Sunday, October 30, 2011


It's pretty exhilarating to see a mass movement that actually seems to be getting some traction and also seems to be largely independent from the usual political actors, at least for now.  Some links:
Looking for something deep to say about this rare phenomenon, a bottom-up spontaneous large-scale collective action with no clear goal and no clear boundaries. What binds it together? The slogan "we are the 99%" is brilliant. There's a deep vein of anger at the manifest economic injustices that have become baked into the structure of society. "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out" was another good slogan being chanted the last time I was there.

I believe that a sense of injustice, rather than mere resentment at the economically fortunate, is what animates most of the participants. The sense of fair play, that everyone in society is playing by the same rules, has been virtually destroyed in the last few decades; we want to get it back.

And about that "we": it feels odd for me to include myself in anything this massive and populist, to use the first person plural as if I can speak for it, but also feels oddly right. I don't pretend to be near the center of it, or even a fraction as involved as many other people, but it doesn't matter. We're all doing what we can.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


For John McCarthy:

Here lies a Lisper
Uninterned from this mortal package
Yet not gc'd
While we retain pointers to his memory
Also, too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Everybody Knows

This has been suggested as a suitable anthem for Occupy Wall Street:


 And it's a pretty good choice, but I think I still prefer the Tom Waits number I posted about a year ago.

Actually neither really works, an anthem for a movement has to have at least a hint of a brighter future; these two are both in their different ways about the inevitable fuckedupness of the world.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tempus fugit

A while back I had the unusual pleasure of meeting someone in person that I met through the blogosphere -- Venkatesh Rao, proprietor of the Ribbonfarm blog (and now hitting the big time by blogging at Forbes). That sort of thing often doesn't go well, but in this case it did, we had an invigorating conversation. I hope he won't mind me saying so, but he feels like a kindred spirit, from his notions of being an "illegible person" (and thus difficult to categorize), to his use of ideas from narrative theory in his book Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Drive Decision Making.

Tempo is a small book which is about too many different things; many of them some of my own favorite topics: conceptual metaphor, narrative, decision theory, enactment, situatedness, Minsky's Society of Mind theory. Again, I'm in complete sympathy with the author, because I too can't write anything without a couple dozen different ideas and approaches creeping in. In a way it reads like a proposal for a much longer book, a grand work of synthesis that could be called something like "The Temporal Structure of Action". But perhaps he's not in a position to write a longer book, or doesn't want to, or maybe nobody reads monumental tomes anymore. But that seems to be what he's trying to get at:
I define tempo as the set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.
Although I don't think this is made quite explicit, what struck me most about this concept is that it blithely crosses the boundary between agent and environment. Tempo is a property of the situation, and is equally objective and subjective.
The most basic decision-making skill is adapting to the tempo of your environment, and setting your own pace within it... 
[an analysis of the task of driving as an example] 
...Driving graphically illustrates the four main skilled behaviors that constitute the overall skill of timing: merging, going with the flow, pacesetting, and disrupting.
That last gives you a feel feel for the book. It's mostly a collection of temporal patterns, or attitudes toward time and action. Like pattern languages elsewhere, I find I have a dual reaction: yes, these all seem like useful ideas in a sort of cookbook-y way, but where's the theory behind them? What unifying principle lets you declare that these are the patterns of reality and not others? That's not a fair question in this context, because rather than presenting a rigorous or pompous philosophical system, Tempo reads somewhat more like a self-help or business book, urging readers to come to grips with the temporal nature of their world.

Also among the ingredients in this stew is a dollop of military theory, which is an area I'm almost totally unfamiliar with. But it fits in well, since matching your actions to a ongoing fluid situation is obviously something armies have to be good at. 

Anyway, this book is hard to categorize, hard to classify, and hard to locate, in keeping with the author's idea of illegibility. I put it somewhere in between the land of academic cognitive science, management theory, and self-help. Although the style is totally different, it also seems to have something in common with books on meditation, since that too is a way of redirecting attention to the temporal nature of reality.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

This embarrassment

For Yom Kippur:
Philosophy may be defined as the  art of asking the right it, the awareness of the problem outlives all solutions...In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions. Philosophy deals with problems as universal issues; to religion the universal issues are personal problems. Philosophy, then, stresses the primacy of the problem, religion stresses the primacy of the person.  
The fundamentalists claim that all ultimate questions have been answered; the logical positivists maintain that all ultimate questions are meaningless. Those of us who share neither the conceit of the former nor the unconcern of the latter, and reject both specious answers and false evasions, know that an ultimate issue is at stake in our existence, the relevance of which surpasses all final formulations. It is this embarrassment that is the starting point for our thinking. 
      -- Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Great Man Theory

All the Steve Jobs love is starting to get on my nerves. No wish to piss on the man or his memory or his very real achievements, but I feel a reaction building, so will vent here.

First, here's the Onion capturing things perfectly as usual.

Second: boy, do Americans love them some CEO, especially an arrogant one. For a bunch of freedom-loving rebels there is certainly a strong streak of servility in the national character.

Third, I can always rely on Mencius Moldbug to articulate have exactly values that are diametrically opposed to my own. Here he's just channelling his hero Carlyle and his Great Man Theory of history. "There is no act more moral between men than that of rule and obedience." Well, OK then.

Fourth, here's a piece I wrote a little while ago on whether Jobs or all the thousands of creative people who worked for him and on the technologies he appropriated deserve credit. Also see this proposal for the tomb of the unknown engineer.

Jobs was a master packager and salesman, an innovator rather than an inventor. He took ideas that were largely developed by other people, added some design vision and marketing zing and produced cool. That's not nothing, but it's not exactly world-transformative either. Without him, technology would probably have developed along almost exactly the same lines, although perhaps more slowly, and with less impact on lifestyle trends.

But I use and appreciate Apple products, wouldn't be caught dead with Microsoft. I prefer Linux as the platform of actual netocratic democracy rather than top-down authoritarian tastemakers, but don't have the commitment to be an open source ideologue. So Steve Jobs has improved my life.

Whether history was primarily driven by singular individuals or was a product of vast impersonal forces was a big question in the 19th century.  When I find myself oscillating between two sides of a debate that has gone on for that long, I like to aim for something beyond the dialectical poles. Let's just say that technology is the creation of radically distributed networks of creativity, more so than any other human thing. Your iPhone contains the contributions of hundreds of thousands of people, from the guy who sweated over the exact shape of the bezel, to the Chinese workers who assembled it, the generations of engineers who brought semiconductor technology up to the level where it could be incorporated, and so many others. 

But we aren't very good at thinking about those kinds of networks, so it's much more convenient, perhaps necessary, to have a single human face to put on it all. Jobs was that face, and he was not at all shy about taking on that role.
In historical events great men—so-called—are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity. -- Tolstoy, War and Peace

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Be your government

An old friend called me out of the blue to announce that he's running for office, in association with a group/site/platform called (identity of friend and office is secret for awhile, since he hasn't officially announced anything yet). I liked the name of this group, because one thing I keep hammering on here (partly to convince myself I suppose) is that there always is going to be some kind of government, that is, there will always be some institutional mechanisms by which societies regulate themselves. This doesn't mean they have to be the size of states or have the structure of states, but there's always something. And if you, the individual, are not part of that government, then you are merely subject to it. Since we live in a society in which everyone ostensibly can be part of the government, then if you aren't you deserve what you get.

That's me in idealist mode. I still have a large cynical streak where my the attitude is more that government is an unpleasant fact of life; that one should avoid it when possible; tolerate when necessary; not be in the least surprised to find it doing damaging, stupid, or evil things. And one should busy oneself with living one's life despite all these things, rather than obsessing over them. That is a a form of disgust with government that at least seems honorable, and has a long tradition in this country.

But what absolutely infuriates me is the hypocritical institutionalized cynicism and moral preening of libertarianism. I've gone over the reasons why often enough, I guess I won't repeat myself here. The essence of libertarianism is the denial of the social sphere and the consequent repudiation of democracy. Government to the anarchists of the right is some kind of alien destructive force that has imposed itself on society, rather than a key functional part of society. Libertarianism smugly complains about the failings of government while taking for granted the benefits it brings.

This critique applies to a good chunk of the left as well, of course.

Let me try another wording: the problem is both the perceived and real alienation of government from the governed. So the slogan of BeYourGovernment is a nice, accurate, and concise blow against this attitude.