool of the exact same jokes (Jeeves hates a new piece of Wooster's wardrobe; little old lady Aunt Agatha is completely inexorable; shit gambling on unconventional sports, headgear is misappropriated, monsters are slain) and only four supporting characters (Pals, Uncles/Fathers-in-law, Aunts/Fiancees, Trade). But they only gain from the repetition somehow. Even here, in Wodehouse's smiling, sun-dappled imperial nest, there are echoes from reality: for instance The War as well as the spiky and still-reigning art it set alight:
    I suppose every chappie in the world has black periods in his life to which he can’t look back without the smouldering eye and the silent shudder. Some coves, if you can judge by the novels you read nowadays, have them practically all the time...

    "Were you in the First World War, Jeeves?"
    "I dabbled in it to a certain extent, m’lord."

    "I'm lonely, Jeeves."
    "You have a great many friends, sir."
    "What's the good of friends?"
    "Emerson," I reminded him, "says a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature, sir."
    "Well you can tell Emerson from me next time you see him he's an ass."
    "Very good, sir."

    So frivolous it loops back round to profound.

  • PHP: A Fractal of Bad Design (2012) by Alex 'Eevee' Munro. Half of the internet runs on PHP, a language which was not initially intended to be used for actual programs. This article, a long list of design criticisms and roaring frustration, is how I learned the language in the first place. It is indispensable, rigorous, and wise. I had to look up not a few terms in it, because I am not a computer scientist at all, but a sneaky back-stairs conversion boy.

    All inquiry is hard; this might be because the mind was not initially intended to be used for real, permanent inquiry. But an often overlooked fact is that people are looking out for you; that is what half of all books are. In the tech world they cry lookout! a click away. If you care.

  • Also: Learning PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, CSS & HTML5 (2014) by Robin Nixon. I didn't read tech books during my first year. This was a serious mistake, not least because my brain is geared towards book-learning and depth-first top-down imposition of order. This is excellent for people starting from 0, but too slow for anyone with much practical experience.
    4/5 for noobs which I am not quite, any more.

  • The Days of Surprise (2014) by Paul Durcan. Disconcerting autobiographical fun; sometimes jolly to the point of childishness - gynaecologists! priests!. And so full up with the Church, though teasing its pretensions and persisting brutalities. Here is the grand title poem, both Under Milk Wood for Ringsend his town and an occasional for Francis' coronation (who is, much like himself, "A figure of childlike passivity / As well as childlike authority"). A lovely man, clearly. When angry, he mocks his own anger. He does not denounce; instead he scolds. Also full of lovely banal lists:
    I sat down under a recycling bin and wept – wept for joy and ecstasy and grief and anguish and the whole jing bang lot and Moses and Isabel Gilsenan and Johannes Scotus Eriugena and Georgie Hyde-Lees and Eimear McBride and Robert Heffernan and Katie Taylor and Christine Dwyer Hickey and Mo Farah and Roisin O’Brien and Joe Canning and Máire Logue and Rory and Columbanus and Enda and Fionnuala and Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Michael D. Higgins and – and – and – and – and – and – and – and – SABINA!
    Best are "The Actors' Chapel"; and the title one.
    3*/5. [Library]

  • The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) by Philip Pullman. Or: "A Story." It's intentionally didactic, but that knowing intention doesn't stop it being annoying. Found myself reading it just to see what Pullman's next revision would be (e.g, Joseph being bullied into taking the teenage Mary for a wife).
    "I remember him," said the blind man. "Jesus. He come here on the Sabbath, like a fool. The priests wouldn't let him heal anyone on Sabbath. He should've known that."
    "But he did heal someone," said the lame man. "Old Hiram. You remember that. He told him to take up his bed and walk."
    "Well what was the use of taking his living away? Begging was the only thing he knew how to do. You and your blether about goodness," he said, turning to Christ, "where's the goodness in throwing an old man out into the street without a trade, without a home, without a penny? Eh? That Jesus is asking too much of people."
    Compassionate, subtler than the title suggests, dull.
    2/5. [Library]

  • In Praise of Love (2010) by Alain Badiou. A leftist defence of marriage and a postmodern attempt at making love a big deal, ontologically speaking; beyond this initial frisson of meta-contrarian goodness, though: meh. Book's a bite-sized transcription of a formal literary talk - a genre which may well have no good instance. Here's the solitary pair of beautiful moments in an otherwise lukewarm bath of the history of philosophy of love and lazy sub-systematic Lacanian guesswork*:
    While desire focuses on the other, always in a somewhat fetishist[ic] manner, on particular objects, like breasts, buttocks and cock, love focuses on the very being of the other, on the other as it has erupted, fully armed with its being, into my life that is consequently disrupted and re-fashioned.

    Love is an existential project: to construct a decentred world, from a point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive and re-affirm my own identity... When I lean on the shoulder of the woman I love, and can see, let’s say, the peace of a twilight over a mountain landscape, gold-green fields, the shadows of trees, black-nosed sheep motionless behind hedges and sun about to disappear behind craggy peaks, and know — not from the expression on her face, but from within the world as it is — that she is seeing the same world, and that this convergence is part of the world; that love constitutes precisely, at that very moment, the paradox of an identical difference, then love exists, and promises to continue existing. The fact is she and I are now incorporated into this unique subject, the subject of love that views the panorama of the world through the prism of our difference, so this world can be conceived, be born, and not simply represent what fills my own individual gaze. Love is always the possibility of being present at the birth of the world.
    Clearer prose than you'd expect, though, isn't it?
    3/5. [Library]

  • * e.g. laziness: his claim about there being four "conditions" of philosophy, none of which are in fact necessary conditions, and one of which is good old dyadic love:
    Anyone who doesn't take love as their starting-point will never discover what philosophy is about.
    (Never mind, Cavendish; oh well Newton, sorry Schopenhauer; you tried real hard.)


  • High Performance MySQL (2004) by Zawodny and Balling. Databasing is all of the following: a hard precondition of almost all modern social activities; the high-stakes application of some very deep intellectual tortures; unutterably boring. This book's a nice intro to higher-level considerations: Query tuning (i.e. ask the question better), indexing (i.e. ask if it's been asked before), server tuning (ask a better person), replication (ask several people), benchmarking (ask trick questions). Not exactly chatty, but as engaging as you could expect:
    The chapter concludes with recommendations for the long term care and feeding of your column indexes.
    And it's not as gruesomely platform-specific as the title implies.
    changing hardware might, in the best case, give you a 10-fold increase in speed. But tuning queries can often give you 1000-fold performance increase. Seriously.
    Not deep, though: they namedrop B-trees and the query optimiser, but do not explain them beyond noting that they are very good and you should trust them. I haven't yet seen a bad O'Reilly book.

  • Don't Make Me Think: A Common-Sense Guide to Usability (2006) by Steve Krug. Very clear, very humane. Underneath his smiley-grumpy homilies is an intuitive applied cognitive science. (He does give a couple of scientific citations, but the model has more to do with simple sympathetic cynicism. That is: Minimise text; have a strong visual hierarchy of size, prominence, clickability; have clear spaced sections of content on each page; keep page names literal; keep the background quiet; never write instructions - make it wordlessly, mindlessly obvious; use conventions unless you have a good reason not to. Which is obviously all good stuff, but overall I didn't like the dad-joke air.

  • Bad Pharma (2013) by Ben Goldacre. Or - his preferred book title - The Information Architecture of Medicine has Several Interesting Flaws, Many of Which Inflict Avoidable Harm on Patients, But All of Which are Amenable to Cost-Effective Change, Were There to be Adequate Public and Political Will. An empirically rigorous angry manifesto! <3

    Here are all of the book's theses in one paragraph, which is another thing I love nonfiction writers doing:
    Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.

    In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most part they have failed; so all of these programs persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.

    [Low external validity] can make a trial completely irrelevant to real-world populations, yet it is absolutely routine in research, which is conducted on tight budgets, to tight schedules, for fast results, by people who don’t mind if their results are irrelevant to real-world clinical questions. This is a quiet, dismal scandal. There’s no dramatic newspaper headline, and no single killer drug: just a slow and unnecessary pollution of almost the entire evidence base in medicine.
    Exactly as fair to pharma as it deserves and no more ("there is no medicine without medicines"). Business gimps sometimes use the term "thought leader", meaning powerful, original thinker (they usually use it spuriously). Goldacre actually is one. Please at least join AllTrials.
    4*/5. [Library]

  • Reread: Use of Weapons (1990) by Iain M Banks. The most tender and literary book in the Culture series. Zakalwe, the protagonist, is almost cartoonish in all his piratical energy, saved from usual boring super-soldier effects by the pathos of the Bad Lieutenant variety. Banks was always quite open about how didactic the sci-fi novels were; they are saved by his sheer inventiveness and the grand psychological realism amidst the technological fantasy.

    Cough. What do humans have to offer, after the singularity? What skills are scarce? Banks' answer is: "a lack of scruples; excessive force; the ability to not care." We should be so lucky.

    This scene had a large effect on me as a child:
    'Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. "But look; this table's clean.'
         He agreed that the table was clean.
         "Usually,' the man said. "I work on alien -- no offence -- alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my specialty ... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But ... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled ... but,' he slapped the table, "when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement."
         "But in the end, it's still cleaning a table."
         "And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.
          He smiled in response to the man's grin, "Well, yes.'
          'But then what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either?' I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people."
    As did this, before I studied formal philosophy and received a resounding confirmation of it:
         “Aw, come on; argue, dammit.”
          “I don’t believe in argument,” he said, looking out into the darkness.
          “You don’t?” Erens said, genuinely surprised. “Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”
          “It’s not cynicism,” he said flatly. “I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.”
          “Oh well, thank you.”
          “It’s comforting, I suppose.” He watched the stars wheel, like absurdly slow shells seen at night: rising, peaking, falling...(And reminded himself that the stars too would explode, perhaps, one day.) “Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,” he said. “And I think they know in their hearts that other people are just the same, and one of the reasons people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.”
          “Excuses, eh?"
          "Yes, excuses," he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. "I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you're supposed to argue about, come later. They're the least important part of the belief. That's why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place." He looked at Erens. "You've attacked the wrong thing.”
    But this was also before I got into technical pursuits which lend us hope that the above grim realism can be defeated by self-awareness, quantification, and epistemic care. Sometimes.
    4/5. (By revealed preference, the series is 5/5.)

  • Pro Git (2013) by Chacon and. Neal Stephenson once hyperbolised the situation in OS choice as follows, hyperbolically:
    Linux is right next door and is not a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.
    This is overstated; Debian and Ubuntu, the chief consumer descendents, are as buggy as any other. But the very same people built Git, and it is a battle-tank. Fast, unbreakable and life-saving. Why hasn't it taken over the world, outside of tech industry? 1) most people don't need non-linear incremental backups; 2) the learning curve is bloody steep even for techies.

    Entities that you need to know about to use Git without absurdity: the files, the working tree, the index, many local repositories, many remote repositories, 'remotes' (pointers to remote repositories), commits, treeishes (pointers to commits), branches, a stash

    This book covers so much of the internal detail, the gotchas, the customisability, and comparisons with other source-control systems that it was adopted as canonical docs by the official working group. Skip sections at will, but do have a go.
    4/5. [Free here]

  • Brideshead Abbreviated: The Digested Read of the 20th Century (2013) by John Crace. A tasting platter of C20th literature (one book synopsised per year of the century), as well as very successful pastiche, as well as highbrow larfs, and also, occasionally, a tiny philosophical critique of revered writers. It is of course easy to make anything ridiculous if you compress it enough, but Crace is not cheap about it. He reserves most of his scorn for the obscene sensationalists (Ballard, Burroughs, Joyce, Kundera). Here is the main joke Crace makes in at least half of all of them, fourth-wall shamelessness:
    “Why do you do Junk, Bill?”

    “Because once I´ve shovelled enough garbage into my body” I replied, “I’ll get away with shovelling any old garbage into print. Take it from me, some suckers will one day call Naked Lunch a masterpiece”.

    I read books about books because I'm a prig: my ignorance of these things makes me anxious. As a result of reading Crace, I can tell I won't read about fifty of the hundred. So, big gains, even if the larfs wear thin halfway through.
    3/5. [Library]


  • Why Your Five Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained (2013) by Susie Hodge. An attempted defence of the current reigning artistic paradigm: low-skill, high-concept, contemptuous of past, audience, and self; identitarian. Call it anaesthetic conceptualism. It is also a nice illustrated catalogue of some recent objects that have managed to piss various people off. 150 years ago, we direly needed people to make art larger, to stand against the Academic approach of Nice Hard Mimesis Only. The problem is that since the 50s many artists replaced that shallow spectacle of mere mimetic skill with the even shallower spectacle of empty originality and flashy cynicism. This book has such a patronising presentation; it could have been named "How to explain conceptualism to your five year-old". (I guess that could have been an intentional irony, but to me it just told me what she thinks of anyone sceptical of the trend. But some kudos for being clear, since this makes the hollowness of her points blatant.)

    I have to applaud her; unlike the rest of her curator peers, she has at least attempted to justify a gigantically expensive, creativity-draining, status-hogging practice with close readings. I should also thank her for tacitly admitting that the only hermeneutics that can justify anaesthetic conceptualism is a small-minded and super-conservative intentionalism (i.e. 'what matters about the work is what the artist meant').* "It doesn't really matter how the object looks; what really matters is how deep the creator was and how much history you can project on it." But this philosophy of art is convincing to no-one not already invested in the great tedious playground. I dislike most of this art, and this way of talking about it, because I want to love art.***

    Anyway, this is a useful catalogue of the kind of low-skill pieces that have only recently been possible and that you need to know about to move in certain presumably unbearable circles.
    3/5, for the pictures. [Library]

    * Though the so-called intentional fallacy is not actually a fallacy** - it does not make sense to say that someone is literally mistaken to think that the creator's view of an artwork is the only relevant one, since aesthetic interpretation doesn't admit of literal error - instead it's just an incredibly limited and superstitious philosophy - along the same lines as deontology in ethics. It makes art a small and mostly ancient thing, while aesthetic experience could instead rise to each of the potential billions of minds that come to it, and it always takes place in the present, with entirely novel meanings generated, far beyond the ken of any creator.

    ** I am aware that 'fallacy' has found usage outside of its original meaning, 'a failure in logical reasoning'. But the new usage, committed for instance by Beardsley, is something shitey like 'a horrible belief I don't like boo'. I'm generally torn between a descriptive and a prescriptive philosophy of vocabulary, but in this case the bullying and sloppy-mindedness of the new usage makes me deny it outright. Some words are too important to give up. (Mostly epistemology tbf.)

    *** This is an unforgivably poncey thing to say, not least because I don't think I really mean it. If crap artists had not usurped a good portion of all the species' attention and reverence, I don't think I'd care what modern art was like. But as it is they are cheaters - even the great ones. They cheat themselves into immortality and perceived profundity via the handy expedient of prettiness and vagueness or ugliness and vagueness. In a way, they and we cheat malaria victims of huge sums, while the very people who claim to care about global injustices cheer us dumping more money into it, while saying things like 'life isn't worth living without art'. Well, maybe it wouldn't be, but life is not worth living if you're dead either, and there is enough art already.

  • Awakenings (1973) by Oliver Sacks. An oppressive book: case studies of profoundly frozen people: contorted, whispering, impassive for decades, at best. One of the most poignant real events I think I've ever heard of: the medical reversal of effective, affective death - and but only a temporary reversal. Sacks really hadn't developed his style by this point: I quite liked the technical medical report feel, but it both highly technical and highly melodramatic: there is much of infinitudes of the soul, titratabilities, and perseveratably festinative resipiscences in it. Also a nice subtle stylistic note: he breaks apart dead metaphors to revive them (e.g. "wild life", "death bed").

    Also lacking is his later grand balancing of romance with reason.* For instance, he falls right off the edge on pp.97, seeing numbers as enemies of people:
    I suddenly realised the infinite nature, the qualitative infinity of the phenomenon... One speaks of infinite anguishes, poignancies, desires, and joys - and one does so naturally, with no sense of paradox - i.e. one conceives of them in a metaphysical sense. But Parkinsonism - wasn't this categorically different? Was it not a simple, mechanical disorder of function - something essentially finite, something which could be measured in the divisions of a suitable scale? ... When I saw Hester, I suddenly realised that all I had thought about the finite, ponderable, numerable nature of Parkinsonism was nonsense. I suddenly realized, at this moment, that Parkisonism could in no sense be seen as a thing which increased or decreased by finite increments... that it was anumerical; that from its first, infinitesimal intimation it could proceed by an infinite multitude of infinitesimal increments to an infinite, and then more infinite, and still more infinite, degree of severity... [Footnote twenty years later] I see it as requiring models or concepts which had not been created in the 1960s, in particular those of chaos and nonlinear dynamics.

    We rationalize, we dissimilate, we pretend: we pretend that modern medicine is a rational science, all facts, no nonsense, and just what it seems. But we have only to tap its glossy veneer for it to split wide open, and reveal to us its roots and foundations, its old dark heart of metaphysics, mysticism, magic, and myth. Medicine is the oldest of the arts, and the oldest of the sciences: would one not expect it to spring from the deepest knowledge and feelings we have?
    It's a repetitive book for a maximally repetitive disease. The wonder and personalising detail he lavishes on each case aren't enough to get me past the surprising uniformity of the bizarre symptoms and the hell of it all. Just as well I'm not a doctor.
    * Call it the classical vs the romantic (as does Pirsig), Erklaerung oder Verstehen (as in Dilthey, Weber), the outside view v the inside view (Kahneman), or Logos v Mythos (as twere in ancient Greece).

  • Expert Political Judgment (2005) by Phillip Tetlock. Showing that very few political analysts know what they're talking about - they are usually worse than chance - and then trying to find out why. Deeply important. Discussion here.

  • Reread: What If? (2014) by Randall Munroe. Completely rigorous whimsy, often the first time science has been applied to the thing at hand. Pure mind-candy - but, in the absence of real physics education, also improving. They are free here.

  • More What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (2002) by various. Not a sequel. Little counterfactuals involving single decisions of single lives that would probably have had vast effects on the present world. Needed this book because, at my school, the big historical cliches - Hastings - were divorced from their effects. Had Socrates died before meeting Plato, two thousand years of persuasive anti-democratic thought might have been prevented; had Zheng He just kept going, a Confucian America without a divine mandate to convert and subjugate, and an overwhelmed, boxed-in and thus united pre-colonial Europe might have resulted.
    It may be coincidental, but it is suggestive nonetheless that the interest among serious historians in counterfactual analysis basically corresponds with the rise of a dramatically new way of looking at the physics of complex systems, known popularly as chaos theory.
    They are also just great stories, cf. Adam Gopnik:
    It is the aim of all academic historians in our time to drain as much drama from history as is consistent with the facts; and it is the goal of popular historians to add as much drama to history as is consistent with the facts, or can be made to seem so.

    This is the former people doing the latter work. Damn good fun, and maybe valuable in the absence of proper modelling.

  • In one gulp: Never Mind (1992) by Edward St Aubyn. Tense, effortless, funny, devastating. A single day in the lurid upper-class, building to a dinner party, but eliding all the contempt we might feel with pathos and pain and humour. Dialogue is consistently impressive. Victor is the most convincing philosopher character I've seen in ages - neurotic, analytic. Patrick's model of the world is slightly too sophisticated model for a five-year-old, but the scene in which he's introduced is the most convincing childlike prose:
    Patrick walked towards the well. In his hand he carried a grey plastic sword with a gold handle, and swished it at the pink flowers of the valerian plants that grew out of the terrace wall. When there was a snail on one of the fennel stems, he sliced his sword down the stalk and made it fall off. If he killed a snail he had to stamp on it quickly and then run away, because it went all squishy like blowing your nose. Then he would go back and have a look at the broken brown shell stuck in the soft grey flesh, and would wish he hadn’t done it. It wasn’t fair to squash the snails after it rained because they came out to play, bathing in the pools under the dripping leaves and stretching out their horns. When he touched their horns they darted back and his hand darted back as well. For snails he was like a grown-up.
    And the venomous, purely perverse relationship of his parents produces gasping lines like
    At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.
    I stumble over David, the charming psychopath rampant. It is too hard to understand intentional evil, even when snobbery, tough love parenting and simple rage are proffered as explanations. I had a petite mort at the end. Really fantastic.
    4*/5 or more.

  • The Utopia of Rules (2013) by David Graeber. Bureaucracy is the dominant structure in adult life throughout the world. And everybody hates it, including the people nominally in power. How does that work? This discursive and suggestive answer is full of his usual sparkling insights and big dubious historical claims:
    The organization of the Soviet Union was directly modeled on that of the German postal service.
    He makes a serious of pretty serious economic errors in his wonderful "Flying Cars" essay. I will send them to him and think he will agree, if I'm right. His point about corporate life being just as bureaucratic as public orgs, but rarely called such in policy debates, is very important, and that left utopias also tend to wrap themselves in inane regulation. Book is in general slightly overegged - but compared to most anarchist social theory he is a model of rigour, epistemic care and systematic focus. (In fact he is very critical of academic theorists and applied leftists both):
    Foucault’s ascendancy in turn was precisely within those fields of academic endeavor that both became the haven for former radicals, but that were themselves most completely divorced from any access to political power, or increasingly, even to real social movements—which gave Foucault’s emphasis on the “power/knowledge” nexus, the assertion that forms of knowledge are always also forms of social power, indeed, the most important forms of social power, a particular appeal.
    No doubt any such historical argument is a bit caricaturish and unfair; but I think there is a profound truth here. It is not just that we are drawn to areas of density, where our skills at interpretation are best deployed. We also have an increasing tendency to identify what’s interesting and what’s important, to assume places of density are also places of power. The power of bureaucracy shows just how much this is often not the case.
    Grovels to standpoint theory when he is told that they had similar ideas earlier (which he hadn't read and which they never put so clearly). But pure and clear and witty, heretical to his tribes - and as original as always.
    ...if we’re going to actually come up with robots that will do our laundry or tidy up the kitchen, we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or desperately poor people willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.


  • Smarter than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence (2012) by Stuart Armstrong. Very clear and brief, just the bare argumentation. Published by MIRI, but not propaganda. Not sure what I think, even so.

  • The Year of Living Biblically (2010) by AJ Jacobs. The Old Testament has roughly 700 rules of varying severity and absurdity; Jacobs tried to follow all of them for a year. For a host of reasons, this can't be done, and so this is a reductio of biblical literalism. It is also a sympathetic anthropology of the literal Other Side, who are low-status, even in parts of America.

    1. The mad rules: never wear mixed fibres; no rubber tires; burning a red cow is the only way to be pure person; all the precise shabbat rules about what you can and can't do; basically anything involving women. Judaism actually has a specific word for the arbitrary, stupid divine laws: the chukim. The various brilliant, witty cafeteria theists he consults are open about them being silly tests - fun puzzles, even.
    2. The blatantly evolutionary / patriarchal rules: no other gods before me, no shellfish, modest women.
    3. He is keen to show the noble side to the real literalists: they practice tithing, pacifism, no hell, are activists for global debt jubilee. (A handful of lovely policies out of the mad and thoughtless other 700, mind you.) One group are even admirable on epistemic, philological grounds!: "You can't follow all of the Bible literally because we can't know what some of the words mean." Sure they take this to be a reason to be even more extreme than ever stipulated, just to be safe, but I admire the rigour of it.

    An extremely open-minded man; he meets the Creation Museum people, and the Amish, and the snake handlers. I didn't like the constant stream of cheap gags or his wielding family details for padding. I def didn't like his earnest attempt to use cognitive dissonance to delude himself into theism:
    The notion of obeying laws that have no rational explanation is a jarring one. For most of my life, I've been working under the paradigm that my behavior should have a logical basis. But if you live biblically, this is not true. I have to adjust my brain to this.

    ... When I first read the parable of the prodigal son, I was perplexed. I felt terrible for the older brother. The poor man put in all these years of loyal service, and his brother skips town, has a wild good time, then returns, and gets a huge feast? It seems outrageously unfair.

    But that's if you're thinking quantitatively. If you're looking at life as a balance sheet. There's a beauty to forgiveness, especially forgiveness that goes beyond rationality. Unconditional love is an illogical notion, but such a great and powerful one.
    (That simply strikes me as choosing to be mistaken and then hardening oneself to injustice.)

    He is not quite sophisticated enough to pull off rigorous naturalist wonder fully (but again this is me cruelly comparing a journalist to Nietzsche, Pessoa, Gopnik). But the following affirmation of mythos here is more or less my view:
    I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverant agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance.
    Literalism is impossible, immoral and inconsistent with our new, better picture of the world; biblical liberalism is mercenary and inconsistent with itself. So don't bother?

  • Thing Explainer (2015) by Randall Munroe. So wonderful; technical diagrams big and small, annotated with only the 1000 ("ten hundred") most common words.

  • Behind the Wall: A Journey through China (1987) by Colin Thubron. Spectacular, unskimmable, the best China book I've seen. (It's not a long list.) Full review here, highlights here.

  • Why Freud Was Wrong (1995) by Richard Webster. What a fucking book! Title is apt: this is not just a comprehensive catalogue of the gigantic errors and lies Freud told throughout his career - some of them criminally negligent and emotionally abusive - but also a psychological explanation of why he made them. Full discussion forthcoming.

My boy is painting outer space,
and steadies his brush-tip to trace
the comets, planets, moon and sun
and all the circuitry they run

in one great heavenly design.
But when he tries to close the line
he draws around his upturned cup,
his hand shakes, and he screws it up.

The shake’s as old as he is, all
(thank god) his body can recall
of the hour when, one inch from home,
we couldn’t get the air to him;

and though today he’s all the earth
and sky for breathing-space and breath
the whole damn troposphere can’t cure
the flutter in his signature.

But Jamie, nothing’s what we meant.
The dream is taxed. We all resent
the quarter bled off by the dark
between the bowstring and the mark

and trust to Krishna or to fate
to keep our arrows halfway straight.
But the target also draws our aim -
our will and nature’s are the same;

we are its living word, and not
a book it wrote and then forgot,
its fourteen-billion-year-old song
inscribed in both our right and wrong -

so even when you rage and moan
and bring your fist down like a stone
on your spoiled work and useless kit,
you just can’t help but broadcast it:>

look at the little avatar
of your muddy water-jar
filling with the perfect ring
singing under everything.

- Don Paterson

Behind the Wall (1987) by Colin Thubron

Arhat statues surfing at Qiongzhu Temple,
(c) Li Guangxiu (c.1890)

A stunning travel book in the best aristocratic tradition of wandering about talking to people and expecting monasteries to put you up unannounced. But it's as much moral as geographic or historical. China had only just opened up to foreigners, again; the Cultural Revolution, just 15 years past, looms large. A lost generation. In fact the book is obsessed with the difficult question, "How could they do that to themselves?", a focus which makes it excellent, informal long-form journalism as much as gentleman's what-ho travel narrative.

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 question isn't as simply answered as it is for Hitler's Germany (answer: "Because the merest dissent by any German meant death") nor even as it is for Stalinist Russia (since the unbelievable violence of the Holodomor and gulags was meted out by a comparatively small number of people). Millions of educated Red Guards brutalised millions of untrendy people without much central control at all (indeed, they often revolted against and scared the shit out of the PLA and the apparatchiks).

Thubron's important points include: that the Party cadres are nothing more than the latest garb of the long, long line of elite mandarins. So the poor Laobaixing got all the downside of an absolutist bureaucracy plus all the incompetence and terror caused by people who think that violent unending revolution is desirable. Another large theme is the appalling state of women: The patriarchy there was without even the paltry sweetener of chivalry - married off at 14 if not murdered as infants; old women sitting in the aisles of busses while young men lounge, etc, etc. Many of the people he meets (mostly lower-middle-class) were (are?) unbelievably obsessed with class, even after forty years of 'communist' rule; the brief, cursory glorification of the nongmin bounced back as soon as the big sticks went away. He calculates the cost of things - TVs, train tickets, hotel whiskies - in that most decent of measures, fractions of an average worker's monthly wage.

There is, already in 1987, an ambitious, irreverent, apolitical youth which any graduate of a Western university will now recognise readily.** The modern Modern China - Deng's China - is visible here, just. Thubron watches the future radiating out from the city:

Under the enormous vault of the station hall there resounds the tramp of a newly mobilised peasantry. I have seen them before all over the city: families arrived to buy or trade, sleeping under bridges or in shop porches with cap over their eyes. Now they step on to the escalators as gingerly as Western eight-year-olds, laden with rope-trussed boxes, newly bought televisions, chickens in hampers, radios, bags spilling out fruit and biscuits - bearing El Dorado back to the village. They overflow the waiting-rooms and camp against every wall behind their baggage palisades, snoring open-mouthed through the din with the detachment of Brueghel swineherds, their children in their arms.

His wit, compassionate anger, gravitas, and grasp of the detail of how messily old collides with new: all recall my favourite critic, Jonathan Meades. (Though Meades is a bit too refined to be easily imagined sleeping fifth-class amidst spit and melon rind, or buying a barn owl in a meat market just to set it free.)

He reports much local bullshit, sarcastically (e.g. Northerners' notion that 'moral integrity' decreases as you go south). This makes it sometimes difficult to know which reportage he endorses: thus, a couple of outlandish claims are possibly deadpan jokes (e.g. only '100' cars on mainland China in 1987?? Human flesh on sale in Canton?

Unsurprisingly, the book received a dab of cursory post-colonial critique.* This is unsurprising because he is interested in testing stereotypes out - in particular, finding out if innate cruelty enabled the Cultural Revolution; it is thus not unfair to imagine the book as a Eurocentric hatchet job. But this dismissive cynicism is only possible before you've heard his frank encounters with a hundred vivid, intelligent, and mournful locals, seen his solid grasp of the history of the dynasties and of 'pedantic and kindly' Confucianism. (Which is the best description of it I've ever seen.) Those interviews are novelistic - impossibly sincere, compressed, tragic, poetic - and far beyond anything I could elicit as a foreigner, in my summer there. But you believe him even so.

Anyway he doesn't pretend to have answered his burning question:
'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.

I oughtn't skimp on the book's adventure-story side just because it happens to be a beautiful and humane psychological portrait; the prose is persistently gorgeous, the sights are dryly and comprehensively evoked, and Thubron presents himself as a very fine comic character to boot. My favourite China book.

* Anti-Eurocentric writing used to minimise totalitarian genocide can be found in the critical discussion of Thubron here, the snob passage around the dismaying line: "In Thurbron's mind, the Cultural Revolution reached the epitome of atrocities in terms of intensity and scope..." (emphasis mine). That author also takes the prize for most dishonest truncation of the week, since Thubron's monologue goes on to display cultural sensitivity in the face of cultural horror (see "This sort of thing", above).

** There must be a better word for 'occidentaphile' than that itself. (We used to call it simply 'being civilised' - but let's be civilised about it.)