December 13, 2010

Orange, purple, pink

Whenever we notice an instance when history was swayed by accident, we also notice the latitude we have to shape the future.

December 11, 2010

We are living in a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world

Perhaps the solution begins from softly accepting chaos not as something that “should not be there,” to be rejected fundamentally in principle, but as something that “is there in actual fact.”
Haruki Murakami, Reality A and Reality B

December 09, 2010

Inglorious blaze

"Everyone now has the chance to choose the part which he will play in the film of a hundred years hence," Goebbels told his staff at the propaganda Ministry on April 17 [1945], inspired by the Third Reich's last cinematic feat, Kolberg, and epic depiction of that town's last-ditch defence during the Napoleonic Wars. "I can assure you that it will be a fine and elevating picture...Hold out now, so that...the audience does not hoot and whistle when appear on the screen." Thus was the Third Reich to go down: in an inglorious blaze.
Niall Ferguson, The War of the World

December 07, 2010

Your job

You know your job. Work hard to quash other men and render them sterile. Dream enormous dreams and seek women. Many men do this. You do it with unique verve and efficacy. Now you're 61 and waiting in the dark for another married mother to call you. Isn't that pathetic? Aren't you ashamed? No, not really.

December 05, 2010

The lucky ones

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

December 01, 2010

We went, and I won easily

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

How can great athletes shut off the Iago-like voice of the self? How can they bypass the head and simply and superbly act? How, at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliché as trite as “One ball at a time” or “Gotta concentrate here,” and mean it, and then do it? Maybe it’s because, for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it.

What if, when Tracy Austin writes that after her 1989 car crash, “I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it,” the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through? Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound, enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened?

This is, for me, the real mystery—whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir. That plain empirical fact may be the best way to explain how Tracy Austin’s actual history can be so compelling and important and her verbal account of that history not even alive. It may also, in starting to address the differences in communicability between thinking and doing and between doing and being, yield the key to why top athletes’ autobiographies are at once so seductive and so disappointing for us readers. As is so often SOP with the truth, there’s a cruel paradox involved. It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

David Foster Wallace, "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" in Consider the Lobster

November 29, 2010

About food, but perhaps applicable elsewhere

[Lawrance Timothy] Ryan listed the four criteria that define greatness in any artist:
  • They are excellent craftsmen.
  • They are innovators—they do something that no one has done before.
  • They are “on trend,” as he put it—their innovations are perceived to be of value; people buy their stuff; they aren’t tragic and misunderstood, appreciated for their innovations after they’re dead.
  • They are influential—others begin to do what they started.

November 27, 2010

Stoned immaculate

But what Achmed had in large quantities and which he imbued with a new glamour was a kind of hash. It was called hash because it came in chunks, but it wasn't hash strictly speaking. Hash is made from the resin. And this was loose powder, like pollen, from the dried bud of the plant, compressed into shape. Which was why it was that green color. I heard that a way of collecting it was to cover children in honey and run them naked through a field of herb, and they came out the other end and they scraped 'em off.
Keith Richards & James Fox, Life

November 25, 2010

Enlightened self-interest

As long as redistribution is conceived as a form of charity or compassion (and the Bleeding Left appears to buy this conception every bit as much as the Heartless Right), then the whole debate centers on utility—“Does Welfare help poor people get on their feet or does it foster passive dependence?” “Is government’s bloated social-services bureaucracy an effective way to dispense charity?” and so on—and both camps have their arguments and preferred statistics, and the whole thing goes around and around.…

The mistake here lies in both sides’ assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. The conservatives’ mistake (if it is a mistake) is wholly conceptual, but for the Left the assumption is also a serious tactical error. Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people. No one ever seems willing to acknowledge aloud the thoroughgoing self-interest that underlies all impulses toward economic equality—especially not US progressives, who seem so invested in an image of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate and Not Like Those Selfish Conservatives Over There that they allow the conservatives to frame the debate in terms of charity and utility, terms under which redistribution seems far less obviously a good thing.

I’m talking about this example in such a general, simplistic way because it helps show why the type of leftist vanity that informs PCE is actually inimical to the Left’s own causes. For in refusing to abandon the idea of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate (i.e., as morally superior), progressives lose the chance to frame their redistributive arguments in terms that are both realistic and realpolitikal. One such argument would involve a complex, sophisticated analysis of what we really mean by
self-interest, particularly the distinctions between short-term financial self-interest and longer-term moral or social self-interest. As it is, though, liberals’ vanity tends to grant conservatives a monopoly on appeals to self-interest, enabling the conservatives to depict progressives as pie-in-the-sky idealists and themselves as real-world back-pocket pragmatists. In short, leftists’ big mistake here is not conceptual or ideological but spiritual and rhetorical—their narcissistic attachment to assumptions that maximize their own appearance of virtue tends to cost them both the theater and the war.

November 23, 2010

An age of plenty

By April, 1945, chaos had replaced order in the economic sphere: sales were difficult, prices lacked stability. Economics has been defined as the science of distributing limited means among unlimited and competing ends. On 12th April, with the arrival of elements of the 30th U.S. Infantry Division, the ushering in of an age of plenty demonstrated the hypothesis that with infinite means economic organization and activity would be redundant, as every want could be satisfied without effort

The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp, R. A. Radford,

November 21, 2010


INTERVIEWER: If you could have it all over again, would you pick your joys outside literature?

CÉLINE: Oh, absolutely! I don't ask for joy. I don't feel joy. To enjoy life is a question of temperament, of diet. You have to eat well, drink well, then the days pass quickly, don't they? Eat and drink well, go for a drive in the car, read a few papers, the day's soon gone. Your paper, some guests, morning coffee, my God, it's lunchtime when you've had your stroll, eh? See a few friends in the afternoon and the day's gone. In the evening, bed as usual and shut-eye. And there you are. And the more so with age, things go faster, don't they? A day's endless when you're young, whereas when you grow old it's very soon over. When you're retired, a day's a flash; when you're a kid it's very slow.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paris Review interview

November 19, 2010

Fluctuation and noise

Dr. Todorov has studied how we use our muscles, and here, too, he finds evidence of optimization at play. He points out that our body movements are “nonrepeatable”: we may make the same motion over and over, but we do it slightly differently every time.

“You might say, well, the human body is sloppy,” he said, “but no, we’re better designed than any robot.”

In making a given motion, the brain focuses on the essential elements of the task, and ignores noise and fluctuations en route to success. If you’re trying to turn on a light switch, who cares if the elbow is down or to the side, or your wrist wobbles — so long as your finger reaches the targeted switch?

Dr. Todorov and his coworkers have modeled different motions and determined that the best approach is the wobbly, ever-varying one. If you try to correct every minor fluctuation, he explained, not only do you expend more energy unnecessarily, and not only do you end up fatiguing your muscles more quickly, you also introduce more noise into the system, amplifying the fluctuations until the entire effort is compromised.

“So we reach the counterintuitive conclusion,” he said, “that the optimal way to control movement allows a certain amount of fluctuation and noise” — a certain lack of control.

Seeing the natural world with a physicist’s lens. NYTimes

November 17, 2010

Everything does everything to everything

What we are finding is that at the molecular level the organism is so dynamic, so densely woven and multidirectional in its causes and effects, that it cannot be explicated as living process through strictly local investigations. When it begins to appear that, as one European research team puts it, “everything does everything to everything,” the search for “regulatory control” necessarily leads to the unified and irreducible functioning of the cell and organism as a whole — a living, metamorphosing form within which each more or less distinct partial activity finds its proper place.

November 14, 2010

The virtue of continual, engaged experience

I’ve listened to the tapes from the bus trip and reread his letters and autobiography—The First Third—for years. I’ve tried to distill his teachings as best I can. The most important lesson is also the most ironic: most of what is important cannot be taught except by experience. His most powerful lesson behind the rap was not to dwell on mistakes. He used the metaphor of driving. He believed that you got into trouble by overcorrecting. A certain sloth, he thought, lets you veer into a ditch on the right side of the road. Then you overcorrect and hit a car to your left. Cassady believed you had to be correcting every instant. The longer you let things go, the longer you stayed comfortable, the more likely the case that you would have to overcorrect. Then you would have created a big error. The virtue of continual, engaged experience—an endless and relentless argument with the self—that was his lesson.
Ken Kesey on Neal Cassady, Paris Review interview

November 13, 2010

Hi gang, I'm back, just like the book says

But it was in the third issue of American Avatar that he dropped the final veil. On page three, next to a picture of him floating lotus-positioned in the universe with a halo above his head, a drink in his hand and a leering, shit-eating grin on his face, Mel published the following Message to Humanity:

Hi gang, I'm back, just like the book says. By God here I am, in all my glory. I thought I'd never come. But I'm here now and getting ready to do the good work. Maybe some of ya think I sent Him. You'll see. I sent about to prove it for you, much too corny, I'm Him and there just sent no question about it. Betcha never thought it would happen like this did ya? Sorry to disappoint you but I've got to make the most of what's here and there sure as hell sent very much. No turnin water to wine and raisin the dead this trip, just gonna tell it like it is. You've waited a long time for this glorious moment and now that it's actually here I expect most of you will just brush it oft and keep right on waiting, that's what those damn fool Jews did last time I came, in fact they're still doing it. Oh well, what's a few thousand more years to people who've been suffering for millions. So while most of you turn your heads and continue sticking to your silly romantic beliefs I'll let the rest of you in on a little secret. I'm Christ, I swear to God, in person, and I'm about to turn this foolish world upside down...

November 11, 2010

Everything is important to someone

The words came freely; he composed them on the spot. But they flowed, syntax perfect, no hesitation between sentences. His voice grew softer, even more strained with emotion when he got to the core of his message: he could not accept a postponement in a nightly habit Americans had participated in and shared for nearly six decades; he would not be an accomplice to the destruction that this idea of NBC’s might inflict on the greatest franchise in television history. If it truly came to this, if NBC would actually force him to decide whether to give up his dream or play a role in undermining a cultural landmark, then maybe it would be better for him to find someplace else to work, someplace that prized the art of late-night television more than NBC now apparently did.

When Conan finished, his group sat silent. Jeff Ross, his own eyes welling up, looked around and saw no dry eyes on the Conan team. Patty Glaser finally broke the silence. “I like it,” she said. She paused, then said definitively, “Let’s do it.”

Bill Carter - The Unsocial Network

November 09, 2010

Life outside of academe means failure

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

November 07, 2010

The disasters produced by the changing of values

What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes. It may be regrettable that the family unit is disappearing. You could argue that it increases human suffering. But regrettable or not, there’s nothing we can do. That’s the difference between me and a reactionary. I don’t have any interest in turning back the clock because I don’t believe it can be done. You can only observe and describe. I’ve always liked Balzac’s very insulting statement that the only purpose of the novel is to show the disasters produced by the changing of values. He’s exaggerating in an amusing way. But that’s what I do: I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values.
Michel Houellebecq, Paris Review interview

November 05, 2010

Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms, he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.

November 03, 2010

The first legitimate limit

“I had failed to realize,” Peter reflects, “that the body was the first legitimate limit.”

November 01, 2010

A ruthless self-interest

The straight and narrow beckoned. A ruthless self-interest defined my apostasy. I wanted women. I wanted to write novels. Sobriety meant efficacy. I couldn't advance my agenda in my current raggedy-ass state.

September 25, 2010

Luck is not a business model

It’s a little sad sometimes when I look out at a bookstore audience and see young fans of Kitchen Confidential, for whom the book was a validation of their worst natures. I understand it, of course. And I’m happy they like me.
I’m extremely skeptical of the “language of addiction.” I never saw heroin or cocaine as “my illness.” I saw them as some very bad choices that I walked knowingly into. I fucked myself—and, eventually, had to work hard to get myself un-fucked.

And I’m not going to tell you here how to live your life.

I’m just saying, I guess, that I got very lucky.

And luck is not a business model.

So You Wanna Be a Chef, by Anthony Bourdain

OK, will be getting back into this.

July 30, 2010

Working with small data sets

tacoma narrows bridge
Every belief is a hypothesis, every action an experiment.

July 20, 2010

Certain inexorable trends

And what made it extraordinarily clever [...] was that this project would not even be a struggle as such. They would not have to defeat any adversary or overcome any obstacle - merely ride along with certain inexorable trends. All they [...] had to do was notice these trends.
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver, p224

July 19, 2010

Live like there's no tomorrow

...propaganda was above all effective where it was building upon, not countering, already existing values and mentalities.

July 18, 2010

The mistress of the house

hate has quite eaten her up inside. but the pleasure of ownership has remained.
Women As Lovers, Elfriede Jelinek, p173

July 17, 2010

Unenlightened self-interest

Due to a 7-yr old house guest have only been to a bar once in the past month, and thus spent no time listening to people who drink, smoke, eat too much, exercise too little and carry too much debt complaining how stupid ‘the masses’ are for not acting in their own interests.

July 16, 2010

The hate grows ever bigger

the grandmother's role is the soothing role.
that's why granny is liked so much by the children. granny is always disliked by husband and wife, because she interferes.
her own husband, the grandad, hates granny, first of all because he always already hated her when he was younger, which an old much-loved habit, which one cannot give up so easily, and one keeps up this hatred in old age, because what does one have in old age after all, nothing except one's good old tried tested hate.
and the hate grows ever bigger, because the granny has long ago lost her only capital, a beauty which was perhaps present. granny was devalued. grandad, the worn out old duffer, long ago lost the other younger women to other worn out but younger men, who are still able to earn a living.
the younger women won't risk their secure existence at the side of these younger men for an old bugger like him.
so grandad too dies away, more slowly and more drawn-out than his almost-dead wife, but anyhow; dying is dying, lost is lost and gone. and one's own wife will always remind one of the decline from young lad to dirty old man.
Women As Lovers, Elfriede Jelinek, p82

July 15, 2010

The better life of others

but paula goes on looking at the better world, wherever she can grab hold of it, no matter where, in the cinema or with a summer visitor. but it always only the better life of others, never her own.
Women As Lovers, Elfriede Jelinek, p19

July 14, 2010

Wonderful times

terrible, this slow dying. and the husbands and the wives die away together, the husband does get a bit of variety, he watches over his wife like a watchdog outside, he watches over her as she dies, and from the inside the wife watches over the husband, the female summer visitors, her daughter and the housekeeping money, which must not be boozed away. and from the outside the man watches over his wife, the male summer visitors, his daughter and the housekeeping money, so that he can divert some for his boozing. and so they die in mutual dependence. and the daughter can hardly wait, to be allowed to die at last also, and the parents are already going shopping for the daughter's death: sheets and towels and dish clothes and a used refrigerator. then at least she'll stay dead but fresh.
Women As Lovers, Elfriede Jelinek, p15

July 05, 2010

Blurbs that work

The setting is an idyllic Alpine village where a woman's underwear factory nestles in the woods.

Two factory workers, Brigitte and Paula, dream and talk about finding happiness, a comfortable home and a good man. They realize that their quest will be as hard as work at the factory. Brigitte subordinates her feelings and goes for Heinz, a young, plump, up-and-coming businessman. With Paula, feelings and dreams become confused. She gets pregnant by Erich, the forestry worker. He's handsome, so they marry.

Brigitte gets it right. Paula gets it wrong.
Back cover of Women As Lovers, Elfriede Jelinek

June 20, 2010

Midway upon the journey of our life

So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, "Life! life! Eternal life!" So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress

June 07, 2010

A lack of nerve and imagination

Some people must fit perfectly well into the world as it is. Others don't, and must change themselves and / or their environment. But some don't fit and don't change anything, and those people are fucked most of all.

This idea is probably due to a lack of nerve and imagination on my part.

June 06, 2010

The imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales

katie allen [click image for huge]
The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales. That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature. In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet. If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.

June 03, 2010

Same same, but different

I don't know about you, and I don't know what your friends are like. But this seems to me to be a sadder, more hungry generation. And the thing that I get scared of is, when we're in power, when we're the forty-five and fifty-year olds. And there's really nobody - no older - that no people older than us with memories of the Depression, or memories of war, that had significant sacrifices. And there's gonna be no check on our appetites. And also our hunger to give stuff away.
And we're the first generation - maybe people starting about my age, it started in '62. We grew up sorta in the rubble of the old system. And we know we don't want to go back to that. But the sort of - this confusion of permissions, or this idea that pleasure and comfort are the, are really the ultimate goal and meaning of life. I think we're starting to see a generation die...on the toxicity of that idea.
Related post: The long line of supposedly beaten generations

May 27, 2010

Flaws, biases, & irrationality

The characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan mankind's flaws, biases, & irrationality -- without exploiting them for fun and profit.
Nassim Taleb, aphorisms via twitter.

May 25, 2010

More aware than me

I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good as a writer. Because that means I'm going to performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person

What I'm doing now

Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one.
My girlfriend moved into this house a few weeks ago, with the gaps between her going back to her place becoming longer and longer and then ending. We work together, break for meals and eat good food, drink coffee and wine. So far it's an easy way to live, with no fight and no resistance.

One odd thing about the last few months is how contentment has stopped me from needing or even wanting to update this blog.

When I was a lot younger and writing [very badly] all the time it was because I had none of the good things in my life that I have now, and even though I enjoyed writing a lot, it was like drink or drugs, a poor substitute for the thing itself, a coping mechanism rather than a solution.

Great things can come out of sickness, but never mine, and the only way out after butting my head against the wall for so long was to change my life. I quit my job and keep whatever hours I want as long as the work I accept gets done. I work in shorts or a sarong, take breaks and bike rides whenever needed, never face a boss and never need to work when not in the mood. It's as close to idyllic as I could expect with minimal effort or talent.

My ambitions when I was younger mostly concerned lifestyle rather than achievement, but for a long time I focused on the latter and failed. When I gave in and went straight for the thing itself rather than tokens I found that it was easy to achieve and [so far] to maintain. Life is essentially a joke and a game at the moment, although I'm sure it'll get serious again soon enough.
If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people's opinions, you will never be rich.
Seneca quoting Epicurus, Letters from a Stoic p65

May 23, 2010

Suit and tie

Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd.

May 16, 2010

Time off

To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint.
Seneca, quoting Epicurus, Letters from a Stoic p59

May 14, 2010

Sokal cont'd

almost taiwan

Still avoiding this and doing other things, but read the following in Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning was the Command Line and wanted to file it next to the Sokal posts:
It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring diversity" or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing ) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David Foster Wallace has explained in his essay "E Unibus Pluram," this is the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It's not expressed in these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption that all authority figures--teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians--are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there's no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners. They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways, the dads go out of their minds.

The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely--and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And--again--perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you've got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things--who populate major law firms and corporate boards--understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don't raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.

April 25, 2010

Of limited interest

I haven't posted much because I've been so happy lately that it feels like I've been living entirely in the present, with almost no reflection or planning. This works because I've finally cultivated some good, simple habits - work hard, eat right, exercise, save $, love, and party at least twice a week. Plus I'm doing this in nice surroundings and self-employed, setting my own hours, rates and so on.

A simple life, but with rules that I easily adhere to, so the illusion of control is not required. Things are set in motion, and I follow them, with complex behavior emerging from the interaction of a few simple systems.

April 21, 2010

Some things really did happen

Am distracted / engrossed in life and so little to post here, but some more from that Sokal book that I want to keep online.

Whether the accused in a murder trial is or is not guilty depends on the assessment of old-fashioned positivity evidence, if such evidence is available. Any innocent readers who find themselves in the dock will do well to appeal to it. It is the lawyers for the guilty ones who fall back on postmodern lines of defence.
Eric Hobsbawm, On History pviii, quoted in Sokal p321

It is [...] pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth ...Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you've had it. ...But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.
Alan Ryan, quoted in Sokal p95

April 07, 2010

Turtles all the way

...the non-fundamental ontology of everyday life (solids and fluids) can seem as a kind of "coarse-grained" macroscopic approximation to the more fundamental microscopic ontology of quarks and electrons; indeed, the former should be (at least in principle) derivable as a logical consequence of the underlying fundamental theory.
... means that what appear in the older theory to be a fundamental entity is, in reality, a non-fundamental entity derivable as a "coarse-grained: version of something deeper.
In this view, reality is composed of a hierarchy of "scales"... The theory on each scale emerges from the theory on the next finer-scale by ignoring some of the (irrelevant) details of the latter. And the ontology of the theory on each scale - in particular, its "unobservable" theoretical entities - can be understood, at least in principle, as arising from the "collective" or "emergent" effects of a more fundamental theory at a finer scale.

March 25, 2010

The long line of supposedly beaten generations

Portrait of the author as a young man
'That is how the hero of our time must be,' [wrote a contemporary critic of Mikhail Lermontov's 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time] 'he will be characterized either by determined inactivity of else by futile activity' - that is, by either passive conformity to the social norm or petty rebellion against it.
From the introduction to Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time
Nothing changes. That said, I got divorced the other week, and events surrounding that have been behind the recent lack of posts, as I wanted to avoid explicitly dealing with the topic, although it's really all that I've been thinking about for the last two months or so. Hence the easing back into things with just quotes from things I've been reading. But the one above, and the whole air of the novel, reminds me that every modern generation seems to think that's uniquely on the verge of disaster and disillusionment, from the fin de siècle by way of the Lost Generation and through the Beats and on to the Millennials.

What amazes me about Lermontov's feeling that there's nothing to be done is that it comes only 40 - 50 yrs after the French revolution, and only 20 since the death of Napoleon, but this is something for another post - I just need to get back in the habit.

March 24, 2010

The farther we stray from intuitions

...the deeper we probe into the nature of things, the stranger they tend to look. That is not surprising: the deeper we probe into the nature of things, the farther we stray from the intuitions about macroscopic objects (and about human psychology, etc.) that were sculpted into our brains by natural selection.

February 25, 2010

We are wired to share the processing load

Various complex personal / admin issues to deal with, so best not to do this until they're resolved, but a nice passage in a recent NY Times article on touch:

A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”

We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”

February 05, 2010

Would you buy a used paradigm from this man?

jaron lanier by allan j. cronin

Good talk by Jaron Lanier at the LSE [link to MP3 on that page] that starts slow and fairly rambling, but touches on a lot of interesting things [Xanadu / the importance of boundaries / the wrong turn at Turing / anti-Singularity / anti-Wikipedia / anti-neo-Maoism / pro-micropayments] as a way to a) sketch out the ideas in his new book, and b) make a case for a new [well…old] technological / economic model for the Internet, essentially based on one copy of each file [Ted Nelson's Xanadu] and micropayments.

Since Larnier was previously on the ‘free’ side of the ‘information wants to be free, but it also wants to be expensive’ debate, it’s an interesting trip he takes the listener on. The bottom line – of this talk, at least – is that micropayments will be embraced when anyone can launch themselves as a creator – already possible – and become part of the system [not yet in place, but presumably something like a bigger version of the iTunes store]. With the right incentives thus in place, people will work harder at being more creative, because they’re being [potentially] rewarded for their efforts and can maybe pay the rent and so on without a day job.

Side note: things are sloooowly getting back on track here, and something like abnormal service will kick back in later this month.