In the 1840s, a wave of intentional communities spread across America. Most of them collapsed within a year or two, as has been the story of most attempts at communal living in any context.
One of the longest-lasting was Oneida. It was based around the principles of Free Love and Mutual Criticism, and its inhabitants spend their days making knives. The founder, John Humphrey Noyes, had apparently taken some care in finding the right system.
In the process he wrote a book, a history of American socialisms. Based in part on a survey of communes, it was his attempt to figure out what system might lead a community to survive:
This country has been from the beginning, and especially for the last forty years, a laboratory in which Socialisms of all kinds have been experimenting. It may safely be assumed that Providence has presided over the operations, and has taken care to make them instructive. The disasters of Owenism and Fourierism have not been in vain ; the successes of the Shakers and Rappites have not been set before us for nothing. We may hope to learn something from every experiment.
David MacIver writes good articles about psychology and coping with life, for example “How to do hard things”. Over in the world of computers, he is also an expert in something called test case reduction
The idea of test case reduction is to find the simplest thing that will break a program. You might, for example, start with a thousand-word essay that you can’t upload to a particular website. To understand what’s going wrong you remove text until you find the shortest input that breaks things – maybe the website can’t handle accented characters or something. You can do this by hand, or if you’re smart you will use some of David’s code to do it automatically.
David has heroically resisted the temptation to phrase self-help in terms of debugging. In his position I would have given in immediately – because so many of the processes I go through to figure out my head are equivalent to debugging.
I have the benefit that my brain is pretty good at running simulations of how I would behave in different situations. So when a situation freaks me out, I can later apply my own internal test case reduction. ‘Would I have coped better if I had trusted the other person?’ I might ask myself. “What about if I felt confident in my knowledge of what we were talking about?” And if it works, I’ll eventually have a simplified scenario which showcases the bug in my brain.
Here is an exhilarating idea from Alison Gopnik: octopi have tentacles instead of children.
Any mind must navigate between exploring and exploiting. Are you flexible and ready to learn (explore), or do you optimise along a path that you have already chosen?
Humans deal with this by behaving differently at different life stages: children explore, adults exploit. We really do become set in our ways as we get older, down to the rate at which neurons connect. We fix our understanding of the world in our early years, and spend adulthood taking advantage of it.
Octopi do not have long childhoods. So they deal with the explore/exploit differently: by having different brains for each
octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. They’re getting information, figuring out what the water is like. And then the central head brain is doing things like saying, OK, now it’s time to squirt. Now it’s time to get food. So, my thought is that we could imagine an alternate evolutionary path by which each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two-year-old, right? So that you are always trying to get them to stop exploring because you had to get lunch. I suspect that may be what the consciousness of an octo is like.
Really, it is a manifesto for queer identity and queer community:
Our bodies can still feel the cold creeps of the jail bars from the jails that we’ve visited. We could have sought revenge for all this misery of ours, but, instead, we chose to use our bodies as tools to imagine an utopian future, where all of us, absolutely all of us reproduce to infinity and beyond their most deeply hidden identities.
Queer because it encompasses all our identities without imposing a predetermined norm and assigning us to predefined houses. Queer because infinity.
Germany’s rate of corona vaccinations has jumped in the past 10 days. That is great, but also frustrating.
Frustrating, because the reasons are symptomatic of how people are being killed by the slow, cautious incompetence of government bureaucracy.
The first reason is that German family doctors are now allowed to give vaccinations, a role previously reserved for centralized vaccination centers.
The second reason is even worse: We have just started a new quarter.
The discussion on manufacturers vaccine production schedules have largely been on numbers per quarter. Given that the EU is scapegoating them for delays, the manufacturers really really want to avoid missing their targets. And that leads to weirdness at the boundaries of the quarters.
At Biontech, production is going well, and they are comfortably meeting their Q1 commitment (~12m doses). But they have promised to almost quadruple that in Q2. So through March they delivered a steady 1m doses per week. Then in April, when we start counting against their Q2 target, the deliveries jump to 2.7 million per week.
AstraZeneca are the opposite. They are behind schedule. So they squeezed in a huge delivery at the end of Q1 (actually a couple of days later, but it’s being counted as Q1), like maybe 5x what they usually deliver in a week.
It’s rational behaviour from both companies. When you’re dealing with a short-tempered and annoying customer, you CYA by fulfilling the letter of your contracts, even at the cost of a worse outcome for the customer. And that’s the position the EU have put Biontech and AZ into.
Admittedly this is mainly speculation – but I do think it fits the facts and the (non-altruistic parts of the) motivations of everybody involved
Since I mentioned Coleridge, I thought I would bring up my personal headcanon about one of the little mysteries of his life: the “Person from Porlock”
The poem Kubla Khan came to Coleridge as a vision in a dream, the result of a book he had been reading on Mongol history, combined with the effects of the opium he had taken the night before.
The poet woke up and began to compose a poem based on his dream. But after he had written the lines we now have, he was interrupted by a visitor. This “Person on business from Porlock” so distracted Coleridge that he forgot the rest of his dream, and the poem remained incomplete.
The identity of this visitor is a perfect miniature mystery, intriguing and yet totally inconsequential. The mundane answer is that there quite possibly was no visitor, and Coleridge just wanted an excuse for publishing a poem with an unusual structure. Or it was Wordsworth or another friend popping in.
Wild speculation is much more entertaining, though. So there’s one theory that “a person on business” was Coleridge’s way to hint that it was his dealer, stopping by to top up his supplies of poetry-inducing opium.
And for anybody writing historical or time-travel fiction, this is the perfect opportunity to get their character some face-time with a poet. So Ada Lovelace has been the Person from Porlock. Doctor Who has been the Person from Porlock. Douglas Adams even wrote a book where his protagonist becomes the Person from Porlock – in order to save Coleridge and the world from an extraterrestrial ghost.
My personal headcanon is that Coleridge’s visitor was, in fact, a Person from Pullach. Pullach is a suburb of Munich which, until recently, housed the headquarters of the German intelligence services. In my fantasy Germany has developed time travel. Prevented by paradox from killing Hitler, the spooks are instead zipping through history tinkering around the edges. One of them is a fan of Coleridge – why not, he was a Germanophile who translated Schiller and allegedly even understood Kant. So he shows up at the poet’s door, and inadvertently robs us of the remainder of Kubla Khan.
Bonus alternate history: I’ve been idly imagining a timeline in which Israel is not created, but the Zionists do instead succeed in colonizing Mars.
In her salon on curation, Patricia challenged the participants to imagine how they might arrange a gallery. This gave me the chance to mention a fantasy exhibition which I have occasionally toyed with. It would gather together works which share a particular aesthetic, of “endless growth and self-reproduction”. I would start with some 18th-century etchings by Piranesi, and end with the cheerily nightmarish animations of Cyriak.
Piranesi lived in Rome, and made a living by selling his etchings of Roman architecture to young aristocrats on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. Presumably he got bored of real buildings, because at some point he turned to drawing elaborate architectural fantasies
The most famous description of the Carceri is by a man who never saw them. Literary drug-fiend Thomas de Quincey was struggling to describe the “mighty visions of more than earthly splendour” which appeared to him in opium-fuelled dreams.
Fortunately, Piranesi’s etchings had been described to de Quincey by his friend and fellow addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge1. de Quincey recognized a picture which matched his dreams, with “vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machiner,… expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome”. And, homing in on what to me is the key to Piranesi, he wrote of the endless growth and self-reproduction represented by the stairways repeating themselves into infinity
Had de Quincey been living in another time, he might have found his “endless growth and self-reproduction” elsewhere. He could look at Cyriak, who has become a Youtube star by making animations of just that.
It’s not quite the same. Cyriak uses cats where Piranesi uses towers, and replaces monochrome etchings with a style that is Very. Not. Monochrome. But couldn’t you imagine de Quincey dreaming a Cyriak video, if his cat jumped on him in the night?
My fantasy exhibition, then would have Piranesi and Cyriak as bookends. Between then would be any number of other artists who share the same fractal horror.
MC Escher would be hard to omit. His optical illusions form enclosed and inescapable worlds, whose human figures are prisoners of the artist’s impossible geometry2.
For me, though, something about the cleanness of Escher’s illustrations renders them less unsettling. Piranesi’s vision feels more like an anthill or an oil refinery. You feel that the outward disarray may indeed be the result of some ancient masterplan, but that it has been submerged under generations of repair and modification.
The work which most shares this aspect of Piranesi is Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of novels set in an uncanny aristocratic mansion of the same name, where the inhabitants lead lives of strange ritual in service of the house and its lord.
Gormenghast forms an enclosed world of barely-understood tradition and hierarchy, with the present always buried under the physical and mental detritus of the past. Everywhere is gothic and grotesquely distorted, a dustily English mirror of magic realism.
The books’ central obsession is with the physical architecture of Gormenghast itself, the embodiment of whatever ancestral pathology has left this world endlessly collapsing in on itself. Gormenghast has spent centuries simultaneously decaying and growing new appendages, trapping its inhabitants within a tumor of stone turned cancerous. Peake’s opening lines could just as well be describing Piranesi’s prisons or de Quincey’s nightmares:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.
There are many more creations which reflect some of this aesthetic. SF artists such as Inward or Maciej Drabik explore cityscapes of immense buildings, but without Piranesi’s sense of weight and dread. HR Giger brings the dread, but his focus is more on the monstrous fusion of flesh and machine. JG Ballard’s architectural horror is somehow more human, or at least more interested in what buildings do to their inhabitants. H R Giger’s nightmares don’t just trap creatures between their walls, but make them components of the architecture.
Few of these were directly influenced by one another. They have mostly stood on the edges of their tradition, half-accepted by their peers but also seen as curiosities or exceptions. Yet somehow the same obsession keeps cropping up, giving us these depictions of endless growth and self-reproduction.
1 Coleridge also shared with de Quincey a tendency towards drug-induced architectural fantasies. His poem Kubla Khan, composed on waking from an opium dream, is a vision of the architecture of Xanadu.
2 The game Monument Valley has a very similar feeling. It was apparently made by somebody who had never heard of Escher, yet created a world which feels like navigating an Escher drawing.
Last night Patricia Hurducas ran an ii discussion about curation. Between pangs of longing for visiting a physical place, I realized that I have a semi-conscious idealized conception of the Curator.
That is a capitalized Platonic-ideal Curator, at the same remove from reality as “The Artist” is from any actually existing painter. My ideal curator also has a lot in common with my ideal critic. Both are broad-spectrum receivers in human form, resonating to an unusually wide range of artistic input.
More prosaically, they need to be able find the value in whatever piece of art is thrown at them, and guide their audience along the easiest route to access it themselves. They also need an unusual amount of empathy for that audience, being able to imagine what a creation will look like through other people’s eyes.
The difference is that the curator can also take more of a creative role, assembling art to match their own vision. An exhibition can be something like an essay, beating its own path through some domain. It tells some stories and ignores others, makes things look different by adjusting their context.
Any actually existing curator, though, is forced to do this within constraints of budge, institutional boundaries and the availability of works. That’s why I get so much joy out of playing fantasy curator: I ignore practical limits to design impossible shows with selections from all the collections in all the world.
The story of Newton and the apple feels comfortable – until you think about it. The great man watches an apple fall to the ground, has a flash of inspiration, and comes up with the theory of gravity.
Newton, though, isn’t really explaining what happens with the apple. He is dreaming up a theory which is consistent with things falling to the ground, but also has other, less intuitive implications. The latter are just hidden from us because they don’t make any difference on a human scale – we exist in one little corner of physics, out of the way of most of the implications of gravity.
So, just as the earth pulls the apple down, the apple pulls the earth upwards. We just don’t see it, because the apple is too small. And as the apple gets closer to the earth, the force of gravity increases, and the apple accelerates. We just don’t see it, because the height of the tree is nothing compared to the distance to the center of the earth.
Even with 300 years of hindsight, I find it hard to get my head round how you can look at something falling and imagine gravity. I assume Newton only managed it because half his mind was on celestial mechanics, where gravity’s non-intuitive predictions become more relevant.
It’s nonetheless a comforting story for the more straightforward-minded among us, and one Newton presumably told as such. As a bible crank he presumably also had an eye on Genesis – though as a bible crank he also knew that the forbidden fruit only became an apple because of a Latin pun. But discovering one of the hidden forces on the universe is the best opportunity you could ever get to insert yourself into a cosmic narrative of forbidden knowledge, so why let a good story go to waste?
Wish fulfillment is more fun when you have to work for it. That’s why fans can delight in imagining gay relationships through against-the-grain interpretations of pop culture. If a showrunner provides this as pre-packaged fanservice, though, the fun is gone. That’s the problem with Deocratic Socialism Simulator, a game which puts you in the role of the first socialist president of the United States.
The setup is straightforward enough. Your advisers provide you with a series of policies. Tighten gun control? Improve public housing? Scrap defense programs? Swipe right to enact, swipe left to trash. Your objective is to push through as much eco-socialism as possible, measiured by gauges of pollution and of people power. And you must do it all without being thrown out, losing control of Congress, or running out of money.
But: it is too easy. Any activist knows the wading-through-treacle experience of trying to push through even the slightest reform. Here, it is just a matter of saying yes to left-sounding policies. The game mechanics, heavily rigged in your favour, will take care of the rest. Almost any reform you enact will have an astonishingly fast payoff, rewarding you even within the short time horizon of American electoral politics. And near-infinite money is available, provided you are willing to shut down military spending.
The socialist president does need to make a few compromises, but only in the most superficial way. You’re mostly fine if you tack to the right on symbolic gestures, and to the left on material reality. In my first run I could achieve socialism at the cost of postponing gun control and attending some events with billionaires. As a measure of compromising your ideals, that barely moves the dial.
A game of Democratic Socialism Simulator lasts half an hour or less, and my experience is that replaying brings little variety. Then again, maybe that is long enough for wish fulfillment.
Sometimes a poem finds you unexpectedly, and is all the more moving for that reason. Sonny’s Lettah, by Linton Kwesi Johnson, is one of those.
Last year a friend found a book of English poetry on the street in Berlin, and asked me for help with the language. So I started reading aloud to her the first poem in there, which was Sonny’s Lettah:
It was de miggle a di rush hour
Hevrybody jus a hustle and a bustle
To go home fi dem evenin shower
Mi an Jim stan up waitin pon a bus
Not causin no fuss
Yep, I can understand why a non-native speaker found that hard going. But read it aloud, and it all starts to come together. Still, we didn’t really know where we were headed, until we found ourselves in the middle of a police beating:
Dem thump him him in him belly and it turn to jelly
Dem lick ‘I’m pon ‘I’m back and ‘I’m rib get pop
Dem thump him pon him head but it tough like lead
Dem kick ‘I’m in ‘I’m seed and it started to bleed
Definitely doubly powerful because we had no idea where we are gong. I had only vaguely heard the name Linton Kwesi Johnson, and knew nothing about the sus (stop and search) laws which this poem was part of the movement to abolish.
I say poem, but this is very definitely performance poetry. Had I just read it on the page, I doubt it would have got under my skin in the way it did. Short of reciting it yourself, the best way to experience it is surely Linton Kwesi Johnson reading it over a bass line:
The cryptic crossword has a special place in my heart, alongside cricket, as a British obsession which it is near impossible to describe to foreigners*. Start trying to explain either, and they will (quite reasonably) conclude that you are pulling their leg.
How can you explain something like this?
I haven’t a clue.
Being fairly incompetent at solving crosswords, I’m happy watching youtube videos where somebody else works their way through a crossword. While there are less of these than I might have expected, those I do find are a nice combination of soothing and stimulating:
And yes, when I showed this to my (non-British) boyfriend, he only half-believed that I was not making it up.
(*) Non-commonwealth followers, I should probably say. From India to Australia: where there is cricket there are also crosswords
Firstly, each has the ability to make the public uncomfortable, as each causes us to question our own identities: whether the shaky and often-transitional nature of our perceived gender, or our immortal able-bodiedness. Each presents us with a deviation from the norm which a great number of people still feel uncomfortable with, and which presents this difficult truth: that the privilege one receives for cis-heterosexuality or able-bodiedness is a result of random chaotic chance.
In other languages there are features of the grammar that mark the source of information. When source of information is part of the grammar, this is known as evidentiality. I wrote my PhD thesis about evidentiality in Lamjung Yolmo. In this language, and many Tibetan languages, there are different forms of the verb ‘to be’ depending on whether you know the information you’re talking about from your own long-held experience, or because you saw or heard it happen, or because someone told you about it. Evidentiality occurs in around a quarter of the world’s languages.
Hyperlinks act as an evidential that covers a broad range of evidence that can be summed up as “I know this from evidence over at this other location”.
[not-quite-relatedly: Gwern on better citation formats for the web]
I was maybe 16 when I encountered Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, in the form of a postcard which somehow made its way into my small-town life. And no, I wasn’t appreciating it ironically; I was there for the righteous fury. Different circumstances might have channeled it into a punk band or a political cause, but I got Holzer.
Holzer’s work is oddly underrepresented on the internet. So, potted history: she got going in the late 70s, posting slogans (“truisms”) and rants (“inflammatory essays”) on walls around New York. As she became accepted by the art world, the paste-ups were replaced by immense LED displays, scrolling her text across Times Square, JFK Airport, and the Guggenheim.
Perhaps its that art-world history that stops her utterly meme-worthy work being omnipresent online. Or perhaps she’s just very active with her takedown notices. But one way or another, you have to look pretty hard to encounter her on the internet.
Ribbonfarm has a series of posts by Venkatesh Rao on what he calls ‘domestic cozy’, a generational shift away from image-conscious public life and towards home comforts. This post is from 2019 – the pandemic has just supercharged a trend which already existed.
It finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers. It prioritizes the needs of the actor rather than the expectations of the spectator. It seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one. It presents a WYSIWYG facade to those granted access rather than performing in a theater of optics…. Minecraft, YouTube, cooking at home, and knitting are domestic cozy.
I recognize this pattern, and I loathe it. I’m actually a bit startled by the strength of my negative reaction, and wondering what it says about me.
Living around pleasant things? Buying things for your own joy, not to show off on instagram? I should like this. And yet I have an almost physical reaction of repulsion.
Rao talks about some of the horrors from which Domestic Cozy is a retreat:
people…rendered homeless amidst urban blight, dodging crazy homeless people and gingerly stepping around feces, fallen scooters, used needles, and condoms, as they navigate around high-rises they cannot afford to live in….
I feel yes! yes! I choose THIS hell for my life!. Turns out, I’m old enough that even my dystopia is unfashionable.
Now we understand the fundamentals of how matter works: we have a fantastic theory describing the elementary particles and forces, and we’re getting increasingly good at manipulating matter. And so we’re beginning to ask: what can we build, in principle? Not just in a practical sense, with the tools that happen to be at hand, but in a fundamental sense: what is allowed by the laws of physics?
Nielsen has form to think about this. As one of the pioneers of quantum computing, he spent his early career constructing a new discipline by imagining the possibilities latent in cutting-edge physics.
Now he’s zooming out and trying to grapple with the general case. What is the total space of things that could exist, in conformity with the physical rules of the universe? How can we explore that space, unconstrained by the detail of whether something similar actually exists on earth?
And, on the way there, how can we even think about that question? Physics is stereotypically a discipline of discovery, not of invention. Could it take some invention tips from programming, from design, from engineering, even from mathematics?
Nielsen has a lot more to say here. He’s charging straight for the big, big questions, and scoping out a project worthy of being a life’s work, or ending up institutionalized as a new university department somewhere.
Siderea picks up the idea of Covid as social innoculation for dealing with climate change. She points out that we are happier discussing how to prevent climate catastrophe, than how to cope with living through a catastrophe which is now all but inevitable:
And I think that, in an important way, discussion of preventing climate change became and continues to serve as an emotionally preferable distraction from discussing what it meant that we haven’t prevented the climate change. It was too scary to think about what climate change might mean in our personal lives and in our families and communities, so changing the topic to preventing it was a way to avoid thinking about that.
This time last year, I thought I was mentally ready for Corona. I was wrong.
I was over-prepared for the acute aspects of Covid, and under-prepared for the chronic aspects. I was ready for death, danger and grief – but not for boredom.
That’s partly because of the pattern Siderea describes, of focussing on preventing rather than living with problems. The omnipresent low-grade suffering of lockdown isn’t something you escape, it’s something you mitigate.
I don’t think Covid is unusual in that. Natural disasters mean days of fleeing in terror, followed by months or years of displacement, moving through various levels of shelter and temporary accommodation, making do without most of the mundane aspects of the life you are used to. The same with war – worry less about being shot, and more about the grinding shortages, restrictions and lost opportunities.
But even in hindsight, I’m not sure what I would have done to prepare myself better mentally. All the psychological aspects feel interdependent, with no isolated section you could emphasise in order to be better at surviving a pandemic. ‘Become mentally more stable and resilient’ is advice which is correct, but entirely useless.
It’s hard to talk about sex. It’s even harder to talk about the penumbra of stuff that is kinda sex but also kinda its own thing.
Where does a sexual preference become a kink? An identity? An orientation?
I’ve been searching for words to talk about myself, and realising that every term is the result of some political battle of the past or the present. Reclaimed slurs, claims for legal or social status, attempts to join a coalition or escape association with another group.
The result is that we have a language twisting around the contours of past disagreements. Take “sexual orientation”. The term was a weapon of the 80s, pushing against the medicalisation and criminalisation of homosexuality. In that context, it was valuable to present being gay as something innate and stable – which captures the experience of some people, but certainly not all.
The innateness, embedded in the word ‘orientation’, became a key part of the fight for GLBT rights. You can’t punish somebody for being ‘born this way’, and so ‘orientation’ is written into all kinds of anti-discrimination laws and policies.
But…what if I’m not born that way? What if I’m just, as the doctors would say, a ‘man who has sex with men’? Can I claim the same protections?
This problem becomes more acute when we widen the perspective to look at BDSM or polyamory. There are kinksters who consider themselves ‘submissive’ in the same innate, essential, inescapable way that somebody else could consider herself ‘lesbian’. There are others who find bondage a pleasant pastime, but one they could abandon without losing an essential part of themselves. So we end up with claims that kink or polyamory is a sexual orientation.
Either side of that binary feels a bit off, to me. I couldn’t make a convincing argument either that kink is an orientation, or that it isn’t. The framing just doesn’t fit. And the reason it doesn’t fit is that it’s conflating the type of a thing with the legitimacy of the thing with the innateness of a thing.
I didn’t discover my bisexuality until my early 20s. I could imagine a world in which I never made that discovery, loved only women, yet still had a fulfiling life.
Kink has been part of me since childhood, and it’s hard to imagine myself without it.
You could say I’m an obligate kinkster, and an opportunist bisexual. But I don’t want a world in which that distinction has any bearing on the legitimacy or acceptance of one over the other.
It’s helped me to realise that the terminology is an artefact of politics. Whether we count claim kink as an orientation is merely a tactical question, and has no meaning outside of a specific political context. Wondering what is an orientation does little to help me understand myself or the people around me, so I can safely stop doing it.
Animation about a over-the-top All-American hero/villain. A parody of the macho guns-and-girls action genre, except that it falls in love with its own hero. Even the entertaining parts leave a sour taste.
A formal duel, with its elaborate rituals, is always teetering on the edge of bathos. This pushes it over, and then keeps going. Unlike Brick Novax’s Diary, manages to keep a tone of affectionate ridicule. Slightly let down by the ending
though you can’t stand to be near me, it is also true that no one could be closer to you than me. I have infiltrated the patterns of your thought; I have my fingers on your heartstrings; I have even been put in charge of your sense perception: you see traces of me everywhere you look. You complain about me to anyone who will listen, and when no one will listen you shout at a mental effigy of me. I’ve colonized your fantasy life. Holding me responsible involves an embrace, albeit an adversarial one.
Now I’m an Angry Young Man in recovery, the rage equivalent of a dry alcoholic. So this paragraph sets me quivering, and calls out one of the great temptations of anger. Anger pulls your entire consciousness into its service, with every fact or sensation falling into its gravitational pull. Thoughts are twisted and reshaped into forms they would never achieve in a rational mind. It is the dark counterpart of love, and having everything remind you of your beloved.
At one of Helena’s ii salons, we got into a conversation about the positive aspects of anger. In particular, how it can be a tool for self-knowledge. If something makes me angry, it is because it is important to me in some way. When the anger is out of proportion to the overt cause, it might point me to something I did not know I cared about.
It might be resentment that somebody is able to do something I have been blocked from or failed at. It might be disappointed hope or trust. It might be one of the injustices which go unchallenged in the world.
And often, once I have traced the meaning of the anger, the sensation itself starts to feel disproportionate, even risible. Understanding might not destroy anger, but it does let me laugh at it.
People rarely become more reckless as they get older. Isn’t that weird?
The older you are, the fewer years of life you are utting on the line when you do something risky. Once you are in your nineties you have, almost literally, nothing to lose. So why not go for it?
Not in the real world: a teenager will always take more risks than her grandparents. At least it looks like that to me; a quick google didn’t find me much data.
And I have encountered exceptions. There are older activists who put themselves in the front line if oritests. They figure the police will either spare them, or attack them and look bad doing so. But we notice these cases precisely because they go against our expectations.
Hormones, I suppose, have a lot to answer for. Plus, not every risk is dicing with death. Sometimes it means dicing with falling over, which is more of a deal with senior-citizen bones.
And physical risks often come with other physical activities, which are less fun when your body is falling apart. You might give up off-piste skiing without being more scared of a fatal accident, just because it is less fun with arthritis.
Why am I interested, anyway? It’s because I clearly have some false intuitiions about ageing. Right now I imagine my risk tolerance will only increase as I get older. The actually-existing elderly disagree. So either I am destined for an atypical retirement, or I’m fundamentally wrong about how my future will feel.
Until this week, I had never heard of Eartha Kitt. Now I have, it’s hard to imagine how I could have missed such an un-ignorable personality.
In case you are in the same state of innocence as I was, here’s a song to get you started. Remember this is a mixed-race woman performing for mid-century Middle America:
There is a lot of Kitt in here. The clawing matches her years as a stage performer, but also foreshadows her stint as Catwoman 15 years later. And yet she is also very clearly the lazy rich girl playing at being bad.
Kitt came from just about the most deprived background you could imagine. Beyond pure talent, it is her supreme confidence that pulled her out and catapulted her into international stardom.
That and hard work. Years of gruelling stage performances, night after night, interspersed with recording and travel and television and film. I’m exhausted just looking at it
Above all, I love her take-no-prisoners attitude to the world. It caused her most trouble in 1968, when she was invited to the White House for a discussion of crime. She made the entirely reasonable point that young men had less incentive to behave when they were being “snatched off to be shot in Vietnam”. The First Lady was horrified, and Kitt’s American career stalled for the next decade. But she never backed down, and throughout her life was active in support of civil and LGBT rights
she will have seen this through the prism of immigration and security. For her, the economy would have been very much a secondary thing. She didn’t really have a deep interest in how the economy worked. Of course, she wanted a successful economy, because she understood that GDP growth underpinned everything else. But, as to the mechanics of it and what the implications were, that wouldn’t have been her primary focus at all at that time.
And when she announced her support for a hard Brexit, it was without consulting the Chancellor or having any idea of the economic implications:
I was completely stunned by the speech that she made at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016. I hadn’t seen the relevant part of it in advance. I’d had no input to the speech. Nick Timothy kept me completely away from it. I did see some text on the economy the day before, but I had no idea that she was going to describe Brexit in th\e hardest possible terms.
I was absolutely horrified by what I was hearing. All I remember thinking was, ‘There will be a television camera that will be on your face. If you move a muscle, it will be the story on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow.’
In discussions about Trump’s sanity, I’ve felt the need to bring up the immortal words of Harold Wilson, speaking to a pair of journalists shortly after he stepped down as Prime Minister:
I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man. That blind man may tell you something.
In other words: power attracts strange people and makes them even stranger.
It’s a comforting New Year ritual for me to read along with Bruce Sterling’s* annual State of the World discussion at the WELL.
This year is slightly more predictable than most because the obvious topics are so hard to avoid:
I had it figured that a failed coup would surely be followed by some kind of purge, but I didn’t get it that it would come from a united front of Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Youtube, Reddit, Twitch, Discord and Shopify….
Somebody – who?– got all these tech players on the same page and launched a simultaneous attack without a single rumor leaking beforehand.
But there is at least some of his usual attention to the rest of the world:
Prime Minister Modi, head honcho of India, has become the most attentive pupil of Xi Jinping of China. Modi is much impressed by Xi’s autocratic success, so Modi has become an adept China mimic: he numbers all the citizenry in the Aadhaar databank, he turns Kashmir into Xinjiang with all kinds of surveillance heavy-manners and Internet controls, he turns his BJP Party into Chinese-style party cadres, he cultivates his own Chinese-style cult-of-personality – step by step, Modi is constructing a Modi-centric Indian government that is “Chinese technocracy with Indian characteristics.”
(*) and other people, but Sterling is the main reason I keep coming back.
The problem with historians is that they know too much.
In particular, they know how things turned out. When you have the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to avoid simply assembling a narrative leading up to that result.
So I wish somebody would try doing blinded historical research.
Here’s how it would work. You want a historian to analyze the events and the forces at play in some historical context without knowing what comes next.
So you give them access to archives, newspapers, records – but only up to a certain date. They write their analysis of what is going on, and describe what they expect to happen next. Then you reveal what did happen, and compare it to the predictions.
The result? The historian can apply whatever methodology they like – and see how good it is at making predictions. Then you could apply the same methods in situations where you don’t know what will happen (e.g. the present), and have a ballpark idea of how much trust to put in it.
One of my lockdown activities has been remotely watching short movies with a friend. Here are a few of them, from best to worst.
Emilie Muller. A young woman attends an audition, where the director requires her to talk him through the contents of her handbag. As their conversation veers into more personal territory, we become very aware of the power dynamics and the patterns of self-dramatization. Along the way, though, there is some lovely slice-of-life discussion sparked by the objects.
House Party. A Romanian woman comes home, to find her teenage son has thrown a house party in her absence. This short is much subtler than you might expect from the set-up. Its heart is the relationship between the women living in the same apartment block. I suspect much of the nuance has been lost in translation, but still worth watching.
The Jigsaw. A dusty, little-frequented shop. You try to buy a jigsaw. The shopkeeper tries to discourage you with mysterious warnings, before finally relenting and selling you the puzzle.
Yes, you are in a horror film. Yes, every trope is going to be played absolutely straight. No, this one doesn’t have much to recommend it
Last night Harry Ramsay hosted a discussion of flow, which left me more of a flow-sceptic than I was at the start.
Here’s what I realized. Flow is part of a spectrum of trance-like focus states. We pick it out because it fits with characteristics which we like: productivity, creativity, accomplishment. But those are characteristics of external society, not of the mental state itself.
I brought up video gaming in the discussion, calling the gamer’s trance the ‘evil twin’ of flow. Look at the properties of flow, and see how well gaming matches them:
The activity is intrinsically rewarding
Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable
Complete focus on the activity itself
Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome
Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness
Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented
Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing
With the arguable exception of ‘intrinsically rewarding’, it is a 100% match.
Harry’s descriptions of his teenage flow states practicing the guitar, in particular, feel indistinguishable from gaming. Both involve mastering a pattern of tiny physical movements, through extreme repetition.
The difference comes afterwards: your self-image is likely better emerging from a day-long music session than from a Warcraft binge. Again, though, that’s a social phenomenon: it’s not hard to imagine a culture which venerates gamers and despises musicians. Would that change which activity gets the label of flow?
Further loosen the requirements of flow, and we end up with more altered states of dubious value. Slot-machine addicts use the term ‘th e zone’ to describe their state of being subsumed within the logic of the machine. And of course we are all familiar with the experience of compulsively scrolling social media.
By now we’ve kicked away much of what makes flow flow. Slot machines are neither challenging nor rewarding. Facebook slips into our lives partly because it (at first) avoids demanding complete attention. Yet something remains common in all these worlds, and more.
Thinking about my own life, I find this comforting. Flow ceases to be an isolated, mystical achievement. It is merely the most prominent of an archipelago of altered states.
Every activity brings its own state of consciousness. Swimming, drawing, dancing, DIY: none of these are (for me) flow states. But each shares something with flow – focus, mastery, serenity, control, the absence of time or the dissolution of the self.
So now I no longer so keen to nudge myself repeatedly into flow. I would prefer to explore the entire realm of activity-induced altered states.
The hallmark behavioral difference between domesticated animals and their wild contemporaries is a lower threshold of reaction to external stimuli and an overall reduced wariness of other species—including Homo sapiens. The likelihood that such traits are in part a “domus effect” rather than entirely due to conscious human selection is, once again, suggested by the fact that uninvited commensals such as statuary pigeons, rats, mice, and sparrows exhibit much the same reduced wariness and reactivity. [James C Scott, Against the Grain]
Domesticated cows are hard to startle. But so are city pigeons. So the cows might have developed their calmness not as a result of deliberate selective breeding, but through the evolutionary effects of sharing habitat with humans.
Change the habitat, change the behaviour. You don’t necessarily need to breed or train waway fear and aggression – just create a situation where they are not useful.
Scott is primarily talking in evolutionary timescales, but the same applies within a lifetime. And it applies to humans as well as to animals.
We are constantly being trained by our habitat. The commuter has been conditioned to stand inches away from his fellow-travellers, just like the Wild West gunslinger who never sits with his back to the door has been conditioned. No need to explicitly train attitudes to personal space, just make the Tube the easiest route to work.
There’s an obvious self-directed extension of this. When you want to change your own behaviour, perhaps don’t attempt to train yourself directly. Instead set up an environment which encourages the desired behaviour, and let the environment do the training.
Remembrance day for me is always a mix of sadness and anger, though the official ceremonies mostly stick to sadness. Every year at school we would stand through the reading of the names of the dead, honouring the sacrifice of boys who went straight from school into war. Never expressed was any condemnation of the people who sacrificed them.
The ratio of sadness to rage perhaps depends on how inevitable you think the First World War. If you believe there had been a chance to avoid the war, then you can only be furious at the system and the people who let it happen.
I cling to the belief that it could have been avoided. And in general, my default assumption is that everything is fixable until proven otherwise. This is as more psychological self-protection than reasoned analysis. Were the current state of the world something to be endured rather than changed, I’m not sure how I would be able to get out of bed in the morning.
This year, awful as it is, has given me more reason to believe in the possibility of change. Coronavirus in Europe has played out the way it did as the result of political failures and political choices. Some of them are structural, some are one-off mistakes by individuals. And we aren’t living in the worst timeline – other political choices could have brought us into an even worse situation. But it didn’t have to happen like this, and it doesn’t need to continue happening like this.
The real heroes of the first world war are the mutineers of Kiel, the German sailors who turned on their officers, sparked uprisings in the major cities, and so made it impossible for Germany to continue fighting. Eighteen months earlier, a mutiny had seized almost half of the French army. Imagine what better world we could be living in, if they had succeeded!
Cars, bickering and defensiveness are the ingredients of a good relationship, right?
Tonight’s unexpectedly delighful movie was My Cousin Vinny, a courtroom comedy. A New York teenager is facing a murder charge in Alabama, and the titular Cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci) is the only lawyer he can find.
Unfortunately, Vinny is in over his head. This is his first trial since scraping through the bar exam, and his New York wisecracking doesn’t come across well down in Alabama.
What he does have going for him is his fiancee Lisa (Marisa Tomai). Their relationship is the main reason to watch the movie. They are bickering, insecure, chaotic, defensive – and utterly, beautifully in love.
They have both spent time as car mechanics, which gives them a shared language and respect for each other’s competence in at least one area. When Vinny admits he messed up court procedure, he explains it through an analogy to fixing a carburetor.
Admitting that he’s stuck is, in fact, Vinny’s biggest problem. He keeps on pushing away Lisa’s attempts to help, because accepting help would mean admitting that he needs it. Whenever Vince gets past his defensiveness, he and Lisa make for an admirable team.
Lisa and Vinny have a relationship built on squabbling. Vinny’s client at one point defends his choice of lawyer because he comes from a family of bickerers:
“You have to see the Gambinis in action. These people…they love to argue. I mean, they live to argue.”
We then cut to a delightful scene, which begins with Vinny ragging on Lisa for leaving a faucet dripping. Then, as she gives a string of increasingly elaborate explanations of the correct torque to prevent drips, his anger fades into horny enchantment at her patter.
All these elements come together for the final courtroom scene. As a legal resolution to the case it feels painfully weak. As a resolution to their relationship, though, it feels fundamentally honest and hopeful
This is a horror novel, which I don’t usually read. But my boyfriend recommended it, and he was spot-on.
I’d recommend it enthusiastically but very selectively. I would need to grok somebody fairly well before knowing whether to push it on them
The setup is artistic collaboration between a dancer and a sculptor of mobile metal creatures. Then the dancer gets into increasingly extreme self-mutilation as a form of performance…
There’s a lot about work, about collaboration, about dedication to art. It’s a book where everybody is pursuing creation rather than happiness, which is just what I need right now. And the horror-extremeness keeps the emotional engagement dialed way up. So you get a nuanced relationship between the two main characters, bouncing between love and hatred and friendship and collaboration, which is psychologically realistic while being over the top.
Take the structure of a light-hearted caper movie. Then throw religion into the mix, specifically Polish Catholicism.
The result doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to say. But it is gloriously intense and has some very powerful moments.
Daniel wants to be a priest, but he is also just out of jail. Those two don’t go together – no seminary will take him, and instead he is expected to spend his parole working in a sawmill.
Then some banter gets out of hand, and Daniel finds himself impersonating a priest, to a village which believes him to be strange but authentic.
The bulk of the film examines Daniel’s attempt to fill the role of priest, in the absence of any training or ordination. The tension is between Daniel’s kindness and intense devotion on one hand, and on the other his betrayal of a church built on hierarchy and the special role of the priest.
The difficulty for me is that Daniel’s good qualities as a priest feel superficial. He gazes intently at the Crucifixion, benefiting from an angular face which seems permanently on the verge of passion. He preaches from the heart, he cares for his flock, he tries to reconcile feuding villagers. But he is the model of priest as coach and therapist. Jesus and the bible don’t figure much in his activities. Congenial as this is to my non-believing self, it feels like a very thin take on Catholicism.
Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, an (over-?) celebrated moment in British anti-fascism. This is when a march by the British Union of Fascists was stopped by a combination of Jews, communists, Irish dockers, and other antifascists.
I’m glad of anniversaries like this, because they force us all to ask “What have I done lately?”. My own head has been pretty firmly stuck in the sand for a good few years now. You could take your pick of causes I’ve ignored, from Xinjiang re-education camps to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. For me, Rojava is the one which triggers the most guilt.
Cable Street’s big brother is the Spanish Civil War. At the same time as Oswald Mosley was failing to establish fascism in Britain, Franco was making a much more violent and ultimately successful attempt to do the same in Spain. The war, and in particular the International Brigades, are for me one of the most clear-cut examples of why I am not a pacifist.
And then…Rojava. David Graeber wrote of the parallels between it and Spain:
A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.
Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow.
I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.
I saw articles like this, vaguely followed the news, but was a thousand miles away from providing any practical support to Rojava. So today, when I think of Cable Street, it is with rather more shame than pride.
A dim premonition tells us that we cannot be whole without this negative side, that we have a body which, like all bodies, casts a shadow, and that if we deny this body we cease to be three-dimensional and become flat and without substance. Yet this body is a beast with a beast’s soul, an organism that gives unquestioning obedience to instinct. To unite oneself with this shadow is to say yes to instinct, to that formidable dynamism lurking in the background. From this the ascetic morality of Christianity wishes to free us, but at the risk of disorganizing man’s animal nature at the deepest level. [Jung, On the psychology of the unconscious]
Lately I’ve run into a cluster of references to Jung’s idea of the ‘shadow’ self. This is the set of unconscious urges which are formed in reaction to the overt, conscious personality. Just as the shape of an object determines the shape of its shadow, so our shadow self is the dark opposite of whatever values we hold in everyday life.
To me, the concept has an intuitive resonance. I’m not convinced it is true, but it is a useful tool for introspection.
I took a dive into Jung’s writing to find more about this, and ended up pleasantly lost. I can see why Jung, even more than Freud, appealed to a generation of artists and writers. He offers a world where stories matter. Literature, art, religion, culture – they are all routes to the same essence, and understanding one will cast light on the rest
I’ve been reading through Will Wight’s Cradle series, which is my first exposure to “Progression Fantasy”
Progression Fantasy is something like a book-length training montage. The main appeal is to watch the hero increasing in power or competence over the course of a book or a series.
In Cradle this power comes through training in the ‘sacred arts’, a combat-oriented idea of magic. Everybody wants to level up through a series of named ranks, from Copper to Iron to Jade, and beyond. Your rank determines, among other things, your chances of winning in hand-to-hand magical combat.
It all feels like Dungeons and Dragons, or a computer game. This isn’t just in the named levels, but in the shape the world takes on in order to accommodate them. So the hero starts in a low-powered village before venturing out to encounter increasingly more advanced enemies. It is considered dishonourable to fight somebody of a lower level, because otherwise every hero would be splatted immediately. A sister genre, LitRPG, leans even harder on these game-related aspects.
The end result is something which satisfies one very particular itch, but does that extraordinarily well. If you don’t want to play games yourself, but still want to vicariously experience the joy of leveling up, go for Cradle.
I found a collection of Walter Benjamin essays on the street. Bracing stuff, this!
I turned straight to an essay in praise of destructive personalities, and….yep, I already want to run riot with a sledgehammer
Der destruktive Charakter ist jung und heiter. Denn Zerstören verjüngt, weil es die Spuren unseres eigenen Alters aus dem Weg räumt; es heitert auf, weil jedes Wegschaffen dem Zerstörenden eine vollkommene Reduktion, ja Radizierung seines eignen Zustands bedeutet. Zu solchem apollinischen Zerstörerbilde führt erst recht die Einsicht, wie ungeheuer sich die Welt vereinfacht, wenn sie auf ihre Zerstörungswürdigkeit geprüft wird. Dies ist das große Band, das alles Bestehende einträchtig umschlingt. Das ist ein Anblick, der dem destruktiven Charakter ein Schauspiel tiefster Harmonie verschafft.
The destructive character is young and lively. Destruction rejuvenates, because it removes the remains of our age. It enlivens, because to the destroyer every removal means a reduction, a dissection of his own situation. This Apollonian picture of the destroyer arises in fact from a vision of how radically the world is simplified, when it is measured by its potential for destruction. That is the great bond, uniting all that exists. Such a perspective is what turns the destructive character into a spectacle of deepest harmony.
Der destruktive Charakter sieht nichts Dauerndes. Aber eben darum sieht er überall Wege. Wo andere auf Mauern oder Gebirge stoßen, auch da sieht er einen Weg. Weil er aber überall einen Weg sieht, hat er auch überall aus dem Weg zu räumen. Nicht immer mit roher Gewalt, bisweilen mit veredelter. Weil er überall Wege sieht, steht er selber immer am Kreuzweg. Kein Augenblick kann wissen, was der nächste bringt. Das Bestehende legt er in Trümmer, nicht um der Trümmer, sondern um des Weges willen, der sich durch sie hindurchzieht. Der destruktive Charakter lebt nicht aus dem Gefühl, daß das Leben lebenswert sei, sondern daß der Selbstmord die Mühe nicht lohnt.
The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees paths everywhere. Even where others hit walls or mountains, he finds a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it. The destructive character lives not from the feeling that life is not worth living, but that suicide is not worth the effort
Sober me accepts that there might be the odd problem with a life built on trashing everything you encounter. But my furious rebel self is starting to get fire behind the eyes, and craving the aesthetics of rubble. Everything looks the same after you’vde burnt it to the ground, right?
Erich Kästner is a National Treasure in Germany, and this might be his most treasured book. Telling Germans I am reading it, I have found, often results in glossy-eyed nostalgia.
I can partially understand this. It must be a very comforting book to read at the right age. Not only does everything turn out right in the end, but two of the adults are presented as boddhisattva-like images of perfection. One is the benevolent boarding-school headmaster, the other a drop-out living in an old railway carriage.
Reading it as an adult is less satisfying, for some of the same reasons. Many of the characters feel two-dimensional, and spend a lot of time repeating their gimmicks. One wants to be a boxer and is permanently hungry, for example, and another is easily scared. But I can’t complain, since this is obviously something which works better for the target audience.
I was also taken aback by some of the violence between children. Clearly, childhood has become less physically aggressive in the 95 years since the book was first published. A fight to KO, a child being tortured in a basement: I’m glad to say that these are well beyond my own experience.
I definitely enjoyed reading this. Had I read it at age 10, I would doubtless me many times more enthusiastic.
According to some climatologists, the cold spell known as the Little Ice Age, from roughly 1500 to 1850, may well have been due to the reduction of CO2—a greenhouse gas—brought about by the die-off of North America’s indigenous fire farmers. [James C Scott, Against the Grain]
This theory is probably too neat to be true, but that doesn’t stop it being fun. Scott is largely drawing on (and perhaps slightly exaggerating) the work of William Ruddiman
He is interested in how humans before and outside of sedentary, grain-based ‘civilization’ shaped their landscape with fire. By burning vegetation, you can herd animals into a spot where they are easy to kill. The plants which grow back first after fire might also be more human-friendly: less huge trees, more bushes with fruits or berries.
So before Columbus, humans in the Americas were burning the landscape every year. Then Europeans came, brought smallpox, and killed off a the majority of them. So the forests stopped being burned, leading to the reforestation forest of an area the size of Venezuela. This decreased CO2 in the atmosphere, which cooled the temperature, causing the Little Ice AGe.
Even Tom Wolfe can’t make me care about the Mercury Program Astronauts.
At age 14, when I first encountered Tom Wolfe, his work was an adrenaline shot. I got hold of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his portrait of the group of psychonaut drop-outs clustered around Ken Kesey. For the next decade I fantasized about going to San Francisco and joining a nomadic band of freaks.
If this longing was mostly caused by the subject matter, some of the responsibility of Tom Wolfe. His prose is always an overexcited, colloquial splurge of words, like a Good Ol’ Boy on speed. His fellow New Journalist Hunter S Thompson is the obvious comparison. Hunter, though, was in real life at least half as bonkers as his gonzo persona. Tom Wolfe was the straightest of the straight, but with sufficient journalistic chops to get inside the heads of the most varied people.
So even though I don’t care much about astronauts, I imagined Tom Wolfe might be able to show me their character.
The problem is, Wolfe seems not to care that much about astronauts either.
Perhaps a third of the book is dedicated to military test pilots, from whose ranks the first astronauts were chosen. This is by far the best part of the book. Wolfe describes a culture on – or sometimes over – the boundary between bravery and self-destruction, where fatal crashes are an unremarkable event. And yet he makes it comprehensible. The pilots are a band of young men who consider themselves a natural elite. Alongside bravery they share reflexes, calm under pressure, and an almost supernatural knack for getting out of tough scrapes. This combination, the ‘Right Stuff’ of the title is the defining feature of the pilots’ self-image, and is how they keep score among themselves.
The astronauts emerge from this world, but into one where there skills are all but valueless. The Mercury rockets allowed almost no manual piloting; the first flights were made by chimpanzees. In almost all their actions, the astronauts are subject to orders from engineers on the ground. So even while they are feted by society, test pilots sneer that they no longer have ‘The Right Stuff’
The problem is that, as the astronauts have nothing to do, the narrative naturally loses its drive. We hear about their car racing, their womanizing, their experiences of celebrity, their internal squabbles – but none of it seems to matter.
The suicidal passion of the test pilots might seem ridiculous from the outside, but it felt serious and honorable and life-defining. The astronauts’ mission was historic, but only minimally reliant on the men in the capsules. And so, in the end, I found it hard to work up excitement about these astronauts.
One of my very niche interests is following the fine line between heroism and masochism. So much glory is just a thin veneer over gleeful suffering.
Susan Sontag, in The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer, explores the interaction of love, art, suffering and Christianity:
The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, by one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. In contrast, the sensibility we have inherited identifies spirituality and seriousness with turbulence, suffering, passion. For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue, but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.
The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering.
I’m less convinced than Sontag that this cult of suffering is purely Western, or purely Christian. Strands of Hinduism, for example, put a value on suffering which can outdo even Catholic hagiography. It’s a basic tendency which seeps out, in one form or another, from just about any cultural environment.
This book is a short, opinionated cultural history of Weimar Germany.
“Short and opinionated” is basically the only way I can deal with reading cultural or intellectual history. When a writer attempts to be balanced and encyclopaedic, they erode any sense of excitement from the people or works being described.
Take the Warburg Institute. Wikipedia will tell you that it is a cultural history research institute, founded in Hamburg and then moving to London in 1933. Peter Gay gives some idea why you might care:
There was in [Warburg], Panofsky has written, “an enormous tension between the rational and the irrational” which induced in him “not a romantic split, but a fascinating combination of brilliant wit and dark melancholy, the keenest rational criticism and most empathetic readiness to help.”14 It was Warburg’s special achievement to recognize—I am tempted to say, re-experience—the full range of the classical heritage, which was, for him, more than serene temples and Latin poems; it was dark as it was light, and its legacy was superstitious beliefs and magical practices quite as much as sculpture and poetry. Warburg’s models—Burckhardt, Nietzsche, and Usener—set his problem and suggested its solution: the study of the survival of the classical heritage demanded a broad view of cultural history, an appreciation of the Dionysian aspects of life, and close attention to man’s religious experience.
I find Gay’s prose style captivating. As the author of a book on Style in History, he obviously also values the craft of writing.
Last night I ventured out to a lake to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
I had the predictable city-boi revelation that yes, there really are stars in the sky. But – I grew up in the countryside, so I have some vague memory that there are Things Up There.
What I had not expected were the satellites. I’m sure that back in the 90s, when little-me was lying on their back in nighttime fields, spotting a satellite was at least mildly exciting. Now, it seems there is no moment without them.
So I looked it up. The number of satellites has indeed quintupled since I was a kid, and has doubled in just the past 6 years. It’s bewildering that the night sky has changed so much while I wasn’t paying attention.
Practice and Procrastination is not a piece of Jane Austin fanfic, but a miniature revelation about one of the reasons why I put things off.
A very typical cause of procrastination is an unacknowledged confusion about what to do next. There is a gap between the overall plan (which is understood), and the immediate next step (which is not).
Thinking about practice makes me aware of another gap. Namely, the gap between my brain knowing what to do next, and having sufficient practice that the knowledge how has percolated down into the body. So every action must labouriously be directed from consciousness, with correspondingly greater temptation to give up.
For example, for months I have been putting off doing some home renovation work. I could write down, step by step, what is needed. But I have only minimal experience of actually doing any of it. So, when I finally get going, I will need to think through each element of the work.
What happens if I think in terms of practice? Maybe I would drill holes into bricks until the process became automatic. Or paint walls, or rewire plugs, or any similar task. This might not justify itself for a single DIY task, but would if I had any intention of doing this more frequently.
This is a cozy tale of queer-poly family, under a thin veneer of urban fantasy.
The setup is that a magician goes missing. His two partners must join forces to track him down. The main attraction of the book is watching their mutual connection develop from one of distant acceptance towards real affection.
I was indifferent to many aspects of the book. The plot, the prose, the fantasy elements, even the characterization: it all felt flat and plodding.
But I adored the depiction of queer-poly families, both chosen and biological. There’s a moment, for instance, where a woman gets to know her wife’s metamour. It was spot-on, and also something I don’t remember having encountered in fiction before.
As the last 2 posts suggest, I’m becoming interested in training and practice.
I’ve long considered myself a skilled autodidact. I have successfully taught myself the programming skills I use to earn a living, as well as multiple languages. I’m (over-)confident of my ability to immerse myself in an unfamiliar academic discipline enough to find whatever information I need.
Pull back the camera, though, and it turns out I am very good at a small subset of learning. I can do studying, but have only the most rudimentary skill in practice or training. Or to put it in the terms of the previous post: I am good at gaining knowledge-of, bad at gaining knowledge-how.
This, I think, is because so much of my learning has happened alone. It is much easier to teach yourself than to train yourself. Training (or practice) requires a tight feedback loop, and it is harder to obtain that without a teacher. It’s hard to imagine a movie training montage without the wise mentor in the background.
And we approach new challenges with the tools we have used to deal with problems of the past. Self-directed learning means I have spent less time practicing, which in turn means it is not the first method which comes to mind when I am learning something new. I have got out of practice at practicing.
As I noticed this more over the past couple of years, I gradually realised its scope. Take cooking: I understood this to mean memorizing a collection of recipes, techniques, flavor combinations and the like, so I could pull them out of my mind at will. It occurred embarrassingly late to me that “knowing how to cook” might involve experience more than book-learning.
It’s not an accident that I came up with such a ridiculous approach to cooking. I was taking the mental toolkit I had, and applying it to the problem at hand. I have not previously learned much from practice, and so did not reach for that as an approach.
Humbling as it is to realise what I have been missing out on, it is also energising. Since I have overlooked an entire area of learning, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be plucked. I suspect I’m now heading towards a phase of annoying over-correction, as I ask about everything: “how can I practice it?”
Stunt pilots, preparing for aerobatic routines, have converged on a fascinating form of rehearsal: they dance.
If you see a pilot before an airshow, they may well be doing the so-called “Aresti dance”. It’s a series of movements which encode the manouvers they will make up in the air.
Besides being a charming idiosyncracy, this makes total sense. Physical movement is a powerful aide to memory. It is one of many reasons for the role of dance in traditional rituals from any number of cultures. It is under-used in modern education partly because we are just overall bad at teaching, and partly because dancing does not fit obviously into a classroom.
The Aresti dance also deals with a problem more unique to aerobatics pilots: it is hard to get enough rehearsal time. Stunt flying is inherently dangerous and expensive. So as much work as you can do on the ground, should be done on the ground.
Online information about the Aresti dance is pretty scarce. It takes its name from Aresti figures, which are a standard nomenclature and digramming system for aerobatic manouvers. I have found plentyofvideos of the dance, but no in-depth description of how it works.
Keith Johnstone’s Impro is ostensibly a book about iimprovisational theatre. Yet the book – in particular the introduction – goes both deeper and broader.
Here, for instance, is Johnstone on education:
People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities
[Improv, Keith Johnstone]
Johnson is absolutely correct for the kind of education he is thinking of – teaching art, or acting, or most situations where you could substitute ‘training’ for ‘teaching’.
He is, I think, only mostly correct when it comes to more academic education. The more the content resembles “one damn fact after another”, the more it can be taught by a bad teacher. If you attend a bad (but factually correct) history lecture, you will still come out with some basic information about the subject matter. Does that count as education? Debatable, but in my view it just barely clears the bar.
It helps to distinguish between knowledge-that and knowledge-how. Knowledge-that is factual knowledge which you can consciously explain. Knowledge-how is a skill, something you can do perhaps even without being able to explain it. I know that the Bastille was stormed on 14 July; I know how to ride a bicycle.
The academic system has a bias towards knowledge-that. A universtiy lecturer is arguable the highest-status teacher. Her work is one of the purest forms of teaching knowledge-that. The audience do not learn how to do anything more than sit on their bums and listen.
Yet, most of the value of a teacher is in teaching knowledge-how. I can skip a lecture and learn from a recording or a book. But if I skip an acting class, I will not be able to make up for it with time in the library.
The class where the teacher is most needed (acting, or dance, or woodwork) is also where a bad teacher can do most harm. Training a bad habit is more likely, and more harmful, than teaching a bad fact.
Knowledge-how is dangerous for the same reason it is powerful and wonderful. It changes how you see and understand and interact with the world, in a way that is hard to unpick. This is especially true of a topic like painting or drama, where the skill overlaps so completely with the rest of the self.
The Ethical Slut is one of the books most frequently recommended to anybody interested in polyamory. That is partly because, written over 20 years ago, it established its reputation at a time when there were few alternative resources. And it is partly because, even now, the alternatives are less than perfect. More than Two, another prominent book on poly, lost its lustre when it emergeed that one author had abused multiple women, including his co-author
When I mentioned to friends what I was reading, I heard much more criticism than praise. Similarly, once our book group held its discussion, we ended up with objections on all sides.
One complaint is the way that The Ethical Slut discusses other minority sexual groups. Despite being written by two bisexual/lesbian women, it feels very targeted towards a heterosexual couple considering opening up their relationship. When it discussed gay and lesbian communities, it is in a way that over-generalizes from the groups the authors have encountered.
A criticism I care less about is historical accuracy. The Ethical Slut includes a whirlwind tour of groups who have in the past practiced non-monogamy. Treat it as a historical treatise and you will be infuriated. I read it more as a reminder that the mid-20th-century American nuclear family is not the single model by which all human society has arranged itself.
Mostly, I feel the people in my circle who dislike The Ethical Slut want it to be something it is not. Somebody already deeply embedded in LGBT, kinky, and poly groups is unlikely to find the book frustratingly basic. But if you come to the book from the straight, monogamous mainstream, this is perhaps the introduction which you need.
Often, the autistic-spectrum folks in my life have the most interesting things to say about human interactions. Survivorship bias accounts for much of this. I’m only having these conversations with the autistic people who have not only learned how to socialize with neurotypicals, but to talk with them about people and emotions.
Anyway, such people tend to have incredibly astute and precise understandings of human behaviour. So I was thrilled to stumble upon this collection of Docs, which comprise a guide to neurotypicals for Autism-Spectrum Disorder people.
Some choice bits:
Anger at deities is almost always directed upwards, above a 45 degree angle, while thanks or prayer is usually directed downward and inward. In contrast, happiness at the self is directed outward randomly, while anger/fear/shame are shown by aiming all attention vectors together at a point roughly 2 feet in front of the person.
Curious what an ‘attention vector’ might be? Take the usual body-language idea that people turn to whoever they care most about, and break into down into component parts:
By pivoting your eyes, head, shoulders, hips, and feet, you can point them in different directions. These directions are three-dimensional for head and eyes, and mostly two-dimensional for shoulders, hips, and feet because it’s difficult to point those up or down while standing. Pointing your attention vectors at something is a signal that you’re paying attention to that thing
The reason I mentioned that there are five of them (eyes, head, shoulders, hips, feet), is that you can point them in different directions to indicate split attention. The reason I put them in that specific order isn’t just that it’s top-to-bottom, it’s that it indicates temporary-to-permanent attention…..The lower down on the body the attention vector, the more permanent its indication of attention.
Systems often seem pre-ordained until you understand your origins. When you find out how something got started, it’s often hard to take it quite so seriously.
Case in point: library classification. The Dewey Decimal system exists, in part, because John Dewey just really liked the number ten:
In March 1873, when he was still an undergraduate, Dewey had his third big idea, inspired by an 1856 pamphlet titled “A Decimal System for the Arrangement and Administration of Libraries”, written by Nathaniel Shurtleff, who worked at the Boston Public Library. As Dewey wrote at the time, “My heart is open to anything that’s either decimal or about libraries”. In fact, fifty years ltaer, Dewey would attribute the idea to order topics by decimal numbers to an epiphany during a Sunday sermon. Dewey was already infatuated with decimals. He wrote a school essay on the metric system when he was sixteen. When he was twenty-five he founded the American Metric Bureau to lobby for the adoption of the metric system within the United States. He even arranged his travel so that he would arrive on the tenth, twentieth or thirtieth day of the month…rationalism crossing over into superstition
[David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous, p53-4]
Suggested music: The New Puritans yelling “what’s your favourite number” again and again. It’s like being accosted in the street by a gang of numerologists
The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills
‘It is obvious’, says Hadamard, ‘that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas…The Latin verb cogito for “to think” etymologically means “to shake together”. St Augustine had already noticed that and also observed taht intelligo means “to select among”’ [Koestler, The Act of Creation, p119-120]
I’m slowly rereading The Act of Creation, one of the formative books of my teenage years. Arthur Koestler sets himself the task of describing creativity across art, science, and humour. The core is what he calls ‘bisociation’, which means thinking simultaneously in two frames of reference.
He goes way too far in attempting to reduce everything to his one system. The picture on the right, from the book’s frontispiece, is an example of this. But the book has more than enough insight to make it worth reading.
Grayson Perry has found himself a niche in the British media as a guide to modern art. In this short book he sets out to ‘answer the basic questions that might come up when we enter an art gallery’
Alas, the questions he answers are mostly about the art world, not about art. There is plenty about turf wars between gallerists and collectors, about young artists’ assigned role as accepted rebels, about the role of money in art.
What’s missing is any suggestion that art might have something to say about the wider world.
If I’m in an art gallery, I’ll be wondering something like “what feelings can this art inspire in me?”, or “will this change the way I look at the world?”. That kind of question doesn’t seem relevant to Grayson Perry.
the rise in popularity of comparison tables and zigzag layouts (where text and images alternate in each row on the page) has coincided with the development of a new gaze pattern.
On pages with distinct cells of content, people often process those cells in a lawn-mower pattern: they begin in the top left cell, move to right until the end of the row, then drop down to the next row, move to the left until the of the row, drop down the next row, and so on. (The name of this pattern is inspired by the way a lawn mower sweeps methodically back and forth across a field of grass. The mower moves from one side of the lawn to the other, then flips around and mows the next row of grass in the opposite direction.)
I love this because it so perfectly recapitulates a metaphor from ancient Greece.
Some early Greek manuscripts were written in a similar way. One line goes left-to-right. The next reverses everything (down to the shapes of the letters themselves) to be read right-to left. Then for line 3 you go left-right again. The reader’s eye can smoothly follow the text, without needing to jump across the page (or the tablet) to find the start of the next line.
There were not many lawn-mowers in early Greece. But there were plenty of oxen. And you plow a field the same way you mow a lawn: all the way across the field, then turn and come back.
So this (soon-abandoned) form of writing was called ‘boustrophedon’, ‘like an ox turning’. I’m tickled pink to find it reborn online
I never hated Enterprise Software until I had to work with it.
I have always been in the open-source world – admittedly spending far less time contributing than being paid to build closed-source products on open-source foundations. Still I had a vague, theoretical distrust of enterprise software.
Now, for the first time, I get it. I’m working on a tiny project which is entirely subject to the half-baked API of an enterprise behemoth. On every side I’m faced by problems caused not by my own work or by logical limitations, but by the past decisions of a nameless somebody. Problems I cannot fix, no matter how hard I work or how cunningly I plan. Because here you don’t change anything by thinking. You change it by siting in meetings, persuading people, and perhaps having your boss write a five-figure cheque.
And so, I feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
These days I am not used to feeling powerless. It reminds me of home and school – of the last time I felt continuously, cripplingly, at the mercy of arbitrary rules. That my life since then has been relatively independent is of course the result of immense privilege. It’s also because, hating being constrained, I’ve cashed in some of that privilege running away from authority.
Now, with this sense of powerlessness in my head, I look at free software in a different light. I had seen it either in political or in practical terms – as the Right Way and the Best Way.
I had overlooked the psychological aspect. I had not really felt the frustratation of being trapped inside somebody else’s conceptual world, and the compulsion to break free.
The children of the revolution, I suppose, never quite understand the horrors of the ancien regime. So maybe I should appreciate my current situation as a teaching moment, a picture of how I Do Not want to live. For sure, it has motivated me to contribute more actively to free software.
At that other time of beginning, the New Year, I resolved to structure my life around the solstices and the equinoxes. Covid has thwarted my plans to throw parties on those dates. But it has not stopped me using them for introspection, for contemplation – and for new beginnings.
Hence this notebook, beginning on the longest day. Its immediate inspiration is DrMaciver, whose daily notebook has already spawned a brood of offspring. Mostly, though, it’s just latest iteration in my slash-and-burn approach to writing.
I’ve previously bounced from LiveJournal to student newspaper to self-hosted blog to Tumblr, to the daily diary I’ve typed into text files in its dedicated CRT-green editor.
Every time I eventually find myself boed by the imagined constraints of the structure or the audience. I give up. I stop writing for a while. Then I emerge somewhere else, re-energised by a new location or a new format.
So what is the new format this time round? First off, longevity. I have plans to write this from the summer solstice until the autumn equinox. After that it might continue, it might mutate, it might die – all bets are off.
Second, this is a notebook. It is not quite a diary, not quite a blog. That is, it is not primarily a vehicle for self-revelation, nor for connecting with others – though I hope both will happen occasionally alog the way. There is no commitment to theme, to length, to making each post interesting. This is a drop of whatever is on my mind – no less, no more