Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's on my mind

Messing around with some computational language tools, I generated this list of words which are more frequent on this blog relative to a standard corpus (some misspellings removed), in order from most overused. Many of these are unsurprising, but I had no idea I used "cannot" more than is normal. Or "parasitical", which is more worrying.

cannot simpleminded parasitical excoriate delegitimize kvetching temperamentally treacly politcs cosmopolitans authoritarians twitter rightwingers inexpert constructivists constructionists entertainingly clathrate undesireable frenzies mystifies wastefulness repurpose gintis wobblies kunstler turmoils bukovsky bankrolls laitin smidgeon sociopaths scienceblogs cleavon oddsmaker vegetating reifying situationists doper yecs popularizer nobels cultish solidary arduino militarist prolixity congealing proft larded atran nixonian seatmate appeaser rationalists leftish libertarianism literalist materialist vitalism rejoinders schuon fusty facebook torahs arduously hugeness universalizing tinkerers factuality autoworkers parasitize rationalist dominionism physicalist incarnating idiocies axiomatically ferreted gourevitch glaringly symbiote averagely incisively shitheads skimped netzach appall metonymic onrush chokehold halldor churchy scampers starkest agentive dalliances emet mistimed ceasefires hallucinated reimagined overplaying bioethicist copleston disempower flippancy oversimplifies outrageousness indvidual ginned douchebags explicates plumbs mencius metaphysically schelling foregrounding polarizes outlives subtexts acquiesces nostrums undescribable malkuth marketeer analagous preeminently remediable flamers slipperiness bunraku proles burkean peaceniks materialists unaccountably athwart mcworld petraeus romanticizing unnamable huffpo ineffectually commonsensical interoperating empathizing wingnut supplicants hypostasis inchoate obama transhumanists fulminate affordance nonviolently geneological gashed mussed chuppah charnel felin reconstructionism verbalizing tegmark crabbed armys shalizi dehumanization hoohah vannevar copyable bungler unlikeliest preindustrial legitimated downscale fugs bilin slavering egomania naveh determinedly oligarchies chasten reappropriated bekki taleb bioethicists valdis ultraconservative wahabi straussian rewatch anthropomorphism ecstasies libertarians ruination exceptionalism vacillate overreach forthrightness informationally bushites rottenness biomorphic parceled twittering sorley parapsychological irreligious statists maddeningly selfing militarists bushite infuriates deconstructionist dallying harrows glutted worths misplacement engross jewishness hearkens girdled zombified prohibitionist braf sniggering positivists prostrating doomy schmaltzy yesod hewing philosophize doomsayers unconcern conflate jibes misappropriate convulse constructionist relabeled cavalierly mesmeric phantasms atrophied nattering reductionist personhood asocial placating incuding amorality incontestable weida greybeard inescapably scrabbling foreordained puthoff antiabortion commandeering iphone reinterpreting fudges minsky spluttering obsessional explicating rovian subdues ascription graeber counterargument plops

Now I'm playing the Burroughs-ish game of trying to find meaning in this shredded language. "physicalist incarnating idiocies axiomatically" sounds applicable to a number of discussions I've been having lately.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Martyrs and The Coordination of Sentiment


That Je Suis Charlie meme is a great example of the spontaneous political sacred – it declares a public communion with some genuine martyrs. I forwarded it around myself, but felt self-conscious about it. Not that I didn՚t feel like standing in solidarity with the murdered political satirists, but because it seemed that to post it on Facebook seemed to be in part bragging about it. If I had been in the city I might have joined in a rally, that would feel authentic, but doing it online is sort of like attending a church service by teleconference – inauthentic at best, sacriligious at worst.

Perhaps enough rationalist anti-politics memes have penetrated me that I am leery of moral posturing, in myself and others. Still, this seems like a pretty easy case. An act like this compels choosing a side, and there isn՚t much question about what side I or anybody I would care to share the planet with would find themselves on. Team Civilization is what Jon Stewart called it yesterday – and he used the occasion to assert that the American politicians he mocks aren՚t really his enemies. I՚m not so sure about that, they are killing us too, just more slowly. And they unleash many orders of magnitude of violence and death than a couple of Islamic terrorists. Still I admired his ability to find the right tone of horror and reconciliation and self-awareness needed to get back to the business of comedy.

You probably have a collection of confused emotional reactions to an event like this – a mix of anger, fear, hatred, distress. Perhaps you are angry at Muslims in general – that would be pretty natural, although disallowed by liberalism (It՚s also quite likely that that is exactly what the murderers were aiming for – sharpening the contradictions, firming up the boundaries, promoting conflict, acting as violence entrepeneurs). Maybe you are finding it difficult to maintain your liberal faith in the bright line between speech and violence. Or f you are a right-winger, you may subconsciousnly be welcoming the sharpened contradictions yourself, as it justifies your own miltancy, and maybe you feel a bit guilty about that. Or maybe your reaction is confused by the racist nature of some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which included some pretty classic antisemitic caricatures that did double duty against Jews and Arabs.

Sacred rituals exist around things that are confusing, terrifying, too big to think about rationally – death and other absolutes. It՚s how people deal; at least it allows us to be confused together. So there is a guilty benefit for horrific events like the Charlie Hebdo murders or 9/11 or natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. They bind society together simply by virtue of being too big and violent to ignore.

Like other sorts of rituals, I find this process weird and somewhat alien even as I allow myself to mostly be carried along with it.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Nerds vs Feminists

Scott Alexander has a 14Kword post (which he oddly couldn՚t manage to title) about nerds vs feminists and who is really oppressed. And it has close to 1000 comments! Of course it is passionate and funny and well-argued, and it not only demolishes the post by Amanda Marcotte that is its immediate target, it entirely demolishes her as a person, painting her as sort of mindless political harpy who is only too happy to take cheap shots at the expense of someone else՚s pain and openness, specifically, MIT professor and blogger Scott Aaronson՚s heartfelt description of how his attempts to reconcile what he thought of as feminist principles with his personal desires were so difficult that it drove him into near suicidal despair.

I haven՚t been able to make myself read the article to see if it deserves this treatment or not. Probably it does. But it saddens me to see manifested once again the animosity towards feminism and social justice that seems to be a feature of the rationalist universe. Because it seems like nerdism and feminism should be natural allies, or at least, that is how I experienced it in my own life.

Feminism became a public thing during my adolescence (in the mid 70s), and to me it was a breath of fresh air. Of course it was a much different time, it hadn՚t developed it՚s PC-thought-police side. To me, the message was that girls were not this insane alien other species but just another kind of person. It՚s hard to remember that era accurately but my impression was that feminism as an idea was liberating both to women and to me, as a young socially awkward person. Whatever else it was doing, it worked for me, it opened up possibilities that had been closed.

But that was a long time ago and feminism has changed, and nerddom seems to have changed as well. Both seem like more established things, distinct ideologies and factions. Feminism seems to have morphed from liberating idea into a crushing orthodoxy, at least as experienced by many younger people.

Being an old crusty person, I am no longer surprised to find myself doing standard old person things like viewing the younger generations as somehow deficient. But I can՚t help thinking that there is an awful lot of emotional coddling and whining going on these days. Being a nerd when I grew up was just as traumatic but I didn՚t write about it at length, I didn՚t share my feelings, I barreled through my problems, not out of some great strength of character but because I didn՚t have any other options. It was a tougher world and it produced a certain toughness which seems absent in later generations, who have had their psyches pampered and protected (of course the world of my parents was tougher yet, given that included the depression and WWII and fleeing Nazis).

God knows I am grateful that my children don՚t have to go through some of the crap I did. Bullying, for instance, was just an accepted thing when I was growing up, even though it means essentially letting young children live in a lawless violent anarchy where assault was accepted and commonplace. Now at least it is supposed to be controlled by the supervising authorities. I don՚t think being the victim of bullies as a child made me a better person, but it did mold my character in a certain way – the potential reality of violence is always a salient thing for me, and I know that I can survive it.

Protecting children from violence may be like protecting them from dirt -- seems like a good idea, but you end up with an untrained immune system. And the problems with feminism also seem like a sort of cognitive autoimmune disorder. You end up with people so fearful of their own capacity for aggression that they are unable to function.

So are the younger generations less tough because they՚ve been more protected? Who knows, but it sometimes seems that way, and I՚m conflating my own adolescent children with the grown adults who are having trouble with feminism. I want to say to both these groups – stop kvetching and man up. Although that is probably useless and offensive advice. Oh well, it՚s a tough world and everybody gets beaten up by it sooner or later.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Blogyear 2014 in review

There were dramatically fewer posts this year (23 or so, from 46 in 2012 and a high of 84 in 2008). A number of possible reasons:  I spent a lot of time in chatter on Twitter and in closed Facebook groups; going to Burning Man did a lot for me but didn՚t do much for my output of prose; I am simply less engaged by politics. Last year՚s blogging residency gave me illusions of writing more seriously, which may have suppressed actual output.

Yet some thematic clusters emerge, if you can call two posts a cluster.

Not sure what the next year will bring to the blog. I may try writing on a more regular schedule, may try some experiments. It՚s time to level up, or so the spirit of new year՚s resolution tells me. That spirit, of course, has notably little power once the holiday season is past.


Both these posts try to get at (in quite different ways) the tension between the depersonalized view-from-nowhere of mainstream science and the situated and subjective view of the cosmos we naturally start with. A topic I՚ve touched on before.

Romantic Science
Accursed Ipsissimosity

Philosophy of software

Software is eating the world despite the fact that nobody seems to really understand it very well. Given that this is the one area where I might claim to have some degree of privileged expert insight, I should probably write more about it.

Thoughts on Ted Nelson
Software Studies
Lambda the Ultimate Incantation

The political abstract

I don՚t bother writing much on day to day politics – there are just too many other people doing that. But occasionally I cough up something on the nature of politics, coalitions, conflict, etc.

Vertical and Horizontal Solidarity
Refactoring War

Encounters with rationalism

I have been hanging around a lot with LessWrong people and their ilk (and somewhat cavalierly using them as foils for writing posts that go off on my own tangents). They certainly are a lively bunch and even if I can՚t get down with their program it is usually useful for me to try and articulate the whys and wheres of our differences.

Reading Recommendations for Rationalists

Encounters with the sacred

The most important things are the most difficult to write about.

Embodiments of the Word
Trip Report
The Sacred and the Rational
Death and Dualism
Death. Thou Shalt Die

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Death, thou shalt die

Two recent (quasi-)religious rituals: the funeral for my stepmother Frances in Chicago over Thanksgiving, and this rationalist/secular solstice celebration that took place recently in Oakland (which I was tempted towards, but ended up missing). These two events seem like opposites on a variety of spiritual dimensions. Aside from the most obvious one (mourning of death vs celebration of life) there is the matter of choice. Anyone at a solstice celebration in 2014 is there out of their own individual will, they have reasoned their way there, but nobody is at a funeral by choice or calculation. And the Jewishness of the funeral was also not a choice: unlike many religions Judaism is something you are stuck with, not something you find your way to (the nature of that stuckness may deserve its own post). Funeral customs are some of the oldest rituals of humanity, while trying to create rituals for atheistic rationalism is pretty new (relatively speaking). Whereas a funeral is an ancient method of dealing with the concrete facts of an individual death, the people behind the solstice celebration aim to conquer death in toto. So despite their dissimilarities, death is at the core of both, and perhaps everything having to do with the sacred.

Pascal Boyer has theorized that the origin of religion lies in the very basic facts of death and the practical and cognitive necessities imposed on the surviving members of a family or community where a death has occurred. Where there recently was a person, with all that implies, now there is only what is basically trash, an unclean lump of matter that needs to be disposed of. But because traces of personhood linger on, you can՚t just throw the trash away blithely, but have to do it in an elaborate ritual. Dead bodies are a challenge to the coordination of various mental subsystems; we keep making inferences about the person even in the face of an inanimate corpse (similar discoordinations between systems are thought to responsible for such exotic psychopathologies as Capgras Syndrome). Realigning these subsystems so as to re-establish the normal structures of social cleanliness is the aim of death rituals.

I don՚t know if I believe Boyer՚s origin story but there is no question that dealing with death has the feeling of activating some very old built-in psychosocial machinery. A death is a great disruption in the normal functioning of human affairs. All of what we think of as normal routine is set aside and you enter a different zone of being for a while. The Jewish funeral customs, informed as they are by a certain practicality that has kept the culture going for millenia, are designed to acknowledge this reality by giving people some time and space to process the reality of it before going back to their normal lives.

How well it works, I can՚t really say – compared to what? I felt far more shaken up by Fran՚s death than I had expected to be. and in truth I՚m still processing it. it՚s much too personal an encounter with death than I am used to – normally death is either an abstraction that applies universally to everybody (so what՚s the big deal), or it՚s my own personal death which never bothered me that much, seeing as I axiomatically would not be around to remember experiencing it.

This was not the first death of someone I was close to, and Fran was 88 years old and had a good life and as good a departure as you might want, surrounded by family and friends, retaining her wits until the very end. Those factors would seem to mitigate the impact, but they didn't really. They made it less tragic than some other deaths in my experience -- I know far too many people who died young -- but no less terrible in its finality.

Death is heavy, and so the solstice thing seems inescapably light in comparison – but I mean that in a mostly good way. Why shouldn՚t people attempt lightness, rather than being dragged inexorably down to earth by human biology? The solstice celebration appeared to have been an occasion devoted to light, the light of the sun that all the winter rituals are devoted to preserving, and the light of reason and knowledge. Death makes an appearance only as an enemy to be conquered as we have overcome so much of the other miseries of the human condition. The goal is to escape death through reason and science, which is just taking what we do ordinarily with medicine to its logical endpoint.

The closing speech by Nate Soares I found very moving. He՚s making a passionate case for real humanism, for the use of the mind to better the human condition.
Look around you. We are warm, well-fed, and finely clothed. None of us fears for our ability to make it through the winter. This dark season, which posed a terrible trial to our ancestors every single year, is now instead an excuse to come together with friends and family to enjoy our great wealth.

How did humanity come so far? By the ingenuity of our ancestors, who ferreted out the secrets of this world one tiny, cloudy insight at a time. Humans had no words in their thoughts, when they invented language. Societies had no letters, when they invented writing. Humanity cracked the secret of the lever and the wheel. We studied and grew, discerning the mechanisms behind germs and viruses, behind architecture and electricity, behind fire and iron and the stars.
But of course I find myself gravitating to the parts of it that I am less comfortable with, the part where he asserts we are here to conquer death:
Some of us have glimpsed the full magnitude of suffering around the world. Some of us have looked to the horizon and seen challenges that threaten the very existence of our species. Some of us must simply protect a loved one, a child, their family. And some of us have taken on death itself as our enemy. This room is filled with people who saw important problems and took them seriously.
Something in me rebels at that, it just seems wrong on an elemental level. A great many myths and stories warn us of the spiritual dangers of desiring or acquiring immortality, and I՚m inclined to trust them. I don՚t have any great faith in my own stance here, in fact, it seems almost indefensibly conservative and boring. And I don՚t want to be pro-death, so why should I be opposed to the people who are trying to do something about it? If “we are the light”, as their song has it, than do I really want to find myself allied to darkness?

Yet I find myself taking a basically irrational stance, which is to say, I trust my gut reactions far more than I do any kind of argument. My gut says: Death is such an important part of human nature and human culture that it can՚t just be eliminated by science and technology and reason as if it was some kind of mere nuisance. Or rather, it shouldn՚t, because such efforts, while marketed under the term “transhumanism”, are actually anti-human, the violate something basic to what it means to be human.

I am somewhat bemused by my own reaction. I am not repelled by other modern twists on humanity (such as gender reassignment surgery or eating ice cream cones in the street) so why does this cause such strong emotions? I think it has something to do with sacrality, although that is not much of an explanation and even less of a justification. Death is a point where in which normal life touches on the eternal, the realm between worlds is parted, a happening shrouded in mystery, terror, significance, and spiritual risk, and hence highly charged and sacred. My minimal attitude towards the sacred is basically “don՚t mess with it”. Freezing a corpse in the hopes of reviving its animating software is messing with the sacred in a big way.

That՚s a pretty weak argument. And in truth I don՚t want to make any arguments; I mostly don՚t care if other people want to make a bid for immortality, it's really their business and none of mine. And I really want to avoid the temptation to come up with spurious psychological critiques. One other consequence of the sacrality of death means that people need to be free to address it on their own terms and not be subject to third-party kibitzing.

Death rites are designed to enable letting go. That sounds too schmaltzy perhaps. How about this: they are a public acknowledgement of the fact of a death, firmly acknowledging it as a social reality, regardless of what individuals may be feeling about it, demonstrating that the world continues on in its normal way even as it assumes a different configuration. They wrap death up in a package, surround it with food and friends and the small comforts of engaging in an activity as old as humanity. At some level they are about soothing (or repressing) our own terrors, our feelings of overwhelming loss, the knowledge that time will do to us what it has just done to another, that is, eventually grind us away and reduce us to an absence as well, a notice in the paper and a shadow life in the collective memory.

Death then is a rather forceful and brutal way to learn the spiritual lesson of non-attachment, the same sort of thing that meditation techniques teach in a much gentler way. One should be able to let go of things, clutching at grasping at life leads to suffering.

But I hardly feel qualified to give anybody else spiritual advice, and my recent encounter with death may have scrubbed away some residual intellectual romanticism about it. The more elementally simple view that it's a bad thing and should be fought has a lot of force. And who knows, all my ingrained suspicion of the drive towards immortality may be wrong, one of those inherited neolithic aspects of human nature that we should be glad to get rid of. Just because immortality was traditionally reserved to the gods, with punishments for humans who dared aspire to it, doesn't mean we have to avoid it now that the gods themselves are dead.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Death and Dualism

My stepmother Fran is in the hospital, close to death. My bio-parents died a long time ago, so she՚s pretty important to me.

I՚ve long had a sort of intellectualized view of death: that it should be no big deal, that it is an essential part of life so we might as well get used to it, that there is no sense fretting about something that is inevitable. This is not an entirely puerile stance. Too much obsession with death is pathological and we should focus our attention on the living. But still – the reality of death is the prototype of That Which Cannot be Intellectualized Away. It takes away something you love and when it is gone it is gone for good, and we are all share the same fate sooner or later. To be human is to live with that reality, to trivialize it is a false sort of sophistication.

I like to go on about embodiment, and sometimes fancy myself a preacher to the rationalists, who think they will conquer death through science, eg by freezing their heads or uploading their software to a better medium than flesh. I will get them to accept the reality of our messy, finite, creaturely existence, goes this fantasy. Well, I haven՚t exactly given up on that, but today I am aware of the downside of embodiment, of having a mind that is inextricably intertwined with a decaying body. Frankly, it sucks, and perhaps my sniffiness at their dreams of immortality is another form of false sophistication. By all means, let us figure out how to break the mind-body connection for good. Even a small hope of keeping us out the grinding maw of old age and death may be worth a shot.

Anybody who believes that you can decant the soul out of the body and put it in a different substrate is a mind/body dualist,  exactly as much as any religious person who believes in an afterlife. I՚m pretty sure that both are wrong in some fundamental way, but right now want to acknowledge whatever truth there is in such beliefs. There is something immaterial about our being, although if you just look at an isolated individual you can՚t see it. We are to some extent a set of roles, stories, relationships, shared experiences, all things which are implemented in our biological hardware but are not rigidly bound to any one body. All those parts live on after death, in a sort of symbolic half-life, embodied as memories in other minds. It՚s not much perhaps, but it՚s not nothing. Whether our immaterial part is soul or software, the purely mechanical view of the mind leaves it out, and the failure of the mechanical part of a person leaves behind whatever that other stuff is.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Geometry has Politics

So today our company moved to newer more spacious digs. When I joined a year ago they were housed in a storefront on Castro Street, and the building was kinda funky in both good and bad ways. The company is growing at an alarming rate, and growing up, so requires a more business-like environment.

I was happy to snag myself a cubicle, because the alternative was a desk in a big open-plan area with no isolation from the environment whatsoever. This type of work environment is of course extremely trendy at tech companies, for reasons that elude me. It virtually guarantees extra distractions to people trying to do work that requires focus and concentration. I guess it՚s supposed to promote communication or being more Borg-like or something like that, but I just can՚t see it.

Anyway, by pure coincidence I also happened today to listen to this episode of 99% Invisible, which is my current favorite podcast. It tells the story of “Austrian artist and designer Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (which translates to “Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters” in German)”.
The time has come for people to rebel against confinement in cubicle construction like prisoners or rabbits in cages, a confinement which is alien to human nature.
Hundertwasser is known for his Dr. Seuss-like structures that implement his principles, and are anything but cubicular.

The idea that geometries have politics, and that the straight line and right angle are tools of The Man, is not new. The geodesic dome builders of the 60s had the same meme and liked to go around quoting the line from Black Elk Speaks: “there can be no power in a square”. Of course he was wrong about that; the squares seem to be winning, at least in the medium term.

But it is kind of weird. Does the cultural split between left and right, or authoritarian and rebel, or whatever it is, really extend so far into what basic geometric primitives you prefer? Apparently so. But I realize that while it seems weird to my nerd-brain, such correlations are the basic raw materials for other fields like architecture and graphic design, where the job is to create artifacts that manipulate human feelings and the tools are largely geometrical. Why should I be surprised to find a tight interweaving of geometry with aesthetics and politics, since those two things are present in virtually everything?