30/08/2016

luchot miscellany

A toy model of aesthetics with just two binary variables, 'classiness' and 'busyness'*:


Are these descriptions true? Well, they are incomplete, and are not definitions (i.e. one-to-one mappings), but yes. Are they helpful? As a start, absolutely.

Now, the labels on the left are vague and intuitive family resemblances; it is a fool's game to imagine they could ever be nailed down as monothetic definitions (the philosopher's ideal of neat, necessary and sufficient sets of attributes). We can still model usefully and harmlessly, even if the models can never be complete.**

But the critics and art academics I know spend far more time muddying the water: deconstructing our use of the problematic term "classy"; and who gets to say what 'simplicity' is anyway? They don't seem to want to explain things, even fuzzily.*** Or, maybe they do, but refuse to accept anything but a perfect final omniperspectival explanation (the like that can never be supplied), maybe to keep themselves in work.

Imagine if critics were conscientious enough to build a consistent hundred-variable, real-valued theory of art. Would it "solve" criticism? Never ever. Would it make the points of disagreement between interpretations more vivid? Would it force clarity in this, the most pompous and vacuous discourse? Yes.

But we will probably have to wait for AI art critics for that, to go with the excellent AI artists we have already.

There's no fixed criteria for these terms, you say? There's too much political context and social problematics involved for art to be tackled by statistical inference, you reckon? Well, machine learning is the automatic empirical discovery of non-necessary, non-sufficient attributes; it can and will cover the full range of the term's application and will do so by frequency, not political agenda.

The polythetic wall held up against philosophers and computers for a long time, sixty years at least. But it's time.

Wittgenstein:
someone might object against me: "You... have nowhere said what the essence of... language is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language."

And this is true. — Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, — but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all "language". I will try to explain this.

The result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. // I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than 'family resemblances'...
and then Nils Nilsson:
Some tasks cannot be defined well except by example; that is, we are able to specify input/output pairs but not a concise relationship between inputs and desired outputs... machines [are now] able to adjust their internal structure to produce correct outputs for a large number of sample inputs and thus suitably approximate the relationship implicit in the examples.

We can do this to anything we have at least proxy data for, which is, arguably, every thing that could matter. (If you count e.g. self-report of experience as reliable proxy data for consciousness.)


* A solid addition for a three-variable version would be "flat or shadowy" i.e. using clean planes or chiaroscuro. This would let us introduce Classical (simple classy flat) and Gothic (busy classy shadowy) and three others I can't be bothered looking up. Though this is a distinctively visual epithet, where the above should apply to all arts.

** What are the risks of building a model? Does a model obscure reality behind its necessarily limited representation? No; all the authors and users of models need, to avoid delusion and harm, is a little imagination and humility.

*** There are of course honourable exceptions.




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An emotion killed by the internet: the sweet, terrible pain of hearing an incredible song on the radio and the announcer naming neither the band nor the song and no distinctive lyrics sticking out and no searchable databases in the world to trawl anyway, let alone a free machine to hum the melody to in a crazed offkey blart.


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"Reification" is an insult in academic circles - Marxists and their descendants only use it for talking about delusions that make themselves real. (Adorno blames it for Nazism!) But every act of creativity and every act of love is a reification.


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You immediately identified the above as a list of electronica artists - ones you can't dance to. (Some of you will have guessed that it was dark ambient and concréte stuff.)

And anyone can immediately see these are punk bands. Every genre has something similar: a limited vocabulary to denote themselves, an average political outlook, and a dress code.

Why? There is no real reason a particular sound should be played only by people dressed a certain way, nor only in groups named in a certain tradition. The answer is that musical genres are not just categories of music. They mark out categories of people (: tribes) - and tribes love inventing differences and clustering well within those differences, so as to not be mistaken for the hated other tribe.


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LISTEN: 'Dear Resonance' (2005) by Even in Blackouts



(Turn it up will you?)

Histories of figurines so fresh in the mind of
Babes who were never witnesses but must relive the
Consequences in the fiber of their day-to-day.

When I thought of these incidences then,
When I thought of all these happenings then
I was thinking of now;
Gives resonance those hours I spend
Contemplating the effects of resonance.
Dear resonance, is the distance real?

Talk of war and actions that resemble such;
And I dance in this club with the guilt
Of my apathy shaking this indifference.
And then I hear Lennon’s
Imagine and the generations
Round me waltz in mockery and irony.
I want some distance!
It hurts to know history’s closeness can blow
A hole right through your guile
(Without showing its face).

The times may be constantly changing, Bob,
But what does that mean to resonance?
Dear resonance, is the distance real?

A giant mad pop ramble on historical consciousness, free will, and path-dependency. A protest song; but, protesting how confusing and horrible everything is, not anything in particular. The songwriter, John Pierson, comes from Ramonescore - the totally unreconstructed kind of pop-punk that paid no attention to post-punk or hardcore or skate-punk or anything at all after about the year 1980.

But Even in Blackouts are grandiose and verbose and double-dosed: Pierson is the most ambitious punk in his corner by far* - a 'neo-futurist' playwright and historian of third-wave punk and all. Ok, so that looks like faint praise - since, in this arena, just playing acoustic guitar is a big aesthetic choice - but I think it means something. They pull off anything. EiB songs are fiercely unsubtle, but manage to preserve dignity and even sophistication via turns of phrase and odd romantic chastity and clever commentating bass. Emo without the self-pity!

Liz Eldredge is the sharp end: she has an extraordinarily sinusoidal voice, stronger in its way than Joanna Newsom's, and even more off-putting to some people. I had to get used to the cleanliness; it's unreal in the manner of a chart song.

So: this. 'Dear Resonance' is an essay, a try-hard evocation of a certain line of thought and feeling. It is: fear of the implications of the passage of time, stealing lives, stealing meaning; worry over the uncertain prospect of utopian progress in the face of past atrocities which continue to weigh on people en masse; shapeless guilt at one's own comfort and safety.

This worry is in the same key as Adorno's vague guilt-tripping: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today". "Am I allowed to feel good in the same world that fucked-up shit happened in and continues to happen in?" The song doesn't answer.

EiB take this well-trodden well-meaning introspection and shoot it into a Hegelian** vision of the unfolding of society - only without that particular German's calm and ecstasy about it. The world is confusing and frightening! ("in the humor applied to ridicule, to keep what’s dreadful in the distance.") The confusion comes because historical people are both way different from us and irrelevant to us (tiny figurines screaming imperceptibly at horrors that no longer exist) and are just the same as us. They are present in the shape of the world we live in.*** We experience some of the same horrors they did (random violence, famine, cancer, death).

Ends on an apocalyptic question: “But what does it all mean when everything and all the particles in between become 'A long time ago'?". Three questions there. There's the above simple worry about the meaning of past people's lives (and our own fear about becoming irrelevant in the future). But also bigger cosmic ones: will there be any meaning after the heat death of the universe? And do things have to last forever to have meaning? Plato and Mills & Boon say yes to both.****

I say obviously not; meaning, in the sense of "the most important sort of intellectual/emotional experience", is mental and exists in the moment. So, in one sense, we are protected from whatever comes later: we are on the right side of a trapdoor function. Nothing that happens later can stop a meaningful moment from having been meaningful. People often want ultimate, objective, invulnerable meaning: well, one of those things relies on a personal God being there, ogling everything; one just doesn't make sense; but one out of three will do.

EiB faded away quickly after splitting; their blog has a princely 7 followers; Pierson has put all their albums free on Soundcloud, with surely little to lose. Even so they are a victory over nothingness (see above).





* Get it up ye, Ben Weasel.

** The band call it "zeitgeist's echo"; honestly. And/or Parmenidean - "is the distance real?": has anything really changed? And/or Heraclitean: what can generations understand of each other?

*** As long as they had children, or left artefacts behind, or were captured in the artefacts of others.

**** Like me, the existentialists say "no, no meaning at world's end" and "no, momentary meaning is still meaning" - but they do it in a way I disagree with: they still obsess over ultimate meaning and centre their whole schtick on its absence. As Thomas Nagel says in my favourite philosophical one-liner ever:
If 'nothing matters' then that doesn't matter either! We are then free to live our lives without either despair or heroic defiance.





27/08/2016

at least one thing has got to give


One popular way of telling if something belongs to the worst category of things - "structural oppressions" - is the following rule:
A thing is x-ist if it disproportionately harms group x.
Well enough. However:


  1. "An act is homophobic if it disproportionately harms queer people."
  2. Unilateral nuclear disarmament by e.g. the US would transfer huge amounts of power to the Russian and Chinese governments.
  3. The Russian and Chinese governments systematically harm queer people (more than the US government does).
  4. Therefore unilateral nuclear disarmament is homophobic.


  1. "An institution is racist if it disproportionately harms nonwhite people."
  2. The Black Panther Party plausibly killed more black people than white people.
  3. Therefore the Black Panther Party may have been racist against black people.


  1. "A process is sexist if it disproportionately harms women."
  2. The law of gravity caused the Earth to form.
  3. Because the Earth formed, thousands of years of patriarchy happened and are happening.
  4. Therefore the law of gravity is sexist.


Pure logic cannot tell us how the world is, nor how it should be. But it can show what cannot be the case.



26/08/2016

Notable words, he loved language


  • Dedekind cut (n.)  A partition of a ordered list into two nonempties, such that everything in the first sublist is less than every member of the second sublist, and such that the first contains no greatest element. Used in the rigorous definition of the reals. As "an infinitely thin thing", also used in the following burn from Wilfrid Sellars:
    The crux of a philosophical argument often appears to be a Dedekind cut between a series of 'as I will show's and a series of 'as I have shown's.

  • Popperazzi (pej. pl. n.)  Term of contempt for people who use Karl Popper's falsifiability criterion in a simplistic or inaccurate manner.

  • juke (East Coast US v.)   To massage or dredge or miscode data. (As in "juke the stats": police coding robberies as thefts in The Wire.)   Maybe some connection to the Chicago genre of cheap fast dance music, juke (incomparable adj.)   See also cook the books, creative accounting.

  • loggia (Italian n.)  A covered terrace, or, a half-open room. As seen facing the garden in elegant villas.

  • lede (n.)  The first line of a news article.

  • data fumes (n.)  Poor-quality initial evidence in a new field. This is a problem because of human anchoring distorting the later shape of the field, and because later dramatic corrections of the 'fumes falsely undermine confidence in the mature science. See dietary science for a miserable instance. Coined by Bostrom.

  • the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism (). Peter Higg's suggested name for what has come to be called the Higgs mechanism: the symmetry-break that gives certain bosons mass; since the W and Z bosons are the force carriers for the weak nuclear force, the Higgs mechanism is thus the thing which allows a moving, spacious universe, since otherwise, with massless W/Z bosons, the weak nuclear force would lock everything down. In full: "the Anderson-Brout-Englert-Guralnik-Hagen-Higgs-Kibble-'t Hooft mechanism".

  • σοφόν, sophon (Ancient Greek n.)  Wise one. (Gender neutral)

  • ἀγαθόν, agathon (Ancient Greek n.)  The Good One. (The surname of the only nonspeciesist in Battlestar Galactica)

  • sophos! (Latin adv.)   Bravo!

  • ἰδιώτης, idiotes (Ancient Greek n.)  Person not involved in politics; pleb; layman; idiot. This is nasty enough, but consider that anything ἴδιος (that is, anything personal, private, and specific) was more generally impugned in that culture. (So too your idiolect, your idiosyncracies); conformity.

  • Coapie (NE Scots n.)  Branch of Co-Operative Food.

  • haole (Hawaiian n.)  Slur for a white person.

  • чурок, churok (Russian n.)  Slur for a Central Asian person.

  • Linuxen (pl. n.)  Distributions of Linux, a la 'oxen'.

  • Shared nothing architecture ()  Notable just for its bizarre grammar.

  • pulsatile (adj.)  

  • Auslan (n.)  Australian Sign Language. Really wish someone would unify all these already.

  • oogle (n.)  A fake crusty. In New Orleans it has leaked into its opposite meaning, real gutter punk.

  • punitivism (n.)  Ugly jargon for an ugly thing: the popular appetite for harsh criminal punishments, regardless of harshness' overall effect on society. Also covers the usually evidence-free policies that come in to sate it.




24/08/2016

Existential overhead in the adult human

Time in each weekday used on basic upkeep of the organism:

  • 8 hours sleep. (33%)
  • 1.5 hours commute (8%).
  • 8 hours production (33%)
  • 0.5 hour hygiene (2%)
  • 0.5 hour shopping (2%)
  • 0.5 hour exercise (2%)
  • 1.5 hours cooking/eating. (8%)

  • = Leaving 3.5 hours for actual, discretionary life (15%).*


The above time is not waste, since each of them have their own pleasures, since some fraction of people would perform their jobs even without pay, and since unfocussed background cognition continues throughout them. (Most delightfully in the form of shower thoughts.) But it is still unfree. Ways to get your life back:

  •    +   1 hour saved on sleep from oral melatonin.
  •    +   1 hour off commute by taking public transport (for reading)
  •       (Or + 1.5 hours off commute by working from home)
  •       (Or + 0.5 hour from cycling your commute)
  •    +   0.5 hour saved on lunch from having soylent instead.
  •    +   0.4 hour off shopping from home delivery
  •    +   0.2 hours by taking caffeine & theanine in pills instead of boiling up hot decoctions.
  •    +   10 hours from becoming a crusty freegan (8 hours off work 1.5 off commute, 0.5 off hygiene).


The most effective strategy for preventing waste of life is hard to quantify in terms of hours per day: it is the behaviour implied by the expression "proceed til apprehended". Job requirements are often nonsense. Surveillance is (so far) gappy. Guards are indifferent. Meetings can usually be skipped. Some red tape is purely decorative: not even the demanding authority thinks it matters. (There are of course many, many situations where the spell is inapplicable, like anything to do with the police or military or sex.)

And "Objectively, should I care?".



* Many people seem to spend it entirely on cleaning the house and watching TV.**

** This is a childless developed-world person, clearly. In large parts of the world washing your clothes (in the river) takes a good hour or two, where it is minutes per week if you've a washing machine.




22/08/2016

interview on veganism


(c) Lucian Tidorescu (2013)


I don't give money to industries that harm nonhuman animals; the biggest part of that is not eating meat, eggs, dairy, etc. But I haven't written much about it; I dislike signalling virtue in that way and I'm suspicious of the cognitive effects of identity labels. But I dislike the irrational, anti-modern, hipster kinds of vegan more: I think they severely limit the potential audience for animal rights. So I had better pipe up with my supposedly more rational, bioprogressive / ecomodernist form of it. (Someone else will have to handle the task of making it not seem weird.) Handily, I was recently interviewed on the topic:


  1. Can you tell me in your own words, what your definition of veganism is? What are your reasons for being vegan?

    Veganism is usually 'abstention from consuming animal products'. My sort is less straightforward: it follows from a more general view of what is ethical: 'don't cause harm to anything which can probably experience harm'. (This sort of view is called moral consequentialism: it is (only) the consequences of your actions that make something right or wrong.) Vegetarianism is actually an implication of some very common beliefs, but few people act like they have joined the dots:

    1. It is wrong to cause unnecessary harm.
    2. Factory-farmed meat animals suffer.
    3. Humans do not need to eat meat to live or thrive.
    4. Therefore eating factory-farmed meat causes unnecessary harm.
    5. Therefore it is wrong to eat factory-farmed meat.

    (My brother is a meat-eating freegan, but that fits consequentialism: it is not eating meat that causes harm, but sending economic signals that eventually cause the meat industry to cause harm. Similarly, I wear clothes bought from charity shops, including leather; since reusing clothes does not constitute economic demand, it causes no animal suffering, so it is morally neutral. Or, actually slightly positive, since it obviates the production of new clothes.)

    I don't mind if people say I'm not vegan as a result. The label is not the point: stopping the harm is. All my reasons boil down to harm reduction:

    • direct harm, since the industry causes hundreds of billions of minds to suffer totally unnecessarily;
    • macroeconomic, since meat production wastes huge amounts of water, land and energy, which deprives many humans of resources and drives up food prices;
    • environmental, since the carbon emissions involved could eventually cause vast suffering through climate change;
    • antimicrobial resistance: the industry includes antibiotics in the feed of animals, to prevent the disgusting conditions from affecting output - this systematic administration squanders a very precious resource: the effectiveness of our medicines; this process potentiates:
    • the zoonotic risk: most human pandemics have been novel mutations in nonhuman diseases. So, by incubating billions of animals in terrible conditions, the meat industry is thus an unparalleled opportunity for global plagues.



  2. What does it mean to you personally?

    It is a minor chore I undertake in order to meet minimal ethical standards: "first, do no harm".



  3. Can you remember a specific moment that triggered your veganism? What was this?

    A logical inconsistency was pointed out to me. I'd been vegetarian since I was 16, for utilitarian and anti-capitalist reasons (e.g. McDonalds deforesting Brazil for grazing). In a first year ethics course, my lecturer pointed out that ethical vegetarianism is hypocritical:
    • since the dairy and egg industries are either the selfsame companies that form the meat industry, or their operations share profits and harmful processes with the meat industry;
    • since surprising amounts of harm are an essential part of even nonlethal factory farming (e.g. male chicks electrocuted to death at birth, calves separated from mothers at birth).
    • (Environmental vegetarianism is also inconsistent: cow's cheese causes more CO2 equivalent emissions than chicken meat.)

    Veganism appeals to me because it prevents the most harm, and because it is logically consistent where ethical vegetarianism is not.



  4. Can you tell me about your transition to veganism? How long did this take? How did you carry out your transition?

    It took me three years to accept the seriousness of this and switch. I didn't know any vegans (even the aforementioned lecturer ate cheese). Milk was the biggest hurdle; I am very into all-day cereal. So I tried every form of plant milk I could until I got used to it. (Almond and horchata win.) I still miss pizza terribly sometimes, but I actually no longer think about my diet from day-to-day; it is just second nature.



  5. Were there any challenges or personal concerns you had during your transition? How did you deal with them?

    Well, I had to cook properly for the first time in my life. And my decision was and is mocked in friendly terms by my high school friends (but never university ones). I researched the nutrition quite intensely and still keep up a solid regime. I take B12, vitamin D, creatine, and choline daily, to cover potential deficiencies. (These "subclinical" deficiencies aren't so well studied, but the remedies are safe and cost less than £1 per day, so it's a good deal.) The odd potential effects of soy isoflavones on hormonal balance was another one; I eat below 25g of raw soy per day.

    Health, as a standalone motive for veganism, is not well-supported; the studies that show e.g. decreased cancer or cardiovascular disease are selecting from a population that is already unusually health conscious (and I don't know of any proper controlled trials). It could be true, but at present it isn't warranted. Obviously I want more people to go vegan, but decisions should be evidence-based or go home.



  6. Are there any challenges or concerns that you have today with regards to your veganism? How does this make you feel?

    None really. I live in Glasgow and London which are both amazing for it.



  7. You stopped being vegan for a short period of time: what were your reasons for this? What made you return to veganism? How did stopping make you feel?

    I lived in Tanzania in 2012; the available vegan food consisted of plain haricots, spinach, cassava and potato; not at all complete enough, in protein terms, for a long-term diet. The family had a well-treated cow, so I milked it and had boiled milk with breakfast. I was completely fine with this decision, until I learned that I had contracted giardiasis, probably from that milk!



  8. Has your sex and/or gender ever been brought up as an issue/subject with regards to your veganism in any way? How did this make you feel?

    It was an issue when I lived in China, where meat still has a status that it has largely lost here; men eat as much meat as they can, for both class and gender signalling. I was teased for being squeamish or feminine in both the UK and China, but much more in China. (In Tanzania it was sometimes respected as very sophisticated but never emulated.)

    I don't mind; my gender is not really relevant to me (except insofar as being male and not having dysphoria has probably made my life easier). I am mildly confused by people whose lives revolve around it, and who are stung by the above kind of gendered mockery.



  9. Do you promote veganism in any form? If so, in what ways? What has the reaction been to this?

    I don't actively promote it; I view my role as normalising the practice by not being single-minded or stereotypical about it. I lie in wait; people usually bring it up themselves and the subsequent rational conversation is my contribution. I have opened perhaps a dozen friends to the necessity of it in this way. I don't have formal research to back this up, but I suspect that this method prevents the fruitless interactions caused by vegans' dogmatism and omnivores' "anticipated reproach".

    I recognise the need for louder activists; I will donate to the Humane League, a transparent, evidence-based animal organisation (with an amazing name) who do this work well. I would support the criminalisation of factory farms, if that turned out to be a more effective way of solving the problem than e.g. alternatives like in vitro meat or (in the short-term) meat offsets.



  10. You chose to be vegan for reasons that could be seen as trying to work towards a much bigger cause. Do you feel this way, like that you are part of a much larger movement? Or do you practice veganism and your choices are purely a personal thing?

    Yes; I am an abolitionist about any and all involuntary suffering; I have crazy sci-fi views about how we might achieve this. The awful fact is that the natural world is an appalling place; billions upon billions of creatures starving or being eaten alive or raped every day. But we simply do not have the capacity to do much for them now; ecology is far too complex for us to know that intervention would not cause even more harm. There is a fledgling academic literature on the topic, but we are a hundred years away from fixing this at minimum. The least we could do is not make the problem worse, but people inexplicably support increasing the number of obligate murderers in the world (that is, "reintroducing wolves" and all that expensive lunacy).

    The meat industry is, then, the worst single thing in the world that we can actually improve right now - worse than the 500,000 annual human malaria deaths, worse than the North Korean government which caused the death by starvation of around 2m people, worse than ISIS. Even if we value an animal life as 1/1000th as important as a human life, that would still make the end of factory farming of supreme importance, because there are more than 25 billion meat animals at a time, with the industry killing 65 billion a year (think about how that could be possible: chicken lifespan). More than 40% of them are imprisoned in factory systems, or around 90% in the rich world.

    We are fortunate that science and industry are developing a way for us to end this quickly without unrealistic social change or a potentially counter-productive legal ban on factory farms: cultured meat (physically identical animal protein, produced without harm through cell biology) is here, and its price has dropped by a factor of ten thousand in a few years; some (biased) people forecast that mass produced cultured meat could undercut factory farms and drive them out of business within 30 years.



  11. This may be already covered, but: how do you set boundaries for yourself on what is and is not acceptable to buy or consume? And are there any situations in which you would be more lenient?

    The general principle is: no unnecessary harm to anything that can feel it. In modern urban life, this means: don't go hunting and don't buy anything any way that gives money to the harmful industries. In traditional societies where hunting is still a primary food source, it means: hunt with large guns, not bows. In poor mountainous societies where sufficient crops cannot be grown it means keeping goats and sheep is permissible (until the world trade network links up with you and offers a fair price for soya).

    My friend has chronic anaemia: her eating the occasional fish is arguably necessary harm. (Obviously it would better for someone without a personal stake to judge this for us.) In the pipeline: an app for people with dietary health problems to send a recurring payment to effective animal charities, to offset their arguably necessary harm.

    You can consume animal products without moral problems if e.g. they're taken from out the bins of supermarkets (actual theft is an economic signal however so none of that); if they're heirlooms; or if it was already dead (e.g. roadkill); or if we get more info about the combination part of binding problem which lets us classify borderline cases. (There is a chance that eating clams is morally neutral; they have no central nervous system, i.e. nowhere that signals could be integrated into an experience.) I don't do any of these, for aesthetic reasons, as well as because my protease levels have changed so much in 10 years that it would probably be a very unpleasant experience!



  12. You're a member of an organisation, Giving What We Can, that helps charities proven to deliver much needed care at a low cost. With regards to your own ethical framework, is it the case, that this is more important than being a member of an organisation that is more focused on animals rights or promoting veganism? What are your reasons?

    GWWC is actually closely associated with the work of Peter Singer, perhaps the most famous animal rights thinker. But it's true that they prioritise the suffering of humans - but this isn't necessarily an ideological decision, since we have a principled (and partially objective) way of ranking which organisations to support: the QALY per dollar. I donate to the Humane League (animals), the Against Malaria Foundation (humans), and GiveWell (incredibly deep research into charity effectiveness, including animal charities), in that order. If any animal organisation shows itself to be more effective (measured in QALYs per pound) than the first two then I will switch to them too.



  13. Is being a member of an organisation that promotes veganism an important part of your ethics?

    Not inherently; only insofar as the meat industry is the worst thing in the world and insofar as the ways that one person can tackle it are as powerful as the ways I can tackle e.g. malaria in humans. I am very pessimistic about collective action in this case; most people simply do not care about meat animals, and will not switch until we make cultured meat cheaper than factory meat.

    I'm not a joiner really; I only joined GWWC in order to commit myself to a nonselfish life. No way out now, not without looking like a dick!



20/08/2016

What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999) by Charles Bukowski



all theories
like cliches
shot to hell,
all these small faces
looking up
beautiful and believing;
I wish to weep
but sorrow is
stupid.
I wish to believe but belief is a
graveyard.
we have narrowed it down to
the butcherknife and the
mockingbird
wish us
luck.

If you can't sleep and it's 2am and tomorrow's going to be a pain in the arse and you're alone in the house, well, there is no better book. Unbeatable at what it does, which is to slide through the mind with zero cognitive friction, depositing the emotional silt and cheap, warm style of a previously insane and helpfully hopeless man in you – whatever you want that for. More than any other poet, he just literally talks to you. You can roll your eyes at his gaucheness and despise his chauvinism and feel nothing all you like: that's fine. It doesn't matter. It's not the point.

So it's barely art, but he knows it. Pity any academic working on CB: these poems don't invite analysis; they are worn on their own surface. They mean just what they first mean. Many of them are just about writing poems, but I cannot resent their hollowness, since emptiness is his brush. Bukowski's poems are just a man in a room. Odd that this is enough to make people read them voluntarily, religiously, unlike almost all contemporary poetry with their bigger brains and better politics and more eventful stories and uplifting messages. Its main virtue is complete honesty.

...so much has gone by for most of us,
even the young, especially the young
for they have lost the beginning and have
the rest of the way to go;
but isn’t it strange, all i can think of now are
cucumbers, oranges, junk yards, the
old Lincoln Heights jail and
the lost loves that went so hard
and almost brought us to the edge,
the faces now without features,
the love beds forgotten.
the mind is kind: it retains the
important things:
cucumbers
oranges
junk yards
jails.

...there used to be over 100 of us in that big room
in that jail
i was in there many
times.
you slept on the floor
men stepped on your face on the way to piss.
always a shortage of cigarettes.
names called out during the night
(the few lucky ones who were bailed out)
never you.

...when love came to us twice
and lied to us twice
we decided to never love again
that was fair
fair to us
and fair to love itself.
we ask for no mercy or no
miracles;
we are strong enough to live
and to die and to
kill flies,
attend the boxing matches, go to the racetrack,
live on luck and skill,
get alone, get alone often,
and if you can’t sleep alone
be careful of the words you speak in your sleep;
and
ask for no mercy
no miracles;
and don’t forget:
time is meant to be wasted,
love fails
and death is useless

Everything that people mock Leonard Cohen for is much more true of Bukowski (misery, drawling, self-obsession, archness, chauvinism, treating the whole world as your confessional); he is just more direct and macho about it; that fact, and the very different crowd surrounding his medium is enough to earn him contempt rather than mockery. (And contempt is a kind of involuntary respect.) Backwards analogy: Bukowski is Tom Waits minus gospel, minus FX pedals, minus Brecht and Weill, minus one steady Kathleen peer. And minus metre of course. A grumpy adolescent old man; a sensitising misanthrope; a beautiful lech.

He has only two modes: midnight countercultural raving and laconic woke-at-noon observation. Neither would work without his lecherousness and/or meanness and/or arrogance; they are the absolutely necessary breve before he blares out his concern.

moments of agony and moments of glory
march across my roof.

the cat walks by
seeming to know everything.

my luck has been better, I think,
than the luck of the cut gladiolus,
although I am not sure.

I have been loved by many women,
and for a hunchback of life,
that’s lucky.

so many fingers pushing through my hair
so many arms holding me close
so many shoes thrown carelessly on my bedroom
rug.

so many searching hearts
now fixed in my memory that
i’ll go to my death,
remembering.
I have been treated better than I should have
been—
not by life in general
nor by the machinery of things
but by women.

but there have been other women
who have left me
standing in the bedroom alone
doubled over—
hands holding the gut—
thinking
why why why why why why?

women go to men who are pigs
women go to men with dead souls
women go to men who fuck badly
women go to shadows of men
women go
go
because they must go
in the order of
things.

the women know better
but often chose out of
disorder and confusion.

they can heal with their touch
they can kill what they touch and
I am dying
but not dead
yet.

(That ^ might have gotten your back up, because it pattern-matches to modern whining about women's choices. But it isn't that: remember, from above, that he is calling himself a pig and a dead soul.)

This is three books written over thirty years, one sentence per ten lines as always, stapled together to give the impression of a late-life opus. It covers the whole lot: his Great Depression origin myth; his meaningless, crabbed middle years; and his long, long late period spent in contempt of the arty people who pay and applaud him.

...that dog took quite a few arrows and
managed to
survive
but I saw what really happened and didn't
like Eddie very much.
so when I broke Eddie's leg
in a sandlot football game
that was my way of getting even
for Igloo.

...we took him in.
Igloo turned out to be rather dumb
did not respond to very much
had no life or joy in him
just stuck out his tongue
panted
slept most of the time
when he wasn't eating...

when he was run over by an
icecream truck
3 or 4 months later
and died in a stream of scarlet
I didn't feel more than the
usual amount of grief
and loss
and I was still glad that I
had managed to
break Eddie's leg.

I am nothing like him, except maybe in sense of humour. He is not anti-modern - grew up through the Great Depression, a simulation of pre-modern subsistence; loves shit cars; lives for late night recorded music - but science, growth, and the expanding circle give him nothing of the sense of direction, transcendence and hope that it gives to me and mine. But still I "relate", as the disgusting verb puts it.

I have read this a half-dozen times over a dozen years. (It isn't hard; it takes maybe an hour and a half.) I know of no better poet to begin to explain why poetry is good and unique and feeds life. Whether or not this says something about my own character: I don't expect to stop reading it.

5/5.



PS: Bukowski's epitaph is "Don't try". On the face of it that's mean and funny and fine, but it also means what Yoda means by it: don't force it. Don't betray your nature; do only what you are absolutely aligned behind. Is that good advice? Maybe not, but it is epitomises the man, more than the nihilistic joke.



14/08/2016

Highlighted passages from Pomerantsev's Nothing is True


'Everything is PR' has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia; my Moscow peers are filled with a sense that they are both cynical and enlightened. When I ask them about Soviet-era dissidents, like my parents, who fought against communism, they dismiss them as naïve dreamers and my own Western attachment to such vague notions as ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’ as a blunder.


Just as Cherkesov [head of the Russian DEA] was investigating Patrushev [head of the new KGB], so Patrushev supported those who were fighting Cherkesov. So when the FSB heard about Yana's story, they made sure the police didn't close down the demonstrations [for Yana's freedom], that the right newspapers and TV channels covered the protests. This was one of the reasons ‘liberal’ papers and TV channels existed, to give one power broker a weapon to hit another power broker with.


...the new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull. The task is to synthesise Soviet control with Western entertainment... at the centre of the great show is the President himself - created [out of] a nobody, a grey fuzz via the power of television, morphing... among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman.


The uselessness of free speech against shameless targets the law cannot touch:
I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB... The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English, vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American-Russian activist for LGBT rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously... But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it's also clear that there is no way such a high profile project could have been created without the Kremlin's blessing. Is this not just the sort of 'managed' opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand, allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home, on the other helping the Kremlin define the 'opposition' as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with 'ordinary' Russians, obsessed with 'marginal' issues like gay rights (in a highly homophobic country).

...we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don't follow the corruption trail.



... the office of the presidential administration, where [Vladislav] Surkov would sit behind a desk [with] phones bearing the names of all the “independent” party leaders: calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that, instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.


Oliona’s playing fields are a constellation of clubs and restaurants designed almost exclusively for the purpose of sponsors [sugar daddies] looking for girls and girls looking for sponsors. The guys are known as "Forbeses"; the girls as "tiolki", cattle. It’s a buyer’s market: there are dozens, no, hundreds, of "cattle" for every "Forbes".


The Soviet Union occupied 20 percent of the world’s land mass; its former states produce 15 per cent of the world’s oil. But over 50 per cent of the models on the catwalks of Paris and Milan are from the former USSR.


I once asked Ivan whether all this was necessary. Couldn’t he just pay his taxes? He laughed. If he did that, he said, there would be no profit at all. No entrepreneurs paid their taxes in full; it wouldn’t occur to them. It wasn’t about morality; Ivan was a religious man and paid a tithe in voluntary charity. But no one thought taxes would ever be spent on schools or roads. And the tax police were much happier taking bribes.


On the corner of Pakrovka three plump women who look like schoolteachers or doctors patrol an art nouveau apartment block, surrounded by their Labradors. They squint aggressively as we approach, then relax and greet Mozhayev when they see him. These little vigilante gangs have become common in Moscow, protecting not from burglars but from developers, who send arsonists to set buildings ablaze, then use the fire as an excuse to evict homeowners by claiming the houses are now fire hazards. The motivation is great: property prices rose by over 400 percent in the first decade after 2000. So these fires have become habitual in Moscow. Muscovites have taken to patrolling their own buildings at night: gangs of doctors, teachers, grannies, and housewives eyeing every passerby as if he were an arsonist. It’s pointless for them to call the police; the largest groups of developers are friends and relatives of the mayor and the government. The mayor’s wife is the biggest of the lot. The near mythical Russian middle class, suddenly finding they have no real rights at all over their property, can be thrown out and relocated like serfs under a feudal whim.


Another director is shooting a film about a man in Ekaterinburg who was beaten nearly to death by traffic cops when he refused to pay a bribe; now he exacts his vengeance by catching traffic cops giving bribes on video and posting them online.

The victims I meet never talk of human rights or democracy; the Kremlin has long learned to use this language and has eaten up all the space within which any opposition could articulate itself. The rage is more inchoate: hatred of cops, the army. Or blame it all on foreigners.




12/08/2016

magic words


What is a magic word? Could it be: A word which is not just a symbol: a word with causal power without mediation through a mind or body.

Such spells exist. Just say "noise" to yourself, and lo it appears. Shout "Police!" long enough and you will indeed summon the demon you name. "Confusion!", in company, likewise but quicker. "Speech-act". "Disquotation" après-moi. "Entropy!" arguably.


(This is all quite aside from computer code, those living causal words that are eating more and more of the economy and of the intellect, and so of the world.)



08/08/2016

More notable words, ain't like you can stop me


  • poz (Troll v.). 1) To intentionally infect with venereal disease, especially HIV. Mercy. 2) By analogy, to stealthily corrupt a culture. I don't think either has ever been deployed by a decent human being.

  • mortmain (French n.). 'Deadhand'. Common law term for the legally binding decisions of dead people. See also the awesome-sounding area of public policy, dead hand control. Like forex control, pest control.

  • truscum (SJ n. and adj.). Person who holds, along with most of the medical establishment, that gender dysphoria is a necessary condition for someone to be transgender. This gets attacked in the strongest terms for gatekeeping and questioning the lived experience* of nonbinary people who want to call themselves trans. It is all very sad that it is impossible to talk clearly about it. See also "tucute" for the equally unhelpful mirror insult.
  • * Had to force myself not to use scare quotes there. A dreadful pious phrase; what other kind of experience is there?

  • warrant canary (n.). Vague public symbol implying that a service provider has not been served with a secret government subpoena for their user data. Some canaries are fail-safe, e.g. requiring that someone adds them again every day to get around gag orders that prevent you from taking any action that mentions the subpoena. Nice idea, but they may be meaningless, since subject to the same covert gag order that prevents direct disclosure of the subpoena or the gag. Though Reddit's one may have worked as intended, since even in the case where lawyers advised them to take it down without being subpoenaed, they advised this for a recent, proximate Reason.

  • backreaction (n.): In cosmology, a complicated factor representing the inhomogeneity of the model universe. Very roughly (I think!): how much a thing modifies the environment it is in, or how much the environment pushes back. Also the name of an excellent, philosophically literate particle physics blog by Sabine Hossenfelder.

  • scientometrics (n.): Awful name for a good thing: the scientific approach to the aggregation and evaluation of science. It is remarkable how unreflective we have been about how we allocate our time and add the dots into actual knowledge. (e.g. funding into the near-Earth asteroid survey was "a few million dollars" last year; the total cosmetic surgery expenditure was about $20bn)

  • mistress dispelling (n.). (Chinese) Industry of private investigators who stalk and drive away your partner's mistress. Package includes therapy for the cheated-on party and infiltration and emotional manipulation of the mistress. The companies have names like "Marriage Hospital" and "Emotion Clinic". Better than getting stabbed, I guess.

  • abaptation (n.). The determination of an organism's fit with its environment via evolutionary forces acting on ancestors. ("The prefix ‘ab-’ emphasizes that the heritable characteristics of an organism are consequences of the past and not anticipation of the present or future.") Winner of the "most likely to be falsely corrected by even a highly literate copy-editor" award.

  • philosopher's quotes (n.). The mention-operator. e.g. as when mentioning the word 'word'. Tells humans (and e.g. the C# compiler) to read as string and not as a name. ESR denotes them with single quote marks, and saves double marks for direct quotation. Programmers also have the ticks, ``, for marking out variable names. Technically we need a fourth one for scare quotes (which is a mixture of use and mention of a word: it implies a contentious usage).

  • eminence-based medicine (n.): Joke name for the pre-EBM paradigm.

  • surging / swaying / heaving, rolling / pitching / yawing (v.). The "six degrees of freedom" of a rigid object in 3D space: the motion and tilt possible on each axis. Like the physical description of types of strength, this fascinates me for some reason.